“Why? Only because she had walked naked into my life? In a painting?”[i]
“You came here so you could finally understand modern art?”[ii] Who knows how many times this question has been asked, and inadequately answered? Beginning with the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and continuing into our current time, now including the Modernists and Post-Modernists. These questions involving the definition of modern art come up several times in this story that revolves around a young nude woman who is portrayed as she comes down a staircase in a modern painting.
In his recent novel The Woman on the Stairs the writer Bernhard Schlink draws inspiration from a Gerhardt Richter painting for a story involving the interrelationships amongst an art patron and his wife, an artist and his mistress, and a young lawyer who is caught in the middle of all of this. Threats of lawsuits are flying back and forth. Discussions and negotiations are being held regarding the conservation of this modern masterpiece. And, the lawyer has fallen in love with a nude woman descending a staircase. I am not sure if there is a post-modern dilemma effecting the legal profession nowadays, but this situation certainly highlights that dilemma in the contemporary art world.
The industrial revolution brought with it the production of a new range of synthetic pigments for artists. Scientific discoveries and theories brought to our attention how reality is made up of smaller and smaller elements and particles. And photography brought a new interest in capturing the realistic moment. Although many writers have proposed that photography also destroyed the need for painting, the final result was to free it, allowing painting to explore new paths of expression, no longer confined by realism and the mimetic.
One important historic example was the work of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his experiments in capturing a variety of figures and animals in motion. For example, his photographs of horses in motion proved once and for all that artists of the past had never correctly depicted the action of galloping horses.
Muybridge’s studies of human figures walking, running, climbing and descending stairs also brought new light on these particular movements. When Duchamp’s “Nude Descending the Staircase” was shown at the Armory Show in 1913 in the United States it of course created a stir as well as achieving unbelievable success. In interviews afterwards, Duchamp stated how he had been directly influenced by Muybridge’s earlier work.[iii]
For the author Bernhard Schlink, various discussions and descriptions of this painting advance the story line of his novel. They become a series of ekphrastic exercises, deftly woven into the development of the story.
In talking about the German painter Karl Schwind’s painting of the “Woman on Staircase” the model Irene Gundlach mentioned that: “It was an answer to Marcel Duchamp. Do you know Nude Descending a Staircase? A cubist figure, breaking up in the moments of descent, a vortex of legs, ass, arms and heads? Duchamp’s work was talked about as the end of painting, and Schwind wanted to show that a naked woman descending a staircase could still be painted.”[iv]
Further on she explained that: “He wanted to keep the pictures he felt defined him as an artist. That spoke to issues in contemporary painting: what representation and abstraction can offer, their relationship to photography, how beauty and truth interact.”[v]
At one point, the lawyer remembered: “I went into a bookshop, and asked for everything they had on Karl Schwind. A few years before, the Frankfort Art Association had organized an exhibition and published a slim catalogue – that was all they had. I know nothing about art and couldn’t judge if the paintings were good or bad. There were pictures of waves, of skies and
clouds, of trees; the colours were beautiful, and everything was blurry, the way I see the world when I’m not wearing my glasses. Familiar, yet distanced. The catalogue listed the galleries that had exhibited Schwind and the awards he had won. He didn’t appear to be a failure as an artist, bet he wasn’t established either – up-and-coming, perhaps.”[vi]
And finally, as the patron Peter Gundlach was speaking, he “ . . . told us about the article in the New York Times and the reports that followed in the German media. The painting, Woman on Staircase, a fixture in Schwind catalogues, but never exhibited, about which Schwind had always been evasive, had a mysterious aura, and its sudden appearance in, of all places, the Art Gallery of New South Wales was a sensation.”[vii]
“Then he laughed. ‘In any case, you had a good eye, better than mine. If I had suspected that the painting would one day be worth more than twenty million . . . .’”[viii]
[i] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; Pantheon Books; New York, New York; 2016; p. 98.
[ii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p.85.
[iii] Ramirez, Juan Antonio; Duchamp: love and death, even; Reaktion Books; London, United Kingdom; 1998; pp. 257-258.
[iv] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 85.
[v] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 85.
[vi] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 14.
[vii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 116.
[viii] Schlink, Bernhard; The Woman on the Stairs; p. 113.