Friday, September 3, 2010

Detective Storytelling

German troops are billeted in a French chateau during the Franco-Prussian war in this scene by Anton von Werner (1843-1915).

Rather than looting and desecrating the occupied mansion, the soldiers have paused to enjoy a song by Schubert.

We can see from his spurs that the singer is a cavalry officer. He has “Bildung”—education and breeding. He might be the younger brother of an estate whose eldest son inherited the title and the land, leaving him little choice but to become an officer in the military.

Another soldier lights the lamps as the evening approaches. Valuables such as the clock remain on the mantle remain undisturbed. In the background, a soldier chats with the concierge of the house as the daughter watches with wide eyes.

The men have spent the day slogging through deep mud. Their ruddy complexions show they’ve become accustomed to outdoor living.

Rather than burning the furniture, as billeted soldiers often do, one of them was sent on a detail to gather sticks and pine cones to start a fire in the hearth. His pants and boot soles have been inexpertly patched, indicating that he has been away from his home town for a long time.

Paintings that tell stories, such as this one, are often called “narrative” or “illustrative.” But neither term adequately describes the kind of storytelling that a picture can do. A painting like this does not illustrate a text—it stands entirely on its own, just as a play or a movie would do.

The word “narrative” is also inadequate, because unlike literature or drama, events are not presented or narrated sequentially. All the events of the story are telescoped into a single moment, and previous moments are implied by clues. We might better describe this kind of art as a “detective storytelling.”

It demands effort from the viewer to find all the clues, and care from the artist to make sure not to clutter the scene with extraneous detail.
Anton von Werner, A Billet outside Paris [Im Etappenquartier vor Paris], 1894. Scene set October 24, 1870. Original: Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

More about this image, with thoughts on the changing sense of chauvinism in Prussian culture at German History Docs.
Wikipedia on Anton von Werner
Related GJ post: “Stillness, Action, and the Supreme Moment”
Thanks, Tim Callister!


Marc R. Hanson said...

James Thank You for posting the info on my nocturne painting work! I've had several people stop by and say that they found me via your blog. I really appreciate that.

(I also have a past with ACCD, '77-'78. I was there five trimesters before I ran out of funds and moved back to N. Cal. It's still paying off...)

Anyway... thanks again. Marc Hanson

JonInFrance said...

Great painting! - and the comments add to it! I love contemplative works. But if narrative is more interesting than eternal moments maybe Spielberg and Jackson (for example) will go down in the history books as the successors to Turner, Monet...

Mary Bullock said...

Love paintings that tell a story and that draw you in to find the clues to the story.

Stephen Southerland said...

Good word. It's always gratifying to spend time in front of a picture that requires this indepth kind of active participation from the viewer. Too often the formula of reading an image for most people consists of initially glancing at the image, looking at the placard, looking back at the image for a couple minutes, and then deciding if it pleases.

Tyler J said...

Thanks for the guided tour, it adds a lot to the appreciation of the piece.

This is a really well done detective storytelling painting. Often, these are very contrived whereas this one has a certain measure of authenticity to it (the pose of the soldier in the back with the concierge is especially nice).

Kunst Kommt Von Können said...

Its really a great painting. And fantastically executed up to minor details. Just look at the mirroring at the piano lid or the mist outside the window.

Don Cox said...

Enjoying this painting is a guilty pleasure, like enjoying one of Prokofiev's cantatas glorifying Stalin.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for illuminating this painting for us. Your post helps me appreciate art more deeply.

Andrés Carrandi said...

Thanks for posting this, Mr. Gurney. Your posts are always enlightening, but I particularly liked this one. I would have never noticed all the details without your explanation.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the narrative. I have this lithograph and have always loved all the layered nuances.