Reproduction of the work – Stuart Bailey

In June I happened to pass through a retrospective of French artist Henri Rousseau at the Palazzo San Marco in Venice. Each of the exhibition’s ten or so rooms was based on one key painting, surrounded by a few related works by Rousseau and others.
The locus of the first room is a fairly well­known self­portrait from 1890. A cartoonish Rousseau stands on – or maybe slightly hovers above – the left bank of the Seine at the Pont du Carrousel. He stares impassively at the viewer with a still­wet brush in one hand and a range of grey oils on a palette in the other. Crudely written in cursive on the palette are the christian names of his recently­deceased first wife Clémence, then his eventual second wife Joséphine. Behind him, a docked yacht is decorated with what appear to be naval flags along with those of France and Britain. Further back, we can make out the Eiffel Tower, which was completed the year before the painting was finished, as well as another famously French invention, the hot air balloon.
Interestingly, the room’s wall text proclaimed that we can detect all the recurring features of Rousseau’s subsequent ouevre in this ‘inaugural’ work. The direct address of the protagonist’s gaze. The sense that the work serves to honour some specific event imbued with private or public meaning. The pronounced flatness, unstable perspective, and childlike simplicity. The collaging of elements in the landscape that don’t quite correspond with reality. The ambient inclusion of universal forms (fundamental shapes and primary colours) that were yet to preoccupy the modernists, and the dreamy metaphysics that were yet to be explored by the surrealists.
Back then Rousseau was generally regarded as a joke by both the public and critics alike, who considered him at best a kind of primitive folk artist. But a small pack of soon­to­be canonical supporters (Appolinaire, Picasso, Valloton, Léger, Gris, Metzinger, the Delaunays) recognized or intuited something else in Rousseau’s work – something other, something we can see with the benefit of hindsight as *anticipatory*.
Turning to the caption, I could hardly believe my eyes when I read the title of the painting, ’Reproduction of the Work’. I checked this at least three times.
During the summer I described the work to a number of friends – and how affected I was, especially in light of what seemed to me a title almost absurdly ahead of its time, multiplying its allure. A few of them were due to visit Venice too, and so duly went to see the show.
But one of them returned with the bad news that he’d checked more carefully than me (i.e. in a less delirious state), and that the work wasn’t called ‘Reproduction of the Work’ after all, but the slightly more mundane ‘Self Portrait with Flags’. On further investigation it seems Rousseau originally titled it ‘Lui­Méme. Portrait­Paysage’, or ‘He­Himself. Portrait-Landscape’. Slightly more magnetic, but nothing close to ’Reproduction of the Work’.
But I’m going to obstinately carry on thinking of it with this false title – and to name my seminar/labzone class this year the same way. As it turns out, this slightly preposterous reverse­engineering, or wishful thinking, is one of its key themes.
We will focus on pieces of work that by either (a) deliberate anticipation or (b) retroactive imposition can be seen to contain the DNA or code or pre­cog or tools or signatures or themes of subsequent work. Again, facing both ways at once: in what ways might we deem it productive to either (a) conceive of a new work whose component parts might be unpacked and more fully explored later, or (b) retrospectively see old work as having pre-empted what came after?
As we go along, we’ll draw in some relevant phenomena from other areas, such as the way clues are read backwards in classic procedural detective stories; or (conversely) the forward­thinking concept of self­fulfilling prophecy, currently under discussion among speculative realist philosophers under the banner of ‘hyperstition’.
Like last year’s classes, the autumn semester will mainly comprise seminars that explore these ideas, while the spring semester will be something more akin to a labzone during which we will aim to make work that puts them to use.