CONSCIOUSNESS OF HISTORY
By Sergio Rubira
He was walking on the outskirts of Kristiania, to kill time, as he often did. He was with a couple of friends, but had lagged behind and was walking alone. It was getting late and night was beginning to fall. “It was a moment in which life had torn my soul. The sun was beginning to set and was burning on the horizon. It was like a sword of flaming blood cutting through the concavity of the sky. The sky was like blood - crossed by lines of fire – the hills became dark blue / the fjord – cut by cold blue, red and yellow / the blood red exploding over the railing and the path – my friends were tainted yellowish white – I felt a powerful scream – and I heard, yes, a powerful scream/ the colors in nature – broke nature’s lines – the lines and colors vibrated with movement – these oscillations of life led not only my eyes to oscillate but also my ears – I really did hear a scream – I painted The Scream then” Edvard Munch would later write in his diary, he had heard a piercing scream, the fruit of his own profound despair. This despair had given name to another painting not long before “Scream” became universally known. “Despair” is a lesser-known painting, surely because of it concreteness. It could almost be considered an earlier iteration, since in practice it reproduces the same noisy landscape of sinuous lines and vibrant colors and the twilight sky above the icy Norwegian fjord that confronted the artist in this moment of desperation, echoing his scream. The scene is also similar: two people have walked on ahead and have their backs turned to the main character. The protagonist, although painted with sketchy features, is much more precisely drawn. This is Munch himself, moments before he hears the inconsolable cry of nature, when overwhelmed by exhaustion and sickness he has to stop and grab the railing bordering the path. A Munch who appears more melancholy – the traditional sign of genius – than filled with the anguish that characterized contemporary life. Perhaps, however, these feelings of exhaustion and sickness that he sought to impart on the canvas have more to do with the nausea of French existentialism than with the black bile and his birth sign of Saturn, the Zodiac sign of genius. Anguish which, rather than manifesting itself through the protagonist, Munch himself, wrapped in his fatigue and pain, is shown through synesthesia in the landscape, a landscape that cries out, and through the expressively-vibrating brushstrokes.
This intense anguish could also be linked to a certain widespread sense that the end was approaching: Hegel’s thesis of the end of History, and Nietzsche’s declaration of the death of God in the 19th century, a century so drenched in death that black clothing was the norm. But the death and sense that judgment day was drawing near did not end with coming of the new century: during the 20th century more mortal sicknesses were diagnosed and further agonies followed. Some of this fear was an extension of the raw and apocalyptic tradition of the previous century; for others the fear of the end was confined to specific areas: the idea that art had ended or that painting and the artist had died. In the end, all these deaths turned out to be births, new life. One thing ended and the next began. In many cases, not even that: they were re-births or re-incarnations, the origins of the post-thises and neo-thats that occur so widely today. Somehow history, art and the artist always start again, always the same, yet at the same time very different.
As with Munch, the fates of other artists seemed to be determined by their anxiety about the end – or the beginning. A case in point was the post–World War II expressive painters of the CoBrA group – if expressive can be said to mean anything and is not simply a convention. In their search for the original – rather than the unique – they looked towards children’s art, the art of the insane, as well as folk art. In short: what was once termed primitive, another myth. Brushstrokes and pallet knives heavy with paint were dragged across the surface of the canvas in a way that appears spontaneous – although of course everything can be learned, including throwing heavily–diluted oil paint over the cloth – resulting in paintings in which it was difficult to distinguish shapes. It was figurative abstraction or abstract figuratism – perhaps everything always comes down to a question of language.
Munch and CoBrA are said to be present in Morten Slettemeås’s painting, typically by art historians and art critics – who are also said to have died or are dying – in an attempt to explain his work in terms of tradition, tradition that somehow serves as an authority, approving (or not, as the case may) the work. In this case, a contextual tradition, the Scandinavian tradition, that goes even further. Another name that is frequently linked with Morten Slettemeås is that of Per Kirkeby and his color-filled rural landscapes. His work is very much more optimistic than Munch’s paintings from the outskirts of Kristiania and the aggression of the paintings of the CoBrA movement, perhaps above all because of the playfulness of the Fluxus movement, this movement to which he belonged that was no movement. His paintings contrast with his interventions in nature, more regulated and inspired by Viking architecture, and – it is said – have sometimes been described with an adjective that no longer means anything, or rather, nothing like what it used to mean, i.e. minimalist, as if the structures of his paintings have nothing of that. After all, even under a Pollock there was a Mondrian, as should not be forgotten.
This is what characterizes Slettemeås’s painting: an awareness of its history and the use of this history in the construction of his paintings. “It is something you have to deal with from the moment you put brush to canvas”, he says, fully aware of the burden of responsibility that this imposes and of the potential for failure inherent in this point of departure. These are paintings that borrow freely from styles, forms and subject-matters from the history of painting, all its history, not solely the Scandinavian, and then subverting them. Decontextualize them, remove them from their proper place, including from what is seen as their proper physical place, i.e. the museum, open up their meaning and allow the spectator to do the same when they encounter Slettemeås’s canvasses. Subjectivity is important in this deconstruction of the visual vocabulary, because this is what styles, forms and subject-matters are: a language. Painting is not a dead language, despite the attempts that have been to declare it so. On the contrary, painting is more aware than ever of its position. In Slettemeås, this awareness goes even further, because it is an awareness of the image itself. Baroque still lifes, nineteenth century heroes and twentieth century landscapes are mixed in no hierarchical order with not-readily recognizable photographs capturing historical moments, pages torn from newspapers and magazines, comic strip panels, Internet images. And it is because of this breaking down of hierarchies that his work has been seen in terms of visual culture – random, subjective and multidisciplinary as Nicholas Mirzoeff, one of its pioneers, put it – rather than in terms of art history. Aby Warburg too had little regard for these distinctions. In his Mnemosyne Atlas, a Neapolitan shepherd girl co-exists with a Botticelli nymph, and images of military parades from his own time appear with angels portrayed by fourth century artists, breaking down ideas of time and space.
Slettemeås’s investigations of the visual is not history painting, the preferred genre of the academicians; it is painting with history, but a history that like art and literature has not been completed, but rather has discovered another way: ending to begin anew.