The love of painting

Deutsche Version

I love painting. Not surprising for an artist who paints. But this is not about my relationship to painting from the perspective of my artistic practice. Rather, it is about my experience of encountering the painterly works of other artists1.

When I visit exhibitions, go to biennials or fairs, I usually feel most drawn to painted images2. At the same time, there are other practices and formats that seem to me better suited for dealing with the complexity of the present; that deal with political, social, economic, technological issues in a way that better captures these realities, their dependencies and interactions; that think and act in a media-unspecific, hybrid, relational way.

Nevertheless, it is mostly painting that captivates me. Where does this attraction come from? And what do I actually mean when I talk or write about painting? What does it make so special, at least to me?

Painting: dissolution of boundaries, differentiation, specificity

“Painting” usually refers to a wide variety of practices that utilise painterly means in one way or another. Sometimes it even includes works that are merely “painterly” in their aesthetics. In the course of the dissolution of painting’s boundaries, the term has expanded to such an extent that it no longer only refers to the “classic” panel painting, but also potentially includes media such as video, sculpture, photography and hybrid forms. So when we talk about “painting” in general, we could be talking about anything. The question of what is specific to painting makes little sense under these circumstances – at least for me. I first have to clarify what I mean by painting in order to get a better idea of what I am talking about. In order to differentiate better, I want to discern between two modes or cases of painting:

Applying paint on something in spatial reality: A three-dimensional object whose physical presence does not disappear in the process of painting, i.e. is not constituted by it. A sculpture as a body in space can be painted on, but is not created by the act of painting.

Painting an image: In contrast to the object onto whose body paint has been added, the body of the painted image, the painting support, disappears in the act of painting. What gets painted is the image itself. Or, to put it another way: an image has no body.

Of course, a painted image also has a material, physical basis: a stretcher frame covered with canvas, for example. But when we look at a painted image, we see the image, not a textile object on which colour has been applied. This effect is not an absolute one, but depends on individual perception as much as on the nature of the painting support.

If we perceive that support as a body, as an object that shares the space in which we find ourselves, we therefore do not see an image. This happens as soon as our “near senses”3 are engaged. Seeing the “pure” image, on the other hand, is like looking into an indeterminate depth. It floats before our eyes, so to speak – what we do not perceive, however, is what is supporting the image. In the case of paintings, one could also say: it is as flat as possible; hence, and not by chance, one of the conventions of the panel painting4. The lack of (spatial) depth of the painting support in a sense determines the (immanent) depth of the image, its existence. Or, more generally: the image has its own reality because it is not part of our (physical) reality. It is a world of its own because it is not of this world5.

Image or representation: What or to whom is the viewer referring?

The differentiation between object with paint and painted image is a first step towards clarification: if painting has a specific feature, it is – for me – to be found in the painted image. However, what has been written so far about the image (in general) does not only apply to painted images. Do they differ from other images and if so, in what way? 

Here, too, it helps to differentiate: between image and depiction. What I mean by this can be explained by comparing the painted and the photographic image as paradigmatic examples.

In a photographic image, what is in front of the lens is registered and captured by a light-sensitive film or sensor. A piece of reality is depicted by an objective technical process; this image is a mirror, a re-presentation of this reality. Anyone looking at a photograph will refer the reality in front of the lens in order to interpret it. One does not consult the image in and by itself, nor does one question the camera as to what it was thinking when it took the picture. The camera is not a subject that takes pictures. Of course there is a subject involved – the photographer. She chooses the image section, determines the composition, sets the light, etc. – she arranges the reality of which she creates an objective image with the help of the camera. In other words: what is in front of the lens must pass through the camera to become an image, not through the photographer6.

The painted image, on the other hand, must pass through a painting subject. It is not an objective image of the reality surrounding us, but has – is – a reality of its own. It is this image-immanent reality that we scrutinise in order to understand the painted image. While processes of recognition take place in the depiction, at the end of which several viewers agree on what they have recognised (objectivity is not produced independently by each subject), the visual understanding of a painted image is the sole responsibility of the individual viewer78.

The making of the image by one subject (the painter) is followed by the making of the image by another subject, the viewer – in the process of imagination. The image is constantly remade: the viewer makes “her own image”. Her imagination does not reproduce the image that the painter has made. Even if, when looking at the painted image, I wonder what the painter wanted to express with it, it is precisely because I am asking myself and not the (absent) painter. If I could actually ask herself, she would only be able to say which image she painted – we won’t agree on one and the same image. Isabelle Graw surmises the effect of painting in the traces left behind by the artist-subject. According to Graw, painting triggers “vitalistic projections” in the viewer because he or she becomes aware of the presence of the author, an effect that Graw describes as “indexical”9.

I fully agree with Graw on this “indexical effect” she attributes to painting; however, I do not see the power of painting in the fact that we see another subject at work there, not in the fact that we perceive the image as alive because it is a manifestation of the painter’s life. It is my own subjectivity that I experience as active when I look at a painted image. It is me, nobody else, to whom the painted image points – and vice versa. I make the image and the image makes me. The image is alive because I am alive10. However, this experience is not unconditional, it is not inevitable. Its realisation, its intensity and its character depend on both the respective image and the respective viewer – a kind of shared, reciprocal potential. A potential, moreover, that not every painted image, not every painter has in mind; painted images can also follow other ideas.

Painting and the present

It has been said time and again that painting11 is dead, finished, irrelevant. As a statement, such an assertion makes perfect sense, depending on the contexts and discourses in which it is used. As a factual assessment of the existence and dissemination of corresponding practices, artworks and media attention, it would certainly be wrong. People are painting like crazy, painting is constantly being shown in new exhibitions and plays an important role in the art trade.

