“Take all of your personal belongings with you” a phrase constantly repeated in all train announcements, spoken in the indignant tone of a teacher at the end of a long day. Like bored students, we commuters are irritated and indifferent. Apart from pedantic annoyance at the tautology: what is an impersonal belonging I wonder? This phrase prompts other thoughts: what is the nature of belonging anyway? The notion that we need to belong, to be a part of various forms of wider human association is a common one:

“All objectifying knowledge about our position in society, in a social class, in a cultural condition and in history is preceded by a relation of belonging upon which we can never entirely reflect. Before any critical distance, we belong to a history, to a class, to a nation to a culture, to one or several traditions”

Ricoeur, Paul. ‘Hermeneutics and The Human Sciences’, ed and trans by Thompson, JB. Cambridge University Press, 1981. Page 243

 Belongings, personal or otherwise, define us and how we belong. The role of belongings as a means of thinking about who we might be and how we relate to each other and our future, spiritual or physical, is common in art, from Vanitas to Van Gogh’s twin paintings of chairs, to physical beds in galleries to pots with words and pictures on them.

Paolo Veronese: ‘Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood?’, 1548, oil on canvas 117 x 163 cm National Gallery, London

This painting in the National Gallery brings some of these points together. I have been puzzled by it for a while. It is apparently by Paolo Veronese, yet it is small with a strong Mannerist style.

In the centre of painting a young woman in a light blue top showing a fair amount of chest and a mustard yellow, voluminous skirt, has collapsed to the ground. In her right hand is both, a broken necklace (or possibly a string of jewels wound from her hair) and the hand of the woman behind her, we can just see the other end of the necklace appearing on the right of her neck. She is being supported by that hand holding woman in red and green behind, who also manages to point at Christ at the same time. Christ is making some sort of blessing gesture, his right hand pointing downwards. Surrounding these three are large numbers of figures, most of them look towards the young woman.

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood' detail of Fallen Woman

The action seems to take place in a shallow pictorial space, a lobby with the fluting of large classical columns (Greek Doric) visible behind. There is an open portal to our left, a dog’s head and the back of a nude boy is framed in it and behind, columns (Ionic)  appear to flank a circular opening, a figure is looking down, which makes the viewer suppose we are at least one storey high, a small crescent of sky can be seen.

The Subject: Belonging, Composition and Types of Perspective

There is some debate about which Biblical story we are looking at, and that is where the notion of belonging comes in I think. The collapsed figure is tended to by the woman beside her and, presumably, by Christ. The man with the book to her left and the man in green behind him look less keen. It is the breaking of the necklace, the losing, or indeed loosing, of her personal belongings, the string of jewels, that either sparks off this whole event (whatever it may be) or symbolises it. Although small, that jewellery is centre stage, and this is a very stage-like frieze of figures. We know that Veronese intended this to be so, by simple Early Renaissance devices. She is positioned exactly on the vertical axis. Look at the pavement on which the figures stand, follow the orthogonals (parallel lines that lead to a vanishing point) created by the darker pink bands leading into the pictorial space. At first sight, they appear inconsistent, although they all point to the necklace and more specifically to the broken section below the two clasping hands of the women. If you look at the orthogonals on the image below,

Paolo Veronese: Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood?', 1548 oil on canvas. 117 x 163 cm with orthogonals

you will see that they appear to be reminiscent of a ‘herringbone’ pattern, in which the parallels meet symmetrically in mirror fashion on a descending vertical axis, rather than converging to a single vanishing point. Erwin Panoksky in the Introduction to ‘Early Netherlandish Painting’, and also in ‘Perspective as Symbolic Form’ (Section II), describes the herringbone pattern (or vanishing axis perspective) as deriving, ultimately from, classical painting (Greek vases and Roman murals, usually for things like roof beams). It is also the mediaeval precursor to the fully fledged linear perspective discovered by Brunelleschi in the early 1420’s. The obvious question is this, why does a young, very proficient artist in the middle 16thCentury use such an archaic device? The answer must lie in the way that the artist directs the eye towards the string of jewels. The series of vanishing points continue the line and form of that broken string, a line that falls, deliberately, exactly on that vertical axis. It is like a big arrow: look this way.

