Sam Rose

From Figuring out Figurative Art

Being Ironic with Style

Ostensibly the most relevant of concepts to painting, style has long been out of favour with writers on visual art. The suggestion made by Svetlana Alpers in 1979 that “the normal invocation of style in art history is a depressing affair indeed” might still be held up as fairly representative of art historians, as much as some are keen to stress how widely stylistic analysis is nonetheless relied on in day to day dealings with objects.

As philosophers writing with an eye to art criticism, both Arthur Danto and Richard Wollheim have made striking pleas for the importance of style, but it seems to have found even less favour in that branch of art writing.

The reasons for this development, themselves worthy of a detailed exploration, depend on the various levels at which style has been deployed. At the ‘general’ level, for example, one might point to growing suspicion of the validity of grouping individual objects into overly broad stylistic categories—what do ‘baroque’, ‘mannerist’, and so forth really tell us, and how might we ever begin to deal with contemporary art in the same way?

At the ‘individual’ level, the philosophical assumption of style as originating in and embodying the artist has come to seem problematic, with critics and historians trained to be suspicious of ‘expression’ of the artist’s personality and of the unified self this is often thought to presuppose.

On a more pragmatic level, an increased sense that connoisseurship, as the attribution of artworks to authors based on style, might be compromised by its role in the art market has, perhaps unwarrantedly, cast doubt on the practice of stylistic analysis as a whole.

With Quartet—Stage Four in mind, it is worth highlighting one particular reason for the skepticism towards stylethat what might actually be implied by artistic style has become unfortunately narrow. A common view, which might be called the ‘restricted’ view of style, attempts to carve style neatly off from subject matter or content. Following this view of what is termed ‘pictorial style’, one recent writer turns from their account of ‘how pictures represent’ to note that it is clear that our interest in painting is directed not only at what is represented but also at the particular way in which the subject has been depicted by the artist. I now want to turn to the broad set of issues that are traditionally grouped under the heading of composition, but which extend to include a wide range of other features, including facture or the handling of the medium, the relative intensity and saturation of colour, the contrast between gradations of light and dark, and the organization of the contents of the painting in relation to the twin boundaries of the framing edge and the picture plane. It is important to recognize that these ‘design features’ are properties of the painting rather than what it represents.

A number of writers have criticised something like this view, though few more cogently than Nelson Goodman. Rejecting attempts to decide what is stylistic based on distinctions between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the work, or of ‘subject and of wording’, or ‘of content and of form’, Goodman instead suggested a provisional definition of style as “those features of the symbolic functioning of a work that are characteristic of author, period, place, or school”.

As he wrote of the traditional view of style:

Obviously, subject is what is said, style is how. A little less obviously, that formula is full of faults. Architecture and non-objective painting and most of music have no subject. Their style cannot be a matter of how they say something, for they do not literally say anything; they do other things, they mean in other ways. Although most literary works say something, they usually do other things, too; and some of the ways they do some of these things are aspects of style. Moreover, the what of one sort of doing may be part of the how of another. Indeed, even where the only function in question is saying, we shall have to recognize that some notable features of style are features of the matter rather than the manner of saying. In more ways than one, subject is involved in style.

While Goodman’s actual definition has not been uncontroversial, his general thoughts on style are worth reviving, at least in part. A more inclusive approach to style, incorporating the analogies with personal identity that first grounded its claim to exist as a trace of the artist, as well as a theory of irony that follows from these, might both be implied by this painting and be helpful for the understanding of de Freston’s work as a whole. To sum up the point now, while holding off on elaboration, it might allow one to talk of Tom de Freston’s practice in terms of a very specific kind of ‘ironic style’.

Due to a combination of size and surface quality, the painting is especially hard to photograph and reproduce satisfactorily. My own encounters with it, as with de Freston’s paintings in general, have tended to take place at close range.

In reproduction the viewer can more easily take in the whole work at a glance. The figure group to the left of the work appears as its own unified composition, dwarfed by the expanse of painterly abstraction to its right, and in some sense balanced by the geometrical shape above. The graphic, illustrational side of the figures is exaggerated, with the enclosing lines appearing to bound areas of near uniform, and thus intentionally flattened-out, surface. All seems in some sense unified, part of one single composition, and thus intended to refer to one particular event, or a particular narrative.

