Skip to content

Archive for

The painter of modern life


What are some of the major characteristics of our contemporary world? And, what might the painter of today’s ‘modern life’ choose to portray? I thought about these questions after watching the three-part television series on ‘The art of France‘. In the last part of the series the poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire was extensively quoted because, as author of ‘The painter of modern life’, his text could be used to explain the radical new directions taken by art during the latter part of the 19th century.

Baudelaire urged art in general and painting in particular to break free from the orthodoxy that artists should represent the past. Instead, he contributed to a dramatic process that shifted attention onto the subjects of the present. Art historians tell us that Baudelaire’s essay (written in 1860 – but not published until 1863) was central to this process. In it he encouraged artists to confront the realities of the contemporary world. He wanted artists to examine and portray ‘modernity’. Baudelaire’s concern was ‘the painting of the manners of the present.’ His text provided support and good counsel for avant-garde painters and served as a direct precursor of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and beyond.

In his relatively short and often poetic essay he explores, briefly, the phenomenon of beauty and uses this as a prelude to introducing his concept of modernity. He observes that:

Beauty is always and invariably of a double composition’ comprising an invariable element ‘whose quantity is very difficult to determine’ and of a ‘relative and circumstantial element, which will be …of the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions.

By associating the idea of beauty with ‘the age and its fashions’ he highlighted the need to appreciate the aesthetics of current circumstances and manners.

Then, in the third section of his essay, he launches into his main account; he discusses a particular character (an illustrator) who is not bound by the past but is fascinated by whatever it is that is happening in front of him, now. The character (a Monsieur C.G.) is seen primarily as a ‘man of the world.’ Unlike most artists a ‘man of the world’ is someone who is interested in every aspect of external reality. He asserts that this Monsieur C. G. is first and foremost defined by ‘curiosity’ – and who, in the freshness with which he embraces reality, resembles a child. These observations are central: they begin to suggest new ways or frames of mind through which the artist could view and expressively portray the world.

What, though, is the ethos of this presenting world? Here Baudelaire explores the emerging character of the present and famously states his concept of ‘modernity’; He writes:

By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable…This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with. By neglecting it, you cannot fail to tumble into the abyss of an abstract and indeterminate beauty, like that of the time the first woman before the fall of man.

Baudelaire is enthralled and excited by the world of 19th century Paris as it unfolds around him. He engages with this world and is impressed by the sounds and the movement, the glamour, the popular and vulgar, the beautiful and the damned – the quickening pulse of the now. In fact, for Baudelaire, modern life is defined by a new and stimulating urban environment, as well as by new kinds of people, especially the bohemian and the demi-monde. In consequence the actual painter of modern life is certainly not in the business of reproducing historical subjects or heroic representations. He or she, as Baudelaire noted, is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non-I’. Through his descriptions and the beauty of his prose Baudelaire helped to create a revolution in the art of France: in no time at all Paris was to see painters such as Manet look directly at this modern world and re-invent the character and meaning of painting. The subjects these avant-garde painters chose were ‘edgy’, unconventional, and subversive.

And it was this concern with the painting of modern life that prompted Andrew Graham-Dixon, the presenter of ‘The art of France’, to imagine what subjects today’s painter of modern life might choose to portray. He thought that a prime candidate would be anything that ‘pricks our conscience.’

But suppose a painter really does ask: What are some of the defining characteristics of ‘modern’ life? and, What types of subject would be representative of the way the world is now?

It’s plainly a media-dominated world – and most of our (most of my information) comes through the media. It’s a world wedded to screen culture. And it all adds up to a very peculiar place. It’s a world made up of everything under the sun.  It’s not just the bohemian world (a world that Baudelaire emphasised) that would be of the now. Nor is it restricted to those moments and events that, as Andrew Graham-Dixon said, ‘prick our conscience’ – the tragic world of refugees, of slaves and cruelty, the world of the abused and exploited. These and a host of other basic subjects make up the modern, the contemporary world. But a world of ‘everything under the sun’ may mean that the really significant subjects get lost in the deluge.

