The perfectionist, revisited

sewingmachine

My Nanna came to visit from New South Wales and I was very pleased to spend some time sewing under her direction. Nanna, born Aleida Grul—though forced to give up her name through anglicisation and marriage—grew up in Holland, where her father was a tailor, and she herself trained in the same field. As a young woman, she sewed for a living, paying board to her parents and saving up the equivalent of ten full weeks’ wages to buy her own sewing machine—a fierce and serious Swiss-made tank of a machine, driven by a pedal at the knee, which has accompanied her for the rest of her life. Her school was determined to take her on as a teacher, but toward the end of her studies, she and her family immigrated to Australia. Nanna paid her own way with the income she made from sewing. She and her younger sister took over a local sewing business in New South Wales, but eventually the demands of family life took precedent—her own family grew to five children. Still, children need dressing, and grandchildren too, and Nanna has continued to sew prolifically.

cutting

When she came up to visit us, I pulled out some lovely, soft, creamy, floral fabric I had found in Vienna, and an unopened vintage sewing pattern I had discovered in Berlin. The pattern pieces were flimsy and sage-coloured, marked only with perforated words and symbols—‘EINHALTEN’, ‘FADENLAUF’—and the instructions ran in stiff, old-fashioned German. A combination of my German, her Dutch, and her practical knowledge of patterns allowed us to piece the thing together.

But more than receiving a little guidance, I was treated to a wonderful insight into her past and her attitude to work and to life. I’ve always known her as cheerful, contented, and unfazed by difficulties, but I failed to appreciate her quiet acceptance of her compromises, her driven and hardworking nature, and her adherence to the high standard she demands of herself. As we carefully measured and remeasured fabric, pattern and me—‘where is your tape measure?’ (my mother recollects Nanna ever having her tape measure hanging from her neck, never out of reach)—she spoke softly about the past, as though the act of sewing were a method of time-travel, a direct portal to the times she had sewn before. And this time I was permitted to travel with her.

pattern

At the very beginning of our work, Nanna confessed to constantly unpicking her own work to this day, which surprised me. I wondered that she could be so unsure with her hands. But I quickly learnt that this stemmed from no uncertainty, but from very exacting demands. Should an unwanted pucker appear, should a collar sit too tightly, should a gathered edge not sit pleasingly, it must be undone. From my own viewpoint, of ‘good enough is good enough, no one will know the difference,’ it was a pleasant surprise to be held accountable to someone who produces the best work she possibly can, no matter how ignorant her audience.

Cat sewing

For no one would notice the length of my stitches should they learn I had sewn my own blouse—they would only be impressed, useless as they are with their hands, that I had made something. But Nanna, from the adjoining room, called out gently, ‘your stitches are too short. Small stitches look very unprofessional,’ a judgment made from the sound of my humming sewing machine alone. I lengthened my stitches, I worked more slowly, I took care with the intersections of seams, until my mum expressed surprise at the steady and controlled pace of my machine.

Sachsen Bluse

Following instructions is one thing, but working under the guidance of an expert is another entirely. There are things to learn that don’t read well in explanations—like how to make the back of the shoulders ‘roomier,’ and precisely where to overlap the seams of specific pieces. I began to be less assertive, asking for more help instead, hoping she would reveal more secrets to me at every step. Without malice, but matter-of-factly, Nanna told me, ‘the difference between what you know and what I know is very obvious.’ And I realised with what arrogant confidence I go about the works of my hands! Whether I sew, or knit, or paint, or draw—and this confidence, this ‘just and manly confidence in himself,’ as Joshua Reynolds calls it (p. 211), being ‘among the first moral qualities … which a Student ought to cultivate,’ is undoubtedly necessary. But equally necessary is the humility that comes with recognising a greater power than yourself, and the magnitude of the path they have already travelled, and that lies yet before you.

Three monkeys

I also realised that perfectionism coupled with diligence is no terrible thing. For all her unpicking, Nanna, Aleida—now Alice—is ever moving forward, and no amount of redoing sets her back, discourages her, or prevents her from finishing something.

