11 Works of Jonathan Leaman
Freda Uziyel, Exhibitions Curator at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art
“…………The idea that painting was dead would have left the depiction of the visible world to the camera. What a horrible thought and what a dull idea!”– David Hockney.
Some artists appear suddenly, and at the right moment and create a revolution in their wake (Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp for example), some merely fulfil collectors’ and viewers’ dictates, producing popular shows. Jonathan Leaman is an artist, whose individuality and originality is striking. While conveying new ideas, at the same time he brings back an appreciation of old masters. He is a contemporary artist, who, “only adds a new link.”
Painting today is dynamic, and becoming an important force on the contemporary art scene. The pluralism within the art scene and the interest shown by artists in the painting tradition is significant, regardless of the mantra ‘painting is dead’, that has often been heard. Artists have suddenly begun to adopt the techniques of the Old Masters, as well as the subject matter that relates to current events and the human condition. The second half of the 1990’s and the first decade of the twenty-first century has once more brought us art that expresses ideas in a symbolic form, often with a spiritual message. These more traditional vision was foreseen by Roland Barthes:
‘The text is a tissue of quotations: drawn from the innumerable centres of culture… the writer can only imitate a gesture that is culture. The writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original…. Did he wish to express himself, he ought at least to know, that the inner “thing” he thinks to “translate” is itself only a ready-formed dictionary.”
One of the features of contemporary art, is a rebellion against Modernism and exploration of the Pre-Modernist tradition. At the end of twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, there has been a revival of classical forms. Most of this revival shows a concern and preoccupation with neo-classical beauty. Often this return to the classics is used by the contemporary artist in an ironic way. The aesthetics of Classicism or irony, while reaching to the cultural past, have no resonance in Jonathan Leaman’s works. The art that has influenced him is the art of the early Northern and Italian Renaissance and the Dutch painters. While the neo-classical revivalists are not interested in ‘expression’, the preoccupation merely with ‘beauty’ is not of interest to Jonathan Leaman: it is not enough for him. His paintings have what Gomrich described as ‘the pattern of living expression’.
Jonathan Leaman has been greatly influenced by Matthias Grünewald’s (1470-1528) Insenheim Alterpiece. This painting, one of the most colouristically brilliant in art, was probably meant to help terminally ill patients confront the agony that surrounded them. The expressive power of the painting is unique: no-one else has ever painted the intense tears of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross as compellingly as Grünewald did in this work.
Jonathan Leaman does not belong to any group or artistic movement. He is unique and independent and his works are in many aspects, unusual in a contemporary context. This uniqueness stems foremost from the breathtaking techniques displayed in his works and the strong yet detonated/ shattered narrative, interwoven with allegories that are present in his paintings and because of the readiness for sentiment (the influence of Victorian-era art). His paintings are a long time in the making. Often illusionistic (illudore in Latin means ‘mock’), they create its own world. Naturalistically painted, they are not a simulation of reality, because as Leaman says; “Illusion is not a depiction, it’s a play. There’s nothing authentic about art, you know: it’s like saying ‘paint is authentic’; Even the finest illusionistic art is just paint too.”.
His art does not try to be real, they do not contain what was described by Eco as a ‘vacuum of memories’, and their, ‘sense of history allows to escape from temptation of hyperreality.’
Jonathan Leaman’s works are hybrids; he dislikes any form of ‘purity’ (a book that influenced him strongly in his youth was Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger); they are deconstructed and constructed, creating layers of mystery and interpretations: “When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people” (Edgar Degas). Leaman is an artist of memories, fragments and—it may seem—disconnected details. His art, while not autobiographical according to the artist, show him, his immediate surroundings, and his relatives.
The spirit of his work reflects his attitude to life. It reverberates with the real, the dream, the fantasy. The paintings transcend a dark inner world and seek out the sources of the human condition; they are vehicles for ideas and thoughts. They also show the artist’s unusual ability to combine traditional, even conservative elements with experimentation in new ideas. Jonathan Leaman’s works are almost perverse: on the one hand very modern, and on the other, agelessly grandiose. The paintings are a strange blend of fantasy and rationality. Hiding infinitive readings, every detail becomes the picture’s focal point, containing microcosms of the artist’s observations. They are about a self-contained world, which is fascinating, aggravating, uncanny—like newly-discovered layers in our memory.
An enigmatic and sceptical artist, his images are still compulsive and impulsive for the viewer. The narrative works—detonate narration within them. Critical of human behaviour and wickedness—Jonathan Leaman affirms life with the detachment of a wise man. As much as he is distanced from the world, he still shows concern for the world, for human suffering, for memories of the Shoah: the works, with their meticulously-painted objects, speak of very complicated, philosophical issues. Leaman has the talent to put every day, unconnected objects in unified, complicated constructions, creating a new world for the viewer in the process. Although the images are pictorially obvious, the meaning of the work is never transparent. While the works are painted traditionally, they are highly conceptual.
While dealing with the contemporary world, Jonathan Leaman reaches for traditional iconography—Jewish and Christian; always hybridising. He examines culture, the visual forms of his European and Jewish—his mother is Jewish—roots.
When an artist chooses his medium, it is for the sake of what he can say with this choice. Jonathan Leaman has very high expectations of painting:
“Paintings are not about the world; it’s about more things and the world ….I wouldn’t want to be a sculptor because the thing about painting, the most fascinating thing, is you see all at once, and you ignore it all at once…”
“Painting is a paradox. Nothing could be more fixed, it never changes and yet its meaning is completely fluid. A stupid “reading is just as permissible as clever one.”
“….you don’t ‘steal’ things from a photograph you ‘spy’ on the things but you always return back to painting”
There will always be artists who cannot exist without a palette, brushes, linseed oil, turpentine, painters knives and so on … Leaman is one of them. As a ‘rose is a rose is a rose’ (Gertrude Stein), painting, is a painting, is a painting for Jonathan Leaman.
Jonathan Leaman’s works are meticulously painted, the brushwork is highly in control, but the climate of the paintings and the climate that they evoke is always threatening. Leaman is preoccupied by death, but his figures are highly animated. They are often engaged in mechanical and repetitive actions. They resemble puppets or cartoon characters in their stylised facial types, which express human personalities and emotions. Technique plays an important role in Leaman’s works; as light and mimesis are important for the storytelling. He paints in oils, a medium which, unlike acrylics, dries very slowly. He approaches the surface as the Old Masters used to: without reticence. His worlds are not understated; they are firm, vigorous and affirmative.
Leaman is a painter of detail. It is essential to take into account the way the artist builds his images through observation, with a restless eye, underlining every exaggerated texture, pattern, shape, shadow and light. Jonathan Leaman is an individualist, well read, cultured and scholarly. There is nothing in him of the ‘wild’ bohemian. As Anna Akhmatova spoke of Modigiliani as an artist ‘enclosed in a ring of solitude’, so too is Leaman.
The Throne of God (1997-99) “Art is nostalgia for God”—Alexei von Jawlensky “Creativity can almost be defined as the capacity for transforming the chaotic aspect of undifferentiation into a hidden order that can be encompassed by comprehensive (syncretistic) vision.”
Jonathan Leaman is not a religious man although religious imagery can often be seen in his paintings. One of the most important influences on Jonathan Leaman as an artist was a visit to Colmar where he saw theCrucifixion from the Isenheim Altar by Mathias Grünewald (1512-1516). Jonathan Leaman’s fascination did not come from the idea of Christ as a saviour, but, rather from the genuineness of human suffering displayed in Grünewald’s painting.
The Throne of God is a response to Masaccio’s 1426 painting, The Virgin and Child (National Gallery, London), another artwork that has been crucial in Jonathan Leaman’s artistic development. The inspiration forThe Throne of God comes from the Old Testament too, from Ezekiel 1:26 (King James Version):
“And above the firmament…was the fashion of a throne like unto a sapphire stone. And upon the similitude of the throne was by appearance, as the similitude of a man above upon it.”
This is not a painting about Judaism however. Jonathan Leaman is, “only Jewish enough to be a Jewish atheist, which seems more attractive from the Christian kind.” The interest of the artist in Christian forms did not arise from iconoclastic intentions. They are products of his interest in tradition and in the art of the old masters.
“The Middle Ages are the root of all our contemporary “hot” problems, and it is not surprising that we go back to that period every time we ask ourselves about our origin.”
If the Romantics and the Symbolists had borrowed from the art of the Middle Ages in order to give their images a religious aura, Jonathan Leaman, in quoting Christian and Jewish iconography is attracted to profane aspects of today’s issues. The iconic elements of the profane are overlaid with everyday objects. There is no aura of the throne of God.
The atmosphere in the painting is that of the early Renaissance; a time in history when Jewish, Christian and Islamic beliefs as well as mysticism, were closely inter-linked. In the history of humanity;
“… Religion has woven tradition as the fabric of meaning and guarded the portals of culture by rejecting those works of art which threatened the moral norms of religion.”
The artist combines past and present in this work. It transfigures fragmented reality into unity, of which the centre is the throne of God. Jonathan Leaman uses medieval or early Renaissance symbols and with a tradition of appropriation adapts and interprets it for the contemporary viewer. Fragments of past and present work to compose a unified picture; disintegrated objects create a contemporary throne of God.
A prominent feature of this painting, as in many of Jonathan Leaman’s other paintings is the emphasis on painterly virtuosity. The Throne of God has an atmosphere of trompe l’oeil, and the composition that of an early Renaissance painting, yet, the puzzlement, the eclecticism, and the dislocation of space (Picasso’s influence on the artist) make it, technically, a contemporary painting.
The composition is random, like so many other paintings (Babel 1997-99, Picnic in the Cockeyne 1993-94, Sleep and Have Sleep for Light 2001-02) but is very carefully designed. It appears dreamlike, although it is not a surrealist painting. Because of its fluidity, the eye is encouraged to move all over the surface. The point at which the spectator begins to view the painting is not important; he would always be led back to the rest of the picture.
In the painting, there is no separation between public and private. No human is visible. Instead, only the material signs of human existence are. Being and disappearing make this painting somehow poetically sublime and evocative.
