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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An unlikely protagonist

Aschersleben (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Aschersleben (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

In Painting as an Art, Richard Wollheim (1987: 85; 101; 183) assigns himself the seemingly insurmountable task of binding together two startling yet attractive claims: that emotions are central to painting, and that a standard of correctness should nevertheless prevail. This means that we can look upon a painting and discern a certain mood, detect that the painting is expressive of some emotion—and that we can be correct or incorrect in this judgement. The intention of the artist is crucial to an accurate reading of the emotional content of the painting, which, in turn, is pivotal in grasping the meaning of the painting. When we speak of meaning, we acknowledge that the artist has embedded some discernable content in the painting.

Ascherslebensketch

Precisely how the artist inserts such meaning into a painting is of supreme importance to Wollheim. The idea that one can read a painting in a linguistic fashion irks him: being a sympathetic appreciator of art does not involve decoding a string of symbols. Symbols exist, undeniably, but—argues Wollheim (1987: 139)—they are but a small part of pictorial meaning. Ask a painter, and they will likely describe to you a complex and nuanced balance of technical factors, an arrangement of formal qualities that answers to some vision of what is coherent. Should this be too bland and technical, or too abstract, Wollheim offers a humanised solution: we could, he ventures, conceive of these loose formal decisions as a person, with a personality, with thoughts and biases and predilections, with feelings that colour their vision.

Yes, Wollheim (1987: 129) surges on, let’s posit a character, just like a literary protagonist, to mediate between artist and spectator! And while this suggestion seems at first rather metaphysically extravagant, there are several reasons we might seriously consider it. As already mentioned, the humanising quality makes it more palatable to non-artists, who might find a smattering of loosely held together formal properties impossibly tedious to attend to. Rather than becoming an expert on painting, one might appreciate painting as one commonly appreciates literature: by identifying with a character.

Ascherslebencolourstudy

A second reason is more pressing for Wollheim (1987: 89): that all the information necessary for understanding a painting is contained within the painting. Everything that can be known about this character is enclosed within the picture ‘through the way in which the artist depicts whatever it is … that this spectator confronts’ (Wollheim 1987: 164). Wollheim is insistent on this point, because should we need to know something of the artist, her biography, to unlock the painting, the painting would be insufficient. And should our own arbitrary interpretation be tied to its meaning, the painting ‘would have to gain content after it left the hands of the artist and without any concomitant attention to its marked surface’ (Wollheim 1987: 185). Subjectivity is problematic for undermining the whole idea of meaning in painting. The very content of the picture would have to vary with each spectator, or even with each viewing by the same spectator (Wollheim 1987: 102). A painting would cease to ‘mean’ anything, and be reduced to nothing more than a stimulus, provoking our own chains of thought. Painting can lead us down rather delightful paths of reverie, but to state this as its primary purpose would be to fearfully undermine the artistic import of painting. Surely painting, just like books and theatre and music, can impart something to us rather than just provide a backdrop for our own thoughts.

Ascherslebenview2

A third reason is most compelling to me, which is that such a character imposes a comfortable distance between artist and painting, and between painting and spectator in turn. Neither artist nor spectator need directly identify with the content of the painting, but each experience it at some remove. That this is important becomes immediately apparent to anyone who has ever looked at a painting and failed to be moved by it. We might stand before a painting, perhaps a Caspar David Friedrich, and identify a heavy melancholy drenching the mountaintops, without ourselves feeling the least bit wistful. Rather than trying to take on the sadness of the painting, we can acknowledge the emotions contained within the picture by attributing them to our imagined character, and still discover the sense of the picture from our safely non-melancholy vantage point. ‘Imagination,’ writes Wollheim (1987: 129), ‘without inducing the experience I imagine, delivers the fruits of experience.’

