The School of Postmodernism with extrinsic notes:
The School of Postmodernism: The Creative Trail by Vittorio Pelosi
I was a Foundation student at Central Saint Martins in its old premises near Farringdon station. I was in a workshop that encouraged us to work experimentally and finish an installation by the end of the week. Although my art education previous to this was typically traditional, I wasn’t averse to trying something a little different. We had been told on more than one occasion that the existence of foundation courses was that ‘A’ level art was wholly inadequate: that students needed to learn how to be creative. At the end of the studio the door was ajar and we could see the adjacent life-drawing class. The teacher, whose name I have long forgotten said that when she was training her friends would refer to those student who chose to work from the model as ‘the weaker’ students. This infuriated me back then and still does. There are of course, many well constructed arguments as to the role of representation since the advent of the camera. There is also the claim (that has some validity) that representative drawing is a learnt craft. However, it seemed to me an arrogant assumption that those who wanted to improve this discipline are ‘weak.’
Foolishly, I decided to pursue representational painting for the remainder of the course. Whether the criticism of this approach was systemic or my skill insufficient, I failed to get a place at Ruskin, The Slade and Chelsea. During peer appraisals I began to be disillusioned by the lack of any criteria. Most views were accepted; those that weren’t were rejected without any coherent rationale, and most importantly, the artist’s voice was either sidelined or considered to be just an opinion like any other. At this juncture I hadn’t heard of the term postmodern but in discussing written work with friends texts that were not considered ‘literary’ I always thought that although the quality of a work can be subjective, surely the meaning of a work must include what the author intended it to mean.
When I decided to create a piece that represented my concerns I quickly remembered my encounter with my Central Saint Martins’ teacher. Were life-drawing students weaker? Did they lack imagination? Were they simply copying what they saw? If any of this were true, then in the eyes of my lecturer perhaps life-drawing is intrinsically subordinate because it is more objective. Of course, even then I knew that a viewer’s baggage – both from nature and nurture cast giant shadow over the clarity of their perception, and yet I realized that in the visual arts, representational drawing from a model is as close to objectivity as you will find.
I decided to paint a life drawing scene. However, a painting of others painting the human form representationally carries no commentary on my reservations. I wanted to demonstrate that if an artist has an intention to recreate the human form on paper, this goal is achievable. The form of the work can communicate however imperfectly a sufficient degree that the viewer can take it to be the human body. Of course, if I painted various artists painting clear depictions of a model (seen too in the frame), this would not be needed to prove that the human form can be clearly drawn since the very fact that the painters in my own work were recognisable would. I began to play with this concept of myself as the artist and the artists in the painting so that these two roles would be distinct and commentate on each other. If I can demonstrate my position that forms can be communicated clearly from author/artist to viewer by painting representational figures, what if the artists in my work all thought that the artist’s intention to communicate objectively was impossible? For this to be understood, I knew that the artists’ works could not be interpreted as differing styles. Most life drawing classes will include budding impressionists, expressionists, realists etc. At this point, with minimum understanding of some of the extremely complex and subtle positions under the amorphous term Postmodernism, I wanted my objection to be obvious. I therefore envisaged each artist scrutinising the model and making necessary measurements with their choice of implement yet their work would be perhaps a landscape or a still life. I believed this would represent my thinking successfully as we would see the comical dilemma of the focused artists unable to see the model as he or she is, and yet I had quite easily rendered her or him and all the artists clearly. I was happy with the concept and I was happy with an art school studio as the location. Then I went to Rome on holiday.
Entering Vatican City I was enthralled by the great frescos and I saw The School of Athens by Raphael. I have always been uncomfortable with the themes of postmodernism; the idea that there is no objective truth; you can have your truth and I can have mine; that an artist can create a work and not offer an explanation of its meaning.
Prior to this I had thought of portraying a life-drawing class as life drawing in art school is arguably the most objective practice. I would paint a class where many of the great post modern thinkers are studying the model only to create a work that has no relation to what they see (e.g. a still life, a landscape e.t.c). I had decided to call it ‘The absurdity of Postmodernity.’
The British art critic Brian Sewell wrote to me and questioned the idea of still lives e.t.c as not being inherently postmodern. He suggested a pastiche and illustrations of their postmodern beliefs. He also suggested that I change the title from ‘The absurdity of Postmodernity’ to something else whilst still keeping ‘Postmodern’ in it.
Back to my visit to Rome then. I was still looking for a setting (perhaps something postmodern, like The Big Brother house) when I visited Vatican city. Seeing ‘The School of Athens,’ everything seemed clear. I noticed that in the centre was Diogenes, founder of the Cynic School, semi-clothed like a life-model with the many classical thinkers surrounding him with writing implements and paper. It looked like a life-drawing class. I decided to call the painting ‘The School of Postmodernism’ and replace each major classical thinker with a Postmodernist in similar pose.