One might invoke other features of de Freston’s practice to support this line of thought. His works, produced in broad groupings that each tend to be guided by a particular inspiration, often take up novels and plays as their source, in this case Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem. The individual paintings are often given highly allusive titles that suggest literal reference to moments of thematic or narrative interest. Pictorially, they often allude more or less directly to stage settings, or at least to spaces or rooms in which definite actions can be imagined to take place. The case of figures employed repetitively by de Freston might suggest characters who in some sense partake in, or develop, a narrative across the group of works in question.

In person, however, with the eye roaming over the broad expanse of the canvas, it becomes clear that something rather different is going on. Stretching to over a third of the height of a two metre tall canvas, the figures have their own individual presence—almost jarring, but hard to ignore or pass over as part of a larger unity. Their bounding lines carve the rough, thickly textured surface of the figures away from the outer space. One is caught between indulging in them as exercises in serious painterly technique, and the almost grotesque illustrational force of their presence as cartoons—as the most distorted and unrealistic kind of representation, which, as common pictorial practice would have it, is as far from the textured earnestness of thickly laid on oil paint as one might get.

Seen this way, the figures themselves are deeply at odds with the surrounding area. The abstract portion of the image is enormous; more than large enough to be experienced as a painting in itself, in which case it becomes tempting to try and give in to de Freston’s apparent employment of free painterly self-expression (de Freston notably started off as an abstract artist, and still displays strictly abstract works from time to time). But the figures on the left then reappear as an even more brutal intrusion—their thick outlines and the flattened planes of the geometrical shape (that object does retain a cartoon-like textureless flattening against the picture plane even at close range) give the appearance of almost having been separately pasted on to the surface.

Various solutions to this oddity could be proposed. To sketch out one crude possibility, the figural group, derived from Caravaggio’s Entombment of Christ, might be an attempt to reference a tragic mood or scene in Meyrink’s work, perhaps set off by the existential angst of the abstracted background, which is at once expressive and an open night-sky-like expanse or abyss. This reading might be further supported by the figures’ precarious position on a platform that is at once theatre stage and chessboard, the latter being another reference to Meyrink.

But the shape above the figural group, on this reading perhaps a reference to the kind of hanging geometrical shape found in Renaissance paintings such as the Portrait of Luca Pacioli attributed to Jacopo de’ Barbari is revealed by other de Freston works as part of his fondness for Penrose tiling and lights that reference the pattern, an almost kitsch modern touch that makes the chess board-stage below appear more like a ’70s-era disco dance floor. A likeness that initially seems too bizarre to countenance, this is reinforced by another of de Freston’s works in which the same kind of floor is supplemented with fluorescent light and dancing figures. Under the pressure of these newly seen likenesses, the initial unified and earnest angst of the picture collapses into farce and indeterminacy.


Goodman’s critique of style, intended to counter views that the concept can be adequately described solely in terms of subject matter, of expression or sentiment, or of form or structure, is based around two main lines of attack on the what/how distinction.

The first is that many works—architecture, non-objective painting, and music are mentioned in the passage above—do not actually say anything, and so the style could not be a question of the way in which what is said is said. More important for my purposes is the argument that that matter and the manner are often impossible to separate neatly, with subject forming a definite part of style. Talking of the neo-classical style of David, it would make little sense to exclude the draped robes in which his figures are clothed, or the columned halls in which the scenes are set, just as discussion of Matisse’s style in the 1920s would have to take into account the reclining models and orientalising decoration repeatedly reconfigured in the interiors of Nice. And these are only the most simplistic of examples. Wollheim has made a detailed case for the idea that style must include a combination of material, represented, and figurative elements; as one example he offers an extreme condensation of an argument first set out in Painting as an Art—that in the style of Titian, the segmentation of, and emphasis upon, skin, human skin, and the eyebrow, envisaged as the arch that frames the organ of sight and shows off the delicacy, the fragility of skin, are crucial factors in the systematic fulfilment of his intentions.

Despite the clear merits of this broadened view of style, however, it has not been widely adopted, and this is at least in part because of the intuitive plausibility of the what/how distinction. Writers have simply been unable to let go of the idea that style is the particular way in which a thing is done.