But this distance is equally valuable in the other direction. The artist, as she paints, might paint expressively without expressing her immediate experience. Certainly, she must express something—and perhaps that something is an emotion she harboured in her chest for some lonely, stormy hours. But the restless night has passed, and her painting remains propped upon the easel for another month, perhaps two or three. Like a landscape, which infuriatingly shifts with the lengthening sunlight and with the intermittent cloud cover, an emotional shade must be painted partly from memory, for this internal condition is rarely sustained long enough to be able to paint it other than in a hasty and truncated manner. The artist can, however, construct a character who eternally embodies this emotion, who eternally sees the world through the thick fog of despair, or through the radiant sunshine of glee. But not only this—the character might be a vehicle for thoughts, opinions, worldviews, philosophies. This invented person, distinct from the artist, then embodies a thought experiment. The artist can investigate the world through these ideas in a hypothetical way, visually. She need be no activist, declaring, ‘I believe the world is ugly and broken,’ or ‘I find beauty in small things.’ She can simply entertain such positions, as though through the eyes of another. She can work as a visual philosopher, probing any possibilities in her search for her own convictions.

Ascherslebenview3

Who, then, is this spectator? Distinct from the person standing before the painting, whom Wollheim labels the ‘spectator of the picture,’ and distinct from the artist, who also periodically steps back and takes on a spectator role during the production of the painting, this spectator is also separate from any ‘spectator in the picture’ who painted within the frame and witnessing the main event of the picture. Wollheim (Wollheim 1987: 102) describes him rather as ‘an internal, an unrepresented internal, spectator.’ Should we return to the moody landscapes of Friedrich, we might clarify: this spectator is certainly not me, neither is he Friedrich himself, nor is he the windswept wanderer on the mountaintop whom I stand behind and whose shoulder I peer over. But when I look at the picture, I lose myself temporarily in the inner life of someone else, ‘the nature-artist of early-nineteenth century Pietism,’ suggests Wollheim (1987: 133).

‘He is a person, or a kind of person, who, disentangled from the exigencies of material life, gains a certain detachment from nature, which he then makes use of only so as to return to nature and make it the object of profound and devout contemplation. Through study and meditation he arrives at the secrets of nature, which are in effect the secrets of its maker.’

Friedrich invites us to try on this guise, to stand before nature, humbled, quieted, thoughtful, just as he tries it on. As a painter, Friedrich likely thinks more directly through the technical tools available to him to induce such a position: viewpoints that seem adrift in mid-air, with the ground rushing from beneath our feet; ghostly, transparent paint; atmospheric effects of tone; vast, crushing, empty space. But combined, these painterly decisions colour a painting with a certain emotion, and not only an emotion—a perspective, a manner of looking at the world. Taken together, we might indeed see them as contributing to the solemnising tendencies of the pious nature-artist that Wollheim suggests. This character exists purely in paint, we see him only through the way he sees what he sees, through the way Friedrich paints.

Ascherslebenview1

This suggestion is remarkable and important for the alternative it offers to symbolism. It diverts us from the usual manner of ‘decoding’ Friedrich, from all the ink that has been spilled over Friedrich’s powerful symbolism (Wollheim 1987: 138). When we stand before a painting by Friedrich, we need not reflect, ‘a ship means this: an anchor means that…—rather in the way in which a sentence gains its propositional content on the basis of what the individual words mean, and of how they are put together’ (Wollheim 1987: 138). Rather, we may indulge in the sense of foreboding the picture gives us without access to any such pictorial key. The unrepresented spectator certainly sees these objects, but they are full of import, argues Wollheim (1987: 139), because of the way he sees them, which is expressively. While Wollheim (1987: 138) recognises a role for symbols in painting, he argues that ‘the method misconstrues expression in painting. It treats pictorial expression as though it rested upon a lexicon linking represented elements to emotions and feelings.’

In order to be a character, our character requires some visible traits, something that Wollheim (1987: 129-130) calls a ‘repertoire’ or a ‘rich inner life.’ Not all paintings carry such a spectator, and we know we have found one when we begin to piece together elements that frame a cohesive and compelling outlook that differs from our own, that invites us to savour what we see in a new—and likely stirring—way.

To look at a turbulent painting and feel lighthearted and happy would simply be wrong—it would be to disregard everything that the artist has so carefully and expressively painted. Where a painting has emotional content we can correctly or incorrectly apprehend it. Wollheim delicately introduces an intermediary who helps us bridge the disconnect between our own feelings and those embedded in the painting. This allows us to preserve a standard of correctness in what would usually be considered the swampy, subjective realm of emotions. His unrepresented spectator in the picture, then, is by no means extravagant: we only summon him when faced with this disconnect (Wollheim 1987: 182). This palpable character with whom we can empathise is a bridge to understanding a painting, clothed in familiar human form.

