Anna Abrahams

Picture This: Media Representations of Visual Art and Artists



Picture This: Media Representations of Visual Art and Artists -

Picture This is a volume of representations of representations of representations. Editor PHILIP HAYWARD has collected articles about films and videos about visual art. Almost all the authors come to the conclusion that many audio-visual productions that pretend to be about art works don’t go beyond describing an oeuvre or specific work on the basis of some psychological interpretation of the artist. They reduce the art object to the art subject. Of course, in ideological terms, this is wrong: no art work is purely the result of divine inspiration, schizophrenia, alcoholism, a dominant mother or anal retentiveness. This view of things denies the importance of time and place in realizing the an work, of the means of production and relations of production. Like some producer of universal meanings in universal language, the artist appears to exist outside of social history: real art is eternal. For this kind of art, aristocrat and artisan are equal just as if at the Pearly Gates.

It is hardly surprising that these kinds of media productions create an conservative and bourgeois image of art. They are made for network TV and film companies, rulers of media land. If they’re real box office hits, it shows that they are in keeping with the dominant social laws and desires. They show the common man the way, they explain how his world is put together. Hence, these major films form a legitimate object for research into the modern mythology surrounding the person of the artist.

The essay I most enjoyed reading and which I will therefore deal with here was GRISELDA POLLOCK’S article about the representation of VINCENT VAN GOGH. Her choice is obvious because a great many films and television series have been made about him. In addition, VAN GOGH is so famous and popular that you can confidently regard him as being the paradigm of the modern artist. Hence, to her mind, VINCENTE MINELLI’S 1955 film Lust for Life propagates the effects of the kind of art history that represents artists as brilliant, tortured and nutty bohemians (classless individuals). Of course, here the diagnosis of lunacy isn’t the result of psychiatric research but of the interest of art history to label the artist as the Other and hence define its own territory so that the art historian is the sole mediator between an and the world.

Instead of tracing the crazy artist through his work, GRISELDA POLLOCK takes the socio-historical period in which VAN GOGH lived and worked as the point of departure for her reading of his work. She has collected historical material to prove that the psycho-biographical story told by (for instance) Lust for Life simply doesn’t tally.

In the film KIRK DOUGLAS as VINCENT walks through a cornfield populated with crows wearing an exasperated expression. He is a figure inside one of his own paintings. The viewer has known for more than an hour that KIRK would eventually snuff it: he is the victim of hereditary madness, - his behaviour is clearly self-destructive. The scene where he holds his hand above a flame for far too long and when he quite suddenly cuts his ear off makes one fear the worst. And lo and behold the crows attack the hapless painter (symbolizing, of course, his mental condition!). Finally KIRK writes a letter saying he cannot take it anymore - and shoots himself.

The artist and his work are like two sides of a sheet of paper. Crows above a Cornfield is a signifier for the signified VINCENT VAN GOGH. The narrative practice of art history (which has always been pushed in the direction of literature rather than science) connects perfectly with Hollywood’s storytelling tradition. But what was it really like?

According to GRISELDA POLLOCK, VINCENT VAN GOGH may have been a little strange but he was not mad. He liked the odd glass of absinthe in the years between 1887 and 1890. And no-one at that time realized that could cause epileptic fits. It was during one of these fits that he accidently severed the lob of one ear (and hence not the complete ear!). Brother THEO was the real nutter of the family. His donations were VINCENT’S sole source of income, VINCENT visited him when THEO threatened to give up his job and began to show signs of the crippling madness that would lead to his death in 1891.

Concerned about his financial situation he returned home to paint a number of canvases as a warning to THEO and as an expression of his own desperation. These included Crows above a Cornfield, VINCENT tried to play on THEO’S feelings of guilt. When it seemed that these subtle hints weren’t taking effect, VINCENT wrote his ’suicide note’ and shot himself. He certainly didn’t intend to die but unfortunately the doctor he chanced upon was both slow and inefficient.

So, according to GRISELDA POLLOCK’S reconstruction. Crows above a Cornfield is not the articulation of a highly disturbed subject but the materialization of VINCENT’S reaction to his economic situation. Although her arguments are fascinating, she fails to convince me that VAN GOGH was completely sane. He could have solved his awkward financial situation by washing dishes in the local bar. Although that might not have such a bright idea considering his apparent partiality for the absinthe caused those epileptic fits.

Another problem I have with this article is that GRISELDA POLLOCK acts as an opponent of the interpretation of art works on the basis of biographical information yet uses that information herself. She feels that destroying the idea of the loony artist is a necessary first step in the process of approaching the art work more closely. I await with bated breath the next stage of her project: a study of VAN GOGH’S work, (ANNA ABRAHAMS)