PRINT May 1977

Notes on Narrative and History Painting

I FIRST THOUGHT OF PAINTING a narrative picture—one that told a story—in 1963. Perhaps it was a year earlier. At that time, I thought of it strictly as a problem in subject matter and had no visual concept to match it. I simply lacked pictorial conventions that would enable me to credibly represent the subjects I had in mind and I did not finish the projects I started, though the studies exist. One of them was called The Return of My Father from Alaska.

I had the notion at the time that autobiographical subject matter was somehow more modern than the traditional kind which, as a good “modernist,” I believed to be obsolete. In my notebooks I recorded such sentiments as: “I am celebrating the only myth I have—my family”; and “We are the heroes of our own existence.”

But the problem was that I did not see a subject visually, as constituting a picture whatever content it contained. But when I began to think of the effect I wanted to convey through subject matter I simultaneously thought of ways—which had to be visual ways—to convey that effect. Perhaps I began to understand Old Master art then for the first time. At least I began to understand my preferences better. My distaste for the paintings of Poussin (as opposed to his drawings, whose simple, flattish contrasts of dark and light are more amenable to modern tastes) was turned into profound admiration. Also I came to understand the rhetoric of David and saw past the sentimental side of Raphael to understand the ideal. Thus I began to develop a feeling for style that was commensurate with my feeling for subject. Effect (a term that does not usually occur in writing about modernist art, though its use was common in the 19th century) is then both, and simultaneously, visual and moral realization.

Still, I lacked a rhetoric—a language—which would convey a kind of sublimity consistent with the secular—though not too secular—imagination. The sublime, however, is more than just theatrical effect. Longinus states as the first rule of the sublime the ability to form great conceptions. This has been ignored in contemporary writing on the sublime in art, and it seems not to have been clearly understood in the 18th and 19th centuries either.

Nor did it help matters that there was no immediate tradition of literary representation, at least not in the visual terms to which I was attracted. (Any modern example that I can think of simply lacks an instinct for the ideal.) But the reason for looking to the past for models of quality and sentiment was not simply a matter of necessity. Looking back—nostalgia—is part of the critical meaning of painting representational narrative again.

Nostalgia is frequently misjudged as sentimentality at present or condemned as regressive, when it is, in fact, a moral sentiment. We yearn for what we do not have either because we once had it or because we did not have it at all. Nostalgia is homesickness for a lost “ideal.”1 (Were it not ideal, we would not feel its loss. A “new” ideal then becomes a way of coping with loss.) The risk of nostalgia is a morbid identification with the past. But its power is precisely as a criticism of the present. Representation, as I conceive it, is an admission of loss (that is, a reaction to spiritual and esthetic deprivation) and a criticism of an unfulfilling reality which takes the form of an attempt to reestablish a live equivalent of the lost ideal. I don’t think purposeful representation (as distinguished from the haphazard mass of figurative art, especially the trendy “radical realistic” kind) can be understood unless the radical role nostalgia plays at unusual moments in the history of the artistic imagination is acknowledged. How else do “renaissances” occur?

Still, my own inclination for narrative did not come out of an esthetic limbo. I was predisposed to it by modernist painting, including my own. Until the mid-’60s when tactile alternatives to painting were introduced (“Minimal art,” “primary structures,” “Earthworks” and the like) modernist painting was dominated by essentially metaphorical tendencies. All the elements but the “unrecognizable” image remained traditional in the work, and in the place of subject matter, after symbolism gave way to a purely optical image (which is to be distinguished from “optical art”), the elements themselves and their organization constituted a metaphor of extreme experiential potency but without any exactness of association. It is very difficult to describe. But in the context of the scale such art finally achieved, one could induce a grandeur and quality from which all sorts of ideas could be reified. My feeling is that I have tried to translate this into representational terms. At the same time I have also considered “tactility” as an alternative, but in the fictive terms of a fully illusionist image.

In order to accomplish this, however, I had to overcome two principal “givens” in modernist sensibility—flatness and painterliness. Flatness emphasizes the decorative at the expense of the illustrative and the dramatic, the latter by inhibiting movement; painterliness simply breaks down plastic form and inserts itself as a depicted element. This is one reason why the range of subject matter in modernist art became increasingly narrow until it disappeared entirely—though a residual illusionism remained (and even that was to become too old-fashioned for some).

Yet it would have been naive to think that one could revert to a past style or that it was at all desirable to do so. At best one can today only approximate or infer the tactile and the linear and, in fact, it is probably important only to approximate them since the tension of the two-dimensional and the decorative thus remains an aspect of the renewed illusionist conception. In this way the stress of reifying the figurative is a link to the present and distinguishes credibly modern representation from either late post-Impressionism, widely practiced and some of it very presentable, or from what is simply unknowing and merely facile illustration. Ironically, this tension often results in a kind of primitivizing effect, however inadvertently, and leads most critics to conclude that many representational painters cannot “draw.” Despite the obvious academicism of such criticism, many figurative painters tacitly concede the problem by relying on post-Impressionist models, painting from nature and, of course, avoiding narrative altogether.

