Fabled cities

Princes St GardensMy triumphant return to Edinburgh reduced me to a giddy five-year-old. The city had become part of the fabric of my dreams: otherworldly, symbolic, a mythological city of my own personal folklore. On my first foray into the wide-open world I settled on this place for no solid reason, and I built myself a life in this story-book setting, in the streets that seem to shift and change in their illogical woven arrangement.


I had little money, an odd assortment of things in a battered suitcase I’d picked up from the side of the road, and an acceptance letter from the University of Edinburgh. It had never before crossed my mind that it was within my reach to travel, for the world is so unimaginably distant when you know nothing but the unending expanse of Australia. But, with infinite cool, I persuaded myself that life abroad would be no different than life at home, and that since one could never be truly prepared it was best to just leap. I would simply study as I usually did, get a job as I always had, live simply and be open. Edinburgh marks the threshold: that attitude has come to define my life.

Black Medicine

Returning to Edinburgh after five years was nothing short of a homecoming, and I hadn’t expected to be so taken with it after all that has happened in between—the cities I’ve fallen in love with, the lives I’ve built. But this first romance is deeply rooted in my being, fondly dwelt upon, sweetly revisited. Those grey drizzled bricks and those winding cobbled passages are like nowhere else. The sheer magic of the geography: dreary laneways that usher you onto the Cowgate; spiralling roads that suddenly bring you to the Grassmarket; wind-whipped streets that back onto the Meadows. It’s nigh impossible to visualise your route, but from any given location you know three portals that connect to three other pockets of the city, and thus you skip from corner to corner until you find yourself where you hoped to be, or somewhere unexpected and worthy of exploration.


Edinburgh taught me a boldness. It taught me to impose on others, to ask for the pleasure of their company, knowing they held back out of politeness. It taught me how far I could rely on myself, and to push yet further. It taught me that the world was within reach, and it taught me to be dissatisfied and to demand more. When I had made a comfortable enough nest in Edinburgh, I ventured out into Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands. And I began to ask myself why I didn’t impose greater challenges on myself, why I didn’t know any other languages, why Australia seemed inevitable when my grandparents themselves had shipped their lives across the world. Perhaps we belonged wherever we felt we did.

Time travel

A past self, Edinburgh

Coming back felt like time-travel—like meeting my past self face to face, that often-solitary self who was first unleashed on the world, who quietly and unassumingly found her place like water trickling in between the cobblestones, before rushing on yet further, moving ever fluidly through the world. So many in my life don’t know this me, can’t see how profoundly I was moulded by this ancient place that has cocooned countless others before. But some know the bewitching ways of Auld Reekie—Anna concurs: ‘I always have a sense of happy contentment whenever I get off the train at Waverley.’ Either this unbelievable city is real, or I woke up in my dreams.


Of respect and respectability

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

I lately find myself floating untethered across Europe, of unfixed address and relying on the kindness of friends. Determined to do away with distractions, excess possessions, and non-painting-related ambitions, my faithful and scuffed old suitcase and I have somewhat conspicuously fallen off the path of respectability.


Making big wishes, Vienna

Wafting from city to city, from house to house, welcomed warmly into the homes of friends, I’m permitted into the private spheres of young doctors, paramedics, physicists, engineers and environmental charity workers, and granted a sobering insight into the contrasts in our chosen careers. But I’m also freshly awoken to how difficult it is for each of us to forge our way. My friends are well-travelled, well-educated, some are employed, some have suspended employment for the sake of a relationship, some have worked offshore, some are physically overworked, others are mentally under-challenged, some need to secure funding to guarantee their own ongoing employment. Those of us with money are not necessarily respected, because their jobs are too physical or not demanding enough of their time. Those of us who are working for the betterment of the world are anxious at not contributing enough. And I, as capable as they, cling resolutely to my cause in the face of my meagre earning-power.

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic











This unsettling confrontation with earning ability has been somewhat tempered by some thoughts from philosopher Alain de Botton. I found his book Status anxiety on a bookshelf in a new home and read it hungrily and hopefully. For at heart, we all want to occupy ourselves with something which challenges and satisfies us, and we want others to respect us for our efforts. But are our equations, prescriptions, policies and drawings enough when the measure held against our work is money? De Botton lays out an historical account of our attitude to wealth that can at least reassure the financially-challenged that they are not necessarily worthless. He describes the complete historical about-face of our estimation of wealth, and, most strikingly, its connection with virtue.

