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Contextual Practice Essays

Updated: Sep 4, 2019

Painting from the Found and Personal Photograph: Methods and Meanings


4000 word essay


Over the duration of the MA, I began to recognise and identify twin strands developing in my practice: use of the found photographic image overlapping simultaneously with use of the personal photograph. I have become increasingly aware of the methodology that underpins and facilitates the making of my paintings. I am interested in how these two quite different uses of photography informs my work and consequent struggle to create a kind of visual language that is both personal and coherent. I’m particularly drawn to representations of the banal, of delving into spaces that some might find unworthy of exploration. In this essay I have chosen to concentrate my research on four painters: Gerhard Richter, Malcolm Morley, Robert Bechtle and George Shaw. All four have a strong preoccupation with the visible (pictorial realism) and have an enduring relationship with photography. I believe that through their use of the found and personal photographic image they engage with painting in profound and poetic ways. They demonstrate painting’s enduring ability to provoke wider questions on the nature of realism and the real, the role of memory, remembrance and value.

When Gerhard Richter migrated from East Germany to West Germany in 1961 the artistic milieu with which he largely identified himself was Pop or New Realism as it was sometimes called. Pop embraced the mass circulation of commodities and images, epitomised by the photographically derived paintings of Andy Warhol: the publicity shot, police and press photos, advertising. Pop reflected the new urban reality-very different in effect to the realty represented by say, Gustav Courbet or Edward Hopper - this was reality as seen through and filtered by existing representations. Richter: ‘My first photo picture? I was doing large pictures in gloss enamel influenced by Gaul. One day a photograph of Brigitte Bardot fell into my hands and I painted it into one of these pictures in shades of grey. I had enough of bloody painting and painting from a photograph seemed to me the most moronic and unartistic thing that anyone could do’ (3, p21)


During his time as a lab technician Richter was exposed to vast amounts of photographic material and he started to collect snapshots, pictures from encyclopaedias, newspaper clippings etc, much of which would be later published in a collection titled Atlas. Richter would come to draw on this generic source material together with personal images of family. His photo albums were among the precious few belongings he and his wife Marianne, known as Ema, took on their flight west. He was separated from close friends and would never see his parents again. Christine Mehring observed that his move from East to West impacted deeply on his artistic practice and would result in a ‘sustained reflection on “home”, drenched in desire and doubt and laced with the artist’s signature ambivalent tone.’(2, p29)

Pop Art was ironic, brash, colourful... optimistic. Richter represented something altogether more fragmented, uncertain and muted; often grey. Generic family images from both his and Ema’s family populate his paintings from the mid-sixties, coexisting with formations of British and American fighter planes and bombers, chairs, toilet rolls, travel snaps and so on. Richter’s signature blurring of many of his works also quite literally blurs the private and found image - it also emphasises the generic nature and the shocking banality of the reality he was presenting.


Gerhard Richter, Administrative Building (1964)

Gerhard Richter, Flemish Crown (1965)

When asked by Robert Storr about the ‘banal’ nature of the works, Richter stresses that... ’banality means a little bit more than unimportant’ and when pressed, continued... ‘Just more. I mentioned the “banality of evil” in order to show that banality has at some point been described as something horrific. It can be a concern to describe the banal as something terrifying. The chandelier (Flemish Crown) is a monster; it is enough to paint this thing, this shitty, small banal chandelier. That thing is terrifying. I’ve already said some time ago in order to disassociate myself from Francis Bacon; I didn’t have to distort faces. It is much scarier to paint people’s faces as banal as I find them in photographs. That is what makes the banal more than just banal. (1, p168)

Although Richter occasionally adopts contradictory positions on his work, I think it’s fair to say that his engagement with photography has a resonance way beyond the images presented. Painful and problematic issues of modern German history infuse the work- the way, for example, his paintings ‘Aunt Marianne ‘ and ‘Mr Heyde’ conflate, as Robert Storr says ... ‘to close the gaps between personal experience and public reality ,between a painful guilt laden past and and a present predicated on a selective memory.’ (1, p58)


Gerhard Richter, Aunt Marianne (1965)

Gerhard Richter, Mr Heyde (1965)

Unbeknown to Richter at the time of painting, research showed that Mr Heyde was, in his capacity as a pioneer in Nazi gassing techniques, responsible for the death of his Aunt Marianne. She was committed to a mental institution and murdered by Nazi doctors using involuntary euthanasia to despatch the chronically sick and mentally ill. Despite the agonising reverberations generated by his imagery Richter always reiterated his belief in the primacy of paint. ‘Painting has nothing to do with thinking because in painting, thinking is painting. Thinking is record keeping and has to take place before or after.’ (3, p15)


Gerhard Richter, 18 October 1977 Series - Record player (1988)

Gerhard Richter, 18 October 1977 Series - Man Shot Down 1 (1988)

Two decades later Richter would again mine his photographic archive to address a violent episode in German history.

