Two canoes, first Monet’s :       

Claude Monet, “En canot sur l’Epte”, 1890, huile sur toile, 133 × 145 × 3 cm, Musée d’Art de São Paulo, Brazil

And this one of Doig, who painted a series of seven (not to mention hundreds of silkscreens on the same subject…):

Peter Doig, “100 Years Ago”, 2001, huile sur toile, 229 x 359 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris

Let’s not forget that Peter Doig is admittedly a great painter. But Damien Hirst is also said to be, and Fabrice Hyber’s infantile canvases are exhibited with equal praise. Sometimes, it seems, that things are upside down. But as Martin Herbert (“Pourquoi les « 1 % » du milieu de l’art fascinent autant”, published November 23, 2023), ArtReview‘s deputy editor-in-chief, recently and wisely remarked in Le Quotidien de l’Art, it’s not in the mega-art galleries (à la David Zwirner) that we’ll find the most interesting and lively contemporary art. He tells us: “walk to the small, up-and-coming galleries, observe, ask questions, seek further information, sharpen your curiosity.” Admittedly, we didn’t wait for Herbert for his message, which seems to have discovered the moon, but it’s good that a personality speaks to us in this way, insinuating, in the process, that the big liners, from the Zwirner to the Fondation Vuitton to the Bourse du Commerce – Pinault Collection, just as a painter friend of mine, a well-informed connoisseur of the art world, told me that the “Monet – Mitchell” exhibition at the Fondation Vuitton had been produced solely to boost Mitchell’s stock price. In other words, Arnault couldn’t care less about drawing any parallels with Monet. Let’s return to our comparison between Monet and Doig. What we notice straight away, when we look at Doig’s image, is that he depicts wishy-washy the sea. It’s hard to convey the idea of water the way Doig does, with his inconceivable vertical brushwork. Let’s not even mention the total absence of perspective. This is not to deny that Doig depicts the sea with vertical brushstrokes; in fact, he is quite free to depict it as he sees fit, but then, the question is, following this freedom: What does it “give”? Let’s take a closer look:

Don’t get me wrong. If Doig were to investigate the fluctuations of water in an original way, it would be interesting, but alas, he paints it haphazardly (and let’s not talk about that orange shadow!), just as much exactly like the sky:

See? Here too, Doig has no alternative proposal for depicting the sky, and so, once again, he there paints in a topsy-turvy kind of way. This is not a value judgment, it’s a fact. Doig’s paintings are very famous, but why? One answer is that Doig has become unaffordable, accessible only to billionaires, and is therefore a “star” of the contemporary artworld, albeit unwillingly, as many interviews attest that he had nothing to do with the processes that turned his paintings into cash drawers; indeed, he now says that “he has decided to stop selling his paintings” (Libération newspaper, article by C. Mercier, November 07, 2023). So, having examined these two details, what does Monet have to say on the subject?

Then we are here into what I would call “consistency”. I don’t know how else to call it. It’s consistent. And it’s consistent in every point:

There’s no sky in the painting, so let’s look for a sky from 1890:

There are no blue skies available in 1890, so it will be 1891, with “Peupliers sur l’Epte” (oil on canvas, 81.80 x 80.31 cm, National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh). See, the brushstrokes aren’t necessarily homomorphic, but the impression (no pun intended) is much less that of sloppiness as with Doig above. Doubtful? Give it another try! 

Claude Monet, “Peupliers”, 1891, 29.17 x 36.63 in, Philadelphia Museum of Art, USA

Here again, there is coherence, established mainly by oblique brushstrokes. Monet is a painter of genius and, even if the sky can’t “resemble” these brushstrokes, we still have a balance, admittedly non-academic, but that’s not the point; for it is indeed Monet’s attention that holds the abstracted motif together. On the one hand, we know that a blue sky can’t look like that; on the other, we accept abstraction, as we’ve already seen.

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Nutritious digression

Rembrandt had made it “pass” in a mix between realism and abstractization (this being different, surely, with abstraction simpliciter), such as, for example, the gold braids in passementerie on the coat of Jan Six,

as Ernst Gombrich points out in his book Art and Illusion (1960):

Take Rembrandt’s development: he had to learn to build up the image of the sparkling gold braid in all its details [Gombrich also illustrates with Rembrandt’s “Artemisa or Sophonisba” (so called in his day), with this detail below].

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, « Sophonisba Receives the Cup of Poison » [Detail], 1634, oil on canvas, 143 x 154.7 cm, Prado Museum [the detail is shown here as it appears in Gombrich’s book].

before he could find out how much could be omitted for the beholder ready to meet him halfway. In the portrait of his enlightened patron Jan Six, one brush-stroke is really all that is needed to conjure up the gold braid appear — but how many such effects did he have to explore before he couldn thus reduce them to this magic simplicity!