So what do I think? Well, for me, the most important subjects of the contemporary world are those concerning human relationships, of love, sex and aggression and the struggle to achieve rationality and virtue. I’m interested in our limitations – and our psycho-pathologies. I’m interested in the ‘making’ of human being. Perhaps the most important subject of today’s world concerns the extraordinary trajectories taken by the human mind. Perhaps, too the idea of human vulnerability and fragility is central.

But if an artist explores the various phenomena of the human mind how does he or she paint the invisible? How can he or she make the invisible visible?

Footnote 1:

On beauty, Baudelaire wrote:

The idea of beauty which man creates for himself imprints itself on his whole attire, crumples or stiffens his dress, rounds off or squares his gestures, and in the long run even ends by subtly penetrating the very features of his face. Man ends by looking like his ideal self.

Footnote 2:

The essay ‘The painter of modern life’ featuring, in part, an analysis of Constantin Guys, an illustrator for the Illustrated London News, was written in 1860 and would not be published until 1863 in instalment form in Le Figaro.

The photograph just appeals to me – but is it ‘modern life?’

An excellent short review of Baudelaire’s essay by Jeanne S. M. Willette is published on an art history website.

Last night, a dream …


Often I dream – and I usually enjoy my dreams. Sometimes I wish a dream would never end, would go on for ever. Sometimes the dream has a completely unexpected content; and, sometimes the dream re-engages with the past:

Last night I dreamed of Richard Brautigan.

He was looking his usual counter-cultural self. He was sitting on a plain old wooden chair and he was thinking. He was thinking about the USA. I watched him as he thought. Then he broke off from his thinking and said:

What do you call something that makes the US go up – but always ends on a downer?’

This time I was thinking. I was thinking about the answer to his question.

He lit a cigarette; then he looked across at me and said:

It’s a Trumpoline.’

Post script:
I had this dream during the night that followed a ‘most unusual’ press conference given by Donald Trump, President of the United States of America.

The photograph below features an early edition of Richard Brautigan’s book: ‘In watermelon sugar’. The one above is a dream, a fleeting moment …


The red curtain


I’m sure Vivienne Westwood would have been amused.

It goes like this:

Students at the University for the Creative Arts in Surrey, England are given the opportunity to exhibit their work in the long corridor that runs the length of the college building. It’s a good opportunity for them; it gets them used to going ‘on show’ in the art world.

All sorts of work goes up – and it’s always interesting, often weird and laden with a variety of emotions. You never quite know what to expect …

Most recently a number of students involved in digital media – including the making of short films – were showing their work. The films, as usual, were edgy or personal or both. One student, Natalie H. had made a good film about sex and pornography. It was happily explicit – sometimes echoing Ingres’ ‘Turkish bath’ and sometimes Courbet’s ‘The origin of the world’. (Implicitly, questions concerning ‘brazilians’ were also raised.) Various pieces of text accompanied the images, amongst which were references to the occasions when boyfriends had published, via social media, nude photos of their girlfriends. This kind of behaviour was certainly not always welcomed. (It was a serious piece of film-making.)

But then In February 2017 the university had an ‘open day.’ People from the local schools and various other odds and sods were due to visit the place and walk the corridor. All the films and exhibits usually on display were left intact except for Natalie H’s film. The television screen upon which it was showing was completely covered by a red curtain. However, it wasn’t any old red curtain. It was a subtly erotic red curtain. It rather echoed the furnishings found in houses of ill-repute. And, it was just about possible to discern the moving images behind the veil. Overall though, modesty prevailed. Everyone in officialdom could breathe a sigh of relief.

I laughed.

I was caught laughing by some of the students. Some also laughed.

Yes,’ I thought, ‘it’s the kind of cultural moment that Vivienne Westwood would have turned into a wonderful piece of fashion.’

She would have been amused.

Footnote: The full title of this note is: The red curtain: Homage to Natalie H.

