Revisited: Michel Serres – Carpaccio / The Red and the Black

By Bernhard Gaul
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I – Carpaccio

Structure/Geometry: Multitude and Complexity

Vittore Carpaccio: La Sacra Conversazione

The spaces are described, named this and that.  Already numerous by variation itself. Already numerous within each area crossed. The painting is like a laminated plate with uncountable folds. It is not geometry alone which multiplies these spaces. Stay there in front of the canvas, for as much time as there is in all of history: like from a tree one leaf falls, in every minute of time; the space expands, regenerating itself. […] A kaleidoscope: instead of the tube, where my hand turns the wheel, Jerome walks on the arch of the bridge and turns the scene upside down. The beautiful work is, at the very least, that active, transfinite multiplicity of information, that pile-up of layers […] the work of an onion or artichoke.
Michel Serres, about Sacra Conversazione[1]

Alongside George Battaille’s The Tears of Eros I count Michel Serres’ Aesthetic Approaches to Carpaccio[2] as one of the most crucial books to help me understand paintings not just as historic phenomena, to be categorised within contexts at the time of production or first reception, but with direct impact on our present interests and conditions – the gap of history only a variation of the principle gap in experience, background, skill, what have you, that always divides us and drives us to  communicate, not at least by means of media capable of storing complex, multi-layered and highly sensual expressions, such as painting.

Even though this is not the explicit topic of either of the books, they were influential in leading me to understand paintings as time slices which bundle, like prisms, arrays of historical strands (personal, communal, technical, political, spiritual,…) to spit them out again on the other end, split or intertwined in multiple new ways, projected into the future. They are accounts of engagements we can avail of, pick from those strands what we need, selectively, bearing in mind the coincidences of how we may come about them, to weave them into the fabric of our own narratives; to work them into our own projections.

I was introduced to the book by friends who had read it and subsequently used a hugely scaled-up reproduction of Carpaccio’s Knight in a seminal theatre production.[3] Unfortunately this is one of the books that, to the best of my knowledge, don’t exist in an English translation,[4] and writing about it in English was at least in part motivated by trying to raise awareness and interest, and, who knows, maybe leading someone to think about re-publishing it in English. However, reading the book again I am not sure to what degree I’d still recommend it. The text, first published in 1975, is written with a certain righteousness and a barrage of short associations and pointers which, to be understood, seem to rely on a mutually agreed vision of things like class struggle, the body and signs (as in semiotics), which may no longer hold up. Still, this at least once was an important book which introduced not just me to the qualities of Carpaccio’s work and defined some core points of access, which still inform my understanding.

Talking about Carpaccio…

Carpaccio doesn’t appear to be that high up on the hit list of currently popular painters. Even in Venice, the painter’s home town, his work  appears to be marketed as something that is also there, in the shadow of much bigger names like Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo and Veronese or, of course, Canaletto – rather than a principle reason to visit.

Vittore Carpaccio: The Pilgrims Meet Pope Cyriac before the Walls of Rome - From the Legend of St. UrsulaI assume  this may have to do with the impression that in much of Carpaccio’s work painting bears all the hallmarks of a craft – it appears more rooted in  community than being the domain of an eccentric individual (like Caravaggio or  van Gogh), while we have become accustomed to expect that it takes the latter to create paintings of real meaning, that speak to us directly. But that doesn’t mean that Carpaccio has gone unnoticed, even in recent times.

In an essay which focusses first of all on an approach to art in which true poetic images are to be found, arguing against displaying tendency in art, Andrey Trakovsky holds Carpaccio’s “fathomless layers of artistic images”[5] against the tendentiousness of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna:

When you analyse it, the principle is extraordinarily simple, and expresses in the highest sense the essentially humanistic bias of Renaissance art; far more so, indeed, in my opinion than Raphael. The point is that each of the characters in Carpaccio’s crowded compositions is a centre.[6]

Carpaccio, “the last of the ‘early’” or “‘undeveloped’ ones’” as Serres refers to him[7], is only at the brink of a modern understanding of individuality which informs much of modern European painting. Depending on what your interests are, this rootedness in community may be perceived as mark of not achieved yet potential, or indeed a branching point we might return to in order to pick up a strand that was lost – not in terms of technique, maybe, but in terms of engagement. And there is more to that craft character than the communal connection: Carpaccio seems to first of all merely record, rather than trying to express, and in that capturing complexities and descriptions, poetic truths in Tarkovsky’s sense, which are otherwise often swallowed – by the intentions of the painter.

Technically Carpaccio is beyond Uccello’s clumsiness in applying the new-found principles of central perspective, but he does not yet extend and distort them, as e.g. Pontormo will do, nor does he yet excel in ever more sophisticated ways of layering the new medium of oil paint in blots and smudges, displaying thorough understanding of the material possibilities of the medium and how our brain and vision construct objects and meaning from the impression we get from a distance. In fact, compared to Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto, or later and more remote masters like Velazquez or Franz Hals, he stays within boundaries, observing clear lines and filling them in. Not an open or undefined space in sight: Conceptually a thing is still a thing is a thing.

