Homer, Winslow: Right and Left (1907)
The Independent's Great Art series
Friday 13 October 2006
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About the artist
Bang, bang. Snap, snap. The analogy between the camera and the gun, the photographer and the gunman, is long-established. Both load. Both take aim at their target. Both shoot. And the act of taking a picture has often been equated with an abrupt act of violence. It is Susan Sontag's opening gambit in her famous essay, "On Photography". It is the theme of several films: Antonioni's Blow-Up, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom.
What prompts the thought is not only the likeness of their mechanism - the protruding cylinder, the sights, the finger-pressure, the sudden click. It is the moral likeness. Gun and camera are examples of "action at a distance", and put a distance between the shooter and the world. Gunman and photographer hunt their quarry. Gun and camera, in an instant, stop things dead.
The art of painting, by contrast, is hardly ever compared to firearms. When people think about painting and violence, they come up with different analogies, more suited to the medium and the process. Painting is a hands-on activity. Painting is not instantaneous. So when painting is seen as violent, it's not a matter of shooting, but of slashing and punching and forcing. The brush and the shaping hand become the knife and the fist, and the liquid paint squashes like flesh or runs like blood. From Caravaggio to de Kooning, artists themselves have likened the act of painting to a physical assault.
Still, paintings have much in common with photos. They frame their subjects. They freeze their subjects. They are concerned with viewpoint and distance. They don't snap, but they often depict instants. What's more, after the invention of photography, paintings often have photography in mind, and invite the viewer to notice both the differences and the similarities. So if a photography-gun analogy is natural and obvious, a painting-gun analogy is certainly possible, too.
Bang. Bang. Winslow Homer's Right and Left is a painting of a shot, two shots. But what fills the frame are the targets - the convulsed bodies of a pair of goldeneye ducks as the pellets hit them in mid-air. The "right" and "left" of the title refer - not to the ducks, or the order in which they are hit - but to the double barrels of a shotgun. The sportsman's knack is to fire them off in quick succession, right and left, bagging two fowl on the wing.
Among all the paintings that linger over the bodies of dead game birds, arranging them gorgeously and pathetically as still-life objects, this painting is unique in confronting, directly, immediately, the moment of death. And in a number of ways, it makes connections between the act of picturing and the act of shooting.
It is a close-up. It brings you right up to an event that would normally be seen from afar. The picture's point of view is startlingly nearer than a gunman's sight would be. You feel the viewpoint has jumped, like a jump-cut in cinema. It makes you conscious of the distance between the gun and the birds, and the way a shot fired instantly crosses this distance.
There is a switch of perspective. You may presume, at first glance, that the birds are at least seen from the aiming gunman's angle - until you notice that the gunman himself is in the scene, almost concealed behind the left-hand bird's tail, a little figure in a boat cresting a wave on the choppy water. And he's firing. There's a puff of smoke. So this is literally a bird's eye-view. We have a bird's glimpse of its fellow birds, and of the man killing them. We are in his line of fire.
It is a freeze. This painting, like any image, has its inherent stasis. Here that's equated with the sudden stopping of these two birds, shot in their tracks as the fly across from right to left. And they're in perfect focus, too. To the eye, shot birds would be a chaotic blur, but these are shown with clear-edged forms, suggesting a snapshot, a photographic instant. The image, like the shooting, is a split-second affair. And there's that sudden white splash in the water, too, like the discharge of a gun - perhaps even cast up by a spray of shot.
It is a two-part image. The two birds, side by side, left and right, with their sharp and contrasting configurations, represent the two shots. Each shape is a flinch, a moment of flung impact, a bang. One bird's head points horizontally left. The other's points straight down. The second bird is like the first bird, rotated through 90 degrees. The wings flap, the wings fail. Perhaps the left-hand bird has just missed death. They are like Fig 1 and Fig 2, a live bird and a dead bird. The picture holds this two-stage, flip-book action. At the same time, it's an instant. The shots are successive but virtually simultaneous.
In these ways, Right and Left makes a link between being pictured and being shot. It makes you think about distance, aim, rapid fire, instantaneous impact. Yet its most surprising effect is its formality. It depicts something that is very quick and violent. But look at the bodies of the ducks: they're set in the picture like the heads in a double portrait. They are in the throes of wounds and death, but the way they're framed and laid out, they suggest trophies in a glass case, almost the proverbial flyers up the wall. And the very coolness of this presentation, the detached beauty of its design, feels like violence itself.
About the artist
Winslow Homer (1836-1910) was, in his time, the "great American artist". It might be truer to call him the great American illustrator - illustration had been his first career. He went to Paris and took note of what was happening with Impressionism, but didn't really take it to heart. He came back to work in Maine, and developed a heroic and sometimes mythic realism, evoking the force and wildness of the sea, and human battles with it. His famous pictures, such as The Life Line and The Undertow, have immense power, but generally lose little of it in reproduction. It's all in their monumental shapes, and half-hidden narrative clues.
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