GSE logo

Every Picture Tells a Story
The Narrative Impulse in Modern and Contemporary Art

April 05, 2005 to May 27, 2005

Until the twentieth century, religious, mythological and historical narratives were subjects central to the Western artistic tradition. The stylistic devices employed to suggest realistic verisimilitude—perspective, three-dimensional modeling and the like—were important adjuncts to this narrative mission, giving credibility to events that few if any people had actually witnessed. The invention of photography and the advent of modernism in the late nineteenth century, however, radically undermined the premises that had previously supported narrative realism. Photography, widely disdained as a purely mechanical process, seemed to obviate the artistic goal of replicating visible reality. Modern artists felt increasingly compelled to focus on qualities—such as painterly expression or abstract formal invention—unique to the fine arts. The repudiation of bourgeois social and political values prompted many modernists to reject the normative proselytizing that was implicit in traditional religious and historical themes in favor of more personal subjects.

Nevertheless, modernism did not so much destroy the narrative impulse as transform it. The preoccupation with allegory that had characterized nineteenth-century Historicism lingered on in Symbolism. Stripped of their reassuring conventional forms, however, these new-fangled allegories could cause trouble for their creators, as when Lovis Corinth was denounced for the eroticism of his Salomé or Gustav Klimt for his hallucinatory pessimism. Historical narrative, once the bulwark of the ancien régime, was used by Käthe Kollwitz to document the oppression of the poor in her print cycles Revolt of the Weavers and The Peasants’ War. Of all the traditional narrative subjects, Biblical themes proved the longest lived in Central Europe. Ever since the Romantic period in the early nineteenth century, Germans had sought to re-imbue art with spiritual purpose, and the example of such Gothic masters as Mathias Grünwald was pivotal for the Expressionist generation. Nonetheless, the re-casting of religious subjects in an Expressionist idiom by artists like Oskar Kokoschka and Max Pechstein did not sit well with conservatives, who considered this approach blasphemous.

In the absence of conventional realistic verisimilitude, all narrative subjects—even those that drew from shared iconographic traditions—became on some level expressions of the artist’s personal viewpoint. Not surprisingly, many modernists preferred to invent their own stories. Alfred Kubin went so far as to write and illustrate a novel, The Other Side, and Ernst Barlach created an illustrated play, The Poor Cousin. Kubin also earned a respectable living as an illustrator of other people’s writings, but most of his visual narratives are independent of any preexisting plot. A forerunner of Surrealism, Kubin was interested in exploring the uncanny mysteries behind everyday events. Similarly, Max Beckmann looked beneath the façade of Weimar-era society in his print cycle Faces. Seen as an ensemble, these vignettes document a citizenry on the brink of despair, alternately bored or deranged, attempting to find solace in the illusion of family togetherness or fleeting sexual encounters.

So long as the formal language favored by modernists made at least passing reference to recognizable reality, narrative was still possible. However, after World War II, the near-total retreat into abstraction and the formalist rationale put forth by critics like Clement Greenberg severely curtailed narrative endeavors. This formalist hegemony was to some extent connected to America’s willful international cultural dominance during the Cold-War period, and to a related repudiation of the left-wing connotations of Depression-era social realism. Furthermore, the enormity of the Holocaust and the apocalyptic implications of the nuclear age seemed to defy realist formal solutions and abetted the escapist aspects of abstractionism. Although modernism was always less monolithic than formalist theorists liked to pretend, the avant-garde project was unified by a utopian and essentially Eurocentric faith in the redemptive potential of art. Of a piece with such contemporaneous totalizing ideologies as fascism and communism, this meta-narrative could not survive the fragmentation into divergent class, gender, ethnic and national interests that characterized the emergent global capitalism of the late twentieth century.

By the late 1970s, it had become clear that there were no longer any generally accepted criteria for defining art. Painting, once the preeminent artistic medium, was being challenged by video, photography, performance and installation, while minimalist and conceptualist approaches were joined by a resurgent interest in figuration that reopened the road to narration. The new narratives that began to emerge in the 1980s in the work of artists like Eric Fischl were distinctly postmodern, conditioned by suburban anomie, pop culture and film. Domestic dramas without plot or character, the scenes in Fischl's paintings are at once instantly recognizable and emotionally remote. Whereas earlier artists focused on the emblematic moments of a narrative—Christ hoisted up on the cross, the weavers storming the mill-owner’s mansion—Fischl finds the scene before or after a climactic event to be more engaging. In this he counts on the ability of his audience, schooled by years of television and film viewing, to decipher a narrative through minute nuances of environment and body language. The vocabulary of film has become, for postmodern America, what mythology and the Bible were for prior generations of classically educated Europeans: a broadly understood cultural code. Although Fischl is a painter, his creative process is filmic. Lately, he has been working with a pair of actors, whom he directs, photographs and then edits, using Photoshop, to achieve his final compositions.

