Just trying to say it right

The struggle (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

There are few people who can both write about art and produce it. I have been cautioned against attempting the superhuman feat of doing both. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of impassioned but mutilated thought that has been scribbled down, and a lot of cleverly strung together ruminations that entirely miss the point of the artwork in question. Regrettably, frenzied vehemence and smooth yet detached theorising tend to be accepted as legitimate encounters between art and writing, as though art ought to infect words with its garbled passions, and as though crystalline categorisations really said the whole of what is to be said about art. An honest, steady, thoughtful middle ground is difficult to attain, but it is this gravity and lucidity that Susan Sontag manages to achieve in her essays on film, theatre and literature. Against Interpretation and Other Essays thrusts us deep into the works in question, considering them, as it were, from the inside. Sontag is both artist and thinker: author and critic; able to love and to measure, to experience and to judge.

The essay. Perhaps, itself, a dying artform. It is easy to dash off an article, a commentary, a review, some quick thoughts, or a summary. But to engage with ideas–whether they emerge from books or paintings or elsewhere–involves something more. It involves a cohesive train of thought, an argument, an insight, a real willingness to enter a zone of intellectual conflict. In the case of writing about art, the essay is a knife, sharpened for the express purpose of permeating the flesh of the artwork to get at what is inside, to taste it, to judge it, to display its qualities for what they are. Perhaps things were ever as dire as they seem to be now: but writing about art, if at all penetrable, is so often vapid promotional cotton candy; sugary teasers that are little more than loosely-clad advertising, slick and professional, treading lightly so as not to crush any toes.

As for myself: Perhaps you have traced my artistic education, observing my first tentative steps into the world of painting, as I respectfully recounted it online. I kept my eyes open, I exposed myself to many things. I thought fiercely and critically about all of it–all of it–I agonised over the disappointments, the ineptitude, the obtuseness, the deception, the sheer ignorance. I think one does not improve unless one learns to discover faults, and can explain why they are faults, and propose ways of addressing them. As an artist, I kept these considerations to myself and applied them in practice. But in writing about art, I maintained a certain reverence. I made a conscious choice to be just, but positive: to focus on the best things.

Copy after Klinger

A curious but probably predictable thing came from this: I was plagiarised. My thoughts found themselves rehashed, sloppily restitched and dimly cited in monstrous word-spaghetti that no longer conveyed the original idea, if any at all. I went to exhibitions where my own words were read back to me, translated into German. It made me consider who has these jobs, and why they don’t know what to say about art. Certainly, artists don’t always know how to write about their work, and that’s why they paint it. But if people who are otherwise proficient writers can’t produce a faithful and insightful piece on a work of art, the problem seems to be deeper. They cannot think about art. They stand before a painting in a distracted panic.

But not all of us do. Some of us approach an artwork attentively, quietly, patiently. We take our time with it, revisit it, think on it. Sontag (1966: 12) is not at all incorrect to say that ‘attention to form in art’ is urgently needed. The formal properties–how colour is used, how strokes are applied, linear rhythms and the balance of shapes–might not be the entirety of a painting, but taking them in is surely the place to start. The little ripples of paint will soon chase away the anxiety, drawing us into a silent and timeless realm, inviting us to reflect. Our thoughts will scurry around with the worries and agitations that we hug to ourselves every waking minute, but these, too, will slow down. A painting is a shy creature, but approached through its form, it might let us near it.

Copy after Claudel

Sontag’s essays, as a collection, make me consider the art I encounter and what is being said about it. I have known highly trained painters, self-taught painters, casual painters, designers, illustrators and conceptual artists across the world. Sontag looked fiercely at the world around her, she wrote about the time in which she lived, about America, about Europe. Her essays are not lighthearted, not necessarily short, not lazy Sunday supplements. They are the product of an active and alert mind wrestling with works that stimulate it or disappoint it and unleash a response. Goodwill is no vice, but the critic, the thinker, has work to do, and goodwill must not cloud the public discussion about art. We came to be impressed, to be stirred, to greet grand ideas–when art fails us, it is not we who should be ashamed, apologetically carrying home our embarrassment at the artist’s deficiency like a tail between our legs. Our critical faculties have not failed us. The art is rubbish.

