Good art

The October night © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The October night © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

When one is persistently critical, sometimes people tire of you at parties, and they demand a positive explanation rather than a judgement. I’m in favour of such a broad, visionary task, but it depends on the genuine interest and attention of the questioner, because it is far more demanding and far-reaching than simply dealing with the artwork to hand. Nevertheless, when you are at a party, and someone impatiently drops the question, ‘What is good art, then?’ you feel an immense weight descend on your weary shoulders, and the magnitude of the task makes your beer-soaked brain tremble with fatigue. You scratch around desperately for somewhere to begin, but you are gripped by the certainty that you cannot bring this person to the place where you are— (T. S. Eliot):

And would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
‘That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.’

Wittgenstein felt the futility of expounding such an explanation. When we talk about the arts, he (1966: 7) says, ‘the word we ought to talk about is “appreciated.” What does appreciation consist in?’ What happens to us when we stand before a painting, and it weaves its spell on us, and the mysterious effects that belong to good art take possession of us? ‘It is not only difficult to describe what appreciation consists in, but impossible,’ Wittgenstein (1966: 7) declares without apology. ‘To describe what it consists in we would have to describe the whole environment.’ He knows that this question is facetious, that the questioner cares little for the totality of the environment, and turns decisively to criticism as a more productive approach. He is correct, of course. But perhaps we can magnanimously respond to the genuine questioner with the beginnings of a broad, positive conception of things that contribute to the ‘goodness’ of art.

Copy after Titian

Copy after Titian

I would propose three categories of ‘goodness’ in painting (my favourite art, you’ll forgive the preference), each of which would demand long treatises to clarify just what their whole environment consists in. But their domains are helpfully distinct. The first is the technical brilliance of the work, the second is its poetic brilliance, and the third is its successful communion with the viewer.

Technical brilliance encompasses an understanding of all the elements of painting: composition, colour, texture, form, line, tone, properties of light, gesture, design, perspective, anatomy—it would be no small task to give an exhaustive list, and to deal with each component in turn. Nathan Goldstein has given much attention to this task, with admirable results. But this colossal body of knowledge is only that which any serious artist applies herself to, and finds that she needs a lifetime to master and to integrate.

Copies after Ryan Daffurn; Titian

Copies after Ryan Daffurn; Titian

It is in this domain that we might speak of a painting as being ‘correct’: ‘A good cutter won’t use any words except words like, “Too long,” “All right.” ’ (Wittgenstein, 1966: 7). And a good painter makes similar corrective remarks at the gallery, consumed as she is by the technical construction of a painting. Thanks to her immense conceit, she can look at any Old Master as a mere human rival, and lament his shortcomings. But we would do well to name her an expert in this domain, since her judgements are based on knowledge of and experience in her craft.

Technical brilliance seems to be in some way evident to non-painters, but perhaps they are unable to explain exactly why. And perhaps, because of this, the real genius of a work will forever elude them. Perhaps they ought to take responsibility for learning something about the building blocks of painting in order to be able to intelligently engage with paintings, and to be able to tell a poorly-constructed painting from a well-constructed painting: ‘We want to be able to distinguish between a person who knows what he is talking about and a person who doesn’t,’ says Wittgenstein (1966: 6) unceremoniously. ‘If a person is to admire English poetry, he must know English.’

Copy after Van Dyck

Copy after Van Dyck

But technical brilliance should be at the service of some loftier aims. Ideally, a painter has such skills at her disposal when she has some profound poetic insight—perhaps in being deeply moved by an observation or an experience. Then she is fully equipped and fully prepared to capture, to notate, to describe that insight. Her work is not simply well-executed, nor merely expressive: like an elegant equation it gracefully and satisfyingly grasps the essence of that insight. It is poetically brilliant for expressing it in an eloquent way. There is nothing forced, or stilted, or lacking; nothing fussy, nothing overstated. All the technical elements that are used weave seamlessly into each other and strengthen each other in a wholly integrated way.

Importantly, as the ever exacting Adrien reminds me, it is not only artists who are capable of such insights. But as he explains his painfully recognised inability to grasp the significance of such moments, of lacking a means of savouring them and perhaps saving them and sharing them, I begin to see that the artist has some responsibility to meditate on these themes on behalf of everyone else. She is no more insightful than anyone else, but perhaps she is particularly attentive to the profound in the mundane, particularly sensitive to the poetic in life, and, as noted, has a means of distilling them into an object, with the aim of planting these insights into souls of others.

