Julian Schnabel

Humanity Asleep


Not on display

Julian Schnabel born 1951
Paint and ceramic on panel
Object: 2743 × 3656 × 280 mm
Purchased 1982

Display caption

Humanity Asleep was made for Schnabel’s exhibition at the Tate in 1983 and drew inspiration from William Blake. It features two heads (a portrait of Clemente and a self-portrait) adrift on a raft but presided over by an archangel. The pieces of broken household crockery attached to the painting surface are typical of the material density of Schnabel’s work in the early 1980s. Such combinations of painting and relief, image and fragmentation, conveyed the complexity of contemporary means of expression.

Gallery label, November 2008

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Catalogue entry

T03441 Humanity Asleep 1982

Mixed media on wooden support 108 1/4 × 144 × 11 (2743 × 3656 × 280)
Inscribed ‘HUMANITY ASLEEP’ c.r.
Purchased from Mary Boone Gallery, New York (Grant-in-Aid)1982
Exh: Julian Schnabel, Tate Gallery, June–September 1982 (not in catalogue); New Art at the Tate Gallery, Tate Gallery, September–October 1983 (works not numbered, repr.); Forty Years of Modern Art 1945–1985, Tate Gallery, February–April 1986 (works not numbered)

‘Humanity Asleep’ was made in the month preceding the Tate Gallery's small exhibition of Schnabel's work in 1982. It is painted in oil on a panel prepared by assistants under the artist's supervision. This consists of four plywood and softwood boxes, with the outer edges chamfered to make the work appear to float and to concentrate attention on the centre of the image. Before painting began, shards of domestic pottery were attached to the front surfaces of the boxes, using a filled polyester resin adhesive (normally used to repair car bodies), and the four boxes were bolted together and hung on the wall. In this painting the shimmering effect is produced by painting over dark imagery with white paint mixed with a varnish medium; in previous works the pottery fragments had been left unpainted to produce a similar effect.

The artist knew that the work would be included in the Tate exhibition and named it ‘for William Blake’ although he acknowledges that the title is not a direct quotation from Blake's poems or from the titles of his works. The title also describes the central image which depicts two heads floating on a raft at night, hopelessly lost. The image of the raft comes from a photograph of soldiers clinging to driftwood taken during the Second World War and was also used in a larger painting entitled ‘The Raft’ (1982). The angel with a sword and wings was painted from life from a Puerto Rican santos figure that the artist had purchased from an antique dealer.

Schnabel commented:

Anyway I was interested in the shape of them because when you paint something from life, it has a kind of believability or contour that's different from something that's flat...

Around the saint the artist has outlined a circle, indicating a mirror, on which he has inscribed the title of the work. He talks of this image being painted on top of the whole painting as if by another hand:

Not my hand, necessarily, but maybe God's hand. So it's the scale of it, and the parenthetical quality of it [that] alludes to something outside of the painting.

The portraits which form the centre of the image are of the Italian artist Francesco Clemente in front of a selfportrait of Schnabel. The Clemente portrait was painted from life and represents Schnabel's wish to envisage him as both a significant moral component in the art world and an heroic figure, a good artist. The self-portrait is less heroic, as if, as the artist describes it, ‘more like my skin's been peeled off’, which emphasises the humanness. The two figures are joined in a worthwhile enterprise, that of making art, but restricted by the difficulty of communicating this project. Schnabel describes it as ‘just some kind of existential analogue of just being in the world - in my case making a work or thinking that there might be any significance in making art...’ He describes the painting and the process of its reception in an interview with the compiler (18 May 1983):

The sea is the ‘Humanity Asleep’; the sea is the sort of black, it's the sea at night, it's a place where your voice won't be heard, and it's a place that we're surrounded by... But I don't think it's cynical as it is just realistic in the sense of the difficulties of communication or the kind of, the high sea that is the sea of mis-understanding. Or the sea could be like ignorance...I mean I'm working on these things but who understands my work? I'm curious about what I'm trying to find out about, but in fact what happens is, with each step further on I get, it makes people more confused somehow. On the other hand some people feel that it clarifies things. I believe that it clarifies things...It seems to me that it's like a real metaphor for painting.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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