While watching Charlie Rose’s show, A Memorial of those who died in 2007, I was struck by a question he variously posed in several of the interviews :“ What job-title do you want engraved on your tombstone?” One of the individuals declined the suggested appellations tendered, choosing instead the descriptive story-teller.
In The Four Truths of the Storyteller, published by the Harvard Business Review, filmmaker Peter Guber detailed what he believes are the four facets of storytelling that are crucial to its success: truth to the audience, to the moment, to the mission, and to the storyteller. It is interesting to apply these same principles to an understanding of narrative painting and determine whether or not the moment can be a universal moment or must be restricted.
It is my opinion the voyeuristic nature of humans also lends itself well to art, especially when considering Alfred Hitchcock’s comment, “I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look.” Despite this, in today’s art market there is a distinct absence of narrative painting, such as demonstrated in Jan van Eyck's masterpiece, The Marriage of Giovanni Arnofino.
On a positive note, there are still some contemporary artists, such as Dana Schultz and Drago Persic, who have embraced this rarified genre and embed tales in their images. One is led to ask whether or not the reasoning for the contemporary absence of narrative painting is determined by something greater than a philosophical shift in the art world towards formalism.
Blake Gopnik, in an article in the Washington Post, Is Cubism's Revolution Behind Us? If You Think Picasso's Work Didn't Last, Keep Looking, addressed the issue of cubism’s impact on modern art. He offered several astute observations:
“Cubism realizes that all great art demands some generosity on the part of its viewers. Look up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and you know you're not really looking up at God creating Adam -- and that it's worth pretending for a minute that you are. Cubism pushes that idea about as far as it could possibly go. It asks you to forget about what pictures can really do and to try on some artist's confounding new notions of art's capacities and goals -- "to make the best of that obscurity, and finally to revel in it," as Clark says. We all know a cubist picture fails to represent the world in anything like useful or coherent ways. But there's something to be gained imagining it could. Cubism marks art's greatest "because I say so" moment, and thereby launches the history of fully modern art. Cubism says it's going to rewrite art's rules for representing things, and demands we go along with the unlikely fictions it creates. And that frees every later artist to make a similarly daring, even arbitrary move.”
The reality, however, is than in the thrust towards freedom, artists abandoned the narrative for the implied, the form, the obscure, and the inane. One might contend that it was easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the challenge of narrative painting is in trying to provide a convincing relationship between form and content. The viewer must fully participate and have some sense of what is being conveyed by the artist, or alternatively be given permission to “create one’s own understanding of the story”. This sense of participatory relationship was noted in a press release about one of Drago Persic’s shows:
“The viewer is invited, indeed obliged, to participate in an effort to patch together the clues and fill in what is not actually there. Anything consistent that we might perceive - erotic or sinister, harmless or harmful – in fact takes place in our own imagination. The artist himself does nothing more than suggest.”
Furthermore, the artist must demonstrate acute skill in the rendering; a story's power to captivate and inspire is directly related to the technical skill of the narrator. It is difficult to balance cultural or historic meaning, use formal elements reveal the meaning of the artwork, and effectively manipulate scale, composition, paint application, color, and contrast to create a persuasive narrative. A good tutorial about narrative painting, using William Frederick Yeames’ painting “And When Did you last See Your Father” can be found on the internet, courtesy of the Walker Art Gallery.
One must not, however, presuppose that narrative painting is the purview of American or European artists. In fact, the narrative painting has a time-honored tradition found in Oriental and Aboriginal art. It has also been explored within the context of Ethiopean artwork.
It seems to me that if an artist is skilled in their technical abilities and has imaginative faculties and is willing to not climb on board of the train leading to the familiar territory of abstraction, the realm of narrative painting is a wide-open field awaiting exploration. Perhaps this is the next frontier of postmodernism.