Toil and tedium: how painting remains coy about its painstaking processes

A painting that has always had an unusually arresting effect on me is Gustave Caillebotte’s 1875 Les Raboteurs de parquet (or The Floor Scrapers, in English). One of a raft of Impressionist paintings that had immortality gifted to it upon being rejected by the muddle-minded patsies of the Salon, it nonetheless remains a lesser known work than many of its contemporaries. This is largely because its creator is himself a peripheral figure in the history of Impressionism. Not for want of excellence but more likely because painting was not even his day job. Caillebotte was a successful civil engineer whose practice along with his brother, carried out many major works of his day. He was also, along with his composer/photographer brother Martial, the founder of modern philately, amassing the greatest stamp collection in the world at the time, so it may be that an unfortunate air of the dilettante attended him. The fact too that his bourgeois wealth made him a patron for many of his fellow Impressionists probably ensures his reputation remains as a painter of the second rank.

Caillebotte, Les Raboteurs de parquet

Still, Caillebotte is remembered, and Les Raboteurs de parquet is his best known work. It hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and is a tableau of unusually dramatic dynamism frozen in a single everyday moment. Three floor scrapers work their way up the parquet of a bourgeois Haussmanian apartment, their progress measured both in the wood shavings curled up on the floor beside them and in the morning light’s fall on the dull, scraped patches of wood. The three men are stripped to the waist – a painterly solecism Parisian society was certainly not ready for in 1875 – and appear to be engaged in conversation. They must crane their necks to talk to one another but it is probably worth the effort given they will be on the job for some time – you need what diversion you can get. The painting both foregrounds the work done so far and the work to come. It is a marker of where they were at a given point in time.

Anyone who has ever performed a lengthily tedious, repetitive task, be it sanding a floor, painting a wall or even ironing a load of clothes, will recognise this physical marking of how far one has got. Where Caillebotte’s floor scrapers had only self-sung songs, tales of their weekend roistering or complaints about the boss (probably Caillebotte himself) to entertain each other, modern tradesmen and women, both professional and amateur, leave the radio on to keep themselves occupied. As you progress in the job, you listen to yet another news bulletin or another overplayed chart hit and it hits you – two, three hours later and you’ve still only got so far. The floor scrapers in the painting seem to have set their eye on a prize: what appears to be a litre of red wine sits in the foreground on the right, probably to be sampled when a certain goal has been reached. Then again, this being 19th-century Paris, they might have already started on it, no matter how early in the day it looks to be.

But that bottle might also contain something altogether more professional: linseed oil. Maybe they will be cracking it open when every last board has been planed to a rising curl and the floor is to be varnished once again. Which is not all that different from how a painting would have been finished, the tableau given its final protective coat on Varnishing Day (a term which lives on in the French word for a gallery opening – vernissage). Les Raboteurs de parquet looks extra-modern to someone who knows Paris as the type of apartment featured in it has not changed much to this day but it is also an unusual painting in that it alludes to the time, effort and patience that goes into producing art. This is something that art, painting in particular, is coy about admitting – everyone knows the effort that goes into creating works of art but it is all sublimated in a seamless, effortless whole. Even postmodern art and literature, with their fondness for meta-textuality and self-reflexive narrative planes, are still bound to convention for the finished work, with all the infelicities, typos, and inelegant sorties of early drafts, sketches and outlines swept under the rug and hidden from the eye of the beholder.

That is, of course, the way artists, critics and audiences alike prefer it and the age of conceptual art hasn’t weathered this yen for holistic authorial technique all that much. Caillebotte’s painting works because it takes a step outside the painterly work for a crucial moment and sees an echo of the artist’s work in the toil of simple artisans. Of the few artists who betray a glimpse of effort in their finished tableaux, Rembrandt stands out. The Master of Leiden’s work, even more so than his contemporaries, bears relatively poor scrutiny in printed reproduction. Only when up close and exposed to the flurry of dun impasto and endless variegations of dimness in Rembrandt’s work does one get both a full sense of his genius but also the graduated progress of his working method. I have always imagined Rembrandt deliberating over every tiny brushstroke in a portrait like a chess grand master before each move. He is, in later life, believed to have become so slow and deliberate a worker that he found it nigh impossible to find anyone to sit for him, something the late David Markson speculated might be responsible for the multitude of Rembrandt self-portraits.