Copy after Adriaen de Vries

Copy after Adriaen de Vries

And here is the final measure of ‘goodness:’ the painting’s capacity to work some effect in the viewer. We speak in metaphor: the painting moves us, it touches us. That insight, so poetically captured in the luscious strokes of paint, carried in the marks, is recreated in the mind of the viewer. Wittgenstein is firm in separating the satisfying way something is constructed from the profound way in which reaches into us. He writes (1966: 8):

When we talk of a Symphony of Beethoven we don’t talk of correctness. Entirely different things enter. One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art. In certain styles in Architecture a door is correct, and the thing is you appreciate it. But in the case of a Gothic Cathedral what we do is not at all to find it correct. It plays an entirely different role with us. The entire game is different.

Ideally, the good painting, too, transcends its technical proficiency, and does more than record a private contemplation, reaching into the thoughts of the viewer and having an irresistible sway over them, moving the viewer and giving his thoughts a heretofore unrealised expression. And this two-way communion is significant: the painting does not simply implant a thought in the viewer, but merges with the thoughts of the viewer. He needs to close the circuit: he needs to make the connections, be they technical or poetic. He needs to seek out the linear rhythms, acknowledge the deliberate variation of edges, perhaps, or consider the subdued contrast in tone; he needs to recognise with what economy and fluency the picture was created, to read the sure hand of the painter. But he should equally bring his own thoughts to the painting, for it is this private reverie that the painting seeks to connect with.

Copy after Rubens

Copy after Rubens–tracing them connections

We undoubtedly share common mental experiences, and a good painting unites us in savouring the grandeur of these private moments. A good painting speaks for all of us, where ‘es fehlen uns die Worter’—‘our vocabulary is inadequate’ (Wittgenstein 1953: 159). Good paintings constitute a different language for those quiet but shared insights for which ‘we lack the words.’

Copy after Brueghel

Copy after Brueghel

Eliot, T. S. 1966. Selected poems. Faber & Faber: London.

Goldstein, Nathan. 1989. Design and composition. Pearson: Boston.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Wittgenstein, L. 1966. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Ed. Cyril Barrett. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Standard

Gnädige Frau

Edith Schiele in gestreiftem Kleid, Egon Schiele (1915)

Edith Schiele in gestreiftem Kleid, Egon Schiele (1915)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes life forces you to consider what it is to be a woman—what it is to be strong, or weak; made of flesh; delicate, desirable, dependent, but harbouring a secret energy, perhaps afraid to brandish that energy, afraid to even look at it. Our bodies establish us as the weaker; our learned timidity keeps us so. The Belvedere exhibition on Die Frauen is probably intended as a feminist statement, somewhat ironically presented through the eyes of male painters. But statements aside, being enclosed in that space with all the loveliness and misery and secrecy of womanhood is a comforting experience.

Marie Henneberg, Gustav Klimt (1901-02)

Marie Henneberg, Gustav Klimt (1901-02)

Klimt is delicate with his women, barely dusting their flesh with airy flecks of paint, as though too respectful to touch them directly. His hatched paintings are among my favourite of all his work, and seem to be an exploration in the way colours converge and diverge as he sets different hues against each other and watches the interplay between them. You experience them differently at close range and at a distance. From afar, Marie Henneberg (1901-02) and Hermine Gallia (1903/04) dissolve into smoky purple salons, at one with their sumptuous surroundings, but up close their skin and rippling dresses are a confetti of oranges, blues, greens, purples and pinks. Most colours are neutral, and the most unadultered are some moderately used cobalt blues and pale oranges. Staring at them reinforces my conviction, acquired from experience, that purple is brown—this gentle gradation of neutrals that shifts the ratios of red and blue and yellow. My best purples always contain yellow—counter-intuitively sabotaging their vibrancy with their complementary. Klimt playfully explores these fluctuations with these floating strokes laid side by side.

There is something so satisfying, then, when you get near enough to see Frau Henneberg’s eyes and their lively chestnut brown leaps out from the other purple-browns, rich and chocolatey, far more vivid than the subdued though deep brown of her hair. Klimt has found the threshold between purple and brown and knows how to make them sing. At a distance, silvers emerge from the purple, but these greys are so controlled, so luminously coloured. The slightest shift toward orange gives them an entirely different character to the purple, though one only sees it as they begin to melt into each other.