By lifting from the vernacular artifacts to a veiled situation, he achieves an uncanny atmosphere (the camera, the shoes, the pipe, the columns, the tent, etc.). Leaman transfers the symbols of popular culture, creating a new iconography; for example, the camera on the right side of the roof is a symbol of our times, and at the same time, could refer to medieval notions of an all-seeing God spying on man. The camera (God’s eye) is a deterrent from sin. “God sees” in Hieronymus Bosch’s Seven Deadly Sins (1480), an artist whose work has greatly influenced that of Jonathan Leaman. In Bosch’s painting, the eye of God functions as a mirror with Christ occupying the centre of the Eye. In Leaman’s Throne painting, the artist demonstrates the ability to create a work of mythological symbols, as well as an accurate representation:
“Modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one”
Jonathan Leaman succeeds in evoking wonder in the viewer. He achieves this through the sophistication of the painting’s realism. However, this is not the modern understanding of reality; it is a realism of the fifteenth and sixteenth century Northern Renaissance with its descriptive realism of particulars.
“I wanted something like those Dutch emblem things, where you would have the chariot where the horse is ridden by Love and it carries Fortune on its back and the world is balanced on an egg.”
The Throne of God is a painting about light and materiality. In the picture, there is a deliberate contrast between the high gloss and hard-edged clarity, painterly detail and realism of the object set in an unreal world.
“I always think it’s a picture about sunlight. One of the effects of sunlight is to render all objects that are within it somehow meaningless, and yet full of detail. …
I knew it had to be set in Portugal, because I have been dreaming about the light in Portugal for about two years. I just had this idea of colour in my head. It just was there and I could remember it, and quite often, paintings are like this and are about trying to get an idea and then getting rid of it… Throne was also a building. It was a real space. … I wanted to make it like a building. I didn’t want to make it a classical building as such, because I am not interested in classical art. I’m interested in what it looks like, what effect it has. I don’t like art that refers too much to classical cause: it has semi-nostalgia that (Giorgo de) Chirico used or the surrealists, in order to show oddness; I don’t want to be involved in that, but I wanted it to be a throne which was grand.”
The Throne of God can be approached by the viewer as an allegory. The fragmentary, the incomplete, the imperfect—the cracks in the walls, scattered stones and ruins of columns—are apparent in the work. Ruins are the most vivid emblem of the allegorical claimed Walter Benjamin; allegorical, symbolic realism with apparent visual truth, but a realism that should not be taken literally; this is the realism of fragmentation and detail.
All the artifacts—the pipe, the cushion, the slippers, the mug, television and so on, are the marks of somebody who has left the place; this is a vacated throne. This is a painting about absence of presence or presence of absence.
“God is dead, but the uncreated creator has taken his place. The same person who announced the death of God seizes all of his properties.”
Artists could always speak to God; they were different from us. What we, the viewers see in this work is not a glimpse of the divine, and there is no distinction between the “lower” (the flats on the left side of the throne are adapted from a council estate in Maida Vale in London that the artist has observed for many years) and the “higher” (the right side of the structure). Varying symbols of status are mingled with each other in this work. InThe Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin advanced the idea of “non-auratic” art. Jonathan Leaman’s use of everyday objects creates this non-aura on the one hand, while on the other hand, his use of traditional pictorial motifs serves to give a profane subject-matter, transcendental dimension.
The viewer can approach the painting in the “mood” of Nietzchean nihilism or by way of a Kantian interpretation of the sublime; either the Absolute does not exist, or does exist, but the only way that presentation of the infinitive is possible is through “negative presentation”.
“…But how to make visible that there is something which cannot be seen? Kant himself, shows the way when he names ‘formlessness, the absence of form’, as a possible index of the unpresentable…
He cites the commandment ‘Thou shall not make graven images’ (Exodus) as the most sublime passage in the Bible in that it forbids all presentation of the Absolute. Little needs to be added to those observations to outline an aesthetic of sublime paintings. As painting, it will of course ‘present’ something though negatively; it will therefore avoid figuration of representation. It will be ‘white’ like one of Malevich’s squares; it will enable us to see only by making it impossible to see; it will please only by causing pain.”
An empty throne has had a place in the rituals of many cultures. It can evoke the presence of God, or that of an absent ruler.
“The iconolaters of the Byzantium were subtle folk, who claimed to represent God to his greater glory but who, simulating God in images, thereby dissimulated the problem of his existence. Behind each of these images, in fact, God had disappeared. That is to say, the problem no longer even arose. It was resolved by simulation. This is what we do with the problem of the truth or reality of this world: we have resolved it by technical simulation, and by creating a profusion of images in which there is nothing to see.
But it is not the strategy of God himself to use images in order to disappear, himself obeying the urge to leave no trace? So the prophecy has been fulfilled: we live in a world where the highest function of the sign is to make reality disappear and, at the same time, to mask that disappearance.”
“I think these things are about presence because everything is presence except the one thing that it could be about.”
This painting, by creating an open—unlike a pyramid—construction, to the viewer is interpreted as the western idea of God, that while He cannot be seen, He creates the forms that we see.
“The image of the throne is as much a recognition as a construction, a reification, an hypostatization, not a meaning, and definitely not a metaphor. A remembrance like unto a sapphire stone perhaps.”
Strongly, Wrongly, Vainly (1996) “Strongly, wrongly, vainly, I love thee still.” —Lord Byron, last lines of “On Love and Friendship”
This is a very difficult painting to look at:
“Throughout a night without images but buffeted by black sounds; amidst a throng of forsaken bodies beset with no longing but to last against all odds and for nothing, on a page where I plotted out the convulsion of those who, in transference, presented me with the gift of their void I have spelled out abjection.”
In the painting, the viewer can see the artist’s London home. The bed, the blanket, the rag-the whole belongs to the flat. The curtains are from his childhood bedroom; everything seems so familiar. On the floor, which is strewn with scribbled pages, we recognise in the prostrate body—we don’t know if the person is alive—the artist. Jonathan Leaman explains:
I use realism to make the identity of the object clear. It otherwise doesn’t interest me. I use my life and household so as not to intend anything by depicting them … Nevertheless, I ask you not to look for me in these pictures. I hope they stand on their own.”
In the same letter, Jonathan Leaman also claims that one of the driving forces behind this work was his desire to use a lot of red colouring in his work. It is generally acknowledged that colour may be used for expressing emotions in art.
“Colour is what we associate automatically with feeling: age-old metaphor about ‘red anger’, ‘the blues’ and so on…”
One could think that Jonathan Leaman was inspired in this painting by Vincent Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles (1889), that shows the artist’s bedroom with a red bed cover. Van Gogh wrote about this painting,
“Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself more forcibly.”
Leaman has created an intimate and unsettling painting. It is a work that points to a shocking moment in human life.
“And yet, in these times of dreary crisis, what is the point of emphasising the horror of being? … For abjection, when all is said and done, is the other facet of religious, moral, and ideological codes on which rest the sleep of individuals and the breathing spells of societies.”
There is something unsettling in the colour of the flesh of the lying figure. Jonathan Leaman is able to capture the quality of human flesh, extending its sensuality to its darker aspects, similarly to the contemporary artist Lucian Freud. The work, with its complexity of language and emotions, communicates angst and despair to the viewer. The prostrate figure on the floor, with his exposed genitalia (the artist acting both as observer and as a participant) is caught in an extremely distressing personal, and also compelling, experience.
Like Pierre Bonnard’s portrait of himself in the bath, Jonathan Leaman deals here in the “visual field”, the extent of what can be seen from any given position of the artist. The perspective, the foreshortening of the body is reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s Femme Couchée (1926) or even Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ (c. 1480).
The association with Mantegna’s Dead Christ somehow chastises the painting. We know that something horrible has happened. The viewer feels uncomfortable seeing the foreshortened, helpless body–it could even be a dead body.
Death and images of corpses are the only area in contemporary art that artists, who normally deal with breaking any and all possible taboos, seem very shy of touching, although there are some exceptions. Ron Mueck has made a hyper-realistic sculpture of his deceased father. Even Damien Hirst, whose main preoccupation is the idea of death and mortality, expresses his work through animal representations (they become allegories of death).
At the foot of the dead? sleeping? unconscious? person (the artist?), appear beautiful, cuddly creatures. They stir childhood memories in the viewer. They are hares or rabbits, as if taken from (reminiscent of?) Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or Beatrix Potter’s stories. These creatures are adorned with human clothes. Although they appear familiar, they behave in an unfamiliar way. Canny turns to uncanny, everything becomes darker and more frightening.
“There is a kind of stupefaction in seeing a familiar being dressed differently.”
“Without monsters and gods, art cannot enact our drama: art’s most profound moments express this frustration. When they were abandoned as untenable superstitions, art sank into melancholy.”—Mark Rothko
Art can be a part of everyday life, but can also be an isolated practice outside the real world. Freud’s primal fantasies—Urphantasien—show how some realities that appear in our psyche are not necessarily connected with the real. Art often expresses what its creator pushes away from himself in his rational thoughts and actions; it is a palimpsest of his conscience.
“Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror … and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.”
This is a painting in which Jonathan Leaman attempts the impossible, trying to achieve a truth by breaking the barriers of what one can do in art.
Tzim-Tzum (The Bull) (1999-2002) “Wherever I go, under my foot the last stone breaks and the darkness opens, and I am like the first one after the flood who sinned” December 6th 1942, Kamil Baczynski (Polish poet who died in the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944)
“The greatest art always returns you to the vulnerability of the human situation.” Francis Bacon (artist)
The Bull is a painting that belongs to contemporary “history painting”–the most problematic, the most prestigious, and the least practised of the traditional academic genres. It was painted following the expulsion of Kosovans by Serbs in 1999. Throughout history artists have dealt with the consequences of human suffering.
“The realm of culture is the realm of meaning, the effort in some imaginative form to make sense of the world through the expressiveness of art and ritual, particularly those ‘incomprehensions’ such as tragedy and death that arise out of the existential predicaments which every self-conscious human being must confront at some point in his life.”
Jonathan Leaman created a land, “Fever Parish”, where an enormous bull, “… would hold sway in magnificent indifference to the horrors committed under his sign.”
The Tzim-Tzum is composed of a structure that is turned upside down. What first strikes the viewer is the terrifying emptiness of the space. Max Beckmann wrote, after seeing the devastation of the First World War, that:
“This endless space, whose foreground has to be filled up with some junk or other again and again so that its horrifying depth is not as evident. What would become of us wretched humanity … This infinite sense of being alone.”
The structure is built from columns; behind it there appears to be a familiar landscape. There is an oft-repeated interplay in Leaman’s works—the familiar turning into the dangerously unfamiliar, the blurring of the boundaries … between the known and the unknown—to the viewer. On initial approach, the viewer is confronted by an enormous bull whose frontality (frontality was often used by Vincent Van Gogh and Eduard Munch, two artists that have greatly influenced Leaman) helps achieve a direct psychological impact on the viewer. The bull is expressionless, with his back turned to the (familiar-unfamiliar) structure, the desert of ruins of our civilisation.
