Painters Are Telling New Stories

Contemporary narrative painters explore what it means to be human.

Vincent Desiderio, An Allegory of Painting, 2003

Every night after work, most people prefer to watch movies and fictional television programs instead of watching documentaries, and most people read novels instead of textbooks for enjoyment. We get immense pleasure from stories and seem to be hardwired to seek them out.

In their 2001 Substance article “Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?” pioneers in the field of Evolutionary Psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, state that:

With fiction unleashing our reactions to potential lives and realities, we feel more richly and adaptively about what we have not actually experienced. This allows us not only understand others’ choices and inner lives better, but to feel our way more foresightfully to adaptively better choices ourselves… How would I feel if I acted in a cowardly fashion, and my community knew it (Lord Jim)? How would I feel if my sister died, and I were responsible?

We have an evolutionary need for stories, for they help us to imagine all kinds of ‘what if’ scenarios. Furthermore, stories can help us understand our current relationships with others, how we fit into society, or even who we are.

Narrative art has a very long history; long before film or even the written word. Some of the earliest cave paintings are painted stories about the hunt. Paintings and sculptures only get more technically proficient and the stories more complicated as we move along through history and art begins to illustrate Greek myths or stories from the Bible. Narrative art encompasses traditional mediums such as painting and sculpture, but also new mediums like film, animation, comic strips, and photography. I’m going to look at narrative painting specifically.

Michelangelo, The Sistine Chapel ceiling, 1508–12

Basically, a narrative painting is a painting that tells a story. It could be a story made up of various scenes all contained within one painting. For example, the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome has nine scenes within one fresco painted by Michelangelo, all of which illustrate the Book of Genesis. The most iconic scene is ‘The Creation of Adam,’ where Adam lazily extends his finger so that God may transfer the gift of life to him.

Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam (from the Sistine Chapel ceiling), 1508–12
Sandro Bottecelli, The Birth of Venus, 1485

A narrative painting could illustrate a single scene, like a film still of an important moment from a movie. For example, Sandro Bottecelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ portrays a moment from the story of Venus (the Roman version of the goddess Aphrodite, taken from the Greeks). Aphrodite’s name comes from the Greek ‘aphros’ meaning ‘foam.’ When the god Chronos cut off the genitals of his father Uranus, he threw them into the sea and Aphrodite was then born of semen-laden sea foam. Here she is brought forth on a clam shell, pushed by the wind gods Aura and Zephyr. Her attendant goddess Hora of Spring greets her with a robe to cover her nakedness.⁠

Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa, 1818–19

The stories in narrative paintings can come from history too, as evidenced by Gericault’s famous painting ‘The Raft of the Medusa.’ In 1816 the French naval ship ‘The Medusa’ was wrecked off the west coast of Africa, due to the incompetence of an inexperienced captain. The Medusa held 400 passengers and crew, but only had boats for 250, so 147 people were put onto a hastily-built raft.

When they were rescued 13 days later, the number of raft-goers had dwindled to 15. There were stories of crazed men killing off the weakest and eating them in order to survive. News of the shipwreck soon made its way back to France and the newly reinstated monarchy was blamed for having placed such an inept man as captain in the first place. Gericault recreated the dramatic moment when the raft-goers catch sight of their rescuers.

To understand what happens next in the history of narrative painting, we have look at the cultural milieu of Europe in the first half of the 19th Century. Victorian morality had taken hold. Religion, sexual restraint, strict codes of conduct, and zero tolerance for crime were the order of the day. Erudite artists like John Ruskin held important positions at royal academies and acted as gatekeepers to the art world.

In reaction to strict Victorian moral code and exclusion from the art world, the bohemian artist was born. He was a traveled man of little wealth who bucked social conformity. Bohemians did not care if they were looked at disapprovingly by those with status, for they disapproved of the notion of conventional status.

In 1835, the slogan “art for art’s sake” was first written by Théophile Gautier. It’s the bohemian idea that art should be divorced from any political, moral, or didactic purpose. Many writers and artists took up the cause in the 19th Century; even Whistler wrote that “Art should be independent of all claptrap — should stand alone… and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like.”

Suspicious of Victorian morality and the narratives it espoused, artists started looking for new ways to express their non-traditional values, and so, traditional painting methods and subjects were not to be touched.

Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, 1872

The 1870’s marks the beginning of the modern art era, which lasted until roughly the 1970’s. Modern art was born when painters like Monet first began radically breaking up the picture plane into fragments of color. Cezanne started playing with perspective. Picasso asked himself what an object would look like if you could add the 4th dimension of Time. Artists started fracturing the picture plane into abstract forms.

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm, 1950

Abstraction was taken further with abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock in the 1950’s, and minimalists like Carl Andre in the 60’s. They sought a pure art; one that was free from historical restraints. They wanted to create a universal visual language that all people (regardless of race, gender, or creed) could understand and resonate with. They looked within themselves for inspiration and aimed to express consciousness on a 2D plane.

Carl Andre, Equivalent III, 1966

The modernists had noble goals, but the general public got lost along the way. This minimalist sculpture made of bricks by Carl Andre is a good example; Andre wanted viewers to think about the formal properties (the material, the shape, the color) but most viewers just see an expensive pile of bricks. The Tate Gallery bought it in 1972 for £2,297 and British taxpayers were upset.

