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A Fear of Mist

What do you at present mean by historical painting? Now-a-days it means the endeavor, by the power of imagination, to portray some historical event of past days.

John Ruskin


This is a short essay about Valentin Rilliet, the contemporary Swiss-Chinese painter. But it begins not with him, but elsewhere, and earlier, for a reason that should become clear.

History painting was once a thriving genre, almost an industry: big, luscious canvases dedicated to making real before the eye some historical event of note, whether it was a battle or regal visit. Ruskin, in asking his almost naively full frontal question, “What do you at present mean by historical painting?” was drawing the attention of his audience to the fact that historical painting has, itself, a history. The term shifts. Whereas for the Victorians, history painting was a way of meditating on the historical acts of great men, the sort of men the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle considered worthy of being called heroes, in the early Renaissance, history painting was divided into true history, which more or less meant the illustration of biblical stories, fabula-pagan and mythological themes. Mundane historical events came a distant third. In his lecture, Ruskin would go on to denounce the imaginative invention of histories in favour of the direct recording of the immediate world, as only these paintings could remain persuasive to future viewers. But was his intention to prevent the imaginative distortion of the world, or rather, to make space for the viewer to do their own projecting and distorting?

A decade before he delivered that lecture, Ruskin wrote to his own father on the 24th of September 1845, “I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today before Tintoret.” Tintoret, known to us as Tintoretto, was the first painter to have translated the problem of the painter’s relationship to history into the spatial content of the painting. He would imagine a historical scene, such as the arrival of the apostle St Mark’s body within Venice, as if it was not so much a chronological event as a tearing up of the stability of the past by history as a terrible, personified force. Tintoretto’s figures sometimes seem thrown into the space in which they find themselves, running from, or blinded by, history that pursues them in the form of an angel or messenger, and the paint itself is added to the canvas with a speed that makes it seem as if the painter feels the same sense of awe and urgency as his subjects did. If Tintoretto comes at the start of history painting, that is, of the kind of painting in which history itself is a palpable subject, Valentin Rilliet comes at the end, a moment in which history also presents itself, to use the title of a film (and film did, at least for one brief century, inherit history painting’s job), as „Everything Everywhere All at Once“.


Valentin Rilliet paints large, beautifully composed canvases that feature elements of historical scenery, and historical figures, often combined in an anachronistic way, as in the case of Shepherd’s Fall, in which a 19th century Chinese farmer is shown crouching over the prostrate body of a dead Japanese soldier. Likewise, Surf Sensation shows a contemporary running figure, but the banner of the lobster above him is morphing into a medieval penant, as if time and space are dissolving, just as the horizon line is being consumed by a cresting wave. The problem posed by Rilliet’s paintings is not just a riddle about chronology, the mere co-presence of different moments upon the canvas, but something much more exciting: the possibility of the representation of types of time. For Rilliet’s eyes see a world that is riven by the simultaneous presence of internet time, historical time, family time, object time, and even vegetative time. Rilliet, more than many painters of his generation, is intensely conscious of the fact that painting is not “a problem,” something we need to justify. Rather, painting contains many problems, and they can be brought into contact with each other through the act of composition. And the crisis of these times rubbing up against each other is not just marked by objects, but by the subjects within the paintings themselves. In Shepherd’s Fall, the shepherd stands on solid ground, amidst recognizable vegetation, but where he gestures, to his left, the viewer’s right, the universe dithers off into nothingness. He is as blind as the body at his feet. To underscore this image of blindness, the dead soldier’s glasses are broken. No one has eyes with which to see. Nonetheless, his crook feels the body of the soldier, makes a slight imprint upon his back. This is a world in which objects have weight, and can produce sensations, but no overview is possible. 

The same themes can be found in Rilliet’s other paintings. His studies of hands always show one hand clasping the wrist of another, as if attempting to tether it in otherwise ineffable space. Likewise, his pictures of storytelling (Hard to Tell, 2022) seem to leave open who is “real” within the space, and who is summoned to the imagination by the storyteller. Wasn’t it Real? 2022 turns the slightly wooden gestures of the figures into an ambiguous game of manifestation and dematerialization, a seance in which the ghosts are themselves haunted by other ghosts, and perhaps by us (the Chinese character on the wall means something like “blessing,” it counterpoints the image of the artist’s mother, holding a camera, upon whose t-shirt can be seen part of a slogan like “Escape from [Everyday] Life”).

Valentin Rilliet is intensely serious about his work. Is it too much to compare Valentin Rilliet to Tintoretto? Sure, but also, not really. It would only be too much if time was linear, and we needed a fair time after a painter was dead to work out if there was room for them in the pantheon or not. But Valentin and Tintoretto are, in our present, dissolved time, also contemporaries. They are painting on opposite sides of the same rough canvas, the same faux leather, looking for a way to show, also to you, something immediate, a word that we usually take to mean “right now” but actually means, “right here.”


Text by Adam Jasper


Dr. Jasper is an art historian, university lecturer and art critic for “Artforum”.


A Fear of Mist

Valentin Rilliet

25 August – 6 October 2023

Modern Animals Gallery

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