Some works of art seem to inhabit the present time. They play out the same temporal dynamic as catching someone’s eye on the tube and holding it for a little too long. You know that when you look up once more, you might again catch their eye. When this gaze is held by eyes that meet you from a different epoch, assumptions about reality are gently unpicked. The balance tips towards the power of image. Wandering through the Tate galleries to choose a work to write about, I had two different encounters with a past present, or present past: two small drawings by the Surrealist Leonora Carrington, who still lives and works in Mexico City, and the strangely confrontational seventeenth-century double portrait of The Cholmondeley Ladies c.1600–1610. I became fascinated that I could coexist with Carrington, that our times overlap. So, with a little regret at leaving the eerie Cholmondeleys, I focused on Carrington. In the summer of last year, I set off on a journey to visit her studio.
Her working life has been lived out through the Nazi invasion of Paris, from where she fled to Spain, then to New York in the early 1940s and on to Mexico City, producing a body of work that is more constant, I suspect, than her exterior environment. The ongoing practice of Surrealism seemed suddenly radical to me when thought about as current: a strategy of living by the irrational. However, when I arrived unannounced at Carrington’s shuttered house (the address of which I had been given by a Texan collector), I was questioning the wisdom of my self-funded trip, based on a whim and some late-night internet booking. My romanticised idea of a quest to meet her seemed more than a little rash. I began to think that Carrington probably did not live at the address anymore, and even if she did, why would she see me? It felt like I had a lot at stake when I banged on the door. Which then slowly opened.
At this point, the trip had become more than background research or one offering the possibility of an interview. I had been thinking about making an installation which used Carrington’s presence as a kind of wild card, or rather as a carte blanche to disassemble the rationality of my own work. The short film, shot that afternoon, simply documents our combined present. It is not much more than a prolonged shot of her hands, held out as if about to act, some glances she makes that reveal my presence and some locating shots of the studio. After filming, she showed me her recent paintings. Then we went down to her kitchen for tea and the Chorley cakes that I had brought for her (Carrington: “I hail from Chorley you know”). I asked her if there were any positive aspects to growing old:
LC: You become closer to death, so that really tends to dominate everything else.
LS: Do you find that you become reconciled with that?
LC: No, I don’t. How can one reconcile with the totally unknown? We know nothing whatever about it, even if it happens to everyone, to everybody. Animals, vegetables, minerals, everything dies. How can you reconcile with something you know nothing about?
Glancing up from our conversation, I saw on Leonora’s kitchen cabinet, near a map of Iceland and a postcard of Princess Di, an image of The Cholmondeley Ladies.
The Cholmondeley Ladies painting itself is a document of a coincidence, if we are to believe the inscription at the bottom left of the panel. The portrait is said to commemorate “Two Ladies of the Cholmondeley Family, Who were born the same day, Married the same day, And brought to Bed the same day” (though some think this description was added later). It was created by an anonymous painter, thought to be a tomb sculptor. Perhaps it is the rare opportunity to represent living flesh that has led to his rendering of the ladies’ faces in a way that seems particularly present and individual, strangely in contrast to the headdresses, ornate sleeves and rudimentary pillows. The ladies themselves seem to transcend time, as if held in the seventeenth century only by being inset into their surroundings. The portrait implies a strange future too, as the swaddled twins innocuously appear like seeds to further parallels and coincidences.
To encounter a mother and baby consecutively would, of course, be more normal than to see it in double. It would be the kind of event through which, by repetition, one would learn the language to describe “woman” and “baby”. Here we seem also to be shown illustrations of the words “headdress”, “collar” and “sleeve”, variations of a repeated type. The coincidence of the ladies is perfectly set up by the articulation of a medieval norm in which they appear. The incredulity that the painter may have felt when faced with such an unlikely coincidence is perfectly expressed through the way the eye moves around the picture. The women and infants are two versions of the same category of things, their position, costume and demeanour varying only in slight detail. It is impossible to see their individuality without forcing the eye to cross the cleft between the pillows that separates the halves of the panel and to encounter each woman in turn, complete in her own surroundings. Indeed, to a contemporary eye, the ladies resemble two frames of a film curiously inhabiting the same, rather than consecutive instants. Again and again, the eye and mind change register from beholding single to implausible graphic double. Content is at perfect odds with composition. Our witness to this seventeenth-century event plays out as a real-time sensation, like a pre-filmic film. In some way, the strangeness of the coincidence of the ladies is subsumed by the strangeness of our real-time encounter with their image. They persist like tools that have outlived their makers. It becomes strange that they have existed at all, and they make strange the passing of time.
I feel a similar sensation when looking at Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb 1521, which hangs in the Kunstmuseum in Basel, where I am now living. Dostoyevsky remarked that the painting “could rob a man of his faith” when he stood before it in 1867. Like the Cholmondeley portrait, the pictorial time runs seamlessly into ours. The stark space it depicts is also similar; the body of Christ appears as if in a two-foot by seven-foot extension to the gallery space, with nothing else save a sheet. The elongated composition allows there to be opposing upwards and downwards pulls, emphasised by the horizontality of the rest of the painting. The finger, outstretched and greying, has wrinkled the cloth in a movement that is not of its own making, but that of a third party placing the corpse. The eye is cast upwards, and if it sees, it does not see in this realm. The chin is at such an angle that it juts upwards in a distorted manner as the hair falls away and over the ledge. This dynamic opposition of forces in the face produces a strange effect whereby the facial features seem to switch identities as you look at them. Nose and ear form a symmetry around the upturned eye that somehow morphs the features into something truly unnatural, ear becomes mouth, mouth becomes hollow eye. The face becomes dismembered, disarticulated. In this scrambling by the eye, the painting seems to take away language, our names for things. As the body of the unrisen Christ, it is impossibly and constantly about to move. As an image of the body of Christ, it is also impossibly and constantly about to move. It exists as a precipitous allegory of the transcendence of the image.