This multidimensional representation of our cultural space, with its numerous references to the history of art (for instance to Botticelli’s Adoration-tondo in the National Gallery, London and the building on the crane in the State Capitol designed by Thomas Jefferson), showing “the experience of all people in all times” and bringing to mind Marshall McLuhan’s remarks that we can only imagine the future through the past. The ruins and the landscape are “illuminated” by darkness. All of this somehow creates the impression of the end of our civilisation.
Jean-François Lyotard suggested in one of his writings that a fast-approaching cataclysm is facing our civilisation.
“that in my view, is the sole serious question to face humanity today.”
“Endist” philosophy is the leading trend within postmodernism. We can see this in the works of Fukuyama and Foucault, for whom Man perhaps is nearing the end of his history.
The Bull, “… like the painting of a sorrow, A face without a heart,” a monster, like King Minos’s Minotaur, who feeds on human disaster.
It is a very disturbing painting, with its extremity of mood reminding one of William Holman Hunt’s, The Scapegoat (1856). The stillness of the painting strikes uneasiness and terror in the viewer. The painting, like Edvard Munch’s Scream and Fear, expresses the dread of death, and like Picasso’s Guernicaor Goya’s Disasters of War condemns the violence and terror of war. The painting speaks of the absence of God in terrible times.
The title Tzim-Tzum—contraction, to become smaller, is taken from the Kabbalah. Tzim-Tzum means that God withdraws himself from human affairs; he is looking at a different direction from humanity. In the Kabbalah, the God is seen not as an enforcer, but as energy, a “light”. The light in this painting is overwhelming. It is a darkness illuminated by high sun: “No light, but rather darkness visible” as in John Milton’s vision of hell.
This painting seems to have a narrative language, though shattered and “repressed/ depressed”; it is not the narration of traditionally academic historical painting. It is the epic mood of this work that contextualises contemporary events. Through this mood—rather than through a narrative—Jonathan Leaman captures the spirit of the issues that trouble us today.
Jonathan Leaman uses contemporary sign language in a work made in the tradition of history painting, in the time when photography and television have taken over as the chroniclers of common memory. There are many photographs dealing with disasters, but unlike photography, painted images usually have an indirect mediated connection with the thing represented.
“Look at any inspired painting. It’s like a gong sounding; it puts you in a state of reverberation.” Philip Guston—painter, to a reporter from Time Magazine (1952)
Picnic in Cockayne (1993-94) “And I think that the art of our century is most potent when it is nearest to, without going over into, caricature—when it is touching on that rawness which caricature gives.”—Francis Bacon When asked, how he chose the title for this piece, Jonathan Leaman’s answer was;
“I had to choose a title, and you have to choose them afterwards. Well I know I choose it before because it’s a problem and therefore I decided to solve the problem before I’d start.”
Albert Camus said that a writer does not tell a story anymore; he creates his own world. Jonathan Leaman has created a painting about a land; “it was the image of being on the edge of something …”, it was about a picnic in Cokayne.
“Cockayne was the land of luxury and idleness: where the streets were paved with pastry and walls roamed pleading to be eaten. Basted larks fell from the sky dripping butter onto fat puddings. Cream oozed and the rivers flowed with wine.”
In the work, with its buckled jumble of perspectives and disjointed planes, the spectator tries to make clear sense of “what’s going on?” A family or extended group of families covering three generations enjoys a picnic. We see people, centaurs, dogs, pigeons, food and so on. This appears on the first plane, on the grass; behind it there is a wall, which creates an enclosure, illuminated by hallucinogenic light—this is a paradise (as Leaman points out, the word “paradise” comes form the Hebrew word “pardes” for an enclosure or garden). This is an idealised world, the Arcadia of legend, with a unicorn in the background. A tree has fallen through this wall and is now uprooted—an allegory perhaps? The fall of the tree from the other side of the wall creates havoc, releasing the wild side of human nature. Everybody starts to become free of inhibitions, and a spectacle of transgression (of uprooting?), ensues.
This painting of unselfconscious people, behaving without restraint or reason brings to mind Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, Garden of Earthly Delights (1505-10; Prado, Madrid)—a work about sexual excesses and indulgence, about transgression and confusion: what is right and what is wrong. The Cockayne painting, like most of the works by Jonathan Leaman is ambiguous; there seems to be a story in the painting, but there is not a definitive reading that can be easily attached to it. Taking into account the size of the painting and its composition, the first impression is that of a work of meta-narration, though this is not an Enlightenment narration. Here, the artist treats the narration with incredulity.
“… I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta-narratives… (the narrative) is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements.”
Moreover, in addition to its sense of narrative, this work demonstrates unprecedented attention to everyday detail. The viewer may want to take a magnifying glass, to admire the precise observation of detail with almost scientific curiosity.
As Blaise Pascal wrote:
“A town or landscape from afar is a town or landscape, but as one approaches, it becomes houses, trees, tiles, leaves, grass, ants, ants’ legs and so on ad infinitum. All that is comprehended in the word landscape.”
The space is created by multiple viewpoints and spatial distortion; the minutely detailed depiction, matched by the minute exploration of the paintbrush, the scale of the painting, the high horizon, all these factors create an ominous air. The direction of the objects and people and of the plane, relate to one another.
The painting with naturalistically and hyper-realistically painted objects deals with geometrical organisation of the space rather than what is generally considered as reality, as in seventeenth century Dutch moralists’ paintings. This is an extraordinary spectacle—when reality and illusion become one.
Jonathan Leaman uses heavy chiaroscuro, which creates a strong contrast between light and shade; the shades creating disturbing images of, possibly, hidden messages. They appear in relation to each other, as the artist intended them to be. Everything is exaggerated and out of focus, with no interest in the logical composition of spatial depth.
“Picnic” is a grotesque and theatrical painting. The dramatic imagery (the influence of James Ensor), the uncanny discrepancy between scale and perspective with enormous pigeons at the front, (probably symbolising the supremacy of imagination over reason), makes the viewer sense that everything is possible. This is a painting with a dynamic disorder, disruption and irregularity.
The joie de vivre in the painting seems strained; the bodies are unnatural and tense. The distortion becomes grotesque. The grotesque is related to sixteenth century Flemish art, rather than the caricature, grotesque distortion of Goya’s Capricho a la Goya. A note attached to Jonathan Leaman’s drawings and preparatory sketches for this painting, said: “abomination, perversion, the slipped category”. Our culture is often fascinated and deals in images of abjection:
“For, facing abjection, meaning has only a scored, rejected, ab-jected meaning—a comical one. ‘Divine’, ‘human’, or ‘for some other time’, the comedy or the enchantment can be realised, on the whole, only by reckoning with the impossible for later or never, but set and maintained right here.”
The contemporary viewer is fascinated by spectacular images of disgust, disfigured bodies morphed into unbelievable shapes; the modern viewer is as much engrossed by these themes as were the first to see Bosch’s paintings.
This painting, with its portrayal of people having a picnic that has gone spectacularly wrong, the happy riotous atmosphere, which then becomes a poisoned land, the animated figures in contorted poses that convey a sense of action and brutality, the composition of the painting, all bring to mind Piero di Cosimo’s The Fight Between the Lapiths and the Centaurs (c. 1500-15, National Gallery London), which the artist based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Cosimo’s work depicts drunken centaurs disrupting the wedding feast of the King of the Lapiths. There are specific references in Leaman’s own painting to this work; in the upper part of Cockayne, we see two centaurs (probably father and son), watching the people in disbelief. Like in Cosimo’s painting:
“Everything is being mixed together and it’s all about disorder … This detail came from Pierre de Cosimo about the Lapiths, I stole them.” (Showing the laying of the tablecloth on the rush mat on the ground)
Cockayne is a painting about human wickedness, a gritty world, of grassroots vulgarity and corruption. Even the paradise behind the ruined wall is not spared a corruption: the rotten apple with an image of the face on it exemplifies this.
Babel (1997-99) “The mind having received of sense a small beginning of remembrance, runneth on infinitely, remembering all what is to be remembered. Our senses therefore, which stand as it were at the entry of the mind, having received the beginning of anything, and having proffered it the mind; the mind likewise receiveth this beginning and goeth over all what followeth: the lower part of a long and slender pike being but slightly shaken, the motion runneth through the whole length of the pike, even to the speare’s-head…so does our mind need but a small beginning to the remembrance of the whole matter.” – Maximus Tyrius, Philosophumena
We are faced with a massive construction—a tower. On display there is an assortment of commonplace objects, the objects of “higher” culture, the symbols of our civilisation, unrelated images forming the unusual structure. The objects are transferred and translated to the space of art, removed from the realm of social and commercial life.
The artist proceeds backwards into space, from the object at hand to the infinite distance of the sky, picking his way into the depth by relations and differences. The painting does not explain how objects stand in space. Instead, it just points to the independent qualities of every single one and then names them.
… “Seeing comes before naming”
By using geometrical elements rather than abstract elements, stressing the horizontal, the vertical components and the contrast, the artist achieves a structure with definitive statement.
The use of unexpected juxtaposition and its hyper-real clarity and the accidental relationship between the objects may seem to give the painting a surrealist touch. The irrationality and absurdity of attaching accidental objects bring to mind the Dadaist movement. The work combines the discipline of painting, sculpture and architecture. The painter as the engineer, the builder, acts like Vladimir Tatlin in his Monument to the Third International (1919 Musée Nation d’Art Moderne, Paris). The balance and composition of objects evokes a sense of depth like that seen in Kasimir Malevich’s Supremacist abstract works.
In this painting, Jonathan Leaman explores how to rearrange real objects suspended in space in a geometrical manner, as El Lissitzky did with geometrical forms, placing them in unprecedented configurations.
The massive scale of the structure is conveyed by the cutting of the image at the top and the bottom, reminiscent of Fernand Léger’s The Builders (1950, Musée National Fernand Léger, Biot).
Babel, a hyper-structure realised by geometries, brings to mind another painting by Jonathan Leaman, The Throne of God.
Babel is a response to a series of drawings on the subject of “connection”, which the artist made impulsively fifteen years before the painting took shape. He combined them in a tower, creating their own reality. By playing with objects, lifting and transferring artefacts to this unusual situation, the artist achieved a new system of information, a vision.
