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Two views of painting from the early Renaissance and how they can

help us understand the stakes and strategies of modern and

contemporary representative painting
Thomas Gasquet

Representative painting has always been ambivalent. On one side, the painting will designate, and
construct itself in relation to an object exterior to its own realm, which is the model, or the subject,
and is therefore grounded in relation to a certain reality, which most of us would consider to be our
reality. On the other hand, representative painting is experimented as a separate entity, a square of
two-dimensional space where signs and marks produced by the artist arrange themselves to create a
pictorial reality of their own, discontinuous to the reality of the model and the spectator.
Jason Gaiger (2008, p.16) traces the tension between those two sides of pictorial representation as
far as early texts from the Renaissance. According to him, those two different conceptions of
painting have been an active force of painting history since that time. At the exact moment where
Renaissance artists started to develop techniques which could produce results close to the illusion of
reality, the discourse on painting already differentiated two conceptions ; the first one being a
painting that is produced in accordance with the geometrical method of perspective construction,
like a window, a transparent rectangle that arbitrarily crops a view of the visible world ; and the
second one being structured by the artist to create pictorial unity and to maximize its effect upon
the viewer (Gaiger 2008, p.25).
Our point in this dissertation is that those two vision of pictorial representation have served as two
poles in the history of painting, and that the tension between them, their compromises and their
evolutions can lighten us about the objectives and strategies of modern representative painting.

With the invention of photography, the first of those two conceptions, which could be named the
mimetic conception, has taken a serious blow. As indicated by Mc Iver Lopes (2001, p.492),
according to the mimetic account the value of a painting derives from what it represents.
According to this theory, photography could then accomplish the task of painting completely.
Photography possesses the advantages of being faster, cheaper, and (arguably) offering a more
detailed and perfect illusion ; advantages that became more and more certain with the progress of
technology. And, indeed, as the history has proved, photography has taken on a large number of
roles that had traditionally been the appanage of painting, such has the production of official and
unofficial portraits, and the reproduction of visible necessary to the circulation of images.
Nonetheless, the techniques of illusionist representation inherited from the Renaissance have not
disappeared, and a number of contemporary painters still use them to produce images that still act
as windows onto the world. Why is that so ?
One element of answer can be found in the history of painting. After centuries of representation of
power and history, representative painting has been charged with a enormous narrative potential.
There are many artists today that appropriate the classic codes of religious or historic representation
(and its medium) to create commentaries on the world of today, such as Saturno Butto (Serafini,
2006) One could also argue that thats precisely the inefficiency of painting in comparison with
photography that confers it a part of its power. If any artist is willing to put hours into a result that
could be faster achieved by the use of another medium, we are here in presence of the first
digression and compromise of the mimetic theory. To conserve the importance of the represented
subject, the image has no other choice than to admit that this importance is conferred in part, or at
least reinforced, by the means used to reproduce it.
The use of painting, and its narrative power, was also closely linked to fiction. Painting could be
used to represent not what was but what could be. It is interesting to note that, while such a vision
conformed to the mimetic view, in regards to the subject being the element that conferred value to
the painting, it introduces a very ambiguous element into this theory. In that view, the value of the
painting was conferred by a subject that did not exists a priori, but that was directly constructed by
the pictorial representation. Of course, with the apparition and development of photographic
manipulation, this problem gradually extends to the whole domain of representation, and not just
pictorial representation.

While the mimetic theory of painting struggled with the apparition of photography, the other pole,
that would give priority to the pictorial unity and admit to a discontinuity between two kinds of
reality, one being purely pictorial, started to enclose in itself. In the early ages of modernity, With
the apparition of abstraction, painting seemed to have found the prime domain of expression of its
own pictorial reality. This position has been crystallized by the writings of the well-known art ciritc
Clement Greenberg. According to him, painting (and other arts) had reached a state where its
principal problem was to establish its unique and proper area of competence (Greenberg 1960,
p.86). Gaiger, quoting Greenberg, comments (2008, p.127) :

In the case of painting, these limitations include the physical qualities of the pigment, the shape
of the support and the ineluctable flatness of the surface. Whereas the old masters had treated
these limitations as negative factors that could be acknowledged only implicitly or negatively,
under modernism they came to be regarded as positive factors, and were acknowledged openly.

