Robert Nelson’s Visual Language

In 2003, the US artist Julian Schnabel quipped, ‘People have been talking about the death of painting for so many years that most of the people are dead now’. One of the medium’s early assassins was the Russian constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko, who in 1921 declared that ‘It’s all over’. But this assertion was in fact accompanied by three abstract paintings: and ever since, it has been representational painting that has widely been understood to be ‘deader’ than any other form. As Robert Nelson observes in the preface to his latest book, ‘If you are in any doubt that representational painting is dead, you have only to hear the appeals among the faithful to revive it.’ In other words, he continues, ‘Painting has … become a confusing art of paradox: it is dead but still beguilingly promises life, like the walking dead or, better, the undead’.

Nelson strips away the hyperbole and mystification, demonstrating what is uniquely compelling about representational painting, but with a method of analysis that ultimately proves eminently applicable to other media. The Visual Language of Painting is a work of rare balance: exhaustively researched, yet not overly academic; deeply persuasive without being polemical; wide-ranging and interdisciplinary without being unfocused; equally attuned to the production and reception of an artwork. At a time when so much art theory is riddled with jargon and robbed of historical context, this is a very welcome contribution from one of Australia’s foremost writers on visual culture.

The Visual Language of Painting is, necessarily, a defence of representational painting as an artform of enduring significance; indeed, as one peerless in its ability to not only show what something looks like, but how its appearance is perceived by the painter. But as readers of Nelson’s weekly exhibition reviews in The Age will know, he is no fuddy-duddy when it comes to new media in contemporary art (indeed, he recently applauded an installation by Bianca Hester at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, which included a live horse wandering around the gallery space). Rather than pondering why artists continue to paint from life, this volume—as the title promises—focuses on how it is that they do so. Nelson concedes that ‘Most apologies for painting or drawing from life are framed in either aggressive or tentative language, lacking theoretical credibility’. This is not a book about why painting matters, but rather about why technique does.

‘I want to examine technique—or process, if you prefer—as a route to understanding visual language’, Nelson declares. An emphasis on technique might seem a commonsense enough approach, but is in fact deeply unfashionable, now that ‘technique is more or less associated with amateur art’, and also fraught with the danger of being ‘artificially separated from what makes skills meaningful: the integrity of an artwork, the organic unity that marries intentions with an appropriate skill’. Rather than proselytising at length on why understanding technique is a worthwhile pursuit, Nelson elaborates his thesis over the course of fourteen chapters that consistently demonstrate rather than merely assert.

And he advocates an understanding of technique in the broadest possible sense: including ‘techniques of looking, of conceiving and of working the medium’. This might sound like something of a stretch, but in fact it is central to Nelson’s argument. The unique strength of painting from life, he proposes, is that it represents the act of seeing. Whereas a photograph takes in an entire scene all at once (in the split-second flash of the shutter), the human eye sees in parts and over time. Everything that makes up a picture can be seen to bear testament to this fact. That every artist has a unique style is due not only to individual ways of painting but also to limitlessly different ways of looking. The time we take to see a painting, moving our eyes from one detail to the next, back and forth, is analogous to the time the artist has taken to see the depicted object, and then to paint it. Representation comes to appear as a mysterious and ultimately ineffable process that calls on all of Nelson’s poetic abilities. He certainly rises to the task of exposition, but at a very leisurely pace, and as such no single quotation will effectively convey the accumulated effect of pages of sentences like this: ‘Within a perception lies another perception; each perception is dependent upon another; it is a constantly unfolding process in the perception of one aspect contains within it the immanence of another’.

