Paolo Uccello, St George and the Dragon, ca. 1440.
Paolo Uccello, St George and the Dragon ca. 1460-1470.
Eric Fischl, Krefeld Project: Dining Room Scene 2 (2003)
The first two paintings in this Convergence are two versions of the same scene: St George and the Dragon, both by the 15th-century Italian painter Paolo Uccello. Uccello painted the first version of St George around 1440, and followed it a few decades later with a second version better known partly because of U.A. Fanthorpe’s celebrated poem “Not My Best Side,”1 partly because everyone in it looks extremely silly. But my immediate interest in these paintings is not in their deformed necks or squared hooves, but rather in the spirals shot through these canvases.
So, to start: in both versions the dragon’s tail forms a spiral, but whereas in the earlier version it points back to the town gates; in the later version it’s aimed in the opposite direction, at the clouds, the most glaring spiral in the composition. But it does so in an advanced execution of perspective for its time, by inducing torsion in the viewer’s eye. As in Holbein’s Ambassadors, a frequent visitor to the Convergences website, in the later version to see the spiral in the tail as a spiral we would have to stand behind the maiden’s left shoulder—in which case we could look down the spiral, so to speak, to find another. But were we to do so, the spiral in the clouds would disappear: we would instead see a pattern of slightly concupiscent/concentric lines. That Uccello maintained the dragon’s spiral tail across these two versions suggests that this effect is carefully composed and considered, and that for those who giggle at his draftsmanship elsewhere, his understanding of vision is actually quite sophisticated. By looking at the spiral in the clouds the way we are invited (i.e. not head-on), we are not actually able to see it; rather, we must look at it askance, as at a star.
There are other spirals lurking in these caves: as in the nascent logarithmic spiral nestled in the curve of the dragon’s wing in the earlier version, and if viewed from above (another shift in perspective), the start of an Archimedean spiral in the grass in the later version. But the tail is the key: in the earlier version, the dragon’s tail points back to the town gate where three more figures stand watching the scene, a town which in the later version has not only lost the attention of the dragon’s tail but has been reduced to a single scratch of white paint on the far mountain, visually forgotten. But in either case it seems clear where Uccello’s sympathies lie: even as the dragon’s eyes are locked on his killer (one reading suggests the lance links the eye of the storm with the eye of the dragon), it’s as though his tail, in this final act of reaching for something beyond itself, suffuses death with a wild, erratic beauty, pitying St George and his linear, prosaic spear.
That the spiral is a drama in itself—or a means to dramatic tension—is suggested in a 2003 painting by Eric Fischl, another Convergent, called Dining Room Scene 2. (I am grateful to Dacia Viejo-Rose for first noticing this similarity.) Part of Fischl’s “Krefeld Project” series, the painting shows a man and a woman at a table, lit by a neon spiral in the top-right corner. Note how the spiral is the opposite of a light source for the room: rather, it gathers the darkness around it, to the point that the light entering the canvas from the right (a trick of which Hopper was fond) has to skirt the spiral to reach the rest of the room. It’s as if Fischl’s spiral, judging the scene from the same place, has completed the work of gathering the clouds seen in Uccello’s later version.
But unlike the stock narrative which Uccello was drawing (and Fanthorpe mocking), Fischl’s canvas betrays nothing of the relationship between these two people, save that the woman, hiding behind a chair, seems to recoil from the partly-dressed man, who is sipping a glass of what appears to be water (the placement of the bottle one of Fischl’s less subtle jokes). On the back wall Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, paragon of unchecked sexuality, smirks at the distance between these two, and in another painting (anyone out there know what this is?), a woman races down a flight of stairs in what appears to be the escape that the woman in the chair desires beyond all else. The whole scene feels pregnant with violence, of the predatory, psychological kind, as if David Lynch had staged it, while reading Freud on the unheimlich.
This sense is compounded, finally, by the tension of the spiral that governs the room, the coiled line of words that cannot be relaxed into a straight line, whose message remains unresolved unless we subject ourselves again, as with the spiral in the dragon’s tail, to an act of viewerly and readerly contortion to be able to see what he has written. That Fischl is quietly laughing at our attempts to resolve the narrative in his painting becomes apparent when we are able to decipher his text: “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” None of which, of course, he is doing here.
