Representation: Some groundwork

Veronese Hercules

(After Veronese)

To establish some groundwork for my investigation into painting as language, I want to linger a while on the concept of representation, at the same time considering its intimate connection with expression. In the studio, I have seen the word ‘representational’ used passionately, dogmatically, often loosely, but sometimes also cautiously—generally to single out a particular kind of painting that pitches itself against ‘abstract’ painting, though it is also sometimes the preferred term of painters who are equally opposed to ‘realistic’ painting of a more photographic flavour. In such circles, ‘representational painting’ roughly categorises the kind of painting that recognisably looks like something, even if, as in the case of, say, Vuillard, the eyes must linger a while and actively search. Among such artists, there are always some (myself included) who would assert that all painting is an abstraction to some degree—or perhaps better: even the paintings that most closely approximate reality are still an interpretation of things seen.

I like this barrier between painting and the world itself that abstraction and interpretation insert, because it reinforces the idea that an artist never tries to and indeed never can duplicate the physical world, but humbly models her own take on it, a version of it mingled with her own thought and with her own labour—with her very body. Thus, there is only a certain kind of abstraction that such artists would distance themselves from, and it is one that shuns the physical world entirely, expelling it even from memory; a kind of painting that removes all content and distils painting to an exercise in formal properties like shape, colour, tone and the physicality of the surface of the paint. And even then, these representational artists are already very well-versed in such abstractions and use them as jubilantly as their opponents—and usually much more knowledgeably and subtly. The difference, then, must come down to a desire for content, or for the lack thereof.

Thus, we might crudely say that representation implies content—some thing represented. And it may be represented with a high degree of abstraction, though the artist risks being misunderstood the further she strays from the recognisable, or from interpretations of reality that we are already familiar with. The Impressionists took just such a risk, though they finally succeeded when we learned to make sense of their organisation of light (in Gombrich 1959: 275). But much philosophical work has been done on the finer points of representation. It is certainly not enough to appeal to the level of similarity between a picture and that which it represents. Plato (in Gombrich, 1959: 99) decried art for deceiving the mind with illusions, but we are certainly not so taken in by paintings that we believe ourselves transported to another realm, or that we believe the person portrayed to be standing before us. Likeness or resemblance was thus a very early explanation of representation, a crude equivalence of which we have both nothing to fear (in terms of deception) and little to gain. For while Velázquez’s portrait represents Philip IV of Spain, Philip IV does not represent his portrait.

(After Van Dyck)

(After Van Dyck)

Goodman (1976: 4) points out this simple observation in Languages of Art, and I think it is a good place to start, if only to remind artists themselves that likeness is not the Promised Land, and that representation opens up a much more generous, exploratory realm. To capture this idea that representation implies content, but that the implication only goes one way, Goodman (1976: 5; 233) appeals to the term ‘denotation.’ When a picture represents some object, the picture denotes the object, that object is denoted by the picture. Denotation introduces symbolism into representation. The picture operates as a symbolic reference to the object, but the object does not symbolically refer to the picture, whatever similarity exists between the two. ‘Denotation is the core of representation and is independent of resemblance,’ explains Goodman (1976: 5). Denotation more explicitly conveys the asymmetry of representation, since we naturally think of a symbol as somehow dependent on the thing it signifies. Denotation runs in one direction.

We thus need another term to capture the relation in the other direction: Goodman (1976: 52; 233) chooses ‘exemplification.’ The object exemplifies what is represented in the picture. With such a relation, we can identify a particular object in a painting, though it was not the very same painted by the artist. We might even align our own private emotions with the content of the picture, finding the picture to be expressive of an emotion we personally feel. The artist surely did not seek to paint our emotion, but our emotion exemplifies that embedded in the painting. More complex than plain symmetry, Goodman has developed a system grounded in symbols comprised of two opposing currents, markedly different in character.

Representation, for Goodman (1976: 40), bears some similarity to verbal description. It runs in the same direction with respect to the object: both verbal descriptions and visual representations denote the object. But for Goodman, the emotional tint of the picture runs counter to this cold, symbolic summary of the object. The emotions come from the side of the viewer, who apprehends the picture ‘through the feelings as well as through the senses’ (Goodman 1976: 248). The expressiveness of the picture is then a subjective experience, coming from the way the spectator identifies with the content of the picture. He integrates its symbols into his own symbol system, and finds his own emotions reflected back at him.

