On meaning

Das Bett / The bed (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Das Bett / The bed (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

 

Richard Wollheim’s meticulous and absorbing book Painting as an Art stands, all three hundred and fifty hefty pages of it, in opposition to explanations of meaning in painting that depend on comparisons with language. I have found some useful analogies for painting in language, but such a rigorous book leads me to consider that my preoccupation with an ill-defined ‘visual language’ disguises a deeper concern with meaning itself in painting. I have considered Susan Sontag’s (1969) argument that ‘silence’ in paintings belies an absence of meaning, and have picked up her appeals to a kind of discussion, a back and forth between painter and spectator. But perhaps it is more illuminating to be yet clearer about the type of meaning that is to be manipulated (by the artist) and found (by the spectator) in paintings, and to be strict about the distinction between painting and language.

Painting as an Art inextricably binds meaning in painting to the materials of painting. Paint itself can be transformed into a medium that can ‘be so manipulated as to give rise to meaning’ (Wollheim 1987: 7). What Wollheim (1987: 15) wants to hold on to here is the very ‘paintingness’ of a painting as integral to its meaning—that meaning must be contained within the painting, implanted in it by the artist, discoverable by the spectator, and independent of external validation or explanation.

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‘Pictorial meaning,’ concedes Wollheim (1987: 22), ‘is diverse.’ From the outset, he casts aside any theory with a linguistic scent. ‘Structuralism, iconography, semiotics and various breeds of cultural relativism’ look for the kind of meaning that language has in painting. That is, they try to make sense of paintings by decoding them according to a variety of rules and conventions and symbol systems. But, argues Wollheim (1987: 22), while these sometimes influence the meaning of a painting, such codes do not lie at the heart of pictorial meaning.

And so Wollheim (1987: 22) sets out his own account of pictorial meaning, which he brands a psychological account in contradistinction to these linguistic theories. The core components of this account—and there are three—align happily with factors I have, as a painter myself, come to consider crucial in appreciating painting. Though initially uncomfortable with the term ‘psychological,’ I grow ever more convinced that it captures as fundamental something of the elusive inner, emotional machinations of the artist which a linguistic account might only add on later. Wollheim’s (1987: 22) triad of factors upon which pictorial meaning rests are:

  1. The mental state of the artist

  2. The way this causes him to mark the surface

  3. The mental state that the marked surface sets up in the sensitive and informed spectator.

Or, more descriptively (Wollheim 1987: 22):

‘On such an account what a painting means rests upon the experience induced in an adequately sensitive, adequately informed, spectator by looking at the surface of the painting as the intentions of the artist led him to mark it. The marked surface must be the conduit along which the mental state of the artist makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator if the result is to be that the spectator grasps the meaning of the picture.’

Beginning with the painter (for, as Wollheim (1987: 36) argues, ‘if we are interested in understanding either painting as such or individual paintings, we must start from the artist’) demands something substantial of the painter. It says that we expect her to embody some thought, some idea, in the paint she is carefully mixing on her palette, preparing to smear across her canvas. It does not say that we demand to know her history, her biography, her certified statement on the meaning of the painting. Wollheim (1987: 44) emphasises again and again that the information we seek should be embedded in the painting itself. Turning to the painter’s mental state is important because it demands an intention of her, not something careless, accidental, or mindless. A painting that does not embody a meaningful idea does not qualify, on Wollheim’s (1987: 13) terms, as art—and he is keen to do away with the type of painters that are not artists. This addresses Sontag’s (1969) concern for silent paintings that in fact have nothing to say to the spectator, without yet having to depend on a spectator. For the artist’s ‘major aim,’ so Wollheim (1987: 44) contends, is ‘to produce content or meaning.’

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Wollheim (1987: 185) does not deny the spectator a role, but he treads very carefully where he fears that a painting might be endowed with meaning ‘after it left the hands of the artist and without any concomitant alteration to its marked surface.’ For this reason, he asks us to call to mind the posture of the artist: standing in front of her easel. This image of the artist before her work should continually remind us that the artist herself occupies ‘a multiplicity of roles:’ she must be both agent and spectator (Wollheim 1987: 43). ‘Inside each artist is a spectator upon whom the artist, the artist as agent, is dependent’ (Wollheim 1987: 43). This precise formulation captures exactly what I have observed when I have considered the self-indulgent hours an artist may pass considering her own work, without even picking up a brush: the apparent idleness that is actually a necessary (though passive) role by which the artist tests the calculated effect of her work (Wollheim 1987: 95).

We must, argues Wollheim (1987: 96) take care to recognise that the artist hypothetically, not categorically, imagines a spectator when she herself steps into the role of spectator. She does not necessarily paint with a specific spectator in mind, nor even approach her work with the attitude that another spectator will ever approach the painting. This further distinguishes painting from language, in Wollheim’s eyes. A painting may or may not be a form of communication, but it is not inherently a mode of communication. ‘Necessarily communication either is addressed to an identifiable audience … or is undertaken in the hope that an audience will materialise’ (1987: 96). I am not thoroughly persuaded on this point. A writer may similarly write for themselves, or for no one, in precisely the medium of language. Reams of private notes or sketches can be records addressed precisely to their creator in her role as spectator. The artist’s multiple roles seem, rather, to enable the possibility of an internal conversation.

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It is through marking the surface, intentionally applying paint, that the artist attempts to give form to and perhaps eventually to convey her thoughts. Among the artist’s intentions, Wollheim (1987: 86) lists ‘thoughts, beliefs, memories, and, in particular, emotions and feelings, that the artist had and that specifically caused him to paint as he did.’ The key is that there ought always be a connection between the marks set down and the inner, mental state of the artist. For Wollheim, this connection is never one of direct transcription, as in language, but there is always a correspondence.

