NOTES FROM THE FIELD: Mimesis

The Art Bulletin, June 2013 | Go to article overview

NOTES FROM THE FIELD: Mimesis


Dexter Dalwood

In his studio in Nice in the 1930s Henri Matisse kept a reproduction of Antonio Pollaiuolo's Hercules and Antaeus (Fig. 1), an image he "drew and redrew over the next few years when he felt himself under attack from all directions."1 What was it about this image that held so much power for him? Did he empathize with Hercules, the hero who purposefully lifted Antaeus from the ground, severing his connection with ground and reality, the source of his strength, so as to crush him with a spiritual and heroic idealism? Or did he identify with Antaeus, whose destiny was to remain permanently grounded in reality, lest he perish?

Getting the world to "look" as it looks, finding a form of naturalism in the making of a painted image, is not an important prerequisite for painting in the twenty-first century. The history of art shows us that mimesis - the visual trickery of naturalism - is in fact one of the easiest aspects of image making. One only has to consider the nineteenth century, when any wealthy enough middle-class person, with the help of a drawing tutor who could coax out the basic skills of rendering and the use of perspective, could "match" the world. Queen Victoria could even draw well enough. The basements and storerooms of regional museums are groaning with the work of artists who took the "grand tour," exercising the simple set of skills they had learned from their drawing masters, perhaps embellished with a legend or two pulled from what Philip Larkin, a century later, would dismiss as the "myth kitty."

The resulting acres of stumbling Neoclassicism and hackneyed versions of the old masters led to a connoisseurship of mediocrity. However, while the academies of Europe churned out vast numbers of purveyors of such derivative images, the really interesting artists ofthat period were breaking new ground. J. M. W. Turner, whose academic drawing was feeble, tried to find a new way of using paint to represent both what he could see and what was about to be lost. John Constable constructed a particular and new "reality" by cleverly contraposing a protoimpressionist technique to depict a pastoral world that he wished to see preserved. Both demonstrated brilliantly that being a good artist was never about getting the world to look like itself.

Mimesis raises the question not only of deception but also of connection. What constitutes a vital link between a painting and reality? The recent exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris of work by Matisse, Pairs and Series, made clear his desire for the alarming, shuddering "truth" of immediacy, his audacious forcing of pictorial change, and his part in the final severance of paintings' perspectival link to the Renaissance window (Fig. 2). His understanding of how Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and Cubism, along with photography, had changed perception forever evidently strengthened his rejection of naturalism. Matisse rejected naturalism in the pursuit of a more profound connection with reality.

Yet mimesis raises a further question about the pictorial nature of reality itself. When Ernst Gombrich, in Art and illusion, proposed that "the world does not look like a picture but the picture can look like the world," he was speaking from the point of view of a predigitai age.2 In an age in which reality seems increasingly aesthetically framed - designed, as it were - the question of mimesis returns, suggesting a new congruence between images and the world they represent. Reproduction has become so accurate that the process of reproducibility has itself become a new reality of sorts, which in turn can become a new subject matter.

Of course, this is not new. Looking back on Sherrie Levine's 1980 artwork After Walker Evans (her rephotographing of Walker Evans's photographs of sharecroppers from the 1930s), it seems that what then appeared to be an uncompromising conceptual premise has in fact an aura of generosity about it. After Walker Evans represents the beginning of a long inquiry into the nature of what is original or indeed "real" in the reproduced image. …

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