Carpaccio’s quality, though, lies in the multi-faceted spaces he constructs, filled with complex relationships, arrangements and symbols, which is what Michel Serres picks up on. As a mathematician Serres puts a focus on geometry, tracing the fine outlines of Carpaccio’s paintings as morphological structures from which he derives meaning, and his language is adequate to fold out layer after layer of the complexity he finds in them, linking them to a complex and poetic understanding of time and social conditions as they appear towards the beginning of the last third of the 20th century.

I travelled to see some of the paintings on the back of reading the book. Here are some of the highlights:

II – The Red and the Black – Splinters/the Terror of War

St. George and the Dragon, Venice

The double negative. Defensive in its shield and shell, offensive via the arrow of its vector. At the front the negations, in black and red. In the background – the affirmation hesitates, trembles and tries to be born. The oriental fortress, Cairo’s Gate to the port, in front of the elegant palace with open balconies, where the white emerges. The tiny watching figures, on the terraces and the bridges, on the paths, on the water’s edge, are propped up more or less by the white, secured by the borders. Behind that, indeed, lies the fortified city, on the cusp of the hillside, surrounded by black trees. And those unlikely cliffs, with un-scalable overhangs. Timid life, timid yes, resulting colour, white yes in its original state in the hollow safety of the black and the red, protected by the nos.[8]

Vittore Carpaccio: St. George and the Dragon
The Scuola di St. Giorgio degli Schiavoni is a treasure. Slightly off Venice’s beaten tourist track it’s, these days, in a spot of tranquillity. It is effectively a chapel containing a row of Carpaccio paintings, some in extreme landscape format, arranged like a border running along the upper region of three walls, one panel set closely against the other as in a film strip.[9] In the relative darkness of the chapel the paintings appear highlighted and illuminated – a Cinemascope experience. Fritz Lang once famously called Cinemascope a “format for snakes”[10], and indeed it is St. George’s fight against the snake (or the dragon) which forms one of the core narratives displayed here. One of the panels Michel Serres focuses on even shows a showdown in barren landscape, as in a Spaghetti Western: St. George and the dragon pitted against each other, horse and dragon thrust up in the air, the cumulative force of the two powers slamming into each other temporarily directed upwards, defying gravity, until one of them gives way (that is George’s breaking lance) and they will come back, crashing, to the ground.

As St. George depictions go this painting is quite graphic. It has nothing of the fairy-tale quality of e.g. Uccello’s  famous St. George in the National Gallery in London. Torn off body parts are strewn all over the ground, mutilated naked bodies, male and female, with limbs bitten off close to the groin; a pile of sculls. The brutality of the dragon is matched by the red and black in George’s armour. He means business; this is serious, for real (none of that fairy-tale pink and silver in Uccello’s painting). The dragon is a real threat and George’s effort a risky business.

However, what should be a painting of liberation is read differently by Serres: George’s failure to kill the dragon is suspicious; the breaking of that lance maybe too convenient. The dragon stays alive, paraded before a crowd in a follow up painting, as a permanent reminder of George’s deed, of why we need him, why we should be as grateful as that lady on the right in the showdown painting. Whose interest is it to sponsor a painting advertising not only a saviour but also the expected gratitude towards him; an attitude which quite obviously is expected to extend also to the sponsors of the saviour/the depiction? George’s deed or the depiction of it: not only a selfless necessity.

Museo Civico di Correr, Venice

I found that red and black again at the Museo Correr in the buildings surrounding the Piazza San Marco, which I entered to see Carpaccio’s Courtesans, but the defining experience I walked away with was a different one. More a city museum than a fine art gallery the Museo Correr houses a few master pieces, but to a larger extent it offers revealing insights into the wider history of the city, and in terms of paintings this means showing trends rather than just focussing on the exceptional individual.

Up until my visit I had always, without much thought, considered the gaudy pink and turquoise of Canaletto’s paintings as being the representative colours of Venice. And indeed you find that also in the Museo Correr in the rooms reflecting 18th century trends. I wasn’t surprised to walk through a sea of pink and turquoise, but when you step back in time, enter the section reflecting Venice’s dependence on sea warfare, the colour scheme changes: it’s gloomy black skies, which dominate, turbulent, dark aquamarine oceans interspersed with Venetian galleys in battle with flaming red oars and hulls, thrown about on the waves. There it is again: that intensity and terror of the red and the black.

Walking through the rooms, confronted with the development, the gaudy Canaletto style paintings, suddenly, very much appear like smoothened  and calmed down transcendences of those nautical battle scenes: the galleys on rough sea transformed into gondolas on calm canals, the flaming red of the oars transformed into pink palaces, bathed in gentle sunlight against bright turquoise skies. The paintings appear to share an  iconographical root: as if the terror of the earlier ones still shines through  the veneer of the latter. At the very least it becomes clear, that both wealth and peace that afforded the latter didn’t come about without the fear and the terror of the previous.