IMG_20160811_154630

 

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

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Eloquence and drawing

Russian plant © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Russian plant © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Language, woven of conventions, adapts and evolves, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s account of its progression takes a delightfully unexpected path. Language, he (2009: 294) declares, was born of the passions: ‘Neither hunger nor thirst, but love, hatred, pity, anger wrested the first voices from them.’ Physical needs are easily signalled; but the complexities of expressing gently nuanced emotions—of swelling love overlaid with brittle melancholy; of restless expectation shaded with pleasant hope—demand a more developed mode of intimation. The first words to escape our trembling lips must thus have been effusive outpourings of raw poetry, only to be subdued and ordered much later by reason. Language’s intellectual ripening carried it further and further from its first poetic utterances: ‘In proportion as language was perfected, melody imperceptibly lost its ancient energy by imposing new rules upon itself’ (Rousseau 2009: 329).

Kanal

 

But painting may be spared this ruthless pruning. Painting, as language, has never been reigned in to express concepts with logical precision. It rather remains an unruly address to the eyes that harmonises with the chaotic cadences of our hearts. We are moved because we discover our passions and imitations of the objects of our passions candidly reflected in paint—it is in this empathetic manner that paintings speak with us. And ‘one speaks to the eyes much more effectively than to the ears,’ Rousseau assures us (2009: 291).

Dresden galerie

Rousseau reserves particularly high praise for drawing. Good painting touches us, certainly; but we ought not overestimate the role of colour in this. Colours, argues Rousseau (2009: 319), operate at a simple sensory level. They strike us immediately, they catch our attention, they please our eyes, but colours alone cannot move us. ‘It is the design, it is the imitation, that endows these colours with life and soul, it is the passions which they express that succeed in moving our own, it is the objects which they represent that succeed in affecting us’ (Rousseau 2009: 319). Colourless drawings retain their expressive force; but colours without contours melt into pure sensory pleasantness (Rousseau 2009: 319).

yellow field

Rousseau privileges drawing with a more fundamental position than words, much nearer to the earth and to our volatile passions. Love, that consuming passion, ‘has livelier ways of expressing itself’ than with the very words it summoned into existence, however poetic those words may be (Rousseau 2009: 290). Love is fabled to be the impulse that compelled the first drawing. Rousseau (2009: 290) swoons with evident delight: ‘What things she who traced the shadow of her lover with so much pleasure told him! What sounds could she have used to convey this movement of a stick?’ And so we clutch our sticks, the ‘Griffel’ of Max Klinger’s (1985: 21) ‘Griffelkunst,’ with renewed vigour, finding ourselves closer to the poetic expressiveness we crave. ‘Writing, which seems as if it should fix language,’ systematically changes language—categorically domesticating it, demanding ever more precise adaptations, shedding its poetic origins. Drawing, by contrast, abandons the pursuit of precision in order to move us in more complex and thus deeper ways (Rousseau 2009: 300).

jedes buch

It is this resolute devotion to the passions that lends drawing its eloquence. Our visual language, built of rhythmic lines and deliberately constructed compositions, possesses all the tools of charming and winning over our audience: we have not the means to persuade, but to stir. We rely not on arguments, but on poetry, and poetry and eloquence, says Rousseau (2009: 318), have the same origin. While we search out logical colour series, and look for technical solutions that make clear statements about light, about form, about perspective, our technical grammar is subservient to our elusive poetic aims. We ought not forget our advantage, for even words derive their eloquence from the visual, as Rousseau (2009: 291) reminds us; they move us most when infused with imagery and colour through metaphor.

haus

Drawing—design—with unlimited poetic potential, saves the visual language of painting from too strict a grammar. Because though there are means of drawing more accurately, more naturalistically, more literally, the best drawings may be judged to harness the grammatical concerns of truth and precision for more expressive purposes, to elevate something poetic in the subject. An able draughtsman pursues accuracy; a good draughtsman tells seductive lies with his eloquent stick. His impassioned retellings are more captivating than the truth; the visual grammar he works within does not ever refine itself towards rational precision. Good drawing orders a painting according to another kind of logic. It makes the painting a painting, not a mirror image, not a soup of sensations.