Nanna

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The Old Museum

OldMuseumExhibition

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exciting things are afoot! In just three weeks I will be exhibiting alongside two painters I respect very much, Ryan Daffurn and Adolphe Piche. We have been fortunate enough to be able to work together in a crumbly old shed in the Old Museum grounds in Brisbane these past few months, where we are currently artists in residence of Sculptors Queensland.

The Sculptors shed has given us a much-needed inner-city sanctuary to escape other demands and get down to some serious work. As the freight trains rattle by and the police bagpipe band put in dedicated hours of practice, we paint and sculpt from complaisant models. A one-night showing of our most recent efforts–much of it heat-swollen, bulging with tropical fruit, skin scalded pink–seems a fitting tribute to the generosity of the Sculptors Queensland society members, and we do hope you can drop by and join us for a little celebration.

 

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Eine ästhetische Erziehung

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I have been reflecting on the endless hours I’ve spent acquainting myself with the contents of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Belvedere in Vienna, and feeling grateful for the riches I carry around in my memory as I drive Brisbane’s visually polluted highways. I revisited those galleries like the lines of a familiar poem. I adopted those visits as a daily ritual, as habitual as drinking coffee. I seized those delicacies as daily necessities. Reading Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses that he presented to the Royal Academy in the 1770s and 1780s, I grasp all at once how valuable those seemingly idle hours were, how integral to my learning (Reynolds, 1997: 98):

‘Whoever has so far formed his taste, as to be able to relish and feel the beauties of the great masters, has gone a great way in his study; for, merely from a consciousness of this relish of the right, the mind swells with an inward pride, and is almost as powerfully affected, as if it had itself produced what it admires. Our hearts frequently warmed in this manner by the contact of those whom we wish to resemble, will undoubtedly catch something of their way of thinking; and we shall receive in our own bosoms some radiation at least of their fire and splendour.’

Reynolds’s discourse on imitation (VI) strongly defends the relevance of ‘the antients’ (sic) and the mastery of ‘the old masters.’ Rather than stifling our inventiveness, he considers an ongoing communion with the time-honoured masters the only path to inspired invention—‘however it may mortify our vanity’ (1997: 106). ‘Invention is one of the great marks of genius;’ he (1997: 98) writes, ‘but if we consult experience, we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others, that we learn to invent; as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think.’ The artistic poverty of our time and locality may have less to do with dedicated arts funding and more to do with a disdain for ‘the antients,’ a malaise that even Reynolds lamented in his own time and situation. He ‘venture[d] to prophesy, that when [the ancients] shall cease to be studied, arts will no longer flourish, and we shall again relapse into barbarism’ (1997: 106).

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

It cannot be denied: Brisbane lacks the cultural riches of Vienna, and a native Australian painter is debilitated in her artistic education unless she transplants herself to Europe for the daily nourishment her chosen career demands. Sheer optimism and hard work are not enough: the mind needs substance in order to grow, and it grows toward that which it focuses on. Joshua Reynolds (1997: 98) cautions us, ‘The mind is but a barren soil; a soil which is soon exhausted, and will produce no crop, or only one, unless it be continually fertilized and enriched with foreign matter.’

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

It is of utmost importance, then, to give our minds every opportunity to be enriched. If we permit ourselves mediocre habits, our efforts will soon follow. Reynolds (1997: 98) is very firm on this: ‘It appears, of what great consequence it is that our minds should be habituated to the contemplation of excellence.’ I’m reminded of Delacroix’s (2010: 20) chiding himself on lapsing into trivial distractions, writing in his journals, ‘Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you are always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.’

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind (c. 1390/1400)

Australia’s focus on employment, activity, early rising, physical exertion, and contempt for any who dare to think they are ‘above all that and better than us’ sucks one into a cycle of inconsequentialities and mental tiredness that offers very little nourishment and even less opportunity for tending to one’s thoughts. I realise with greater certainty that being in Europe is no luxury, but an indispensible part of my education. Without this first-hand contact with Titian, with Rubens, with Van Dyck, with Raffael, I would not know what painting could be. I would turn to inferior teachers, and unknowingly trust them with my education. I would observe the work of my peers and take notice of their race to absurdity in their pursuit of novelty. I would bring my questions to walls of badly-applied paint, poor drawing, and punch-line titles instead of to excellence, and my work could only suffer. A familiarity with real excellence is indispensible in one’s aesthetic education.