‘Atlas’ depicts dozens of images relating to a group of paintings called October 18, 1977. The images were gathered from magazines, books and newspapers as well as police archives. Painted in 1988 over a nine month period the paintings depict garrotted, shot and hanged members of the Baader-Meinhof group, as well as an image of a prison cell, a record player and a burial. The vehemently anti-ideological Richter stated that ‘I’m not sure whether the pictures ask any thing: they provoke contradictions through their hopelessness and desolation; their lack of partisanship. Ever since I have been able to think, I have known that every rule and opinion-insofar as either is ideologically motivated-is false, a hindrance or a crime.’ (18, p95) Ulrike Meinhof, a founder member of the Baader-Meinhof Group, or Red Army Faction, was only two years younger than Richter and it feels like Richter’s attempt to come to terms with elements of his generation’s violent and convulsive opposition to the German state. Richter: ‘I was impressed by the terrorists’ energy, their uncompromising determination and their absolute bravery, but I could not find it in my heart to condemn the state for its harsh response. That is what states are like, and I have known other, more ruthless ones. (18, p135)

Richter’s characteristic blurring technique and the diffuse dull greyness of the paintings pulls the subject away from the sensational and the journalistic. And despite the specific, controversial nature of the imagery (a treatise on terrorism) the works distil into a profoundly humane and solemn meditation on death. Richter described the evolution of the works: ‘To begin with I wanted more to paint the whole business, the world as it then was, the living reality - I was thinking in terms of something big and comprehensive. But then it all evolved in the direction of death. And that’s not all that unpaintable. Far from it, in fact. Death and suffering always have been an artistic theme. Basically it is the theme. We’ve managed to wean ourselves away from r nice tidy life style.’ (18, p102)


Malcolm Morley, SS Rotterdam (1966)

Malcolm Morley, an artist admired by Richter and who emerged at about the same time, is credited with creating the first Photorealist painting. It was his frustration in unsuccessfully attempting to paint a cruise ship from life that lead him to pick up and paint a postcard of the liner ’Empire Monarch.’ He would continue using found post cards, calendars and travel brochures for much of the sixties and early seventies. Morley, like Richter, seemed to be searching for a language that was ’inartistic’. ’What I wanted to find was an iconography that was untarnished by art.’ (4, p23)

Unlike Richter who blurred the photographic image to diffuse and create uncertainty, Morley’s canvasses explored the harsh hues of colour photography. He detested the term ‘Photorealist’ describing his approach as ‘fidelity paintings’ or defining them as ‘Superrealist,’ a term Mondrian had coined in the 1930’s. Morley: ‘That was class warfare, pure and simple. It was a put-down... there is a class thing, implying that working class people couldn’t possibly make paintings without copying photographs.’ (4, p38)

He began his paintings by transferring the image using a grid system, much as artists had done since the renaissance. The image, once drawn up in fine squares would then be painted, often using a magnifying glass. Areas of the surface not being worked upon would be covered; the focus placed exclusively on the tiny squares being painted. The printed source material for his works was often of poor quality which Morley rendered faithfully; he described himself as painting like a surgeon. Alfred Frankenstein, a critic writing in 1969, stated that Morley’s boat paintings were ‘copied with stunning precision and stupefying pointlessness.’ (4, p35) Morley acknowledged the Dadaist impulse in his work and remarked that ‘I started from a readymade, making a handmade painting from a readymade.’ (4, p26)


Malcolm Morley, Beach Scene (1968)


Malcolm Morley, Race Track (1970)

Despite his ironic Pop sensibility much of Morley’s output during the 1960’s and 70’s can surely be appreciated against the backdrop of rapid social change, protest and war. The cruise ships glide effortlessly from port to port; guests on board enjoy the ‘high life’ - a life of endless leisure. Recliners, an international golf tournament, high-diving, high-jinks on the beach: the horror of the banal. Morley however is uncomfortable with satirical readings of his work. ‘I have no interest in subject matter as such or satire or social-comment or anything else lumped with subject matter. There is only Abstract Painting. I want works to be disguised as something else (photos), mainly for protection against “art man-handlers”. I accept the subject matter as a by-product of surface.’ (4, p40)

A radical defacement of the surface of one of his most iconic works starts to bring Morley’s engagement with super realism to an end. The image he chose to paint was from a South African tourist brochure. In the white margin Morley hired a sign painter to inscribe ‘South Africa/ Greyville race course – Durban, South Africa.’ The agency logo ‘SATOUR’ is painted on the left. He decided to paint a red ‘X’ across the work after seeing ‘Z’ a film by Costas Gravas. The film is a fictionalised account of the events surrounding the assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963 while Greece was in the grip of the ‘Colonels.’ Apartheid South Africa had become a focus of international revulsion so the choice of image of Greyville race track seems both arch and knowing. He maintained that it was an unconscious pun, referring to Malcolm X… ‘I didn’t invent it. No human intelligence can arrive at that. But being open to this “twilight zone” between what your conscious and your unconscious is, you allow these things to occur.’ (4, p55)


American painting’s, involvement with the commercialised photographic image was embraced and legitimised by Warhol in the early 1960s but surprisingly manifests in the work of Norman Rockwell a decade or so earlier. Rockwell used photographs from the late 1940’s, either tracing the image or projecting it with a Balopticon projector. The resulting paintings when reduced and reproduced were highly naturalistic. His work was made for modern, thrusting advertising companies, for mass circulation and could easily be seen as a part of the ‘mechanised, industrialised culture industry’ as Theo Adorno and Horkheimer described it: realist, narrative, negating thought - made to be consumed and thrown away. He was an artist portrayed by Clement Greenberg as the epitome of lower middle class ’kitsch’ but the writer Richard Halpern’s understanding of Rockwell’s work is more nuanced.


Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post Cover (1947)

Norman Rockwell, Reference Photograph (1947)

In his book The Underside of Innocence he makes the case that Rockwell knowingly and discreetly allowed uncomfortable realities to appear in his work and in so doing echoes Milan Kundera’s definition of kitsch: ‘Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.’ (21, p248) In attempting to describe what Rockwell produces, he states, ‘I sometimes refer to them as paintings ... but “images,” a word I use more often, seems more abstract and disembodied.’ (6, p75)

Despite his popularity and commercial success Rockwell was troubled regarding his status as a painter and torn on his use of photography: ‘I comfort myself with the thought that many of the great painters used aids in drawing; the camera obscura, the camera lucida, mirrors etc.’ (6, p146)


Robert Bechtle, 61 Pontiac (1969)

When Robert Bechtle started producing his paintings of lower middle class life in the mid to late sixties, he had no such qualms. He could take dozens of what he termed ’lousy’ photographs or slides before beginning a work. He would then project a carefully selected image on the canvas - this, at time when the very notion still seemed offensive. For Bechtle, the camera replaces the sketchbook and many of the choices that he makes during the gestation and creation of his painting are made there and then. He also believed that the intensity of a work derives from the concentration brought to bear on the whole process of painting a surface saturated in detail. ’The information that is available in the photograph becomes the basis for making the decisions as to what the paint is going do, so that means that one’s marks have to do with the history of painting and so on - they really don’t have anything to do with photography.’ (13)

Bechtle often refers to his compositions as ‘dumb’ - artless snapshots of a banal suburban reality. His reality, in painted, sun-bleached Kodachrome. Streets, car parks, backyards, Chevys, Fords, Chryslers. The stillness in his works echoes the romantic urban realism of Edward Hopper - cars are always parked, figures are stationary, posed. And while the Photo-realist’s use of the camera seemed both innovative and transgressive at the time, Bechtle’s peripatetic rendering of his native San Francisco reflects a deep affection for his time and place, and gently anticipates the elegiac obsessions of George Shaw. Despite his protestations of neutrality and ‘stylelessness,’ I sense that Bechtle, along with fellow Photo-realists Goings and Estes needed to snare a reality that was rapidly changing and disappearing. They devised an unsentimental language that eschewed the esoteric, arcane discourse that had dogged painting in favour of a language that sought to close the gap between the public’s vision and the artist's vision.


Robert Bechtle, Watsonville Chairs (1976)

Robert Bechtle, Watsonville Olympia (1977)

The gallerist and author Ivan Karp observed, ‘The Photorealists, like anthropologists of the contemporary world, treated all things equally in both their “power and vacuity” in an attempt to reintroduce viewers to the world around them. They had, it seems, recognised the beauty in contemporary life, and the result was nothing less than "a democratic triumph”.’ (9)



Syd Shelton, Specials fans, Coventry (1981)

In 1993, during his time at the RCA, George Shaw embarked on the singular project that would define his art for the next 25 years; with a painting called ‘Mums’ - a depiction of the terraced house in which his mother still lives. Even today Shaw continues religiously to return to Coventry to photograph and render the Tile Hill Estate on which he was born and raised. Shaw has often eschewed any interest in the ‘art world’ and in a recent interview with Mark Hallett he recalls what drove him. ‘So I thought that the important thing to do would be to make works of art that spoke to myself and the people around me that mattered, rather than the art world... trying to make things quite real – so that if somebody were to walk in off the street without having read a thesis, that would go “I quite like that...” For that tension between wanting to make something that was really vernacular, that was part and parcel of the pop music we played-I wanted to make paintings that people could dance to-it was that basic really.’ (17)

At the opening of his retrospective at the Yale Center for British Art in 2018, George Shaw requested that the Specials first album, released in 1979, be played in an attempt to give a sense of where and when his art was coming from. His fellow Coventrians, the Specials, were leading-lights of the Two-Tone movement, renowned for anthems such as ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘Doesn’t Make it Alright.’ Their politically-charged songs expressed the anger and alienation felt by many at a time of explosive race riots and the brutal deindustrialisation of Britain overseen by Margret Thatcher.


George Shaw, Spare Time Installation (2006)

In an installation consisting of 46 works in pencil or charcoal on paper entitled ‘Spare Time,’ a grim photo-fit drawing of the Yorkshire Ripper glowers besides a tender portrait of Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Soft porn images from the pages of Fiesta and Mayfair jostle with academic, drawing manual nudes. Romantic, cultured figures such as TE Lawrence, Wilfred Owen and Philip Larkin rub shoulders with Hammer Horror Frankenstein’s monsters, along with David Bowie and Francis Bacon. Shaw wills us to see these works, inspired by his youthful infatuations and enthusiasms, as the imagery that shapes his uninhabited paintings of Tile Hill. The found and personal images interweave to form an intimate mythology, conjuring narratives of class, belief and belonging. Michael Bracewell observed that these works ‘...form an accretion which informs but does not direct his eye as a painter.’ (15, p6)