By blurring the lines between real appearance and artistic imagination, Jonathan Leaman painted a work that appeals to the archaeology of our memory. These structures and layers produce a form that represents the universe of our collective memory, triggering our imagination.
Memory is more than remembering; it is also a palimpsest simultaneously of: objects, places, people, events that unfold, a place that we revisit. For the viewer of this work, recollections wander, becoming dispersed and then reassembling.
“Every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably” wrote Walter Benjamin in “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
The painting shows a tall sculpture that aspires to, but does not quite reach the heavens. While the viewer may admire the balance, composition of objects and the tonality of colours, he may feel confused – “what is the connection between the objects?” Walter Benjamin wrote: “Babel is bafflement, not meaninglessness”. The “Babel” which seems so real, transforms the viewer into abstract and complex ideas, creating an “infinity of interpretations”. The basis of this work comes from Gershom Scholem (explains Jonathan Leaman): “One of the principles of mystical exegesis is to interpret all words as nouns–language is ultimately founded on a sequence of nouns that are nothing other than the deity itself (hence language itself is a texture of mystical names).
“…..‘recognition’, ‘knowing’, ‘seeing’ are all immediate”. According to Aristotle, through mimesis (imitation), Man develops his earliest understanding.
This painting points to the instability of language, and to the fact that the connection between signifier and signified (the word and its meaning) is arbitrary. It raises doubts regarding the western tradition of belief that words can communicate:
“ … Language is ineradicably marked by instability and interminancy of meaning; … interpretation is, therefore, a free ranging activity more akin to game-playing than to analysis as we normally understand the term”.
To the left of the centre of the painting, there is a diagonal pole running upwards to the right, trying to reach the sky. The artist has wrapped the pole with the lines from the poem by Paul Célan: “Sprich! Doch scheide das Nein nicht vom Ja” (Speak, but do not split no from yes).
Four Nieces Berating a Dead Uncle (2001-2002) “In this world, we walk on roof of Hell gazing at flowers” – Czestaw Miłosz
… “that ineffable breath of the sinister, the violent and the ruthless that dominates almost every product of that land of spleen!” – Charles Baudelaire, comment about William Hogarth
The painting depicts four contemporary adolescent girls, standing, jumping on dead wood, surrounded by a garland of flowers. Beyond them, there is a white space of nothingness. The flowers are naturalistically painted. They are beautiful as were flowers painted by Dutch seventeenth century artists. Jonathan Leaman is a great admirer of the art of this period. The rendering of the details of the garland points to this admiration, as well as to the fact that the artist has a brilliant technique. The painting is set on a dark background and the garlands form a frame around the girls, creating a picture within the picture.
The dark background adorned with garlands that have a luminosity of their own was characteristic of the style of Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder (Madonna in Floral Wreath, Munich, Alte Pinakothek). The use of the religious imagery with connotations of the garland was adopted by many Dutch artists (for example, Davidsz de Heem, Eucharist in Fruit Wreath, 1648, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Daniel Seghers, Floral Wreath with Madonna and Child, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent), as well as in the art that emerged from Catholic countries. The great cult of the Christ-Child was characteristic of the seventeenth century art. Often, Christ was venerated in artistic representations as a small figure wearing beautiful clothes. One such example is a painting by Josefa de Ayala e Cabrera, Christ the Redeemer, (1673, Church in Cascais, Portugal). In this work, Christ, who appears with a clumsily painted woman’s face, wears doll-like, transparent clothes and is surrounded by a garland of flowers, symbolising beauty and, first and foremost– innocence.
Picasso adorned a seated young boy with a garland of roses in Garçon à la pipe, (1905; The Boy with the Pipe). The wrath on the boy’s head gives the picture a magical and poetic quality, full of melancholy.
Four Nieces by Jonathan Leaman also has young people as a central subject (which we would expect to symbolise innocence). The painting was created in appreciation of the work of seventeenth century Dutch artist, Bartholomé Pérez, Garland of Flowers with Saint Anthony and the Christ Child (Prado, Madrid).
The faces of the girls are painted dark on a light background, like the faces painted by Carel Fabritius, (who reversed the technique of his master, Rembrandt van Rijn, painting light on dark). The painting embodies strong contrasts:
garland of flowers –angry faces light – dark white – black lovely flowers – dead wood
This picture, unlike most of the works by Jonathan Leaman, has a central area to which the eye is led: from the frame – a garland, to the girls, to dead wood, to beyond… In the painting, we have two heterogeneous, discontinuous elements; two elements that do not belong to the same world: the beautiful garland, always associated with the works of the Old Masters, juxtaposed with the faces of the girls, who wear contemporary clothes and behave like cartoon characters. This kind of duality or theatricality unsettles the spectator.
In real life, Jonathan Leaman has four nieces, only one of whom was a model for this painting. The similarity in this work between the faces and of the expressions they wear, but without individuality and identity, reminds one of Vincent van Gogh’s desire to burst the bounds of identity. They assert the right of the body over the mind.
“… the human face is temporarily (and I say temporarily) all that is left of the demands of the revolutionary demand of a body that is not yet and was never in keeping with this face”
In an interview, Jonathan Leaman said he would love to paint a sentimental picture (like the pre-Raphaelites did): “I would love to paint a sentimental picture. I mean, it’s very difficult to paint sentiments in pictures […] but everybody’s so ironical at the moment. […] It seems like an attack upon sentimental feeling, which I admire. I’m fascinated by them.”
In Four Nieces, there is nothing nostalgic about the children, who look and behave monstrously. Brutality usually arises from weakness. In this painting, the pastoral is disturbed. Jonathan Leaman deconstructs the myth of innocence and with that, innocence itself. These four girls exemplify what John Ruskin called “the Grotesque Expressional School”. Similar to James Ensor, with his grotesque, gruesome figures and bitter humour, and to Vincent van Gogh, with his attempts to convey emotion through colour (The Night Café, 1888), Jonathan Leaman finds strangeness in (probably) any given subject.
The distinction between the girls and the garland of flowers turns into a battlefront of expressive energy. Childhood, usually associated with innocence, becomes a descent to hell in this painting.
This painting can be fascinating and at the same time aggravating. What happened just before this picture was painted? What happened afterwards? What does the artist want to show? What does he want to hide? Jonathan Leaman writes; “Four Nieces berating a dead Uncle is a mischievous title. It was always meant to be a flower picture. I was attempting a picture of simple means – rather, a painting where the real subject was its framing matter. It must be said that it was an arrogant ambition to present virtuosic depiction at the edge of a simply seen group – the imagery of angry girls just occurred to me. I wanted the flowers to act as a transition between nothingness and, well, something–as an act, perhaps? To let the flowers be noticed as if they were incidentally (sic). I suppose I was nagging away at the mystery (as it seems to me) of belief in a picture object.
Illusion is extraordinary and subverts irony, imposition and intention. Implicitly, then, I was testing my skill against objects: a folie. I never finished the picture due to exhaustion with the vanity of it.
Vanity (2003) “… vanity of vanities, sayeth the preacher, all is vanity.” – Ecclesiastes (12:8)
On the first plan of the painting, on the counter, we see objects that symbolise transience: a skull, a broken clock, a glass bottle, half an eaten and rotten lemon, a dead flower, a rotten apple, a big skull jokingly decorated with a peacock feather (peacock tail feathers, like a rainbow, represented the totality of colours throughout art history. The bird itself was also a symbol of incorruptibility and immortality in early church paintings – shedding and renewing its tail every year), a photography under the skull, money, old papers, an empty container, a dead bird…
Vanitas as a genre is always about death. The meaning of every still life, in principle, is of vanity and transience.
Behind the counter, we see a narrow, shelved room. Death is peering behind doors left ajar. The next room beyond the door is completely dark; we can just about recognise stairs leading into the upper floor.
This painting represents what Henry James used to describe as “solidity of specification”. In the centre of the painting, clutching a clay figurine, stands a man. This man is the artist, who has painted himself with extraordinary frankness. Akin to Lucian Freud and Philip Pearlstein in their works, Jonathan Leaman scrutinises himself, showing extreme accuracy in his own depiction. This is a self-portrait with a still life painted with “perceptual realism”.
“One always has a greater involvement with one self than with anybody else. No matter how much you may believe that you are in love with somebody else, your love of somebody else is your love of yourself”
Jonathan Leaman says; “… What happens when you see the Dutch paintings (I love them), everything there is fuelled with iconography. So nothing can escape from it, not one little thing on the table but there’s some way you can retrieve it back and take it back to artificiality. I love the fact that they are about an artificial mind game that you can see and you can walk around it”.
Since the Dutch still lifes of the seventeenth century and throughout the history of art, many artistic movements and many artists have made references to this genre of art.
Cezanne painted his still lifes making them nearly theoretical works for future generations. Picasso, Braque and the Cubists painted still lifes, as well as the Futurists and the Constructivists. Pop art picked up the theme. In contemporary art, still life is often used in installations as an ultimate realism. Recently, Sam Taylor-Wood, one of the Young British Artists, interpreted the genre of still life as a video piece (Still Life, 2001).
Probably, artists will always be drawn to interpret the idea of the still life.
“… Much of their meaning comes from the inflections they are able to introduce into the field of previous work. The still lives of Chardin are highly self-conscious adaptations of still life conventions first developed in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. The luxury still lives of de Heem and Willem Kalf depend on prototypes in the Vanitas painting, which they modify and push in specific directions, in the same way that Matisse in turn took de Heem and refashioned de Heem’s design for his own distinctive purposes”.
Excerpts from a letter from Jonathan Leaman ‘I started out being “good at doing things”, at getting the likeness of things, but, pretty soon, I colluded with an idea of moderness that avowed a picture was a whole, an image, a spiritual “act” of vision that joined maker and beholder. I became a generalist, abstracting down and planning off things into simple “identities”. With a bend for caricaturisation, I had more need to make an emblem of Kingliness of a crown than that I bring with it qualities of shine, weight, dents, patterning, etc. I taught myself to look down on those who admired the painted grapes and said, “You could almost eat them”. Consequently, I had little time for still life, firmly stuck as a student exercise. If I thought of mimesis and the painting of things at all, it was to puzzle out how to remove their particularity.”
“In a sense things pushed themselves onto me as I began to see how tightly the identity of objects is tied in with remembrance and association (- a rough touch, frayed edges, browning thumb marks on the edge of a page, the lettering or packaging) – details place the object in experience. I signed regretfully that the ‘look of things’ didn’t look right beside my writhing, coiled figures. I didn’t realise yet that it was just this lack of a reflective past for my characters, these figures, that meant I would have to change.