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

For as original as we strive to be, we are always influenced by our surroundings and by those we associate with—we constantly imitate. Reynolds (1997: 99) suggests it would be better to absorb the thoughts of old masters than what is currently fashionable, or attempting to turn inwards. ‘The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on his own stock: he who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will be soon reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has before often repeated.’ We need a deeper source than ourselves, a more reliable one than our peers.

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

Our individuality comes not from ourselves alone, but is formulated by our own perspective on the work of others as well as what we see in the physical world. Instead of a narcissistic cycle of imitating our own work, we might gain from the successful labours of others. We might accelerate our learning by discovering the physical world through the eyes of the masters. And we might truly challenge ourselves by taking them not as gods but as rivals. Raffael was but a human being, and we have the advantage of being able to learn from him and to push further than him. Reynolds encourages more than unthinking plagiarism, but a ruthless competition, an outstripping, a struggle to steal from the past and improve on it. Having thought their thoughts, we bring our own hand and conceal our theft in our own inventions. Our brush borrows shamelessly, but our thoughts are combined in a way that is entirely our own, and it is from here that our originality stems. Reynolds (1997: 96) leaps to our defense: ‘I am on the contrary persuaded, that by imitation only, variety, and even originality of invention, is produced.’

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

‘We behold all about us with the eyes of those penetrating observers whose works we contemplate; and our minds accustomed to think the thoughts of the noblest and brightest intellects, are prepared for the discovery and selection of all that is great and noble in nature,’ (Reynolds, 1997: 99). So let us not take our situation lightly, for nothing of consequence comes out of isolation and mental starvation.

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

I began the above self-portrait on my arrival in Vienna two years ago. It has suffered many iterations, growing and transforming with my own ideas and observations and abilities. My constant struggle with this painting became somewhat representative of my own aesthetic education, and its thickening layers of paint akin to my deepening understanding. The yellow Reclam book is, natürlich, from Schiller. x

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Antipodes

Framed

This little guy has travelled a long way in search of fame and glory. He is the result of a month-long sojourn in Berlin, and made a well-received debut in Vienna. I’ve just collected him from the framers, dressed up in lush Tasmanian oak in anticipation for his forthcoming appearance as a finalist in the Moreton Bay Region Art Awards in Brisbane.

Come along to the Strathpine Community Centre on Friday, May 15, and wish him well. Free wine! Eye candy! Eternal glory!

The show runs from May 16 to 24,  2015. I’m thrilled to be exhibiting alongside some painters from my Brisbane circle, and would like to extend warm congratulations to Hadieh Afshani, Brian Deagon, Mark Feiler and Kay Kane. Time for some Southern Hemisphere adventures! x

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Eine Einladung

It was a real delight to show my most recent works in Takt Keller several weeks ago. Dazzling Vienna set the perfect backdrop: its secret cellars and multifariously talented inhabitants simply beg to be combined. The thing about Vienna is, no one ever seems to be only one thing. A physicist is also a concert pianist; an interpreter is also a dancer; a dancer is also a photographer; a biologist is also an artist; an engineer is also a linguist. Everyone seems to have a little extra to give, and it is these overlaps that seem to make conversation fluid and to ignite friendships and partnerships.

It was plain to me that an art show in Vienna could not simply be an art show, but should be an immersive aesthetic experience. And so we not only hung our arched brick bunker with paintings and drawings, but flooded it with candlelight, adorned it with understated white flowers, and drenched the air with music—a live piano performance by Pawel Markowicz. A little wine and some gently intelligent conversation transported our unsuspecting guests into a ‘ganz zauberhaft’ evening.