But more than this: the artist also intends that ‘a spectator should see something in [the marked surface]’ (Wollheim 1987: 101). This particular intention is what Wollheim calls respresentation. He (Wollheim 1987: 101) here finds room to introduce a standard of correctness and incorrectness: Since the artist had something in mind, and tried to put it down, a spectator might understand that intention correctly or incorrectly. Of course, spectators bring all sorts of personal musings to a painting, and there is a case to be made for reverie, but these wayward, subjective reflections can never comprise the core meaning of a painting. The artist’s intention can be grasped or misunderstood, or partially recognised. But respect for the artist’s intention is crucial if we are to salvage painting from the meaningless mire of subjectivity. Our personal reflections ought only augment the artist’s original idea.

The second important point here is that the spectator should discover this idea in the marked surface. We move smoothly from the intentions of the artist to the response of the spectator via the uncomplicated physicality of paint itself. We spot a glimmer of hope that ‘the sensuous and the meaningful can here for once be fused into an indissoluble unit,’ as Ernst Gombrich (1996: 453) writes of the Greek awakening to the expressiveness of the human form. The spectator can expect to discover, with enough patience and attention, what the artist hoped to convey, by viewing the picture itself. The painting reveals, after all, the way in which the artist worked. If we acknowledged this, rather than fumbling for written explanations of paintings, we would come a long way in restoring dignity to painting as a carrier of meaning.

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The spectator, in turn, must bring something to the painting in order to grasp its meaning, though not in the sense of permitting a plurality of meanings, nor in the institution-dependent sense of being thoroughly educated in art history or appealing to authorities. The ‘sensitive’ and ‘informed’ spectator brings, rather, certain fundamental perceptual capacities, on Wollheim’s (1987: 45) account, and there are three:

  1. Seeing-in

  2. Expressive perception

  3. The capacity to experience visual delight.

Wollheim is a delightfully thorough writer: he is strict on his terms and takes the time to develop each of them fully, probing their weak spots and plugging them with logically necessary qualifications. One must not be deterred by his terms: though precise, they are not as difficult as their rigidity makes them appear. I am so taken with his explanations of the above three capacities that I intend to devote far more attention to them in dedicated essays. For now, let us introduce them, keeping his broader system in view.

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By seeing-in, or twofoldness, Wollheim (1987: 46) means the very remarkable yet familiar experience of being aware of a surface but at the same time seeing something in it. This is, I contend, one of the most important aspects of a painting: it is not merely an image, nor do we desire to be completely drawn into some illusion of reality. The physicality of paintings stands ever at the fore. The very paint is seductive and never quite escapes our view, whatever image we see. Wollheim (1987: 46; 71) calls seeing-in a ‘distinct kind of perception’ upon which representation depends. The spectator, then, should notice both the paint and what is represented in paint, and see that both play a role in the meaning of a painting.

Emotion, that slippery aspect that ever eludes language but seems to be the particular strength—and perhaps even point of—art, enters with expressive perception. We know from experience that we are able to look at a painting and see it as depicting an emotion, and it is simply this ‘species of seeing’ that Wollheim (1987: 80) wants to capture with this term. He (Wollheim 1987:80) believes that because it is a genuine species of seeing, ‘it is capable of grounding a distinctive variety of pictorial meaning.’ What is attractive about this account is that it tries to establish the emotional content of a painting as a credible part of the meaning of the painting. The spectator must be attentive to it, and able to follow the painter’s cues, which may be far more complex than symbols.

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The artist relies on the sensitive and informed spectator to bring a certain ‘cognitive stock’ to the painting in order to uncover its meaning, particularly some information about how it came to be made. But, Wollheim (1987: 89) emphasises, this information should be embedded by the artist in the painting itself. ‘What is invariably irrelevant,’ he (Wollheim 1987: 95) writes, ‘is some rule or convention that takes us from what is perceptible to some hidden meaning: in the way in which, say, a rule of language would.’ This information only gives itself up slowly, with long and attentive deliberation, and perhaps a familiarity with the larger body of the artist’s work. ‘Often careful, sensitive, and generally informed, scrutiny of the painting will extract from it the very information that is needed to understand it’ (Wollheim 1987: 89).

Lastly, the artist demands of the spectator the ability to experience pleasure in his encounter with art. Pleasure does not simply come from subject matter, Wollheim (1987: 98-99) argues, but rather from the way the artist carefully controls the spectator’s propensity to see the emotional character she has laid over an otherwise recognisable, and perhaps utterly ordinary image. Without the capacity for visual delight—which the artist is bursting to transmit—the spectator would remain unmoved by painting; an impenetrable barrier would ever stand between him and the appreciation of paintings, their meaning would ever elude him.

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Wollheim’s Painting as an Art is dense but rewarding: his search for meaning within the painting itself, driven by the intention of an artist with something to express, not only restores dignity to the distinctly visual nature of painting, but does so without recourse to language or its associated symbols, conventions and syntaxes, which he considers an unfortunate and ‘ill-considered analogy’ (Wollheim 1987: 181). Ever reminding us of the limitations of such an analogy, Wollheim offers instead a persuasively thorough conception of meaning in painting that I find well worth deeper consideration. This continual return to the painting itself is just the sort of philosophical system that seems to allow for a breed of objectivity to surface. And this is a path through the murky forest of aesthetics which I should like to go down.

