Art & Language (Michael Baldwin, born 1945; Mel Ramsden, born 1944)

Gustave Courbet’s ‘Burial at Ornans’; Expressing a Sensuous Affection .../Expressing a Vibrant Erotic Vision .../Expressing States of Mind that are Vivid and Compelling


Not on display

Ink, watercolour, gouache and wax crayon on paper mounted on fabric on 3 panels
Displayed: 3240 × 6990 × 50 mm
Purchased 1982

Catalogue entry

(Michael Baldwin born 1945 and Mel Ramsden born 1944)

T03453 Gustave Courbet's ‘Burial at Ornans'; Expressing a Sensuous Affection .../Expressing a Vibrant Erotic Vision .../Expressing States of Mind that Are Vivid and Compelling 1981

Black ink, wash, gouache and wax crayon on cartridge paper, mounted on synthetic fabric; three framed coloured panels each 3240 x 2330 (127 5/8 x 91 3/4); two framed panels of printed text on board, each panel 1280 x 1280 (50 3/8 x 50 3/8), overall dimensions as displayed variable (see below)
Not inscribed; work includes printed text
Purchased from Galerie Eric Fabre, Paris (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Exh: ‘Gustave Courbet's ‘Burial at Ornans' Expressing ...', Galerie Eric Fabre, Paris, June-July 1981 (no cat.); New Art at the Tate Gallery, Tate Gallery, Sept.-Oct. 1983 (no number)
Lit: Charles Harrison and Fred Orton, A Provisional History of Art & Language, Paris 1982, pp.72-4; Charles Harrison, ‘The Orders of Discourse: The Artist's Studio', Art & Language, Birmingham 1983, pp.13-16, fig.15, figs 16 and 17 (details); ‘A Cultural Drama: The Artist's studio', Art and Language, Los Angeles 1983, p.24; Mike Baldwin and Mel Ramsden,’Art and Language: Extracts from a conversation with Sanda Miller', Artscribe, no.47, July-Aug.1984, p.18; Richard Francis, ‘Your "If" is the only Peacemaker ... Art and Language's Museum Paintings', Artscribe, no.58, June/July 1986, p.24, repr. p.25. Also repr: Flash Art, no.108, Summer 1982, p.21 (col.); Art & Language: The Paintings, exh. cat., Societé des Expositions du Palais de Beaux-Arts, Brussels 1987, p.12

Since 1977, the group of artists and the collaborative enterprise known collectively as ‘Art & Language' has mainly concerned three people, the artists, Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden and the critic Charles Harrison. Art & Language was convened in Coventry in 1968, when Michael Baldwin was one of four founder members; the others were David Bainbridge, Terry Atkinson and Harold Hurrell. Charles Harrison became associated in 1970 and Mel Ramsden, associated since 1970, had worked for a time in New York but returned to England in 1977 and began to collaborate with Baldwin. In A Provisional History of Art & Language, Charles Harrison and Fred Orton record that between 1968 and 1982, up to fifty people were associated in some way with the activities around the name Art & Language which they review in the broad context of three main phases - the early years, up to 1972, which chiefly found public expression in the publication Art Language; a middle period divided between New York and England and linked to the publication of The Fox (discontinued in 1976); the period since 1977, during which paintings have been produced.

From the beginning, Art & Language has questioned the critical assumptions of mainstream modernist art practice and criticism. In A Provisional History... the authors characterise the early projects of the group as having been

determined by a sense of the need, critically and contingently, to address the culture of Modernism, and the agency which that culture is, and reflects, and misrepresents ... what perhaps united the founder members of Art & Language more than anything else was an intuition that, under the specific circumstances of art at the time, the production of a first-order art was a virtual impossibility, unless assent was given to those fraudulent conceptualizations by means of which normal art was supported and entrenched. Defensible work must first and foremost entail a critique of those conceptualisations - the development of a ‘second order' discourse in terms of which the normal discourse and production might be described and explained. (Harrison and Orton 1982, p.4, p.21, see also footnote p.24).

