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Issue Vol.X, issue 1 (24.) Images de l’invisible/Images of the Invisible

The shape of the pictorial in contemporary photography

Author: Hilde Van Gelder
Published: March 2009

Abstract (E): Certain contemporary photographs, most prominently by Jeff Wall, are considered to bring to life the absorptive tradition of painting. Taking that finding as its starting point, this paper scrutinizes work by another photographer today, Allan Sekula. Although Sekula’s images visibly engage similar absorptive motives, his work is not championed by the defendants of the current revival of the tableau tradition. But nor does it testify to the ambition to do so. From a discussion of dramatic and compositional elements in images by Wall and Sekula, the essay finds that their work is marked by either a classical or a vernacular pictorial style. Stylistic differences account for diverging opinions concerning art’s function. Classical or neo-realist style stands for an ambition to create a pleasurable and peaceful moment to spend with the image presented as a singular artwork. Vernacular or critical realist style does not eschew caricature nor is it averse to provoking a physically strenuous experience of multi-image installations. These issues are traced back to paragon debates that emerged at the very origins of modern art itself, in the late 16 th Century.

Abstract (F): Plusieurs photographies contemporaines, exemplairement celles de Jeff Wall, nourrissent l’ambition de redonner vie à la tradition de l’absorption picturale. C’est à la lumière de cette tendance que le présent article examine le travail d’un autre photographe d’aujourd’hui, Allan Sekula. Malgré la présence de nombreux thèmes empruntés à la tradition de l’absorption picturale, le travail de Sekula est plutôt ignoré par les défenseurs de la tradition du tableau. L’appartenance de l’artiste à cette tradition est du reste tout sauf évidente. Analysant les éléments de mise en scène et de composition dans des images de Wall et Sekula, l’article démontre que leur œuvre se définit par un style pictural qui est ou bien classique (Wall) ou bien populaire (Sekula). Ces différences renvoient à des conceptions antagonistes sur la fonction de l’art. Le style classique ou néoréaliste cherche à susciter le plaisir du spectateur, seul face à l’œuvre, présentée comme image isolée. Le style populaire ou critique ne recule pas devant la caricature, ni devant la confrontation souvent rude avec des installations multi-images. L’article se termine par une relecture de ces positions contemporaines à la lumière des débats sur les mérites respectifs des arts initiés au début de l’art moderne, c’est-à-dire à la fin du 16 e siècle.

keywords: Photography, Pictorial, Contemporary, Realism, Allan Sekula, Style, Jeff Wall.

To cite this article:
Van Gelder, H., The shape of the pictorial in contemporary photography. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], Vol.X, issue 1 (2009).


Absorption today



Fig.1 Jeff Wall, Morning Cleaning, Mies Van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona, 1999, transparency in lightbox, 187 x 351 cm. Courtesy of the artist.


Michael Fried argues that Jeff Wall's Morning Cleaning, Mies Van der Rohe Foundation, Barcelona (1999) (Fig. 1) is an outstanding example of a work that revives the absorptive painterly tradition in a contemporary mode. Morning Cleaning produces for its viewers the ‘magic of absorption’ in an extremely accomplished way, with ‘great pictorial and intellectual sophistication’ (Fried 2007: 517; Fried 2008: 75). Its ‘appeal to absorption’ is achieved in a dual manner. First, its only personage – the window cleaner – appears completely immersed in his own laborious activity. Secondly, Fried concurs with Wall that the window cleaner is ‘unaware ... "of the construct of the picture"’ itself. He has turned his back to the majority of the composition and is physically removed from the foreground. At the same time he does not notice ‘"… the necessary presence of the viewer"’ (Fried 2007: 516). Situated in the shadow zone of the work, he is clearly separated from, and disregarding of, the viewer.


Morning Cleaning , ‘in [Fried’s] view one of Wall’s masterpieces’ (Fried 2008: 341), sets the frame of reference for advanced ways of contemporary regeneration of the absorptive tradition in painting that can be defined as ‘pictographic’ (elaborated from Costello 2007: 80 and 2008: 311). The strongest possible effect of absorption, Fried explains, is not always achieved with the same degree of success in Jeff Wall's Pictures.



Fig.2 Jeff Wall, Adrian Walker, artist, drawing from a specimen in a laboratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1992,
119 x 164 cm. Courtesy of the artist.


Although he expresses great appreciation for Wall's Adrian Walker, artist, drawing from a specimen in a laboratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver of 1992 (Fig. 2), Fried uses this as an example of less successful absorption. Adrian Walker, he says, visibly ‘mobilizes absorptive motifs’ (Fried 2007: 504), but the personage appears too much conscious of the artist making the work and, by extension, it also seems impossible for him to have been fully unaware of the viewer's presence. Adrian Walker therefore slightly attenuates the strongest possible effect of absorption. But this does not prevent Fried from judging it positively.



Fig.3 Allan Sekula, Getty Gardener, 1998, from Edit Nine, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.