In many ways, Shaw’s motivation has much in common with Peter Blake’s wide-eyed egalitarian urges of the early 1960’s - to maintain the link with childhood or folk memory and more broadly to create a direct, hand crafted visual equivalent to the music of the time – ‘a genuinely popular and distributable figurative art,’ as Natalie Rudd described it. (20, p15)


George Shaw, The Age of Bullshit (2010)

George Shaw, Mum’s (2018)

Shaw’s work starts with an appraisal of dozens of photos printed at the chemists or Snappy Snaps and like Bechtle, he stresses that they’re taken ‘devoid of artistic intent,’ for the information they provide. He describes them as ‘forensic,’ like recording a crime scene. Unlike Bechtle however, Shaw constructs a grid of reference material, often of different scenes and views at different times, in order to reconstruct the experience of a location; viewing it from various angles, ‘going back to the opening up of sensation.’ (19, p56).

When asked by Mark Hallett about his use of photography, Shaw’s response is pragmatic and quite dismissive: ‘It’s just easier. I can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. The TV exists, the computer exists, and photography exists. To pretend I’m going to walk around in a felt hat with an easel, getting a load of grief and getting rained on, seems absolutely ridiculous.’ (17)

Shaw then makes a drawing of a selected photograph and transfers it via traced , dusted graphite onto a stark white panel of MDF. Shaw paints with Humbrol hobby paints – a tough adhesive enamel paint designed for simple flat coverage and despite the recalcitrant nature of the material (it is hardly the stuff of painterly’ painting), he persists with it nevertheless. ‘It’s the paint of unmarried men or the paint of the banished man, to the shed. I quite liked the fact that it came with a loaded conceptual bag, that it had something to do with amateur art, a working class experience of the weekend.’ (17) The gloopy viscous nature of the paint not only reflects itself in the tough industrial surfaces depicted - shop fronts, doors, gates, railings etc. but quite literally reflects the artist himself: ‘I like the shininess and the darker the colour gets the more of yourself you see in it, they become mirrors - they start to become all sort of things, they start to do things outside of my own hand really.’ (17)

As a body of work they appear melancholy and bleak, excruciatingly so at times, a reading he refutes. ‘When I did start talking about my work one of the stereotypes of coming from a council estate, a working class background is that you had to get away from it... and I remember just thinking that I quite enjoyed where I was from.’ (16, p74) What is certain though, is that Shaw has lovingly recorded the change that inevitably occurs over two or so decades. Pubs slowly die and are demolished, libraries and youth clubs close and lockups crumble. An estate that embodied the post war consensus of ‘cradle to grave’ which reflected unshakeable utopian ideals now seem anachronistic in the era of ‘buy to let’.

‘Mum’s’ of 1993 foreshadowed a painting of the same view in 2018; the last council house on the street which now has a mobility hand-rail for his elderly mother. Shaw hovers phantasmasgorically beside his works; sentimental, nostalgic, brooding, angry. And what began as a gritty and romantic exploration of the banal backdrop of his youth has become an ongoing allegorical reflection on aging, loss and identity.

Shaw alludes to the fact that his Catholic upbringing had made him conscious that representations could be potent... ‘it opened up a real feeling that images have power, so you would have people praying to crucifixes or little paintings and recognising that images, not just religious images, all images could be quite powerful.’ (17)


George Shaw, The Man Who Would be King (2018)

George Shaw, Someone Else’s House (2018)

When he emerged from a two year residency at the National Gallery in 2016 it was to the rancorous and divided landscape of Brexit. On the Tile Hill Estate it seemed that the years of neglect, both social and economic, had generated a sense of grievance, and overt displays of defiant, populist nationalism. Shaw’s response was graphic and hard edged. He called one of his paintings showing the flag of St George ‘The Man who would be King.’ The title is taken from a film remembered from his youth starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine set in the Hindu Kush in the late 19th century. Shaw: ‘The limp flag in the window summed up so much of the ill-fated pursuit of glory and romance I remembered from the film... I see it in the pissed-up and pissed-off patriots of every class and political persuasion.’ (14, p29)

It is generally accepted that painting has lost its visual primacy in the era of twenty-four hour media and internet, with its incomprehensible proliferation of photographic imagery. It is still, nevertheless, a ‘Success Medium’ as Isabelle Graw describes it. Paintings are objects; often desirable and expensive, but objects within space, around which, as Robert Storr says ‘issues and ideas coalesce.’ Painters like Richter and Shaw are somehow compelled to engage with and use the imagery and language of photography, for better or for worse. Jonathan Jones, reviewing George Shaw’s recent retrospective, described him as a ‘sensitive and loving artist’ who is ‘... not outside the scene. He’s not looking down on people who choose to put up a flag, shuddering at the millions who voted leave. On the contrary, he’s the artist of the left behind, in more ways than one.’ (19) Shaw, the realist painter, grimaces and rather than disavow the new reality, turns and faces it, head-on.