A useful way around this problem has been offered by Dale Jacquette, who suggests that it is possible to retain the distinction and still remain true to the heart of Goodman’s account of style as metaphorical signature or characteristic activity. Already, calling style ‘the particular way in which a thing is done’ assumes part of this, for Jacquette’s first step is to shift from Goodman’s analogy with verbal communication to a more ‘pragmatic’ focus on actions.

Setting aside Goodman’s account of symbolic functioning, style is understood on the lines of what is done rather than what is said. The second plank in the revision of Goodman’s account is the acknowledgement that style is ‘systematically ambiguous’, with the particular context in which a style is attributed, or the level of classification of the activity, determining the features that can be said to constitute it. Such attributions of style and different styles must thus be relativized, with the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the style specified relative to “the level of classification of the activity for which a judgement of style is being considered”.

This distinction of levels of artwork classifications, and of corresponding relations of artistic style, underlies Jacquette’s proposed ‘general strategy’ against the counterexamples proposed by Goodman. This strategy is that whenever the definition seems to be threatened by an application in which what is done appears to be confused with how it is done, that what is done be interpreted at a higher level of abstraction in the ontology or conventional classification of the relevant activity.

To take Jacquette’s example of Impressionist painting, it is thus unnecessary to say that both what the Impressionists are doing and how they are doing it is to paint the particular themes and motifs associated with their style:

It is reasonable, and well within the spirit of the definition, to say instead in the case of the Impressionists that what they are (mostly) doing is painting, or, more but still not too specifically, that they are recording visual images of interesting landscapes. By either of these accounts of what Impressionists are doing, at this level of abstraction, they are doing what all or many other painters are also doing. So, these ways of characterizing what Impressionists do is not going to distinguish a special style of Impressionist painting. Yet, if we are defending the how-what definition of style, that is precisely what we want. There are many different ways of painting, and many different ways of recording visual images of interesting landscapes. How painting is done, and how visual images of interesting landscapes are recorded, opens up the category of styles of painting and styles of recording visual images of interesting landscapes, within which one identifiable family of styles is particularly characteristic, constituting the signature, in Goodman’s idiom, of Impressionism.

As Jacquette concludes, for this reason there can be ‘different styles of applying the definition of style’, in each case with the level of abstraction at which the ‘what’ is decided then determining the scope of the ‘how’. If what a painter is doing is painting Impressionist paintings of the London suburbs, then an account of their style would have to describe the deviations from this norm that constitute the metaphorical signature of their work. If what that same painter is doing is simply making paintings, then their choice and treatment of the particular scenes of the London suburbs would all be included under a stylistic account.

In the case of De Freston’s work, a broad view of his practice as a whole must be taken, including the ways in which his paintings fit together, and the fact that he has often ruminated and written on the very possibility of contemporary tragedy or history painting (there it is the fact, more than the detail, that is significant). What is clear, once this stance is adopted, is that aside from a few commissioned works where the scope is narrowed, what he is doing is at once quite general and quite specific, and could be described as something like ‘painting figurative pictures that are inspired by a mixture of sources from literature, theatre, and the visual arts’. The appropriate way of thinking about his style then includes, and is in fact dependent on, the particular way in which pictorial motifs, personal technique, and reference to the work of other artists is combined. But in what way could it then be described as ironic?


Irony in pictures, like style, can take a variety of more or less widely accepted forms. To take up a recent classification by Gregory Currie, we can distinguish three very general categories: pictures of an ironic situation that, in copying and re-presenting the situation in a straightforward manner, are not themselves properly described as ironic; pictures that are ironic by virtue of their context of presentation, having been co-opted for use in an ironic project regardless of their inherent status as ironic or not; and pictures that are ironic in style, where the originating context of the picture, its history of making, determines its ironic nature.

These distinctions are themselves based around a general one between ‘situational irony’, where the actual situation is ironic, and what Currie calls ‘communicative irony’, where it is the verbal or pictorial communication that is ironic.

In the first of the three categories given above, the picture depicts situational irony, in the second it partakes in it, and in the third it is communicatively ironic. Currie’s account of communicative irony is based on a particular form of the ‘pretence theory’ of irony, which rejects the old and now somewhat out of favour idea of irony as simply meaning the opposite of what one says. According to the pretence theory, very roughly, one pretends to express a point of view, while in fact the pretence serves to illustrate the deficiencies in that point of view.