Poverty wasn’t always such a psychological burden to bear, argues de Botton (2004: 67-68), particularly in a world where one was born either into nobility or peasantry according to God’s will. One’s moral worth could not be wrapped up in one’s social standing if that immutable standing was allotted by God. Poverty might bring physical discomforts, but not shame. And since the aristocracy acknowledged that their luxuries were only made possible through the untiring efforts of the lower classes, it was only fitting that they demonstrated charity and pity toward these unfortunates. A delicate balance of interdependency between rich and poor reinforced the idea that virtue and moral worth were not reflected in wealth (2004: 70).

But in about the middle of the eighteenth century, argues de Botton (2004: 75-76), some hopeful meritocratic ideas began to take root and to dismantle these beliefs and thus to erode our collective appraisal of poverty. And, more sinisterly, supply and demand were switched. Rather than considering the role of the poor a necessary evil, fatefully bestowed, their position came to be described as dependent on the whims of the rich. Without demand, their labour would be for naught. Thinkers as forceful as David Hume and Adam Smith helped to redefine who depended on whom (2004: 76-78):

Hume loving, Edinburgh

Hume loving, Edinburgh

‘In a nation where there is no demand for superfluities, men sink into indolence, lose all enjoyment of life, and are useless to the public, which cannot maintain or support its fleets and armies.’ (David Hume, 1752).

Portrait gallery

National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

‘In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own convenience, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, the rich divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.’ (Adam Smith, 1776).

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Charity became a burden; the poor became a nuisance (2004: 78). Coupled with progressive ideas that every individual ought to be rewarded according to his or her abilities and achievements, the modern attitude to poverty is one of disdain. For the flipside of meritocracy is that those who do not excel deserve the hardships and stigma that they have thus earned. It seems a regrettable but inevitable price to pay. Since one ought to be able to improve one’s position, failure to do so has come to imply moral failure in a way it did not in the past (2004: 87). De Botton (p. 85) explains, ‘An increasing faith in a reliable connection between merit and worldly position in turn endowed money with a new moral quality.’ And, worse: ‘To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame’ (2004: 91).

De Botton goes on to explore antidotes to this new state of affairs, a string of themes that reads like my biography: Christianity, Politics, Philosophy, Art and Bohemia. Perhaps my attraction to these things has lessened my own regard for money and for the esteem that comes hand in hand with it. At heart, his message is to seek value elsewhere; define worth on your own terms, as many have before. Build, adopt or steal an unshakable moral code so that in dark times you can measure your life and your own worth against this and not money; so that you can respect yourself and stay focused on your life’s work. Perhaps that confidence and determination is enough win the respect of those who doubt you.

Love Newcastle













De Botton, Alain. 2004. Status anxiety. Hamish Hamilton: London.


La source

After Ingres, La Source

After Ingres, La Source

I have been thinking about how important it is to uncover one’s source. My dear friend Jacques has been in town, and his simultaneous lightness and solidity has been energizing. But it is not enough to rely on the buoyancy of others. I think of Ingres’ La Source, and of how she sustains herself: an endless spring, an infinite well needing no support.

Delacroix journal

Delacroix (p. 32) struggles, early in his journals, with a restlessness—‘This restlessness that comes over me almost every evening! Oh sweet contentment of the philosophers, why can I not capture you?’ He concludes, ‘I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now. What I have done cannot be taken from me.’ Knowing that you have invested your energies and your time into something meaningful allows you to sustain yourself—independent of others, independent of circumstances—able to carry yourself, and pick yourself up, and nourish yourself. Delacroix (p. 29) muses, ‘Even one task fulfilled at regular intervals in a man’s life can bring order into his life as a whole; everything else hinges upon it.’


And so, I begin to look for the things that cut through everything else, the things I can return to, the things that I can build on day after day and thus build myself up. While Jacques is employed in a field of theoretical physics that keeps him wholly engaged and focused, thus finding a source in his work, I must fill the crevices left in my days with the things that energize me. Drawing stands out like a beacon. When I’m not drawing, it seems hard and important and worthy of time, too big and significant for snatches of moments. But once it slips into those snatches, it penetrates everything—bad moods, sadness, fatigue. I must depend upon my drawing. Philosophy, too—I remember the consolation it has given me, far deeper than any escapism offered by fiction. My quiet time over coffee, studying German, and practicing grammar, and gaining a mastery over something new and challenging. These things are solitary and unshakeable, and with them I can prop myself up, and build myself up. I must draw, and study, and think deeply, and I will be refreshed and strong enough to face the world.


Delacroix (p. 20) happened upon the same realisation: ‘Poor fellow!’ he chided himself. ‘How can you do great work when you are always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.’


