Pete Edler

Painting the Big One / 2

Seems to me the messier the world, the tidier the pictures we paint of it. Most of what you see today is neatly framed, telling you: Buy me, put me on the wall! Nothing wrong with that in euros and cents, of course – but isn’t it a little like putting the cart before the horse?

Eugene Delacroix knew how to handle this sort of dilemma. He understood that the world is extremely messy and that people like pretty pictures – so he gave them both, the messy and the pretty. Liberty Leading the People is a perfect example of his mastery in depicting horrors beguilingly. At the feet of Liberty he strews the dead and the dying, Liberty herself is bare-breasted - a sight that those dead men at her feet could happily die for. Plus she’s exposing her breasts for a really good cause. Now there’s a thinking man’s painter!

We’ve lost a lot of that today. Nowadays nudity in painting relies heavily on titillation, it’s shallow in the extreme. Delacroix Liberty’s nudity is incidental, indeed subservient to the larger theme – it’s the very essence of erotic painting. To him, painting a woman’s breast exposed is not a come-on, it’s a challenge to thinking, to commitment. What man wouldn’t want to make love to Liberty? And what thinking man wouldn’t think twice about it? You just don’t fool around with that sort of thing!

As for horrors, say the horrors of Iraq, how can these be painted beguilingly – how would Delacroix paint them? Wrong question. How would a present-day Delacroix paint them? Well, that’s easy. He’d paint them the way I painted them in libby@fallujah – only a lot more attractively. If Delacroix were commissioned to do a painting using all the elements in libby@fallujah, of identical size, placed precisely as on my painting, he’d produce a canvas that would instantly throw the art market into a feeding frenzy of bidding. At first auction it would fetch an unprecedented price, certainly several hundred million dollars. So much for style, and for depth of technique.

All I can do is sing the praises of the masters and admit to myself and the world (if the world wished to know, which it doesn’t) that I ain’t no Delacroix. But I’m taking another long look at libby@fallujah (as if I hadn’t been studying it incessantly ever since I finished it a year ago) – the curse of the painter! And why? To discover something in it, anything at all, that’s better or at least as good as something, anything at all, in Liberty Leading the People. Of course if you look long enough at any painting you’ll find whatever it is you’re looking for. As did I.

(The mystery of The Wizard of Oz is unveiled when we see that the Wizard is a little old man behind the stage, working the PA system and the machinery. For us to be allowed to see behind the curtain should be a total no-no yet it works, defusing an intimidating storyline and transforming everything blissfully for the grand finale. Similarly I’ll reveal what I found in libby@fallujah that’s at least as good as anything Delacroix ever painted – certainly in the horror department. )

After I finally managed to mount my 2x3m canvas on a wall where I could view it from six meters distance I saw to my surprise that a fine crimson mist hung over the entire painting. I had no idea how this impression had been created but I instantly understood that this was mist rising from the symbolic river of stylized blood that dominates the canvas center.

This mist is not something I painted intentionally but that occurred spontaneously, something like a stylized aura of all the blood that once coursed through the veins of thousands of Iraqis - an entirely uncontrolled effect. Maitre Delacroix might have appreciated it – it’s a horrible thing to see, yet there is a delicacy to it, a miasmic evanescence that transcends the crushing trauma at the core. This is, after all, a painting, and only a painting – no more.

Francisco Goya painted some eminently flat, eminently forgettable society portraits. Yet, once unleashed, his vision created horribly fascinating scenes of monstrous degradation – without the soothing esthetic that distinguishes Delacroix. When he chose to get down to it Goya painted horror pure. Still, he must have admired Delacroix - even though Goya died a couple of years before Liberty Leading the People was painted in 1830. Fortunately, what Delacroix said about Goya is on record: "If I could paint like Goya I wouldn’t be painting the way I do." Truer even that if I could paint like Delacroix I wouldn’t paint the way I do - I’d paint like Raoul Dufy if he could have painted like Delacroix.

A tentative hierarchy of idiosyncratic preference thus having been established, I rather feel kin with that stone-age savage on Mindanao a hundred years ago who told his buddies he’d seen a helicopter, describing it in detail, scratching drawings into rock – drawings that were found decades later and still puzzle anthropologists today. It was one thing for a native in those parts to have had a precognitive vision of helicopters, but to etch the image of an Apache attack helicopter into stone on some godforsaken Philippine island in 1903 would have counted as a minor miracle even if the visionary had been Albert Einstein.

Like that stone-age artist I have a precise vision of the future – but only a tiny, specific fragment of it. I don’t see a physical object, a machine, but a condition, a particular mode of perception. I know that Fallujah will be seen the way I painted it last year, just as Picasso’s Guernica is the only idea of Guernica most people will ever have – mark, I’m not saying I’ll put Fallujah on the map the way Picasso did Guernica. Times have changed.

Seventy years have passed since Guernica. The outrage of Fallujah was swept under the rug by US-managed media while it happened and is being swept under the rug even as I write this – everything is swept under the rug by America’s instant-oblivion-makers!

So my libby@fallujah serves as a marker for the future, for the day when the world shakes off the nasty spell of babbling media doubletalk that now entrances it and starts looking at the big picture – including the one I painted. Other than that I sleep well, eat well, sheet well. And thankgod I learned how to write before I learned how to paint.

©Peter Edler 2006