The Agony in the Garden
GET IN ARCADIA EGOG
ET IN ARCADIA EGO, 2000
ART'S CONTENT - ELITISM - THE PUBLIC
In Art’s Content, Elitism and the Public the artist André Durand and I set out to prove a hypothesis: that elitism is a recent attitude, reflecting current art theory and criticism through the populist media. We proposed that the public would respond spontaneously to the work of an artist painting contemporary subject matter - art’s content - and that the response would be positive and enthusiastic.
Durand, Soggetti Italianizzati (Italianate subjects) is a catalogue of Durand's figurative pictures (1999-2000) linked to Italian 15th and 16th century painting and sculpture. The subject matter of the pictures reminded me of pictures influenced by Renaissance religion, neo-Platonism and archaeological discoveries. Durand was born in Canada, far from the source of his inspiration, but when we met I was astonished to find, in post-modern Britain, a figurative artist with a profound knowledge of art history and genuine painterly skills.
We agreed to develop an artists' residency at Kingston University's Stanley Picker Gallery, in cooperation with Charles Ryder, Curator of the Stanley Picker Gallery. Art's Content -Elitism - The Public would include debate about art's role in society and would culminate in an exhibition of the pictures painted by Durand during his tenure at Kingston University. New insights were fostered by prolonged conversations with other students, painters and friends and turned my art historical research into an interdisciplinary project, contributing to the maturing of my own painterly vision.
One large oil on canvas - Durand's Fortuna - an allegorical portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales, caught the imagination of the entire country.
Art should reach all levels of society through its universal appeal. Art is the common property of all citizens and the patrimony of all. With these thoughts in mind we made our way to London's National Gallery to reconsider pictures that are common property and patrimony. This visit changed my secular perception of what I had previously called Christian propaganda; in the splendid rocky landscape of Bellini’s Agony in the Garden I saw a whole picture married to its subject, transcending literal meaning. I beheld a ravishing vision in all its beautiful simplicity and balance much more than the presence of Christ and his sleeping apostles.
In August 2000 Durand transformed the Stanley Picker Gallery into a busy open studio, meeting with students, curators and guests while he worked on a series of important pictures including The Dissolution, Giordano Bruno Burning, Et in Arcadia Ego, and Messiah 2000. Through the subject matter or content of his pictures Durand demonstrated that an apparently elitist painter could arouse the public to lively debate.
Another way to involve the public is to invite them to witness the work in progress, from the seductive white canvas to the subtle final glazing. It is inherent in human nature to admire technical skill be it bricklaying or works of art. Durand’s mastery of his craft is evident to such an extent that one does not take conscious note of it, but visitors to the Stanley Picker Gallery studio were often amazed. A frequent comment was, “We did not think that this sort of thing could be done anymore”. This delight in craftsmanship suggests a victory over intractable materials like oil paint on canvas; a delight that is conducive to achieving the satisfaction one picture can offer. Such mastery makes us feel we are rightly placed for further and perhaps deeper aesthetic experience.
Durand’s work is a reminder of the qualities in art that we rarely experience in our widespread tendency to reject art that suggests academic knowledge and spiritual consciousness with virtuosity. And beause the public still hankers after a bit of a story in pictures, Durand’s use of allegory and mythological themes offers an opportunity to investigate the power of visual symbolism and to determine what exactly constitutes the nature of elitism.
Durand probably thinks Erwin Panofsky has it right when he says that a correct iconographical analyses assumes a correct identification of the subject matter: "If the knife that enables us to identify a St. Bartholomew is not a knife but a cork-screw, the figure is not a St. Bartholomew". [E. Panofsky, Studies in Iconography, Icon Publishers 1967].
A horse without wings is not a Pegasus and if a naked lady with an oar is not transported on a crystal ball she cannot be Fortuna.
Durand reveals the lost meaning in iconography. In his paintings, like in the works of the artists that have influenced him, Durand reinforces his pictorial vocabulary by literary means.
Armando Bayraktari Alemdar