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Gombrich, E. H., and Richard Woodfield. 1996. The Essential Gombrich: Selected Writings on Art and Culture. London: Phaidon Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1969. ‘The aesthetics of silence.’ In Styles of radical will.

Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. 1. publ. London: Thames and Hudson.

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The work of art

Der Brief / The letter (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Der Brief / The letter (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Paul Ziff casts a penetrating eye over the term ‘work of art.’ Rather than trying to define it, he considers why we find it so difficult to define, and why we end up having irresolvable disputes over what is and isn’t art (Ziff 1967: 21). He offers two grounds for variation. Probably most significantly, he argues that art itself is not eternal, that it is historically situated, that it is ever changing. Besides this, the term ‘work of art’ is used in many different ways in our actual parlance, and not incorrectly. There is the tricky fact that the term ‘work of art’ encompasses different kinds of art, such as music and literature and poetry, and thus applies in different senses to very different works—across a whole spectrum of objects and non-objects.

Steinl

Ziff (1967: 23), like Wittgenstein, by whom he was influenced, is ever keen to observe and describe how we actually do use words, and finds that ‘there are many uses of the phrase “work of art.”’ However, this does not mean that the word should be used more narrowly, or that we are being indiscriminate to use it so broadly. To illustrate, Ziff sets up a list of characteristics which would establish a painting by Poussin to be a clear-cut, characteristic case of a work of art, in the same way we might be able to present someone with a clear-cut, characteristic case of a table, in order to define the term ‘table.’ These characteristics include ‘it is a painting,’ and ‘it was made … deliberately and self-consciously with obvious skill and care, by Nicolas Poussin.’

Ziff (1967: 27) is at pains to make clear that these characteristics do no more than ‘provide us with a set of sufficient conditions for something’s being a work of art.’ But something that possesses only some of the characteristics might still be a work of art—for this is not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. For a start, many works of art are not paintings at all. Ziff (1967: 32) suggests that we might establish many such adequate sets of characteristics, and that each ‘is analogous in composition to every other set’—the sets applying to poems, novels, musical compositions and the like. We have to accept that we mean this term in many different senses.

It is possible that there is something common to all works of art—some necessary condition—which is exactly where Richard Wollheim begins his investigations in aesthetics. ‘For are we not overlooking the possibility,’ surmises Wollheim (1996: 2), ‘that the various particular answers to the questions What is a poem?, a painting?, etc., may, when they come, turn out to have something or even a great deal in common, in that the things they define or describe (i.e. works of art in their kinds) have many shared properties?’ But for now, let’s be content with the idea that there are different kinds of works of art, and our term is malleable enough to bridge our manifold use of it, which is one difficulty in drawing up a definition.

Circle hats

More interestingly for painting, and echoing Ernst Gombrich, Ziff points to the changing nature of works of art themselves throughout history. Even those hostile to the seismic shifts of the twentieth century are likely positively disposed towards the idea of innovation, of technical breakthroughs—of discoveries like linear perspective, of contributing something to the body of knowledge of painting. These ‘movements in history,’ as Gombrich (1996: 434-5) refers to them, whether we like to think of them as progress or not, are difficult for the artist to ignore or go back on: even ‘a slight improvement … makes earlier methods look first old-fashioned and soon ridiculous.’ But in a more guarded way, we might say that each time a painter made an influential and lasting discovery, ‘the tradition was … extended,’ and, clarifies Ziff (1967: 36), ‘this is merely another way of saying that there was some shift in the notion of a work of art.’

So the things that artists produce—works of art—vary over time: Ziff categorises these changes as changes of both ends and means. And the ends and means are correlated, he continues, and feed into each other. ‘With the development of new means there will be new ends that can be served, and with the appearance of new ends, new means will have to be developed to serve them’ (Ziff 1967: 45). Our term ‘work of art’ also has to cope with the varying nature of art.

The ends that Ziff brings to our attention are the purposes and aims of art, its functions in society, its role. It is this that, as Gombrich (1972) explicates in the buoyant and lively Story of Art, varies through history. ‘As the character of the society changes, the role of art in the society may also change’ (Ziff 1967: 39). But not only has the role varied: by extension, ‘the social consequences and implications of something’s being a work of art have varied in time, and no doubt they will continue to do so’ (Ziff 1967: 39).

Rubens ladies

And here we arrive at the disagreements over the ‘work of art’ between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ critics. Of course, Ziff grants, the two camps disagreed about the characteristics of a work of art. But Ziff (1967: 40, 42) asserts that the major disagreements between them arose from the role or roles of a work of art—what these roles are or ought to be. And this, as we have considered, is not easy to settle. The ends, purposes, roles, have been shifting since the dawn of art.

But interestingly, the traditional and the modern critics ‘agreed both in their desires and in their expectations with regard to the characteristic social consequences and implications of something’s being considered a work of art’ (Ziff 1967: 40). This mainly involves them being displayed in galleries, discussed, having books written and read about them. What was (and is) contested is rather which works of art should or do fulfill these social consequences.

Klinger

Which is to say: it does no good to say that your rival is not making works of art, in order to achieve the generally desired social consequences of eternal glory and validation of having your own works hung in galleries and discussed and written and read about instead of theirs. Defining the ‘work of art’ once and for all will not put an end to disputes about which works deserve such recognition. For the task of defining a work of art is a devilishly difficult one that must account for two sliding scales: the fact that works of art are both manifold and varying. Ziff’s (1967: 46) best answer is that as ends and means tug at each other, we will have to adapt our definitions on the fly: ‘It may and most likely will be necessary to revise our definition of a work of art.’