But representational art has also been slow in coming to grips with the problem of narrative because as the fundamental problem not of realism, another mistaken assumption of recent criticism, but of modern taste to which it represents a radical challenge, narrative is the most difficult to solve. I do not mean to imply that narrative representation is the only kind of representational art that matters, but I do believe that narrative is the end to which real representation strives. As the most problematical kind of representational art its realization would be the most portentous for the entire tendency. Therefore, I am not ready to discount entirely the possibility of a renewed “hierarchy of genres,” although I am quite aware that history does not discriminate against a great painting because it happens to represent an apple rather than a madonna.

But certainly more than the politics of representation is involved as increasingly artists of that persuasion are confronting the issue. It has finally been sensed, I think, that unless representation achieves a valid narrative capacity it will become simply another of those episodes of figurative art that have cropped up during the history of modernism only to end up serving an appetite for change rather than generating change itself.

The representational artist, therefore, is not a “modernist.” He is involved with the history of art in a totally different way from that of the modernist. The modernist’s relationship to the past is dominated by his sense of the present; the representationalist’s relationship to the present is dominated by his sense of the past.

My own involvement with narrative ideas and subsequently with what is known as history painting came not only out of a desire to represent the figure in motion, but out of an attraction to movement itself. I painted a lot of drapery as a still-life painter. In the absence of a figure capable of movement, drapery can be employed as a surrogate. Perhaps drapery painting was an important part of the education of the artist at one time for more than technical reasons. Besides, with drapery movement can be represented in a rather shallow space—“abstractly” and realistically at the same time. One does not have to worry about subject matter when drapery can represent it in absentia.

The problem of representing the figure in motion was that of motivating it. It was not merely a question of painting any figure in motion. It had to be performing specific acts which were on the same expressive level as the movement. I learned from the example of Greuze, for instance, that heroic gestures cannot be imposed on a subject that is not correspondingly elevated or idealized. And it was in the course of confronting this question that I “discovered” history painting.

For narrative art has at times in the history of art had certain ambitions thrust upon it that distinguish it from previous narrative art and the general course of the history of representation. While narrative art simply refers to a picture which tells almost any kind of story, from the grandest spiritual theme to everyday anecdote, its ideological function, like its subjects, has at times been far more “pointed.” The Carracci, Poussin, David, the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites and Romantic neo-Classicists such as James Barry and Benjamin Haydon all employed narrative art both programmatically and didactically. That is, their styles and subject matter were consciously designed to further either artistic or social ideals, or both. And a singular sense of the past, a virtual longing for it, informed if it did not inspire the entire enterprise. When involved with such ideas of reform and particularly when linked to stylistic issues, narrative in the past has become identified as history painting. The difference between polemical history painting and ordinary narrative, which could also be programmatic but not involved with questions of style, is a matter of some scholarly concern. But by history painting I mean something far more “high” as art than provincial social realism ever could be, but which nonetheless has “political” interest.

Thus along with the natural evolution of the artist, there was also the unfolding of the social and political personality. I came to history painting, as opposed to, say, genre painting, because I recognized in the grand themes it required both an outlet for my feeling for movement and a paradigm for my sense of the past which embodied certain ideas (ideals?) about art and life. In the course of this evolution I evolved from a modernist to a representational painter. This means I had exchanged metaphor for illustration and rejected literalism for illusion.

Basically, all modern history painting arises from a special set of social and artistic circumstances. Art and society do not usually interact in a pat, deterministic way, but periodically there is a special confluence of pressures that are immediately felt in art. This confluence does not guarantee quality. It is more likely, as in the case of Pre-Raphaelitism or early German Romanticism, to produce a hybrid of provincial and sophisticated tastes. Whereas Cubism, free of ideology, simply grew out of developments in “avant-garde” 19th-century art; and later Monet is in a world of his own. So it is the French rather than the English 18th-century model I have in mind when I think of the very “type” of modern history painting. Late 18th-century France simply demanded more of the artistic imagination, while in England, other than a general cultural malaise, there was no larger compelling force behind the otherwise admirable ideals of painters like Barry and later, the tragic Haydon.

The mention of the latter, all but forgotten names, reminds one how vulnerable a type of art history painting is. True, most art barely survives its period and a lot of it remains, despite the indisputable charm of much of it, mainly a matter of history and a record of “taste.” But history painting gambles more recklessly than most on the probability of converting taste to its point of view.