George Shaw: ‘I don’t want to paint this picture, there’s lots of pictures I didn’t want to paint. If you’re going to confront this, if you’re actually going to look at the world around you and make an image of it, then you have to deal with that. And to hide it you become part of the problem, and in fact maybe not having that conversation is the reason why that situation happened.’ (17)


Bibliography

1. Storr, Robert (2003) Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting, MOMA, New York.

2. Mark Godfrey & Nicholas Serota, (ed.) (2011) Gerhard Richter, Panorama, Tate Modern.

3. Elger, Dietmar & Obrist, Hans Ulrich, (ed.) (2009) Gerhard Richter, Text, Writings Interviews and Letters, 1961-2007.

4. Lebensztejn, Jean Claude (2001) Malcolm Morley, Itineraries, Reaktion Books.

5. Whitfield, Sarah, (2001) Malcolm Morley in Full Colour, Hayward Gallery.

6. Halpern, Richard, (2006 ) Norman Rockwell, The Underside of Innocence University of Chicago Press

7. Meisel, Louis K, (1979) Photo-Realism, Harry N. Abrams, INC. New York.

8. Bechtle, Robert (2014) Artforum Interational vol. 52 iss. 7.

9. Periso, Craig, J (2013) Styless Style - What Photo-Realism Can Tell us About the Sixties, Journal of American Studies, vol. 47 iss. 3, Cambridge.

10. Reekie, Duncan (2007) Subversion - The Definitive History of Underground Cinema, Wallflowerpress.

11. Prendeville, Brendan, (2000) Realism in 20th Century Painting, Thames & Hudson.

12. Bechtle, Robert (2001), Robert Bechtle on Painting and Photography, You Tube, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

13. Bechtle, Robert (2004), 3 Short Films, www.sfmoma.org, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

14. Ed Mark Hallett (2018), George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field, Yale University Press

15. Bracewell, Michael (2003/2004) George Shaw: What I did this Summer, Ikon Gallery, Dundee

16. Sillars, Laurence (ed.) (2012), George Shaw: Sly and Unseen Day, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts Contemporary Arts

17. Shaw, George (Oct, 2018), In Conversation with Mark Hallett, You Tube, Yale Center for British Art

18. Storr, Robert (2000), Gerhard Richter: October18, 1977, MOMA

19. Jones, Jonathan (2019), Review, George Shaw, A Corner of a Foreign Field, The Guardian

20. Rudd, Natalie (2003), Peter Blake, Tate Publishing

21. Kundera, Milan (2000), The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Faber & Faber




Photos taken, lost, found and painted

2000 word essay


In my first essay I attempted to outline the main subjective themes of my practice and these concerns remain largely the same going into the second part of the MA. However I have started to recognise twin strands developing in my practice: my use of the found photographic image overlapping simultaneously with my use of photographs taken by myself .As a result I have become increasingly aware of the methodology that underpins and facilitates the making of my paintings. I am interested in how these two quite different uses of photography informs my painting and my struggle to create a kind of visual language that is personal ,real and coherent. In this essay I will concentrate on three artists, Gerhard Richter, Malcolm Morley and Robert Bechtle who, I believe through the use of the found and original photographic image engage with painting in profound and poetic ways.

When Gerhard Richter migrated to West Germany from East Germany in 1961 the artistic milieu with which he largely identified himself was Pop or New Realism as it was sometimes called. Pop embraced the mass circulation of commodities and images, epitomised by the photographically derived paintings of Andy Warhol: the publicity shot, police and press photos, advertising. Pop reflected the new urban reality-very different in effect to the realty represented by say Gustav Courbet or Edward Hopper - this was reality as seen through and filtered by existing representations. Richter: ‘My first photo picture? I was doing large pictures in gloss enamel influenced by Gaul. One day a photograph of Brigitte Bardot fell into my hands and I painted it into one of these pictures in shades of grey. I had enough of bloody painting and painting from a photograph seemed to me the most moronic and unartistic thing that anyone could do’ (3, p21)


During his time as a lab technician Richter was exposed to vast amounts of photographic material and he started to collect snapshots, pictures from encyclopaedias, newspaper clippings etc, much of which would be later published in a collection titled Atlas. Richter would come to draw on this generic source material together with personal images of family. His photo albums were among the precious few belongings he and his wife Marianne, known as Ema, took on their flight West. He was separated from close friends and would never see his parents again. Christine Mehring observed that his move from East to West impacted deeply on his artistic practice and would result in a ‘sustained reflection on “home”, drenched in desire and doubt and laced with the artist’s signature ambivalent tone.’(2, p29)

Pop Art was ironic, brash, colourful... optimistic. Richter represented something altogether more fragmented, uncertain and muted; often grey. Generic family images from both his and Ema’s family populate his paintings from the mid-sixties, coexisting with formations of British and American fighter planes and bombers, chairs, toilet rolls, travel snaps and so on. Richter’s signature blurring of many of his works also quite literally blurs the private and found image - it also emphasises the generic nature and the shocking banality of the reality he was presenting.