Van Dyck

 

Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The Essential Gombrich: Selected Writings on Art and Culture. Edited by Richard Woodfield. London: Phaidon.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.

Wollheim, Richard. 1996. Art and Its Objects: With Six Supplementary Essays. Reprinted 2. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ziff, Paul. 1967. Philosophic Turnings: Essays in Conceptual Appreciation. 2.print. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UnivPress.

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Scholars & Painters

Adèle

At last I begin to pull the threads of my life together—to pare back the things that distract me, to braid my core pursuits together into one strong cord. Each sphere of my life centres around art in some manner: I have indeed run away to Europe to be a painter; I am deeply embedded in the sketch groups we have nurtured in Vienna, even extending my involvement to teaching drawing, and I am beginning to find my way in the University of Vienna as a philosophy doctoral candidate, wrapping my brain around some aesthetic ideas that have their roots in very old Germanic thought. And, of course, I have a circle of young and agile minds around me, constantly charging my head with new and difficult ideas. I couldn’t imagine a more practically, intellectually and socially demanding and satisfying way of life.

Universität Wien

Universität Wien

When I think of these circles, through which I move so fluidly, I realise that the divide between the scholarly and the artistic can be unexpectedly deep. I see the thinkers’ mistrust of painters’ visual ideas, and I see the painters’ discomfort at others intellectualising their field. At best, the intellectuals graciously entertain thought experiments, but perhaps fail to appreciate aspects best approached by doing, if not denying them entirely. The painters, meanwhile, either quickly become intimidated, boasting loudly about a non-academic book they’ve read or bowing to any thinker who uses big words, or shunning anything that reeks of intellectualism. This disconnect seems alarming at first.

aestheticsclub

(c) Sasa

But when a painter friend, confronted with an aesthetic idea, felt the need to defend himself, it became much clearer to me. ‘Painting is breathing,’ he said simply, his open hands revealing his sense of explanatory inadequacy. Painters presume that scholarship establishes some kind of framework, a justification for painting. Painters themselves usually don’t have a rigorous theoretical conception of painting, they are simply compelled to paint. And those that seek to find one sometimes spiral into impenetrable written treatises whose ability to improve, support or defend their practical work is deeply questionable. But perhaps this burden doesn’t really exist. No painter should feel threatened by a scholar of aesthetics, or feel that their work is incomplete without theory. Painters and scholars are simply not at all aiming at the same thing.

(c) Sasa

(c) Sasa

Hermann Weyl (1968: 631), the German mathematician, physicist and philosopher, makes an illuminating distinction between Erkenntnis and Besinnung:

‘Im geistigen Leben des Menschen sondern sich deutlich voneinander ein Bereich des Handelns, der Gestaltung, der Konstruktion auf der einen Seite, dem der tätige Künstler, Wissenschaftler, Techniker, Staatsmann hingegeben ist und der im Gebiete der Wissenschaft unter der Norm der Objektivität steht—und ein Bereich der Besinnung auf der andern Seite, die in Einsichten sich vollzieht und die, als Ringen um den Sinn unseres Handelns, als die eigentliche Domäne des Philosophen anzusehen ist.’

[‘In the human mental life there is rather—clearly distinguishable from one another—a region of actions, creation, construction on one side; that which is given to the active artist, scientist, technician, statesman and that which stands in the domain of science under the norm of objectivity—and a region of reflection on the other side, that takes place in insights and that, as rings around the sense of our actions, is to be seen as the actual domain of philosophers.’]

According to Weyl (and very sensibly, I would suggest), the activities of the philosopher, while posing questions which stem from art or any other human endeavour, are of an altogether different nature than the practical activities themselves. While it orbits around the practice of art, it does not so much support it as probe it, test it, inspect it, challenge it, ponder the nature of it. Philosophy of art as Besinnung, as a contemplative reflection on what art is and what role it plays, is a very different thing from the Erkenntnis, the technical knowledge, that painters cultivate. Philosophers unearth puzzles about the nature of beauty, of sensations, of the role of art, of its ethical import. They try to make sense of the commonalities among the arts, the significance of objects, what ‘style’ could mean, what types of meaning exist in paintings and whether the painting or the painter is self-reflexive. These endlessly fascinating puzzles emerge from the nature of painting, but to be a better painter, one must concentrate on how to mix paints and how to stick them to a surface.

bibliothek

The painter, by contrast, busies herself with visual problems: problems of space and depth, of volume and design, of edges and atmosphere, of the translation of ideas into a physical substance. She grapples with the aesthetic experiences themselves: the intense sensations and emotions and how to record them, how to ignite them in others, how to use a humble physical medium to stir something less rational than the intellect.

These aims, however divorced, need not be antagonistic. Philosophy need not be inaccessible: aesthetic ideas can be expressed clearly and generously. And perhaps philosophical insights, while not justifying painting, or dictating the way in which it should go, can open new avenues for thoughtful painters, or help clarify the nebulous thoughts already hovering in their minds. I only hope that as a painter myself, my philosophical investigations will remain grounded and intelligible because of my honest contact with painting itself. But I seek not to justify painting—only to obsess over it in another manner.

uniwien2

Weyl, Hermann. 1968. ‘Erkenntnis Und Besinnung (Ein Lebensrückblick)’. In Gesmmelte Abhandlungen IV, 631–49. Berlin: Springer.