I was then still stuck for a setting for my own painting that could have parallels to Raphael’s work. The studio space of my original sketch now looked uninspired. Sewell wisely remarked that Venturi (whom I have in the painting) was the architect behind the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. I visited it and bought several books on it. I immediately found ties to Raphael’s setting of arches. Venturu designed his arches to have ‘diminishing perspective’ towards the Cima alterpiece (‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.’) It functions as tricking the eye. I remember in a letter Sewell informed me that the architecture in Raphael’s painting was similar in that it would be impossible to build.
I read that Venturi visited many cities in Italy to research the National Gallery Commission and was inspired by the ‘traditional floors of the rectangular terracotta tiles.’ The Sainsbury Wing and the’ School of Athens’ have this.
The following is from an interview with the artist:
Intentist Gideon Parry: The work is full of figures, some immediately recognisable, others not. Can you talk through your intentions?
Vittorio Pelosi: It is influenced by ‘The School of Athens’ by Raphael in the Vatican. It is a commentary on the subjectivity of postmodernism that can deny objective Truth.
Whereas Raphael’s work showcases the great Greek thinkers of the past, my work represents the most notable postmodernists of our age.
Whereas Raphael’s learned philosophers are encircled, discussing and recording their ideas, mine are gathered around a life model. (As much as possible, the postures of my subjects are similar to Raphael’s subjects.)
I have chosen the setting of a life drawing session since life drawing has traditionally been seen as the discipline most concerned with objectivity.
The central postmodern irony is that a careful look at each postmodernist’s attempt to depict the human figure is futilely seen through the lens of each postmodernist’s particular theories, making the class unworkable.
The life model is clothed and the postmodernists, conversely, are naked. Apart from being postmodern in this reversal, this also has inferences of The Emperor’s New Clothes about their self-aggrandizement. The postmodernists are lit from electronic faux candles and the model is in the shadows. The faux candles hint towards Baudrillard’s ideas of simulacra and hyperreality. The lit up figures illustrate the irony that although Roland Barthes, Foucault et al have spoken of the ‘Death of the author’ through their writings they have become household names.
The setting of Raphael’s work is purely inventive with a succession of central arches. The architecture did not exist and structurally cannot be built. The arches are so painted that they fake a greater depth and perspective in the work
My work mirrors that by taking place in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, designed by postmodern architect Robert Venturi; a site famed for it’s arches. The aligned arches perform the same visual trick as greater depth is achieved by the building of each arch slightly smaller than the preceding one.
In Raphael’s original are two iconic sculptures of Greek gods, Apollo and Athena. I have replaced these with arguably the ‘gods’ of postmodern popular culture: David Beckham and Madonna. (As the Sainsbury Wing houses pre-Renaissance religious art, and various altar-piece paintings, the two paintings illustrate religious imagery. Beckham is displaying his crucifix tattoo and has long Messiah-like hair. The background is blue and reflects the lapis lazuli of pre-Renaissance art. The frame is actually a large photo-negative frame, as Beckham has become more famous for his image than his football. The negative number is Seven as not only was this his preferred shirt number at Manchester United, but is also the Biblical number of perfection. Madonna is painted in the style of Munch’s ‘Madonna.’ and her frame is a television frame. The painting is signed MTV, since this ‘author’ has been one of the reasons of her stardom.
Intentist Gideon Parry: One obvious thing is that the frame appears to be the wooden stretchers of the canvas. Am I right?
Vittorio Pelosi: Yes. Well noticed! In a final postmodern twist the work is painted on a canvas that is in the dimensions of the golden ratio 1:1.61..(something that fascinated Greek thinker Pythagoras) but is painted on the underside of the stretched canvas, so that the stretchers are coated in gold leaf and become the frame.
Details of figures with extrinsic information from Vittorio Pelosi
“This is a depiction of 20th century French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze wrote very influentially on philosophy, literature and fine art. This figure replaces the artist Apelles in the same pose from Raphael’s work.
“Here is French sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard is a central figure in postmodernism and post-structuralism. Therefore, he is at the very centre of the work and replaces Aristotle in the painting. Raphael paints Aristotle pointing down as one of his greatest influences was in the field of empirical research. Baudrillard, on the other hand, is measuring the model with the same out-stretched hand. He is wearing a beret. This is because this hat is an excellent example of Baudrillard’s simulacra as it has become more than clothing and represents a nation and the artist.”