As Harrison and Orton point out, much of the work exhibited by Art & Language since 1977 was the result of the working relationship that developed between Ramsden and Baldwin at around that time. The original commitment of Art & Language to the view that

visual art is conceptually dependent on language had entailed the pursuit of a long critical and analytical project. It might be said, with hindsight, that enough work had been done in the intervening ten years to ensure that the reintroduction of pictures did not now entail assent to what had originally been assailed i.e. to the endemic mystifications of the support structures for Modernist art (Harrison and Orton 1982, p.57).

The origins of the large painted works such as T03453 can be traced back to 1977, when Art & Language began to make works which, as a result of stylistic and contextual interventions on the part of the artists, questioned assumptions about the inherent communicative potential of the original imagery and about the nature of autonomy in modern art. For example, a large oil painting of 1977 based on a poster originally produced by the Nazis to recruit industrial labour in occupied France was ‘intended to involve a ghostly symmetry between the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of aesthetics' (Harrison 1983, p.7).

In 1980, while teaching at the Open University, Charles Harrison had had to produce teaching material on Jackson Pollock and had been assisted in this by Baldwin and Ramsden (See Harrison and Orton 1982, p.62). Michael Baldwin recorded that a change took place in the work of Art & Language at around that time: ‘We started feeling a certain amount of pressure to address ourselves to deeper laid cultural issues. We had to learn how to do that. We had to learn how to deal with things like painting, how to face the historicity of our own images, (Baldwin and Ramsden 1984, p.17).

For an exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (Portraits of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock', September 1980), Ramsden and Baldwin produced what Baldwin has described as ‘cultural decoys'. Taking as their starting point portraits of Lenin they evolved these in ‘the manner of Jackson Pollock', a procedure that involved a complex process where stencils were laid over tonal separations of the basic image (Lenin), over which paint was dripped and spattered. Here ‘the revolutionary hero and the paradigm Modernist painter would be brought together in conditions of semiological hiatus' (Charles Harrison, Birmingham 1983 p.10). The paintings were then cut-up into squares on a grid. Each square was colour xeroxed in three copies. One copy was reassembled into the configuration of the original painting. The remaining two copies were assembled together into a travesty of an ‘abstract' painting. Following this work the artists made two versions of Picasso's ‘Guernica' in the style of Pollock, again produced by the stencil method (exhibited Kunst in Europa na '68, Museum Van Hedendaagse Kunst, Ghent, June 1980). Charles Harrison has pointed out that by replicating the style of Pollock, the artists were calling attention to the issue of ‘expression and expressiveness.' Harrison has suggested that Pollock's work of 1947-50 had ‘exhausted the potential for an expressive, unselfconscious art, ... Expression somehow became culture, became cultured and emasculated. That emasculation was a part of what Art & Language was trying to represent as a determining condition. The fixing of an expressive content needed to be taken away from the ‘authoritative aesthetic spokesman, ... what a painting expresses or means must be a function of what it is made of and from, culturally, socially, technically, historically, psychologically and morally, independently of the mind of the spectator ...' (Harrison 1983, p.12).

T03453 was the most important work exhibited by Art and Language in 1981 and the last painted work to date to be based on Jackson Pollock (Baldwin and Ramsden 1984, p.18). Charles Harrison has described it as a kind of monstrous lie - a piece of hysteria ... where even the conditions for deciding between hysteria as spontaneous outburst and hysteria as strategic and cultural representation were deliberately and necessarily confused; necessarily confused I think because Baldwin and Ramsden, who produced the painting, were never quite sure what they were making it from, though it was supposed from the start to be a relatively systematic exercise' (Harrison 1983, p.13).

