Just because a painting doesn't seem to tell a story, it doesn't mean there's not a story there at all.
Last month, the movie Midway, about the battle that was the turning point in the Pacific during World War Two, hit theaters and the reaction was lukewarm at best. If you took your seat expecting a cross between a typical action movie and a video game based on flying a dive bomber, you might not have been too disappointed. My initial reaction was that it did a fair job of relating the experiences of American air crews in 1941 and 42, but I was dismayed at how poorly it explained why and how the battle unfolded as it did. For a battle like Midway the broader narrative is the most important element in making the smaller pieces of the story coalesce into something intelligible.
It used to be similar to that in the visual arts. Before the advent of Modernism, pictures had an obvious narrative from which they worked. To understand a painting of, say, George Washington crossing the Delaware you actually had to know quite a lot: who Washington was, for starters; and what he was doing paddling across a river at night in the dead of winter.
With the coming of Modernism, that all changed completely as painters came up with new reasons to paint their pictures.
About the same time I saw Midway I was talking with a friend about Frank Stella, one of the most important American artists in the late 1950s who moved away from the dominant style of abstract expressionism. He did so through a style that came to be called “minimalism.” He painted no identifiable figures in his work; his viewers could see no aggressive brush strokes or swirls of paint. He covered the whole canvas with paint equally, from one side to another, with very little in the way of familiar markings.
Even now, his works seem to dare the viewer to find anything to interpret or relate to. It looks like there’s nothing to hold your attention. There certainly appears to be no room for a story to be conveyed.
Oh but a story is still there, and knowing how to see it is key to understanding much of Modern art. Stella himself explained that if you wanted to get his work you must understand it from the painter’s perspective. The story conveyed comes from the actions of the artist, because the painting refers not to a historic event for example, but to itself.
Modernism simply shifted the narrative inherent in every painting from something that the viewer reads in the finished work to the story of the conception and creation of the work itself.
Just like history, you have to know a lot to understand what you’re looking at. In his paintings, Stella’s precise conception of the work, and then his careful execution of it with a brush and paint, becomes the story; and analogous to needing to know why Washington crossed the Delaware in the first place.