In 1852, in the middle of writing "Madame Bovary," Gustave Flaubert was looking ahead. He said in a letter to his mistress: "What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependant on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style... a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible. The finest works are those that contain the least matter... I believe that the future of Art lies in this direction."
Whether Flaubert or any other author ever achieved this aim is debatable. And it's not entirely clear what the ideal is. Would the book about nothing be highly ornate, the subject hidden behind luxuriant verbal texture? Or would it be utterly uneventful? Writers of the 20th century have explored both possibilities. But as for a painting about nothing, that was not in the future. Someone had done it already, 70 years before Flaubert wrote his letter.
A Wall in Naples, by Thomas Jones
A brick wall, dull yellowish, crumbly, the side of a house, the plaster mostly peeled off it, with a couple of windows, one with a balcony where four bits of washing hang out to dry: that's an almost complete description of Thomas Jones's A Wall in Naples. There's also a narrow strip of painting above the wall, divided into an area of cream and an area of deep blue - a glimpse of another building plus sky, if you insist, though the picture doesn't. Some foliage pokes in from below. The whole image, oil on paper, is the size of a postcard, considerably smaller than you see it here. And the subject?
You might say that, at its most basic, the subject of any picture is the thing that visually stands out from the rest of the scene. There's a figure, say, or an object, that appears in a setting, that lies against a background. That's the subject. (It's a picture of a man, a mountain, a cabbage.) Alternatively, you might say that subject is a matter of interest. Some aspect of the scene catches our attention - a story, an excitement, a moral point. (It's a picture of a fight, a storm, a picture of old age.) Whatever, the picture has some kind of focus, something for the eye or the mind to single out, dwell upon.
A Wall in Naples doesn't. This picture lacks all focus. For one thing, nothing is happening. The washing hangs out, but there are no people at the windows. (Siesta-time, that seems the obvious explanation.) Nor does the visible evidence hold a clue, something that allows the viewer to play detective, working out a narrative or an odd way of life among the absent people. And the lack of human interest is only the start of it.
This outdoor scene refuses to become a view. The building is seen directly across from a high vantage point. There is no sight of land, no ground level, no base or stage to the scene. The world just drops away out of the bottom of the picture. So there's no sense of place, and there's no proper vista, nothing for the viewer's eye to travel over into a distance, which is traditionally one of the main pleasures of landscape. (Nor do we get the high-up, townscape version: a vista of many-angled rooftops, punctuated by towers.) There is not even a minimal sense of near and far. The house is seen flat-on, not at a receding slope. Nothing specific appears beyond it.
And there is no protagonist or "central character" either. The wall goes off-picture at the bottom and at both sides. It fills the view. It doesn't let you see it as a separate individual object, a building that's situated in a surrounding space, standing out like a surrogate person. What's more, there is no topic. The wall is not, for example, in an interesting state of ruin or picturesque overgrownness. It doesn't point out how strangely beautiful the world can be, or reflect on how all things must decay. And you could go on accumulating these lacks, these negations, thinking of all the ways that this picture might have achieved some focus, but as it happens doesn't.
Of course, it does have its pleasures. Jones paints the texture of the brickwork and plaster most lovingly, accurately, empathetically. The picture reminds us of the close affinity that paintings have with walls. Pictures hang on walls, they are sometimes painted on walls; like walls they are flat surfaces, and made of an earthy medium. Paintings naturally take to walls, this one above all, being almost all wall.
But equally it reminds us how, in conventional wisdom, looking at a wall is a negative experience or a non-experience. It is the epitome of boredom (like watching paint dry), a form of sensory deprivation punishment (face the wall!), a sign of being about to die (he turned his face to the wall). Staring at a wall is a way of not doing anything, of letting the mind go blank. A wall is nothing to look at.
As far as a representational picture can be, this is a picture of nothing. As such, it also faces an important fact - the fact that we spend quite a lot of time looking at not much. It's a side of our visual lives that the art of painting generally overlooks. A Wall in Naples is a tribute to all those non-focal moments, when our gaze does not settle on anything in particular. The glimpse of the world that this painting preserves is one of those occasions, when sight grasps nothing, when sight is simply stopped - comes up against a brick wall.
About the artist
Thomas Jones (1742-1803) has become Wales's greatest artist. He was a conventional and accomplished British landscape painter, who for a brief interval did something extraordinary. He was making a tour of Italy, painting the famous sights and views. He finally stopped in Naples - and started to look straight out of the windows of his lodgings. He made about a dozen unprecedented images, simply of walls and housetops: fragmentary glimpses, strikingly modern in their random observations, their geometrical designs. And no one noticed them until the middle of the 20th century.