Painting and Paternoster

Cezanne's development from Impressionism could be described as a shift from fiction to fact. New paint tubes and a range of newly synthesised paints afforded painters opportunities to work on portable scales with more immediacy. It is usually presented historically as a desire to catch  fleeting glimpses of reality or the effects of sunlight, yet it is probably more to do with a desire to get at the materiality in a more vital way than merely making paint / colour serve pictorial atmosphere. The later breakthrough of Cezanne - with time as breathing space is always needed to digest developments - meant a re-evaluating of painting's potential and a different viewfinder to judge painting's past. 40 years after Cezanne's last paintings were made Matisse produced a series of upright easel paintings, that summed up his endeavours over these 40 years or more; apart for a few  - quite amazing- examples , after this point, he never returned to easel painting, preferring to work on the cut-outs and architectural commissions .

One could say also that his perception of space had moved from a condensation of the senses to a new kind of 'atmosphere',  yet one that did not rely on localised effects (which are driven by tonal vales rather than colour ones).

The work had been done as far as he was concerned , the prize claimed for easel painting - figurative easel painting (with - well-digested - hindsight). The prize:  colour was now able to create a luminosity through the sum of its forces that equalled the luminosity we feel through all sight - You could say he finally saw the light. Before Matisse any kind of  luminosity was merely  an effect, created through localised - atmospheric-  colour perceptions.

If we examine his colour further in these last works, we can see that the hard yards were won through drawing (Matisse never separated these disciplines or even saw them as separate). His handling of oil paint by now was consummate; drawing never gave over to  gesture, yet also was not inhibited by any academic system, or stylised technique. Matisse was also never a 'hit and hope' painter; the colours are particular and not subject to chance (with Courbet's dictum ringing in his ears - a masterpiece is one that can be painted over and over again) To sharpen this point, he discusses his early fauvist works as subject to emotional nervousness  - something once identified,  was methodically removed from his art, much in the same way as one would put a cat outside, when it becomes a bit of a nuisance. This nervousness would return though in the form of a more subjugated energy, an electricity that would course through his numerous attacks on a painting, though these attacks were now allied with strategy and a higher purpose for colour. Colour became a light generator rather than a light reflector. He realised by seeing  colours as forces , they could be organised to create a resultant force which would create this unified luminous surface.

That was over 60 years ago. A time frame that separated Courbet from Cezanne or Cezanne from Matisse. From Matisse onwards painting has gone through many upheavals. Abstract art , so often seen as the territory of the most advanced art has probably seen the most diverse twists and turns in its development . Yet I wonder if it now commands attention more for its potential rather  than its successes. It may be part of a quiet erosion of our visual sensibilities for it now feels hysterical rather than urgent. Viewed much in the same way as the protesters at St. Paul's. We acknowledge that something is wrong but have as yet not been presented with a solution that seems viable.

The problems facing painting have - to my mind at least - never changed since Matisse's time. In fact I have yet to see work that meets the challenge of luminosity, spatial invention and surface control all in one hit in the way that his work did.

Much 'new' abstraction seems to be more akin to academic abstract expressionism dependent on tonal value rather than colour, or heavy leaden surfaces that feel like boulders of colour , slabbed on with graceless abandon. Hog hair brushes or palette knives wristily carve up paint , or squeegees do what..squeegees do. Surfaces don't sparkle, they have the dull sheen of acrylic and the watery uncertainty of soupy colour schemes. More often than not they hedge their bets and rely on a tasteful artiness to see them home in some shape or other as a realised painting - so heavily dependant on context that they appeal to fewer and fewer , well educated, knowing apologists or drift aimlessly into the world of figuration with cheesy references to objects, people or places - back to localised atmosphere and kitsch subject matter as irony becomes their refuge.

The art world has always been and always will be decadent  - merely a frond on society's fern. Until we solve our sociological problems we will not have a home for advanced painting that amounts to anything more than a tent in Paternoster square.

It is therefore a timely event to see a Richter show at the Tate. As here is an artist prompted as an advanced, heavyweight painter .  I have not much to say about the work other than that which is implied through the above comments. All I would add though is that I do not believe the paintings would not have been shown if he had not made the photo-paintings - the whole canon being a curator's dream: manageable, cohesive and even. The abstract work would remain in its tent; another shout in an room that doesn't echo.