I don’t mean to be perverse, but I certainly would rather look at Piero’s (della Francesca) flagellation painting in Urbino or his ‘Baptism’ picture in the National Gallery than I would at any modern painting. It seems so complete, so total, so balanced/unbalanced. All I can tell you is that I had a reproduction on my wall of these two paintings for about twenty-five years in the kitchen where you really look at things. I not only never get tired of them, but I see new things all the time.
Philip Guston talking to Joseph Ablow, Public Forum at Boston University,1966 (cited in Ross 1990: 73).
Those who have engaged with the late American painter Philip Guston’s work have undoubtedly heard mention of his recognition of Giorgio de Chirico as an influence (Graham-Dixon, 2003: 60). Yet even allowing for our awareness of the apocalyptic, metaphysical settings de Chirico created (1888-1973), there seems in Guston’s imagery, perhaps surprisingly, very little visual overlap. De Chirico’s haunting, desolate spaces certainly set the visual tone for a collective dystopian mood of the twentieth century. This no doubt accounts for the durability and persistence of the images to the present day. Guston has been a more complex figure, seen by contemporary artists as a touchstone for many of the post-modern ingredients in current art through the artist’s fusion of literate, dense ideas, the use of high and low popular art tropes, as well as the unquestionable devotion to history and painting. The connection between Guston and de Chirico’s themes can, therefore, seem an unlikely inheritance, yet it is one that has been frequently acknowledged by him and others.
On close examination, it is possible to see that various characteristics in Philip Guston do link to de Chirico’s imagery and even cosmology, and surprisingly these links are often visual, although the rest, not so simple. From an artistic perspective, there are many connections in their respective works but it is important that a discussion recognises the limits of aligning visual similarities as it counters the spirit of both artists’ intentions. It would be comfortable to see the two works above as a transposition of Nietzschean themes, positioning Apollo and Dionysus as the protagonists on view. Although, it does argue that for both there is a mutual recognition of the tragic at the heart of this disunity. The conjunction begins with the issue of figuration, or in Guston’s case, the conflict about figuration; for how does a faithful abstractionist like Guston navigate his figurative world? Next, there was a common need to find a way to present the city, and that like de Chirico before him, how to find a means to use his own street or square. Like de Chirico, Guston needed to describe his own dystopian piazza.
By the late 1960s, Guston’s sombre vision was clamouring to be expressed, his diaries record genuine angst about contemporary politics of the day. His pursuit of pure abstraction seemed an increasingly empty pursuit when contrasted with the sinister political duplicity dominating America at this time. As an artist, he needed to find a way to respond to current events and express the disgust he felt for what he saw happening on the world stage. Guston wanted to explore his earlier interest in the social conditions around him. And finally, perhaps most importantly, Guston also wanted to integrate the personal, the literate and the philosophical struggles that were part of his life-long creative search. Yet as Dore Ashton asks in her insightful article, how was it to operate? (Ashton,1988: 67) Ashton understood that to position Guston as postmodern was another betrayal of his artistic endeavours. For both de Chirico and Guston, the tropes of postmodernity were not the driver.
Guston’s post-1970s work was imbued with a complex philosophical content. This component was so effectively realized in de Chirico schema that it is visible by its underlying employment in Guston’s paintings. If de Chirico had anything to offer the contemporary artist, he knew how to make felt settings that so pervasively acknowledged the Dionysian undercurrent; settings that threatened the seemingly serene, Apollonian piazzas.
During this late period of Guston’s career, he strove to express the troubled, dissolving ground down on his own street corner. He did so not only in isolation but from the lessons he gained from art and apparently, in some instances, very specific lessons from an acknowledged precursor.
In Guston’s private writings he was unrestrained in expressing his more desperate feelings about the creative conflict he found himself in:
When the 1960’s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening in America, the brutality of the world. What kind of a man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything –and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was lying. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid . . . I wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt (Mayer, 1991: 171).
We see an artist precipitate himself into great change and change that he knows will hardly be understood in the context of his previous artistic life. Guston was well known for his literary and intellectual concerns; this was evident in his friendship with many writers and his marriage to a poet. This established background contributed to a perceived betrayal of these core concerns and contributed to a general damning of him towards the later part of his career when he radically re-oriented his imagery.
Until the late 1960s, he was a successful and well respected abstract artist but with a private and growing sense of frustration and alienation about the possibilities of painting. So, at 57, the artist made a massive aesthetic and philosophical shift in the studio, although not unexpectedly for him, one that caused controversy and more surprisingly, offence: ‘It was as though I had left the church . . . I was excommunicated for a while’ (Guston, 1976: 56). Guston’s diaries and notebooks reveal his frustrations with the creative dead-end he was experiencing, particularly about abstraction: ‘American Abstract art is a lie, . . . a cover-up for a poverty of spirit’ (Mayer, 1991: 170).