I was glutted with things but couldn’t see in still life anything beyond a display of skill. The best seemed like a box full of attributes knocking about without their stories, a sort of Arma Christi without Christ. More often I found them to be excuses for the act of painting a deliberate eschewal of association.
I wanted to paint lots of things but was exhausting myself inventing stories to get them together. I would ask myself “what are the things doing there? What is the reason for it? What is in the background?” I couldn’t isolate them in the dark, like Chardin, nor plonk things down, like Vincent, on a table in their wrappings. Things didn’t come without associations and the straightforward fact of their ‘thisness’ their ‘haeccity’, wasn’t enough. I still yearned, though, for the mystery of ‘likeness’, for that moment before one sees the paint and says “ah yes, we had one of those.” Mimesis is not important for itself but it has an immense power. I wanted that power and sensed that if I could ‘sentimentalise’ eyes with some kind of narrative then, here and there, in patches, one wouldn’t notice that the apple was seen before the brushstroke.
…The figure standing between the shelves and the counter is the artist impersonating Laban clutching at a figurine, one of the Terafim (household gods) stolen by Rachel.
…Ibsen’s Brand scolds the world for holding onto its idols – Agnes, his wife is forced to give up her dead child’s clothes to an elf gypsy mother at the door – “idols!”
…Two further vanities – the vanity of paint tricking the eye (‘Trompe l’oiel’, ‘Bedriegertje’, ‘The deceit’ in Dutch),
And, what else is a self portrait?’
Retreat (1990-92) “Those exuberant blueberries, which I’ve remembered for the rest of my life, were growing so high that there was no need to bend down for them. When we sneaked through that way, I didn’t know that the forest had seen and heard the agony of the entire Dobre and my family… I’m glad we were forbidden to stop in that forest and that I wasn’t allowed to eat those berries.” – Henryk Grynberg
The artist has conjured up an endless pine forest with naturalistically painted bark. These layers of bark and forest hide and uncover enchanting as well as often-terrible memories. On the first plane the viewer sees a happy, naked (uncovered?) boy, his sleeping bag next to him.
In the undergrowth of the forest, we see large nails, bolts and pins. Do they have a function; are they supposed to bond the people to the objects, to memories? We appear to see many unconnected objects: a ruler, a shield, a hair brush, clothes carelessly thrown on a chair, a flying cup and saucer, a fork and a knife, shoes and a radio, the broken eggshells, a jar of cream (or, as Jonathan Leaman wrote: “the Magdalene’s ointment jar”…), a chess board, and so on… All the objects point to a human presence, a recurrent motif in Jonathan Leaman’s work. The people portrayed in this painting, with their convulsed bodies and their strange behaviour are not from “this world”. They look like they are resurrected (back to life or to our memory?). The forest is timeless, unlimited and all embracing. For the boy, as for us, it uncovers and covers unlimited, timeless, and all-embracing memories and secrets.
Through these strange shadows of people and objects, through a totality of an uncanny atmosphere, through references to a supposed reality, Jonathan Leaman achieves mythological qualities in his paintings.
“Meaning is the secret is scarlet S, the beetle is in the matchbox from Wittgenstein: in the egg and spoon, the gingerbread house’s head from Breughel and the knife end cup-handle from Bosch (“Oreille”). But meaning, also, in the domestic particularity of fish-slice and the echoing tunes of the fork, on comb and soap and orange-stick”.
Are these “Secrets” or Meanings”?
“Is meaning itself anything more than dead man’s clothes thrown onto a chair? Echoes of regeneration?” asks Jonathan Leaman. In his works, the artist struggles with well-known issues, but he approaches them as an artist in a new way, a complicated but clear methodology: “Simplicity and elegance are never reasons to think that a philosophical theory is true: on the contrary, they are usually grounds for thinking it is false.”
We are enchanted by the forest, which is a place of secrets. It could be a happy place, but also equally a haunted place.
Memories of Hansel und Gretel. Memories of Einsatzgruppen….
“I believe that (these) images have a therapeutic impact. They are as passing flashes because they capture a given moment, an anxiety… that they frame and represent so that your attention is drawn to it here and now, in the same way that analytic practice does … Postmodernism, … tries to integrate this wandering in an eclectic unity, containing regressive elements to be sure, but constituting a step beyond the idea of an avant-garde as it imposes a content and the elaboration of a mediation…”
The Retreat is a disturbing and mysterious painting, which, in its fragmented narrative, reveals many layers of the scars of humanity.
The title of this work was given retrospectively and Jonathan Leaman took it from the poem by Henry Vaughan (a seventeenth century poet)
“Happy those early days, when I Shin’d in my angel-infancy! Before I understood this place Appointed for my second race,”…
Entjudungmeer (1996-97) “The story of shattered life can be told only in bits and pieces.” – Ranier Marie Rilke
“The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”—Walter Benjamin
The viewer is faced with a colossal painting whose scale totally absorbing. The sense of movement of the sea and its sheer scale makes us aware of how fragile we human beings are.
On the rocks of the sea, there is a family of survivors of a shipwreck or a deluge. Submerged and floating on the sea are the remains of their past lives, the memories. Shoes are used as an allegory; as were the shoes seen in Vincent Van Gogh “Peasant Shoes” symbolizing peasants’ misery and poverty. These shoes, for anyone acquainted with the Shoah, are also an allegory of death and suffering (the shoes in these paintings are clearly reminiscent of the piles of shoes left by those who perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz).
Jonathan Leaman often shows objects in his works to point the attention of the viewer to the absence of people connected with them (the presence of absence); they are a reminder of life past. We see a suitcase, a bag with clothing, furniture, photographs, lamps, a slice of bread… The first words of Genesis (“In the beginning…”) are submerged in the sea; the books are engulfed by the water, as are the gravestones. The family and the viewers are encircled by the enormity of the sea, and its lush waves. The juxtaposition of the sea and of the fragile people, the impression of reality and horror, the dark tonality, which provides a foil to the brilliant white crest and swirls of the waves; all this produces a highly theatrical scenery. The sea seems real; it floods the senses. We can almost feel the wind, the smell of salt, and hear the slap of the waves. This is an angry nature in its very essence.
Yet, the longer one looks into the surface of the water, the more elusive it seems. The sea is a spiritual entity. In the distance, an island appears. “Time” lies smashed on the rocks there. In the sketches for this painting a note written by Jonathan Leaman with an impression of this island says: “It was, it could, it will”.
This shipwrecked or castaway family struggles to survive; one of the men reads the maps, another is praying, a man takes care of the children and keeps the family together; somebody is building a wall. A grandmother is looking through family photographs. Further, along on the horizon, we see a young girl standing on the cliff, a yellow Star of David sewn to her coat. This is a painting about the Shoah and about survival. These people, the Jews, are a paradigm of continuity for the artist.
The title Entjudungmeer comes from the term used by Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, to describe the takeover of Jewish assets and the removal of Jews from the economic life of Germany before removing them from life altogether.
“I had the idea for this picture in Cornwall. I was reading Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews when it occurred to me that the exhilaration of the day, looking at the sea were, by way of reaction, a reassertion of my humanity. I had thought the rubbish filling my brain on the cliffs was a lack of concentration unable to rise itself to splendour. But, I now realised that I had been under attack from impersonality and that the sea-trivia was a wall against the cold-heartedness of it all. The image of my mother fused with Hilberg’s awful statistic of extermination. As a British Jew, she never had to wear the yellow Magen David. I have painted her as a child looking back at us, wearing it now for memorial’s sake.”
It is interesting to discover just how much Jonathan Leaman identifies with the history of the Shoah;
“I have a Jewish mother, and, that would have elected me, as a ‘mischling of the First’ to the attention the Nazis, but what happened there didn’t happen here. None of my family suffered in those times because all my family were here, English Jews of long standing…”
The Nobel Prize winner for literature, Imre Kertesz, claimed in one of his books that a culture that knows to live with the knowledge of death and create from this knowledge, a life force, is a much deeper and more interesting culture than one that does not need to face these existential, moral and historical questions about the human condition.
“All that is a family is held in the mind. Love is not a thing, nor kinship a process. Knowing that we are bound for extinction, we implicitly acknowledge that we make up our attachments. Memory and custom are the true blood line, the blood serving only to take away choice. Race is just a dream that merely boils down to Phylum and genus. Lineage is really an act of remembrance. Conformity is Commemoration.”
This painting symbolises the belief in a form of rebirth. The Greek tragedy was born out of this belief: re-enacting Dionysus’ death and regeneration every year. The ancient Greek plays had many layers, as has Jonathan Leaman’s work.
Is it possible to “write poetry after Auschwitz?” Theodor Adorno himself answers:
“Yet this suffering, what Hegel called consciousness of adversity, also demands the continued existence of art while it prohibits it; it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it.”
To paint a work about the most tragic event in Jewish history, to create a historical picture today, could only be done by “emplotment” of past events in a certain type of message. Traditionally, history was told (or painted) in the third person, in a realistic style. This form was employed, because it has the effect of a rhetorical device, which creates the illusion of objectivity, to give the impression that the painting is a reference to the world outside. Of course, realism is a style, like any other style, no more truthful to any other “art-ificiality”. The “neutral”, the “objective” in a story, in history, is impossible (what Lyotard called the end of meta-narrative).
Jonathan Leaman’s approach is very personal, imaginative and individual. His is a distressed, shattered narrative. The people portrayed in the painting are not symbols of great struggle. He shows a family, more so, even, he shows his own family, transplanted into an imaginary situation. This personal touch, the use of images of everyday objects, of memories and belongings, creates a story inside the story, transgressing the borders of what was and what could be.
Unlike history painters, in Jonathan Leaman’s narrative, there are no indications of the belief in progress and of moral improvement (as indicated in the works of the philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant), there is no use of the old Western tradition in art: drawing on religious imagery of martyred saints in order to create new martyrs. Jonathan Leaman expresses thoughts and ideas in a new way in his work, yet at the same time it bears similarity to traditional painting; in this way, he creates a painting that demands intellectual awareness, while remaining accessible to a wider audience.
Jonathan Leaman uses allegory: “How could one hope… to make them understand that allegory is one of the noblest branches of art?”
