Three Paintings

No need to restrict our focus to contemporary art when thinking through art’s relation to the broader world. It is not only through rejecting mimesis, embracing the ephemeral event and modeling exemplary forms of social interaction that art comes to obtain a relational dimension. The relational is evident even within art that involves oil paints, brushes, darkened studios and galleries. A multiplicity of relations to the external world is apparent, for example, within the traditions of Classicism, Romanticism and Realism. No scope to develop this into a coherent argument here – instead just some notes on the relational character of three particular paintings.

[I realise that I am stretching the concept of relational art beyond Bourriaud’s sense of modelling literal social relations, emphasising instead a more general notion of relationality implicit within any work of art.1 Here the relation that concerns me is that between art and the natural and social worlds. This be can just as dynamically realised by gestures of distance and withdrawal as by efforts at ostensible engagement.]

Watson and the Shark (John Singleton Copley, 1768)

Watson and the Shark (John Singleton Copley, 1768)

In 1749, at the tender age of 14, the future Lord Mayor of London, merchant sailor Brook Watson, was attacked by a shark in the waters off Havana, Cuba. In an initial foray, the shark removed a portion of Watson’s right calf. It then returned and bit off his right foot cleanly below the ankle. Fortunately, before the shark could do any more, the young teen was plucked to safety by the crew of a small boat. This is regarded as the first “fully documented” shark attack.2 Later in life, a peg-legged Watson befriended the American painter, John Singleton Copley. Based upon Watson’s account, Copley painted three versions of the horrific story. The most famous version is shown above. What interests me here is the sense of a real event transformed and embellished. Copley paints vividly, yet with no first hand experience of the event. He listens and imaginatively renders Watson’s story. The malevolent flared nostrils of the shark and its curious angled lips indicate only a marginal understanding of the relevant piscine anatomy, and the Havana background resembles more a picturesque Venice than any genuine conception of an 18th century Cuba. None of this prevents the image from containing many well-observed and compelling details – the wild eyes of the pikeman matching the wild eyes of the shark, the various pathetic and heroic poses of the rescuers, and, of course, the immediate, vulnerable terror of Watson (here resembling a figure from Dante’s vision of Hell). Crucially the artist conveys the fascination of a real event through intense, imaginative visualisation. Remaining in his studio, Copley engages with the real by keeping the real at a distance, by transforming it into the language of myth.

The Raft of the Medusa (Theodore Gericault, 1819)

The Raft of the Medusa (Theodore Gericault, 1819)

Gericault’s famous painting, “The Raft of the Medusa” (1819) depicts a maritime tragedy, the final days of the wreck of the French ship, Meduse, which ran aground off Mauritania in 1816. The crew spent 13 days floating around on the increasingly beleaguered craft prior to their rescue. During that time, lacking food and water, they endured terrible hardship and descended into madness and cannibalism. Of the 147 crew, only a handful survived.3 The painting has been read as a metaphor for the incompetence of the post-Napoleonic regime. However, unlike, for example, David’s “Oath of the Horatii” (1784), the metaphor is not drawn from classical myth or history, but from the field of contemporary events. The painting focuses on the immediate tragic experience of ordinary people. In this sense, alongside its status as a founding work of Romanticism, it also reveals a vital orientation towards the real. Furthermore, alongside its theatricality and the classical lineage evident in its posed figures, the work is also based on intense naturalistic research. Gericault traveled on ships to gain an understanding of storms, sketched real corpses to learn about death and created an accurate scale model of the wrecked ship to assist in the development of the overall composition. Having done all this preparatory work, he then withdrew to his studio, shaved his head and methodically developed the painting to completion. These paradoxes and passages back and forth between engagement and withdrawal, sociality and solitude, reality and a heightened imaginative vision are constitutive of Gericault’s approach and indicative of the motion of indirection that is characteristic of modern art.

The Artists’s Studio: A Real Allegory of Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life (Gustave Courbet, 1855)

The Artist's Studio (Gustave Courbet, 1855)

Courbet is, of course, a major figure within 19th century Realism. He famously turns away from the theatrical fare of traditional salon painting to focus on the common, everyday and unadorned world. He paints in plein air, taking a keen interest in the actual appearance of things, and figures as a key inspiration for Manet and the Impressionists. Yet the painting above, one of his most famous, complicates things. It is not a straightforward image of the real world. It is an allegorical self-portrait. The image reflects on Courbet’s experience of art itself. It addresses fundamental issues of the artist’s relation to society and life generally. The artist paints a landscape, but the landscape is not there literally. The suggestion of a landscape plays across the screen of the rear wall. What is the status of this wall? Is it a wall or a screen? Is it a permeable membrane or a barrier? Is the image of the world that appears on its surface an illusion or a pressing reality? If it is real then why is it so vague and indistinct? Why can only the artist clearly see it? At the artist’s shoulder is a nude model from a standard historical painting, but here less idealised and positioned outside the frame of the depicted landscape (as a comic reference to the generic nude?). There are friends and supporters on the right and a panoply of stock everyday figures on the left (yet why the scull, the harlequin figure and the tortured nude?). I have no wish, and no informed capacity, to attempt a detailed reading of the image, but can easily recognise the main dilemma – the awkward, complex, undecidable relationship between studio, artist, imagination, world.

  1. Bourriaud, N. 2002 Relational Aesthetics, Les Presses Du Reel, Paris
  2. Wikipedia entry:, accessed 11 March 2012
  3. Wikipedia entry:, accessed 11 March 2012
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