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Painter virtues

Selbstbildnis als Philosophin / Self portrait as philosopher (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Selbstbildnis als Philosophin / Self portrait as philosopher (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Painter virtues stray a little from those of ordinary people. I have been devotedly following in the footsteps of a very dear painter who perhaps doesn’t realise how firmly astute he is, how perfectly disciplined he is, how resolutely he holds onto the very virtues that divorce him somewhat from the rest of the world, but that render him as sharp and penetrating as a painter may be. He leads by example, by folding me into his tranquil space, and I lose the impulse to write, and succumb to the all-consuming desire to paint.

And I paint slowly, as I always have. When I retreat into the realm of vision, I permit myself to tread carefully, sagaciously, deliberately. There are many pauses, there is much stepping back, sitting down, daydreaming. As an unobtrusive presence in Ryan’s studio, since the early days, I observed that there is at least as much idleness as activity involved in painting. One must devote a lot of time to looking and evaluating. There is a moment when you realise you are able to paint much faster than you normally do. And then you realise that the slowness is an integral part of your work, making room for ordered thoughts. Rilke observed the same unhurried attention in Rodin, in his beautiful little book on the sculptor. ‘‘Man muß sich nicht eilen’, sagte Rodin den wenigen Freunden, die um ihn waren, wenn sie ihn drängten. (Rilke 1942: 14). ‘‘One mustn’t hurry,’ said Rodin to the few friends who were around him, if they pressed him.’

da vinci

The breaks stretch out languidly as the afternoon sun yawns and stretches deep into my studio, and sometimes books steal my attention. And not even in a scholarly way, but in a guilty, indulgent way. This is the best kind of reading, and probably the deepest well of ideas. I think of Käthe Kollwitz with her Goethe, of both Delacroix and Rodin with their Dante. These writers who lodged deep inside the hearts of those painters and ever held the power to renew their weary minds and reinvigorate their work. It can hardly be surprising that Rilke, a poet, would apprentice himself to a sculptor, when that sculptor maintained a lifelong apprenticeship to a poet. Rilke (1942: 18-19) recounts of Rodin that ‘Er las viel. Man war gewohnt, ihn in Brüssels Straßen immer mit einem Buch in der Hand zu sehen, aber vielleicht war dieses Buch oft nur ein Vorwand für das Vertieftsein in sich selbst, in die ungeheuere Aufgabe, die ihm bevorstand.’ ‘He read a great deal. One was accustomed to seeing him in the streets of Brussels ever with a book in his hand, but perhaps this book was often only a front for being absorbed in himself, in the immense task hanging over him.’

giorgione

Rilke suggests that all this reading enables the reader to inhabit the ideas well before one turns to clay or paint or copper plate. Books that really awaken the mind and animate personalities, archetypes, heroes and monsters, do much of the work in our idle, daydreamy hours before we begin to work. Rodin’s mind was fertilised by Dante and Baudelaire: ‘Seit jenen Tagen blieben diese beiden Dichter ihm immer nah, er dachte über sie hinaus und kehrte zu ihnen zurück. … Später, als er als Schaffender diese Stoffkreise wieder berührte, da stiegen ihre Gestalten wie Erinnerungen aus seinem eigenen Leben, weh und wirklich, in ihm auf und gingen in sein Werk wie in eine Heimat ein’ (Rilke 1942: 20) ‘Since those days, both these poets remained ever near him, he also thought about them and returned to them. … Later, when he touched on this subject matter again as creator, their forms rose like memories out of his own life, painfully and truly, out from inside him and entering into his work as if into a home.’

bammes

In my mind I see Ryan as a figure deeply absorbed in his sketchbook. I never knew another person to love drawing as deeply as he does; I’ve never witnessed such simple and honest devotion to drawing. One can talk about drawing forever; Ryan disappears wordlessly into his sketchbook and enters another universe. Should the sea turn to paper, I fear it wouldn’t satiate his urge to draw. I’ve come to learn that only the act of drawing proves my love of it. And I’ve come to realise what an indispensible support this act is. How steadying it is, how each hatched line helps sift a thought until my head grows clear again. Drawing is an act that restores balance; to think of it merely as a preparatory work is to undermine the pivotal position it plays in our lives. Everything turns on it. It loosens the mind and weaves it back together in an orderly way. A visible amble across the page; a scribed daydream.

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Again and again I defend the use of my time: time spent reading, drawing, looking is never wasted. The painter can never apologise for her idleness. She needs, above all, a clear head, and that clarity is only reachable with ample time and space to follow every thought without the pressure to produce. Our practices are often compared to—or sometimes explicitly linked with—meditation, but I think this is a false connection. The painter’s focused and penetrating dissection of the world, grounded in observation, carried by a heightened alertness, inescapably chases after meaning and order, not the sort of egoless abandonment of thought prized by meditation. The painter rather invites a thousand times the stimuli of an ordinary person, and takes the time to sift them for gold, reviewing them one by one, delighting in them, arranging them in meaningful ways.

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This delight cannot be overestimated. As I travel on long, winding roads through the Czech Republic, I indulge in the visual feast that unfolds—unfurling hills and forests and rivers melting in and out of each other, and the light that shifts in hue and angle as hours pile upon hours. I feel like I could explode when I see the blue-grey clouds against the golden sky in the mist of a light rain. I see that Ryan is equally absorbed in the neutral blue of the shadowy trees that back on to grass bathed in an unearthly yellow by the oblique evening sun. It’s then I realise what motivates us: we seek not to reproduce pleasant scenes, but to reproduce the staggering wonder at the visual relationships we stumble upon in the real world. Sometimes something as simple as the shocking harmony between two colours captivates us, and it is this delight that we are driven to transmit, more than anything else. ‘Look!’ we cry, stabbing our canvas with the brush, ‘Look how excellent the world is!’