Another way of putting it is that history painting is nothing more or less than a dogmatic approach to the problem of originality. It more or less consciously attempts to graft onto the hide of history a contrary notion about art and culture. In this sense it probably anticipated what today we call the avant-garde. It was, in other words, a drastic—or so it seemed at first—approach to problems of style, quality and meaning that, by challenging taste, also challenged the normative values implied by that taste.

The problem of originality then supersedes or rather assimilates all the problems felt to be confronting significant narrative representation today. Problems of subject matter, a “new” mythology, the capacity to represent “collective values” (as apparently modernist art has)—to cite the dominant ones that are felt to be retarding the development of representational art—really reflect cultural beliefs that have fallen into desuetude. It is the function of originality to revive them. Nothing important in art is new except invention. Where narrative is concerned assumptions of obsolescence or exhaustion of the iconographical stockpile are either facile or do not recognize that belief rather than subject matter is the primary problem. There was a time when I did not think it possible to represent George Washington seriously, but under the impetus provided by certain current events I found it entirely plausible. Belief, like good intentions, hardly guarantees anything, originality least of all, but the manner of its occurrence, like originality, cannot be anticipated. So that if representation per se is not new, or “surprising,” its conviction in contemporary terms can be.

By originality, then, I mean nothing like a “breakthrough” in the modernist sense, but a feeling for the figurative tradition so strong that it seems radical. Otherwise, recognizing the inconsistency, not to say contradiction, of seeming to argue for “originality” and “nostalgia” at the same time, I am quite prepared to argue the opposite view. That is, I am prepared to argue against originality. Not only is what we commonly understand as innovation probably not possible in representation, it is not desirable. Representation involves an act of restitution and therefore must avoid the stylish; that is, it must avoid accommodating taste. It is not involved with simply a “period” version, such as, say, neo-Classicism, but the reestablishment of the entire genre. And this, in the end, is not merely an artistic, not merely a visual, matter.

At any rate, originality implies a vision which subsumes human and artistic value. The superior artist understands the history of art and his own times better than the lesser one. Barry and Haydon and, for that matter, the Americans Trumbull and West, are forgotten and David is not, because David was the superior artist. (That historical circumstances favored him should not obscure the fact that he rose to the occasion.) And he was superior by virtue of his greater comprehension of art and life.

The question arises why, if history painting is in part a reaction to current events, its subjects do not record those events? The answer is that “currency” is only a part of the motivation behind history painting; the other part is the nostalgia which ironically that currency motivates. One is then not only responding to events but to questions of value which they raise. While nothing says that topical themes can’t be used successfully, the fact is that topicality destroys either the temporal or geographical remoteness that, indeed, insulates the event from reality and permits the imagination to simplify and “idealize” it. For these reasons alone, history painting has never been realistic.

To reject the present as a source of subject matter is not, however, to reject reality. David could hardly be accused of lacking relevance. The Oath of the Horatii, The Rape of the Sabines, Leonidas at Thermopylae all reflected the tensions and the ideals of David and the revolutionary society in which he played an active role. Yet all the subjects are drawn from ancient history, history moreover that was not even French.

So it is not surprising that history painting has frequently fulfilled the special obligations imposed upon it by circumstances by being didactic, by containing, that is, a moral, whatever inner necessity simultaneously compels the alliance of vision and poetry. The truth seems to be that in epochs where the underlying beliefs of society are changing, a didactic morality provides the security once implicit in tradition. Poussin’s and David’s art are equally willed. As far as I now can tell, with great changes taking place in society, a didactic morality or its equivalent must similarly support and validate what comes down to a new—or renewed—effort to illustrate belief.

On the other hand subjects discover us as much as we discover subjects. I was first drawn to the theme of Count Zinzendorf Spared by the Indians by the pictorial possibilities suggested when I first read the anecdote in Stone’s History of Wyoming (1841), and only later realized that it epitomized the tensions of American society today—and my own. David certainly did not envision the meaning events were to confer upon and the use to which they would put his Oath of the Horatii, painted three years before the French Revolution broke out.

The inference is that didacticism, far from limiting the imagination, systematizes affinity. We do not, in other words, choose subjects by accident, even the meanest kind.

But as representation involves a different “process” and different procedures from that of modernism, the consciousness of an ethos—of shared values—or the lack of one, for that matter, is likely to be acute when the figurative process is resumed. Representational painting is as much a response to history as to art, and history painting virtually ritualizes all that is at stake. Consequently history painting today, as always, is representational painting with a particular cultural imperative.

Copyright © 1973, 1977, by Sidney Tillim. This article is an expanded version of an essay written for the catalogue of an exhibition by the artist at Colgate University in 1973.



1. See Russell Harper, Nostalgia, Cleveland, 1966.