As I explained on the evening, the show was, from its inception, an invitation into my studio. I wanted to simply share my self-educatory efforts and my grappling with the physical world, with light and space and extended objects, my fledgling steps into the domain of oil-painting, my foundational exercises by which I hope to bolster future imaginative work. I’ve a long way to go to painterly maturity, but perhaps there is something revealing about the stage I am in, and something of intellectual interest to my open-minded friends and acquaintances. I see myself in an intermediate stage—having secured the fundamentals of my craft, and ventured out on my own, I am now taking the impressive pieces in the European galleries as my teachers, building up a tool kit of visual imagery while gleaning everything I can from those who went before. This sort of independent learning is perhaps invisible if not wholly neglected in our time: mainstream art schools strive to teach the inventiveness and fluency that comes only with experience and practice; independent art schools preach realism as an end in itself and produce competent student-painters with limited scope.

Joshua Reynolds (1997: 27) neatly summed up the painter’s maturation into three stages some two hundred and fifty years ago: ‘Having well established his judgment, and stored his memory, he may now without fear try the power of his imagination’ (my emphasis). Having laid up some observational skills, I find myself in the phase of ‘amass[ing] a stock of ideas, to be combined and varied as occasion may require’ (1997: 26). I am ‘now in the second period of study, in which his business is to learn all that has been known and done before his own time.’ And as the studious works in the show demonstrated, ‘this period is … still a time of subjection and discipline’ (Reynolds 1997: 26). In a world where students are prematurely ushered into imaginative realms before their technical abilities can support their ideas, or where the over-zealous student and her studio nudes are put upon a pedestal, I am simply happy to invite you to cast your glance over the efforts of a painter somewhere in between. I am not yet free of observation and of subjection to the masters of the past, and my inventive efforts are yet tentative and unsteady. But perhaps my very openness about this is fascinating to art lovers who expect a finished product.

And so, rather than inviting people into a thinly-disguised shop, I discarded titles, explanatory captions and prices. I gave a short speech in which I drew attention to technical concepts and pointed to my paintings as experiments with these ideas. I spoke briefly about colour as being fundamentally about relationships, and how I had learned so much from simply setting many colours against the purple walls of my Viennese flat. I contrasted form with tone as a method of creating illusory depth, and my motivation for exploring form.

Given something comprehensible to grasp, people displayed infinite curiosity. Questions no longer revolved around matters of time or money. Instead, people wanted to know, ‘How does that plant look full and round? How does the light come through the windows like that? How do those lemons pop right out, and why does it feel like there is depth and heavy space when there are no shadows?’ Suddenly, I wasn’t defending my income or expounding on tenuously strung-together concepts or even talking about myself. Suddenly, I was having detailed discussions with non-painters about the very building blocks of a painting, about my struggles and my intentions and my motivations. And people seemed pleasantly surprised to understand and even genuinely intrigued by such ideas.

Indeed, it was satisfying for me to talk about paint and how I use it, for that is where most of my own thinking is directed, far more than into motifs and messages and missions. For anyone might try to decode symbols, but not everyone is privy to the secret life of paint, and as John Dewey (1934: 199) argues, in paint, ‘media and esthetic effect are completely fused.’ And he (1934: 199) is none too kind on ‘critics who tell us how they feel without telling or knowing in terms of media used why they feel as they do,’ nor on ‘persons who identify gush with appreciation.’ It was satisfying to me to help people appreciate just what it was that had so caught their attention, to equip them with a way to speak intelligently about what they saw, to express their impressions about painting in a meaningful way.

While Dewey (1943: 199) concedes that ‘it is true that artists seem themselves often to approach a work of art from an exclusively technical standpoint,’ he defends our bias thus: ‘for the most part, they so feel the whole that it is not necessary to dwell upon the end, the whole, in words, and so they are freed to consider how the latter is produced’ (1943: 200). It was incredible to invite people to look at my pictures in this way. It was liberating to draw attention to these pictures as steps toward something else—without qualifying them, without aggrandising them, only presenting them as the result of my recent investigations.

 

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

Vielen Dank to Jacques Pienaar and to Kathrin Buczak for this fantastic opportunity! x

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Farbe

Solution (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn

Solution (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn

If I could kindle your enthusiasm about just one thing, it would be paint. If I use overly impassioned language when describing paintings, it’s not to be floridly arty—it’s not to transfigure paintings into words, and thus do away with the picture. I only want to show you how to be caught up in what you see, to guide you with a language you already understand. I want to show you a way in, and expose my own thoughts so you might feel confident in your own.