Sontag (1966: 12) demands a kind of criticism that genuinely responds to art, rather than one that ‘usurp[s] its place.’ Words continue to threaten to replace the artwork, but the situation has grown considerably worse: the words are disposable, interchangeable, unilluminating and cheap. Barely able to capture a coherent thought, they could hardly hope to upstage an artwork. The real threat is whether such vacuous feel-good writing blinds us to art entirely, dulling our sensibilities, subduing our objections. The remedy has been around for some fifty years. We need:

‘Acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis.’

(Sontag, 1966: 13)

The conjunction of sharp and loving is surprising but utterly natural. For how can one love a painting without discernment? How can one withhold affection from a painting that satisfies visually and stirs thoughts even in the silent mechanisms of its construction? Sontag (1966: 14) urges us to recover our senses, and that call is no less urgent now. Once we’ve learned to trust our senses, we must also remember to sharpen our judgements of what we perceive: to be fair, incisive and to demonstrate our love for thoughtful, well-crafted art.

Copy after Veronese

Sontag, Susan. 1966. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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J’existe

Rodin, Gates of hell

Confronting Rodin feels like confronting humanity itself. His modelled works, pulsing with the imprints of his fingertips, acceptingly and comfortingly caress the human condition. One senses the impulse to perfection only in the mode of working–in the repetition, the reworking, in the constant search–for the people thus formed are wholeheartedly embraced as they are. They writhe and struggle with life, they sigh and ache and reflect. They stand before us in all their sorry existence, and though melancholy may tug at us, we are not repulsed by their abortive attempts at living. Rodin coaxes them out of the clay with a peaceful acceptance. He observes them tenderly, he heals their wounds by simply permitting them to be as they are.

Rodin, John the Baptist (preaching to the Americans)

They are naked in every sense: utterly vulnerable, entirely exposed to us. But we merge our disarmed selves with them, we suffer with them, and see our sufferings solidified and externalised outside our private reveries. These rooms are peopled with souls acting out every facet of being human; the living bodies that wander among them are temporarily connected by silent and heavy rock.

Rodin, Balzac (in the wild, Paris)

There is a solemn and honest affirmation of personhood here: there are childish faces, gnarled toes and bulging bellies; there are crooked, pursed lips and untamable hair; skin sometimes sags and is sometimes elastic and firm. Legs bow out and take decisive strides–too wide to be elegantly decorative, too full of purpose. Women–devoured by the eyes of silent, captivated men–are sometimes small and hesitant and girlish rather than voluptuous and consciously seductive. We confront ourselves, in all our variety, we find we are desired, nurtured, spurned and ultimately alone–but visible. I exist, and I am a person.

Rodin, Call to arms

How often we seek something from each other, and search each other out wordlessly, grasping after one another with our hands, with our longing eyes, with the full force of our frail bodies, but though tangled up in one another, we glide past each other. The muse clambers over the sculptor, swaying him with the force of her desperation, melting into a single swirling form with him, but he, lost in his private world, dares not touch her, dares not dissolve the vision, dares not seize what he cannot hold.

Claudel, Vertumne & Pomone

Claudel’s sculptures agree: her women are swept along in waltzes, hanging helplessly from their stony partners whose hands avoid fast contact, limply and reluctantly brushing them. One wonders how many of her thumbprints indent the surface of a Rodin, which fingertips are hers and which are his, how fluidly they merged into one hand. Alone, her sculptures begin to fracture. Waves engulf her figures, bitterness pocks their faces. She sees humanity in all its revoltingness; her hands treat it coarsely, contemptuously. It is vile to be human, her aggressive hand assures us, and I may be a woman but I am not delicate. Perhaps the suffering of women is so acute and carefully masked that it is vicious when it seethes out.