Beyond theoretical, financial and media aspects, it is, in my opinion, first and foremost the described experience of the viewer with a painted image that explains its unbroken relevance. Notwithstanding the ever faster changing realities outside the image, it seems to me that precisely this exclusion of the outside world and the intensity of the individual subject’s experience in and through the image is one of the main reasons for its enduring vitality.

Beyond this “essence” of the painted image, it is the media conditions of the present day that have a positive influence on the status of the painted image. In our so-called information age, our access to the world has changed dramatically: what we perceive and consume is increasingly digitalised and thus de-materialised; the prominence of visual perception is reinforced and more narrowly focused by constantly expanding and improving screen technologies; media content is consumed individually to a greater extent (via smartphones, for example). These characteristics are much less detrimental to the power and impact of the painted image, in contrast to spatial works. The viewer (and potential customer) is given a very reasonable preview of an experience that they can ultimately make their very own in the painted image. 

The specific nature of painting

In my search for what attracts and captivates me about painting, what its power and effect is for me, i.e. what could be the specific, the essential thing about it, I first tried to find out what I actually mean with “painting”. In opposition to a very broad understanding of painting, which potentially includes everything visual, I first excluded works perceived as spatial (as objects to which paint is applied) and then made a distinction between image and depiction, to come to the conclusion that the specific nature of painting is to be found in painted images.

However, I am not suggesting an essentialist understanding of painting that demands rigour and purity of the medium. My arguments are more of a perceptual-psychological nature and attempt to answer what happens to me when I look at paintings. Several things follow from this perspective: on the one hand, it is about my subjective perception, which at the same time allows other viewers their own subjective perceptions – I am not interested in defining absolute truths or categorical differences. On the other hand, this means that my conclusion that the specificity of painting can be found in painted images is indeed a restriction, but one that is aware of its relativity.

This applies not least to what I see as the specificity of painting: the experience of the viewer’s own active subjectivity. This experience is relative because it does not occur inevitably and uniformly, but its potential content depends on the painted image and the viewer. It is questionable and unreliable, beautiful and eerie, always new and always different: an experience that can be made but not grasped. 

For me, this is where the power of painting lies.

  1. Although, of course, the painter of a work is also its first viewer. However, the relationship established during the making process is somewhat different, even if many painters are probably familiar with the strange moment when their own work suddenly appears strange and unknown to them. ↩︎
  2. I will make use of the term “image” rather than “picture” when referring to paintings, although “picture” is more commonly used in the context of painting. I will do so because “image” is more closely related to “imagination”, while “picture” has a certain affinity to “depiction”. These perhaps somewhat subtle notions will become important later on in this essay. ↩︎
  3. Touch, smell, taste, spatial vision, body sense ↩︎
  4. Violating this convention, revealing the materiality of the painting, transforming the image into a body, is the content of works such as Lucio Fontana’s slit canvases or Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbilder. Whatever exactly the artist wanted to achieve, he or she always destroyed the image either incidentally or deliberately. ↩︎
  5. There is also often talk of the image as a “window” into another world. While this still implies a certain distance, looking at very large images that completely fill the field of vision can be an almost immersive experience. ↩︎
  6. But what about the reason, i.e. the question of why the photographer took a photo of this or that – isn’t that a question for the subject? I think not; this question is also directed at the reality depicted and is actually: what is it about this reality that is worth capturing in the picture? ↩︎
  7. The distinction I have made between (painted) image and (photographed) depiction should not be understood as categorical. The boundaries are certainly fluid; think of the photochemical experiments of Sigmar Polke, the so-called photorealistic painting of Franz Gertsch, for example, or the collages of Hannah Höch. Moreover, many works gain their tension precisely from such (and other) “borderline conflicts”.
    A variation of the distinction between image and depiction can be found within the medium of painting, as the categorisation of works as “abstract” or “representational”. In the case of a painted object, is it not also the comparison with reality that allows us to recognise the object as such? Our knowledge of the world allows us to interpret a painted form as a chair, for example; but the painted chair is the result of a creative act by the artist, not a reproduced fact of reality. That, why and how it is, can only be answered by looking at the image. ↩︎
  8. I will not pursue the question of the possible depictive function of painting before the invention of photography at this point, as it would go beyond the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, I take it as an opportunity to point out the historicity of any enquiry, i.e. the fact that my observations are made from the present of the early 2020s. ↩︎
  9. “What I’m interested in is painting’s capacity to trigger these sort of vitalistic projections. And that capacity, I think, is due to the specific indexicality of paintings signifiers […] The painted canvas has the ability to evoke the impression of a ghostly presence of its absent author […] So painting is a specific language that provides a variety of artifices, methods, techniques, and ruses to generate this impression of the absent authors presence as an indexical effect.”
    Isabelle Graw, “The Love of Painting”, Sternberg Press 2018, p. 128 ↩︎
  10. The experience of the self as an active subject, which not only looks at the image but actually makes it, lies in the immaterial nature of the image: the image seen becomes a mental image; it is almost as if one had magical powers, as if one could make an image with thoughts alone. (Visual) perception and thought virtually coincide in the imagination, whereas the experience of objects as bodies in space is opposed to this. ↩︎
  11. This usually (if not always) refers to the panel painting and its conventions and does not mean “painting” as a collective term for all “painterly” practices in the broadest sense. ↩︎

"The love of painting" by Henrik Reimes is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0