I feel so strongly about the physicality of painting. Every day I paint, and far from confining itself to a neat, two-dimensional substrate, paint subdivides and multiplies and sticks to everything. In my haste I smear it on my hands, I lean into it and get it on my clothes. The stuff has a mind of its own; like amoebic eighties horror film monsters it exists in three-dimensional space. With patience and determination, the painter tames it and uses it to describe something. This is why much contemporary painting disappoints me so much. Paint has lost its body. It has become a hesitant filler. It is so often reduced to a broad medium for covering an expanse in sloppy colour, as though with the click of the fill-bucket button.

Kunst Handwerk

My eyes are ravaged by it everywhere: just enough paint is used to block in a shape, a thin scratchy film, cheap bleached white canvas and its prickly texture shouting through it, proclaiming its cheapness. No wonder painting is so unpopular, when cheap paint smeared thin as vegemite across cheap canvases presents such a shamelessly insipid surface.

Daffodil

Robert Nelson cautions against the ‘fetishisation of paint,’ but a little over-enthusiasm might be needed to correct this scourge of painterly apathy. Painting can be more than colouring-in: paint, as German so poetically (in its beautifully literal way) reminds us, is farbe—it is colour itself. Nelson (2010: 39) argues, ‘Paint as colour is less interesting than colour as paint, because paint gives to the very concept of colour a willfully mutating character.’ Rather than thinking of paint as the filler that wedges between the lines of your drawing, you might embrace paint as ‘mobilised colour’ (2010: 42).

Yellow

Yes! Far from stretching like a skin over empty space, paint—embodied colour—can sprout from a surface, can clamber over itself, undulate, amalgamate. Colour as paint is nothing like a grid of pixels, an expanse with no depth. Paint allows us to move colour around almost as if it were clay. Of course, we are still constructing a two-dimensional illusion, and I am not arguing that one ought to paint in relief. But we ought not forget that we have a real substance in our hands and that its expressive properties are every bit as physical and substantial as clay. This is our advantage, as painters, over digital painting and photography. The quickening of our surface is what sets us apart from our sister arts. And it is the reason paintings need to be seen in the flesh, and why their pixelated reduction to disembodied colour is so dissatisfying.

Blossoms

John Dewey draws an interesting comparison between physics and the arts which perhaps makes a good analogy for Nelson’s conception of ‘mobilised colour.’ Nelson describes paint by way of its fluid application rather than by its dried and polished result. ‘Paint,’ he writes (2010: 39), ‘which first arrives on the palette in distinct colours, is nevertheless contrived in analogous viscosities so that each colour slips into its neighbouring colour and becomes another colour entirely (or other colours, prolifically mutating), often imperfectly dragging two or more discrete colours into a kind of staggered spectral section.’ For the artist, paint exists not only as a clever arrangement of colours, but it exists as colours struggling with each other in time, dancing about each other, harmonising, violating each other. Paint exists as colour-in-application: as colour in time. And this is Dewey’s contention: we are misled when we separate space from time in the arts, just as physicists were forced to wrap their heads around the concept of space-time. ‘For the extension and volume of an object, its spatial properties cannot be directly experienced—or perceived—in a mathematical instant,’ he (1934: 183) explains, ‘nor can temporal properties of events be experienced save as some energy displays itself in an extensive way.’

Physics roof

Vienna

 

None is more conscious of this than the artist herself, and it is something I am eager to convey to people who like to look at paintings. Perhaps it is something people make some attempt to come to terms with when they ask such questions as, ‘how long did this take to paint?’ But rather than quantifying a painting (and probably attempting to see if the price matches the labour), recognising the marriage of time and space in painting will bring a richness of understanding to a picture. A colour spans some distance. But paint, pulled by the vigorous action of a stroke and grooved with the bristles of the brush, is distance over time.

v = d/t

Dewey elaborates (1934: 183-4):

‘The separation of temporal and spatial in the fine arts was always inept. As Croce has said, we are specifically (or separately) conscious of temporal sequence in music and poetry, and of spatial co-existence in architecture and painting, only when we pass from perception to analytic reflection. The supposition that we directly hear musical tones to be in time and directly see colours as being in space, reads into an immediate experience a later interpretation of it due to reflection. We see intervals and directions in pictures and we hear distances and volumes in music. If movement alone were perceived in music and rest alone in painting, music would be wholly without structure and pictures nothing but dry bones. …

Any section of the music and any cross-section of it has precisely the balance and symmetry, in chords and harmonies, as a painting, statue or building. A melody is a chord deployed in time.’

