Painting, History and Meaning (Book)

Sites of Time

This unique new study considers contemporary painting’s relationship with history and historical material. Following Jean-François Lyotard’s determination of painting as entailing a series of temporal sites, examines works that tendentiously engage with aspects and events derived from the past. 20 colour illustrations.


Writing in “Before the Image, Before Time: The Sovereignty of Anachronism,” (2003) Georges Didi-Huberman identifies three discrete temporalities at work within a fresco painted by Fra Angelico for the San Marco convent in Florence during the 1440s. In the first instance, he observes that the painting’s trompe l’oeil frame stems from what would have been the prevalent mimetic style during the period within which the fresco was painted and in this respect, is “euchronistic” or of its time. However, the fresco also betrays “anachronistic” qualities through its so-called “mnemonic” use of colour. Finally, and as Didi-Huberman notes, “the dissimilitudo, the dissemblance at work in this pointed surface goes back even further.” Evidently then, both the production and subsequent interpretation of painting entails if not is foregrounded by multiple layers of chronology, tense and time.

Such an admission is coincident with both a renewed interest in painting’s relationship to its past and more broadly art’s relationship with time. According to Laura Hoptman, writing in the exhibition catalogue that accompanied The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at MoMA in 2015, “what attracts artists to painting at a time when digital technology offers seemingly limitless options with less art-historical baggage is precisely its art historical baggage…” Moreover, in Visual Time: The Image in History, Keith Moxey has recently asked “where and when is the time in the history of art?”

Against a backdrop of artistic practices that are characteristic of the so-called “historiographic turn,” an approach to art making that has encompassed strategies of excavation, re-enactment and memorialization but as such have notably been to the exclusion of painting, Sites of Time: Painting, History and Meaning seeks to examine painting’s relationship with time and with events, ideas and paintings derived from the past.

Following Jean-Francois Lyotard’s determination of painting as entailing a series of temporal sites, the proposed study will examine key works by artists including Luc Tuymans, Gerald Byrne, Alison Watt, Marlene Dumas, Genieve Figgis, Wang Xingwei and Dexter Dalwood.

Necessarily moving beyond the appropriationist strategies of postmodernism with its proclivity to quote from and tendentiously juxtapose elements that were historically or culturally remote, what the proposed study will evince is that through its engagement with history and historical materials, time as it is given within the context of contemporary painting is multi-directional, heterogeneous and resoundingly non-linear.

Craig Staff is Reader in Fine Art, The University of Northampton, UK. His previous books include Retroactivity and Contemporary Art, Bloomsbury, 2017; Monochrome: Darkness and Light in Contemporary Art, I.B.Tauris, 2015; After Modernist Painting: The History of a Contemporary Practice, I.B.Tauris, 2013; Modernist Painting and Materiality, McFarland, 2011 and Painting Apart From Itself, Twelve Bells Press, 2004 as well as numerous articles.


More Memory and More Future

Perpetuating Modernism

Of Absent Bodies

Painting Anachronistically

Re-siting Painting


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