painting carnage

Our language, as painters, is rooted in the grammar of design. We must search out the visual patterns, impose hierarchies, intentionally structure our images, and chase endlessly after the stirring undulations of our lines, for herein lies their emotive strength. Used forcefully, we may speak with an eloquence that moves our viewers more deeply than any string of words. Words have evolved as a tool of persuasion, and ‘by cultivating the art of convincing, that of moving the emotions was lost’ (Rousseau 2009: 329). Drawing, and through it, painting, has not suffered as a language at the hand of progress. Its conventions, though they shift and change, tie it ever to its emotional source.

Leipziger Atelier

 

Klinger, Max. 1985 [1885]. Malerei und Zeichnung. Leipzig: Philipp Reclam.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2009 [1781]. Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music. Edited by John T. Scott. Trans. from the French edition. Hanover N.H.: Dartmouth.

 

 

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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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The Duchess’s bookshelf of becoming super excellent

bookshelf

I love books, and there is a small cluster of core books that accompany me on my journey to painterly enlightenment which I would heartily recommend to other painters. These are the books I turn to again and again: reference books, philosophical books, history books and diaries which have profoundly shaped my learning and my views on art. If you need to be your own teacher for the moment, there are some wise dudes you can depend on for guidance.

Bammes

Gottfried Bammes: Complete guide to life drawing

This book has consumed me since I first met it, and travels the world with me. Herr Bammes, who taught in Dresden, has a clear way of describing the human body in simplified volumes and muscle groups that help one think structurally about the body. Rather than overwhelming yourself by starting out with hard-core anatomy, working through Bammes’s guide will help you ease into more complex anatomical study by giving you a broader understanding upon which to hang such knowledge. He begins with exercises on proportion and movement, setting a firm foundation of both accuracy and expressive liveliness. From here, he explains the parts of the body in greater detail, with many of his own examples reducing the forms to blocks in perspective. His diagrams on knees and feet in particular are works of teacherly genius. Bammes diagrammatically explains the mechanics of the bones and muscle groups, as well as reducing their construction to simple linear frames. Right from the beginning he gives the student a firm way of indicating a solid foot, which when rehearsed and developed only serves to cement the structural understanding.

Says Bammes (2010: 222), ‘If skull drawing is not practised as if it were architecture, with a perpetual ordering of primary and secondary aspects—if it is not done with awareness—it will degenerate into nothing more than clever copying and will not provide any gain in knowledge or vision.’ Yet he (2010: 10) never loses sight of why we demand so much of ourselves: ‘When we draw people, we are growing towards others and ourselves and we reveal things that were lost before to our fleeting glances and inaccessible to our experience.’

The margins of the book are peppered with a fine selection of master drawings, including those of many lesser-known German draughtsmen, while all examples are drawn by the elegant and controlled hand of Bammes himself. I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m still working slowly through it, using it as a companion to all further anatomy study, and revisiting earlier chapters again and again.

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.

Goldfinger

Eliot Goldfinger: Human anatomy for the artist

This book is an investment, but a good anatomy book is a necessary tool in your belt if you’ve any real interest in the figure. The delightfully named Goldfinger turns his Midas touch to one bone, one muscle at a time, displaying many angles and overlaps and cross-sections. The text explains function, origin and insertion and many other enlightening aspects of each part, but clear drawings illustrate most of the information. These drawings are accompanied by some photographs of an extremely ripped model, to help locate things under the often-obfuscatory surface of flesh. And several straight-lined diagrams explain difficult-to-conceptualise mechanics or simplifications to help remember the main features of a part.

Goldfinger (1991:. 64) encourages a deep understanding of the figure, not just a grasping after surface variations:

‘During complex actions, note the sequence of the contraction and relaxation of the numerous muscles that are functioning. Observe the action, visualise the skeleton deep in the body and what changes are taking place at its joints, then determine which muscles are working.’

This book is an artist’s dictionary. It will also make you sound clever at parties because you will learn a lot of scientific words.

Goldfinger, Eliot. 1991. Human anatomy for artists: The elements of form. Oxford University: Oxford.