Chrissie Hynde: I know where you bought that Elvis t-shirt


Chrissie Hynde was the fascinating subject of a superb hour-long television programme that saw her in Paris, then London, New York (I think) and perhaps Nashville – as well as in Akron, Ohio – the town in which she grew up. The beautifully made film also featured her in concert including bits and pieces of archive footage. We also saw her in one of those stylish and defiantly American cars. Was it a Buick 6, or a Ford Fairlane? No: it was a 1970s Pontiac with a V8 engine – the kind of car anyone would love to have – in metallic green – the sheeny-green that makes you think of 60s or 70s record covers. She was filmed in Regent’s Park, London too – in a rose garden …

It seems as if a film-maker and crew had attached themselves to Chrissie throughout a year or so – and we were lucky enough to get some idea as to how she saw the world as well as the conclusions she had reached about her life.

I particularly enjoyed the way she expressed herself. She spoke clearly and was always intelligible. In fact, her way of communicating is charming. There’s a certain kind of American way of speaking English that has a distinct rhythmic cadence. She chose her words carefully.

The film opened with her singing a song and concluding with the words: ‘I like being alone.’ And this proved to be the leitmotif running throughout all the subsequent content. She prizes her independence and her freedom from the constraints of ‘a relationship’. (I can understand this.) She told us that she thinks ‘being alone is a real luxury.’ It helps her paint (she’s a good artist), meditate and appreciate the things she thinks are worthwhile. She knew someone who ‘was never alone because she’s always got herself’ and she thought this was a ‘great attitude.’

She was often insightful: She said that ‘all songs are written on basically the same events – the subject of which is human relationships’ and they end with ‘you broke my heart,  I broke your heart, Oh no, I’m alone again…’ She told us that ‘once in a while you meet someone who is in charge of their looks’ – who consistently manages their appearance well – such as the New York Dolls, and Bob Dylan. Who else? Well, she named Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Maria Callas. She also recognised that every once in a while a singer’s voice so transcends the music that the words they are singing scarcely matter; Tim Buckley was such a singer. And she adored Julie London’s ‘Cry me a river’.

She was sometimes forthright about her likes and dislikes. She likes cows, and the idea of people having a rose named after them. She likes hotels because they are really all ‘about moving’ and being on the move. She likes cemeteries (or at least the cemetery in Akron Ohio) and trees. She doesn’t like the word ‘empowerment’. She loathes the art world. She seemed to dislike it because it has become all about ‘investment’ and not art. The values of art have become distorted – perverted even. (I’m not surprised. I’m not sure about the art world either.) She gets fed up with people and remarked: ‘I just wish everyone would f*** off.

I thought this was a really important documentary. Chrissie Hynde emerged as a very clever and powerful character – someone who is very much her own person – who is always beguiling, honest, witty and attractive. She’s in her sixties – and on occasion I thought many of her views co-incided with mine. (I was even thinking of her as a kind of soul-mate!)  She demonstrated how it is perfectly OK to be on one’s own and to forge a fulfilling life for oneself.

And where did she buy her Elvis t-shirt? Well, it was in an airport – perhaps in the departure lounge. But which airport? Was it London or Paris or New York or Nashville?  I don’t know: But it was such a great t-shirt …

Footnote 1: The photograph shows her on a plane – going somewhere …

Footnote 2: The film was in the BBC’s ‘Arena’ series and was entitled ‘Alone with Chrissie Hynde.’

Giusy Pirrotta – an invitation to wonderland


Italians speak of beautiful minds; in so doing they acknowledge and appreciate the delights and achievements of intellect and imagination. They respect the world of concept and idea.

A beautiful Italian mind was deployed in the making of a striking and luminous installation entitled ‘Between the glimpse and the gaze’. The artist and maker, Giusy Pirrotta had constructed a meticulous transcendent environment, an engaging aesthetic space that suggested new horizons both in terms of how we are contained (or liberated) in place and how we, through the cultivation of appreciative modes of perception, view the world. And for this she deserves the highest praise.

