Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Lost Movies of Clarissa Upchurch 1

Ghost (detail) Clarissa Upchurch 2002

Clarissa's exhibition is going up tomorrow in Cambridge University Library, It will be up for some months. This is therefore a good time to put up the essay I wrote for our joint book Budapest: Image, Poem, Film (Corvina, 2006) The original is 5pp long, so I will divide it into sections. This is the first.


Endangered species survive and sometimes prosper by adapting and shifting ground. They can also interbreed, creating new, peculiar, sometimes highly effective and energetic hybrids. The first death of painting supposedly took place when one of its roles, that of recording appearances, seemed to be appropriated by photography, especially, later, by cheap, mass-market photography.  There have been many deaths since. To some degree the camera did free artists from overt assumptions of objectivity and allowed them to explore questions of pure form as well as more subjective areas with greater confidence.

But the notion of objectivity under the general heading ‘truth to nature’ (and all that that entailed socially) though much extolled by writers, had hardly been proved in the breach by painters in any case. One has only to try shifting the figures from one artist’s work to meet the figures in another’s to see how relative such objectivities were even before the period still referred to as the Renaissance. For all the similarities in technique by period and school or even studio, we know and have always known that artists are workers of the imagination inhabiting contiguous, sometimes overlapping but never congruent worlds.

There are painters who are romanced by narrative in an expressly filmic sense. I say romanced because the position taken, while complex, is not primarily intellectual or ironic, though it does not preclude either irony or intelligence. In a period of ever more convincing virtual images the position does not succumb to psychosis but believes – rightly, I think – that it can distinguish between  experience and its representation while instinctively understanding the two to be contiguous and overlapping. It is the way in which it itself understands and represents, the way it slips between the fingers, that interests me here and, in particular, how it moves around images of the city.

The experience of the city is one we associate with the rise of modernism: images of urban pace and space, of urban repetition and urban difference, of the city’s aspiration and decay, are so deeply ingrained in our memory that, taken together, they seem to approximate to our feelings about memory itself, becoming almost an analogy of memory, of the act of remembering; remembering, specifically, the moment of modernism, and of what preceded it.

‘Fourmillante cité, cité plein de rêves’, begins Baudelaire’s ‘Les Sept Vieillards’, a poem about an ants’ nest of a city, a hallucinatory terrain through which stalk the ghosts of seven hideous old men. Walter Benjamin, in his study of Baudelaire, talks of the phantasmagoria of Parisian life, at the point at which the new city, the post-Haussman Paris of arcades and wide boulevards, begins to create versions of its own nature.  He quotes early physiologues, such as Paris la nuit, Paris á table, Paris dans l’eau, Paris á cheval and so on, regarding them as pictures drawn primarily for bourgeois comfort and reassurance. These, he says, give way to the city of the flâneur, which he also associates with the invention of the camera and of the detective story as pioneered by Poe but translated by Baudelaire. The flâneur is turned, says Benjamin, into “an unwilling detective” who develops “forms of reaction that are in keeping with the pace of a big city. He catches things in flight”. The whole city, he argues, is a locus for the hidden, for crime, which does not at first glorify the criminal, though it does glorify his adversaries and, above all, the hunting-grounds where they pursue him.


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