“There is only one image my eyes remember…her mouth against mine, long, bare legs, hair against my cheek. And that scent! How I wish I could preserve every precious second of a love affair…the atmosphere, the colors, the dimensions and the perfume.” – Jacques Henri Lartigue
Imagery is memory, and in many ways abstraction – especially the socially driven kind of abstraction – tries to do away with this problematic idea. Abstraction wants to create a more direct experience of art by removing the annoyance of an author and the author’s memory. What’s most important are the processes of composition and construction, the relationships of color, the predominance of the surface, and the banishment of illusion. These are puzzle pieces for the eye – a clear unimpeded experience of the qualities of this specific medium. It is your vision, your understanding, that’s important. Maybe you’ll have a religious experience or maybe you’ll weep in front of it, or perhaps you’ll play the game and solve the puzzle, or you’ll just meditate and admire the zen of the process. Perhaps there will be nothing at all and you’ll just like how the thing looks – another thing in the world – like a rock, a tree, an ocean or a lamp. Modernism does away with the need to depict reality, to remember – rather it is reality. And with that imagery and memory and the intimacy engendered by those experiences are no longer necessary in order to paint.
“This was not to say, however, that she did not long, at times, for some even greater variation, that she did not pass through those abnormal hours in which one thirsts for something different from what one has, when those people who, through lack of energy or imagination, are unable to generate any motive power in themselves, cry out, as the clock strikes or the postman knocks, in their eagerness for news (even if it be bad news), for some emotion (even that of grief); when the heartstrings, which prosperity has silenced, like a harp laid by, yearn to be plucked and sounded again by some hand, even a brutal hand, even if it shall break them; when the will, which has with such difficulty brought itself to subdue its impulse, to renounce its right to abandon itself to its own uncontrolled desires, and consequent sufferings, would fain cast its guiding reins into the hands of circumstances, coercive and, it may be, cruel.” [Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past Volume One, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, p. 174, (1922)]
In the Classical South – after the war – there was a resurgence of imagery pushing back against Modernist iconoclasm. Every well worn tenet of art, politics, society, and religion was being questioned. DaDa, Surrealism and the “return to order” all made it clear that many artists who began the Modern enterprise were thinking that something had been left out. The imperfect memory of a place, a person, a moment in time began to re-emerge in Modern art – Picabia’s cinema-inspired overlays – Miro’s surreal abstract figuration – Matisse’s Orientalism – Picasso’s classicism. And along with these newly image besotted painters came the love-drunk photographers, like Lartigue, capturing their own personal and undeniable moments, indulging in the life and love of leisure and desire, and finding the moments that slip away without us noticing. Images and memories came rushing back to the surface of things-in-the-world, because what Modern artists were looking for in the South was intimacy.
“What’s so incredibly amusing with photography is that while seemingly an art of the surface, it catches things I haven’t even noticed. And it pains me not to have seen things in all their depth.” Jacques Henri Lartigue