As referential works, both Morning Cleaning and Adrian Walker can be compared to other pictures, such as Allan Sekula's Getty Gardener (1998) (Fig. 3). This image confronts the viewer with another worker immersed in a cleansing activity; this time, a brush among young oak trees planted on a steep slope. Seemingly, it renders him quite oblivious to everything else taking place around him. He disregards the overall construct of the picture, unaware of Richard Meier’s Getty Center looming on the horizon. Equally, he is also physically separated from the viewer, through the curtain-like barrier lines constructed by four small trees, branches and high grass situated in the extreme foreground. Even if he has not turned his back on us, and – like Adrian Walker – is apparently more strongly aware of the beholder’s presence than the window-cleaner, his protective mask and sunglasses underneath sufficiently establish the absorptive ‘ontological fiction that the beholder does not exist’ (Fried 2007: 500; Fried 2008: 40).


All three images deal with absorptive motives. Should that information induce the conclusion that they need to be put in the same category? In light of the following statements, this is an illogical supposition. Jean-François Chevrier has elaborated how works such as Morning Cleaning can be considered a photographic reconstruction of the historical picture or tableau , defined as ‘the exemplary form of autonomous pictorial art’ (Chevrier 2005: 17). Jeff Wall has expressed his sympathy to such an interpretation of his work (Chevrier 2006a: 13). Sekula, however, has voiced his aversion to the ‘melancholy tableau’ (Gierstberg 1998: 3). Such diverging opinions compel consideration of both Wall’s and Sekula’s images beyond the absorptive figural motive encountered in them.


Two levels of analysis appear: the wider content depicted in these works and, subsequently, the overall formal compositional logic that has shaped them. The content of Morning Cleaning has been described by Michael Fried as follows: ‘the viewer is made to feel that the man bending over his squeegee is oblivious even to the one indisputably great event ... depicted in [it],’ which is ‘the dramatic influx of warm morning light’ (Fried 2007: 517; Fried 2008: 75). This takes place in the foreground of the picture, behind the window cleaner’s back. There does not seem be a similar event at work within the Sekula image. Rather, the light is sharp and bright all over, due to the combination of a ‘fill-flash from a position just to the left of the camera lens’ and the natural morning sunlight (Sekula 2008).


Nevertheless, a hint of drama might be sensed in the diagonal shape of the building behind the gardener’s back, slightly tilting like a sinking ship. Perhaps this is only coincidental, due to the angle of the photographic shot. However, when considering Sekula’s entire body of still and moving images, arguments can be found in favour of this interpretation. The artist has insisted that all of his work should be kept in mind when looking at a single one of his photographs. Sekula explained to Debra Risberg that ‘there is a larger montage principle at work than that internal to any single work, or even book. Any retrospective look allows for that larger montage to emerge’ (Risberg 1999: 238).



Fig.4 Allan Sekula, Shipwreck triptych, part of Shipwreck and workers,
version 3 for
Kassel, 2007. Photo: Hilde Van Gelder.


Shipwreck and Workers , a large-scale photo sequence produced in three versions between 2005 and 2007 (Baetens and Van Gelder 2006: 160-187 and Van Gelder 2007b: 168-209), includes a triptych of a heavily listing cargo freighter, shot from various angles (Fig. 4).



Fig.5 Allan Sekula, 'Fireworks' still from Gala , 2005. Courtesy of the artist.


In his writings and visual work, such as the video piece Gala (2005) (Fig. 5), Sekula has critically questioned postmodern architecture, especially constructions by Frank Gehry.



Fig.6 Allan Sekula, Barceloneta Swimming , 2008, from Methane for All, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.


Another image, Barceloneta Swimming (2008), further confirms this hypothesis (Fig. 6). The depicted buildings, and particularly Gehry’s large-scale fish sculpture Peix, are presented as if sinking into deep waters.



Fig.7 Allan Sekula, installation view of Methane for All (2008) at Universal Archive. The Condition of the Document and the Modern Photographic Utopia, Barcelona, MACBA, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.


Sekula has provided the following information about this work, which accompanies its presentation, as a wall text, when exhibited (Fig. 7): ‘The gas is piped northward across the sea bottom from the inflammables terminal to the thermal plant in Besós owned by Gas Natural. Barceloneta is the halfway point along the shore. Since the 1992 Olympics, Barceloneta has had a distinctive skyline, inaugurated and advertised by Frank Gehry’s copper fish’ (Sekula 2008b). The suggested dramatic event, taking place behind the gardener’s back – the potential wreckage of a certain type of contemporary architecture and its related societal ideals – is of a strikingly different kind with regard to Wall’s picture. On the glass wall in the latter work, fine suds of mild soap are about to be mopped up. The reconstructed Mies building seems stable and peaceful. Conversely, in Barceloneta Swimming buildings altogether are presented as if at the point of disappearing. In conversation, Allan Sekula has commented on his fascination with taking the camera to the extremities of its possibilities, even when this includes regularly having to clean salt water from the lens (Sekula 2008c). Jeff Wall has expressed a different opinion in this respect. ‘Water’, he writes in an essay entitled ‘Photography and Liquid Intelligence’, ‘plays an essential part in the making of photographs, but it has to be controlled exactly and cannot be permitted to spill over the spaces and moments mapped out for it in the process, or the picture is ruined. You certainly don’t want any water in your camera, for example!' (Wall 1996a: 90)