“Standing in the centre is professor, Franch feminist writer, poet,playwright, philosopher, literary critic and rhetorican, Helene Cixous. Cixous was particularly critical of Freud and his analysis of gender roles through the Oedipus complex. Cixous was also interested phallogcentrism and how women can be defined by waht they lack. In the painting, the feminist Cixous is shown as a mother- to- be and the ambiguity of sexual roles is illustrated in the fact that she is wearing male underwear.Intentiist palimpsestism (the layering of the art to reveal the creativeand editing process) is clearly manifest in this image.”
“Replacing a statue of a Greek God in Raphael’s work is a modern day icon of Postmodernism – David Beckham. The Sainsbury Wing in the National Gallery London, houses Pre-Renaissance work which mostly consists of altar piece painting representing religious iconography. A god of Postmodernism, Beckham, is framed by a film negative, since what we think of him is as much from the Paparazzi as it is from his football. The negative number is 7, which was the number of his jersey as well as being the biblical number of perfection. His back clearly shows his well known crucifix tatoo and the background hue represents Lapis lazuli, the expensive colour often used in Venetian work to symbolize important religious figures such as the Virgin Mary.”
“Working on a portrait here is American film maker and visual artist, David Lynch. The woman on the canvas is not, however, the model but is Italian actress and lead actress in Lynch’s postmodern iconic film ‘Blue Velvet’; Isabella Rossellini.”
Sitting down is French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. Derrida replaces Heraclitus and Michaelangelo from the Raphael work. Derrida curated an exhibition of drawings at The Louvre in 1990. The opening image was Joseph-Benoit Suvee’s ‘Butades,’ or ‘The Origin of Drawing.’ In it a young woman Butades in coming to terms with separation from her lover, traces his shadow on the wall. Derrida said this was also the case in drawing. The artist cannot see the model and the canvas at the same time. The artist in a sense, is always blind. Therefore, in the painting, we have a blind Derrida next to a blind man’s white stick. He is tracing a shadow on his drawing. His work is initially signed and then crossed out. This is something Derrida has done himself as a reflection of identity and presence. (The device of erasure that Derrida borrowed from Heidegger.) He is leaning on one of Warhol’s Brillo boxes. This is an iconic work that Danto called ‘The end of art.’
Finally, Derrida spoke of the chora that conjures up Plato’s ideas of a receptacle for the copies of ideal forms. The chora cannot be represented as it is a spacing rather than a presence. Tschumi suggested it can be represented architecturally and finally persuaded Derrida to draw something. The resultant box is by Derrida’s right foot and is being used to store his brushes.
Provatively seated, legs apart is French philosopher, sociologist and historian Michel Foucault. One of Foucault’s major works was ‘A History of Sexuality.’ Foucault was also on several occasions found in compromising situations. He is wearing a cravat in the shape of the HIV ribbon, echoing the fact that the cause of Foucault’s death in 1984 was AIDS. He replaces an unknown figure writing and dressed in red in Raphael’s painting.
Standing in the background is photographer, model and film director, Cindy Sherman. Her canvas is a painterly re-working of one her most famous photographic self-portraits, Untitled #96. One central tenet of much postmodern thought is that even when trying to be objective we are still seeing things through our own horizon. Everything in essence is a self-portrait. This figure is obscure in Raphael’s work. It may be the Fornarina as a personification of love.
The artist with his back to us is German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger (26 September 1889 – 26 May 1976) was a thinker in the Continental tradition and philosophical hermeneutics. He is widely acknowledged as being one of the most original and important philosophers of the 20th century. He had a profound influence of 20th century existentialism and many postmodern thinkers including Foucault, Derrida and Lacan who feature in the painting. In the world of art, Heidegger brought to it his focus on being. Heidegger’s sole major essay was written for a series of public lectures at Freiburg, Zurich and Frankfurt from 1935-1936. This was a period of great tension in the art world as Goebbels and the National Socialists were in 1937 about to curate nine exhibitions attacking so-called ‘degenerate art.’ Modernist works were banned and there was to be a return to neo-classicism and Roamntic work. Heidegger added his voice to the debate on art by defining two distinct realms that art, uniquely belongs to simultaneously. The first is the ‘world’ – originally known as ‘culture’ or ‘society’ but Heidegger broadened this out to forms of human activity. The second category is the ‘earth’ whose origins are not man-made. Art, peculiarly is made by man, but is not for a practical purpose such as shoes. Heidegger often chose to study shoes and shoe maker shops as an example for the analysis of a culture. Heidegger’s painting focuses in on the model’s boots. This is to reflect Heidegger’s use of shoes in his philosophy. Shoes are ‘disclosed’ as equipment-type things by the fact of wearing them. However, can they still assume this identity when they are the subject of a painting? In 1930 Heidegger saw one of Van Gogh’s eight paintings of shoes in Amsterdam. The actual painting may have been ‘Old Shoes’ (1886) which was chosen for my work.