A communicatively ironic pictureone that was ironic in stylewould then be oneintended to be taken in a certain way: we are to imagine it having been put forward with a certain purpose, but also to see that our imagining this is merely a way of making vivid the drawbacks of really putting it forward with that kind of purpose.

An example would be Hans Haacke’s Taking Stock: a picture which pretends to be a piece of conventionally admiring portraiture, while in fact mocking the pretensions to such grandeur of its apparently unworthy subject, Margaret Thatcher.

While this covers the standard views of irony, there is a further kind that is particularly relevant to de Freston’s work. This has been described by D. J. Enright as that which doesn’t reject or refute or turn upside down, but quietly casts decent doubt and leaves the question open: not evasiveness or lack of courage or conviction, but an admission that there are times when we cannot be sure, not so much because we don’t know enough as because uncertainty is intrinsic, of the essence.

This form of irony can go almost all the way down, for not only does it not necessarily allow the meaning of the ironist be deciphered, but it does not even allow one to be sure that there is an unambiguous meaning that is being held back. Irony of this sort involves the typical requirement of concealment of something, but it does not necessarily imply that the whole of this something is visible to the ironist, or is even available to be uncovered at all.

It is a commonplace in essays on style to refer to the word’s origins in the Latin stylus, the needle used to write on wax coated tablets, and so to note the connotation of style as a trace or impress of bodily activity.

What remains of this in present-day thinking about works of art is often the double link between style and apparent mental state of the creator, and the expectation that style will have a coherence that itself parallels the unity of a single person.

Wollheim is typical in talking of “overallness or unity” as crucial to a style, in his requirement of “one artist one style”, and even in speaking of certain kinds of unconvincing stylistic influence in terms of the introjection of another artist’s style in a time of personal crisis.

When parts of a work appear to be in conflict with each other, such as Meyer Schapiro’s example of an African sculpture with a smooth naturalistic head and a rough shapeless body, then the work tends to be seen as a composite.

Even if it is demonstrated that a single person has made it, that person might appear divided, and, in cases where the artist has incorporated another’s style without sufficient reconciliation or integration, may appear to have practiced pastiche.

The potential link between style and the especially deep form of irony should now be apparent. A style that embraces a sense of disjunction in the way that its elements are put together—the apparent rejection of overallness or unity—can play on the usual assumptions, and itself embody the kind of concealment of the underlying thought that is characteristic of deep irony.


On my last visit to de Freston’s studio, the bottom right segment of one canvas was dominated by the addition of a pot of flowers that seemed directly pulled from a painting at Tate Britain’s current Patrick Caulfield exhibition—a characteristic effect of flatness over depth, almost as if painted on a separate patch of canvas and collaged on over the atmospheric textured layer that now formed its ground. On another canvas nearby, a pot of Van Gogh sunflowers had appeared in the same position, identifiable as ‘Van Gogh’ by their colour and general shape and once again distinguished by their relative flatness, though in this case the forms had been reworked and distorted to give them the same characteristic outline of the figures in the rest of the image. De Freston talked of making a final picture to draw a line under the series, potentially a drawing on a grand scale, in which he would throw together as many of the figures and quotations used in his recent pictures as he could manage.

Witnessing the evolution of de Freston’s paintings in the studio, it becomes clear that there is a kind of unfocused logic to their creation. Large groups of paintings—such as the one to which Quartet belongs—are done with a very general inspiration in mind—in this case Meyrink—but their actual elements are disparate. As well as pictorial elements that might be drawn more or less directly from the literary source, they freely incorporate a mixture of past motifs and characters from his own work, and pictorial and technical elements quoted from other artists, with the latter two sources becoming mixed over the course of a number of canvases. A favourite motif, for example, is the left hand figure from Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, which, over its life in de Freston’s work, has been personalised through distortion, reversal, the addition of new elements such as a horse’s head, and so on.

Even before they reach the canvas, the motifs or figures go through a process of revision—they are drawn and redrawn in a variety of media, more or less freely, or photographed, or collaged by hand or on Photoshop, in some instances using photographs or models made especially to test particular poses or settings. In at least one case, clay masks were made from the pictures, which were then drawn from in turn.