Nice catch, Mr. Morris, and intriguing elaboration. I don’t have terribly much to add to your cogent remarks on Uccello, though the Fischl convergence raises all sorts of considerations (this not being the first time Mr. Fischl has washed onto the shores of this contest.)
For starters, a bit of background on the painting. It is indeed, as you suggest, part of Fischl’s “Krefeld series.” In 2002 (and here I am drawing on the Wikipedia summary), Fischl collaborated with the Museum Haus Esters in Krefeld, Germany. Haus Esters is a 1928 house, designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1928 to be a private home, which now hosts changing exhibitions. For his contribution, Fischl drew on the site’s original status as a home, emptying the place out and refurnishing it completely, and then hiring a pair of models who, for several days, pretended to be a couple who lived there. He took over 2,000 photographs of the couple in varying states of dishabille and raw intimacy, which he then reworked digitally and used as the basis for a series of over a dozen paintings.2
With regard to this particular painting, the three artworks in the background are, yes, a mid-sixties Warhol Marilyn Monroe in the center; and to the left, a Gerhardt Richter grey painting (1965) of a stylish fashion diva fording down an haute monde staircase (based on a newspaper clipping and in turn of course riffing off of the Duchamp nude descending a staircase); with to the right, that 1967 Bruce Nauman neon spiral with its enigmatic (tongue curled firmly into cheek?) claim regarding the true artist’s true vocation.
And yes indeed, the echoes off of those Uccello St Georges, especially the latter instance, are quite striking. To the ones Mr. Morris sited, I would add, the parquet floor; the way the window shadows raking the wall behind the man to our right match up with the obversely slanting stairs in the Richter canvas on his other side so as to provide the man himself with a seeming set of ominously outstretched dragon wings;
his spiraling dragon tale displaced over to the right corner of the canvas (in exactly the same location as the spiral cloud in the latter Uccello); and the way the imperiously descending woman in the Richter staircase image occupies exactly the same place on the Fischl canvas as do the princesses in both Uccellos. In addition, on closer examination, there’s something very odd about the rendering of the live “princess,” the seemingly anguished woman in the Fischl image: regarded from the chest up, she seems to be leaning onto the table from behind, but regarded from the legs up, she seems rather to be crouching cringingly on the chair in front of the table.
Which is to say, she seems already to have been cruelly sliced by the dragon man’s depredations (with him, off to the side, surveying the scene, downing a refreshing draught of celebratory water). The sliced woman in turn summons up memories not so much of the Uccellos as of other St George paintings, such as Carpaccio’s magnificent rendition of the scene in Venice’s Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, with the dragon’s prior victims ghoulishly scattered all about.
Vittore Carpaccio. St. George and the Dragon 1504-1507.
All of which of course begs the question regarding the Fischl painting: fine, we’ve got a dragon, we’ve got a princess, but where’s St. George? To which, the Nauman neon spiral may be providing a sly stab at an answer (its curled tongue-in-cheek slyly curled one rotation further by Fischl himself): St. George in this instance is the painting’s progenitor, the “true artist,” offstage, taking in the entire scene as he ensorcels it into being, revealing mystic truths through the uncanny steadiness of his unblinkered gaze.
All of which, of course, in turn presupposes that Fischl himself intended any such conflation of associations.
It occurs to me that this might be as good a place as any to hazard a tentative typology of convergences. When a convergence gets inferred, suggested or asserted (these are things that the discoverer or the identifier of the convergence does), questions arise as to the etiology, the epistemology, and even the ontology of the convergence at issue. What exactly is being inferred, etc.; what sort of claim about its status or origins is being made; and what, if anything, does it all mean? It seems to me that the answers to such questions extend along a sort of spectrum or continuum, which might be cast roughly as follows.
Whenever two things are being said to converge, here are some of the sort of relations that may be said to have entered into play (Note: I am consciously bracketing out the whole category of Jungian archetypes, regarding which I am basically agnostic):
Apophenia: the simple tendency among humans to see patterns where none in fact exist.
