The Ready Masterpiece: Saul Leiter’s “Foot on El”

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Winter 2016 programme, we have invited six students on the MA Critical Writing in Art and Design course at the Royal College of Art, London. Here, Rosanna Mclaughlin selects Saul Leiter’s Foot on El (1954), which features in our current exhibition Saul Leiter: Retrospective

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Saul Leiter Foot on El, 1954 © Saul Leiter Courtesy: Saul Leiter, Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

Coming closer, they discerned, in one corner of the canvas, the tip of a bare foot emerging from this chaos of colours, shapes, and vague shadings, a kind of incoherent mist; but a delightful foot, a living foot! 

Honore de Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece (1831)

Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece tells the story of a 17th Century artist who believes he has finally produced a sublime portrait. Like an abusive lover – his subject is a female nude – he keeps the painting under lock and key. Eventually, after a decade of secrecy and labour, he allows two disciples to view the object of his obsession. But instead of beholding a work of genius, they see instead ‘a dead wall of paint’, recognising only a foot poking out at the corner of the composition. ‘There’s a woman under there!’ one of the visitors exclaims on catching sight of it, fearful as to the fate of the rest of her. Following the painting’s inauspicious reception, Balzac’s artist first destroys the canvas, and then destroys himself.

Balzac’s story was visionary, predicting the figure as torn apart by modern brushes. Given the time in which it was written, such horror at abstraction is to be expected. For even in early 19th Century Paris, soon to witness the birth of Impressionism, the New York of Saul Leiter – a city of bodies swept along in the Technicolor tides of industry  – was a distant speck on the horizon.

In comparison, Saul Leiter found his unknown masterpiece quickly. He found it standing on the platform of New York’s Elevated Train Line in 1954, raised high above street level by steel columns somewhere between Manhattan and the Bronx, looking through the window of a passing carriage. A booted foot, resting languidly on an upholstered seat; a train interior transformed by peach sunlight into fields of Rothko colour. Click goes the Kodachrome, on rumbles the El. How effortless, this daydream of a body merged with the metropolis, basking in the electric afterglow of New York at dusk. 

While Balzac’s foot had been brutalised by a vision of impending modernism, Leiter’s is a paean to it. Like its angst-ridden ancestor, and like most of Leiter’s photographs, Foot on El is a portrait of a body submerged in painterly abstraction. Echoes of the canvas abound, whether implicit in sumptuous planes of colour, or referred to explicitly in his titles. In Mondrian Worker, for example another photograph from 1954 – a man in overalls boards up a shopfront, the plywood sheets temporarily taking the form of Piet Mondrian’s famous grid.

Leiter studied as a painter, and was no doubt aware of Balzac’s famous fiction – he was certainly not the first to borrow from it. The Unknown Masterpiece appealed to many of the avant-garde, who saw themselves in the figure of the misunderstood genius. Picasso moved to the street on which Balzac’s story is set, where he painted his colossal vision of war, Guernica. It is not merely serendipitous that a dismembered foot appears at the edge of that composition, too. Cezanne, also, felt this kinship intensely. One day at dinner a friend of the painter Emile Bernard recalls how, discussing Balzac’s story:

[Cezanne] got up from the table, planted himself before me, and, striking his chest with his index finger, he designated himself—without a word—but through this repeated gesture, as the very person in the story. He was so moved that tears filled his eyes.

Leiter was an artist of no such Herculean self-conception. Leiter approached the city as a source of ready masterpieces, in which the streets contained the fleeting apparitions of the museum. ‘Photography is about finding things,’ he said, late in life. ‘And painting is different, it’s about making something. Sometimes I’m amazed by how much you can do as a photographer. How much quicker and easier it is as a medium.’

As much as modern painting heralded new ways of seeing, it entrenched the fantasy of the artist as troubled genius. But rather than standing in the darkness in order to conjure daylight, Foot on El presents this history with relative ease. No tears, no toil, no women locked in the attic – but a man with a camera, and an exquisite capacity for noticing.

Rosanna Mclaughlin is a writer based in London.

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