Stephen Birch

Time and dimness

There is a series of works in the exhibition of recent paintings by Stephen Birch in which a painted landscape is obfuscated by an almost opaque layer of varnish. This layer, called patina (where it genuinely occurs), can indicate a work's antiquity, its hue in proportion to its age. In the terminology of art conservationists, the varnish might be said to have gone "blind" with time, that is, lost its transparency. But it may also be used-as Birch uses it here, already dark with pigment rhetorically, as a sign of age or period rather than the result of any real ageing process. Questions are therefore raised regarding the representation of 'reality' and 'history' through the use of materials.

The landscape in Birch's work is perfunctory, often no more than an horizon line separating the internal space of the painting into two fields, a three dimensional space which is, however, always qualified by excessive varnish as well as silver and gold leaf over the surface of the work. At this level the works openly contest the truth of painting as a means of representation (apropos Greenberg 's cause celebre) ; opposing depth of field to the immediacy of the surfaces. This is confirmed in another work, The Registration of Meaning, in which a still-life replaces the landscape as the normative subject. Yet our view is impeded by the same formal devices which suspend the gaze somewhere between the subject and the surface of the work. Our desire to engage with the real subject, to see it clearly and graphically, becomes conspicuous the moment we realise it is impossible. This effect is heightened in the perception of generic forms the outlines of which memory can almost complete for us in the absence of detail. As Lacan has said, the painting is a trap for the gaze, and we realise our investments upon understanding what we have lost, or by virtue of what is not possible, in the act of looking.

The desire to see more clearly may extend to encompass infra-red and x-ray analyses of works, illustrating previous compositions (pentimenti) or all-together different paintings beneath the surface. Here, as in Birch 's paintings, it is the obstinacy of materials which resists the unaided gaze of the critic or of the conservator. The latter, however, takes a more pro-active role in facilitating his desire.

Intending some radical cleaning of the masterworks in the National Gallery 's collection in London, Europe's leading conservator in the '60s and '70s, Helmut Ruhemann, stated: "The possibility that some of the finest masterpieces may one day be exterminated by the H-Bomb has to be seriously faced ."1 Hence, he argues, the urgent need to clean works, erase the patina of centuries and produce facsimile works for exhibition in place of the originals. Ruhemann typifies a scientific response to the problem of darkening which would rid all obstacles to 'seeing' the work, including those intended by the artist. One might compare this approach to the deconstructive turn in art and literary theory which attempts to demystify authorship and creativity according to quasi-scientific principles of analysis (structuralism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, etc).2 But in doing so the work is altered. The standardised scientific vision of conservators, according to which all work would be restored, is a myth since it is patently clear that the 18th Century restorers lightened pictures while those of the 19th darkened them.

On the other hand, the conservative would gladly retain patina and preserve the integrity of the work in this regard, rather than risk damaging or losing the minor details, the flesh tones of Rubens for example, in which true genius is found (a view which tends toward the romantic conception of any patina, not simply those shrouding significant works, and supports the contrary case to deconstruction in the arts). According to Gombrich patina is a measure of our failing historical consciousness and imagination; if we cannot penetrate the surface to imagine the original work we stand to lose – in the desire to know and see more clearly – precisely what we seek in the growing dimness of the work's details. The faculty of sight is tragically fated in this regard, not so much doomed, but inadequate to the task of appreciation. So it is with apparent melancholy that Gombrich argues the legitimate presence of patina: "We can never turn back the wheels of time ".3 In his justification he cites Pliny's account of the painter Apelles (who used varnishes and glazes) and demonstrates the influence of this account on the techniques of Renaissance painters, arguing that in many cases patina constitutes rather than obfuscates the work of art (Leonardo's sfumato for example). Whether or not the varnish has darkened naturally or was intended to appear so by the artist becomes significant in the restoration of works. It also suggests that the use of varnish, released from pure utility, becomes a means to represent antiquity.

Both accounts are driven by the irresolute role of desire in looking at a painting. Both accounts propose a return to an originary moment when the real painting might be made manifest and desire fulfilled. But clearly this is fantasy. We either lose what we are looking for or we displace our desire onto another faculty (in this case imagination). An alternative is to simply constitute the limit as some sort of signification to be read, which is the role of patina in Birch's painting. Akin to Gombrich's view of the Renaissance, patina is no longer incidental but mechanical, among the works' other formal devices, and instrumental in qualifying our relationship to what is depicted.

Ruhemann's apocalyptic musing on the fate of certain masterpieces makes explicit the correspondence of one practice to another. The conservation of art takes place under the manifold threat to the species signified in the current age by the H-Bomb. Thus, conservation might have a more general meaning, signifying a disposition towards the world and its resources which are threatened by various entropic forces. Within the field of art conservation the darkening of varnish, phlogistics to be precise (the term coined in the 18th century), symbolises the slow irreversible decay set upon the world by the new technologies of industrialisation. Indeed, these technologies are responsible for the increasing rate of deterioration in many cases. The significance accorded patina might then also be extended to the tarnish on the domes of Venice due to the industrial fumes of mainland Mestre or to the crumbling facades of Athens due to the air pollution of modern traffic. Likewise, the representation of time implicit in the darkening hues of certain works becomes synonymous with the representation of decline; a separation from the past culminating in total obscurity, and which no longer reflects a romantic conception of antiquity but our immediate fears for the future.

Like a cataract growing across the eye, patina is anathema to the subject of painting. If there is an urgency with which the eye seeks out the details in Birch's paintings it derives from an implicit understanding of the chronic condition signified by patina; the idea of material decomposition corresponds exactly to the failing of vision.

notes: 

1. From The Cleaning of Paintings, London, 1968, quoted by Sarah Walden in The Ravished Image, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1985.

2. Walden's book realigns the debate concerning the restoration of paintings with more recent concerns about interpretation and intentionality. The book reconciles the technical manual and theoretical or speculative essay.

3. 'Foreword', ibid,p.3.