Barnett Newman, Voice of Fire, 1967

The National Gallery of Canada experienced a similar situation in 1989 when it purchased Barnett Newman’s painting Voice of Fire for $1.8M. Canadian taxpayers complained that such a large sum was spent on three painted stripes. Many felt that their children could have made it, and at least one taxpayer painted a copy on plywood and placed it on their lawn in protest.

Millie Brown performing a vomit painting

After our brisk walk through art history, we now arrive at the postmodern era (roughly from the 1970’s to today). The postmodernists are more cynical. They have rejected the idealism of their parents’ generation. Their art work is harder to characterize, for it ranges from Damien Hirst’s tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde to Millie Brown’s performance art vomit paintings.

In his 1998 book After the End of Art, the influential art critic Arthur Danto claimed the end of art. To be clear, it wasn’t that people weren’t making art — his complaint was that it was bad art, devoid of meaning. Danto wrote that art history began with an “era of imitation [pre-modern art], followed by an era of ideology [modern art], followed by our post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes… There is no special way works of art have to be. And that is the present and, I should say, the final moment in the master narrative. It is the end of the story.”

In his 2004 book The End of Art, art critic Donald Kuspit echoed the sentiment that postmodern art is fractured and meaningless. Instead of expressing the universal condition as the modernists did, postmodernists express narrow ideological interests. But Kuspit finds hope with the New Old Masters, that is, those artists working today who are

…masterful, reflective artists — visionary humanists with complete mastery of their craft… They know, in detail, both modern and traditional art…The art of the past does not consume their “best strength” but gives them new strength. It offers something that does not exist in postart: beauty, but with no sacrifice of modern ugliness — the tragic sense of the ugliness of life that has reached a kind of crescendo in modernity.

So who are these master craftsmen that he speaks of? There are hundreds of contemporary artists working in the field of narrative painting, but let’s look at three pioneers.

Vincent Desiderio is an American painter who often provides us with a timely snapshot of just one scene in an unwritten story, and we’re left to make up the narrative ourselves. It’s not easy art; we have to work at it. Our imaginations immediately start constructing the plot and assigning roles to the characters.

Vincent Desiderio, Un’Istoria, 2011

In the painting Un’Istoria we see dogs being walked by their human masters and we sense that the inmates of an insane asylum are being walked by their doctors on hospital grounds. Wild nature has been tamed into a landscaped garden complete with a classical statue, which indicates that the disordered minds of the patients are likewise under control.

But how are they under control? Is it because the patients are being medicated? And is that what the patients want for themselves? The painting’s subject is enigmatic, and we have to unravel the meaning.

Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum seeks to make art that deals in universal human emotions. He often points to how his hero Rembrandt did just that. He feels that modern art puts much emphasis on novelty, and that art should get back to the sentimental, as it transcends all time. As Nerdrum puts it, “the kitsch painter commits himself to the eternal: love, death and the sunrise.”

Odd Nerdrum, Drifting, 2006

This scene is set in some ethereal, embryonic skyscape that is familiar and foreign all at once. Two light sources, one warm and one cool, light up these figures, seemingly from within. We imagine that if there were such a thing as heaven, soulmates would float in the calm gentleness of eternity. This painting is truly beautiful.

American painter Bo Bartlett looked to American Realist painters of the past to influence his style, yet his paintings are distinctly contemporary, using contemporary dress and themes. As true with many Bartlett works, there is an unsettling and ambiguous narrative in his monumental painting Homecoming.

Bo Bartlett, Homecoming, 1995

Three couples pose for photos in front of an ominous blaze, but the only one smiling is the Homecoming queen — is she just putting that smile on for the camera? Or is she genuinely happy? If so, why do all the others look so resentful?

Bartlett has said that he does not want there to be a singular reading of his paintings; he sets the stage and leaves us to invent the narrative for ourselves. That being said, we can’t help thinking that this is a potent critique of American individualism and the culture of competition. Only the Homecoming queen comes out on top here, leaving a path of destruction in her wake.

There is something that these three contemporary painters (and many more like them) have in common: they are painting unfamiliar narratives. Whereas artists in past centuries painted stories from the Bible, Greek mythology, or history, these contemporary narratives are completely original. They are not to be found in books or in the news. Artists are inventing the stories and making their audiences work to figure them out, like puzzles. The narratives are sometimes ambiguous and have more than one way to end.

Furthermore, narrative painters are making work that reaffirms our humanity and sense of purpose. Gone is the irony that characterizes much of postmodern art; narrative painting seeks to understand the human condition. It seeks to understand beauty, truth, tragedy, love, and death. It is honest in its exploration of what it means to be human.

Jen Brown is a narrative painter, curator, and art historian working in Portland, OR. She has a Master’s degree in Art History and a diploma in Curatorial Studies. Her work may be seen on her website, Instagram or on Medium (Artist Jen Brown). She writes daily about narrative painting on Instagram or at narrativepainting.net.

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Artist Jen Brown

Artist Jen Brown

Brown is a narrative painter, curator, and art historian in Portland, OR. www.brownjen.com www.narrativepainting.net