I am amazed that my sketchbook languishes when I know what it gives me! So few tools, and yet they give me the power to invert everything. It is like holding up a pitcher that never runs dry—what sorcery!


Later in life, Delacroix (p. 133) reflects on the source of his strength and peace, probing himself thus: ‘Why was it that I lived so fully on that particular day? Because I had a great many ideas that are miles away from me now. The secret of having no worries—at least where I am concerned—is to have plenty of ideas. Therefore I cannot afford to let slip any means of encouraging them. Good books have this effect, and especially certain books. Health is the first consideration, but even when one is feeling dull and tired these particular books can renew the source from which my imagination flows.’ Endlessly refreshed by Dante, and perpetually inspired by Rubens, Delacroix persevered with his work in spite of feeling ill, or tired, or distracted by companions. He struggled, but he knew himself well enough to bring himself through those struggles and focus on what was most meaningful to him—and, as we all hope to, to produce something enduring, the true offspring of that drive.


My friend and philosopher Mark muses, ‘I begin to suppose that life will never feel more real or more lively than it does right now, and if we ever want to do something great, we must do it feeling like this.’ I think he is correct in concluding that it won’t strike us like a bolt from the heavens, this energy that will propel us to greatness. He is right to feel we must push on through apathy. But if we can nurture that part of ourselves in secret, and find that quiet spring inside us, perhaps we can pull ourselves out of that foggy place by our own bootstraps.


James Dickey, to conclude:

You?    I?    What difference is there?    We can all be saved
By a secret blooming. Now as I walk
The night    and you walk with me    we know simplicity
Is close to the source that sleeping men
Search for in their home-deep beds.
We know that the sun is away    we know that the sun can be conquered
By moths, in blue home-town air.

(James L Dickey, The strength of fields)

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


Reckless solitude


The world we live in is constructed to support the social creature. Above all others it celebrates the confident, outspoken, public person. It trains us all from our youth to operate in this way, forcing us to be ‘socialised’ in the school, teaching us to perform in front of an audience, preparing us to interact confidently with strangers for the daily transactions our work will demand when we are of age. The reserved, meditative soul is shaken out of its reverie and compelled also to work in this way, despite convincing evidence that such a being might produce more work, and qualitatively better work, in secret, in the privacy of their own room.

The wish for an unthinking, reckless solitude. To be face to face only with myself. Perhaps I shall have it in Riva.

(Kafka, p. 222).

I have been thinking about the solitary life of the painter, and how that faceless entity of ‘society’ warns us against the gruelling hours spent alone in a studio, cut off from human contact. The more time I spend drawing and painting, the more I relish this solitude and the more I crave it. To have autonomy in one’s work is not the only appealing thing. To be so completely immersed in one’s work and undistracted by others is a real gift to the quiet creature, who finds the time alone more attuned to her natural state. Having learned to shed her shyness, she finds it infinitely more conducive to her most fulfilling work to shrink back into it. The painter-animal in the painter-cave, not forcibly shut off from society, but willingly retreating from the inanity of it:

I will write again, but how many doubts have I meanwhile had about my writing? At bottom I am an incapable, ignorant person who, if he had not been compelled—without any effort on his own part and scarcely aware of the compulsion—to go to school, would be fit only to crouch in a kennel, to leap out when food is offered him, and to leap back when he has swallowed it.

(Kafka, p. 237).

Where Kafka considers himself some kind of brute for recognising this trait in himself, I am beginning to believe that this reserve is something to be respected and valued. As one pursues a solitary career and finds oneself submerged in this kennel for days at a time, one achieves a remarkable clarity, a peaceful mental state and a depth of thought not to be found in short snatches of time salvaged here and there around a busy schedule. Creatures like us need time to mull, to ponder, to gestate. Where others intrude, they become a distraction and an imposition:

Everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it, for it disturbs me or delays me, if only because I think it does. I lack all aptitude for family life except, at best, as an observer. I have no family feeling and visitors make me almost feel as though I were maliciously being attacked.

(Kafka, p. 231).

Let me elaborate: I have been out landscape painting. I am currently without the ‘room of one’s own’ of Virginia Woolf’s persuasion, though my suitcase contains a few clothes, many books, and my easel and paints, so I am spending my painterly time out in the world. This has the unexpected consequence of transforming me from the humble painter-animal, a shy and single-minded creature by nature, to the performance artist. It is a harrowing demand on someone living so much in her own head. I am grappling with the selection of convincing tones, attempting to create a harmony in the colours I lay down, searching for the contrasts that work towards the hazy vision in my head. I am battling the wind that rattles my canvas about, intermittent rain, and not a little fatigued by the early afternoon sun. I feel an immense uncertainty in my progress: I am not rehearsing a little routine that I perform swiftly and with ease. I am engaged in a mental struggle, trying to enact that mysterious alchemy of transforming my deep and changing three-dimensional surroundings into a small, flat illusion.