The divergent character of the suggested ‘dramatic event’ depicted in these images, allows exploration of further possible differences between them. Jean-François Chevrier has defined Jeff Wall’s pictures as actualizing the ideal of the single, unified composition of historical paintings, in which ‘dramatic unity’ was a central element (Chevrier 2005: 17 and 2003: 118). In his ‘Salon of 1859’ essay – a text Chevrier refers to – Charles Baudelaire conforms to the eighteenth-century Diderotian absorptive ideal and insists that the dramatic theme chosen for pictorial depiction should be well-balanced, so as not to endanger the picture's compositional ‘unity’ (Baudelaire 1965: 177). The reason being, according to Baudelaire, the final pictorial result must allow for an overall impression of the tableau that can be situated in the realm of the ‘beautiful’ (Baudelaire 1965: 152).


This is an aesthetic position Jeff Wall has repeatedly supported. In 1986, while answering Els Barents’ question about how his pictures can ‘give a promise of happiness’, Wall claims: ‘I always try to make beautiful pictures’ (Barents, 1986: 104). Beautiful or ‘pleasurable’ pictures – as Wall has specified to Jan Tumlir – can arise from depictions of simple everyday events, even preferably so. But, he asserts, only on the condition of their pictorial transformation: ‘the everyday is a space in which meanings accumulate, but it's the pictorial realization that carries the meanings into the realm of the pleasurable’ (Tumlir 2001: 114).


Wall's famous ‘near documentary’ mode is the methodological tool to answer that call for pictorial realization (Enright 2000: 50). He wants his pictures ‘to feel as if they easily could be documentary photographs’, meaning by this that they should ‘claim to be a plausible account of ... what the events depicted are like, or were like, when they passed without being photographed’ (Wall 2002). But, as Wall explains in the interview with Jan Tumlir, at the same time it should be subtly, though not necessarily immediately clear from the pictures that, when accomplished, they are no longer candid. Wall's pictures only act as if they were an ‘emblem of dailiness’ (Fried 2007: 517). His accomplished pictures – his pictures as he shows them to his public – are ‘re-enactments’, as the artist calls them (Wall 1996b). They are multi-layered combinations of an extensive range of straight or documentary shots, taken over a certain period of time ‘with a single camera position and with the camera set almost the same for every shot’, which are subsequently digitally mounted and unified into a full compositional synthesis (Tumlir 2001: 114).


From this finding, a second and more profound level of difference between the Wall and Sekula images appears. While discussing issues of photographic indexicality, Jeff Wall has conceded that, in his pictures, ‘the single moment in which the entire image was made’, is ‘eliminated’ (Tumlir 2001: 116). Contrary to this, Allan Sekula has claimed that, by means of his camera, he wants to keep an eye on the ‘lived time’ of the situation he intends to concretize, explicitly adding that ‘Photoshop is of no help here’ (Beausse 1998: 26). At all times his photos remain blatantly straight, analytic documents of a given situation at a particular place and point in time.


For this very reason Jean-François Chevrier has repeatedly put forward the opinion that Sekula’s images remain stuck at the unsatisfactory level of a preparatory sketch. He has done so most prominently in oral debate (Chevrier 2006b and 2008) but also in written text, when opposing Allan Sekula’s work to the ‘formalism’ of the Vancouver artists, a group of artists he has repeatedly expressed his preference for (Chevrier 2003: 126-127). Sekula’s images, Chevrier argues, do not transform the sheer documentary status of the depiction of an everyday event into a pictorially composed, unified tableau structure. Following Baudelaire, Chevrier has defined this way of employing the photographic image as working with ‘pieces’ or ‘fragments’ (Chevrier 2005: 17 and 2003: 118). Baudelaire also expressed his scorn for artists who are too ‘analytically’ involved in nature itself, as they testify to an all too ‘exclusive taste for the True’ that ‘oppresses and stifles the taste of the Beautiful’, which is ‘synthetically’ oriented (Baudelaire 1965: 151-152).


This taste for the true also includes the choice of depicted subjects: if they are of popular origin, they should not be depicted in such way that one must identify too strongly with them. Baudelaire offers a clear example when he negatively describes the ‘“style”’ of Jean-François Millet’s peasant paintings as ‘his disaster’: ‘[h]is peasants are pedants who have too high an opinion of themselves. They display a kind of dark and fatal boorishness which makes me want to hate them’ (Baudelaire 1965: 195). Baudelaire dislikes most of all the apparent moralism of Millet’s peasants, as if they are pointing a finger of blame at members of the upper classes observing them in depiction. Millet, he continues, confronts the viewers, in a socially disruptive mode, with the fact that it is they, the most ‘disinherited of this earth’, who nevertheless ‘make it fertile’. However, for Baudelaire, this amounts to nothing but displaying the ‘monotonous ugliness’ as well as the ‘pretentiousness which is philosophic, melancholy and Raphaelesque’ of these ‘little pariahs’. Instead of choosing such as misplaced way of portraying them, Millet should have focused instead on simply extracting the ‘natural poetry of his subject’, depicting his character in such way that a more appropriate distance from them by the painting’s onlookers would have been guaranteed. Given Baudelaire’s devastating critique of Millet’s peasant pictures and, on top of that, his aversion to photography – he called it a ‘new industry … which contributed not a little to confirm stupidity in its faith and to ruin whatever might remain of the divine in the French mind’ (Baudelaire 1965: 152), one can readily imagine what he might have thought of an image such as Allan Sekula’s Grape Harvesters, Saché (Fig. 8), part of the sequence Shipwreck and Workers (2005).