Rodin feels, but does not spit on our weaknesses. He exposes them to turn them over gently in his hands, to comfort us, to reassure us. No body is too disgusting, no act too shameful, no thought too secret–we are all made of the same humble dirt.

Rodin, Walking man, Meudon

And that dirt transcends us. We emerge from rock, we gasp helplessly from inside the rock for a heartbeat, and we sink back into it, and so must it be. A woman crouches with an ornamental vase upon her back in a restful piece, but beside her is the more honest version: she carries, in place of the vase, a jagged piece of rock. We carry our rocks or we merge with them–as Eve buries her face in her tree of knowledge all coiled about by her snake in a single rock of inevitability. We face each other as silent half-carved rocks, each on our own private trajectory of decay. Existence is hard, strange and stubborn: let us look at it and take it as it is, and love it anyway.

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Geometry & painting

Adèle (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Importing mathematics into painting has some potentially grand implications. The idea makes me flush with uncontainable excitement; it smacks of Descartes (2006 [1637]: 9) and his methodical approach to knowledge, and I would echo his rationalist sentiment: ‘I was most keen on mathematics, because of its certainty and the incontrovertibility of its proofs.’ This unlikely marriage between mathematics and painting is especially dear to me because it offers something steady and dependable in terms of colour and not merely in terms of drawing; it promises to embrace the entirety of painting with its sober orderliness. This systematisation hardly destroys the poetry of painting. Rather, it allows us to sharpen our technical methods, which equips the genius (of the Kantian flavour) to paint something deeply insightful and moving. And it promises a double elegance: the sight of the painting itself, just like the sounds in music, may please us, and at the same time be grounded in delightfully crisp mathematical relationships, just like the improbable mathematical elegance of harmony in music.

These longings for order and systematisation sound rather like seventeenth-century aspirations to elevate painting to a science, or at least to a liberal art, which has much to do with shedding its humble craft status, as a trade practiced by illiterates. Painting has certainly made many efforts in this direction; it may boast of its academic status now that it is so commonly taught in universities rather than in ateliers, now that it defends itself verbally and indeed often consists more in its verbal conception and explanation than in its visual execution. But perhaps these victories are no victories at all: they strip painting of the very things that distinguish it as painting. Painting might have done better to have sought an intellectual ally in mathematics rather than in language, for there it would have found ways to describe its visual concepts succinctly and precisely.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

This camaraderie is most apparent when it comes to colour. Colour is the rogue that has been seized by painters who want to defy philosophical discourse, and it is the uncontainable element that philosophy has used to subordinate painting. It seems to defy principles, thus it eludes philosophers, and it seems to operate largely by inspiration, superstition and magic, which seems to be attractive to painters. Across both disciplines, there is general agreement that colour is definitively not rule-amenable, while drawing is. Jacqueline Lichtenstein (1993 [1989]: 4; 62-3), in The Eloquence of Colour, traces this long-standing tension back to Plato and Aristotle, observing that ‘being material, colour has always been seen as belonging to the ontologically deficient categories of the ephemeral and the random.’ Philosophy has, she writes, thus favoured the more conceptually manageable element of painting: drawing (Lichtenstein, 1989 [1993]: 4).