Her installation was presented in the James Hockey gallery situated at the University for the Creative Arts. The space itself was relatively large and curiously ‘total’ in the perceptual experiences that it yielded. It was ‘total’ in the sense that it reprised the early sociologies of total institutions. But in this case the space was alive with intriguing possibilities.

First, though, a partial description will help to ground the work and establish a context for identifying some of the experiential phenomena that it generated: In the first ‘phase’ of her installation large panels clothed in richly patterned botanical motifs framed the initial space. A number of ceramic objects – some as organic forms, some akin to technological artefacts, some as projectors – were placed near to or adjoining the ‘wallpaper’ panels. Beautiful discreet coloured lights animated the ceramic objects – as if they housed chromatic spirits. The objects eluded any form of fetishisation.

The initial space led on to another in which screens and sheen-laden surfaces received projections of moving and mildly hypnotic image-patterns. Again, in this ‘second’ space the intriguing ceramic objects worked as a counterpoint to the massive sensory power of the moving images.

Overall the physical structures worked like a ‘gestalt’; the whole vibrated between figure and ground. Within the enveloping, often intense, stimulation of light, space and meaning, it seemed as if a fusion of old and new was occurring: the ancient traditions of the artisan and of craft were conjoined with the genius of digitisation and the new magics of techno-power.

So, what is going on  in ‘Between the glimpse and the gaze’? Well, decidely, the viewer/participant is cast into an esoteric aesthetic space. It is an aesthetic space that lies on the boundaries of both art, design, and craft, and, of cinema, colour, pattern and form; there is also the temporal dimensions of past, present and future. It integrates product design, interior design and the moving image. It’s really rather gorgeous. Sometimes, too, it impresses as a Baudrillardian simulacrum – a ‘likeness’ – a likeness to contemporary design spaces – as well as a kind of hyper-real zone privileging vision, concept and impression. But what is the emotional charge attaching to the installation event? Is it cool detachment? Is it the poetic pleasure of image/text? Is it an insouciant sense of play with the new technologies? Is it the seduction of the dreamscape? I don’t know: it’s puzzling, elusive and challenging; it’s rhythmic but sometimes empty of feeling. I’m reminded of the snazzy boutiques in the shopping malls or the coloured lights that flicker on and off in the new fitness centres – but without the music. I’m reminded, too, of the sounds of silence in which words are written on subway walls …

The title of the installation betrays the artist’s deep interest in the phenomena of perception. (I agree with Aldrich in his ‘philosophy of art’ and his emphasis on the significance of the title). She invites whoever it is that experiences her installation to pause and reflect on the relationship between time, motive, interest and the contents of consciousness. She encourages us to ask basic questions such as: ‘What do we look at?’ ‘How long do we look?’ ‘What guides our attention?’ ‘What holds our attention?’ and so on; more profoundly she invites us to ask something far more demanding: ‘What is the nature of ordinary everyday perception in contrast to appreciative aesthetic perception?’ And in this latter respect she engages with enduring questions at the heart of the philosophy of art. Inescapably her work reflects Heidegger’s insight that works of art are intrinsically intriguing and revealing because, simultaneously, they are of the earth (in their materiality) and of the world (in their rich cultural meanings).

In a less abstract sense the installation was (for me) manifestly of the now. It served as a key to the realms of Baudrillard but it also drew from the wonderful traditions of Italian cinema: light and colour were everywhere, everywhere dancing, moving, playing …

However, despite the delightful aspects of her work something disturbed me: the unsettling character of Giusy Pirrotta’s installation partly lies in the way it re-surfaces some of the critical concerns raised by writers such as Huxley and Orwell – as well as those of the first generation of radical psychologists who railed against the emerging techniques of mind and behaviour control. Huxley, for example, foresaw a world in which advances in biology, physiology, pharmacology and psychology would create societies of determined, programmed, un-free human beings, beings not even conscious that their autonomy and self-determination had been expunged. Although Huxley’s vision only partially materialised, the emergence of our contemporary techno-saturated milieu along with the astonishing reach of communications media is now so profound, it even reinforces Baudrillard’s contention that:
 “The human species is currently domesticating itself … by means of its technologies. It is submitting collectively to the same rituals as certain invertebrates.

