Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (c.1610 – after 1675), Trompe l’oeil. The Reverse of a Framed Painting, 1670
Writing in his autobiography, Words, Jean-Paul Sartre notes that as a result of his maternal grandfather’s somewhat ignoble pursuit of a bareback rider, “his portrait was turned to the wall and all mention of his name was forbidden.” In one respect, such a gesture reminds us that far from being a stable ecology, the ‘family’ is always a work in progress and as such, is subject to revision, adaptation and, in the case of Charles Schweitzer, Sartre’s grandfather, selective omission.
However, what such a symbolic act of banishment seems to rehearse is the idea that whilst the image is cancelled out, the possibility that its verso or ‘non-image’ can still engender meaning, arguably is not.
Within the context of painting’s history, there are a number of moments wherein artists have sought to work with the possibilities offered by what is, in effect, an equivalent form of volte-face.
One of the most pointed, and perhaps the most well known is The Reverse of a Framed Painting (1670) by Cornelius Gijsbrechts. Painted as a trompe l’oeil, the work represents, in the first instance at least, the back of a framed painting. The only detail of what is otherwise an ostensibly blank canvas is a ticket with the number 36 that has been painted in such a way that it appears to be attached to the painting’s verso, denoting, we imagine, either its price or perhaps an auction catalogue number.
Beyond the pronounced level of realistic detail Gijsbrechts uses to convincing effect, (its verisimilitude extends to a series of tacks painted at certain points along the inner edge of the painting’s frame), as a non-image Gijsbrechts’s painting appears to anticipate certain ideas that gained purchase during the twentieth century.
To this end, on one level the painting is notable for the means by which it appears to rehearse an impulse that the art historian Victor Stoichita has deemed to be ‘self-aware.’ Accordingly, the artwork is organised in such a way that it is akin to a self-regulating system whereby it is able to, amongst other things, make reference to its status as a representation.
For its part, The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting, Stoichita’s study is limited to examples drawn from sixteenth and seventeenth-century painting. However, the idea that painting could somehow be self-referential and gravitate towards, if not directly comment upon the conventions of which it is comprised was an idea that worked to frame twentieth century artistic formalism, both as a critical methodology and, in the guise of abstract painting, as an artistic strategy. To this end, and with regard to the former, the art criticism of Clement Greenberg sought to confer onto the artwork an autonomy that necessarily relinquished its imbrication with a broader set of contexts, be they social, political or otherwise.
In addition to the work’s self-awareness, The Reverse of a Framed Painting also anticipates another tendency that emerged as artistic modernism gained traction during the first two decades of the twentieth century, namely painting’s pursuit of the non-image.
Admittedly, it was not Gijsbrechts’s intention to radicalise painting in a way that seems to chime with artistic modernism’s intention of testing the parameters of painting’s status and condition. However, and at the very least, what The Reverse of a Framed Painting directly anticipates, albeit through chance rather than design, is an approach to painting that became perceived, approximately two and a half centuries later, as representing the non plus ultra of pictorial abstraction.
The possibility that a painting could be devoid of any image, design or detail and merely be comprised of a single colour, applied more or less consistently upon a flat and usually square support became a key weapon within the arsenal of artistic modernism. Although not beholden to a particular period, (Malevich’s Black Square was painted in 1915 whereas Gerhard Richter’s grey canvases date from the 1970s) nor place (such a seemingly reductive approach was certainly not a wholly European phenomenon), one consistent feature of the monochrome is that it has been subject to all manner of attempts to reimagine if not its formal scope, then at the very least its import and the meanings it might proffer.
This is as much true now as it was then. For although today we inhabit a social and cultural milieu that is after modernism, the last two decades or so has witnessed an eclectic range of responses to and adaptations of this approach to picture (non) making. Examples of the monochrome by Reena Spaulings, Angela de la Cruz and Andrew Dadson, to name but three seem testimony to its lack of fixity and its tendency to migrate across media, context and approach.
And like the portrait of Sartre’s grandfather and The Reverse of a Framed Painting before it, the monochrome, it would appear, negates the image only for a subsequent set of meanings, vis-à-vis the non-image, to take its place.
CRAIG STAFF is Reader in Fine Art at the University of Northampton, and author of Monochrome: Darkness and Light in Contemporary Art (I.B.Taris, 2015)