The pictorial sources for T03453 are works by Gustave Courbet and Jackson Pollock. These are, Courbet's ‘A Burial at Ornans', 1849-50, (Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 3150 x 6680, 124 x 263, repr. Michel Laclotte, The Musée d'Orsay, Paris and London 1987, pl.74 in col.) and a small work on paper by Pollock, known as ‘War' (1945, subsequently inscribed ‘1947', pen ink and crayon on paper, 527 x 660cm (20 3/4 x 26) Francis Valentine O'Connor and Eugene Victor Thaw, (ed.), Jackson Pollock, A Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings, Drawings and Other Works, Drawings 1930-1956, New Haven and London 1978, III, no.765, estate of the artist also repr. in Bryan Robertson, Jackson Pollock, London, 1960, no.49 in col.) The painting, which took six months to complete, was made in three sections to the overall size of the Courbet painting. According to Orton and Harrison, the essential structure of the Courbet was mapped onto a maquette of the Pollock drawing, which had been enlarged and adapted to the dimensions of the original Courbet painting. Because of the complexity of the two subjects and the materials used, stencils, such as those used for the Lenin and Guernica works, could not be used, while Pollock's drawing could not be represented in the same way as his paintings had been (by dripping, spattering, etc.):

Different competences had to be developed, and a far higher critical requirement was imposed on the empirical process of tuning the relationship between the two sources of style and imagery. The adaptation of each, and each in relation to each other, continued as a function of procedure over several months (Harrison and Orton, p.73).

Seeing T03453 in monochrome reproduction it is easier to separate and read the elements of the original compositions of the Courbet painting and Pollock drawing. For example, the priest, altar boy, figure holding the pall and the crucifix on the left, the figure kneeling at the graveside in the centre and the dog on the right hand side, together with the faces of the mourners from the Courbet, are clearly visible. The same is true for the Pollock, (although the dimensions and, in consequence, the composition, have been adjusted to suit the scale of the larger work). The original drawing, executed in black ink and red, yellow and blue crayon, shows a pile of what appears to be skulls (the rounded forms in the centre panel of T03453) surrounded by fragmented forms above which a human figure and a cow appear to float or to be thrown upwards. The forms visible in the ‘sky' of the Courbet are taken from the legs of the cow and sections of the human figure and another floating element in the Pollock composition.

T03453 was exhibited (with the originals of some of the earlier ‘Lenin' paintings already referred to) at the Galerie Eric Fabre in June 1981. The three painted panels were displayed unframed on the end wall of the gallery. They were accompanied, as the artists intend they always should be, by three paragraphs of printed text, framed as one:

Each [of the three texts] made a claim about what was expressed by one of the three sections of the paintings. The texts were detailed travesties of the vocabulary, assumptions and idealizations of three exemplary ways of reading meaning into expressionistic art. They were compiled entirely from actual formulations and phrases in published art criticism and exegesis (Harrison 1983, p.13).

The three texts read as follows:

The Left-Hand Third of Courbet's Burial at Ornans Expressing a Sensuous Affection which, in Calling into Question the Autonomy of the Viewer as Separate from the Painting Itself - by Setting Himself Loose and Drifting in Very Deep, Very Vague and Immensely Generalised Reminiscences which Have to Do with a Sensuous Co-existence and which at Moments Merge into a Sense of Fusion - Touches upon Primitive Anxieties; Expressing Hopes for a Better Personal and Social Future, Not by a Flight into a Supra-historical Domain of ‘Timeless' Spiritual Essences, but rather by a Penetration Metaphorically into the Region of Psycho-biological Being - that Great Reservoir upon which these Hopes Ultimately Rest; Expressing the Emotions and Sensations Experienced through the Body and in the Rhythms and the Energy of the Body, in Responses to human Bodies or the Feelingful Experience and Imaginings of Others in Their Nakedness at Levels ‘Below' those of Language or Culturally Determined Signifying Practices; Expressing Elements of Human Being and Potentiality which are not so much Historically Specific as ‘Relatively Constant': Love, the Brevity and Frailty of Human Existence or the Contrast Between the Smallness and Weakness of Man and the Infinity of the Cosmos.