Fig.8 Allan Sekula, Grape Harvesters, Saché, part of the sequence Shipwreck and Workers, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.


Talking to Jean-François Chevrier in 1990, Jeff Wall insisted that, in order for a work of art to be qualitatively good, ‘there has to be a dramatic mediation of the conceptual element in art’ (Wall 1996a: 104). That effect of mediation, responsible for obtaining successful pictorial unity needs to be realised inside a single composition, in this case the picture as tableau. For, ‘without this mediation you have only concepts on the one hand and pictures on the other.’ Baudelaire signals this as the following mistake: such artists ‘take the dictionary of art for art itself’ (Baudelaire 1965: 194). Blinded as they are by their love for ‘nothing but nature’, they take a ‘simple study for a composition’, for ‘a sufficient and a perfect picture’ whereas their works do nothing but merely testify to their ‘absence of construction’(Baudelaire 1965: 196). In these artists’ eyes, Baudelaire says, ‘a study is a picture’. Such a way of making art, Jeff Wall specifies to Jean-François Chevrier, is a failure. ‘Images become a decorative completion of an already fully evolved thought. They are just illustrations. So they are boring, there is no drama’ (Wall 1996a: 104).


Getty Gardener does not make such an internal mediation of the conceptual elements at stake within it. The connection is made to external reference points. On the one hand, it refers to images that are part of the larger photo-sequence to which it belongs (Edit Nine, 2008). On the other hand, Sekula encourages visual connections to the totality of images and texts that make up the entirety of his archival body of work. The garden worker is dressed much too warmly not only for the time of the year but also for the intensive, hard-working tasks he needs to fulfil. Rattle snakes circulate around the Getty Center and the much too dry plantings always incur a serious risk of fire hazard. Sekula deliberately wants to suggest the dangers and exhaustions that come with this job, as if the gardener was instead ‘a sapper clearing landmines’ (Sekula 2008c). From a synthetically oriented compositional point of view, Getty Gardener lacks the appropriate, well-balanced internal amount of dramatic pictorial content. Not only is it too fragmentary, but also its excessive ‘dramatization’ forever bans it from the realm of the ‘pleasurable’ understood as Baudelaire’s ideal of the beautiful. Drama, in this logic, hovers into unconvincing bore. When an image is unable to elevate itself to the level of well-composed tableau, it is – according to Baudelaire in an essay entitled ‘Some French Caricaturists’ – the outcome of ‘spirit’ instead of the result of ‘genius’ (Baudelaire 2006: 211-212). At this point of the discussion, it is worth noting that Michael Fried as well, basing himself on Comte de Caylus’s Tableaux tirés de l’Iliade (Paris, 1757), traces a historical line that opposes the ‘tableau’ as the outcome of genius on the one hand to the ‘image’ as the result of intellect or spirit (Fried 1980: 215 n. 90).


In a 1993 essay on Roy Arden, Jeff Wall took a stance in favour of the conception of photography as ‘an act of composition’, provoking an experience that is ‘associative’ and ‘simultaneous’, and resembling ‘the basic modern concepts of the poetic employment of language’ (Newman 2007: 323). This ‘notion of a radical poetics of photography,’ which one can understand as a politically non-engaged poetics, has been ‘invalidated,’ Wall argues, by ‘the Foucauldian thesis of “power-knowledge”’, as it was put forward ‘in the work of critics like Craig Owens, Allan Sekula, or Abigail Solomon-Godeau’, who ‘emphasized photography’s inscription in systems of power and control, of commerce, disinformation, and the fetishism of technology’ (Newman 2007: 325). Wall mentions Allan Sekula in this essay as a critic, not as an artist. When, however, he expresses his disdain for ‘the disappointing results of “new critical” art forms or styles’ (Newman 2007: 328) as a ‘dismantling of the poetic basis for art photography’, describing them as a ‘profound problem’ (Newman 2007: 325), he might have had the work of artists such as Allan Sekula in mind.



Vernacular or classical style


The overall content, wider compositional strategies and presentational methods of Jeff Wall's well-finished, multilayered, unique and monumental tableau-like ‘pictorial realizations’ demonstrate how they reinvent a well-defined absorptive painterly tradition, even if this is done in a ‘generic’ rather than a specific way, as Diarmuid Costello has argued (Costello 2007: 80 and 2008: 310) . It hardly makes sense to speculate whether Baudelaire would have found in Jeff Wall the painter of modern life he was looking for – he would have had to overcome his profound aversion to photography. Certainly, Jeff Wall’s work meets Baudelaire’s aesthetic ideal of the beautiful in art. Where does Allan Sekula stand in respect to this pictographic logic? Should one judge his works from the tableau perspective, thus concurring with Jean-François Chevrier's view that they can never be anything more than merely insufficiently pictorial – that is, insufficiently unifying – preparatory sketches?