Coincidence: There is indeed a resemblance but for no particular reason and to no particular effect. (A lot of separated-at-births—viz. the fact that Mick Jagger and Don Knotts afford spitting images of each other, as do the late W.H. Auden and recent iterations of Keith Richards—turn out to provide endlessly diverting instances of this phenomenon: diverting, that is, but nothing more.)
Co-causation: There is indeed a striking similarity between the two referents, but only because it turns out they share a common origin. The very same cause can be seen to provoke both instances (as in, for instance, Christological imagery recurring across space and time, as at the Monument to the Somme and the iconic imagery of torture at Abu Ghraib). Or else, as in the case of all sorts of instances found, for example, in biological evolution, identical strategies (winged flight, eye-sight, toxological defenses, etc.) can recur entirely independently of one another across all sorts of species in all sorts of places.
Two special-case subsets here:
Fractalization: The sort of thing one sees, for example, in branching trees or snowflakes, how each branching-out from the mother stem replicates the structure of the wider entity: branches fording out from trunks which then themselves function as trunks to yet further branches, etc. Much more common than one might think.
Identity: An odd instance this, but two things may seem alike because they are in fact the same thing, seen from different vantages, or in a different light. Thus, for example, as James Elkins points out in his marvelous book, How to Use Your Eyes, take floaters, those tiny transparent motes that seem to swim about in your field of vision when you stare up at the sky or at some other empty expanse: the reason they look like microscopic cells is because they are in fact microscopic cells, “red blood cells that have hemorrhaged from the retina and escaped into the watery layer” that surrounds and lubricates the transparent ball of vitreous jelly that fills the eyeball, keeping it from rubbing against the socket bone. In this instance, the eye is itself serving as a microscope, without any further equipment. Indeed, when people first began using microscopes they were struck by how much many of the cells they were discovering looked like the floaters they had been seeing all along.
Direct influence: Now this is a fairly complicated category, evincing several cross-cut dimensions of possibility. Thus, for example, the influence can either be backward or forward:
Backward influence is the sort of thing TS Eliot and Harold Bloom like to assert when they speak of Dante’s influence on Virgil, or Virgil’s on Homer, which is to say the way the chronologically later individual teaches us to read the former, the later iteration proving so gravitationally powerful that it necessarily bends our experience of the earlier one.
Forward influence, the more commonly recognized sort, where we speak of Homer’s influence on Virgil, or Virgil’s on Dante (no wonder like tropes recur). Now, these in turn can come in two categories, which is to say conscious and unconscious.
Conscious influences are acknowledged and even celebrated by the chronologically later creator. The way Kurt Vonnegut, for example, might hue to tropes originated by Mark Twain. Some further subsets here might include:
Apprenticeship, either formal (Van Dyck, for example, starting out by working in the studio and under the direct supervision of Rubens), or informal (the way, for instance, my grandfather, the composer Ernst Toch, started out as an otherwise untutored child by meticulously copying out the string quartets of Mozart).
Permission: the way one artist may hazard an approach after having been given permission, as it were, to do so, once another forges the way. The proliferation of electric guitars in folk music in the wake of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
Unconscious influence can prove more subtle. The culture becomes permeated by a way of seeing such that creators working within that culture can’t help but frame things within the contours of an earlier manner, often without even realizing they are doing so: the generals in the photograph of Che on his death plinth, for example, knowing exactly where to stand in relation to their trophy corpse, the photographer knowing exactly how to frame the resultant image, because all of them, as John Berger pointed out, have Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson as if hotwired, as it were. into their very brains. Sometimes the influence can be more vexed and loaded (we are verging into Bloomian Anxiety of Influence and Map of Misreading territory here). See instances further down toward the end of this typology.
Allusion: Without necessarily having been directly influenced by an earlier master, a later one intentionally echoes or, yes, alludes to a theme, or vantage, or leitmotif found in the work of that earlier master—although only indirectly: a whiff, a hint, a shimmer—perhaps to draw on some of the resonances off that earlier instance (as Rembrandt did with regard to Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ when creating his Anatomy Lesson), or else in an act of straight-out homage (the sort of thing Hockney often does with regard to Picasso).
