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Alex Calhoun

ARTH 101-1: Modernity and Modernism

Claire Daigle

April 7, 2009

Convergence Paper

Painting: from Indentured Servant to Entrepreneur

As defined by the dictionary, convergence denotes the approach toward a

definite value, as time goes on; or to a definite point, a common view or opinion,

or toward a fixed or equilibrium state. In mathematics, convergence describes lim-

iting behavior, particularly of an infinite sequence or series, toward some limit.

Eighty-seven years separate Le déjeuner sur l’herbe by Édouard Manet and Pilgrim

by Robert Rauschenberg. Another fifty-nine years separate the latter and my own

work. The three images diverge in subject matter, but converge in aesthetic qualit-

ies and underlying concepts, making them more alike than dissimilar.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, was, at the time it was painted, a highly controver-

sial painting due to the subject matter of the image. The piece broke most of the

“rules” that had been established for painting in the nineteenth century. The juxta-

position of the nude female figure and the clothed, male figures was startling to

the typical salon-visiting viewer. The use of a large canvas for portraying such

“mundane” subject matter was contrary to the period beliefs surrounding painting

as an institution. When aesthetically compared to other paintings of the period,

the painting looks almost unfinished with its prominent brush strokes and “flat”

forms. The background of the piece is painted roughly and in places lacks depth,

while the figures are built from more dense paint, but are not necessarily more de-

tailed. In front of the grouping of figures, are the clothes one would believe to be-
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long to the nude figure, a basket of fruit, and a round loaf of bread, displayed as in

a still life. Seemingly floating above or behind the three central figures is a scantily

clad woman who bathes in a stream. Upon analysis, the composition of the paint-

ing seems to be made up of unrelated images, suggesting perhaps that Manet ad-

ded things as he came across them, as if the painting was not made outdoors at

all, but in a studio, over the course of many different sittings.

The almost collage like composition of the painting mixes several painting

conventions (still life, nude, figure, landscape) but fully realizes none of them. This

suggests that the piece is not about any of its subjects, but about the practice of

painting itself. Manet chose to highlight the process of painting by using the con-

ventional materials (oil on canvas) in unconventional ways to emphasize and high-

light the materials. Though the piece is inherently and inevitably an image (even a

recognizable one) it is not so much depicting a scene as it is depicting the result of

painting as a practice.

Pilgrim by Robert Rauschenberg is a painting from 1950 that spreads

from its canvas onto a chair that is affixed to the front of the piece, giving it di-

mension and structure. The paint on the canvas is thick, and in places there is no

paint at all. The colors are for the most part harmonious earth and sky tones ex-

cept for the inclusion of a red form on the right of the canvas. The colors that ex-

tend over the chair are primarily the earth tones of the composition. The piece as

a whole mimics a landscape in some respects, but contains no objective image.

The piece is “wistful and pretty—colors of the sky blend harmoniously behind a

painted wooden chair” and through this harmonious relationship speaks volumes

about the relationship between two and three dimensional forms, as well as the

possibilities for combining them to emphasize and create structure and space.
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Pilgrim is about the physical act of combining objects (both abstract ones,

and concrete ones), not so much about the resulting product, though in this case

the resulting object is aesthetically pleasing. There is no denying that Pilgrim is

chiefly a painting, despite it’s inclusion of a three dimensional form, because of

the application of the paint to the canvas; Rauschenberg makes no attempt to por-

tray anything other than a composition made of paint, not a painting made to de-

pict an image. The nearly ninety years that separate this piece from Le déjeuner

sur l’herbe made it acceptable for the process of artwork to be more important

than the resulting image, so much so that by 1950 an identifiable image is no

longer a necessity.

Émile Zola shines light on the goal of Manet’s painting in saying that, “Paint-

ers, and especially Édouard Manet, who is an analytic painter, do not share the

masses' obsession with the subject: to them, the subject is only a pretext to paint,

whereas for the masses only the subject exists” (The Luncheon on the Grass). Here

is where the two men, separated by ninety years, meet: in the land of intention and

interest. Rauschenberg had the distinct advantage of living in a less expectant time,

and consequentially did not have to convolute his purpose with the inclusion of

“crowd pleasing” imagery and so perhaps manages to create a piece where the in-

tention is more apparent, but Manet gets the award for blazing a trail in very con-

stricted times.

The existence of painting that is self-referential in the manner of these two

pieces is parallel to the idea that some art exists chiefly for the sake of art-- that

painting can exist in the service of nothing except for paint. For much of art history

the art of painting served some other institution--the church, the government, etc--

with the advent of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, this indentured servitude begins to end
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and by Rauschenberg’s Pilgrim it has been replaced by entrepreneurship. As Oscar

Wilde said:

A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty

comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with

the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an

artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand,

he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an

honest or dishonest tradesman (Modernism: Art for Art’s Sake).

And here, with the emphasis of the author and act, is where my own contem-

porary practice intersects with the previous two images. My mixed media paintings

on paper typically derive from a visceral but constructive reaction to my surround-

ings, findings, materials, or a combination of the three. The pieces are, essentially,

about the existence of their components. In Blue the collage elements, including

aluminum foil, magazine images, tape, and wax paper where found in the painting

studio, and upon examining them, I began to mix colors that mimicked the ones in

those found materials. From the materials, a composition was constructed that de-

rived its structure purely from the components. In this manner, the process is purely

recursive and the “finished piece” is a document both of the existence of the mater-

ials in a given space, as well as the way that they fit together. I ask for no suspen-

sion of disbelief from my viewer; I would never deny that these materials are ex-

actly what they are, and I would never pretend that any image within the piece has

some thought-out symbolic meaning, even if it has a connotative one.

It is, however, a trend as art and literature advance, to be self-referential, to

break the “fourth wall” and to interact with the viewer in that way. In this way, I am

both freed by the two pieces previously discussed (and all other images created
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with similar intentions)

and boxed in by them,

for, while I am free from

most expectations (as

some might say that

there are no “rules” left

for art), I cannot refer-

ence myself without

references all other self-

referential works. The

art of self-reference and self-aware-

ness has become similar to the trend

of calling a work Untitled--what was

once a genuine gesture is now a

loaded one.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe


Édouard Manet
oil on canvas
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1863

Pilgrim
Robert Rauschenberg
1950
mixed medium with wooden chair
79 x 54 x 19 in.
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Blue
Alex Cal-
houn
36”
x 52”
mixed
media on
paper
2008
(full image above, and detail be-
low)

Works Cited

“The Luncheon on the Grass” The Luncheon on the Grass: Facts, Discussion
Fourm 2009. AbsoluteAstronomy.com: Exploring the Universe of Know-
ledge. 3 April 2009. http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/The_Lunch-
eon_on_the_Grass
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Witcombe, Christoper L.C.E. “ART & ARTISTS: Art for Art's Sake” What is Art?
What is an Artist? 1997. Sweet Briar College. 3 April 2009.
http://www.arthistory.sbc.edu/artartists/modartsake.html