(After Pacetti)

(After Pacetti)

Gombrich (1959: 310) openly questions the division of expression from representation in Art and Illusion. Writing almost two decades earlier than Goodman, he is more liberal with his language analogy, pointing out that not only is verbal language descriptive, it can at the same time be highly charged with emotion, and every shade in between (1959: 310). He suggests a simpler blending of the two, rather than a fundamentally and logically opposed relation. Thus, representation is not simply comparable to verbal description, not simply a record of information by translatable symbols, but it is the very means by which we convey a broad spectrum of descriptive and expressive content. ‘Representation,’ argues Gombrich (1959: 319) ‘is the instrument of information and expression.’

But what can this ‘instrument’ really refer to other than the way paint itself is used? By which I mean the body of the artist mingling, through movement, with the substance of the paint to give both physical form and visual presence to things thought, seen, or imagined. To remove the paint, or other medium, is to force a reliance on something purely conceptual that may take on any physical guise: probably symbols, which may be more readily substituted for words. And this is a mistake that Gombrich falls into. Continuing the analogy with language, Gombrich (1959: 326) argues that ‘all human communication is through symbols.’ Painting, then, may be blanched of its paint, may be stripped to its pictorial skeleton, dissected, analysed, and thus understood. My complaint with him (and with Goodman) is that symbols are not enough; representation consists in so much more: that when we represent something visible by visual means, every physical element is necessary and contributes in some way, even if ever so slightly, even if with such feathery nuance, even if so delicately integrated with other elements that it cannot be individually extracted and examined. Representation may indeed serve description and expression in such a blended way, but always via the medium invoked.

kaninchen_und_ente

(from the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter)

Gombrich’s appeal to illusion is grounded in a very simple example, which I think demonstrates this fundamental problem in his position on representation. He cites the optical illusion of the duck-rabbit—a picture that at some times resembles a duck, but which by effort of the attention transforms its beak into the long ears of a rabbit. Gombrich’s argument is that one cannot experience illusion at the same time as one experiences reality. It is either rabbit or duck. Thus we cannot be absorbed in the illusion of the picture and at the same time consciously aware of the painted surface. What Gombrich disregards is that we can indeed simultaneously see that the rabbit, drawn in fastidious lines, is printed in black ink on paper, and that likewise, the duck, comprised of the same lines, even as it appears as a duck is evidently printed in black ink upon a page. It is the duck and the rabbit—the content of the representation—that we cannot see at the same time. In fact, the illusion works precisely because of the printed ink: paint would destroy the trick, for colours would suggest different creatures and tone would give greater or lesser volume to beaks and ears than our eyes would believe. In each case, the representation is bound up in the simplicity of the medium of pen and ink, which can conveniently leave out information that would detract from the other representation. The analogy is misplaced: we certainly cannot see simultaneous competing representations, but we can see a representation and at the same time be aware of its physical extension.

(After Delacroix)

(After Delacroix)

Better than illusion, then: let us follow Wollheim (1987: 185) in finding in representation a call to imagination. We are too aware to be fooled into thinking that representations are reality, or that we do not notice what the representation consists in. But we can gain immense satisfaction from picking up the hints a picture drops and adventuring along a train of thought that it sets in motion. For Wollheim (1987: 101), representation does more than communicate something, and more than stimulate some private daydream. It coaxes us in a particular direction, at the urging of the artist, who inscribes her very trails of thought in wandering streaks of paint. For Wollheim (1987: 7, 15) the medium is indispensable; one cannot divorce the meaning of a painting from the paint. For thoughts are worked through, laid up, reconsidered through the medium. And representation and expression—by means of the medium—‘are the two basic forms of pictorial meaning’ (Wollheim 1987: 305). Rather than looking for a dialogue between painter and spectator, Wollheim grounds everything in a kernel of meaning buried deep in a picture, discoverable, moving, compelling, but not linguistic, not ceremoniously imparted from ‘speaker’ to ‘listener.’ A painting does not speak, but guards a thought.

The medium shows its significance in a more primitive visual experience that logically precedes representation: that of ‘seeing-in.’ Wollheim (1987: 306) finds it most expedient to explain what it is to represent by this simple and familiar experience. It is exactly that cited by da Vinci (in Gombrich 1959: 159) as a stimulus to imagination—of seeking forms and faces, even battles and civilisations, in the coarse textures of crumbling walls—and exactly that deemed impossible by Gombrich, of seeing at the same time the suggestion of a figure and the ragged plaster. These simple fancies are the result of imagination, but exist by chance, moulded by the ravages of nature and not carefully crafted after human intentions, and so they are not representations. But the same thing happens when we look at a crafted picture: we are both ‘aware of the surface and [see] something in it’ (Wollheim 1987: 46). When the artist makes use of this feat of vision and applies her paint with the intention that a spectator should discover some particular thing in those marks, this intention, says Wollhem (1987: 101), is representation.

the artist

Expression, for Wollheim (1987: 89), colours representation. Emotions are crucial to painting, and expression describes the way they weave through the application of paint, the organisation of the picture, the deliberate colour choices and the atmospheric decisions, to list but a few variables, in order to provoke a particular emotional response from the viewer. This means the painter in fact steers away from ‘cold’ naturalism, from faithful visual description, and imbues her representation with visual qualities that imply something intangible. It means that we are invited to see emotion, as it plays out in the delicate interplay of painterly techniques. Something in reality is sacrificed, some accuracy or disinterested depiction, in order to co-opt expression into representation. The two are woven together with paint into one visual output. Expression abstracts representation into a more emotional variation on things seen or imagined.

But the viewer needs to bring a certain sensitivity to the expressive tint of the picture, a type of perception even, which Wollheim (1987: 80) calls ‘expressive perception.’ As Wollheim (1987: 82) elaborates, there are mirrored means of transferring emotions between ourselves and the external world; either our own mood alters the way we perceive what is around us—what we would commonly call projection—or we are affected by our surroundings. It is true that we could project our own feelings, likewise, onto a painting, but since the artist has mixed emotional content into the paint, a greater receptiveness promises to yield something specific from the painting. It is our own ability to project emotions onto what we see that enables us to sympathise with a painter doing the same in paint. She asks us to forget ourselves for a moment and to see through her eyes, through her sunny disposition or her fog of melancholy.

tinyryans

Wollheim’s demand for expressive perception is rather nice, because it requires a certain kind of attention from the viewer, but does not permit him to read just anything he likes into a painting. Viewers like to have something to do (Gombrich 1959: 169), and we will grant them this responsibility without giving away the creative authority of the artist. Wollheim’s (1987: 305) demand means that a standard of correctness accompanies both representation and expression. The artist intends to convey certain content laden with certain emotions, all of which is accessible to the viewer by direct communion with the picture, with the implication that he can be correct or incorrect about what he discovers there (Wollheim 1987: 85, 101).

But such standards hardly remove the pleasure of looking at a painting. Wollheim (1987: 98, 100) is eager to convey that seeing the paint is a delightful experience in itself, and that simple visual delight in a painting, provoked by the deliciously expressive qualities of paint and its handling, comprises no small part of our encounter with painting. Wollheim sends us in the direction of Proust for a lovely elucidation of this experience. Chardin, Proust (1988: 102) describes, has seen serene beauty in a humble arrangement in a kitchen, and has painted it with palpable tenderness; his ‘pleasure was so intense that it overflowed into smooth strokes, eternal colours.’ The viewer, utterly seduced by Chardin’s vision, thenceforth notices that a fresh charm falls over ordinary domestic scenes. This delight, notes Wollheim (1987: 99), is stirred up by Chardin’s expert control of his own emotional projection that he invites us to sample. ‘Your awareness had to wait until Chardin entered into the scene to raise it to his level of pleasure’ (Proust 1988: 102).

sebastians

And so Wollheim (1987: 185) hopes to persuade us that representational paintings do not ‘trade on illusion,’ but rely on, rather, ‘in a supplementary role, imagination.’ Representation does not simply hand us a likeness, it does not forge a strict equivalence with the world, or simply stand in for it symbolically; nor does it seek to deceive us. Instead, it appeals to our pleasure in discovering that guarded thought in the lather of paint. This underlines the irrevocable importance of the paint, the matiére, the medium that carries the thoughts of the artist via her movements.

Representation, in a sort of self-conscious way, hopes to draw attention to its physicality while seducing us with a hint of something recognisable shot through with emotions. It invites us to linger on the interlocking cues in the way the paint is applied and in the content, to discover something of the artist’s insight. We are asked to imagine the world intentionally reconfigured in muddy paste on a flat surface; we are asked to imagine the way one feels if one looks at the world and projects emotions that colour the world this way or that. Representation is more fundamentally grounded in the technical than in resemblance, symbols or illusion. In bringing us ever back to the way paint is applied, it offers a firm starting point for a theory of a visual language.

plants-in-window

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

Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 2. ed. Hackett: Indianapolis, Ind.

Proust, Marcel. [1954] 1988. ‘Chardin: The Essence of Things,’ trans. Mina Curtiss, in Against Saint-Beuve and Other Essays. Penguin: London.

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

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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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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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