Sekula employs similar pictorial figures as those used by Jeff Wall, particularly absorptive motives. However, these can be understood as tools that serve other ends. He deliberately wants his images to produce a ‘disassembled movie’ rather than a unified tableau (Sekula 2006: 12). In a statement accompanying the first installation of his large outdoor piece Shipwreck and Workers (2005) in front of the Vienna Chamber of Labour , Sekula wrote: ‘A: A worker shovels debris in front of a freighter blown up against the shore: the Angel of History absorbed in his task, disguised as one of Breughel’s peasants’ (Huck, 2005). This phrase is most readily applicable to an image entitled Shipwreck and Worker, Istanbul, part of a photo-sequence entitled Titanic's Wake (1998/2000) (Van Gelder 2007a: 70-71). It can also be transposed to Getty Gardener.


The garden worker is very much engaged in the labour of Sisyphus, and is reminiscent of the working peasants Pieter Bruegel the Elder included in several of his paintings, most famously in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1558) ( In Bruegel's picture, as in Getty Gardener, labouring characters appear equally absorptive. By no means does Bruegel’s ploughing farmer – hard working as he is – seem to notice ‘the rest of the construct of the picture’, namely the irreversible drama of the falling Icarus. Nor does he take the viewers into account. However, even if the figural motive in this and other of his paintings is highly absorptive, Bruegel did not receive the highest possible recognition in his own time. Many contemporary Flemish intellectuals considered Bruegel's painting to be too ‘natural’ or too true to nature (Freedberg 1989: 57). They judged it inferior to the work of the history painter Frans Floris, who was favourably described by his own supporters as ‘artificial’. According to Frans Floris and his supporters – the so-called Romanists – they were the ones to work in a modern way, reviving the spirit of classical art according to Italian Renaissance ideals while complying with the laws of decorum and maniera.


Bruegel and his followers were described as populist, and archaic. They promoted a vernacular style, thereby making the insurmountable mistake of not adorning their pictures ‘within the bounds of decorum’ (Freedberg 1989: 62). David Freedberg has argued, however, that Bruegel was well aware of the laws of the then flourishing Italian humanism. Bruegel’s Italian journey and his stay in Rome are well documented. Nevertheless, ‘there is nothing like the adoption of Italian forms or ideas’ that would allow for his paintings to be named either ‘“Roomachtig” or “antijcx”, Roman or antique: “classical”, in short’ (Freedberg 1989: 63). Bruegel, Freedberg argues, deliberately inserted traditional pictorial elements or ideas in ‘an unparalleled combination of humanist and popular themes’, thus not only allowing ‘[t]he vernacular’ to acquire ‘the same status as the classical’ but also elevating ‘the pictorial possibilities of ordinary peasant life into subjects fit for painting: not for low-level picture making, but for pictures of the highest order (Freedberg 1989: 63).’


For Freedberg, a ‘much wider knowledge of context’ is needed than the one offered by art historical references in order to understand what is really at stake in Bruegel's compositions (Freedberg 1989: 58). This broader contextual understanding is also crucial in reading Allan Sekula's work. Getty Gardener is an image that offers a subtle analysis of contemporary society through the worker ‘disguised as one of Breughel's peasants’. Bruegel, especially in his later works, was fond of introducing anomalies in his paintings, such as figures that are disproportionate in scale to the rest of the picture (The Cripples, 1568) ( Depicted figures’ largely exaggerated elbows and knees is a striking and recurrent example (Peasant and Birdnester, 1568) ( Similarly in Sekula's photos there appears to be a preference for characters that, in many ways, do not necessarily meet the laws of decorum. The emotionally stirring attitudes of several persons depicted in his vast outdoor installation Shipwreck and Workers (Version 3 for Kassel ) (2007) serve well as an example.



Fig.9 Allan Sekula, Mother and Premature Baby, from Shipwreck and Workers (Version 3 for Kassel), 2007. Photo: Hilde Van Gelder.


The hands of the mother are disproportionate in respect to the tiny feet of her premature child (Fig. 9). The midwives’ underarms almost span the complete length of the newborn she holds (Fig. 10).



Fig.10 Allan Sekula, Midwife, from Shipwreck and Workers
(Version 3 for
Kassel), 2007. Photo: Hilde Van Gelder.


When Bruegel integrates such groups in larger ensembles, as is the case with the unfashionably dressed monumental mourning group in the foreground of his Procession to Calvary (1564) (, the entire painterly composition appears not fully unified, as if somehow ‘disassembled’ or, at least, decentred. Joseph Gregory has argued that it can only be understood by an active interpreter who is willing to make up something from such a ‘buzzing confusion of a world that has lost its secure, metaphysical footing’ (Gregory 1996: 216). Allan Sekula's complete outdoor installation in Kassel can be seen as taking Bruegel’s decentring strategy to its completion (Fig. 11).