Portrait of a Knight, Lugano/Madrid

Vittore Carpaccio: Portrait of a Knight
When I went to see Carpaccio’s Portrait of a Knight it was still in the Villa Favorita in Lugano. It has since moved to Madrid together with the rest of the collection Thyssen-Bornemisza. I don’t know how the painting is presented now, but  there in Lugano it hung just right beside Caravaggio’s  St. Catharine.

I mention this because of the sharp contrast between those mirror-like images, both verging on life size: Carpaccio’s St. Catherine in the usual amber lighting, singled out and glorified against a dark background –  Carpaccio’s Knight in a web of infinite connections, and what you see is clear as day.

The Knight looks like he’s facing something that’s not trivial, requires a stance, a tough decision. But there is nothing heroic in that. Nothing you’d rather walk away from, if that would be an option, but at  least to him it isn’t. The message on a piece of paper next to a white ermine on a small island, trapped by muddy water, sums it up: It’d rather die than besmirch itself.

This, too, is a picture of war and conflict, even though the depiction of an actual fight is limited to a hawk and a crane fighting in mid-air, the rest is anticipation: the Knight and his expectant stance, hand on the hilt, ready to draw; a second knight and a peacock, the multiple eyes of his tail facing outward, guarding the gate to the castle; a white rabbit hopping towards a black vulture… Destruction of life: the same tree, repeated three times – in full foliage at the back, almost leafless close to the knight and then just a stump at the front, cut off where the knight’s sword crosses the tree behind him.

And again the knight wears red and black. Serres accusation regarding St. George: there is no affirmation of life, in George’s position. The Red and the Black, mapped by Stendhal to the military and the church, identified as representations of the dual negation of our cultural legacy: negation and neg-action[11], the black armour an insect cocoon, protecting but also denying the body, shielding it off: a severance.

Yet while red is the colour of George’s external instruments (his lance, the bridling and saddle of his horse) the Knight wears red, the colour of action, on the inside, thrusting outward. The black armour, more than just protection from external blows: a riveted container, holding in what otherwise might explode. The military man, cut off from his affections.

Carpaccio’s fine outlines as tight-sealed containers: nothing flows.

Lepanto (once more, Venice and Munich)

There is a trajectory from those red and black paintings at the Museo Correr to Cy Twombly’s quite recent take on the Lepanto theme, currently on display in the Museum Brandhorst in Munich. Structurally Twombly picks up on this type of battle paintings, reflecting, too, the multitude of paintings of that type as a historic trend, of something representing a once dominant expression of experience, describing a widespread mood or outlook; which since has softened.

However, colour wise Twombly’s paintings are stretched far beyond even the chalky pink and turquoise Canaletto’s. By now the colour is clear, translucent, builds a waxy acrylic skin, and the base colours of that palette remind at least me of the Cyan, Yellow and Magenta test marks you see on four colour prints, like on the fringe of newspaper pages: three of the four essential colours to produce every other tint from. Black is there, too, and a white base, but they don’t dominate.

What is by now dominating though, is that the paint is free flowing, finds its own way, and control is only applied lightly to let the medium find its path – apparent reminders of the fact that painting, as a physical act or representation, reminds at least in parts of other physical acts of shedding fluids, like bleeding or tears, and the way we control paint may reflect, too, how we deal with grief. In that respect Twombly’s paintings, too, remind of the rain, which not only in Tarkovsky’s films washes away the remains of tension and destruction, providing water, as source for new growth. However, the terror is there, too, in those explosions of paint, in that reference to destroyed lives, boats and material. Again we may talk about transcendence, but this time feeling more complete, maybe, leaving a way out, of sorts: of letting tensions flow, fizzling out…

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1. Michel Serres: Esthétiques Sur Carpaccio. Paris 2005 (4), p.19-20.
2. As in the tilte of the German translation, which I would have read originally: Carpaccio. Ästhetische Zugänge. Hamburg 1981.
3. See Reiner Steinweg: A ‘Theatre  of the Future’. About the Work of  TheaterAngelusNovels at the Example of Brecht and Homer.
4. French editions of Esthétiques Sur Carpaccio are still  available. Out of print German or Italian editions can be found online.
5. Andrey Trakovsky: Sculpting in Time. Reflections on the Cinema. University of Texas Press, Austin 2006. ISBN978-0-292-70185-4, p.51.
6. Tarkovsky 2006, p.50.
7. Literally: “le dernier des ‘primitifs’”, Serres 2005, p.11.
8. Serres 2005, p.35.
9. See  e.g. http://www.venise-tourisme.com/scuola-san-giorgio-schiavoni.html
10. In his cameo role in Godard’s Les Mepris
11. Serres 2005, p.34

Translations BG / Roisín McGuigan.
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Bernhard Gaul is an Austrian born painter, living in Co. Louth, Ireland.

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