Gerhard Richter, Administrative Building (1964)

Gerhard Richter, Flemish Crown (1965)

When asked by Robert Storr about the ‘banal’ nature of the works, Richter stresses that... ’banality means a little bit more than unimportant’ and when pressed, continued... ‘Just more. I mentioned the “banality of evil” in order to show that banality has at some point been described as something horrific. It can be a concern to describe the banal as something terrifying. The chandelier (Flemish Crown) is a monster; it is enough to paint this thing, this shitty, small banal chandelier. That thing is terrifying. I’ve already said some time ago in order to disassociate myself from Francis Bacon; I didn’t have to distort faces. It is much scarier to paint people’s faces as banal as I find them in photographs. That is what makes the banal more than just banal. (1, p168)

Although Richter occasionally adopts contradictory positions on his work, I think it’s fair to say that his engagement with photography has a resonance way beyond the images presented. Painful and problematic issues of modern German history infuse the work despite Richter’s studiously anti-ideological stance. The way, for example, his paintings ‘Aunt Marianne ‘ and ‘Mr Heyde’ conflate, as Robert Storr says ... ‘to close the gaps between personal experience and public reality ,between a painful guilt laden past and and a present predicated on a selective memory.’ (1, p58)


Gerhard Richter, Aunt Marianne (1965)

Gerhard Richter Mr Heyde (1965)

Unbeknown to Richter at the time of painting, research showed that Mr Heyde was, in his capacity as a pioneer in Nazi gassing techniques, responsible for the death of his Aunt Marianne. She was committed to a mental institution and murdered by Nazi doctors using involuntary euthanasia to despatch the chronically sick and mentally ill. Despite the agonising reverberations generated by his imagery Richter always reiterated his belief in the primacy of paint. ‘Painting has nothing to do with thinking because in painting, thinking is painting. Thinking is record keeping and has to take place before or after.’ (3, p15)


Another artist working at the time and who is credited with creating the first Photorealist painting was Malcom Morley. It was his frustration in unsuccessfully attempting to paint a cruise ship from life that lead him to pick up and paint a postcard of the liner ’Empire Monarch.’ He would continue using found post cards, calendars and travel brochures for much of the sixties and early seventies. Morley, like Richter, seemed to be searching for a language that was ’inartistic’. ’What I wanted to find was an iconography that was untarnished by art.’ (4, p23)


Malcolm Morley, SS Rotterdam (1966)

Unlike Richter who blurred the photographic image to diffuse and create uncertainty, Morley’s canvasses explored the harsh hard hues of colour photography. He detested the term ‘Photorealist’ describing his approach as ‘fidelity paintings’ or defining them as ‘Superrealist,’ a term Mondrian had coined in the 1930’s. Morley: ‘That was class warfare, pure and simple. It was a put-down... there is a class thing, implying that working class people couldn’t possibly make paintings without copying photographs.’ (4, p38)

He began his paintings by transferring the image using a grid system, much as artists had done since the renaissance. The image, once drawn up in fine squares would then be painted, often using a magnifying glass. Areas of the surface not being worked upon would be covered; the focus placed exclusively on the tiny squares being painted. The printed source material for his works was often of poor quality which Morley rendered faithfully; he described himself as painting like a surgeon. Alfred Frankenstein, a critic writing in 1969, stated that Morley’s boat paintings were ‘copied with stunning precision and stupefying pointlessness.’ (4, p35) Morley acknowledged the Dadaist impulse in his work and remarked that ‘I started from a readymade, making a handmade painting from a readymade.’ (4,p26)


Malcolm Morley, Beach Scene (1968)

Malcolm Morley, Race Track (1970)

Despite his ironic Pop sensibility much of Morley’s output during the 1960’s and 70’s can surely be appreciated against the backdrop of rapid social change, protest and war. The cruise ships glide effortlessly from port to port; guests on board enjoy the ‘high life’ - a life of endless leisure. Recliners, an international golf tournament, high-diving, high-jinks on the beach: the horror of the banal. Morley however is uncomfortable with satirical readings of his work. ‘I have no interest in subject matter as such or satire or social-comment or anything else lumped with subject matter. There is only Abstract Painting. I want works to be disguised as something else (photos), mainly for protection against “art man-handlers”. I accept the subject matter as a by-product of surface.’ (4, p40)

A radical defacement of the surface of one of his most iconic works starts to bring Morley’s engagement with super realism to an end. The image he chose to paint was from a South African tourist brochure. In the white margin Morley hired a sign painter to inscribe ‘South Africa/ Greyville race course – Durban, South Africa.’ The agency logo ‘SATOUR’ is painted on the left. He decided to paint a red ‘X’ across the work after seeing ‘Z’ a film by Costas Gravas. The film is a fictionalised account of the events surrounding the assassination of Greek politician in 1963 while Greece was in the grip of the ‘Colonels.’ Apartheid South Africa had become a focus of international revulsion so the choice of image of Greyville race track seems both arch and knowing. He maintained that it was an unconscious pun, referring to Malcolm X… ‘I didn’t invent it. No human intelligence can arrive at that. But being open to this “twilight zone” between what your conscious and your unconscious is, you allow these things to occur.’ (4, p55)


American painting’s, involvement with the commercialised photographic image unsurprisingly manifests in many senses in the work of Norman Rockwell, an artist portrayed by Greenberg as the epitome of lower middle class ’kitsch’. Rockwell used photographs from the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, either tracing the image or projecting it with a Balopticon projector. The resulting paintings when reduced and reproduced were highly naturalistic. His work was made for modern, thrusting advertising companies, for mass circulation and could easily be seen as a part of the ‘mechanised, industrialised culture industry’ as Theo Adorno and Horkheimer described it: realist, narrative, negating thought - made to be consumed and thrown away.


Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post Cover (1947)

Norman Rockwell, Reference Photograph (1947)

Norman Rockwell, Saturday Evening Post Cover & Reference Photograph (1947)

Richard Halpern in attempting to describe what Rockwell produces, states ‘I sometimes refer to them as paintings ... but “images,” a word I use more often, seems more abstract and disembodied.’ (6) Rockwell himself was torn on his use of photography: ‘I comfort myself with the thought that many of the great painters used aids in drawing; the camera obscura, the camera lucida, mirrors etc.’ (6)


When Robert Bechtle started producing his paintings of lower middle class life in the mid to late sixties, he had no such qualms. He could take dozens of what he termed ’lousy’ photographs or slides before beginning a work. He would then project a carefully selected image on the canvas - this, at time when the very notion still seemed offensive. For Bechtle, the camera replaces the sketchbook and many of the choices that he makes during the gestation and creation of his painting are made there and then. He also believed that the intensity of a work derives from the concentration brought to bear on the whole process of painting a surface saturated in detail. ’The information that is available in the photograph becomes the basis for making the decisions as to what the paint is going do, so that means that one’s marks have to do with the history of painting and so on - they really don’t have anything to do with photography.’ (13)


Robert Bechtle, 61 Pontiac (1969)

Bechtle often refers to his compositions as ‘dumb’ - artless snapshots of a banal suburban reality. His reality, in painted, sun-bleached Kodachrome. Streets, car parks, backyards, Chevys, Fords, Chryslers. The stillness in his works echoes the romantic urban realism of Edward Hopper - cars are always parked, figures are stationary, posed. And while the Photo-realist’s use of the camera seemed both innovative and transgressive at the time, Bechtle’s peripatetic rendering of his native San Francisco reflects a deep affection for his time and place, and gently anticipates the elegiac obsessions of George Shaw. Despite his protestations of neutrality and ‘stylelessness,’ I sense that Bechtle, along with fellow Photo-realists Goings and Estes needed to snare a reality that was rapidly changing and disappearing. They devised an unsentimental language that eschewed the esoteric, arcane discourse that had dogged painting in favour of a language that sought to close the gap between the public’s vision and the artist's vision.


Robert Bechtle, Watsonville Chairs (1976)

The gallerist and author Ivan Karp observed, ‘The Photo-realists, like anthropologists of the contemporary world, treated all things equally in both their “power and vacuity” in an attempt to reintroduce viewers to the world around them. They had, it seems, recognised the beauty in contemporary life, and the result was nothing less than "a democratic triumph”.’ (9)


Bibliography

1. Storr, Robert (2003) Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting, MOMA, New York.

2. Mark Godfrey & Nicholas Serota, (ed.) (2011) Gerhard Richter, Panorama, Tate Modern.

3. Elger, Dietmar & Obrist, Hans Ulrich, (ed.) (2009) Gerhard Richter, Text, Writings Interviews and Letters, 1961-2007.

4. Lebensztejn, Jean Claude (2001) Malcolm Morley, Itineraries, Reaktion Books.

5. Whitfield, Sarah, (2001) Malcolm Morley in Full Colour, Hayward Gallery.

6. Halpern, Richard, (2006 ) Norman Rockwell, The Underside of Innocence University ofChicago Press

7. Meisel, Louis K, (1979) Photo-Realism, Harry N. Abrams, INC. New York.

8. Bechtle, Robert (2014) Artforum Interational vol. 52 iss. 7.

9. Periso, Craig, J (2013) Styless Style - What Photo-Realism Can Tell us About the Sixties, Journal of American Studies, vol. 47 iss. 3, Cambridge.

10. Reekie, Duncan (2007) Subversion - The Definitive History of Underground Cinema, Wallflowerpress.

11. Prendeville, Brendan, (2000) Realism in 20th Century Painting, Thames & Hudson.

12. Bechtle, Robert (2001), Robert Bechtle on Painting and Photography, You Tube, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

13. Bechtle, Robert, 3 short films, www.sfmoma.org, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


George Shaw 'The age of Bullshit' 2010

Start Painting sense – an exploration of themes emerging from a personal archive

1000 word essay

London's burning

All across the town, all across the night Everybody's driving with full headlights Black or white, you turn it on, you face the new religion Everybody's sitting 'round watching television

London's burning with boredom now London's burning dial nine-nine-nine-nine-nine I'm up and down the Westway, in and out the lights What a great traffic system, it's so bright I can't think of a better way to spend the night Than speeding around underneath the yellow lights

Now I'm in the subway and I'm looking for the flat This one leads to this block, this one leads to that The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home I run through the empty stone because I'm all alone

London's burning with boredom now London's burning dial nine-nine-nine-nine-nine

(Songwriters: Joe Strummer / Mick Jones / Paul Simonon / Topper Headon

London’s Burning lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group)


The slides, photographs, drawings, songs, poetry and objects I’ve accumulated (rather than collected) over the last 30 years, are providing me with the basis for a painterly response in which to explore themes of memory, obsolescence, disintegration and dislocation. Issues concerning the real, the remembered, the reconstructed, as well as life as it ‘happens and comes at you,’ are beginning to formulate my contextual research.


