WITNESSES & DREAMERS
Painting the City
When artists take the city as their theme, it is clear that they consider urban life to be the condition of modern humanity; (the interviews that I recorded with the exhibitors confirm this). If it is true, then to make art about urban experience must be the most urgent, the most important theme for contemporary artists.
Throughout this century the city has increasingly reached out through the telephone, radio, television, fax, computer, to almost everyone. The raison d'Ítre of the city, the multiplying of human contacts, the rapid interchange of information, can now take place without the superstructure of bricks and mortar in what Lewis Mumford named 'The Etherealised City'. His example of the library system which acts as a network allowing you to borrow a book that may be held hundreds of miles away from your local library, has been superseded by database technology: the police can identify the owner of any vehicle from its registration plates in seconds; directory enquiries can produce any phone number in the country in as short a time.
There is another dimension, as I argued in the catalogue of 'The Subjective City exhibition: the city is particularly apt analogy for the human mind, because it too is a system of pathways and connections in which certain areas have specialised functions; attractive facades may hide sordid and secretive interiors. In making it the subject of our paintings, we are making images uniquely expressive of ourselves. For some artists, these autobiographical aspects are dominant, while for others a passionate objectivity is crucial.
When the work declares "It was like this", there is a sense in which an artist may be considered a witness, for a witness is more than just an observer.
An observer stands, inactive on the sidelines. So what does it mean to witness? At the heart of it, is a sworn declaration of the truth. It has both legal and religious overtones. if you are bearing 'false witness' dire consequences will ensue. A witness must act. To be a witness is to live dangerously, to risk intimidation, to give a public account of what has been experienced. To make and exhibit a painting is certainly appropriate behaviour for a witness. The risk of censure or censor, of ridicule, of public failure, of an institutional denial of the facts is always present. most artists have a witness within them, courageously swearing a truth which may be unpalatable, in bad taste, of necessity inept in its determination to avoid showy effects.
City painters at first sight seem to fit the roles of either 'witnesses' or 'dreamers'. In Degas, Sickert or Auerbach, we find evidence. A committed objectivity informs the work. Yet a painting seldom has the authority of an experiment set up in a laboratory. Its very status as substance containing illusory information about other substances makes it dreamlike from the start. To enter the space of painting, is to suspend disbelief, knowing that these characters presented are ghosts, and these locations no more than mirages. The hard facts presented in the form of the photograph, the diagram or the written word seem somehow more reliable. (This too is an illusion, a typical one for the age. Perhaps the sheer weight of paint, the insistence on the painting process evinced by Auerbach and Kossoff is an attempt to recapture this authority). The brush has a life of its own which merely colludes with the conscious intentions of its user, introducing ambiguities, veiled suggestions, where documentary clarity was called for. The Camden Town nudes on their iron bedsteads may well have looked just like that to Sickert, but there is a quality of dream, of unreality about them too.
Although dreaming is synonymous with fanciful thinking, dreams have their sources and their language in real experiences, playfully recontrived in the brain. Often the illusion of reality is so overwhelming that we wake with hearts pounding or tears flowing. The cities are the product of human brains too, dreamlike, artificial worlds. The dreams of the Oxford spires have their counterparts in every city basking in early summer sunlight. Dreams of freedom attract a shifting population of desperate teenagers to the metropolis to face a nightmare reality of sleeping rough, sexual exploitation, drugs, HIV. Even sober citizens live in fear of mugging, accidental death, execution without provocation by a stranger in a public place. Cities have their theatricality too as settings for the greater and lesser events of history, coronations, garottings, state funerals, firestorms, carnivals, marathons...
Kirchner, Grosz, Dix and Beckman painted the city as nightmare. And yet that threatening, hallucinatory metropolis was the very real city of Berlin under the Weimar Republic, its cruelties and hypocrisies laid bare. The dream may tell the truth, being less likely to feel constrained by polite behaviour, and when the personal accent has been decoded the truth revealed may be more devastating than the account of the avowedly neutral commentator. The greatest double-act of this kind was surely Goya's. His harrowing war etchings have terse titles such as "I saw this", - as close to testimony under oath as an artist can get. Yet in the black paintings and the caprices he is master of the dream, of the nightmare. The neat distinction between 'Witness' and 'Dreamer' would seem to collapse and and another notion take its place; the idea that artists partake of both characters, albeit in very different proportions. Art is uniquely equipped to present simultaneous contradictions of this kind; a painting may record a split second, as a camera does and at the same time give that moment the gravity and monumentality of a Greek temple. The heavy realism of witnessing may be coupled with the zany atmosphere of a dream.
Origins of the Exhibition
My own, first, urban paintings dating from 1982, seemed a strange growth, without precedent in my work and unrelated to the work of most of the artists I knew. Never enthusiastic about isolation, I set about creating some kind of context. I found myself devising and participating in a series of 'city' shows, and became aware of the increasing interest in this genre among artists and the public.
Encouraged by the success of my first touring group exhibition, 'The Subjective City' I decided to build a more focused show, concentrating on the work of nine artists, including myself, for whom a human presence is vital. I wanted to draw attention to a balance struck by each painter between subjective and objective attitudes. The exhibitors, (not all of whom knew each other), represent a community of interest in urban painting rather than a school in the accepted sense. I have visited their studios, selected their work and recorded interviews; edited excerpts from these tapes, revised by the artists, are printed opposite the paintings.
My thanks go to all the participants for their generosity, both with their work and their time, and particularly to Timothy Hyman for his suggestions and encouragement. I am also greatly indebted to Cynthia Morrison-Bell, Mireille Galinou of the Museum of London and to Terry Bennet of Tullie House, Carlisle Museum and Art Gallery, for their continuous enthusiasm and practical help.
copyright Oliver Bevan 1994