When Guston first exhibited this new figurative work at Marlborough Gallery in New York the critics were venomous, reminding viewers that the intellectual stature of Guston surely signalled a duplicitous game. The most damning and memorable was from Hilton Kramer in The New York Times, where the title tells everything: ‘A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum’ (Kramer, 1970: Section 2. D27).
In considering that both artists came from very different origins, economically and historically, the artists’ lives and the pathway and evolution of their subject matter show how much they varied significantly. There are autobiographical similarities that account for many creative motivations. For both, the similarities resulted in a need to pursue the problem of meaning or, in Nietzschean terms, the problem of truth. The results of their search can be expressed philosophically, seen in Deleuzian terms of action and intent (Deleuze, 1990).
The interconnectedness between these two artists begins with the loss of their fathers, both at an impressionable age and in traumatic circumstances. These events certainly account for the powerful relationship between action and meaning which may be a generic definition of an artist. Both artists also experienced career storms due to their aesthetic shifts: their work weathered severe condemnation from the critical press, from their peers and for the content of the imagery. For de Chirico, the traumatic loss of his railway engineer father at an early age in Athens and the subsequently nomadic life he then led contributed to a persistent, melancholia that is clearly present in the paintings. Whereas Philip Guston, born twenty-five years later, into an emigrant, Russian family and existing within a Jewish Ghetto in Montreal, had more immediate grounds for melancholia. His father’s suicide when Guston was eleven was a deeply traumatic event, and perhaps doubly so as Guston’s daughter recounts that it was Guston who discovered his dead body (Mayer, 1991: 34). From these beginnings, we can recognise how both artists came to operate from a nomadic and outsider sensibility.
It is not difficult to see why Guston was attracted to de Chirico. The Italian had addressed the great spiritual nadir of the twentieth century in his painting. De Chirico’s enduring portrayals of Italian cities were imbued with a haunting enigmatic loss. Given his decision to address his feelings, Guston embarked on a quest to express the personal and the political while paying homage to his to his own narratives. Because de Chirico was well placed to comment on the events of the century and his education had given him access to German philosophy, particularly Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in Munich, these ingredients combined to create a kind of visual cosmology with which to frame his own melancholy and alienation (Nietzsche, 1993: 25). De Chirico’s imagery evolved at the beginning of the last century, just before the world had seen the horrific wastelands and losses in the Great War, so his alienated street scenes and non-figurative presences have the sense of a prophecy. His shadowed and depopulated porticoes argue a frightening world of loss and threat.
For those unfamiliar with the above philosophers, there are specific elements in Nietzsche‘s Birth of Tragedy (1872) that de Chirico used and Guston understood. These discuss the consequences to the modern, secular world without the constraints or hope and faith, belief or unified values, and presage the kind of abyss that history has on occasion fulfilled. Guston knew enough of the abyss to understand that it was a topic before him and with the problem of meaning there was also the discussion of how to position the figure. Clearly, Guston had read and absorbed de Chirico’s recommendations about the radical de-figuring of figurative painting and de Chirico’s refinement of it certainly paved the way for future artists. Often Guston’s response was to paint himself on the edge of an abyss. Guston’s post-abstract paintings show a marked use of figurative experimentation and in many inventive forms, in the Ku Klux Klansmen and the distorted, lumpy characters that replace a clear figurative presence.
In paintings like Web, we recognize the self-portrait elements, yet the skilled abstractionist is clearly at work here. The flat planes, the blocks of contrasting, painterly colours, the compositional horizontal bands suggestive of landscape devices all display an artist at the height of his skills. A figurative painter, certainly, but these works are, in essence, a dominate visual essay in contemporary angst. Guston was not alone in his absorption of de Chirco’s imagery for the precedents he set in his work continues to flourish in many subsequent, contemporary artists: in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, painters like Johnathan Borofsky, Susan Rothenburg or the Australian artist Ric Amor. (Auping, 2003: 22).
De Chirico’s use of classical motifs are central to him as an artist and give force to imagery that skillfully integrates and contemporises the social function of classical personae. De Chirico was able to give a futuristic context to these identities, one that makes claims on the future and the past. Guston understood the nature of these aesthetic inheritances, he spoke of it throughout his career:
“Another way of putting it is that modern culture consists of two things: grave robbery and aesthetics. Our appetites turn all art into modern art” . . . for Guston, more than nearly any other of that moment, the urge to move back and forth was irresistible, with Piero and de Chirico as his fixed stars (cited in Rishel, 2003: 81).
