Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pictures, forms, families (5): Andrews and Struth

The Batoni poem was a formal sonnet, more formal in some ways than many of nine. I thought of it - felt it - as the equivalent of a formal bouquet. The sonnet with its compactness, clarity and history seemed to be the right way to go, the full ABBA ABBA of the octet followed by a full CDE CDE. I don't say this was forethought - not at all - but once it began as a sonnet (the current beginning is a serious redrafting of the original idea) it felt it wanted to go that way. I have written about form often enough, how it is, like necessity, the mother of invention. You are never more than one line ahead, if that, having to look forward and behind as you go. But I knew as soon as I had drafted it that the sonnet would not be enough. There was some light beyond it.

I have long admired the Michael Andrews, in fact quite a lot of Andrews. He seems to me the poetic soul brother of Gerhardt Richter and Luc Tuymans. Sometimes I even think he was much less glib than they can sometimes be (I know, they comprehend the glibness but I can't help noticing it). In this large painting he is teaching his daughter to swim in very black water indicating great cold and depth. The daughter's face is half lost under her hair. Swimming - he is holding her up - is a matter of survival. The sea is not just the sea, the cliffs are not just the cliffs. They are domains - visual domains, language domains - in which he too must swim or sink. The Batoni poem ended with metaphors: this poem is all metaphors folding in on themselves, each section reversing its end word as if cupping some necessary space, maybe just enough space for a breath. The picture, as well as the poem, made my blood run a little cold. And yet it's about survival. And yet we survive.

The Struth is a photograph, one of a long series of photographs based on long-exposures of families so there is, naturally, a little strain in the faces and poses. But look how populous this family is, how comfortably ensconced in their room, and how they confront us. It is as if they were behind thick glass. 1989 signalled the end of history according to Francis Fukuyama, and this 1989 is a momentary dead end in the Smith family's history. It is the opposite of the first two images: it is family as armour and bastion and tribe. Each member of the family is fully mortal and sensate in himself or herself but put them together and they are a unit that has been arrested at a peak of power. The photograph is an embodied idea of what families might become. They have, as the poem puts it, made it as far as the room in which they sit. Nor is that a negligible achievement, in fact it's a great deal because, having been photographed there, they will remain there, invulnerable as image whatever happens in life. They look out at us rather than the other way round. Their gaze is the stronger. In that respect they are like those Byzantine wall paintings whose figures stare out at us reminding us we are not there as connoisseurs to appraise their aesthetic value or judge their merit as images, but as potent forces in judgment over us. They are conjurations, not art. I am still not sure of the Fukuyama reference, however it fits (and it does fit), because it is almost a pun, and it might not be that kind of pun that is required.

I write long today because we fly to China on Tuesday and I might not be able to post on Blogger there. One more piece to come on this theme though.

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