In fact, Dewey insinuates, we sort of already experience the arts as both temporal and spatial. It is only when we try to describe them that we build these artificial distinctions. The painter knows it when she drags a loaded brush across a canvas, and the pianist knows it when he visualises a chord as the shape of his hand or as a numerically arranged hieroglyph on a stave. And the viewer and the listener taste it when they are absorbed into the aesthetic experience, or else something likely rings false to them.

Belvedere storm

Belvedere, Vienna

 

Perhaps, then, trusty English has something to offer us that German cannot. For the word ‘painting’ describes a process, a happening, an event. And this is Nelson’s (2010: 40) point, which clarifies Dewey’s: ‘The medium intrinsically narrates the events of the process.’

And this is why I live in hope that painters will express something bordering on a fetish for paint in their work. That their disturbing obsession with it might infect the viewer. For painting, as Nelson (2010: 39; 40) so satisfyingly insinuates, is very sexy: ‘Paint, … certainly, you can keep it neat, but the substance is made for creamy interaction. In any intercourse with another wet colour, the paint visibly mutates by the muscular caress of the brush. … As one colour works its way into another—according to the slewed interpenetration just mentioned—traces of the process are left visible, because the pre-existing strokes remain manifest even as the dramatic stage in which fresh impulses have collided.’

And perhaps Nelson (2010: 42) is right to insist that paint as mobilised colour, as colour through time, with its ‘inestimable expressive potential’ is more than ‘pretty extravagance’ or ‘material fetish,’ and rather something so lofty as ‘an existential resource.’ But I’m not above admitting to a little predilection for paint bordering on the prurient.

Tulips

 

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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Composing as emotional construction

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve spent some time lately in the galleries trying to come to an understanding about composition. Not really knowing what I was looking for, I took my sketchbook and pencil and set about collecting some information, reducing it, simplifying it, hoping to see some sort of pattern emerge. In fact, many different patterns emerged from my little thumbnails.

Composition thumbnails 1

In Van Dyck’s Gefangennahme Samsons (1628/30) the heavy weave of the fabric of the painting showed a tightly constructed image, the whole picture electrified with energy and motion, though the frenzy offers no relief for the eye. His Mystische Verlobung des Heiligen Hermann Joseph mit Maria (1630) concentrates the action into a similarly dense knot, with figures and drapery tangling together, but the rhythms run three-dimensionally, not confined to the flat pictorial space. An oval slopes deep into the picture, running through the loop of arms at the centre. Similar retreating ovals swing through Rubens’ Heilige Ambrose und Kaiser Theodosius (1615/16) and Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum (1630/32), intersecting with the two-dimensional arrangement.

Titian’s Diana revealed complex braids of arcs through the dizzyingly busy picture. Actually each curve is a wonderfully simplified statement that seems to keep the picture in motion, a liquid in suspension, not snagged by unnecessary points of elbows or knees. And Degas blares out as the most unselfconsciously shape-loving painter, with his charmingly intimate square pastels, both Nach dem Bad, almost pieced together from strong, insistent shapes rather than representations of interiors. And yet, despite the prominence of these shapes, Degas never relinquishes the fullness of forms.

Composition thumbnails 2

While these investigations turned up some interesting ideas, the jumble of thoughts they produced in my mind left me no clearer of how I ought to approach composition. And despite the importance of concrete examples, I was looking for a more unifying, fundamental way to grasp the concept. It was at this point I returned to Robert Nelson.