Fig.11 Allan Sekula, installation view of Shipwreck and Workers
(Version 3 for
Kassel), 2007. Photo: Hilde Van Gelder.


Technically, the congruence with Bruegel stops at the ontological threshold where the accumulated details in a painting become a single picture. But that very fact strengthens the argument that the Sekula installation moves beyond any tendency towards internal synthesis in composition. Inevitably this was the case in Bruegel’s paintings – however ‘disassembled’ they were – due to the two-dimensionality of his pictures.


The Kassel Bergpark visitor encountered something that was not simply disassembled, but rather an exploded picture that had fragmentarily leaped into three dimensional space, in a movement that would have been impossible without Minimal art coming off the walls and conquering real space, creating artistic objects that were ‘neither painting nor sculpture’ (Judd 1975: 181). It was an analytic, large montage-like construct, which necessitated not only a strenuous physical effort – the climb uphill was disturbingly steep and exhausting – but also an extended temporality to take it in. The experiential logic of such work, which in a highly innovative way connects Minimalist large-scale installation to photography, is aesthetically reminiscent of the exhausting efforts it sometimes takes to make the journey through everyday reality. Such work is strongly opposed to the ideals of the well-unified, synthetic tableau, which, as Jeff Wall has specified, should be immediately apprehensible as ‘a moment of instant peace ’ (Chevrier 2006a: 397), i.e. as an arrested moment of rest and distance from the vicissitudes of daily life. In this way, Wall and Sekula vastly differ with regard to their view of art’s function.



Caricature and modernity


A sixteenth-century Flemish art theoretical polemic appears – albeit in a heavily altered form – to have a certain actuality today because it leads to the very origins of modern art. In an essay from 1995, entitled ‘About making landscapes’, Jeff Wall offers a definition of ‘Poussinian’ aesthetics or classicism as a system in which ‘the work of art is made by imagining the picture’s or statue’s subject as perfectly harmonious in its internal proportions, and then depicting that subject in a composition, and on a rectangle, both of which are equally well-measured,’ while ‘Bruegel’s sixteenth century “anticipatory baroque” [is described as] oddly, complexly-balanced compositions filled with bumpy, ragged, rough forms, simultaneously regular and irregular, hectic, complicated, carnivalesque and fractalized’ (Wall 1996a: 141). Wall adds that it is ‘convenient to suggest (after [Mikhaïl] Bakhtin) that Bruegel’s grotesque, or the movement towards it, is the “true” modern one’.


Following Bakhtin, Wall hints at Bruegel’s visual representation of human bodies ‘at the absolute lower stratum’ (Bakhtin 1993: 27). But he immediately adds that – while being so excessive, and testifying to ‘the non-identity of the [modern] phenomenon with itself’ as well as ‘the intangibility of meaning’ – Bruegel’s work is but ‘the negative moment of [modern] measure’, which ‘may also be formulated as an excess of measure, in the manner of caricature’ (Wall 1996a: 141). Instead, Wall acknowledges on the same page his preference for the 'Romanist' (without using the term) or Poussinian perspective, translated in his words as his affinity to (classical) harmony ‘as a special, even a “sovereign”, instance of the grotesque.’ As Michael Fried has also offered Poussin a prominent place as a forerunner to the Diderotian absorptive tradition in painting, an interesting connection can be made between his and Jeff Wall’s framework of art historical reference (Fried 1980: 41).


Years earlier, in conversation with Els Barents, Wall expressed his appreciation of Poussin’s ‘sober, measured kind of poetry, typical of classical composition’ (Barents 1986: 98). Jean-François Chevrier has argued that it is the ‘treatment of the figure’ that disturbs Wall the most about Bruegel, and that he prefers to follow Poussin’s methods with regard to ‘the implantation of figures’ in his compositions (Chevrier 2006a: 385). In the classical tradition, Wall writes, ‘[t]he measure and proportions of the picture themselves imply, and reflect, the serenity of ideal social relations’ (Wall 1996a: 141). Or, as Chevrier has specified, classical harmony in painting provides a ‘formal equivalent’ to the ideal of serene social relations. The negative moment of that measure is to be understood in excesses of the grotesque, such as encountered in Bruegel’s caricatural pictures.


In full agreement with Denis Diderot (cf. Fried 1980: 98), Baudelaire was very much opposed to caricature in visual art. Criticizing the work of Jean-Léon Gérôme, he explicitly stated that simply because a picture needs to depict aesthetically unflattering themes such as ‘a callousness in crime and debauchery, even to make us suspect the secret abysms of gluttony’, it need not ‘join hands with caricature’ (Baudelaire 1965: 175). In an essay from 1857 entitled ‘Some foreign caricaturists’, Baudelaire included Bruegel as a prominent figure. He defines Bruegel’s works as marked by a ‘special satanic grace’ or, in other words, ‘lunacy’ or ‘hallucination’ that he is neither willing to ‘understand … nor positively account for it’ (Baudelaire 2006: 242-243).


Baudelaire’s opinion differs from that of Roger Fry, who, when reviewing the landmark exhibition Early Flemish Art in Bruges in 1902, describes Bruegel, following Georges de Loo, the exhibition’s chief curator, ‘as “the last of the Gothic artists, the first of the moderns”’ (Fry 1902: 356). Praising the artist’s Census at Bethlehem (1566), Fry acknowledges that ‘it is hard to say whether this snow scene is nearer in feeling to the miniaturists of the thirteenth century or to Manet.’ Fry’s likening of Bruegel to Manet, upon which Jenny Graham has also commented (Graham 2007: 183) becomes all the more striking in light of Jean-François Chevrier’s comment that it was Jeff Wall’s acquaintance with film that prepared him for ‘a reconsideration of the European tradition of figurative painting, as this developed upstream of the break marked by Manet (cinema clearly inherited the major narrative forms abandoned by art after Cézanne)’ (Chevrier 2005: 20).


If Bruegel’s modernity anticipated Manet’s modernism, and if Wall’s reinvention of the absorptive tradition in painting followed currents that developed upstream to Manet’s innovations, an argument can be made to situate Bruegel and Manet in the line of a vernacular undercurrent in modern art, into which Allan Sekula can also be categorized. Sekula's well-considered preference for a vernacular style that does not eschew caricature, as opposed to the classical (‘Romanist’) perspective, is seen by some – like Jean-François Chevrier – as less erudite, less refined.


Still, Sekula might have found a possible ally in Walter Benjamin, the other reference he suggests when describing his encounter with the Angel of History disguised as Bruegel’s peasant. In ‘Letter from Paris (2)’, written in November–December 1936, Benjamin offers his view of the relationship between painting and photography. In order to resist the ‘“peace and order”’ that reigns in ‘contemporary fascist states’, he argues, artists should convert their ‘social emotion … into visual inspiration’ (Benjamin 2008: 306). ‘Such is the case, he continues, ‘with the great caricaturists, whose political knowledge permeates their physiognomic perception no less deeply than the experience of the sense of touch imbues the perception of space.’ Among the great historical masters Benjamin mentions are Hogarth, Goya, Daumier, and Bosch. The latter is also mentioned by Bakhtin in the same breath as Bruegel (Bakhtin 1993: 27).


Wall’s ongoing efforts to pictographically create the painting of modern life – or, as Michael Fried has argued, to reinvent ‘the anti-theatrical aims of certain high modernist painting and sculpture’ (Fried 2007: 525) – are interpreted by others as nostalgically embedded restorations or, even, too literal appropriations of past pictorial glory (Krauss 1997 and Lütticken 2004). Such paradigmatically different attitudes appear irreconcilable. Each of them arguably considers itself ‘morally superior’ to the other, as it was also the case for the participants on either side of the Flemish paragon debate in the sixteenth century (Meadow 1996: 195).



Critical or neo-realism


It takes more than the sole criterion of the absorptive mode to understand the current shape of the pictorial in contemporary photographic works. From the advent of modernity in painting, absorptive motives have been employed by painters in compositions whose interests otherwise diverged markedly. Shortly before 1600, during the historical moment immediately before the tradition of the absorptive tableau ‘became a staple of pictorial art in the West’ (Fried 2007: 504 and 2008: 42), as Michael Fried writes, paragon discussions or polemics flourished among artists and art intellectuals, which continue to haunt artistic creation today. That tradition has been in crisis since at least the advent of the excessively absorbed The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault (1819) ( It is precisely with The Raft of the Medusa, Fried argues, that ‘the presence of the beholder’ emerges as ‘an insuperable problem for painting’ (Fried 1980: 154).


The shipwreck triptych Allan Sekula exhibited inside a pond in Kassel ’s Bergpark, at documenta 12 seems to hint at this crisis in the absorptive tradition (Fig. 4). This ‘Raft of the Raft of the Medusa’ (Sekula 2007a), as Sekula calls it, can be read in opposition to Jeff Wall’s Adrian Walker, artist, drawing from a specimen in a laboratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (1992) (Fig. 2). This work has been described by Jean-François Chevrier as ‘an image of dedramatization in which the conciliatory effect of the tableau is at work … a dramatic content can be felt, but it is itself “absorbed”, transformed and as if neutralized, by the objects applied by the photographic actor … the skinned forearm is not a piece of dead body, such as Géricault has painted’ (Chevrier 2006a: 100 – author’s translation). Géricault does not hesitate to include a fragment of a dead arm in the foreground of his picture. When referring to discussions around Joseph-Marie Vien’s Ermite Endormi, exhibited at the Salon of 1753, Michael Fried has pointed out that suggesting a depicted character might be dead was contrary to the codes of the tableau tradition in painting (Fried 1980: 28). One may give the viewer the impression that a person is asleep, but insinuating anything more than that, is an insurmountable failure.



Fig.12 Allan Sekula, Gravediggers , from Shipwreck and Workers
(Version 3 for
Kassel), 2007. Photo: Hilde Van Gelder.


In Shipwreck and Workers, Version 3 for Kassel , Allan Sekula deliberately allied life and death through his choice of the paired representations of birth and gravediggers (Fig. 12). So, where then are the dead bodies? Have they evaporated, in order to join Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History in his impossible task? One of the panels exhibited displayed Alberto Giacometti’s fragmentary sculpture La Main (1947) in dialogue with the sore and swollen arm of Constantin Meunier’s Puddler (1893) (Fig. 13).



Fig.13 Allan Sekula, installation view of Shipwreck and Workers
(Version 3 for
Kassel), 2007. Photo: Hilde Van Gelder.


The billboard-like panel alongside depicts two photographs of the decapitated head of Johann Jacob Anthoni’s copper Hercules sculpture (1717), which used to enthrone the Winterkasten water theatre – the site of Sekula’s installation. Sekula displays disassembled, ‘stonified’ bodily fragments; gathering the puzzle pieces without solidly welding them. In a revealing poem, entitled ‘Bring me the head’, Sekula addressed the Western legacy of representing Hercules, writing: ‘Mechanic of the twelve tasks. His work is never done. The Americans give him a thirteenth, unlucky task: Dig the Panama Canal. Use a nuke if you must. Spread democracy’ (Sekula 2007b: 209). It is a striking coincidence that the best-known, now lost, painterly series by Floris consisted of ten monumental and fully absorptive heroic pictures representing the works of Hercules (Van de Velde 1975: vol.2, ill. 3.1.).


After conceptual art, pictorial strategies related to the practise of ‘easel painting’ have found a renewed shape in art, thanks to twofold photographic use (Chevrier 2006a: 179). On the one hand, artists working in the classical style, like Jeff Wall, try to stay as closely as possible to the unifying compositional strategies of the absorptive tradition. Artists who prefer a vernacular style, such as Allan Sekula, on the other hand, use similar pictorial elements, yet in a disassembled way. The paragon debate resonates in the world view communicated throughout their respective artworks. Whereas Wall finds peace in creating a formal equivalent to the ideal of serene social relations, Sekula confronts his viewers with the underlying illusion of harmony. The pleasurable magic of absorption that Michael Fried distinguishes in Wall’s pictures is absent from Sekula’s work. But undoubtedly the latter also testifies to great pictorial and intellectual sophistication.


Relying on Hannah Arendt, Jean-François Chevrier has brought to mind the fundamental break that underlies modernity, namely, ‘the break with the feeling of belonging to a cosmic order’ (Chevrier 2006a: 245 – author’s translation). He recalls Bakhtin, who writes that, with this break medieval laughter ‘ceased to be a joyful and triumphant hilarity’ (Bakhtin 1993: 38). Instead, Bakhtin continues, ‘its positive regenerating power was reduced to a minimum,’ and out of this the diminished laughter that is linked with ‘cold humor, irony, sarcasm’ was born. Chevrier argues that Jeff Wall has explicitly sided with this ‘reduced laughter’, as an expression of a modernity that admits its break with a long-lost, utopian cosmic order while, at the same time, transforming this loss into the creation of beauty, ‘following the norms of a realism that conforms to a classic definition of forms’ (Chevrier 2006a: 244 – author’s translation). Jeff Wall has underscored the ‘Neo-Realist strand of [his] work’ (Tumlir 2001: 117).


Dead Troops Talk (a vision after an ambush of a Red Army Patrol, near Moqor , Afghanistan , winter 1986) of 1992 is an example of his ironical approach. Despite their morbid-looking, bloodied faces, the dead soldiers have visibly come back to life. The viewer is reassured that they are not really dead.



Fig.14 Jeff Wall, The Flooded Grave, 1998–2000, transparency in lightbox,
228.5 x 282 cm. Courtesy of the artist.


Jean-François Chevrier claims of Wall’s The Flooded Grave (1998–2000) (Fig. 14) that, in the inundated grave, ‘[t]he profundity of the ocean and the sparkling of the sky are reinvented in a closed off, subterranean world’ (Chevrier 2006a: 246 – author’s translation). Sekula has stated in interview to Benjamin H.D. Buchloh: ‘the key question for me is whether the meaning structure of the work spirals inward toward the art-system or outward toward the world’ (Sekula 2003: 41).



Fig.15 Allan Sekula, Building a new methane storage tank, inflammables terminal, Barcelona , 2008, from Methane for All, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.


Building a new methane storage tank, inflammables terminal, Barcelona (2008) (Fig. 15), for example, urges us to understand the reality it depicts for what it is. Sekula writes: ‘The terminal is as far from the city as possible, hidden behind Montjuic. Methane is violently explosive when dispersed in air at concentrations between five and fifteen percent’ (Sekula 2008b).


Allan Sekula’s activist realism has been defined as ‘critical’ (Buchloh 1995: 191). While he sympathised with the ‘great caricaturists’, Walter Benjamin also believed in the critical potential of painting. He quotes René Crevel: ‘“Among the most important works of painting have always been those which, merely by pointing to corruption, indicted those responsible. From Grünewald to Dalí, … painting has always been able to discover new truths which were not truths of painting alone”’ (Benjamin 2008: 306).





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Hilde Van Gelder is professor of Art History at the KU Leuven and editor of Image (&) Narrative. She is codirector of the Lieven Gevaert Centre for Photography (



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