Nach Klimt: Hermine Gallia

Copy after Klimt: Hermine Gallia

These women are as ethereal as the lace they are draped in, their skin shimmering, arms ‘braceleted and white and bare [But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]’ (Eliot, 1966: 13). But none of their finery—pleasingly designed as it is—compares with the grace and dignity of their hands and faces. Frau Gallia is like a droplet of water, plunging heavily to the ground, but wholly self-contained; one liquid shape. And the undersides of chins, thrusting the squareness of the matured womanly jaw, projecting the distinctive shape of the downturned and slightly-parted mouth that Klimt draws obsessively again and again—this uncommon view is seductively condescending. There is something submissive in it, but something defiant. Besides which, the shapes are irresistible.

Copy after Klimt: Goldfische (1901/02)

Copy after Klimt, Goldfische (1901/02)

It’s wonderful to see walls of drawings by Klimt, all lightly scribed onto aging brown paper. But there is a certain carelessness in his drawing, as though he is impatient to paint. He finds the edge with cloudy scratches, defining thighs and knees with dark negative space instead of positively asserting the body itself, and even then without conviction. Perhaps because these hurried visual notes are not conceived at all in lines but in shapes and textures. And indeed he captures some deliciously-shaped forearms, put down with great simplicity. For Klimt never seems to trust his lines, or perhaps never cares for them. He must be thinking in paint: in ill-defined expressive edges which can never be pinned down in pencil.

Edith Schiele, Egon Schiele

Edith Schiele, Egon Schiele

Now Schiele—das ist eine andere Sache. The boy is all about the lines. Every line is raw with passion, deliberately ravaging the page or the canvas. There is no delicacy in Schiele, even when he tenderly tries to put down the sweetness of his wife. His tenderness still brews from a deep violence coursing through him. His paintings burst with a subterranean fury: confronted with them in the flesh, I feel like he didn’t so much paint them as form them from the very earth. Despite the purity of the pinks and oranges and blues, the whole surface is a muddy terrain of paint with a very physical topography.

It’s hard to decide whether Schiele lovingly traces Edith’s jaw or forcefully defines it himself. In drawing, in painting, he dominates her, he aggressively creates her for himself; she is at the mercy of art and of the artist, terrorised by his violence. He brutally coaxes out the wild creature inside the woman, urging it with the monster inside him. When I look at his sure, sizzling lines, I feel certain that we can never see ourselves except through the ruthless description of an artist. And yet, I think it would be limiting to say that Schiele’s work is simply ‘expressive,’ despite the force of his gaze. I am sure that Schiele really sees, and really exposes something of the sitter. He seizes the defining factors in an instant—the sloping brow, the crooked nose—and his own charged insights hang from this honest scaffolding. I am sure that Schiele saw Edith’s pain: it lingers in her eyes, in the corners of her mouth. Nothing escapes his sensitive gaze, however fierce his pencil.

Nach Schiele

Copy after Schiele

His drawings always present a deeply satisfying unity. He sees the parts and he sees the whole. Each breast, the pelvis, thighs and calves, all individually carved out with such a sense for weight and balance, and yet arranged as interlocking shapes into one carefully balanced shape. As in the Mastubierender Akt mit grünem Turban (1914), which seems to hang sideways, giving her the impression of floating blissfully through the air, he is willing to assert her delicious curves in all their forceful simplicity. You feel her, you feel her stomach sucking in, her legs tensing, the balanced unity of her weighted parts.

Mastubierender Akt mit grünem Turban, Egon Schiele (1914)

Mastubierender Akt mit grünem Turban, Egon Schiele (1914)

It’s hard to look at Schiele’s drawings without feeling violated. Naturally, they are overtly sexual, but more than this: they pierce the soul of the subject. Sometimes it is like looking at an animated corpse. The rich, brown, leathery skin, full and lively, galvanised, but stiff and arranged unnaturally. The hands are the most arresting. All these women with meaty, bony, monstrous hands, the joints bloody and red. His women cannot be inactive with such square-knuckled, muscular hands. They are almost a challenge to action, a defiance of supposed feminine delicacy, of fragile wrists and gently tapering workshy fingers. Schiele reflects women back to themselves as something stronger.

Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

 

Eliot, T. S. 1966. Selected poems. Faber & Faber: London.

Standard