Behind the Curtain:
Meaning and Representations of Cloth in Painting

By Richard Baker
I think of painting as mildly calcified theater — all the “action,” so to speak, moves at the rate of a slow moving liquid, like glass.
To paraphrase something Myron Stout wrote in 1953, — in the process of painting, each successive moment is a list of moments spread out in time while the painting progresses — they are gathered together at the end and become a single immutable moment. At the theater, when the curtain closes, the series of events now ended become an object-like memory composed of a myriad of moments. I have chosen a handful of images that depict cloth in painting. I hope they will illustrate my speculations about the metaphorical potential of such images as seen in still life paintings.

This painting is by Edward Hopper, painted in 1927. It was once common when going to the cinema that the screen would be concealed behind a curtain. This served to heighten a sense of anticipation and expectation. Like at the theater we, the audience would be ready to actively receive whatever spectacle was to be presented before us. What would unfold behind this unfurling fabric?
Would it be a treasure or a dud?

Would it be a wizard or a quack?

Would the spectacle provide an opportunity for education, advancement or enlightenment? Or would our sense of self be challenged? Whatever the answer, we should be ready to embrace the mysteries set before us. I ask these questions as a way of proposing that many depictions of cloth may serve as a metaphor for the artist’s and the audience’s relationship to a picture’s essential meaning.

In the story of Zeuxis and Parrhasios, where Zeuxis, one of two competing painters painted grapes so convincingly that birds pecked at them while the other painter, Parrhasios painted a curtain so realistically that it tricked his fellow artist, it is not insignificant that the competing paintings were concealed from view beneath a cloth. The curtain presumes to reveal its subject but, in the end, the cloth is the subject-matter, the cloth contains the meaning.The very fact that it conceals and reveals simultaneously gets at an essential truth at the heart of painting’s significance — the viewer must think from both sides of the curtain. The curtain defines a threshold between the object under consideration and its audience — a painting and its meaning (its relevance) represents a threshold between the artist’s mind and the viewers mind. In 1957, Marcel Duchamp identified a “transference from the artist to the spectator in the form of an esthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter, such as pigment, piano or marble.” The cloth in the painting and the painting itself is such inert matter. We as viewers, as spectators are afforded the privilege to suss things out from both sides.
As in the memorable scene from Hitchcock’s Pyscho, the curtain is transparent affording us the agonizing pleasure of seeing things from both sides. As we witness this scene, we are actively positioned at the intersection between two poles of action — we are inside and outside at once. Not all curtains are so veil-like in their transparency.
In Raphael Peale’s painting of 1822, the curtain is rather opaque. We are presumably presented with an image of a nude woman. She is barely visible behind a curtain suspended before her. The cloth itself is rendered with great care and tenderness making this agent of deception (the cloth), the true subject of this figure painting. As much as we are denied direct gaze at the naked figure before us, the ostensible subject behind the curtain is also protected from our scrutiny. (Is she even aware that we are here?) The cloth reveals the deception to be a type of deception common to all painting — it is a deceit that the subject-matter depicted is the sole delivery mechanism of a picture’s meaning. The meaning of a work is not located purely in the objects depicted, rather it is to be found in the space between the concrete, identifiable, nameable objects and the intentions of the artist solidified in the artist’s chosen medium. But wait. Just as Venus has had a curtain drawn on her vivid sensuality, we too have had the wool pulled over our eyes. This figure painting turns out not to be a figure painting but a still life painting. It shows a trompe l’oeil napkin hiding a version of a 1772 James Barry painting. Considered this way, Peale’s work collapses painting’s core — it exposes the tension between the demands and riches of a two-dimensional surface, and the push into pictoral or illusionistic space. In this painting, despite the density of illusionistic form, what we are looking at is a depiction of a space no deeper than an inch or two — we gaze upon a rendering of two flat surfaces — one rumpled, folded, suspended and the other tightly stretched and covered in paint — here, in this tension, is the beating heart of painting. The artist is a kind of presdigitator making things appear, disappear, and change forms before our eyes. Like a magician, tricks are played out through or behind cloths of many sorts — curtains, handkerchiefs, etc — we must be a willing, believing, yet skeptical audience thrilled to have paid our entry fees.
The “formless” is given form via the use of cloth. But as is the nature of a ghost, no matter how much the cloth reveals its underlying forms, we know that the core is a phantom – fluid, ever-changing, not really there. And that is as it should be. As de Kooning said in 1963, “Content is a glimpse.” As a slight aside, when Magritte was a boy of thirteen or fourteen, his mother committed suicide by drowning in the nearby river. Legend has it that Magritte was present at the scene when her body was retrieved. There he witnessed her bedclothes wound closely about her head. Magritte claimed his images of figures shrouded in cloth had nothing to do with this incident — what manner of psychological veiling is at play here?
Jasper Johns has here used a piece of cloth attached to the canvas. Is he presenting the cloth as an object in its own right or does the cloth hide something more significant beneath? Though the piece takes a poet’s name as its title “Tennyson,” no sound, or poem, or utterance issues forth. The allusion to content remains just that — an allusion. Subject, content, and meaning remain undercover and we are spies attempting a glimpse. A piece of pigment besmeared cloth and a word are the only facts we have. I propose that Johns unambiguously asserts the slipperiness inherent in interpreting the content and meaning of any painting. The cloth and the painting made of cloth (canvas) stand between the artist and us like the curtain in Raphael Peale’s painting stands between the nude and us. Again, we must think from both sides of this membrane.
This is a painting by Cornelis Gijbrechts from 1670. This little deception depicts the back of a painting. Though this particular painting is on wood panel, it could just as well have been on cotton or linen canvas thus showing that the truth of the matter is that no matter the slightness or grandness of a picture, it is enacted on a mere piece of humble cloth.
Jumping to Jasper Johns’ 1964 painting “Souvenir 2.” Though a beam of light from the attached flashlight may be directed onto the image of the artist printed on a plate, the canvas painting, the bearer of meaning, will in this case, never speak its contents – and that’s its point.As in the Raphael Peale, Jasper Johns sandwiches the twin spaces of painting but then takes this act further by projecting it into the viewers’ actual space. An act of negation or effacement is turned into a positive, creative act. This kind of “hide and seek” underlies many images of cloth.

No matter how legible its message, any good painting, will, like a curtain, a veil, a shroud, a cloth resist in fully disclosing its contents. The completeness and clarity of meaning should always remain partly beneath cover.

Magritte’s “The Human Condition” can be regarded as a still life on a different scale. The designer Alessandro Mendini said, “What is the difference, after all, between my relationship with my jacket and my relationship with my room? Only distance.” In this case, what is the difference between a still life and an interior? — Only distance. A still life is, after all, a depiction of things of various sizes affected by gravity sitting on flat planes viewed from various perspectives. In our human condition and in the condition of our pictures, truth or meaning can never be a fixed and certain thing.
A painting is a piece of cloth. It is the membrane between the artist and the spectator. Depictions of cloth in a painting represent the painting itself and its contents. As a spectator, we must look at, and through, and beyond the fabric presented to us before we can ever discern the significance of a work of art. Regarding this condition, I end with a quote from D.W. Winnicot — “It is a joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.”
Copyright Richard Baker 2010