The principal focus of Greenbergs writings came to be the work of American abstract painters such
as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. Nonetheless, Greenberg remarked (1951,
p.85) that Czanne was able to make his paintings more pictorial, the result of a heightened tension
between the illusion and the independent abstractness of the formal facts. We can use this analysis
to introduce us to an evolution in the theory of pictorial unity, and its effect on representative
painting. What becomes the primary concern of painters and painting spectator is then the act of
painting itself, which follows the modalities of denotation and transformation. The finished
painting is able to separate from the subject that served as the basis of representation, and the
painting is able to assume its discontinuity from the non-pictorial reality, while retaining an
ambiguous attachment to the subject. According to Wollheim (1979), this attachment is assured by
the phenomena he calls seeing-in, which is the ability of the spectator to see figures in abstract
patterns of marks and signs, and to amalgamate features of the painting with features of the
represented subject. This also opens the way for his theory of twofoldness, which he defines as
paintings ability to act at the junction and on the articulation of the surface, the pattern and the
medium one one side, and the representation of a subject on the second, and create meaning on this
A couple of points can be noted about this theory. Firstly, this theory gives the primary importance
to the signs by which the painter will summon the image of a subject, and by extension, to the
process of painting in itself. This view is perfectly summed up by the art dealer Daniel-Henry
Kahnweiler. In an interview where he talks about the importance of Picasso and Braque for the
history of painting (Kahnweiler cited in Gaiger 2008, p.63), he explains that a woman represented
in a painting is never a woman, nut a series of sign which we read as a woman. He adds that
Fundamentally, painting has never been a mirror of the external world, nor has it ever been similar
to photography, it has been a creation of signs.
The second point is that such a view has the potential to transcend the split between abstract and
representative painting. Signs arent representative nor abstract by themselves, only their
arrangement tend to make us believe they belong in one category rather than the other. Furthermore,
while accomplishing the vision of pictorial unity, this theory gives a very ambiguous account of the
painting as an object. Here, the canvas acquire a status as a surface of recording, and the site of a
performative work of the artist, rather than a finished product. This vision of the domain of pictorial
representation can be tied to the writings of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze about the painter Francis
Bacon (Deleuze 2003, pp.103-110), in which he saw the representative of a third way between
abstraction and figuration, and a chance of new relations between the optic modality of experience
of the painting, and the haptic modality of experience, by which he designs the performative nature
of representative painting.

This short next unfortunately cannot tackles the problem of the nature of the act of painting, in
relation to its material, problem that becomes more and more prominent with every evolution in the
technology of photo-manipulation and digital image production. Neither can it give an accurate
depiction of all the theory of representative that have developed, and the way all those different
views intersect and shape the shifting landscape of contemporary painting. Nevertheless, we can see
how a polarity present in the first painting treaties of the early Renaissance can help us understand
the evolutions and mutations of representative painting in the last centuries, and the displacement of
its centre of interest from the subjects of pictorial representation to the condition and objectives of
pictorial representation. In the face of the current age and its ever-growing use of image at a
vertiginous speed, the slow and relentless questioning of the condition of their apparition that
painting pursue can lead it to be seen, as Charles Harrison puts it (Baldwin, Harrison and Ramsden
2004), as a medium of resistance.

BALDWIN, M., HARRSION C. and RAMSDEN M., 2004. On Painting [accessed 13 March
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DELEUZE, G., 2003. Francis Bacon, the Logic of sensation. New York: Continuum

GAIGER, J., 2008. Aesthetics & Painting. London: Continuum International Publishing Group

GREENBERG, C., 1951. Czanne and the unity of modern art. In: OBIRAN J ed. The Collected
Essays and Criticism, 4 Volumes. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, Vol.3, pp. 82-91.

GREENBERG, C., 1960. Modernist painting. In: OBRIANJ ed. The Collected Essays and
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MC IVER LOPES, D., 2001. Painting. In: GAUT B. and MC IVER LOPES eds, D. The Routledge
Companion to Aesthetics. London: Routledge, pp. 491-502

SERAFINI G., 2006. Moods, tremor, tears and saint [accessed 24 April 2017]. Available from:

WOLLHEIM, R., 1979. Pictorial style: two views. In: LANG, B. ed. The Concept of Style.
Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, pp. 183-202.