Saturday, February 28, 2015

Today is yesterday's tomorrow......

The 'Faces Then, Faces Now' exhibition at the Bozar, which I visited on the 10th February with 30 students and two colleagues, made the personal and emotional experience of time and space tangible in the contrast between the selection of contemporary European photography since 1990 and the smaller collection of Renaissance portraits from the Low Countries. 

Polish photographer Adam Panczuk's series of large black and white photographs entitled 'Karczeby' struck me as particularly evocative and powerful.  Karczebs, according to his website, is both the dialect of this region of Poland as well as the people who have farmed it for generations. These strange surreal, scarecrow like figures were posed centrally within the square format of the picture between the sky and the earth, rooted as it were, to the ground with iconographic attributes suggesting their ancestral connection to the soil. 

This relationship between the realistic image of an individual face and person and a particular place, suggested by trees, houses, churches or landscapes with rivers or mountains, like in the self portrait of Simon Bening below, whose gaze and gestures suggest an existential awareness of time, past, present and future, was also clearly an important element of portraiture in Northern Europe in the Renaissance.

These often very real painted illusions, small worlds, entire and self-contained, set within the mirror like frame and its referents, like continuing events create a set of visual co-ordinates that help us to map our own cultural and emotional memory across the centuries always, paradoxically, within the present moment.  

Simon Bening. Self portrait aged 75, 1558. Watercolour on vellum laid down on card. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Our ancestors carefully chose the optimal moments of their lives to be painted. This was not a cheap or easy thing to have done in the 15th, 16th and 17th century and only really an option for the elite. Whilst they presented themselves looking their best as potential lovers, or as respectable, prosperous and well established individuals or thoughtfully reflecting on the vanity of this live and the inevitability of the next with objects of memento mori, we in a more democratic age, when the projected self-image is ubiquitous and inescapable, seem to kaleidoscope thoughtlessly through a hall of digital mirrors recording our every impulse of vanity in instant fragmentary moments self-gratification and self-affirmation posted in the electronic ether of the virtual architecture of our unlimited desire 

The present moment is the future we dreamed about in the past and both the past and future can only be imagined and remembered in the present moment and it is always the present moment. 

A couple of weeks ago I went into St. Jacob's in Brugge to see a small panel painting representing the Legend of St Lucy by the appropriately named 'Master of the Legend of St Lucy'. 

Master of the Legend of St Lucy (active c. 1480-1510 in Bruges) 

Apart from the jewel like realism in the skilfull rendering of fabrics and flowers and the strange impassivity of the faces of the main characters in this quiet drama, what struck me was the way that we can read the operation of space and time within the painting and its conventions of representation. The main episodes of the story of St Lucy's life all take place simultaneously within the same frame separated only by the fragile emblazoned trompe l'oeil columns that  divide the narrative into sections like a cartoon strip read chronologically from left to right, suggesting both interior and exterior spaces, rather like I suppose theatrical staging might operate in a mystery play or a performance in Shakespeare's Globe. 

The two details below offer us windows into the depth of the picture and through time and space, bringing back to the present moment. The door is both a real and symbolic threshold between worlds, framing the walled garden and suggesting both the mysterious and perhaps unknowable city and the country on the horizon hidden behind the furthest door. The frame of the picture is the threshold from our own real world of the present into the convincing illusion of the tangible and symbolic world of the past both observed and imagined by the artist.   

The second detail shows the still recognisable tower of the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk bringing us back to the familiar and knowable present via a landmark which we can still locate in our real experience and making us still active participants in this visually re-imagined story of a virgin martyr from late antiquity, full of virtue and violence, money and power, sex and death, continuing to unfold for each generation in the picture before us.  

As soon as we imagine it the anticipated future is upon us in the immediate present and the moment we are conscious of it in the present it is already in the past.  Only images, places and things which outlive us with their longer cycles of growth and decay seem to fix or even transcend time, giving the illusion of stability, but these too are fragile and transitory, subject to the same uncertainty of flux and change and inevitably they too will eventually fade and disappear. 

In the mean time they are a comforting contingency ........ 

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