Such a sentence might appear impossibly abstract out of context, but much of Nelson’s writing unfolds little by little, rather like the perceptive process he describes. At his best, the author draws on an exhilaratingly broad range of examples and references to illustrate his arguments. He likens Monet’s use of complementary colours to mainstream children’s animations like Miffy, and shifts in a single paragraph from discussions of the famously obtuse Jacques Derrida to the very literal analogy of a painter who ‘builds the visual encounter brick by brick … Each brick is likely to be a slightly different colour’. This vernacular approach makes this a (perhaps surprisingly) accessible book, which deserves an audience broader than the scholarly or specialised. Even when detailing the linguistic origins of various words for ‘drawing’, Nelson manages to keep the tone light, playfully observing that ‘We do not seem to draw a picture in the same way as we draw a crate along the ground or draw up a zip, or draw up alongside the blue Ford at the traffic lights …’ His point is that drawing—etymologically and philosophically—centres on ‘an expression of will’. Drawing from life is, we may be surprised to realise, ‘the tool by which sophisticated societies get things done’, since it is the vehicle for instructions, the blueprint for constructions, and the bearer of recollections.

Nelson gradually makes his case for his methodology, in its endless complexities, by focusing on quite specific particulars of technique. The book’s chapters are structured around drawing, colour, composition and the interaction between elements of each. If drawing was argued to possess an inherent ‘authority’, colour is shown to be crucial to conveying and creating atmosphere, volume and shadow. Nelson explains that in old master paintings there were conventions that dictated how colour was used: for example, men were always shown as darker than women and the Virgin Mary’s robe was always blue. But this is more than a

collection of curiosities; Nelson not only presents historical trivia but richly evokes the context in which old master pictures were made, and its distinction from our own.

‘The artists of the baroque’, he points out, ‘were not constantly looking at orange buses, day-glo green post-it notes, magenta billboards and a host of other arbitrary kaleidoscopic emanations from the television’. Armed with this reminder, we are encouraged to see in old master paintings a richness and vibrancy of colour beneath what at first might appear to be fairly dull greens and browns. Within the earth colours favoured at the time, Nelson helps us to see, are constant variations ‘from warm to cool, from green or blue to red or pink, to yellow or orange to purple’. The shifts in colour reflect not only the subtleties of the depicted object, but importantly also the shifts of light and volume. Colours show the play of shadow; and seen in light of this insight, old master paintings that might have once seemed dreary become alive with dazzling chromatic intricacy. It is a pity that this handsomely typefaced volume was unable to include illustrations, as even in reproduction we can see (with Nelson’s guidance) that a ‘white shirt in Caravaggio contains almost every colour except white.’

The book is at its best when it refers to specific artists and works, and will repeatedly send the reader back to long-forgotten works by the European masters (and, in brief but illuminating passages, by Indigenous Australian painters as well). There are long passages though when Nelson fails—or perhaps refuses—to offer any concrete examples. His description of a (presumably) imaginary portrait of a ‘slinker and a sloucher’ in which the compositional elements ‘fall out of the bottom left corner’ would have been better if it referred to a real painting that could be consulted and tested against his argument. These failings are infrequent though, and perhaps only really noticeable in contrast to the generally straightforward and conversational tone, in which Nelson is unafraid to compare a painter’s selection of colours to a person’s decision to wear clothes patterned with both stripes and spots.

The author’s great contribution to art writing in Australia lies not just in his ability to communicate with passion and insight in a way that is equally accessible to the specialist and the layperson. It is also—as readers of his occasional writing in Arena will recognise—Nelson’s commitment to progressive ideas in cultural politics. It is hoped that The Visual Language of Painting will facilitate further discussion about the role of art education in maintaining a focus on representational painting and drawing from life, and also about the various conservative tendencies that motivate both attacks and defences of the medium. Certainly, the book will equip readers with a vocabulary and methodology for understanding and explaining technique—of both artistic creation and perception—which will be invaluable for critics of any medium, not just painting. Painting might still appear ‘undead’ to many, but technical analysis has been given a new lease of life.

By Roger Nelson

Roger Nelson is a freelance writer and curator, and director of No No Gallery in North Melbourne. (Despite the coincidence of their names, the author and Robert Nelson are in no way related.)

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