Before its first showing at the National  Gallery (1876) this painting was assumed to be ‘Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery’, when Christ asks the Pharisees who are about to stone a woman to death ‘He that is without sin, let him cast the first stone’. Once on public display it was then assumed to be ‘Mary Magdalene Laying Aside her Jewels’, although there is no biblical text for such an image. A recent article (By David Rossand in The Burlington Magazine: ‘Veronese’s Magdalene and Pietro Aretino’, June 2011) has again suggested that this is indeed the Magdalene, if so where are her other attributes, the jar of ointment perhaps? Is this where the nude boy, (who must refer to Cupid) and the dog (to fidelity?) fit in to the narrative?

Analysts in the 1990’s proposed the current title, the story of the sick woman (the issue of blood) grasping hold of Christ’s clothing in a crowded place, convinced that he can heal her, convinced of her faith, he does so. This is a painting by a young man, about 20 if the dates are right, young Veronese copied Parmigianino’s drawings which would explains the Mannerist style; the elongation of the figures and their serpentinata poses.

Belonging to?

What sort of community, what sort of belonging are we being shown? What does the book, so lightly held by the white cloaked man, contain? What? Rules? Or the names of transgressors? Christ’s New Testament?

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood' String of Jewels detail

That string, look at the shape it makes, firstly that shape resembles the arrangement of key figures around the fallen girl and Christ a swirling open form, close to a spiral. Secondly, although it is probably a coincidence, the shape of the string is a question mark. Apparently the forms of punctuation didn’t really settle down until the full acceptance of printing; about the beginning of the 16th century. So we cannot assume a common usage of the question mark in 1548, but as a means of highlighting our, contemporary difficulties with the narrative, that question mark is perfect, her ‘personal belongings’ falling across her chest point exactly to the heart and the uncertainties of the story

This is a woman who is either losing her place, her ‘relation of belonging’ as Ricoeur put it, to a particular community. Or, she is being welcomed into it by the central charismatic figure, against the misgivings of others perhaps because of past transgressions. There is enough evidence to support either supposition. But, I would favour the latter, the spiral of figures around her and Christ is not dissimilar to the disordered and broken circle the fallen woman holds in her hand. That similarity surely indicates parallel ‘relations of belonging’

The Space within the Space

There is more evidence in the formal arrangements, in the composition of the work. Behind, through the opening, is a presumed architectural circle, a perfect form.

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood' Detail of Inner Space

As always a separate space within the pictorial space of a painting (often a window, in this case the brightly lit circular architectural form on the left) has a narrative and a formal function. Formally, it relieves the claustrophobia of the foreground; it allows Veronese to make a scene that is dark, crowded and intense, without making it overpowering and awkward. Put your hand over the lit inner space and the other forms become incoherent and overheated; frantically boiling melodramatic emotion. Add the calmness of pale circular forms, receding verticals and the tiny crescent sliver of blue gently echoing the curves beneath it, and you have an ordered space of reason (perfect geometric forms like the circle) and light.

Paolo Veronese: 'Christ Healing a Woman with an Issue of Blood?', 1548, oil on canvas 117 x 163 cm National Gallery, London

In narrative terms, we must assume that the lighting and simplicity of this inner architectural space relate to Christ, i.e. a temple. He is after all, the only clearly identifiable figure in the work and as such is nearest to the opening. (“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” John 14.2). This fictive architecture seems a mix of Bramante and Palladio, there is something of the ambulatory of The Redentore in Venice, or the first floor of the cloisters at Santa Maria della Pace in Rome about the arrangement. Not much though, the cloisters are rectangular, Corinthian and Veronese had not been to Rome and didn’t work in Venice until 1551. Nonetheless, as Nicholas Penny points out in the National Gallery Catalogue (Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings Volume II) he came from a family of masons and had worked with Michele Sanmichele, the great Veronese architect and to whom this section might relate. Despite Penny’s point about the closeness of the intercolumniation in the lobby, Veronese was a man who therefore knew his high level architecture and putative meanings. This little painted fragment shows classically inspired architecture of order and rationality, note that it is Ionic, the next step up the Architectural Orders from the Doric of the lobby area; that inner space is a sanctum, a temple, a spiritual destination. Stick with the man in the halo and that is where you will get to. This is the destination of that clustered community around him, that group of people belonging to each other, as opposed to disapproving and disorder to the right of the painting.