The question is whether this is simplicity or, more extraordinarily, abstractization. In my humble opinion — and this isn’t a formula for dealing with the giant Gombrich, it’s quite sincere — I like to think that, in this moment of passementerie, but just as much for the buttons as for the collar of Jan Six’s coat, Rembrandt “jumps” into abstractization, without perhaps even knowing it, by which I mean: are we ready, in 1654, to “really” talk about abstractization? No, because that would certainly be anachronistic. But what does Rembrandt produce here? Simplification or abstractization? One could question the term simplification, which, as you’ll understand, I do, because it seems to me to be, quite frankly, a term for something else. Let us look it up to illustrate what I mean. [A little later]. Take this other painting by Rembrandt, “The Pilgrims to Emmaus”:

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1629, “Les pèlerins d’Emmaüs”, huile sur panneau, 37.4 x 42.3 cm, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, France

You see, this painting, well, it’s painted in a “simple” manner, there’s no jarring painted effect and, above all, it’s simple in its chroma, fairly unified, between brown beige, zinc yellow and darker shades; simplicity that doesn’t prevent the dramatization of the setting, signified by the almost overhanging, surreal-sized presence of the risen Christ and the stupor, below, of the pilgrim. Of course, in the case of Jan Six’s portrait, the use of the word “simplicity” is understandable in the sense that Rembrandt probably applied a single brushstroke to express the braids, adding nothing, neither pentimento nor the equal measure of the braids between them, which must certainly have been the case. Rembrandt’s gesture is totally extraordinary, wildly, dare we say it, avant-garde. But, once again, is the painter fully aware of his gesture? The painting of Jan Six’s portrait measures 112 x 102 cm, so the “coarseness” of the buttons, braids and coat edges is easily noticeable; we’re not dealing with the « inframince ». Now, what goes on in Rembrandt’s mind when he decides to switch from the rhythm of mimêsis to that of depiction, in the same painting? Let’s take a look at the full picture: 

Jan Six, “Jan Six”, 1654, oil on canvas, 112 x 102 cm, Six Collection 

In fact, looking at this picture, we can see that the abstractization concerns the entire painting, including the face:

Why talk about abstractization in the case of Six’s face? Well, you just have to look, don’t you? There’s nothing smooth about this complexion; it’s a question of strokes which, from a purely formal point of view linked to mimêsisn (i.e., from the naive, i.e., anti-Aristotelian point of view), have no relationship to each other to the point of forming a plastic coherence (in the sense here of “skin”). This is not a new effect in Rembrandt’s work; we need only look at two earlier paintings, such as the self-portrait of 1628:

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, « Laughing Rembrandt » [Détail], 1628, huile sur cuivre, 22.2 x 17.1 cm, Getty Center, Los Angeles
or the “Laughing Man” portrait, 1629:

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, « The Laughing Man » [Detail], oil and gold on copper, 15.3 x 12.2 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague
Admittedly, the “self-portrait” and “the laughing man” are ‘tronies’, but ‘tronie’, in Dutch, means nothing other than ‘face’, so it’s no caricature. But, in parallel with these tronian dates, we can think of Rembrandt’s brief contemporary, Adriaen Brouwer, who sadly died very, very young (1605-1638), who painted his popular trunks often in exactly the same way as in our two Rembrandtesque details above:

Adriaen Brouwer, « The Bitter Potion » [Detail], painting on oak wood, 47.7 x 35.5 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany
It’s time to wrap things up. But not yet.
To tell the truth, what is the defining leap into abstraction if not the radical break between resemblance and depiction, between realism and the autonomy of the painted image? A duality that Rembrandt, in a recurring gesture of incalcubable audacity and extraordinary « gift », began to parallel in the same painting, time and again.

Reprise → Conversely, Doig’s sky and sea water are just repulsive; this is not good painting, and this is how you overdetermine a painter. It may seem anachronistic to compare Monet’s paintings with those of a contemporary painter, but, I tell you, if a painter isn’t capable of questioning reality better than Monet, and this 110 years later, then it’s not even worth it. Most of Monet’s paintings remain propositions, not just “historical objects”, but propositions which remain extraordinarily bold and lively. By contrast, it is by no means certain that Doig’s paintings can enjoy a similar timelessness. However, some might consider it inconsistent to compare Doig and Monet, so here’s a sky by Gerhard Richter: 

Gerhard Richter, « Marine » [Detail], 1998, oil on canvas, 290 x 290 cm, Guggenhneim Bilbao
With Richter, we see, more or less, how the sky is depicted, i.e., as with Monet, we see the painting, we don’t forget it in favor of the motif (i.e., illusionism), but, as with Monet, the manner is coherent, in other words, we “believe” in it, in this sky, even if we know it isn’t real, and this is something else again than what is classically defined as illusionism. In other words, in both Monet and Richter, the material is not so much illusory as it holds, i.e., the assembly of textures is relevant, to say the least, wheras in Doig’s item, it does not “hold”, because there is much too much casualness in the making.  

Acta est fabula.

Refs/Calvin Tomkins, “The Mythical Stories in Peter Doig’s Paintings”, 12-04-17, The New Yorker /// Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion. A Study in the psychology of pictorial representation, Thames & Hudson, 1960

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Leon Mychkine

writer, Doctor of Philosophy, independent researcher, art critic, member of AICA-France


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