Coloured dirt

What is a picture? What is painting? More to the point, what is a painting worth if you lose it on a

"I once had this idea of starting a magazine called Oil Painting. It wouldn't discuss anything else, and a critic would write in the way a sports writer would write when looking at tennis. He would say, 'Beautiful ground stroke by God, look at the way he stroked that, and in that yellow, that Naples yellow.'"
Malcolm Morley

The idea of the specialist, within contemporary art, has taken a bit of a knock. The emphasis within much recent art has been on the "generalist": the artist who is not bound by the demands of a particular medium and who can therefore extend his or her work through any appropriate means. He or she may even adopt or parody the working methods of some other specialist profession in order to test working assumptions, much as an anthropologist may seek to draw conclusions about human nature from the study of a particular tribe. But there is no tribe of painters, even though each one is a specialist in his own field.

All fine art practice depends, to varying degrees, either in its inception or for its dissemination, on a superstructure of technology that is largely undiscussed in the critical discourse that surrounds it. Digital video and photography are manipulated and edited within immensely powerful, ingenious and bewilderingly versatile software packages. The artists using them, much like their predecessors producing an edition of an engraving or lithograph, normally depend on the resources and expertise of the "master technicians" assisting them. The artists' own involvement with the technology might finish up anywhere on a spectrum between improvised intervention (perhaps actually extending or redefining the field) and a kind of neurotic fixation resulting in creative paralysis.

By comparison, painting might seem like some kind of unmediated, primal option for image-making, umbilically linked to the mythical but compelling images of the Corinthian Maid tracing her candlelit lover's shadow on the wall, or to that of a band of shaggy Neanderthals drooling over images of plump bison deep in a cave. Certainly, painting's potential for directness is still part of its attraction: looking at and applying what Philip Guston termed "coloured dirt". This pragmatic approach continues to serve many artists well, but it rather suggests that we take for granted the "technology" involved every bit as much as the casual user of Photoshop, who doesn't worry too much about binary code or silicon chips.

The quotation from Malcolm Morley represents a typically mischievous contribution from an artist who, throughout his career, has had a knack of taking the debate in unexpected directions. His comparison between painting and sport springs partly from a weariness of the efforts of theorists to call the tune. He seems to endorse the uninhibited enjoyment of virtuoso performances of an arbitrary activity. But he points out that the quality of engage-ment is dependent on a certain amount of insight.

Among theorists, there is some discussion about whether paintings are "objects". The one occasion when their objecthood is not in doubt is when one needs to carry a painting home. A need that arises, for example, when I participate in an exhibition during which I replace, rework and return paintings during the run of the show, a sort of public "work-in-progress". So late one evening, after one such reshuffle, I find that I need to take one canvas back to the studio. It is small enough to carry on the train, but there is only time to wrap it summarily in clear polythene.

Even a smallish painting becomes a source of anxiety on public transport: too wide for the overhead racks, too unstable to prop on a seat, too fragile to risk leaving near the doors. I am therefore pleased to find pairs of seats, back to back, that have a slim gap between, a perfect place into which to slide the painting.

The late-evening train is deserted. I buy a couple of beers from the buffet - my reward for a long day's hanging and rehanging - and spend the time making notes and drawings for how I will rework the painting. There is a mild altercation with the conductor about my ticket, which had been issued for an earlier train. Eventually he waives the matter (perhaps because I am, apparently, the only passenger on his train). I celebrate this minor victory with another beer. I doze. The train clanks into Euston Station around midnight. Head throbbing slightly, and anxious to leave behind the dolour of late-night stations, I run for the last Tube. At home, I leave my bag in the hall and crawl into bed.

Next day: time to review that painting. My bag stands alone and accusing in the hall. Surely not . . . ? But, of course, you know right away . . . yes . . . you did.

Back at Euston, I look for the Lost Property Office. Does such a facility still exist? There had been one in the mid-1970s, when I inquired fruitlessly after my long stripy Doctor Who-style scarf. Perhaps nowadays they simply destroy everything right away as a suspect package. Eventually I spot the office, over beyond the newspaper stands and photo booth in an unfranchisably gloomy corner. It's actually open, roller-shutter up, two bored men waiting at the counter. A pegboard notice displays set charges for the retrieval of various items: umbrellas, cameras, coats, briefcases and, scribbled on cardboard underneath, mobile phones and laptop computers. There is no mention of contemporary or modern British art.

"I left a painting on the last train from Birmingham yesterday."

A twitch of interest passes over the first man's otherwise inscrutable face.

"Could you describe it, sir?"

With a slight sinking feeling, I recall the familiar course of polite conversation: "So, what are your paintings like, then?"

This is no time for equivocation. I look the man unflinchingly in the eye.

"It's 40 centimetres square, unframed, signed on the reverse, predominately greenish-blue with bubble-like marks covering most of the surface . . ."

As I am speaking he moves back to peer behind a tall screen: the entrance, I presume, to the Vaults of the Unclaimed.

"Could you describe it a little more, sir?"

"Well, there is an inset landscape, in grey tones: a canal-side with some warehouse buildings."

He nods faintly, still scanning the hidden catacombs, and when I stop speaking, turns back to me briefly.

"OK, and . . . ?"

I am momentarily stunned. I am forced to imagine that he has something like the Royal Academy Summer Show back there, with paintings of various genres racked up the walls.

"Well, there are two small figures in the bottom-right area, who, umm, might appear to be having a pillow-fight on a sort of pipe thing."

He continues to nod. Under his passive interrogation, my memory of my own work, and my ability to describe it, start to fray.

"There's a thick blob of red - no, I changed it - orangey paint in the upper right, well, just above mid-point. You can just see part of another figure, but it may not be noticeable, I painted it out mostly . . . did I say green-blue? Well, it's more green-grey really . . . you see, although I call them 'bubbles' it's really a way of structuring the paint marks so that colour can be modulated across the surface in a way that appears to trap light and . . ."

Eventually, after some minutes of participation in what feels like a cross between an art-school critique and a radio quiz show, he reaches into the store and pulls out my painting, with the stern-but-fair expression of a satisfied examiner. I have passed the test and managed to regain my work by describing it just adequately. I unravel in gratitude and relief: "Thanks so much . . . I'm so pleased to get it back . . . what's the fee?"

He leans back and exhales the air of a negotiator who knows he's arrived at the most interesting stage of a transaction:

"Well, sir, what would you say it was worth?"

From Short Stories About Painting, edited by Jeffrey Dennis.

The exhibition of the same name runs 9 September to 15 October

at Art Space Gallery, London N1 (020 7359 7002)

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide