As a refuge, a resource and the most elegant of rustic mirrors, the landscape, the art and the food of Italy have changed the way that the English look at themselves. From Thomas Jones in the 1780s to the Brownings and George Eliot to E. M. Foster and Elizabeth David in the 1950s, Italy has transfixed and transfigured Britain. The work of William Rose is a testament that this most English of preoccupations is alive and well.
Today if one thinks of British art and the obsession with place, one tends to think of Lucien Freud in his London studio or of the great instillations in the turbine hall in the Tate Modern. But is perhaps only when one stands on the unfinished bridge of Avignon and sees the fields below twisting and turning in the winds that the swirls of Van Gogh become not the symbol of a strained mind but a representation of what the artist saw in front of him. Resident of Sansepolcro, home of Piero della Francesca, William Rose is a painter who has chosen to live in the landscape that he paints. As E. H. Gombrich taught us, paintings are in some way always about other paintings and Rose has chosen to live in the paintings of Piero della Francesca. His landscapes of Italy are both about an artist living in a place, a singular, unique place, and the complex relationship of an artists to a tradition, a history of painting.
Tradition is always before us: it is both behind us and in front of us. As the past, it haunts us as we try to hold on to it or to get away from it. But it also haunts us as the future, as what Martin Heidegger calls the future possibilities of the past. Rose’s Italian landscapes raise the question of the artist and tradition, of a tradition that he is both faithful to and that, inevitably, he must betray and transform. It is this difficult question of tradition and transformation that dominates Rose’s English landscapes. From Sansepolcro and through the paintings of Piero della Francesca and Corot, Rose transfigures the English landscape and the iconic buildings of Bath. Pulteney Bridge has become the Ponte Vecchio, and the Avon the Tiber. Rose’s exquisite Wiltshire Garden is at once an English and an Italian garden, an arcadia.
In addition to his landscapes Rose has gestured to the elusive studied stillness of Chardin and Morandi in his still lives and brought colour and a statuesque humour to the courtiers, courtesans and clowns in his pastoral arcadia of the commedia dell’arte. We are all les enfants du paradis. But it is in his series of pictures devoted to cooks that the question of tradition turns away from the possibilities of transfiguration to the darker questions of the power and authority of the past. Rose has said of these pictures that in contrast to his other works, ‘they came through me, and later on began to take on meaning that I never intentionally prescribe or rehearse.’ It is when we encounter, however fleetingly, the created work as a work without intention, without apparent meaning that perhaps we come closest to the elusive origins of creativity.
As the French literary critic Maurice Blanchot has argued, the work always begins and ends or returns and never ends regardless of the artist. Harnessing skill, finding the discipline of the craft, the work still exceeds the artist. For Blake, his poems were dictated to him at night by what he called ‘Jesus the Imagination’ and all he could do was to write down what he heard. Coleridge spent his life yearning for this clarity of inspiration and in turning to opium defined Romanticism as a reliance on artifice to find the divine in the natural. All creativity yearns for the giddiness of the malgré moi. But it can also never escape the labour and culture of intention, meaning and artifice.
Not even Rose himself knows why he cannot escape the figure in chequered pants, white apron and cook’s hat. But as he acknowledges, there is something uncanny about these pictures, something that makes the most familiar seem unnervingly strange, unheimliche. In this world of cooks, there is no proportion, no Palladian symmetry. It is a world closer to Goya and Kafka. As in Kafka’s story, we are always before the law (vor dem Gesetz), waiting a lifetime at the doorway for an impossible justice, or faith, or self-knowledge. We are always on the threshold, waiting to be judged. These paintings tell us something about the terrible and even comical dissymmetry of judgement. There are hats everywhere. It is a politics of hats, and Goya’s knives are always in the shadows. A large man in a wide-brimmed yellow hat sits and instructs, commands and judges a cook bent in deferential attention (No Excuses). A large boy sits while a man with three legs and two men in one coat stand in front of him (Genetic Experiments). A man with a goatee sits and stares at the bending cook who stares back at him, while one of the two small figures between them looks at the sitting man and the other looks out of picture at us. With the title of the this last picture, What Shall We Do With Them?, this world of cooks does not seem that far away from Titus Andronicus and Sweeny Todd.
In these three paintings there is a constant return to a large sitting figure on the left of the picture: a man in straw hat, a boy and a man with a goatee. These figures are both judging and judged. In another picture, here is a painter as cook and the figure sitting on the left is posing for the picture (The Painter). One could say that all of these disproportionate sitting figures are posing, are presenting themselves as subjects. The subject of the painting is without proportion: it is at once powerful and powerless, judging and judged. Each figure resides in the studied stillness and brutal comedy of Harlequin as both master and slave. In the harmony of Arcadia, Gregor Samsa has turned into an insect. It is in this gap and the strange, almost impossible, conversation between Piero della Francesca and Franz Kafka that the work of William Rose resonates.
For Rose, the painter is a cook. He paints and dwells in the old Platonic battlefield of the artist as artisan and as an imitator, a mimic of the truth. The painter cooks and mixes artifice (technique, skill, technology, tekhne) with imitation (representation, illusion, confusion, mimesis) and threatens nature (phusis) itself. He cooks and he is cooked: taken away from the very thing that he reaches for, without rest. The painter as cook can never choose between Arcadia and Gregor Samsa, between transfiguration and tradition.
Doctor Sean Gaston is author of numerous books including Starting with Derrida, Derrida and Disinterest, Derrida, Literature and War, and Reading of Derrida’s of Grammatology. He is a member of Brunel College, London, and has also written numerous essays amongst which Gregor Samsa in Arcadia: The Paintings of William Rose features. The essay was published in Italian in the catalogue Sinfonia di Cappelli under the title Transfigurazione e Tradizione (Transfiguration and Tradition).
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