A Pair of Shoes (1885), by Vincent van Gogh.
Heidegger constructs the figure of a female peasant owner to defend the shoes as belonging both to the earth:
From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. There is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading furrows of the field swept by a raw wind. On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles stretches the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrate the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain, the fallow desolation of the wintry field.
And the world:
This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death…
Heidegger also infamously was a Nazi sympathiser having joined the Party (NSDAP) on May 1, 1933, ten days after being elected Rector of the University of Freiburg. Although a year later he stopped taking part in Nazi Party meetings, he remained a member of the Nazi Party until its disintegration at the end of the War. The denazification hearings held after World War II led to Heidegger’s dismissal from Freiburg, and he was banned from teaching. To allude to this in the painting, the easel’s shadow cast across the floor resembles the Swastika.
This figure that Heidegger assumes is mysterious in Raphael’s work.
A close look at this image will also see text layered over the figures. The text is in German and comes from Heidegger’s ‘Origin of the Work of Art’ which among other things debates the hermeneutical circle. For several of the figures there is text from a seminal work in the original language.
The figure painting on the floor is Jackson Pollock. This is a replacement of either Euclid or Archimedes in Raphael’s work. Jackson Pollock is engaged in Abstract Expressionism. Pollock would work on the floor, dripping the paint. He spoke that the work having ‘a life of its own’ outside the artist- a concept that echoes the post-structuralist ‘Death of the Author’ theories.Again there is text to Pollock’s right explaining his painting theories.
Below sitting down is French Psychoanalysis and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan. Lacan spoke of ‘penis envy’ and famously about the ‘mirror stage’ in life where the ego has a conflict between one’s own perceived visual appearance and one’s emotional appearance. Therefore, In Lacan’s painting we see a penis in reflection. The penis is leaning on a stick. Lacan greatly influenced the Surrealists. Dali would often have this stick present in his work.
The image in the corner is from a Gilbert and George mural. ‘Death’ is a commentary on Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ thesis.
The other central image next to Baudrillard is the French philosopher and literary theorist Jean- Francois Lyotard. He replaces Plato from Raphael’s painting. The book he is holding his ‘The Postmodern Condition.’
Replacing one of Raphael’s scuptures of Greek gods is one of the gods of postmodern popular culture: Madonna. Madonna is seen here as Munch’s Madonna. This is because the Sainsbury Wing holds the Pre-Renaissance Christian iconography. Furthermore, Madonna has often been a controversial figure with the church. The frame of the painting is a television and the work is signed MTV since her image is commonly seen through the glasses of her musical videos.
On the far wall of the Sainsbury Wing is a painting called The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano. Thomas is doubting the resurrection of Christ.
In The School of Athens Raphael includes his own image on the far right. In The School of Postmodernism, the far painting is a re-working of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas with Nietzsche and Vittorio Pelosi. Nietzsche has often been cited as a father of postmodernism. Pelosi, as Thomas, is doubting those aspects of postmodernism that utterly rejects meaning of any attempts at objectivity.
Architect Robert Venturi replaces Pythagoras in Raphael’s work. He painting of the life model has a strong resemblance to Elvis Presley since one of Venturi’s seminal texts was entitled ‘Learning from Las Vegas.’
Furthermore, the setting of The School of Postmodernism is The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery that was designed by Venturi.
Roland Barthes was a French philosopher, Literary theorist and Semiotician. He is perhaps most famous for his text’ The Death of the Author’ therefore Barthes is wearing a black armband. His painting of the model is inspired by his extensive work on the signs encoded in wrestling.
Salman Rushdie has often been cited as a postmodern writer. A fatwa was infamously placed on him for his controversiall ‘Satanic Verses.’ Foucault once publicly supported the Islamic Revolution in Iran and so as way of contrast Rushdie is placed next to Foucault.
The father of linguistics Saussure stands near the back. Saussure as a structuralist expressed that there is nothing intrinscic in the signifier to connect it to the signified. Instead meaning is found through absence in that we recognize a word because it is different from other words. Therefore, his painting by his feet shows the shape of the model by painting in the details only of her surroundings. Another infamous example of his thinking involved traffic lights in that they work by each colour being clearly different from the others, instead of a colour innately meaning ‘go’ or ‘stop’. Therefore, his paint pots by his feet are the colours of traffic lights.
Andy Warhol a postmodern Pop artist icon stands studying the model.
Beligian feminist philosopher and linguist Luce Irigaray sits painting the model as the Virgin Mary, reflecting her interest in the female subject by adapting the most famous female figure.
Lastly, the painting is painted on the reverse side of the stretched canvas. The canvas stretchers were then varnished and painted with gold. This ironic reversal of the settled order of modernism is a common postmodern theme.
Exhibiting the final piece