The Centre Third of Courbet's Burial at Ornans Expressing a Vibrant Erotic Vision, a Beckett-like Loneliness and a Haunting Monumentality through Volcanic Form and Colour and an Unbending Formal Self-control Meeting in the Common Ground of a Dark Anarchic Archetypal Configuration; Expressing the Spirit of a Creative Obsession, which Sweeps Aside Unnecessary Convention so as to Establish a New, Poetically Forceful Relationship between Image and Reality in a Cosmos of Hope - of the Raw and the Gruff, of the Turgid, Sporadically Vital Reelings and Writhings of the Ever Renewed Active Dialogue between Spirit and Matter in a Transformation of Living Energy.

The Right-Hand Third of Courbet's Burial at Ornans Expressing States of Mind that are Obsessive and Compelling, but behind which Lie Years of Ruthless Exploration of Self as well as Medium; Expressing Passion and an Awareness of Every Nuance of Feeling; Expressing a Nightmarish Vision of a Half-glimpsed and Enmeshed Witches' Sabbath, a Black Mass, Unholy Groups of Doomsday Aspect, through the Evocation of a World of Dreams Haunted by Primordial Beings, Demons, Monsters, Human Figures and Huge Enigmatic Female Heads; Expressing Automatic Emotional Images in a Vision of Horrific Suggestion; Expressing a Protest of Anarchic Orgin, a Warning, a Message, a Vision of Freedom, Energy and Motion Made Visible - the Reality not of Yesterday but of Tomorrow - and the Metaphysical and Psychological Structure of Things, the Powerful Rhythmic Alternations Based on the Life Process Itself.

The relationship between painting and quotations dramatises a kind of contradiction. There is a ‘hiatus between the palpably expressive aspect of the picture, and the evidence of an inevitable alienation or distance from its expressive components' (Harrison and Orton 1982, p.74). The texts are now framed as two separate panels. In one panel, the text is given in French and in the other, in English.

Charles Harrison notes that while the name of the painting invoked the type of reading expressed in the texts the object was not to ‘destroy the painting itself with irony' but to ‘alienate ... those closures and falsifications which are the cultural mechanisms of expressivity' (Harrison 1983, p.14).

Michael Baldwin has commented that it was almost impossible to use the Pollock to reproduce a severe realist classic painting such as the Courbet:

We set ourselves a much greater difficulta in order to sustain some sort of interest. We set ourselves the problem where it became almost impossible to adapt the icon of the ‘Burial at Ornans'... to Jackson Pollock's style; after the Courbet we seem to have dropped the whole thing. [i.e. the use of Pollock's style as a form of representation] (Mike Baldwin and Mel Ramsden 1984, p.18)

In 1982 Baldwin and Ramsden made a number of works on the theme of ‘The Artists' Studio', representing themselves in their working surroundings. The generic title for these works is ‘Index: The Studio at 3 Wesley Place' and the Tate owns five studies for the series (see Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, 1986, pp.93-95).

Represented in these works, on the right and left walls of the studio are sections of T03453. The maquette for T03453 is also represented in some early studies for paintings in the series Incidents in a Museum, made in 1985 (see Art & Language - Confessions: Incidents in a Museum, exh. cat., Lisson Gallery, 1986, pp.14, 15, 28).

In a letter to the compiler (June 1988) the artists said that when correctly installed, the painted panels of T03453 should not touch and should be between six and eight inches apart. They confirmed that the printed text is part of the work. The text exists in a French and an English version. The artists have said that both do not have to be displayed at one time but that if only one text is chosen, the French should have priority. The text(s) should be displayed on a wall opposite the painting, facing it. If this proves difficult it (or they) may be placed at a short distance from the three large painted panels.

This entry has been approved by the artists.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.481-4

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