The allegory of deluge and of storms at sea was quite popular in nineteenth century art: J.M.W Turner’s, The Shipwreck, (1805, Tate Britain, London), Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, (1819, Louvre, Paris), Arnold Böcklin’s The Waves (1883, Bayerische Neue Pinaktothek, Munich) and Francis Danby’s The Deluge (1840, Tate Britain, London).
The Entjudungmeer has some affinities with and philosophical connections to Edvard Munch’s The Human Pillar and Böcklin’s Tontenisel. Munch also designed the compositions The Storm and The Rainbow, which, on one side, depicts a man fleeing from a catastrophe, and on the other, a man resting in hope.
“Real heroes are always impelled by circumstances; they never choose because, if they could, they would choose not to be heroes. … The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.”
In this work—Entjudungmeer—of conjuncto oppositorum, the artist expresses light and darkness, life and death, suffering and hope. This painting is a reaction to a knowledge of experience (not the experience itself). This somehow places Jonathan Leaman in the expressionist tradition.
Electric Age (2004) “There has never been an age, however rude or uncultured, in which the love of landscape has not in some way been manifested. And how would it be otherwise? For Man is the sole intellectual inhabitant of one vast natural landscape. His nature is congenial with the elements of the planet itself, and he cannot but sympathise with its futures, its various aspects, and its phenomena in all situations” – John Constable
“It took a long time for humankind to understand that life on earth originated in a succession of improbable events.”
A sweeping landscape dominates the painting and immediately engages the viewer’s eye. The predominant colour of this work is a blueish green, which, combined with the calligraphic grace of the images makes this painting look somehow elegant; one can see Sandro Botticelli’s influences on Jonathan Leaman in this painting. Only the burning sun that rises above the coastline has the intensity of red-orange fire. This sun makes one think of the probable influence of J.M.W. Turner’s Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis (1843). Turner’s painting–an allegory of light–was influenced by Goethe’s theory of colour.
In “Electric Age”, a carefully depicted fantastic geological structure dominates the visionary landscape: the blend of fantasy and naturalistic details. In this highly imaginative painting, the artist lavishes his attention on all parts of the canvas, from the centre to the background, creating a chaotic space of extreme dynamism. This landscape is a system of machine-like generated variables, of Dionysian vision and Dionysian life force. The artist has juxtaposed nature with technology (falling electricity pylons) and created an enormous organism whose outcome is our realisation of the permanent struggle of this dynamic system. The mutations are endless; nothing is determined and no state is final.
The grand view does not focus on one important subject matter. The details are vivid. Everything here is mixed together; it is all about disorder, about the force of life. The work depicts the motion and dynamism of the world and its terrifying movement of things that happened; monumental and awe-inspiring image, the deconstructed landscape embodies dramatic effects. Everything happens here, and everything is possible:
“The complexity is what makes the picture breathe, I think. I don’t think it’s simplicity, I think it’s the complexity, and handling that complexity and not let it overwhelm the painting.”
Within the highly structured and evolving arrangements of naturalistically painted objects, interlocking across this blueish-green plane, which from afar creates a beautiful tapestry effect, the artist presents us with his highly evocative vision. As in many other works by Jonathan Leaman (such as The Throne, Babel, Picnic at Cockayne), the artist blurs the boundaries between real appearances and imagination:
“If you are able to develop this artistic approach into an instrument of perception, you will find in the outer macrocosm the phenomenon that exists in the human being.”
Jonathan Leaman painted this fictive work as a trustworthy document. The individual objects are clearly recognisable. The naturalism in this painting implies a high degree of objectivity; at the same time it is a completely visionary and imaginary work; a work that joins naturalism with fantasy. The naturalistically painted work does not produce a “reality-effect” (Ronald Barthes’ terminology “effet de reel”). It may produce an atmosphere of narrative, but as in most of Jonathan Leaman’s works, this is only a mood of narrative.
The exotic and the mundane everyday is mixed in Electric Age, everything is richly decorated, creating a paradox by displaying its own artificiality. This work, with its dream-like quality, with its rhythm and tones, expresses continuous shifts. It does not illustrate specific visual memories, it evokes the vision of “élan vital”, the life force:
“A force that cracks pavings, that arches branches, that splits the overreaching limbs of trees; a non-crystalline force that lifts concrete slabs; a curved force, an upward force, (an) arching, splitting force.”
This force of continuous shifts ‘pangea and panthallosa’ of interconnected tangles, spreads to all possible directions, creating a chaotic and uncanny network (the hands suddenly appear from the opening created by the shattered floor; the appearance of dramatic centaurs).
“The German word ‘unheimlich’ is obviously the opposite of ‘heimlich’ (native)–the opposite of what it familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is uncanny is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar.”
The uncanny atmosphere in the painting appeals to the palimpsest of our memories. This element of the unknown-known, the expected-unexpected and the sudden, creates a sublime effect (an extremely suggestive crack in the earth, the falling of electricity pylons).
“Having considered terror as producing an unnatural tension and certain violent emotions of the nerves, it easily follows from what we just said that whatever is fitted to produce such a tension must be productive of passion similar to terror, and consequently must be a source of the sublime, thought it should have no idea of danger connected with it.”
Electric Age, with its references to history, the Bible, art history, mythology, while alluding to “high” culture; with its drama, beauty, and mixture of everyday objects, also succeeds in appealing to a wider audience.
The painting is inspired by visual art and by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbetter’s “Occult Chemistry” of 1908, but it is not a description of Jonathan Leaman’s beliefs. It is an open book. The naturalistically painted landscape brings to mind Jan Breughel the Elder’s (the “velvet” Breughel), The Animals Entering the Ark (1615, London, Wellington Museum). The idea of centaurs derives from Arnold Böcklin’s, Centaurs’ Combat(1873, Kunstmuseum Basel). The peeled-back pavement with the hovering potted tree is a “play” on Giovanni Bellini’s, Christian Allegory (1490, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The bended arch is a reference to Paolo Uccello–one of the most skilled artist and craftsmen of his time (1379-1475).
Overall, Electric Age–is an overwhelming and sublime composition. Its contents may appear to be evident, but in fact, the painting reflects some complex philosophical issues. This affinity with the landscape is global in its geographical, geological and philosophical context, which is also interwoven with Jewish themes.
Imagining ideas is a concern of conceptual art; it is also a concern for all profound artists; as Leonardo da Vinci observed: painting is, “una cosa mentale”.
“But I don’t want to produce good paintings, I want to get the arguments out of my head and stop them being inside my head…”
Jonathan Leaman has said that, “it seemed to me that I was looking at the form and pattern of a thought, placed for the first time in definitive space”. He adds, “Before the law of gravity started, before (the) onset of entropy, there was an ‘electric age’”.
The label on the suitcase in the painting reads “Pandora”. The quotes are: “He removeth the Earth out of her place, and the pillars…” (from the Geneva version Job 9:6) and: “The opposing brings concert and from tones at variance comes perfect fit: all things come to pass through discord.” (Heraclitus, fragment B-8-Diels). Jonathan Leaman writes: “The ‘vital flame’ is active matter (being-at-doing-Nishida), the fiery will of shape”.
“The Electric Age is Act before buds and greening. We want to say ‘gravity has not yet become! … To say ‘A force runs through all things’ is to say that all things’ are neutral but for the Act. The motion of the enraged force is in its act.”
As with all of Jonathan Leaman’s artistic output, this beautifully constructed work has many layers. It shows him as an artist and as a thinker who deals with ideas.
“Finally, it must be clear that it is our business not to supply reality but to invent allusions to the conceivable which cannot be presented.”
Incredulity (2003-4) “All right, I am going to extremes. A castaway two drifts on a wreck by climbing to the top of an already crumbling must. But from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.” – Walter Benjamin “I’m just always going to be internally centred and it’s always going to be like that. I always felt that there was only me.”
The paint in this work is applied subtly, almost as immaculately as in seventeenth century Dutch vanitas paintings, almost as in icons, painted by God’s hand. A man is standing on a semi-circular lush grass spot (is it the top of the world?). Behind him lies the ruins of a tomb covered in old growth and at the “end of the world”– an all-embracing sea. As the man stands with his bloodied index finger pointed, we see him in profile behind a blood-stained cloth; we can not see much of him. The cloth mysteriously hides most of his body and face. This is a highly mysterious and rhetorical figure, with an emphasis on exaggerated movement and facial expression. The fragmented body, as referred to in Lacan’s famous “corps morcelé”, reminds us of images by Hieronymus Bosch.
As in most paintings by Jonathan Leaman, we are confronted with naturalistically painted non-reality. In his distortion and exaggeration, he attains emotional impact. It is mimesis taken to extreme.
It is difficult to refer to this painting as a self-portrait. And yet this is not pastiche. Is it a self-portrait as a saint with a sudarium? Is it a self-created God? Is it fulfilment of Pierre Bourdieu’s idea about an uncreated creator taking the place of God?
“I became jealous of the freedom of Munch at the same time as I was reading of the Greek and Byzantine tradition of Acheiropoeton, an image ‘unmade by the hand of man’. Some few icons were believed to be literally God-made, as true an expression of God’s mind as scripture. Those became the Vera Icona, the ‘true image’, figured as St. Veronica. The cloth was to display a screaming, expressive head, pretty clearly that of Christ. The hanger obviated the need for Veronica’s hands. The figure was added as an attribute of the sudarium, somehow showing disembodiment (hence the tomb as a figure of resurrection). But I couldn’t bring myself to paint the head, I don’t know why, replacing it, instead, with two bees and a bloodstain. The pointing man, then, needn’t be Thomas, puzzling at godhead, but, maybe, awe at becoming and life itself – perhaps the Christian references are themselves attributes of the mystery of blood and birth.”
There are many references to art history in this seemingly simple painting. The cloth that hangs from the hanger can be a reference to the cloth, veil, sudarium or vernacle, that St. Veronica wiped Christ’s face with as he was carrying the Cross to Calvary; legend has it that by a miracle his face became imprinted on the cloth. However, the legend of St. Veronica and the sudarium only appeared at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The bloodstained cloth usually symbolises suffering. It has a symbolic meaning in every monotheistic faith.
A cloth–or rather a veil drawn to the side – reveals the figure of Truth in Renaissance allegorical art. Incredulity and the pointed finger is associated in Western art with the apostle Thomas (called Didymus in Greek) who had doubts and refused to believe in the Resurrection unless he touched the wounds of Christ (John 20:25-8). In art, it is depicted as the Incredulity of St. Thomas (putting his index finger to Christ’s wounds).