If colour does not lend itself to principles, this has another, more practical, result. Philosophy aside, it means that colour cannot be taught. This lends itself to all varieties of unwelcome mysticism, that I personally would like to see chased out of the discipline of painting. It suggests that painters are ‘gifted,’ that they are conduits for ‘inspiration,’ or that they must operate by chance–all of which deny that painting is a disciplined skill that can be developed and improved and harnessed for aesthetic purposes. This is an unhappy state for painting to be in, for it grants artists license to all sorts of nonsense and self-indulgence, and abuses the viewer with all manner of ineptly executed work. In short, it encourages carelessness and invites decadence. Painting is visibly decaying before our eyes.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

In the face of these two apparent deficiencies, I want to argue that the emphasis on drawing–both as philosophically acceptable and as practically teachable–is misplaced. Drawing certainly does lend itself to principles which can indeed be taught, and perhaps this fact is even overplayed. There are elements to drawing that cannot be taught, because each draughtswoman will adapt the learned principles to her own sensibility; she will interpret them, introducing a quality of line that no one else has. And, more broadly, the principles that are discussed and taught are not incontestable facts of existence. This is very clearly described by Panofsky’s (1991 [1927]: 37) contrast of spherical and linear perspective. Lastly, I want to raise a surprisingly little-grasped fact, one that is also popularly rejected by painters: colour is indeed amenable to principles, and there are painters who work with these principles and succeed in teaching them. Colour is very acutely described by geometry. In our infatuation with language, this straightforward ordering of colour has persisted largely unnoticed for at least two hundred years.

Lichtenstein (1993 [1989]: 142) notes that ‘ever since society has set a hierarchy among human activities, their relation to language has been the ultimate criterion for the establishment of a division, both social and philosophical, between the noble arts and the servile trades.’ Because of this, she explains, painting has sought to prove itself by ‘literary credentials;’ in order to do this, it has been expected to ‘satisfy both theoretical and pedagogical objectives,’ as we have already considered (Lichtenstein 1993 [1989]: 142; 151). Since she accepts that colour defies principles, she looks to rhetoric to redeem the intellectual status of painting, a fascinating move that demands more attention elsewhere, but we may here respond with our geometry of colour.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

A fascinating little tract by Philipp Otto Runge appeared in the early 1800s. His Farbenkugel, or ‘colour sphere,’ is a mathematically pure way of conceptualising colour. It conceives of the relations between all colours three-dimensionally. He begins with a flat triangle that represents the three unmixed colours of red, yellow and blue. Each line is bisected to indicate that, mathematically, the secondary colours are the halfway points between each of these: orange, green and purple. These six points are extended out to the edges of a circle, which is then pierced by a perpendicular axis at whose poles stand white and black. The mid-point of this pole is, mathematically, a mid-tone grey. As colours move directly across the horizontal axis, they are neutralised by their mathematical opposite, entirely cancelling each other out as grey at the mid-point–yellow becomes, not more purplish, but more grey, as it moves towards purple, its opposite. Green and red exist in the same relation, and orange and blue. The knowledge of these relationships means a painter in fact need not use a black paint to recreate these relationships in paint: grey is not the absence of colour, but the annihilation of one colour in its mathematical opposite–‘alle einander auf derselben Gerade gegenüberliegenden Farben [sind] als Kräfte anzunehmen, welche einander entgegenstehen und sich durch ihre Vermischung zerstören in Grau’ (‘all colours that lay across from each other on the same line are to be assumed opposing forces that, upon mixing, annihilate each other in grey’) (Runge, 1810: 28). The rest of the sphere is filled out by every conceivable mixed colour and in every level of lightness and darkness, vividness and neutrality. The whole thing is most easily grasped visually, and this is the advantage of geometry.

(After Philipp Otto Runge)

It is a very beautiful model, one developed concomitantly with discussions with Goethe, and a living idea still used and taught by artists who appreciate the more rugged borders of three-dimensional colour-space. But more than this, the emphasis on relationships allows a shift in thinking: rather than considering colours as absolutes, bound to precise recipes of two-parts cadmium yellow to one-part prussian blue, they may instead be managed and manipulated as a complex but entirely rational web of relationships. This means, in fact, an emancipation from the types of dogmas that more mystically-inclined painters tend to bark at other painters: it means a shift from objectively defining colours to subjectively experiencing them. It allows a painter to recreate her perceptual experience of seeing colours; it allows for the fact that a certain mixture can appear pink or green, depending on the context it is set in. It marks a dramatic difference between painters who ask ‘what colour this really is,’ and those who ask how they perceive it. The second mindset affords far greater flexibility and dexterity with colour. And it can be taught.