Veronese knew what he was doing

I think we come to the supposition that, if Veronese had wanted to specifically and clearly identify the fallen woman, he would have done so. He knew, or would come to know, exactly how to play with notions of identity in paintings.

Paolo Veronese: 'The Family of Darius before Alexander', 1565-7. oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm. National Gallery, London

Look at his vast painting of the ‘Introduction of the Family of Darius to Alexander’ 1565-7 with the famous misidentification by Darius’ mother, Sisigambis when she mistakes Hephaeston for Alexander. Veronese made this sort of thing one of his key themes. Had he wanted us to know who was who in this smaller, earlier painting he would have done so. I suspect though, rather than setting up complex puzzles for later art historians, it was an ambitious young artist widening his opportunities. The wider the field of identifiable characters, the greater possibilities for future commissions.

Back to the train gang

Sadly though, in my case travelling on a packed afternoon train, wedged into a narrow seat by a large man steadily eating a reeking and noisy packet of crisps, there is no possibility of rescue to a glorious inner sanctum, not even to the empty First Class seats. Opposite me, a man in a black leisure wear sporting a black baseball cap, with BENCH printed asymmetrically across it, has been trying to buy a double garage over the phone. He is having trouble explaining what he wants, no matter how many times he repeats himself (7 metres by 5 metres with double doors and a shingle roof) whoever takes his calls cannot help. Does a garage come under the heading of a temple, a place of calmness and rational order: that’s a shed isn’t it? A shed is where you put all those ‘personal; belongings’ that have no obvious place to be, but you can’t bear to part with, unless of course you have left them on the train.

Mike Nelson: British Pavilion: ‘I, Impostor’

Is Mike Nelson’s installation a convincing space? Yes, completely. Is it a narrative space, a pictorial space? Quite…almost.

What follows is a series of thoughts about this installation; a continuing discussion about pictorial space. Based around art seen in Venice and then in Rome. I have put them together as they developed. 

 From the outside the British Pavilion at this years Biennale is unchanged. Inside, a winding set of narrow corridors and small rooms getting increasingly shabby as you find the central courtyard.

This installation is based on the Han, those vast decrepit caravanserais you find in the souks in Turkey, Istanbul in particular. More specifically the Bűyűk Valide Han, the 17th century building that Nelson used for an installation during the Istanbul Biennial of 2003; that connection is important to Nelson, but by no means obvious as you wander the rooms. There are clues, darkrooms (traditional wet printing, red lit rooms) photos hanging up to dry and offices with the same photos of Turkish textile factories, and receipts in Turkish. In one particularly poignant juxtaposition there is an old gridded plan for cloth patterns ruled out, next to it, blocking out the window, is a plastic printed bag with Fenerbahce, the Istanbul based football club. As you might expect with Mike Nelson the level of craft and commitment is total, this is not a set it is utterly convincing; there are no real traces of the pre-existing shape/ spaces of the British Pavilion. Several storeys have been built into the original single storey building, even an inaccessible, but visible cellar full of old bottles and yet more junk. Rickety wooden stairs, low ceilinged sleeping spaces with a few sacks thrown down as a mattress.

But, this work doesn’t have the menace of ‘Coral Reef’ for example, ( there is less fear of getting lost, trapped or just stuck.. Our journey in ‘I, Impostor’ is more anthropological than investigative, more iconographic than detective work is needed to situate yourself. The dark rooms and sheets of black and white photos are intriguing, but it all seems self explanatory. Especially if, as I have just done, you have come from the Iraqi Pavilion further down Via Garibaldi. The Iraqi work is a series of small rooms in a collapsing warehouse/ work space and contains art considering power, entropy, decay and the politics of water. Nelson’s fictive decay/ collapse containing traditional trades- like textiles- holds up very well against the real thing you can see here, but it does dull the originality a little.