Quotation: See allusion, above, only here the alluding is verbatim, or as close to verbatim as possible. It can be direct, word-for-word, as it were, and in quotation marks, often even credited as such, the kind of thing one finds all over Melville’s Moby-Dick, for example; or else more indirect, the way, for instance, Velásquez cheekily implants Titian’s Rape of Europa in the telescoped backdrop of his own Ariadne/Spinners painting, as the image on the tapestry Ariadne is seen to have just completed. A further subset here would be the more playful pun.
Appropriation: Especially in relatively recent work by artists growing out of the Duchampian tradition, one can have work where an artist consciously appropriates one sort of thing for another sort of use: a toilet or a bottle holder gets recast as a work of art; or, as in the case of Andy Warhol, the artist paints the blow-up of enlarged Campbell’s Soup Can or else all the sides of his rendering of a Brillo Pad box, and declares that art; or, as in the case of Sherrie Levine, the artist literally offers forth a straight reproduction of some other artist’s work—say, Duchamp’s—and signs it as her own. Usually the appropriation is acknowledged—indeed the act of appropriation is a large part of the point of the whole exercise—but sometimes it is not. See below.
Cryptonesia: An oddly frequent occurrence where the appropriator does so without consciously realizing he has done so, and in fact in fervent denial of same. Thus, for example, a noted playwright can base an entire play on a noted neurologist’s case study, even to the point of echoing whole passages and metaphorical constructs from the latter’s case study virtually verbatim, and then claim not to have done any such thing, or at any rate not to be aware of having done any such thing.
Plagiarism: Conscious appropriation without acknowledgement, usually with a view to financial or some other sort of gain. Subsets here would include counterfeiture, the attempt to pass the copy off as an original, and forgery, the attempt to concoct a previously nonexistent image or text and pass it off as an original creation by some earlier master.
An odd conflation of the last two categories occurred in 1903 when, shortly after the publication of her autobiography, Helen Keller got accused of plagiarism. Let me repeat that: Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism, and apparently quite devastated by the accusation. (Although the fact of any such plagiarism, on reconsideration, is not as unlikely as one might suspect, since a great part of the deaf-and-blind Keller’s experience of the world would necessarily have been read to her, either through Braille or through hand-signals, such that things she remembered as her own experience might well have originated as verbal narratives rather than things directly seen or heard, of which, in her specific case, there had been precisely none.) At any rate, in the midst of the scandal, the incomparable Mark Twain weighed in with a consoling letter to Ms. Keller, one which might also serve as an ongoing caution to the rest of us:
“Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that ‘plagiarism’ farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go farther and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second hand, consciously or unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except in the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.”
So, where does all of that put us with regard to Mr. Morris’s assertion of an Uccello/Fischl convergence in this specific instance? Well, we may be dealing with apophenia, or even leapfrogging apophenia in this case as I too have begun to buy into Morris’s assertion. If it’s not apophenia, it may simply be coincidence, but I suspect it’s more. It may be conscious allusion on Fischl’s part, or else an instance of unconscious influence (bad uncouth men simply reeking of a certain rank, fire-snorting dragonhood all across our culture, and maybe all cultures—see also our earlier Rousseau/Hirschfeld Convergence. The nice thing in this instance is that Master Fischl is still around, and we could simply ask him—were he willing to tell us… Master Fischl, are you out there?
On the other hand, the nice thing about convergences is that it really doesn’t matter whether the artist intended the echo in question, consciously or unconsciously. The artist being—pace Diderot—merely the first witness of the completed painting and in the end capable of claiming no greater status than that. After him there will be further witnesses—all the rest of us, all of us equally privileged viewers by virtue of the fact that we all draw equally upon, and are all equally bathed in, the confluence of crosscurrents that is the wider cultural surround, convergence in that sense being nothing less than another name for culture itself.
Or, as a friend of mine commented to me the other day—quoting who? she couldn’t quite remember, she thought maybe it might be Ezra Pound— “Culture begins when you forget your sources.”
1 Read Fanthorpe’s poem in its entirety here: http://homepage.mac.com/mseffie/assignments/paintings&poems/uccello.html
2 View the “Krefeld Project” series here: http://www.ericfischl.com/paintings/krefeld_project/html/krefeld_project.html