Not that slowness has ever been a rare quality among painters and sculptors, great or small. Michelangelo is known to have let drop mallets, chisels and other implements from his scaffolding to keep importunate pontiffs at bay as he overran his deadlines. In a pre-mechanical age, a given date for completion was guesswork at best and if you were a big enough name, you had the client more or less in your pocket. But the strain of production in the plastic arts was considerable, even when you managed to farm out less desirable tasks to your apprentices. One of these was the production of white paint, which in the past involved collecting the finished product from a room where manure, lead and vinegar had festered in a torrid room for ninety days to produce lead carbonate. Pushing the technical envelope also had its costs – James McNeill Whistler used so much white paint for his Symphony in White #1 – The White Girl that he missed its unveiling at the Salon des Refusés in 1863 because he was in Biarritz recovering from lead poisoning.

James McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White No. 1 – The White Girl

A fuller representation of the painstaking tedium of the artist or artisan’s work is best afforded by a more durational medium, namely cinema. In The Quince Tree Sun, the Spanish director Victor Erice, who turns out films at the rate of roughly one a decade, filmed his compatriot Antonio López García’s attempt to paint a quince tree in his back yard in Madrid. Even something at such close hand entails an effort. The film shows López first charting his perspective with a plumb line and frame and then his successive attempts at capturing the pale autumn light on the fruit and leaves (López is a realist of somewhat classical leanings whose work is distinguished by a carefully calibrated control of sunlight). His daily routine at the easel is punctuated by radio news reports from the build-up to the first Iraq War. Ultimately, winter comes and interrupts his project, Polish construction workers pick the quince and, not knowing what it is, try to eat it raw and are repulsed. López instead brings the film to a close relating a dream to the audience.

Victor Erice, The Quince Tree Sun

Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse, released the previous year, also shows us the artistic process in real time. An ageing artist, played by Michel Piccoli, decides to resume a painting he had long ago abandoned when a young painter and his wife (Emmanuelle Béart) come to visit and the wife agrees to sit for a nude. Much of the film’s four-hour running time is comprised of the painting gradually taking shape – the hand of the artist is that of French painter Bernard Dufour, which means that though his preliminary sketches might bear a superficial resemblance to Leonardo di Caprio’s in Titanic, they are a great deal more credible. The film is loosely based on Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece” in which a young Nicolas Poussin encounters his idol but in Rivette’s long, exacting narrative (his films are rarely anything else) it is the model who suffers from the strain of an encounter with an intense artist.

Jacques Rivette, La belle noiseuse

Botticelli, Queen Vashti Leaves the Royal Palace

The Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai is also a student of durational cinema, having written numerous screenplays for Belá Tarr, including a seven-hour adaptation of his own 1985 novel Sátantango. A more recent novel by Krasznahorkai, Seiobo There Below (2008) is an at times maddeningly opaque but enthralling compendium of tales of artistic creation and the human responses to it. The title refers to a Japanese goddess who searches among human work for glimpses of perfection. The tales range from the restoration of a wooden Buddha in a Kyōtō monastery, the development of Russian Orthodox iconography, Botticelli creating Queen Vashti Leaves the Royal Palace and a disquisition on the “unknowable” majesty of the Alhambra in Granada. The novel ultimately embalms the works it treats of in a shroud of mystery, their artistic totality a closed book, but we witness the pain and toil that go into their creation, from the slow, methodical work of a carver of Noh masks to Pietro Perugino’s tortuous attempts to deliver a commission in time for the turn of the sixteenth century. Krasznahorkai is also interested in the work of those that do all they can to arrest the influence of time and nature on those masterpieces, with a number of chapters focussing on the restorers, trammelled by an even more rigid methodology and less flexible deadlines than the original creators. They work with unerring discipline and in total silence – “restorers are not chatty people, they are used to silence, and even if a talkative sort happens to turn up among them, he too becomes used to no conversation after a year or two.” It’s a bit different to Caillebotte’s floor scrapers, their necks craned to hear or deliver a snippet of gossip, but the long tedium of the work remains the same.

 

Originally published by The New Statesman.

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