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These small visual treats furnish us with small tasks, and that is also enough. Rilke (1942: 17) writes of Rodin that ‘Seine Kunst baute sich nicht auf eine große Idee auf, sondern auf eine kleine gewissenhafte Verwirklichung, auf das Erreichbare, auf ein Können.’ ‘His art did not build itself on a grand idea, but rather on a small, diligent attainment, on the achievable, on a ‘can.’’ The grandeur grows out of the mastery of the small things; the big ideas emerge from the tumble of small delights rolling together and gathering momentum. Ryan’s comments, as he devours every mark of my painting, always lean towards the subtle treatments that most people overlook. ‘This is so subtle’ has come to resound as the highest praise as he deftly picks out the intricate decisions that most captivated me as I worked.

Claudia

Our preoccupation with such small observations might make us feel we are getting left behind, that we are perpetual beginners, but this humility is the door to learning. Our inexpert trials and ill-conceived experiments, our genuine curiosity means many abortive paintings, some even dead-ends, as we try to instate order in our work. It can be lonely, and when people do speak with us, they miss the point of our efforts, they fail to see the driving impulse and the exploratory thread that weaves through our work. Rodin was rejected by the public for a long time, and when he emerged from his solitude, fully formed, he had already put himself through every test: ‘Jahre und Jahre ging Rodin auf den Wegen dieses Lebens als ein Lernender und Demütiger, der sich als Anfänger fühlte. Niemand wußte von seinen Versuchen, er hatte keinen Vertrauten und wenig Freunde’ (Rilke 1942: 18). ‘For years and years Rodin went along the roads of this life as a humble learner, as one who felt himself a beginner. No one knew of his attempts, he had no confidants and few friends.’ This is a double virtue: we can take our apprentice status and couple it with the sobering solitude that buys us more time to become. And the fruit of this lonely, self-testing time is an unshakeable confidence in ourselves, in our work, in every tiny detail of our approach. ‘Da, als man anfing, an ihm zu zweifeln, hatte er keinen Zweifel mehr an sich selbst. … In der Zeit, als er wurde, klang keine fremde Stimme zu ihm, kein Lob, das ihn hätte irre machen, kein Tadel, der ihn hätte verwirren können’ (Rilke 1942: 21). ‘Because, as one began to doubt him, he had no more doubt in himself. … In the time when he was becoming, no foreign voice sounded about him, no praise that would have led him into error, no reproach that could have confused him.’

We cannot forget the point of our painterly values, so at odds with the world of outcomes and products and services and profits and efficiency. As with any virtue ethics, we chase after excellence. Excellence as humans and excellence in our work. However we exist in the world and whatever we leave behind in it, let’s hope that everything glows with that unmistakeable sheen. I smile with satisfaction when I hear Ryan say again and again, ‘I’m sorry it’s not perfect.’ We will slow down and look and consider and try again until it is.

centaur

 

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1942. Auguste Rodin. Leipzig: Insel.

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A dialogue

Erdbergstraße © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Erdbergstraße © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I find the metaphor of language to be very illuminating when talking about painting. Of course pictures do not communicate with us in the direct and specific way that words do. But the visual realm affords a certain kind of exchange: some form of expression on the part of the artist, and some form of inner response on the part of the viewer. We can think of this exchange as a manner of communication, and the medium as a language. A visual language might extend our toolbox, allowing us to say something about emotion, for example, with a force or clarity that words might lack: Wittgenstein (1966: 1) reminds us that ‘I have often compared language to a tool chest, containing a hammer, chisel, matches, nails, screws, glue. It is not a chance that all these things have been put together—but there are important differences between the different tools.’

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Painters take up the tools of the visual language, but before they ever try to say something with this language to another person, they use it to arrange their thoughts. They think through the medium of paint, and their thoughts are of a corresponding nature—such thoughts are not readily thought in words. ‘Art itself becomes the innovator’s instrument for probing reality,’ as Gombrich (1959: 274) aptly describes it.

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The truly thoughtful painter is an experimenter: she tries new combinations, she feels her way in paint until she finds what works. ‘There is no way of finding out,’ writes Gombrich (1959: 279), ‘except by trial and error, in other words, through painting.’ Successful experiments open doors to innovation: genuine discoveries that grow the language. But this growth, as it must be in verbal language, is something closer to a rearrangement, a small adjustment, rather than a dramatic break. ‘Language grows by introducing new words,’ observes Gombrich (1959: 274), ‘but a language consisting only of new words and a new syntax would be indistinguishable from gibberish.’ This gentle adjustment of the visual language through experiment reminds me of Wittgenstein’s assertion that ‘the problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.’

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Language as a metaphor helps emphasise the deliberateness of experimentation in paint. As Gombrich (1959: 274) writes, ‘The systematic explorer can afford less than anyone else to rely on random actions. He cannot just splash colours about to see what happens, for even if he should like the effect he could never repeat it.’ The shadowy threat of silence hangs over chance discoveries: perhaps the discovery is so far removed from the current dialogue that no one understands it. The painter who really wants to use paint to ‘speak’ with others must be generous enough not to completely break her connection with the viewer.

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But from the other side, the viewer must work to follow the painter’s cues and make an effort to learn the ever-growing visual ‘vocabulary.’ I think it is at this point that we begin to be troubled by the idea of subjectivity in painting. When someone looks at a painting and hears only silence, he would rather blame the painter’s self-absorption than his own inadequacy with the language. But the painter might say of her painting as Wittgenstein says of his writing (1953: x), ‘I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.’