So does I’ Impostor fit into a wider view? Ignore for the moment the tradition of Romantic/ Expressionist personal response, which seems increasingly absent and just creates awkwardness when encountered these days. What we are looking at across this, and any other contemporary show, are essays on structures; essays in a range of languages, predominantly visual. These essays all contribute to a discourse, a discussion that has been going on since when? Duchamp? Malevitch’s Black Square? Demoiselles d’Avignon?

The discourse this year seems to be changing focus. Many of the works talk about memory, collective memory in particular. This theme was built into art from the start. Think of the Greek myth on the origins of art (Pliny’s story of the Corinthian Maid). That is, the girl using a burnt stick to draw around the shadow of her lover, to remember him before he goes off to war.

Joseph Wright of Derby: 'The Corinthian Maid', 1782. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.


This old story still encapsulates much of the 2011 Biennale; narrative features throughout. How might the possibilities inherent in that tale be teased out to describe what is on show now in Venice?

The role of individual memory: the lover to be left behind, the story of the couple, the drawing in charcoal, ie art that retells a particular situation. Love and, we are at night, presumably sex. Although, unlike the last Biennale, there seemed very little sex this time.

The role of collective memory: a story that has become shared and then archetypal, stories about loss feature heavily. Of water rights in the Iraqi Pavilion for example.

The role of Power, the portrayed lover is off to fight, presumably someone else’s war. The effect of the behaviour of the powerful and how it affects the powerless. Imagery that speaks truth unto power, this was one of the most ‘political’ Biennales I have seen.

The role of light, in creating form in two dimensional imagery.  “Giotto put the light back into art” Vasari said, describing the all important role of light in creating form. Apart from describing the illusion of form on a two dimensional surface, Chiaroscuro (and of course linear perspective) developed Renaissance art that demanded intelligence and perception to make and to understand; to ‘read’ this new space. The Corinthian Maid draws round a shadow, the result is self-evidently artificial, it is after all just a scrubby black line on a wall. But think how that line, that shape, encloses space and creates something with enormous conceptual/ perceptual depth: pictorial space. The title of this years Biennale is ‘Illuminations’, in the light of experience, Rimbaud and Benjamin are supposed to stalk the shows, I would suggest it is something older. Video and film are still here of course, and better than I remember, certainly far more watchable and, unusually for art, plot driven, ie narrative again. The key work is the astonishing, and more powerful every time I see a part of it, Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’ (see earlier posts), in the Arsenale.

Depth behind the picture plane is conceptual as much as it is mathematical, the way that space is organised by the artist tells us something. Alberti wrote in Della Pittura (1434) that studio textbook for the Early Renaissance: ‘I like to see someone in the ‘historia’ who tells the spectators what is going on…by his gestures invites you to laugh or weep with them” (page 78 in the Penguin edition). As Robert Hughes points out in his recent (not very good, Hibbert is still much better) book on Rome, Alberti’s perspective is a tool of empathy. In Nelson we might walk around the illusory space with our legs rather than our eyes, but it is still an empathetic process.

To be continued

Mike Nelson defines himself as a sculptor, “I make sculpture, but sculpture that you walk inside”.

After many galleries, many museums and watching so many people in so many galleries, some thoughts are starting to repeat themselves. Classical statuary, since Praxiteles if not before, was designed to be seen in the round, ie no framing picture plane to establish the illusion.

This begs the question: why does the Renaissance visual conception still dominate our way of seeing? I.e. the picture plane as a window and the conceptual space that develops autonomy. “First of all, on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is to be seen” (Alberti: Della Pittura”, page 54 Penguin Edition). The stimuli from Roman sculpture and ruin was all the visual information Alberti, Brunelleschi et al had to go on, why then construct a perceptual world view that is so firmly planimetric?

Why try to recreate Apelles when all you have to go on is text, the desperately dull Pliny for example.