Many contemporary artistic narratives have traits in common with Fischl’s paintings. A similar flattening of emotional affect can be seen in the cartoon-like panels of Ida Applebroog and the haunting snowscapes of Robyn O’Neil, whose characters seem completely oblivious to the evident dangers that surround them. Whereas Expressionists affirmed the primacy of the individual by accentuating the personalities of their subjects, postmodern narratives seem to focus less on the actors than on the settings and actions. And much of that action, in the work of Fischl, Applebroog and O‘Neil, as well as in the photographs of Gregory Crewdson, seems to take place off-stage. By deliberately fostering a sense of ambiguity, these artists invite the audience to complete the story, rather than presenting tidy conclusions or comprehensive solutions. Crewdson musters a team of true Hollywood dimensions to orchestrate complex scenes that allude to bizarre, inexplicable happenings. For Crewdson as for Fischl, the central subject is suburban anxiety, and for both artists, Edward Hopper (also a recurrent influence on motion-picture set design) remains a significant touchstone. The paintings of Neo Rauch, who came of age in what was then East Germany, evince the same qualities of affectlessness and ambiguity seen in the work of his American colleagues, but the visual references are to the broken promises of the Communist regime. It is not surprising that the “outsider” artist Henry Darger is especially beloved by and influential on today’s artists, for he pioneered the use of recontextualized image fragments to probe beneath the benign assumptions of mid-twentieth century pop culture. All the utopias offered by the twentieth century—Marxism, scientific progress and suburban domestic bliss—have failed. The absence of meaning in many postmodern narratives is their meaning.

Yet the lack of a unifying political ideology or a convincing roadmap to a better future has not prevented some contemporary artists from trying to improve society by crafting narratives that expose cruelty and injustice. While the pervasiveness of the market economy in the Western world has led to a commodification of art that can make it difficult for artists to assume an authentically adversarial stance, late capitalism has also brought with it a melding of high and low art forms that offers new avenues for communicating with a broad public. Mediums such as illustration, comics, photography, video and animation offer potential access to audiences outside the circumscribed art world. These once-scorned mediums are not only more accessible but also freer, less mediated by dominant cultural assumptions, than painting.

In a culture saturated by the mass media, a central problem for socially-oriented artists is how to reconnect images with reality. It is sometimes feared that a steady diet of filmed and televised violence has inured most of us to scenes of genuine horror. Images now derive their meaning more directly from advertising and pop culture than through reference to an underlying lived experience. Martha Rosler turns this paradox to dramatic effect in her ongoing series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (which began with Vietnam and resumed with Iraq), by juxtaposing two stereotypical media worlds that are usually rigidly separated: idealized domesticity and grisly war reportage. For Rosler, as for her predecessor John Heartfield, photomontage is a way to efface the touch of the artist’s hand, with its questionable connotations of personal authority and bourgeois individualism. Like artists of the Dada period, Rosler distrusts the emotional subjectivity of Expressionism. In her view, photomontage offers a way to reconnect the “here” and the “there” of modern life in a visual language that viewers can grasp immediately.

On the other hand, for some artists, the handcrafted image retains an emotional power and authenticity that photography has forfeited. Even in a world obsessively chronicled by the media, there is much that remains concealed. Both Sue Coe and Alexis Rockman have focused on making the invisible visible by conducting field research in places that few people visit. Coe is probably best known for exposing the sources of our meat—in factory farms, slaughterhouses and bio-tech labs—but she has also explored the impact of poverty and abuse on the underclass in America and her native England. Rockman, too, is interested in biotechnology, science and the potentially disastrous impact of pollution and global warming. He accesses a wide range of sources from history, science and art history to create apocalyptic visions of a world that might be, if we are not careful. A recent trip in search of the allegedly extinct Tasmanian tiger and a number of rare and/or endangered species is documented in Rockman’s new book, Carnivorous Nights.

Yet another approach to the handcrafted image is taken by William Kentridge, who creates narrative animations from charcoal drawings. A white South African Jew who lived under Apartheid, Kentridge addresses the issues of overt guilt and indirect complicity inherent in all modern political tragedies. By modifying and erasing the drawings for each frame of his films, the artist creates layers of meaning in which pentimenti become analogs for the simultaneous processes of remembering and forgetting. Like the Expressionists but unlike many postmodern artists, Kentridge does not shy away from depicting individualized personalities, hoping that the specificity of his characters will encourage universal identification. Inspired by Max Beckmann, Kentridge finds it necessary to accept the existence of a compromised society but refuses to relinquish the possibility of meaning and moral value. As he puts it, he operates in that narrow space “where optimism is kept in check, and nihilism is kept at bay.” This is a far cry from the grand ambitions of the last century, but perhaps a more realistic goal.

We would like to thank all the friends, artists and colleagues who have helped us with this exhibition, including the Clementine Gallery, Eric Fischl, Don Hanson, Alexis Rockman, Martha Rosler and David Zwirner. Copies of Sue Coe’s Pit’s Letter may be ordered from the gallery for $22.00. Alexis Rockman’s book Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger (with text by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson) is available for $25.00. If you order by mail, please add $8.00 per book to cover shipping and handling; New York residents, also add sales tax. Checklist entries include catalogue raisonné numbers, where applicable. Unless otherwise indicated, image dimensions are given for the prints and full dimensions for all other works, including photographs.