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Speaking of a visual language helps us be clear that the painter is deliberately emerging from the silence and attempting to engage another person in a dialogue. She brings new insights, distilled and eloquently articulated thoughts, and even variations on the language into the discussion, for she is an author in that language. She is an expert in the orchestration of that language. But the viewer, like a well-versed reader, must be ready to receive such ‘literature,’ he must know enough to understand the core of it, and be willing to actively work to grasp the rest. As he absorbs the developments into his understanding, the dialogue continues, the language grows. The apparent subjectivity of the work dissolves as painter and viewer mutually advance the language.

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Gombrich (1959: 275) is quite right to say that ‘the assertion of subjectivity can be overdone.’ He uses the Impressionists as an example. Their genuine visual discovery that the world might be seen in terms of flecks of light was initially met with great resistance. The public found this reframing of the visible world ‘hard to read and hard to accept because it had not yet been trained to interpret these new combinations in terms of the visible world’ (Gombrich 1959: 275). This resistance is now hard to imagine, the Impressionists now being so dearly loved by so many, but that is precisely because, having learned this vocabulary, having turned it upon the physical world, we have found this visual description in fact very apt, and very pleasing.

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Framed in this way, subjectivity need not enter into painting at all. A dialogue has two sides, and though the speaker may ask extra of the listener through her incremental experiments, the listener can be richly rewarded for tasking himself with learning the language and trying to keep up.

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Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and illusion. Phaidon: London.

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

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1966. Lectures and conversations on aesthetics, psychology and religious belief. Ed. Cyril Barrett. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

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Stille

Pflaumen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Pflaumen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

There have always been things too profound to express, and humanity has always sought ways to grapple with these elusive, ineffable thoughts. Whether through religion, philosophy or art, we have spent sleepless nights labouring over the questions we cannot quite articulate, the chains of reasoning we cannot quite lay out systematically, the conclusions which evade us as fog resists our grasp. Wittgenstein (in Sontag 1969: XII) says that ‘everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said at all can be said clearly. But not everything that can be thought can be said.’

And so, argues Susan Sontag (1969: XIII), ‘the artist issues his own call for a revision of language.’ The artist invites—‘administers,’ even—silence. The artist acts in the face of ‘the habits of lifeless, static verbalisation, presenting models of “sensual speech”.’ So much is said, and yet so little gained by this cacophony. And so much more is lost: for all our eloquence, our senses are blunted. With painful accuracy, Sontag (1969: XIII) writes: ‘We lack words, and we have too many of them.’ Words fail to get at what we really want to illuminate: they prove themselves crude, but in their desperately mounting explanations and arguments they bathe us in an unbearable busyness, ‘inviting a hyperactivity of consciousness … which actively deadens the mind and blunts the senses.’

Birnen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Birnen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The artist, unsurprisingly, cowers from this chatter. The serious artist, Sontag (1969: II) suggests, ‘is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate.’ The artist, living more fully in his body, thinking in sensory experiences more than in verbal ideas, is not retreating solely to contemplate, nor to ready himself to explain himself. He really stands at the edge of the abyss, desperate to plunge himself into silence. ‘For, to be a victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a further sense, superior to everyone else. It suggests that the artist has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, as well as that he possesses stronger nerves and higher standards of excellence.’

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Yet silence need not consume us completely. According to Sontag (1969: XV), Rilke considers it enough ‘to cut back drastically the scope and use of language.’ Similarly, she (1969: XIII) describes Mallarmé’s intention to use words—poetry—‘to clean up our word-clogged reality—by creating silences around things.’ Silence both implies and demands its opposite, and that calls on the artist to produce something dialectical: to participate in a dialogue, even if his role is to punctuate that dialogue with silences.

silence speech silence

 

For what precedes words, and what follows them, but silence? Sontag (1969: XIII) explains, ‘Silence, then, is both the precondition of speech, and the result or aim of properly directed speech.’ The artist sandwiches speech with his wordless meditations, guiding avid speakers through quiet milieux. ‘The efficacious artwork leaves silence in its wake,’ just as Wittgenstein considered his Tractatus a ladder to be climbed and cast aside with the attainment of understanding; just as he abandoned philosophy after producing this work and turned to humble menial labour in Vienna. The yawning silence that Wittgenstein left behind him was not a disavowal of everything he had said; rather, his work had been a sort of deliverance (Sontag 1969: II). The artist does not search for his voice, his message, his marketable style: he seeks closure, the stillness of silence, and his work is the only means he has to reach this delicious promised land.

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In smaller doses, silence provides some relief from the continuous barrage of speech. It makes room for thought—for its prolongation, extension; for exploring the hidden alleys and backstreets of thought that we’d otherwise avoid. Because, ‘notably, speech closes off thought’ (Sontag, 1969: XIII). But used deliberately in speech, silence brings gravity and solemnity to words. It slows their burbling pace and lends dignity to them: ‘when punctuated by long silences, words weigh more; they become almost palpable.’ And we ourselves become more palpable to ourselves, we become more aware of our bodies: ‘when one talks less, one starts feeling more fully one’s physical presence in a given space.’

