Facing Napoleon: The Skin of Painting
Hans Belting and David Moos
HB: We are looking at one of a series of big, painted faces of Napoleon. This is a striking subject, but also a striking painting. What is your first impression of this very extraordinary group of work?
DM: My first impression has to do with the consistent composition, the frontality and then the axis of the face seen in different lights. The faces are in each case seen close up, almost as though through the lens of a camera, rather than via the normal optics of the eye. The titles immediately signal that this is Napoleon. Perhaps, if we're well versed in history or the history of art, we might even recognise this man. But I think my first impression is of an uncanny closeness to this consistently reiterated face.
HB: We are also invading an intimate space if we think about the fact that the subject, Napoleon, had no knowledge of photography and could only look at himself in the mirror. In this case, we are invading or intruding upon a kind of personal space in which Napoleon looks at himself. At the same time, the painting is facing us with the great story that it brings with it.
DM: Exactly. The paintings open with the metaphor of shaving, the first shave of the young, aspiring military man looking into the mirror. He is at once looking through himself and to his future in the depthless, supremely shallow space of the mirror that I think also sets up the paintings.
HB: The act of shaving is an interesting topic because it contains the idea that he is making his face into a mask. He is working at his face, and putting on a layer of white cream which will have to be removed to expose his pure skin. He is not only preparing his skin, his eyes reveal that he is preparing for something else. He is preparing to act.
DM: He is preparing his destiny. And it is the gesture of shaving that becomes analogous to the movement of the painter's hand, the painter's gestures. If one looks at the Elba painting and notes that the shaving cream is both applied to the face and has also been splashed and splattered on the mirror, this can be interpreted as a desperate gesture-if one wants to read deeply into the subject-a paradigm for events beginning to spin beyond the control of the protagonist.
It is also apparent that the act of shaving constitutes a moment of intimacy. One begins the day by looking into the mirror and that is where one contemplates who one is. But can one see oneself in the mirror? In that private moment, shaving becomes an ultra-intimate and introspective moment. So that invests the proximity with another connotation. Here we stand as viewers in the character's most private space, involved with the gaze which he is endeavouring to fix on himself. Consequently, as bystanders, we are inevitably caught both within and outside this gaze.
HB: There is an intriguing contradiction in the metaphor of the mirror because the subject as we see it painted might have looked in a mirror. But in this case, we, as spectators, are aware of a mirror which is not directed at Napoleon, but rather by Napoleon at us. And so his sombre expression, which reflects both his own experiences and his supremely ambitious aspirations, acquires a kind of rhetoric-a public rhetoric which we cannot avoid experiencing.
The faces are in a way like stills from a movie, but we don't see any movie. We just have the stills. Obviously, each of these pieces has, on the one hand, a story of its own, and, on the other, a story of what happens at a particular stage in a life. But there is also the interconnection between paintings which tell a monumental story of someone who is both a person of flesh and blood, and a super icon from history, a monumental figure (which contradicts his individuality). So the painting is full of contradictions and associations which we must look at. The biggest contradiction of all is that we are experiencing a view of Napoleon and facing him in a way which in reality we neither can nor could have experienced. So this painting suggests to us a kind of life of this face which is actually impossible for several reasons, yet which still works.
DM: That is certainly the core of the matter in terms of the reference to Napoleon. The name of the man, and actually the culture of Napoleon that has grown up around that name, ignite a vast chain of significance. One has a great analogous register of events to conjure with and refer to. One has this sort of far arc where these paintings focus on the earnestness of the expression and almost seem to identify, for a moment perhaps, with Napoleon-he is now no longer shaving and seeing himself in the mirror, but, rather embarking on a crusade, entering into battle, having a great moment of strategising or reflecting upon the state of the empire that he is building.
I think that through these multiple visages, and led by the titles, one begins willingly, or almost against one's will, to make associations and to start writing in one's own mind the stories of Napoleon that we're familiar with. I also think that there is another element worth noting about the mirror aspect. As the paintings move through the life of Napoleon, there is a spatial fluctuation. The face moves to the side, and the mirror becomes more like a screen. In terms of those surfaces, one starts to ask what the difference is between mirror and screen? And while one may begin by looking head-on, centrally, at the young Napoleon, as one moves through his life it is as though there's a slippage as the movement of Napoleon's narrative pulls the man off centre. As he grows, there arises this darkened space, which is possibly the repository of his accomplishments, but it is also the space for our investment. It's like the dark space of the screen: it is absolutely empty because of its darkness, but it is at the same time full of our stories of Napoleon. That's how I think this narrative gains a certain momentum as it progresses-a formal and imaginary narrative.
HB: You rightly stress the increasing zone of darkness which seems to be space, and for me it is here that the painter opens up the riddle of face and surface. In addition to this, the depth of this dark space also corresponds to the body, to the relief of the flesh on the face. But they are both neutralised. Both project into the same surface, which in the painting is stressed by holes, showing that there is nothing behind, just a void. In the end, this strategic procedure presents us with the ambiguity of whether we are looking at a painting or a face, whether we are looking at the skin of a person or the skin of a canvas.
DM: This, of course, raises questions about the function of painting. Does painting produce a face or is painting a formal zone? Any discussion of the mirror and the screen must relate to the encaustic technique, to the way that the light is almost trapped within the surface of these paintings and to the translucent highlights specific to encaustic painting which are not so much applied as made apparent. Additionally, in those compositions where the face is displaced, because it's envisioned in an extreme foreground position, where the face is cropped off, and where only one and a half eyes are visible, it would seem that painting alone becomes paramount simply as a zone in which to transact the gestures of painting. The sheer scale of the work, as one moves closer, causes the image to break apart completely. It breaks apart more obviously in some paintings than others, but I think that where you have the loss of the image, you also have an entry into what painting can do today. So far we've only spoken of these works as representations of Napoleon. We've discussed very little about the paintings that transact what painting can represent and how it can overcome its subject matter.
HB: This is a very important point, that the image breaks away and becomes free, thereby opening the experience of a huge surface which acts on us by the play of light and the several strata or layers of colour which become so strong that we also disconnect this from the work and re-connect it with the painting. And this is a moment where we may perhaps ask what exactly we do see. Do we see a face or do we see a wonderful surface of painting? This is so contradictory especially since the scale, as you mentioned, is very important for losing the image and receiving an impression of a new vitality of painting which while it is playing with the flesh of a face, also justifies its vitality in terms of paintings and in terms of technique.