The main point to hold in your mind when thinking about composition is that it is, at heart, about construction. You’ll forgive my constant sideways remarks about photography, but our aesthetic vision is currently somewhat obscured by the lens, and in the matter of composition, by the viewfinder. ‘Photography as a process, certainly in its documentary incarnations, might be described as a roving rectangle in search of a motif,’ writes Nelson (2010: 99), continuing sympathetically but firmly, ‘The nomadic and scavenging character of documentary photography makes for an art of great complexity; but it is essentially different from the constructed technologies of the past.’ As a painter, I know my own understanding of composition was clouded by this idea of finding and framing. Yet the painter suffers no such constraints: she is at complete liberty to compose, exactly as the musician may draw notes from his mind and not wait to capture them. Dewey (1934: 75) compares it to the ordering of thoughts of the writer: ‘As the painter places pigment upon the canvas, or imagines it placed there, his ideas and feeling are also ordered. As the writer composes in his medium of words what he wants to say, his idea takes on for himself perceptible form.’

Sankt Marx composition

Nelson (2010: 95-6) argues that, despite the popularity of the idea, there are no ‘design principles,’ no rules to be taught, no natural laws to transform aesthetics into a science. Conventions of the past were simply that—conventions, not eternal ideals. Golden means and overlaid geometry reek of ‘numerological witchcraft’ to him. Yet composition remains vital to painting because of the deliberateness it entails. The painter actively arranges not only elements, but space and even, he (2010: 98) argues, ‘the way that you encounter the motif.’ The whole is a carefully contrived experience, deliberately built up from nothing.

Rather than groping fruitlessly after scientific justifications for the success of compositions, Nelson (2010: 96) suggests turning to the poetic. Composition, far from submitting to rules, is rather a matter of expression, and perhaps even, as Dewey suggests, of emotion. Dewey (1934: 70) writes of the deliberate arrangement of the whole: ‘The determination of the mot juste, of the right incident in the right place, of exquisiteness of proportion, of the precise tone, hue, and shade that helps unify the whole while it defines a part, is accomplished by emotion.’ The painter has complete control over how the stage is to be set, over how the experience is to unfold. The balance or imbalance is completely at her disposal; the weight of the tones may set the mood she desires, the space may be moulded or the shapes emphasised or the rhythms interlaced as best suits her own expressive purpose. Dewey (1934: 62) is quick to clarify, however, that this expression, however emotional, remains calculated and controlled:

‘To discharge is to get rid of, to dismiss; to express is to stay by, to carry forward in development, to work out to completion. A gush of tears may bring relief, a spasm of destruction may give outlet to inward rage. But where there is no administration of objective conditions, no shaping of materials in the interest of embodying the excitement, there is no expression. What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might better be termed one of self-exposure; it discloses character—or lack of character—to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.’

In order to express something clearly, to honestly transcribe emotive experiences, the painter must keep the whole before her, and work in a flexible way. Her medium needs to be pliant enough to push around, to adjust, to exaggerate, to search out (Gombrich 1996: 214). Drawing is the most obvious starting place, offering a reductive description, a non-committal, experimental visualisation of the unborn painting. Without labouring details, the painter can think through the unity of the whole and observe the interaction of the ill-defined parts. She can crop and re-crop. She can design, she can grow the image organically. In keeping the whole at the fore, she can keep the emotional experience tight and true. Da Vinci (in Gombrich 1996: 213) confirms this fluid mode of working and the connection between emotion and composition in both his hairy drawings and his writings:

‘Now have you never thought about how poets compose their verse? They do not trouble to trace beautiful letters nor do they mind crossing out several lines so as to make them better. So, painter, rough out the arrangement of the limbs of your figures and first attend to the movements appropriate to the mental state of the creatures that make up your pictures rather than to the beauty and perfection of their parts.’

I expect I’ll continue to collect thumbnails at the gallery, but with renewed purpose: There are no codes to decipher and assimilate, no universal truths to unearth. There is only the deliberate hanging-together of the whole—directed by the emotional impulse of the author—to unravel and to admire. And my own emotional intent to orchestrate in my own paintings, beginning with my ever-pliable pencil.

Sankt Marx

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The essential Gombrich: Selected writings on art and culture. Ed. Richard Woodfield. Phaidon: London.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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