Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Home on the Singe

Here's an old, scrappy thing I wrote that might entertain, if only for its fluctuating font sizes.

A monkey in a three-cornered hat and vast red coat sits cross-legged at an easel. This might be the start of a joke. In walks a rabbit dressed as a nurse. It actually is a sort of joke: an 18th century painting of a painter as a monkey. Trappings of the struggling artist surround him for satirical effect: a dog-eared portfolio leans against a table with an upturned wineglass and armless plaster cupid. A huge terracotta jug sits on the floor, perhaps recently drained of wine. The 18th century audience for the painting gets the joke, does a little 18th century chuckle, and moves on to something big with flying toddlers. It’s the 1740 Paris Salon, and Jean-Simeon Chardin’s The Monkey as Painter looks like an oddball choice for this slowhand arranger of dusty peaches and roadkill. What was he thinking?, they say in French in the carriages home.

By Chardin’s time, monkeys were a well-established trope in Western painting, with numerous cameo appearances in Renaissance art, particularly as allegorical symbols of unbridled sensuality. Dutch Golden Age painters depicted monkeys as parodic alter egos of human beings. David Teniers cornered the market in whimsical depictions of monkeys and cats dressed in contemporary garb that served as moral reminders of the dangers of overindulgence and excessive card-playing.

 Monkeys represented an exotic world made possible by tenaciously defended trade routes, and were associated – and often visually entwined with – the 18th century fascination with Chinese visual culture (chinoiserie). They were both a reminder of, and a moral barometer for, the ‘sophistication’ of Western capitalist culture.

Conversely, from the early 16th century, monkeys symbolised what was increasingly devalued in art: ‘mere skill’. ‘Apeing nature’ – once-removed imitation of reality, like a chimp in a bowler hat smoking a cigar – was increasingly possible with the ascendance of a highly trained apprentice class, and it was undoubtedly in the interests of successful artists to distance themselves from their technically skilled, but conceptually pedestrian competitors, rising up from below. This implicit connection between the monkey and the artist became explicit in the genre of singerie – literally, depictions of artists as monkeys – visual shorthand for the mimetic role of the artist or poet. It’s not surprising that the self-lacerating Michelangelo carved, at the base of his unfinished Dying Slave, a monkey curled around the calf of the figure: a self-portrait of the artist as ape of nature.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the period that saw the rise of the notoriously conservative French Academy of Painting saw the resurgence of such a pointedly satirical genre. Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps’ The Experts of 1837 sets a grave group of monkey connoisseurs in tailcoats around a Romantic landscape painting in an artist’s studio; they assess its value with absurd seriousness. The natural sobriety of the simian face is exploited to obvious comic effect: the French Academy had rejected a number of the artist’s earlier works, ergo this somewhat aggrieved satiric revenge. (It’s a distant relative of Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Pool series of the early 1900s, a familiar sight for frequenters of provincial pubs).

 Yet Decamps’ The Monkey Painter of four years earlier is a far less broad and more affective handling of the theme. Here, the monkey sits, brush in hand, on the floor of his studio, dressed in the garb of the gentleman painter: gold-trimmed dark velvet, with feathered velvet hat on the floor beside him. Yet his painting leans not on an easel but against a wooden chest emblazoned with the artist’s name. A Ming vase (surely a nod to chinoiserie) sits behind it, and a pistol hangs on the chalky wall, two objects associated with gentlemanly sophistication impossible to handle with those clumsy, inward-curling monkey fingers.

 Looking back at the painting he’s working on (a pale, scratchy blue with thin flecks of yellow), it’s possible to see in it a visual echo of Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold from 1877, the focus of the first of many public debates about the definition of art. Whistler had sued John Ruskin over his claims that the artist had ‘[flung] a pot of paint in the public’s face’, and the resulting trial (Whister won) set in motion associations between modern art and willful shock that retain their currency to this day. Is Decamps’ monkey painter a harbinger of a modern notion of what an artist is? There’s a telling contrast between Decamps’ painting of the monkey and the painting within the painting. While Decamps sets up a reserved, even ironic distance from his subject (that fluttery, shimmery brushwork; those careful points of light), the monkey painter daubs on his midnight blues with a furrow-browed seriousness recalling Jackson Pollock in full swing.

By contrast, Watteau’s The Monkey Sculptor (1710) depicts a scraggly monkey in archetypal boho garb, hammer arm swung back madly, aiming his chisel at the neck of a visibly petrified classical bust - the artist as degenerate portrait to his art's Dorian Gray.  Look at the shimmering creaminess of the bust, like one of the painter's own works, against the wicked gleam of the sculptor's butcher-like tools, and you get some sense of what this oddball genre meant to Watteau. And of what it means to modern art too: something in the lumpen gravity of the monkey painter and his too-large, awkward tools (look at that hammer, like a caveman's club) predicts Philip Guston's late 60s self-portraits as Klansman, wielding a fistful of sausagey paintbrushes, contained within a studio too small to move in. Watteau's work echoes, too, within Paul McCarthy's 1995 video Painter, in which the artist, made up like an old-time Abstract Expressionist (de Kooning wig, sloppy smock, bulbous fingers and nose) conducts a kind of instructional video on action painting, slathering paint from giant paint tubes and hacking off a finger with a suspiciously Watteau-style cleaver.

 The paucity of singerie works, even in the best Rococo collections, bespeaks a particularly minor reputation. Its origin in decorative art, never an auspicious reason for inclusion in the Western canon, makes it more minor still. Yet it’s perhaps for that very reason – its propensity for whimsy over solemnity, its irreverent silliness – that singerie contains unexpected predictions of the clamour and chaos of modern art. It’s the rejection of heroic mythology that powered much of modernism’s iconoclastic energy, a rejection that necessarily entailed an interest in conventionally minor or overlooked practices.

Consider, for example, Matisse’s fascination with the abstract solutions offered by decorative art and its importance to ‘all over’ colour field painting of the 1950s, or synthetic cubism’s engagement with the minutiae of modern living and its resonances in 60s Pop. In its small way, singerie plays out dichotomies in art that allowed modernism to happen. Even Picabia, alongside Duchamp the most virulent iconoclast of them all, had his moment of singerie: his 1920 object Still Life: Portrait of Cezanne, Portrait of Rembrandt, Portrait of Renoir is a toy monkey nailed to a wooden board, tugging his tail suggestively between his legs. Not only is it a subversive claim that the Old Masters were simian onanists, it’s an assertion of the carnivalesque naughtiness of Dada, and its mad celebration of the discarded and tasteless.

1 comment:

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