Nelson

Robert Nelson: The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique

This book has affected me deeply. It made me appreciate how genuinely scholarly painting and drawing could be, while never losing sight of how physical and sensual it is. Nelson’s (2010: 27-28) project is an admirable one of finding a way to unite the studio and academic practice:

‘I would like to see a philosophy of technique which positions technique as the necessary correlate of poetic vision and the basis of visual language, a philosophy which is non-instrumental and anti-mechanistic. I would like to cultivate a discourse which deals with the motivation, the aesthetic benefits, the almost physiological processes of perception, but also the wilful staging, the theatricality of expressing what happens in the mind, the eye and the hand. … The project, if it could be pursued as I hope to demonstrate, would bring studio technique into the heartland of scholarship in the humanities.’

Nelson writes knowledgeably and generously on delightfully mundane topics, validating painterly excitement at painterly preoccupations: on drawing, on composition, on edges, on shadow. Yet he is able to articulate better than most artists what it is that is so thrilling and relevant about these topics: that painting, not merely writing, may be ‘a vehicle for discourse’ (2010: 10); that ‘drawing, in short, is a deliberateness in seeing which declares itself and argues what it wants to define’ (2010: 55), that it ‘manifests your will to possess intellectually’ (2010: 54).

Every time I pick this book up I am filled afresh with new thoughts directly related to the practice of painting, and intellectually energised as well. We can speak clearly, intelligently and unashamedly about the physical and visual aspects of our work, not just about concepts and symbols and statements. For our work does make investigations by means other than words and symbols, and we would do well to argue for the standing of our visual language.

Dali

Salvador Dali: Diary of a genius, an autobiography

The diaries of artists are pure gold. Sometimes they divulge their painting secrets, or elaborate on what, specifically, drives them wild about Rubens, or, as in the case of Dali, bestow an entire philosophy upon you. ‘The uniform is essential in order to conquer,’ Dali (1966: 53) proclaims (Dali only makes proclamations. This is in itself a lesson). ‘Throughout my life, the occasions are very rare when I have abased myself to civilian clothes. I am always dressed in the uniform of Dali.’ And to a young man who is willing to accept the sort of despicable, filthy, poverty-stricken life an artist is expected to lead he admonishes with devilish wisdom (1966: 53-4):

‘If you want to eat beans and bread every day, it will be very expensive. You must earn it by working very hard. On the other hand, if you can get used to living on caviar and champagne, it doesn’t cost a thing.’

He smiles stupidly and thinks I am joking. …

‘Caviar and champagne are things that are offered you free by certain very distinguished ladies, wonderfully perfumed and surrounded by the most beautiful furniture in the world. But to get them, you must be quite different from the you who comes to see Dali with dirty fingernails, while I have received you in uniform.’

Dali, Salvador. 1966 [1964]. Diary of a genius, an autobiography. Trans. Michel Déon. Picador: London.

Gombrich

Ernst H. Gombrich: The story of art

When you find this ubiquitous book for a couple of quid in a charity shop, buy it immediately. The Viennese-born, Oxford-dwelling, self-professed non-art-historian wrote this book as honestly and clearly as he could, intending it to avoid the hormonal scorn of the teenage audience for whom it was written, and to whom the book intends to introduce art. The premise of this book is that ‘there really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists’ (1972: 4) and that a history of artists thus reveals a saga of cosmically different aims and forces. Gombrich trips lightly and eagerly over his words, ever able to see merit in the visual works of humankind. It’s impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiasm for and appreciation of our varied collective efforts. Everything has its place–and time, rather than linearly measuring our progress, merely greets us with different demands. Learn to truly appreciate art, to discover the joy of paintings and sculpture and architecture, and instantly become ten times smarter.

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

Dewey

John Dewey: Art as experience

This surprising book throws heavy punches. It clearly expresses the things about art that make you angry and explains why they should go away. It could only hurt your foes more if you socked them in the face with it.

First of all, Dewey discusses the mysteriousness of art—its detachment from life, its artificial isolation in museums, its role of showcasing imperial conquests. Rather than being removed from our experience, he argues, art should be in the thick of it: it should be the very substance of our lives. ‘The times when select and distinguished objects are closely connected with the products of usual vocations,’ he argues (1934: 6), ‘are the times when appreciation of the former is most rife and most keen. When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art seem anemic to the mass of people, esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar.’ If we live in a world of cheap thrills and throwaway entertainment, it is because we have been told we can’t have nice things, locking them away as mysterious artefacts of Art.

