• Paul Rutherford

MEMORY OF A GOAT


Robert Rauschenberg’s best-known work is ‘Monogram’ - a.k.a. the goat in the tyre.

The artist and the artwork are caught in the same relationship as Leonardo Da Vinci = ‘Mona Lisa’, John Constable = ‘The Hay Wain’, and Damian Hirst = ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (a.k.a the shark in formaldehyde). You can bring to mind at least one of these right now, perhaps all of them. Although it may not be a memory of the artefact itself; instead, a memory of an idea of the artefact.

Maybe the memory of an image, glimpsed for a few seconds on a TV screen. Or as an illustration in a book. Or a poster on a wall. Even worse, on a T-shirt or a souvenir mug. Or on a blog post :-)

Seeing art close always brings something new - colour or setting, size or the very fact that a sculpture exists 'in the round'.

Think 'Angel of the North'.

Last week, a major retrospective of Rauschenberg's work opened at Tate Modern (no-one ever opens a minor exhibition). And with it, the chance to see the goat, 'face-to-face'.

In 1984, the critic Robert Hughes’ series and book ‘The Shock of the New’ made me aware of the goat ‘combine’ (i.e. a painting that Rauschenberg felt “awkward physically” through the additional of objects.) And as described in the top line of this post, my 'memory' - and unconscious expectation - was to see 1) the animal and 2) the tyre. In reality, the immediate impact was the platform upon which the goat stood.

A painted collage of colours and shapes, images and text from magazines. The word ‘exit’ visible in one corner; a hinge between two panels, a part of an ‘R’ from a painted shop sign near the centre. It’s an integral part of the work. Checking back in the Hughes’ book, it’s shown in the photo. In other art books too. And I had blanked it out, completely. Had you asked me to describe 'Monogram' before visiting the show, the platform wouldn’t have featured at all. Nor the tennis ball at the goat’s feet. Nor the twisted nature of its horns. Nor the fact that below its horns are rather large ears. A goat has ears! Go figure. The longer I looked through the protective Plexiglas case, the greater my sense of false memory about it. And how much preconception I had brought with me.

Try this: Before you scroll any further, bring to mind Frans Hals’ portrait of 'The Laughing Cavalier'. If you don’t know it, spend a moment imagining what’s in the picture. V V V V

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V Here it is, “one of the most brilliant of all Baroque portraits” painted in 1624.

There are only two problems with the picture:

First, the subject was not a Cavalier (a supporter of King Charles I) at all. He was called Tielman Roosterman, a wealthy and fashion-conscious 26-year old Dutch citizen from Haarlem.

Right flamboyance, wrong country.

Secondly, he’s not actually laughing. Look again; his up-swept moustache might give the impression of good humour, but cover it with your fingers, and he is barely cracking a smile.

The painting was named ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ when re-appraised by Victorian critics in 1872. A handy mnemonic that saved us from actually looking and drawing our own conclusions.

Given the hearts and arrows and bees woven into the lace cuffs, it might have been an engagement portrait.

Less a Royalist; more a 17th century version of Tinder. And 'Monogram'?

Rather than re-read (and recycle) Hughes' critical thoughts, I write this piece without offering any interpretation. In every field of human endeavour - from art and sport to work and relationships - there is more than enough 'certainty' from others.

And even without them, our prejudices can blind us from really seeing.

Rauschenberg understood this. Until his death in 2008, he refused to tell anyone how to interpret 'Monogram'.

He left us to look and think for ourselves.

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