Art On Stage (Theatre)

Painting is a performance. Every day artists enter their studio and stand in front of their easel, brush in hand, ready to paint. They are alone, like an actor on a stage. No-one can help them. This aspect of painting is deeply ingrained in the creative mind. At least three major figures in the Renaissance – Luca Signorelli, Michelangelo and Albrecht Dürer – produced art that has been described by modern scholars as performative. David Summers wrote: “For Michelangelo, the idea of art as a performance had the deepest significance. To conceive and realize – or perform – ever more difficult things was a sign of election and of spiritual progress.”1

Artists as distant to each other as Thomas Gainsborough in the eighteenth century from Jean-Michel Basquiat in twentieth both used a pencil in ways that have been described as “a performance.” Basquiat’s pencil apparently danced across the page.2 In 1988 Svetlana Alpers based a whole chapter of her excellent Rembrandt monograph on the theatrical nature of Rembrandt’s art, arguing that he tried to present life “as if it were a studio event.”3 Using the theater as the underlying metaphor for their own performance, major artists often stage seemingly unrelated scenes as though they are in a theatre. Art historians then criticize their work for the staged atmosphere of their scenes, wrongly assuming that the look is unintentional, unwanted and inconsequential.

There used to be a legend about Jacques-Louis David, the great master of the French revolution, that he imagined his early Oath of the Horatii while attending the theater.4 It appeared to be true solely because the figures resemble actors and the background a stage-set.  Henri Matisse’s work is described as performative too, in part because he was an amateur violinist and used a violin in his compositions as an alter ego.5 More than one theorist believes that the main theme of Pablo Picasso, his rival, was also the nature of his own performance.6 Even J.M.W. Turner the earlier British landscape artist who rarely drew interior scenes is said to have had a “strong instinct for the nature of painting as a performance.”7 

A theatrical metaphor about the visual arts may initially appear somewhat forced because while musicians, actors and clowns perform in public, the artist is alone in the studio. Even so, they hang their work in public, images which are then subjected to the criticism of the crowd. Their art, though, is such an accurate reflection of their inner thinking and being that they identify with their canvas on the wall, just as they identify with Western art’s iconic subject too, Christ hung on the Cross. Remember this because it is a very important link which will stand you in good stead when you yourself interpret art.

Poets verbalize what artists depict so they too think of their life, indeed all lives, as a performance. Shakespeare’s rap that “all the world’s a stage” is well-known in part because it is so true. If that were not so, few would remember the lines however well chosen the words. Indeed its universality signals its far-reaching significance. Another poet, Arthur Rimbaud, thought it wrong to say “I think” because we ought to say “I am thought”. The I, he argued, is somebody else so that, in effect, the mind observes itself at work; he thus thought of himself as a conductor. Likewise, Stéphane Mallarmé thought that the reader needed to perform his work in order to complete it.8

Art externalizes the inner workings of the mind, dressing up its various parts as features or characters from life. In that respect all art is a stage-set. You only need think superficially on the primary level to recall pictures of  the biblical Susannah bathing alone unaware that two dirty old men are watching or battle scenes in which horses gallop horizontally across the stage. Enter left, exit right. Or Christ, in images of Ecce Homo, standing alone as the crowd looks up at him “on stage.” Even the Crucifixion story, as mentioned earlier, is played over and over again, with different actors in each role and a different crowd watching it all happen. Christ, though, was not the beginning.

Art carries in its forms ideas from earlier art endlessly repeated in novel ways specific to its own time. That is why the themes on this site are not restricted to any particular century or culture but have been documented, at least here, from medieval times onwards. This is worth a short digression. Art helps man survive the hellish torments of this life by providing examples, for those who can detect them, of how to find wisdom in one’s own being, a wisdom that will bring inner peace. It is present in all of us. I have a hunch that some of these ideas, as expressed in visual art, started long before Christ in other forms on the walls of Neolithic caves deep underground. Christ, after all, was “born” 2,000 years ago; art 40,000. David Lewis-Williams, a prominent scholar of the Neolithic era, believes that early homo sapiens imposed the pattern of his mind on his environment and turned awe-inspiring caverns deep underground into a 3-D representation of the neolithic mind complete with mental images on the wall.9

Today performance in art has transformed into an established genre, known as Performance Art. That does not mean that the art is necessarily self-reflective but the good art is. To give but one example an Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjartansson, spent each day at the 2009 Venice Biennale painting portraits of Speedo-clad models. The Village Voice’s art critic then wondered how much of his show was about the paintings and “how much about the performance of being a painter.”10

1. David Summers, Michelangelo and the Language of Art (Princeton University Press) 1981, p. 457

2. Amil Asfour and Paul Williamson, Gainsborough’s Vision (Liverpool University Press) 1999, p. 158; Dieter Buchhart, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: A revolutionary caught between everyday life, knowledge, and myth” in Basquiat (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag) 2010, p.ix-xx

3. Alpers, Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market (The University of Chicago Press) 1988, pp. 80-1

4. Thomas Crow, Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (Yale University Press) 1995,p. 33

5. Jack Flam, “Some Observations on Matisse’s Self-portraits”, Arts Magazine 49, May 1975, p. 52, n.8; Mark Roskill, “Matisse on His Art and What He Did Not Say”, Arts Magazine 49, May 1975, pp.63

6. Johanna Drucker, Theorizing Modernism: Visual Art and the Critical Tradition (Columbia University Press) 1991, p.33; David Carrier on “Painting as Performance Art: The Case of Picasso” in Picasso: Graphic Magician. Prints from the Norton Simon Museum (Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University) 1999

7. Lawrence Gowing, Turner: Imagination and Reality (New York: Museum of Modern Art) 1966, p. 43

8. For Rimbaud: Bernice B. Rose (ed.), Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism (New York: PaceWildenstein) 2007, p.76

9. David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave (Thames & Hudson) 2002, esp. p.60, 193-4, 209.

10. “Summer Art Picks”, Village Voice, May 26 – June 1 2010, p.14

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