Certainly Brunelleschi’s fiddling about with mirrors and images in the doorway of Santa Maria della Fiore in Florence made a two dimensional process in which forms could appear to be fully modeled in three dimensions. Unlike Praxiteles’ Doryphorus though, you can’t walk around Masaccio’s ‘Holy Trinity’ (the first Renaissance ‘hole in the wall’ painting on the nave of Santa Maria Novella, Florence).

Those early Renaissance artists came from craft studios that could turn out work in any media you wanted. If it was permanence the Lenzi’s wanted when they commissioned Masaccio, a three dimensional marble object would have had greater physical impact and lasted longer than a fresco. Was there in 15th century Florence, such a significant cultural hierarchy that prioritized the two dimensional? No, not really. So, why the power of illusory space? Why not the real thing?

The planimetric view is now the DNA of our vision, the camera, the TV the film the computer screen, the phone screen all depend on “a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject … is to be seen”

You might say that theatre in the round is the exception rather than the rule, but the proscenium arch, like the Albertian window is always with us. Had it not been so, no doubt the digital miracle workers of our age Jonathan Ive for example, the Lumière Brothers and Daguerre before him, would have been able to work out how to create images out of three dimensional light that we could walk around, as Praxiteles had conceived. 

What caused the change in perceptual world view that gave us Brunelleschi/ Alberti/ Masaccio and onward? I can only put it down to the increasing ubiquity of the book, that flat surface which can present the reader with a limitless, autonomous conceptual space. Which begs the next question; will the E Reader and the hyperlink presage a new change? If artists are supposed to be gifted with foresight, this years Biennale thought not.

The introductory book to Mike Nelson’s Installation presents different forms of space: the political spaces of the ‘Free Pirates’ in Madagascar, notiosn of anarchic (in the proper sense of the word) temporary autonomous zones free from hierarchical state interference. Fantasies much loved by graphic novelists and cyberpunks, Nelson has referenced Jules Verne and this sort of thing before.

In the book, Dan Cameron (‘Memories of Trespassing’) points out that Venice is an equally artificial space. What was once the meeting of East and West, a liminal space at the edge of empires is now an artificial reconstruction of the past. An artificiality based on gondoliers, repeated samples of Vivaldi, imported food from southern Italy like pasta and pizza and imported goods from the Far East like fake Prada and Raybans.

The constructed space that is now Venice, sells fake luxury as hard as it can to the vast queues that shuffle from San Marco to the Rialto to Accademia and back to San Marco, hot tired and presumably satiated. Does this Venice have anything to do with the Biennale? Middle aged men in black linen muttering about entropy and fierce women with short black hair and red heels discussing the positioning of practice; they wouldn’t be seen dead in the queue to buy a David genitalia apron in the market; what news on the Rialto indeed.

Dan Cameron says that “Whilst not actually hostile, Mike Nelson’s spaces do emanate an essential unfamiliarity” and I think that was the essential problem with this show, it was not that unfamiliar and it wasn’t that difficult to work out the layout, it was relatively predictable. The lighting was very even, it didn’t smell of anything and every room had young English people acting as curators/ guards looking at their I Pads and happy to talk to you about the show and which art school they are studying at.

The thrill had gone. Was the show clearly better in it’s first incarnation in the Han itself in Istanbul, when the photos referred to the buildings you would have walked past to get there? Nelson says that he not only re-constructed the Istanbul piece but he also reconstructed the Han that surrounded that first work; putting a Biennial inside a Bienalle he calls it. A fascinating idea, does it quite work, is it convincing?

“Venice occupies a semi-haunted space where an aggressive commercial empire once flourished”. This could also describe the reconstructed Han that Nelson presents. As Cameron points out, it is now Istanbul that is commercially prosperous whereas Venice is a sinking Disneyland. The relationship between Istanbul/ Constantinople and Venice is still very strong, the looted treasures of the 4th Crusade in the 13th Century (the largely Venetian inspired sacking of Constantinople) are still on show throughout the city; the horses of San Marco for example. But this seems slightly beside the point when walking the fictive corridors of ‘I, Impostor’.