Michael Snape's "Pictures at an Exhibition"

By Sebastian Smee, New Graduate House, Australian National University, Canberra 1998

"… in order to preserve nothing but suggestion. To institute an exact relationship, so that a third aspect can be disengaged from it, and aspect that is fusible and lucid, and open to divination." – Stephane Mallarme, "Divagations" Although it is named after a piece of music by Mussorgsky, Michael Snape's "Pictures at an Exhibition" is by no means Impressionist in the art historical sense. So why the title?

In its broadest sense, impressionism is a creative mode where nothing is insisted upon, nothing spelt out. It substitutes for telling a story what is in fact one of the by-products of telling a story. It correlates sensations rather than trying to describe the machinery giving rise to those suggestions.

"These pictures," writes Snape, "are random samples from a life we can neither fathom, nor organise, nor understand… We have abandoned the hope that stories might lend some message of hope, or that myths and legends tapped, might offer some story worthiness."

Rather, what Snape calls his 'pictures' (in fact they have properties that extend considerably beyond the pictorial) wind their way into the imagination in less prescriptive ways. These are ways which escape the constraints of narrative and illustration, but which also, by adhering to the human figure escape from the vagaries of pure abstraction.

The title of this wonderful work make explicit its allusions to music. Says Snape; "The figures are moving to music, to the flow of life. The horizontal bars underscore that reference, with the bar brakes and the sense of shifting rhythms induced by the changing angles of the bars. "It is musical in the sense that one walks along it. The work does not lend itself to standing still to look at it. Theree is movement both within the figures and without……… a sense of being swept along…. The viewer is led round and about the figures, in and out and up and down."

Snape establishes rhythms of near and far by changing scale, as well as altering the viewer's perspective on the figures. The seventh and eighth panels for instance, bring us right on top of two magnified figures, whereas later ones dramatically pull us away, giving us a view out into an entire ring of Matisse-like dancers.

It is important to the artist that the figures be read not too literally. Indeed he has made such a reading close to impossible: "Their arrangement here is abstract," he writes. "They are arranged mainly as an excuse to establish rhythms and movement. They are not a group of people. It is the broad shape of humanity."

Somewhere else Snape describes the work as "celebratory". That does not ring wholly true. While there is an amazing amount of joyful, rhythmic energy in the work’s shifting perspectives (these movements can suggest a movie camera swirling around and above the group of figures), as well as the funky movements and offbeat, liquescent body shapes of his cast, it is reductive to describe all this simply as the energy of celebration.

Every sensation of sunny vitality is countered somewhere else by a darker note. It is not the morbid angst of Bacon or Munch, much less the ominousness of horror movies. Rather it is a deftly – handles reminder of the animal energies that underscore all human actions, both individually and on a group scale. It provides a salutary reminder of F.J Roels' observation – at once portentous and oddly reassuring – that "There is nothing in the understanding that was not first in the muscles."

As Snape himself insists: "The innocence of the figures is not guaranteed by touching pictures of tables, trees or motor vehicles…"

If the properties of "Pictures at an Exhibition" are not just pictorial, what are they? Most obviously they are sculptural. In ways which ingeniously meet the security requirements of New Graduate House, Snape has fitted the dark masses of his figures silhouettes into a configuration of horizontal lines, and some vertical ones.  The connection to musical notation has already been mentioned; what is also worth stressing is the pleasurable provocation of the scale of each 'window', which far surpasses the delicacy of notation on a page, or even paint on a canvas. The medium is weighty, untreated steal, and the dark bulk of each human silhouette is punctuated by an absolute minimum of light-shaping space.

The panels feel solid, robust, even daunting.

All this, however, is beautifully countered by what feels like the work's ephemeral masterstroke. In the mornings, light form the east is filtered through each window onto the shaded walkway. This leaves the perfect 'print' of each shadows outlines on the ground. The intricate shadow-drawing stretches the length of the east wall. The transitory lines, inscribed a substance no more palpable than sunlight, resolve then evaporate with morning’s gradual, light fingered passage.

These lines feed into an impression one gets from "Pictures at an Exhibition" of sheer ebullience. It is a truly liberating work of art - an irony of satisfying proportions when you consider the necessary security measures it was required to fulfill.

"What gives life to the work is the nature of freedom form which it is derived," says Snape. "The line is a state of feeling rather than of intent. It is shaped away form the forces of belief".

In conclusion, this, from a poem by the artist – a neat verbal distillation of the whole: "…And the will of chance grips like iron."