We are, bit by bit, losing our minds. Guisy Pirrotta intimates a world where we can find ourselves isolated, overwhelmed, overshadowed and distracted – left oscillating between the glimpse and the gaze.

This excellent project benefited from the masterly curation of Richard Hylton, ‘Cultural Programme’ Curator at the University for the Creative Arts, in Surrey.


I had the good fortune to attend a short talk given by the artist in the space of her installation. In fact, because the acoustics were unhelpful I had difficulties in hearing and making intelligible whatever it was that was being said. However one thing fascinated me: Giusy Pirrotta, a relatively slight and finely-cut person, was dressed in a jacket worn over what looked like a large shirt. She had long dark beautiful hair which matched her tights (or whatever it was that covered her legs). She spoke confidently and referred to many of her likes; she also referenced her original passion for cinema. But as she spoke she held in her hand – throughout – a small, almost empty, plastic bottle of water: How strange, how fascinating! I could scarcely imagine a more banal and incongruous contrast to the  elaborate psycho-synthesis of her art work.


The state of art


Although thoughtful and scholarly responses to art – including critical evaluations – have enjoyed a history that is almost as long as art itself, modern art criticism came into being in France during the 18th century. It was in France that the famous and heretofore exclusive ‘salon’ opened its doors to a new kind of person – ‘the public’ – and, in so doing, made it possible for the men and women of letters to address this new audience, the people, with their critiques of works of art.

Among the visitors to the salon was Denis Diderot who became one of the new ‘enlightened’ and decidedly modern critics of art.

Diderot not only held forth about his likes and dislikes in relation to the paintings on display but also succeeded in turning art criticism into social criticism. He thought that the state of art reflected (or equated with) the state of the nation – in this case France.

By way of example, Diderot did not care for the highly contrived, technically refined and lusciously erotic paintings of, for example, Boucher. And if Boucher’s work was seen by the higher echelons of society as ‘masterly’ and desirable then it reflected the decadence and perverted values of that very same stratum of french society. Instead, Diderot preferred the workaday artisanal subject – the still life – the ordinary scenes of kitchens, their utensils, along with tables and food stuffs – that were so strikingly portrayed by Chardin. In Chardin’s work Diderot found expressed a range of desirable values and virtues – all in powerful opposition to the corruption and decadence he thought characteristic of the elites in French society. There was a mood in some of Chardin’s painting that was almost ominous; it suggested disturbance; it foreshadowed what was to come …

And so it was possible to see in art an indicator of what is good and what is bad in society.

(There’s a wonderful portrait of Diderot painted in 1767 by Louis-Michel Van Loo in the Palais du Louvre – although Diderot, himself, did not like the way he had been expressively portrayed …)

I think the general thesis that art reflects truths about the society in which the very works of art are generated remains stimulating and provocative. Let’s take the idea seriously; if we do, it raises the question: what does contemporary art ‘say’ about the state we’re in? One answer is that we see a kind of ubiquitous glitzy advertising: Selfie – self-interest – self-promotion …

Perhaps a kind of calculation is going on: what is the best way to get noticed, to get ‘exposure’?


In part I have been moved to write these notes following an exhibition held at the University College for the Creative Arts. A PhD student is showing an installation full of lights and moving images and shiny walls and strange glowing moments on patterned wall-paper. It’s very much of the ‘now’. It mixes genre(s) and relies heavily on very sophisticated technology that mediates the image projections. It’s colourful and entirely contemporary. The student is plainly a person of our age – whatever this age may actually be. I’ve seen similar kinds of work in the centres for contemporary art throughout Europe. It fascinates me : it suggests an evolving anthropology of art.

Giusy Pirrotta is the PhD student and her ‘immersive’ installation is entitled ‘Between the the Glimpse and the Gaze.

Footnote 2: The photograph features Francis Bacon.