Going to the gallery without headphones is a sure way to subject yourself to the painful sound of people trying to demonstrate their cleverness about art history to their miserable companions. Wrenched from your dreamy pictorial-musical reverie, you will very quickly become aware that people seem to spend very little time contemplating paintings and much more time reciting history. What, then, is one to do at a gallery, if not to recall historical facts? How does one make sense of paintings—those vast, still frames; flat surfaces invoking every conceivable illusion in order to masquerade as three-dimensional, as some slice of reality? On our way to answering these questions, we might find some kinship between painting and poetry.
Poetry: that mysterious web of words. It takes our ordinary language and heightens it; it snatches away our very means of communication and taunts us to work harder to understand. How does one edge closer to poetry? A thick anthology full of lofty words is every bit as daunting as a day ticket to a high-ceilinged Gemäldegalerie. These are slow arts, meditative arts, not like going to the cinema. By repeated and unhurried acquaintance, we grow to love paintings as we grow to love poems.
Perhaps, then, there is something to be learned from poetry lovers about the nature of loving paintings. The ever discerning Conrad recently loaned me a book by Edward Hirsch, How to read a poem and fall in love with poetry. Hirsch makes the interesting assertion that poem and reader operate in a sort of circuit: ‘Reading poetry is for me an act of the most immense intimacy, of intimate immensity. I am shocked by what I see in the poem but also by what the poem finds in me’ (1999: 8). This strongly echoes my experience of gazing at paintings. A painting evokes many thoughts and moods, many of them irrelevantly personal, but connected nonetheless to our experience of looking at that particular painting. Having our thoughts gently guided by a visual cue, we are not simply trying to understand a picture, but are in turn probed by it.
The looking, like the reading, is not passive. Our active immersion unearths little treasures in the painting or the poem, and perhaps in ourselves. There is more in a painting than we can actively take in all at once, and so our eyes wander along investigative trails. Hirsch (1999: 8) talks of being coaxed and quieted by the steady stream of words: ‘The words move ahead of the thought in poetry. The imagination loves reverie, the daydreaming capacity of the mind set in motion by words, by images.’ In this light, it makes little sense to speak of understanding a painting. Its elements run ahead of us, being present all at once, all vying for our attention. The whole makes one impression, the parts make others, the rhythms that connect them urge our eyes onwards. As we begin chasing brushstrokes through the picture, we begin to infuse them with our own runaway thoughts.
The painting, a silent and motionless panel on the wall, begs to be inhabited: ‘The work of art … is mute and plaintive in its calling out its need for renewal. It needs a reader to possess it, to be possessed by it. Its very life depends on it’ (1999: 8). The painter, like the poet, ‘issues a concealed invitation through metaphor which the listener makes a special effort to accept and interpret’ (1999: 15), though our imagery, perhaps to our advantage, is visible. Indeed, our visual medium is so powerful that ‘unlike the poet, [Leonardo da Vinci] writes, the painter can so subdue the minds of men that they will fall in love with a painting that does not represent a real woman’ (Gombrich, 1959: 82). (True story, insists da Vinci.)
The spell is not weakened for being more literal. Imagery drawn from life is nonetheless different from life, and deliberately composed by the painter. Each representation is infused with the vision and the emotions of the painter. Colours and forms are manipulated and compelled to create a mood. What seems literal for being so easily read by the eye is a carefully contrived artifice, and herein lies the enchantment. Representational painting seductively augments reality without straying too far from it—it is this delicately balanced illusion which stirs our imagination. Painting borrows from life, but reworks life into dreamy other worlds. Poetry is a fine example, made of nothing but words, but infusing them with new power: ‘Poetry charts the changes in language, but it never merely reproduces or recapitulates what it finds. The lyric poem defamiliarises words, it wrenches them from familiar or habitual contexts, it puts a spell on them’ (Hirsch, 1999: 12).
As Gombrich (1996: 158) argues, ‘ordinary language’—which ‘develops as a social tool to communicate ordinary experiences … fails notoriously when we want to convey the elusive states of subjective reactions and automatic responses.’ He (1996: 159) cites Plato’s discomfort with the capacity of art to reach us outside the limits of reason, and by deceptive means at that: ‘To him illusion was tantamount to delusion. He saw art in terms of a drug that enslaved the mind by numbing our critical sense.’ Painting, like poetry, is beyond ordinary language, and even beyond ordinary vision. It might mimic life, but remains ever defiant, reworking life into something less enslaved to natural laws.
Being static, a painting must find other ways to move and thus to move us. While a poem can be read aloud, can merge with our breath, pulse to our heartbeat, and so become animate by borrowing our own bodies, a painting yet hangs on the wall. It is for this reason that drawing—copying in the gallery, or drawing from life—can be a more alert and engaged way of looking. But even if we only trace it with our eyes, a painting can propel our gaze by a purely visual rhythm. Arcs through limbs and twists of drapery, undulating counter-rhythms down the sinuous length of a figure, the ebbing and flowing of fullness of nebulous masses—these rhythms, like those to be met in poetry, create ‘a pattern of yearning and expectation, of recurrence and difference. … [Rhythm] takes us into ourselves; it takes us out of ourselves’ (Hirsch, 1999: 21).
Looking at paintings demands time: quiet, thoughtful time, searching for a way in, being seduced by the rhythms, by the colours. One doesn’t march up to a picture, extract information and walk away. And paintings lure us back, and ‘the repetitions loosen the intellect for reverie’ (1999: 22). Our love grows with familiarity, as though these paintings were poems we could recite, owned deep within our bodies, known by heart. The gallery might become a portal to ‘another plane of time, outside of time;’ it might, as poetry does for Hirsch (1999: 8,9), ‘give me access to my own interior realms.’ A visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum might resemble one to T. S. Eliot’s (1963: 52) Hyacinth garden:
‘—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Öd’ und leer das Meer.’
Eliot, T. S. 1963. Selected poems. Faber: London.
Hirsch, Edward. 1999. How to read a poem: and fall in love with poetry. Harvest: San Diego.
Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.
Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The essential Gombrich: Selected writings on art and culture. Ed. Richard Woodfield. Phaidon: London.