Dewey also addresses the strange introspective tendencies of contemporary artists. Not only has art been excluded from ordinary experience, but ‘because of changes in industrial conditions the artist has been pushed to one side from the main streams of active interest’ (1934: 9). The non-integrated modern artist is forced to turn to ‘a peculiar esthetic “individualism”’—relying on ever more obscure ‘self-expression’ (1934: 9). Art becomes even more foreign to ordinary experience. Seriously, is anyone reading this book?

And in case you were willing to defend art’s reincarnation as ‘self-expression,’ Dewey has a few sucker-punches lined up for thoughtless paint-spilling, which he considers little more than ‘discharge’ (1934: 62):

‘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.’

Dewey demands serious and honest thought from artists, and sees their intellectual processes as differing only in emphasis from that of the scientist (1934: 15). The main difference between the intelligent artist and the scientist is her medium: rather than working in abstracted symbols, ‘the artist does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in, and the terms lie so close to the object that he is producing that they merge directly into it’ (1934: 16).

The only question left to ask is, how did art fester into the hideous mess presently molesting our eyes while this book has been kicking around for eighty years?

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

Galenson

David Galensen: Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity

If you are discouraged at not yet being famous, this soberly-written book ought to give you a good dose of optimism and dispel a lot of silly ideas about creativity and inspiration. Instead of resorting to wild speculation, Galenson has spent years doing research into the way artists work and describes two broad approaches. He calls them the ‘conceptual’ (or deductive) and the ‘experimental’ (inductive). In identifying whether you are good at quickly synthesising ideas and conceiving entirely new ones out of them, or whether you are consumed by a single idea which drives all your investigations, or rather somewhere along this spectrum, you will free yourself from expectations and judgements that don’t actually apply to you. And that means you can just get down to work instead of taping brazen Picasso quotes to your wall.

‘Aptitude and ambition are more important factors in allowing people to make contributions to a chosen discipline than the ability to think and work in any particular way, either deductively or inductively.’ (2006: 166).

Galensen, David W. 2006. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

Clark

Kenneth Clark: The nude: A study of ideal art

I am steadily drawing my way through this book. Not all nudes were created alike, and as you progress through this book you will gain an appreciation for the subtleties of purpose that the bared human form has risen to meet. ‘The English language, with its elaborate generosity,’ Clark (1985: 1) gushes at the outset, ‘distinguishes between the naked and the nude.’ From the outset, he is at pains to emphasise that the nude, rather than being the very essence of art, is ‘an art form invented by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C., just as opera is an art form invented in 17th-century Italy’ (1985: 3).

Our artistic tradition is heavily shaped by the elegant foundation laid by the Greeks, and not just through their mythology. I have been amazed, however, at how the gods and goddesses effortlessly step from one role into another—with lion-skin-wearing Hercules transforming into the honey-eating-from-inside-the-lion Samson, with Apollo and David interchangeable youthful heroes in the mind of Michelangelo. But beneath the stories themselves lies the earthy Greek philosophy which embodies every idea and passion in human form (1985: 20; 21):

‘The Greeks attached great importance to their nakedness. … It implies the conquest of an inhibition which oppresses all but the most backward people; it is like a denial of original sin.’

Of course, the other half of our heritage is the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the nude suffers painfully under the Christian worldview, disrupted though never entirely abandoned (1985: 203): ‘While the Greek nude began with the heroic body proudly displaying itself on the palestra, the Christian nude began with the huddled body cowering in consciousness of sin.’ The awkwardness of our artistic tradition seems to rest on this unhappy marriage of earthy and heavenly philosophies.

Don’t expect a dry historical account of statues, though. Clark winds back and forth, attending in turn to Apollo and Venus, energy and pathos, ecstasy and the grotesque. The book is full of pictures to copy in the absence of life models, and will open your eyes when you return to the gallery to dutifully copy from the antique.

Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.

Sketchbook

Sketchbook

Words, words, words. Time to draw.

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