Two Painters - reality, obsolescence, disintegration

The works of George Shaw and Eberhard Havekost have interested me for a while. Although both painters have an equally strong preoccupation with the visible (pictorial realism) and have an enduring relationship with photography they embody quite different sensibilities and approaches. They throw up a myriad of possibilities to painters willing to engage with the times in which they live. They provoke wider questions on the nature of realism and the real, authenticity, and the role of memory, remembrance and ‘censorship’ of the image.


‘The Next Big Thing’, 2010

George Shaw’s work is profoundly personal. It involves Shaw constantly returning to the place in which he was brought up (the Tile Hill Estate in Coventry) photographing it, and then returning to his home and studio in Devon.He renders his old area with what seems an unaltered unflinching “truth” in Humrol hobby paints . Of his early forays in paint he says, “I thought of them as souvenirs that I brought from my previous life, really as a child”. (10.)

Eberhard Havekost tackles the textures, dynamics and concerns of our times with a cool detached and sometimes slightly distorted eye. He gleans images from the internet, magazines and from his personal archive to create oil paintings that are subtly manipulated (photo shopped) and can be both unsettling and seductive.”Because I always see the precise photographic basis while I paint, I sense how the image forever oscillates between two levels of meaning. What I see while I experience, I combine with the act of looking at an image produced by the media.” (12.)


Eberhard Havekost ‘Trash 1’

Eberhard Havekost 'Plakat’, 2008

The Banal and Unworthy

Forgotten, discarded and obsolete – textures and notions to which I am repeatedly drawn. The art critic Alister Sooke in a review of Shaw’s painting describes Shaw’s pictures as offering,”…a humdrum vision of a sodden contemporary Britain that the nation’s tourist boards would be wise to ignore.” (13.)

Shaw like Havekost, Duane Hanson, Peter Blake, Robert Bechtle and Gerhard Richter find meaning and poetry in subjects that many may find commonplace or unworthy of attention, let alone worthy of lavishing hours of painstaking labour to realise. Gerhard Richter states that in his early work he consciously sought veracity in the democratic nature of his choice in subject matter.”I collect photographs and I’m always looking at them. Not art photographs but ones taken by lay people or ordinary newspaper photographers”. (1, p 29 Notes 1964-65)

The Clash’s early songs are saturated with the imagery of the drab, decaying and dangerous 1970’s London in which they lived. Their anthems of anger, dread and alienation resonated with me and echoed the anxieties of the Magic Realists and artists of the New Objectivity in the Weimar republic. They confronted the stark contrasts and contradictions of a reality that was simultaneously disintegrating and renewing- the artist, as witness to their times, however banal or humdrum. The French photographer Luc Delahaye who had covered the war in Bosnia observed that the paintings and drawings of the conflict by war artist Peter Howson addressed areas he simply could not. ”I am beginning to realise that I am limited, that in a way I am representing the war here. I always have to look for strong moments and I do not pay attention to weak moments. Yet they are the most important really, the ordinary things.” (Jackson, Alan 1997, p61)


Memory and loss

1963. My dad had died and my mum had moved back to Durban, with me, to live with her mother, my grandmother Peggy. I was told years later that the van bringing our family possessions back from then Southern Rhodesia had caught fire and that almost everything was destroyed including our family photographs. I imagined the burning van on an isolated road in rural Africa.

1985. I remember the stolen car burning in the car park outside my squat in Brixton-the burnt out shell of a Vauxhall Viva still smouldering the next morning.

Scorched, graphic, unforgettable. Memory surely informs and colours the present, often in not very overt ways. Loss is universal and ubiquitous and painting may be uniquely positioned to address this shared realisation. Its very materiality invites us to connect directly with its creator. The American Magic Realist painter Ivan Albright sometimes took 10 years to complete one of his paintings of decay and disintegration- a compelling paradox of immeasurable human investment in a reflection of transience and mortality- which is absurd, strangely beautiful, and life affirming.


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

1. Elger Dietmar & Obrist Hans Ulrich, (ed.) (2009) Gerhard Richter, Text, Writings Interviews and Letters, 1961-2007

2. Valli Marc & Dessanay Margherita (2014) A Brush with The Real, Figurative Painting Today, Laurence King Publishing

3. Prendeville Brendan, (2000) Realism in 20th Century Painting, , Thames&Hudson

4. Strand, Mark & Hughes, Robert (1984) Art of the Real, London

5. Stewart Susan, (1993) On Longing, , Duke University Press

6. Shaw George, (2016) My Back to Nature National Gallery Company

7. Jackson, Alan (1997) A Different Man ,Peter Howson’s Art from Bosnia and Beyond, , Mainstream Publishing

8. Reekie, Duncan (2007) Subversion - The Definitive History of Underground Cinema, Wallflowerpress

9. Michalski, Sergiusz (1994) New Objectivity, Neue Sachlichkeit - Painting in Germany in the 1920’s, Taschen

10. YouTube : Exhibition Opening Conversation | George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field, Yale Centre for British Art, Streamed live, October 2018

11. Buchsteiner, Thomas and Letze, Otto, (ed.) (2007) Sculptures of the American dream, Ostfildern, Hatje Cantz

12. saatchigallery.com/artists/eberhard_havekost_articles.htm

13. Sooke, Alistair George Shaw: The Sly and Unseen Day, South London Gallery, London, review, Daily Telegraph May 2011




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