(From Philipp Otto Runge, Farbenkugel)

This kind of dexterity is important because ultimately, while we might define our concept of colour in a pure mathematical way, paint itself does not respond to such precise geometrical divisions, and does not correspond so precisely to light. The painter must cope with two additional overlays to her mathematical concept of colour: the chemistry of paint and how the mixtures are achieved by actual pigments of vastly different physical properties, and the physics of light and the fact that her eyes take in a much broader gamut of colours than her paint is capable of mixing. A swift and nimble understanding of the relationships as geometric proportions is a solid conceptual ground that can be modified empirically as the painter’s experience with using paint and approximating it to what she sees grows. Runge (1810: 62) notes this as an aside to Goethe in one of his letters: ‘Ich kann mich hier nicht über die Praktik ausbreiten, weil es erstlich zu weitläufig wäre,’ (‘I cannot expand upon the practice here, firstly because it would ramble on too long,’) but he mentions that the artist requires ‘den nötigen chemischen wie mathematischen Kenntnissen’ (‘the necessary chemical alongside the mathematical knowledge.’)

Such systems equip us with knowledge, and thus confidence, and in the case of colour, adequately describe and organise the material reality of paint and at the same time accommodate our subjective, perceptual experience of it. Runge (1810: 42; 61) hopes that these pure insights will permit more definite expression; he thinks that being secure in the mental connections of the elements is the only means of setting a painter’s mind at ease, in the face of such superstition and chance. It would be well at this point to remind ourselves not to take the implications of these principles too far, and thus to return to Panofsky.

Copy after Claudel, Vertumne et Pomone

For the principles of vanishing-point perspective, the mainstay of principled drawing, are, indeed, a construction devised during the Renaissance, as Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 27) notes early on. It provides us with a mathematical space that is actually at odds with our perceptual experience of space, but that does not undermine its usefulness to us. Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 29-30) contrasts the visibly rigid ‘structure of an infinite, unchanging and homogenous space–in short, a purely mathematical space’ with ‘the structure of psychophysiological space.’ Our working concept of perspective demands that space conforms entirely to reason, that it is ‘infinite, unchanging and homogeneous’ (Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 28-9); but that demands certain assumptions that deny our experience of it: firstly, ‘that we see with a single and immobile eye,’ and secondly, that a flat plane adequately reproduces our curved optical image–two ‘rather bold abstractions’ from our perceptual experience.

‘In a sense,’ write Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 31), ‘perspective transforms psychophysiological space into mathematical space.’ And there is indeed nothing wrong with that if we recognise it as such, and do not take our theoretical underpinnings too far, thus over-emphasising the theoretical validity of drawing over colour.

Copy after Claudel, Vertumne et Pomone

Beginning with (helpfully visual) geometric principles, we can thus devise rigorous and teachable theoretical systems for both of the equally important parts of painting, for drawing and for colour, describing them in pure, abstracted, mathematical terms, whose constancy is beautiful in and of itself. We can reclaim the liberal art of painting, award it some intellectual prestige, and even ground it in scientific principles that draw on chemistry and physics as well. Descartes’ project might not prove so alien in the murky and superstitious realm of painting.

Copy after Rodin, The sculptor and his muse

Lichtenstein, Jacqueline. 1993 [1989]. The Eloquence of Colour: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age. Translated by Emily McVarish. Berkeley: University of California.

Panofsky, Erwin. 1991 [1927]. Perspective as Symbolic Form. Translated by Christopher S. Wood. New York: Zone.

Runge, Philipp Otto. 1810. Farbenkugel: Konstruktion Des Verhältnisses Aller Mischungen Der Farben Zueinander Und Ihrer Vollständigen Affinität. Köln: Tropen.

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