About a painting: Tree with Cut-Out Moon by Claire Kerr
The Roman fabulist Phaedrus wrote that “things are not always what they seem”. This is certainly true of the best paintings, as it is of fables. It’s axiomatic to say that all painting is an illusion, an imitation of the real world; a mimesis. A single mark on a white surface is immediately an illusion of space, a figure on a ground. With a few more strokes the clever painter opens up a whole box of tricks. He or she can construct narratives, simulate (and stimulate) emotions, mimic the texture of the world and speculate on what it means to look and think and interpret. Great paintings play games and ask questions and as such they are intrinsically philosophical.
The ancient world provides another parable. According to legend, the Fifth Century Greek painter Zeuxis painted a still life of grapes so realistic that birds flew down to peck at them. Two and a half thousand years later, realism remains a highly valued style of painting, and artists are still trying to “fool” their audience.
But realism, or to update the concept, “photo-realism” or “hyperrealism” can be a poisoned chalice. Technical virtuosity and the ability to deceive the eye doesn’t necessarily lead to interesting painting. Mostly it just leads to paintings that “look like photographs”. After all, why spend a thousand hours doing what the camera can do in a split second? And why limit the magic and alchemy of paint to a potentially sterile and futile pursuit?
In the Prado Museum in Madrid hangs one of the greatest works of art ever created, both technically and philosophically; the painting Las Meninas by the Spanish painter Diego Velasquez. This painting asks lots of questions of the viewer. What exactly is Velazquez painting and what exactly are we looking at? On the surface, the painting is a snapshot of the royal court, the Infanta and her maids in all their finery. But look a little deeper, and the painting plays with your mind. Velazquez has painted himself in the painting. And he’s reproduced a partial view of the back of the canvas that he is currently painting - stretched on a wooden frame and supported by an easel - which is presumably the back of the painting we are now looking at. So as viewers we are looking at Velazquez the artist looking back at us. We are looking at Velazquez looking at us watching him paint the painting that we now see before us. We simultaneously see the finished painting, and the process of its making. It’s a dizzying conundrum, a tour de force in the act of reflection and contemplation. The subject of the painting is also in question. Supposedly it’s the ladies-in-waiting, 'Las Meninas', but the Infanta and her maids and the now famous dwarfs and dog have their backs to the artist. How can he be painting them if they are standing on his side of the canvas? The King and Queen, a more likely subject, also appear in the painting, but they are pictured in a small frame or mirror at the back of the room, possibly reflected in another mirror in front of the artist, where we, the viewer, now stand. So in a very real way, we are the subject of Velazquez’s masterpiece! It’s a journey into the heart of representation and reproduction. It’s a painting about what it means to look at paintings.
The Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte also loved asking these same questions. He is the comic philosopher/painter par excellence. In one of his most iconic paintings, The Treachery of Images, more famously referred to as “ceci n’est pas une pipe”, Magritte paints a beautifully rendered pipe with writing beneath it that declares it’s own fallacy. Of course the pipe is not a pipe but a representation of a pipe. It is a painting of a pipe and a painting of words. It is painting and writing and both are slippery languages. It could well be described as the greatest “one-liner” in art history. In another fabulous painting, The Claivoyance, of 1936, Magritte, like Velazquez before him, paints a self-portrait of himself painting a painting. He happens to be painting a picture of a bird in flight, but is using as his subject a single egg on a table. He isn’t painting what he sees but rather a set of propositions. From the egg will come the bird. Magritte is painting the future, the potential of life. He is the clairvoyant, and painting is the game that criss-crosses time and space. Coincidentally, Velazquez was also fond of painting eggs. In one miraculous painting painted by the artist when he was only 18 or 19 years old, he depicts an old woman frying eggs in an earthenware pan. With one hand she holds a wooden spoon to stir the eggs that are bubbling away in hot oil and in the other she holds the perfect unbroken egg. A painter friend of mine was fond of saying that Velazquez painted the greatest eggs in the history of art.
A couple of years ago whilst in Miami during the art fair season, I was wandering around a large marquee full of myriad artworks of varying quality. It happened that I caught a glimpse, from some fair distance, of a tiny painting on a wall, and for an instant my heart skipped a beat. In this diminutive rectangle I recognized the painter’s magic. I wanted to take the painting home with me but alas a keen eye had already secured it and a red dot declared its unattainability. But it didn’t stop me reflecting on its genius, and to this day I still think about that painting. In an age of outsize art, made from ever more outlandish materials, garnished with gold and glitter or studded with diamonds, this small, quiet and deeply modest artwork contained a universe of ideas.
A walk around an art fair can be both inspiring and depressing. Profound and beautiful objects continue to be made. And objects that are neither profound nor beautiful may have any number of qualities and merits to recommend them. But there is an awful lot of shiny bling. And like birds that would swoop to peck the grapes, the contemporary audience is seduced by glitter. We are the magpie generation, and the art fair is the toyshop of our desires.
This is why Claire Kerr’s Tree with Cut-Out Moon is such a special work of art, such a rare treat. It is a painting full of mystery and magic that asks questions of what it is we are looking at. At first glance, a painting of a tree suggests a landscape. The purplish blue background suggests a night scene and the white circle visible high up behind the branches suggest a full moon that illuminates this nocturne. But as we look closer, the painting reveals itself to be a simulacrum. The tree is in fact a twig and the night sky is a blue paper background constructed by the artist. The moon is actually a negative space, a circle cut out from the blue paper to reveal a white background, an empty nothingness that lies behind the artifice. This is The Truman Show on a miniature canvas. The landscape is in fact a still life. The twig, exquisitely rendered, leans delicately and precariously against the backdrop, like a stage prop. The full moon, far from being a light emitting satellite, is nothing but a hole, an absence. In fact the light source of the painting, comes not from the night sky, but rather, we must presume, from an artificial light source set up in the painter’s studio—a small lamp perhaps. This light source casts fine and intricate shadows of the “tree’s” branches on the shallow background. The whole set up is an exquisite essay in deception. Nothing is what it seems. Of course, even if the painting was of a real tree and a real moonlit sky, it would still be a painting of these realities; a depiction, an invention of the artist’s mind and hand, of questionable veracity.
Like Zeuxis and Velazquez and Magritte, and all the best painters, Claire Kerr is a fabulist, a storyteller, a maker of truths and untruths. The small and quiet paintings that she fabricates, Tree and Cut-Out Moon in particular, are meditations on what it means to observe the world and understand our own consciousness - and that is why painting is still so vital and relevant today.
view more of Claire Kerr's work > here
view more of Burgess' work as an artist and writer > here