Guston recognised these excursions in art history and took a radical and seemingly low-brow path in his problem of the eternal. He treated the collection of absurdist characters in the painting as comical and inept in such a way that they belie a universal threat in their meaning. They have the superficial quality of a harmless joke. They are a fine counterpoint to de Chirico’s frozen silent statues — seemingly harmless, every day, silent figures. Yet Guston makes great demands on the viewer, for these hooded, faceless figures are here to haunt us. We may see Richard Nixon portrayed as a buffoon but it is no less frightening due to this.
Other critics have spoken of Guston’s ‘sense of underlying horror inside the pervasive absurdity … [of his] puzzling narrative’ (Graham-Dixon, 2003: 57). And, without being too symmetrical in my linking of influences and imagery, Guston used absurdity, whereas, in contrast, de Chirico used a stripped-down kind of classicism. Despite this, both artists definitely provide a glimpse for the viewer into the abyss. Despite the displays of absurdity in Guston’s work, they embody the same inexorable, implacable threat.
The paintings of anonymous, hooded figures operate in the world like everyone else: they smoke, point, drive around in cars, occupy the city. Yet they have a malevolent and impervious air that belies their comic image. There is oppressiveness in this imagery of them, particularly when shown with a book, as we all have fearful associations with the book’s misuse. Is not Guston’s portrayal of a Ku Klux Klansman reading the very essence of horror?
The visionary nature of de Chirico’s work is that it characterised the philosophical despair of modernity. His constructed settings give life and poignancy to the psychological doubts that plague our age, as do Guston’s.
If we take a walk down de Chirico’s streets, his visual elements trigger a philosophical dialogue. Buildings take on an extreme, repetitive and precipitous quality. When we consider works like Italian Piazza with red tower, our initial impression is one of stillness and silence. The de-populated, shadowed square seems to presage an event, yet the stone statue, the empty porticoes, the desolate settings with long afternoon shadows barely contain a feeling of threat or an apocalyptic event. Perhaps it is important to note that de Chirico had, like Nietzsche, embraced the consoling role of art, and despite much discussion, his works are not visual tracts of Nietzschean themes. Their visionary brilliance is their integration of the personal, philosophical and ultimately prophetic.
This is a key to Guston’s relationship with de Chirico’s city. The philosophical inheritance in Guston can be recognized in his portrayal of shambolic, mysterious settings, post-1969. In many ways, it is the acknowledgement of Deleuze’s argument, coming via Spinoza and Nietzsche, that freedom and truth are relations to be entered into and in Deleuze’s terms ‘profoundly empiricist’ (Deleuze,1992:149). Guston’s great aesthetic shift was grounded in this Nietzschean theme: ‘the power of transformation, the Dionysian power, is the primary definition of activity’ (Deleuze, 1992: 239). Guston talks eloquently in interviews of almost a desperate need later in life to take some action against the events raging around him in the world:
And yet, if I have one good day in ten, I am fortunate – the rest is torment and a shambles and a debilitating self-torture and disgust. After so many years of work I feel I know nothing at all — so very little — in front of the canvas or the drawing paper, I feel like an innocent — a beginner — a primitive (Guston, 2007: 13).
From these shifts, it is possible to see how both artists, particularly Guston, demonstrated a kind of becoming in their imagery and that these ideas had foundations in related philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings. Arguably these two artists separately created work that challenged reigning values and expectations of them. They both affirmed the artist as a contemporary seer, a prophetic figure broadcasting an unwelcome cultural despair. Despite their varied concerns and their visually contrasting outcomes, we are able to witness links.
Both artists shunned the fantastical in their imagery. Their work has a kind of eerie logic, despite the dialogue with chaos, which resides at the heart of creative practice. Both artists bring a visual logic to their imagery and Guston is testament to this battle in the studio, for the Oedipal self never ceases confronting the questioning Sphinx. This logic is typified by the use of eyes in their imagery for we can see that they are a site of both internalised dreaming and also of external perception. This element creates an inescapable axis between content and meaning. In Spiders Web, Painting, Smoking, Eating or Painter’s Table, the image of the eye becomes a portal into a dream or nightmare but it is an eye of questioning as well as introspection.
For Guston, the final years of his life became a period of vigorous working with an urgency that reflected his visionary intention. Guston was fond of quoting from poets, Paul Valéry being a favourite: ‘a bad poem is one that disappears into meaning’ (Ashton, 1990:132) and, perhaps, it summarises Guston’s imagery which, like Giorgio de Chirico’s, remains persistently enigmatic yet utterly consoling.
Ashton, Dore (1988). ‘This is not what I meant at All: Why Philip Guston is not postmodern’ Arts Magazine (London) Vol. 63, no. 3, p.67
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