Art—painting, perhaps literature, poetry, music, at the very least—takes up the lofty aims of philosophy and religion to clear our heads, to touch something difficult to reach, to slow the rush of businesslike verbal exchange. For even ‘language can be employed to check language, to express muteness’ (Sontag 1969: XIII). But my beloved painting and drawing stand in a firmly wordless domain, resisting thorough explanation and description, demanding but to be seen, tugging at the senses. And they remain painfully, infuriatingly, resolutely silent in the face of words, warring against words in their reclamation of the body, of the senses. Sontag’s (1969: XIII) rallying cry defends this retreat: ‘Art must mount a full-scale attack on language itself, by means of language and its surrogates, on behalf of the standard of silence.’

For Ryan.

Kürbisse © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Kürbisse © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Sontag, Susan. 1969. ‘The aesthetics of silence.’ In Styles of radical will.

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Habit and curiosity

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

There is an inherent tension between a painter’s sensory encounters with the world and her own habits. As I push myself to paint and draw with increasing intensity, I am driven by conflicting impulses to improve and to investigate. Improvement requires repetition and practice, but investigation tends to tear down all this dedicated work. My understanding and my repertoire broaden and deepen with investigation, but my improvement stagnates, or worse, everything I was so anxiously holding together comes completely undone.

Steffi drawing

In moments of doubt, I return to trusty Robert Nelson (2010: 121), who reassures me, ‘We all have habits.’ In his judicious way, he writes that habits have their advantages and disadvantages. Hard-earned habits through which we have assimilated knowledge ‘are at the root of our fluency, our readiness, our comfort in tackling the lofty task of representation by the senses and the hand’ (2010: 121). Without such dependable tools, we would face each new picture completely disarmed, unprepared and overwhelmed at the formidable task before us. And these tools, once acquired, need maintenance, and permit refinement, and generally positively benefit from regular and sustained attention.

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

My attention has turned rather feverishly toward copying: with religious zeal I am flooding pages and pages of my sketchbook with wholly unoriginal drawings; copies of old master paintings, copies of anatomy drawings. It can be a very passive way to draw: the burden of having an original idea or making an original investigation is gently taken away from me. It could yet be investigative—with due concentration, I could, through such copies, begin to unpack the decisions of the artists who produced the originals. And sometimes I do. But sometimes I just copy, pleasantly pulling my pencil across the page, enjoying the motion, and daydreaming a bit. This pleasure drawing has its advantages: the habit of going to the gallery, of plunging into the anatomy book, means I give time to some form of drawing with dedicated regularity. And each time I start, there is the possibility that my brain will actively engage. The act itself, begun unthinkingly, can trigger thought.

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

But as I practice and practice, investing in my favoured media, becoming more accustomed to their limitations (and my own), I fall into patterns of working, and the patterns lead to ruts and their accompanying frustration. What looks like fluency and adeptness and confidence to outsiders actually feels like being stuck. Showmanship can get in the way of honest engagement with the physical world, and instead of turning afresh to sensory experience we rely on mechanistic motions. ‘By and large,’ writes Nelson (2010: 130), ‘a mechanical application of directional gestures is about superficially looking flash or stylistically sophisticated, or emotionally confident, or artistically full of panache and bravura rather than serving exploration and curiosity.’

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

And so despite the benefits and even necessity of forming (hopefully good) habits, Nelson cautions the painter against a ‘mechanistic’ approach, a mindless, formula-driven mode of working that crowds out the possibility of active picture-making. ‘Making art from habit,’ he writes (2010: 121), ‘has questionable consequences.’ For we are not simply producing polished products, little one-man factories. We are constructing pictures by means of a certain kind of logic: an organic, integrative logic that brings together all of the knowledge we have collected about tone and colour and gesture and space and texture and so on (2010: 117; 124). Though we can separate out each element and map out distinct stages of a painting through time, the most thoughtful pictures are those that weave everything together, and this unity, argues Nelson, has its origin in the sensory experience, and not in well-oiled mechanistic habits. ‘All of the painting is about building, constructing forms, constructing spatial relationships and constructing rapports in colour; and these are integral to looking, seeing, remembering and imagining’ (2010: 124).

‘The painting conceived in this way replicates, on a somewhat clumsy and grandiose scale, the process of perception itself, constantly gauging relationships and skipping all over the field in order to assess the spatial calibre of what is observed.’ (2010: 122-3)

Such alertness means we have to sacrifice some of our hard-won ability. Confronted with a real subject, with differing light conditions, with the air shimmering at the horizons of the forms, with compositionally compelling shapes that compete with descriptive and meaty forms, we find our assortment of tools to be lacking. What served us well in countless previous situations is not up to the task at hand. The world is ever lavishing new sensory experiences upon us, and the genuinely curious painter responds to the experience, indulges his senses, rather than repeating his well-rehearsed performance.

American girl

And this is the tightrope we walk: trying to furnish ourselves with tuned and ready instruments that are fit for the sensory experiences we are constantly greeted by, but remaining open to those experiences, adaptive, and seriously investigating them. It’s no good to throw away what we’ve learned and start from zero every time, but we must also open our eyes and engage our brains. Nelson (2010: 129), ever eloquent, describes the clash of habits entrenched in the body and the inquisitive encounter with the world thus:

‘The brush is constantly invoking the seen: it requires a certain nerve, a zeal for finding out what is perceived or imaginatively solicited and then for correcting what is conjectured. Unless somehow designed with a Platonic conceptual remove, it is all chop and change at a sensory and intellectual level. Add to that the co-ordination of the hand by impulses, the way that the process draws upon the muscles and uses the body: it demands a stance before the canvas and a rhythm of subliminal choreographic vibrations.’

It would be foolish to be dogmatic about either emphasis, for both are crucial. Each destroys the other, but only to rebuild it more firmly, and more enmeshed with the other.

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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