Cloth-curtains were used throughout the history of art, even in ancient times. Pliny in Natural History (the only account of the history of ancient art) writes about a competition between the artists Zeuxis and Parrhasios (fifth century B.C.E.) to paint the most lifelike painting. Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes with such a great mimesis, that the birds tried to eat them. Still, the winner of the competition was Parrhasios, because he painted a curtain so realistic that Zeuxis wanted to pull the curtain back to see the painting behind it, thus becoming in effect the first ever conceptual artist. Rembrandt, in his Holy family with Curtain (Staatliche Museen, Kassel, 1646) included a painted curtain, covering and uncovering a secret. He also painted a frame and again the curtain on the frame. By doing this, he made the viewer aware of the artificiality of the image.
In his letter, Jonathan Leaman mentions Munch’s freedom. One can suppose that by this, the artist meant the fact that Munch created many self-portraits, mostly prints (lithographic works), full of symbolism. The Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm (Albertina, Vienna/Munch-museet, lithograph, 1895) has a skeleton arm at the base as part of the framing of the image. The face of the artist – still a young man of 32 and handsome – appears as if a vision. In the Dance of Death (1915, also a lithograph), we see Munch in profile, no longer a young man. The skeleton here is the alter ego of the artist. On the other hand, we have Munch’s Self Portrait in Ekely (1926) showing him surrounded by a Scandinavian landscape, and the Night Wanderer (1939, a character from Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt), an extremely depressing self-portrait.
These numerous references are given in the hope that the viewer will be able to solve the puzzle behind the painting, as the viewers of Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, are also required to do.
Drawings The basis of Jonathan Leaman’s art is observation. He permanently draws everything that he sees and everything that his imagination creates. Sometimes his drawings are naturalistic and meticulous, but often they are distorted and grotesque, intensive. Some of his drawings are just spontaneous sketches. Often, he adds some written remarks to his drawings, some notes of visual experience or some thoughts.
The drawings show Jonathan Leaman’s working methods, providing us with an insight into his world. They are the means to achieving something truer in the end than only the verisimilitude of the objects. Transferred into his paintings, the objects in his drawings are often transformed into allegories.
Jonathan Leaman spends a lot of time drawing in small notebooks. This is his immediate connection between seeing and making, between thinking and creating.
Jonathan Leaman writes about his approach and work with drawings:
On Drawing by Jonathan Leaman Years ago I made the decision not to make drawings for sale. This was a great relief, and, since then, all my drawing is Preparatory. Some might seem “finished” up but that is misleading.
A “drawing” is either a picture in my head that I have to put down or it is an exploration of balances and nuances, a meander of appearing pictures in my mind. Actually, these aren’t too different: both acts pry images out from the mess of words in the brain.
The drawing can be extremely light, or awkwardly done, or “partial”, abandoned as the idea dies between head and hand, or, then, they might be in the form of detailed fantasias. Sometimes finish comes from the spiralling bad dream of going wrong but I consider all sorts of drawings equally as useful to me. I treat them as the holy relics of Inspiration.
I draw anywhere these “pictures” come to me (as long as I am not overlooked). Occasionally, I have magic spots where I go to draw or draw-out ideas or half thoughts (currently a particular tree in Bushey Park, and a conjunction of rocks on the cliffs and, in Cornwall). I hardly ever draw from life. I rarely draw in my studio.
All the drawings are now the same size. I cut down sketchbooks of detail paper to fit into a coat pocket, the same dimensions as my notebook which are held together by an elastic band into which a pen is stuck (Many of my notes deal with the same ideas of drawings – contexts, assonances, jottings of colours or titles). I carry these all the time.
I draw in pen and correction fluid. When I have the space and time (and the wind is not too fierce) I might add charcoal, chalks, marker pens etc. I never quite know what type of picture is going to come, as though the first mark were dropping a cue to my hand. The head, a benign uncle, looks on to assent or put his oar in. Sometimes painting and drawing are like riding a canoe down rapids – the task is not to make it go, nor to decide where to go, but just to stop it bashing into the sides.
I use these drawings to make a cartoon onto tracing paper over the canvas, drawn with charcoal. This is a different type of drawing, “drawing-in”, and is more like a map to the painter-me, telling me “here” and “how much”: a sort of diagram that “imagines” paint. This would be some time after the drawings I have described before.
Some pictures don’t have any drawings as such, but notes, or division of rectangles or the placing of the horizon – a drawing can be just an angle, or a list, or act as a mnemonic and I would only make a distinction between these and other drawings in that these are studies for a picture whilst those “inspired” drawings are searching for a pictures, before a picture gets drawn-in and fixed on the cartoon. Some of these drawings never find pictures at all.
CONCLUSION “Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable. Its principle is not the expert’s homology, but the inventor’s paralogy.”
Jonathan Leaman is an original artist whose roots reach deep into Christian, Jewish and European traditions and whose works are not an idle novelty (as prophesized by Theodor Adorno, who dreaded that there might be a time where it would be impossible to tell the difference between fashion and something historically significant). Leaman deals with the concepts that operate between the light and the dark sides of life such as pleasure and suffering; romanticism and scepticism; life and death. His paintings challenge the ephemerality of contemporary art by exploring these themes with constant attention to the pursuit of excellence in the craft of painting. His search for parallels in tradition (between Jewish Kabbalah and Christian iconography) and his preoccupation with death, destruction and renewal is a North European tradition of Flemish art, Dutch genre still life painting and the art of Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh. From these Northern traditions and their concept of allegory and also form early Renaissance and Symbolist art, came the juxtaposition of ideas and contrasting images. Leaman’s works are locked in a dialectic struggle between the instinctive (Dionysian) and the intellectual (Apollonian).
“…the continuous development of art is bound up with Apollonian and Dionysian duality–just as procreation depends on duality of sexes, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations.”
The combination of opposing ideas and images disturbs the viewer and introduces him to new possibilities in art. Leaman has a Pantheon of artists to whom he turns to for inspiration. It is made up of Munch, Van Gogh, Picasso, Botticelli, Massacio, Ensor and Poussin as well as sixteenth century Flemish and seventeenth century Dutch artists. He often connects the moods and preoccupations of the contemporary world with traditional art.
The appreciation of and references to great art of the past does not make Leaman’s paintings dead-end formalist. Instead they are highly subjective and figurative responses, based on likenesses of his family and himself. His painterly language could be seen as a simple one, but at the same time its multi-layering of messages can be extremely complicated and sophisticated. They do not exist on the basis of the tenets of academic or traditional paintings; their concern is not in a ‘proper’ perspective, or colour, or form, or illusion of depth. Rather their main concern is ‘ideas,’ the message, the deconstruction of the above issues and reconstruction of them in the artist’s own vision. The works may seem eclectic but in reality are very well planned and organised as well as being extremely logical. They are like a puzzle of which separate elements relate to a subject matter.
Leaman paints in hyperbole whereby he exaggerates the natural and the human aspects of his paintings to shock effect. With such excess and extremity, he achieves in his work the aesthetic of the sublime.
“I think in particular that it is in the aesthetic of the sublime that modern art (including literature) finds its impetus and the logic of the avant-gardes, finds its axiom.”
His works often hide literary, historical, mythological and religious references. The derivation from the late medieval/early Renaissance art of Bosch, Grünewald and Piero di Cosimo, and the treatment of the canvas as a stage (with Ensor-like theatricality), both point to literary aspects of his imagery. The use of large-scale canvases, turning to ‘tableau d’historie’ are in the best tradition of Goya and Picasso with their portrayal of the horrors and inhumanity of war. Leaman reinterprets and relives history painting (“in the nineteenth century the doctrine was central to art theory”) whilst adopting it to our times.
Leaman’s paintings create ‘theatrium mundi,’ whereby the viewer is immersed in the expectation of painting along with the cultural baggage it carries. At the same time they appeal to individual and collective memory (Strongly, Wrongly…), they investigate the world around us (Electric Age), they bear witness and protest (Tzim-Tzum), they bring up philosophical ideas (Babel, The Throne, Incredulity) and they explore ideas of spirituality (White Fire on Dark Fire).
Often, the large scale of his paintings affords a monumental quality. In most cases, the artist treats the canvas as what Panofsky called, an ‘aggregated space’ (a shape made of juxtaposed objects without a central point of view). Leaman’s interest in improving his painting techniques leads to experimentation, which in turn leads to the creation of new ideas (Four Nieces, Vanity). As much as they are meticulously and skilfully painted, their concern is not about beauty.
“Modern aesthetic question is not ‘What is beautiful?’ but rather ‘What can be said to be art?’”.
Jonathan Leaman’s provocative and unsettling paintings, (which are like Pandora’s Box with interwoven ideas, secrets and mysteries) tackle philosophical problems and questions of metaphysics. In many of them, he attempts to visually translate the dictum of abstract thoughts. In doing so, paradoxically Leaman is similar to Marcel Duchamp, who also disliked and disagreed with the modernist notion of ‘painting for a painting’s sake’–where only the physical side of painting carries any importance.
“I was much more interested in recreating ideas in painting. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind. And my painting was, of course, at once regarded as an ‘intellectual, literary’ painting!”-Marcel Duchamp said after painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912, Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art).
Leaman says about his work: “Well, because it was about ideas I had been thinking about for years. I mean, they are all about ideas that I’ve been thinking about for years.”
The naturalism of his paintings often disguises their unreality. His individual objects many times painted with hyper-realistic effect, do not deal with the ‘real’. His paintings are a combination of watchfulness and imagination, their concern being the artistic truth. These scattered realities appeal to our senses. The hand wants to touch them because they are so life-like. Leaman is a master of ‘illusionistic realism’. His paintings awaken our senses of touch, smell and taste. We feel the surface of glass and the wind from the sea.
Leaman’s distortions and exaggerations attain considerable emotional impact. If expressionism emphasises the absolute validity of the personal vision projecting artist’s inner experience (aggressive, mystical, anguished, lyrical) on the spectator, then Leaman is an ‘expressionistic’ artist. “Expressionism is not a style but an attitude.” Through expressive tendencies and the use of his own physiognomy he explores an inexhaustible diversity of themes and ideas.
Leaman’s works show the concerns of post-modernity: an impending cataclysm, so characteristic to the thought of Foucault (–‘man is an invention of recent date and perhaps one nearing its end’), Lyotard’s ‘endist’ theory and Derrida’s deconstruction theory.
