29 June, 2015Issue 28.5The ArtsVisual Arts

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Moving Pictures Around: Paintings and Their Contexts

Dan Sperrin

A century after it was painted, Da Vinci’s Last Supper (c. late 15th Century) was cut to pieces to form an archway. It was bricked over in 1652, flaked away by the humidity, and then scratched by iconoclastic French revolutionaries in 1789, who angrily erased all the eyes. In 1821, a man called Stefano Barezzi was called in to move it: the rescue attempt failed when it fell to pieces, and left Barezzi gluing it back together. The poor thing has suffered, but it’s an informative scenario: when pictures are moved around, they often suffer worse fates than when they rest. When pictures are lifted and hauled away, they sometimes crumble or disintegrate. Time to explore.

A similar thing characterises Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661-2). It shows Claudius the one-eyed Batavian carrying out a strange oath with swords and bowled offerings. The subject—a figure and narrative from the Roman historian Tacitus—was considered top flight in 17th Century Amsterdam: history, serious and romanticised, was at the apex of cultural self-consciousness, beyond portraiture, landscape, or even architectural realism. However, when it came to selling the painting, and moving it off to the new owner, Rembrandt had to cut it down. (He was desperate to sell it: it is thought that he sold his wife’s grave for money, at this time.) It was left about a quarter of the original size. Kenneth Clarke talks about a “quasi-mythical” element to the painting, a “Shakespearean” complexity and hint of the absurd, but this was amputated in favour of something that could be moved. Rembrandt continued to alter it, adding in a new figure to fill the darkness framing the scene, and tried to de-sensitise the cutting-down by naturalising the corners. It did not work: the final piece looks bereft of some wider tension that once lurked in the (necessary) wings. After Rembrandt’s death, it ended up in Sweden (bought in 1734), such was its new capacity to be transported around. This all speaks of an odd tension in the world of the painted image: that the static integrity of a fixed frame has a value insofar as it remains static. When things are moved around, re-ordered and cut-down, they lose some essential truth, their effects are diminished or their meaning is observed in a malnourished state. Simon Schama, Rembrandt biographer and critic, would have loved those dark brooding spaces of mythic proportion in the original; but this new, movable version is somehow lighter, less “Rembrandt”, though we’ll never see the first version.

This is gloomy. But, if the meaning of a painting were determined by its ability to stay still, the whole idea of the “exhibition” would be humiliating. The Royal Academy of Arts (first established in 1761) lost hundreds and hundreds of pounds due to bad funding and its failures to reach out publically, but stayed true to the idea that it could stand for the “honour and advancement of the arts”. If you move paintings around, put them in different contexts and give them new life in a new space, they are “advanced”: or so the Royal Academy thought. It is a strange theoretical counterpoint to those outraged by Rembrandt’s travel-able Conspiracy: what if the dimensions of meaning offered by a painting could be altered or expanded by moving it into new spaces, for new people? Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is a case in point. The year after it was constructed it went on tour from Oslo, to Copenhagen, to Stockholm, to Götenborg. It then went to London, to Leeds, to Manchester, and then to France, and eventually to the United States. It travelled the world, spreading the tortured, semi-mythic imagery of Picasso’s war, and with every change of scene gathering a kind of long-winded, incremental horror. However, despite a deepening shelf of political commentary and universality of resonance, it was deteriorating. The painting was physically breaking down under the strain of constant movement. The Americans, then, kept it in a room (with some other Picasso sketches) as a little museum. With an odd irony, it was defaced by Tony Shafrazi (an art collector) in 1974 to protest the My Lai massacre. The gesture chimed eerily with Picasso’s own answer to the Nazi question, “did you paint this?” Brilliantly, the artist’s response was, “no, you did”. When this painting stood still, its power as a politicised critique of universal barbarism became too potent: it was treated like a shrine, it was curtailed by a political context narrower than the one it sprung from. The Guernica was a truer, better functioning work when it was treated like a hot potato, and thrown around from place to place: that element, common to all myth, that speaks to a collective in time-worn narrative patterns, was defaced by pinning it down to a single town, a single issue. This was helpfully (but dreadfully) literalised by the red paint sprayed on it: “KILL LIES ALL.”

What to say, then, about a medium that is both empowered by movement and suffers so greatly from it? Da Vincis crumble, brilliant Picassos deteriorate, but Rembrandts show that we sometimes deface art to get it moving in the first place. This is paradoxical. Perhaps, thinking about the way paintings have been moved around in history, we should come to an odd conclusion: namely, that the amplitude of a painting is as fluid—in the end—as the stuff it is made of, and that shape-shifting, loss, and gain are natural to its theoretical status as much as its physical substance. That constant (and grand) strain, between the contextual and the unending, has bothered art’s practitioners and critics since the ages of the cave-painting: images, reflections, looks in the collective mirror are as liable to fracture as the people who make them, but maybe it is a duty of the artist to test the boundaries of that movability and show whether the ideas it holds are responsive to new climates. The way a painting reacts to its new contexts tells you more about its deepest truths than much else: the Guernica is surely embellished by its history of political provocation around the world; but to the contrary, surely Rembrandt’s Conspiracy is better off stuck in the Amsterdam of 1662, where its formal, allusive powers remain intact for a people who understand them more immediately. The crux is that moving paintings around can be enlivening or murderous, but we only understand them fully if we try to pick them up and hang them somewhere else.

Dan Sperrin has graduated from Lincoln College, Oxford with a B.A. in English language and literature. He will begin an M.St. in English at University College, Oxford in September.