And when they do reach the canvaswhen the actual composition of the work is being createdeach of these types of motif can determine new changes one after another. A canvas might start with a familiar quotation from another artist (a Rembrandt ox, a Picasso horse, a Francis Bacon bed), or alternatively a motif drawn from a literary source, and the look of this might in turn suggest an addition of the opposite sort. This addition may in turn suggest a more formal change, such as a repositioning of figures in order to allow for an enlargement of an area of colour or a painterly abstract passage, and in turn this may lead de Freston to revise elements of the original motif, which might be altered slightly, or edited out and swapped for new ones, or just dropped altogether.

This is given an additional twist by the common, though by no means uniform, approach to the actual material creation of each work. Often a charcoal underdrawing is used first. The painterly abstract ground so visible in Quartet might then be laid on, formed first of pooled water and diluted pigment allowed to dry on the flat canvas, then of layers of paint thickened with substances – such as concrete powder – that dry and split in uncontrolled ways, then finally layers of more translucent glaze. The figures would then be built up over this, with their characteristic contrast of textured surface and flattened outline. But this process is concurrent with that of the general setting out of motif and composition described above, and at any point a new quotation or motif might be added in, or alternatively a new swirl of abstract ‘ground’ or thick patch of pure paint laid on over the figures already in place.

It is this multiplication of levels at which alterations and reworkings take place that finally leaves one unclear about what is truly ‘personal’ (bodily reflex, expressive trace), and what is merely rhetorical or even arbitrary (copied from others, or done with techniques that mark the surface in uncontrolled ways). One is left unsure how to differentiate between personal technique and the rhetorical performance or pastiche of technique, though one is extremely conscious that the two are at work in some combination. Unlike any of the large numbers of artists that are quoted from, the picture space tends to be segmented into disparate areas that fail to cohere entirely. Narrative, as suggested above, is implied by the pictorial references and the casts of characters, but even where the space is brought together by a device such as a framing room or a unifying translucent glaze, the basic tension between flattened cartoon-like areas and outlines and more earnestly painterly passages remains.

A number of people notice and comment on this disjunction in de Freston’s pictures, in particular the conflict between flatness and textured surface, as if it is somehow jarring or unresolved. But in the context of his process it makes sense as a way of simultaneously maintaining the appearance of the personal and the rhetorical in a deliberately unsettling manner. One sees this at work in many places, but perhaps above all in many of the figures’ heads, where extremely closely and carefully painted facial areas are framed by a thick wavering line. The latter defines proportions of a head typical of a deliberately cartoon-like anti-realist manner that is as much de Freston’s signature as the textured detail of these areas. These passages gesture towards deep expressiveness, conveying the artist through thickened paint and distortion or emotions that are part of the scene at large. But they are equally masks—appearing to offer the viewer something, but ultimately indeterminate about what that something is.

The concepts of style and irony that cohere with this account of de Freston’s practice clear up some of the confusions over Quartet – Stage Four gestured towards earlier. To spell out the point, the conflicting elements, with overt incorporation of apparent pastiche, might now be understood as part of a more general strategy of ambiguity that operates through the works’ style: a general method of creating grand scale figurative works that in their particular way of being put together are ironic about the possibility or significance of this activity. Not, to be clear, ironic in the sense of openly satirising, but instead in the deeper sense of simply posing a question without the possibility of discerning whether a complete answer exists.

The modified how-what distinction here makes clearer the particular level of ironic style that is at work. If the ‘what’ of the Hans Haacke work mentioned above is a painting of Margaret Thatcher, it is its particular style, or the way in which it is made, that turns it into the negative comment on Margaret Thatcher which determines its status as ironic. With de Freston’s painting, taking into account his practice as a whole, the distinction instead needs to be drawn at a more abstract level. With the ‘what’ understood much more generally as a painting loosely based on a literary source, the ironic nature of the style is also taken back a level: it is not just an ironic comment on the subject matter, but is ironic about the possibility of presenting this kind of subject matter. This deep kind of irony is one that opens up an ambiguity so complete that even the normal implication of mocking or satirising carried by irony cannot gain any firm hold. It asserts while also projecting blankness as part of the assertion: it invites involvement and speculation, but refuses attempts to make the elements finally cohere in a manner that could satisfactorily reassure the interpreter.


Wednesday 24th September 2014