At first glance, the paintings may lead one to the assumption that Leaman is a surrealist artist – we like to put artists into neat categories of schools and styles. However, his works are not ‘automatic’ and they are not fixated on ‘dream images’ (Andre Breton in his Manifesto defines these two characteristics of surrealism)
“It has been said that the spirit of surrealism begot every new movement in modern art. This is another way of saying (as we did) that modern art aimed at disrupting or twisting one’s normal sensibilities as a matter of principle.”
On the general landscape of the contemporary art scene, Leaman with his traditionalist, ‘old-fashioned’ approach to painting, is a true avant-garde artist; “Paradoxically, the avant-garde of today turns against the nihilistic ‘modern art’ of the past; it is groping for a new, still very unsure traditionalism, a new reverence for older values, which our fathers thought to be shattered forever.
….All new art at its inception, must have appeared less solid and more dispersed than it now appears to a later generation.”
Jonathan Leaman’s oeuvre, is at the same time both ‘easy’ and sophisticated, canny and uncanny, appealing to both the cognitive and to the sentimental. As often happens with most interesting and unusual art—his work defies any categorisation. Leaman’s only preoccupation is being a painter. He is a perfectionist who is hardly ever satisfied with his work. His greatest admiration and even identification, is with (in Leaman’s own words) ‘Vincent’. “Van Gogh who from as early as 1882 thought that it would be better to be Prometheus than Jupiter, cut sun out of himself.”
Footnotes: David Hockney: Pablo Picasso in Writers on Artists, Modern Painters; UK, 2002; page 22. Paul Cezanne to Roger Marks, January 23rd 1905, in Letters; edited by John Rewald, London 1971. Roland Barthes: ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image-Music-Text; trans., Stephen Meth; New York, Hill & Wang; 1977. Previously published as: ‘La mort de l’accteur’; Manteia 5, 1968. E.H. Gombrich: Portrait Painting and Portrait Photography in Apropos 5, London 1945, page 6. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Umberto Eco: Faith in Fakes; Travels in Hyperreality;, London, Vintage, 1998, page 30. Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger, London and New York, Routledge, 1966. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. John McEwan: Ex. catalogue Jonathan Leaman; Beaux Arts, London, 2002. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Anton Ehrenzweig,: The Hidden Order of Art; A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Perception; Phoenix Press, London, 2000, page 127. From correspondence with the artist regarding this article, May 2004. Umberto Eco: ibid, page 65 Daniel Bell: Modernism and Capitalism; Partisan Review, Volume 45, New York, 1978, pages 202-22. Jean-François Lyotard, transl. Régis Durand: Answering the Question: “What is Postmodernism?” in I. and S. Hassan (eds) Innovation / Renovation, Madison, Wisconsin, 1983, pages 71-82. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. The Cambridge Companion to Walter Benjamin: Edited by David S. Ferris (2004); pages 45-47 Pierre Bourdieu: The Rules of Art, translated from the original Les règles de l’art, Polity Press and Blackwell, 1996, page 189. Jean-François Lyotard : ibid, pages 71-82. Jean Baudrillard: The Perfect Crime, translated by Chris Turner; London, 1996, page 5. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. From correspondence between the artist and author regarding this article, May 2004. Julia Kristeva: “Powers of Horror”; An Essay on Abjection; translated Leon S. Roudiez, New York, 1982, pages 207-10. From correspondence between the artist and the author regarding the exhibition, June 2004. Julian Bell: What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art, Thames & Hudson, London, 1999, page 146. Julia Kristeva: ibid, pages 207-10. In Medieval art, rabbits and hares symbolised lust—see the Seven Deadly Sins. At the feet of the Virgin Mary, the animal represents the victory of chastity. Sigmund Freud: A case of Paranoia Running Counter to the Psycho-Analytic Theory of Disease, 1915, Standard Edition, Volume XIV, page 269. Finley Eversole: Man’s Extremity and the Modern Artist, in Theology Today, 1963, page 386 Sigmund Freud: ibid, page 269. Ranier Maria Rilke: The First Duino Elegy, in Selected Poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, New York, 1980, page 84. Kamil Baczynski: White Magic and Other Poems (in press). Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon Press/Green Integer; page 15. David Sylvester: Looking Back at Francis Bacon, Thames L Hudson, London, 2000, page 239. Daniel Bell: Modernism and Capitalismin Partisan Review, Vol. 45, New York, 1978, pages 206-22. Richard Morphet: essay, Ex. catalogue Jonathan Leaman; Beaux Arts, London, 2002, page 27. Max Beckmann to Mina Beckmann-Tube, May 24th 1915 in Max Beckmann, Die Realitälder Träume in den Bilderr: Aufsötze un Vortäge aus Tabebüchern, Briefen, Gesprachen, 1903-1950; Leipzig, 1984, page 75. Francis Fukuyama: The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 1992, page xi,. Jean-François Lyotard: The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowley, Oxford, 1991, pages 8-9. William Shakespeare: Hamlet, Act IV, (Claudius speaking of the murder of Hamlet’s father) Milton: Paradise Lost, Book i. Line 62 David Sylvester: ibid, page 241. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. From an interview with the artist, February 2003 From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Picnic at Cockayne. Jean-François Lyotard : Introduction to the Postmodern Condition transl., ibid Catherine Pickstock: Thomas Aquinas and the Quest for the Eucharist” in Modern Theology 15, (1999), page 159 Julie Kristeva: “Powers of Horror” originally Pouvoirs de l’horreur; Paris, 1980, translated by Leon S Roudiez as Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York, 1982, pages 207-10. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Maximus Tyrius: Philosophmena, ed. H. Hoben, Leipzig, 1910, pages 123-124; in Francis Junius’s The Painting of the Ancients, page 344. Jonathan Leaman notes on Babel. Walter Benjamin: Theses on the Philosophy of History from Illuminations, Fontana, London, 1992. Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Babel. Stuart Sim: Structuralism and Post-structuralism in Oswald Hanfling, ed., Philosophical Aesthetics: An Introduction”, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992, page 425. Czestaw Miłosz: “ The Issa Valley”, Farrar Straus Giroux; 1982, page 16. Charles Baudelaire: Some Modern Caricaturists, Essay, 1857. Antonim Artaud: Le Visage Humain (manuscript) in Antonim Artaud: Works on Paper from Agnes de la Baumelle in M. Rowell (ed.) MOMA, New York, 1996, page 90. Interview with Jonathan Leaman, February 2003. From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Four Nieces Berating a Dead Uncle. David Sylvester: Looking back at Francis Bacon, Thames & Hudson, London, page 242. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Norman Bryson: Looking at the Overlooked, Four Essays on Still Life Painting, Reaktion Books Ltd., London, 1990, pages 10-11. From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Vanity. Henryk Grynberg : Zycie jako deyintegracia (Polish), in English “Life as Desintegration” in a collection of essays entitled “Prawda nieartystyczna” (The Unartistic Truth), Berlin 1984, Warsaw 1994, Wołowiec 2000, page 94. From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Retreat. Ibid. Thomas Nagel: Moral Questions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979, page X. Julia Kristieva: Flash Art, no. 126, February – March 1986, page 44-47. Henry Vaughan: The Retreat in the “Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918”, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, 1939, page 372. Zygmunt Bauman: Intimations of Postmodernity, Routledge, 1992, page 9 Walter Benjamin: Theses on the Philosophy of History in “Illuminations” translated by Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, N.Y., 1968, page 255. From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Entjudungmeer. From the artist’s “Notes on not being Jewish Enough” given to the author June 2004. From Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Entjudungmeer. Theodor Adorno: Commitment; trans. F. Mc. Donagh in A. Arato and E. Gebhardt (eds), The Essential Frankfurt School Reader; Oxford, 1978 (concluding section) Charles Baudelaire: Salon of 1845 in Art in Paris 1845-1862; ed. Petra Doesschale Chu; Englewood Cliffs, N.Y., 1977, page 48. Umberto Eco: Why Are They Laughing in Those Cages?; essay in Faith in Fakes; Travels in Hyperreality; Vintage, London, 1986, page 122. John Constable in his last lecture in Hampstead on 25 July 1863. Yann Arthus-Bertrand; The Earth from the Air, Thames & Hudson, London 2002, page 289. See: John Cage, Colour and Culture; Thames and Hudson; 1993, page 201. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Rudolf Steiner: Harmony at the Creative Word; Great Barrington, Massachusetts; Anthroposophic Press, 2001, page 20. In a letter from the artist to the author, June 2004. Jonathan Leaman’s terminology in a letter about the Electric Age, May 2004 Sigmund Freud; The Uncanny (1919) in The Standard Edition of Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 24 vol., ed. Y Strachey, London 1953-74; vol. XIX. Edmund Burke; A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful; Ed. David Womerlsey; Penguin Books; London, 1998, page 163. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. In a letter from the artist to the author. In a letter from the artist to the author. Jean-François Lyotard: ibid, page 82. Gershom Scholem; Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship; London 1982; from a letter dated April 17th 1931, also in Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations; Essays and Reflections; ed. Hannah Arendt; trans Harrison, Schocken, N.Y., 1968, page 19. From an interview with the artist, February 2003. Pierre Bourdieu; The Rules of Art; Ibid Full text of Jonathan Leaman’s notes on Incredulity sent to the author, June 2004 In a letter from the artist to the author, June 2004. Jean-François Lyotard: Introduction to The Post Modern Condition; pages XXIV – XXV. trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi; The Post Modern Condition. A Report on Knowledge; Minnesota and Manchester, 1984. Frederick Nietzsche; Basic Writings of Nietzsche; trans. and edited; Walter Kaufman; New York; 1954. Jean-François Lyotard: ibid, pages 80-82. Richard Wrigley: The Origins of French Art Criticism; from the Ancient Regime to Restoration; Oxford; OUP, 1999, page 299. Thiery de Duve; Kant after Duchamp; The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, 1996. Tony Godfrey; Conceptual Art (Art and Ideas); Phaidon Press, London, 1998, page 14. Interview with the artisit, February 2003. Donald Kuspit; essay in Expressive! Cat. Exh. Foundation Beyeler, 2003. Andre Breton: Manifestoes of Surrealism; trans. R. Seaver and H.R. Lane; Michigan, 1969 Anton Ehrenzweig; The Hidden Order of Art; Phoenix Press,; London 1967, page 69 Anton Ehrenzweig; ibid, page 70 George Battaille in his essay; Van Gogh Prometheus; from Europe Transformed: 1878-1919 (Blackwell Classic Histories of Europe); Blackwell Publishers, London, 1999, page 300.