And, worse than bugs, prickly grass and sunburn—I am swarmed by spectators, who, unlike bugs, prickly grass and sunburn, are full of questions, observations and opinions. And carrying cameras.

Here are some suggestions, should you ever encounter a painter at her easel in the wild, open world: Don’t ask her how long the thing will take. Time passes her without fanfare: she doesn’t measure her success by such quantitative units. Time ceases to be calculated in minutes and hours and becomes recorded in brushstrokes and layers of paint. It took me pink and green long to make this. I don’t know what you are talking about. Don’t tell her about your painting relatives. Blood-relations don’t afford you any special painting knowledge. And she is trying to work.

On the whole, spectators are a well-meaning bunch; I truly think this. Only I am so involved in the task to hand, that I am extremely irritated to be taken away from it, and extremely stressed to be aware that I am on a stage, under a spotlight. Because my medium is visual, I am somehow obliged to share it. I envy the writer who can hide behind his laptop, or shrink quietly into his notebook.

Surfacing from our private thoughts and rising to these social demands is perhaps a necessary task, but by no means an easy one, once one has rediscovered the comfort of the painter-cave one has been banished from since childhood. Perhaps we do well to avoid them, recognising the destructive power of these demands. Kafka sounds, to ordinary ears, like he is being melodramatic, but something resonates fiercely with me in his uncompromising words:

My job is unbearable to me because it conflicts with my only desire and my only calling, which is literature. Since I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else, my job will never take possession of me, it may, however, shatter me completely, and this is by no means a remote possibility.

(Kafka, p. 230).

And his feelings are more poetically, though no less forcefully, expressed by Virginia Woolf:

But what still remains with me as a worse infliction than either [the hardness of the work or the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned] was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide—a small one but dear to the possessor—perishing and with it my self, my soul—all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart.

(Woolf, p. 39).

All this ‘flattering and fawning,’ this performing for an audience, stands between us and serious work. We painters and writers are not nasty creatures, or unable to empathise, or careless of others. Our shyness might rather belie a more sympathetic and sensitive nature. We are simply concentrated on the task to hand, and only ask for the time and space to attend to it.

The tremendous world I have in my head. But how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.

(Kafka, p. 222).

Kafka, Franz. 2009 [1959]. Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken.
Woolf, Virginia. [1928] 1963. A room of one’s own. Penguin: Mitcham, Victoria.


The swamp and the little animals

Swamp © Brian Deagon

Swamp © Brian Deagon

Brian Deagon graciously hosted Ryan and me at his home and studio a few weekends ago, putting on a fabulous spread for lunch, giving us a tour of his sprawling bungalow and extensive shed studio and—most generous of all—a preview of his upcoming show in July. Both house and studio are set amongst gum trees through which the low light slings, projecting dramatic colours in the sky—oranges and lilacs—as the sun goes down. The shed studio is positively stuffed with paintings and flickering with moths and wasps. The maze-like house is lined with paintings like wallpaper. The dining room where we sat down to a huge crisp salad, a fresh baguette and some haloumi and cured meats has walls lined in gold-framed paintings—this is Brian’s personal joke about ‘art,’ and how one can tell whether the piece in question is art. His beautiful Swamp painting, a large piece, hangs outside on the wall by the front door, mostly sheltered from the weather, and apparently impervious to it. An old cane couch stands opposite it, and lounging about in it one can gaze at Swamp infinitely, wondering why it is that anyone spends their time in front of a television.

Brian has had a fascinating career thus far, and there’s something truly admirable in his approach to art, and plenty to be learned from it. He started out as an abstract painter, layering shapes and filling his paint with grit and sticking things to the canvas. One such painting stands on an easel in the shed, in two parts. Brian can’t remember how it goes together, and spends a few minutes rearranging it. He looks at it solemnly and says, ‘One night I stepped back and looked at this painting and said, “Brian, what are you doing? You’re only painting like this because you can’t draw.”’ So he gave up painting. He retired from his teaching job and took his daughter across the country and onwards to the US to pursue her promising ballet career. He stopped painting and he stopped drawing, because he recognised a crucial gap in his knowledge and could find no way to fill it. It was twenty years later when he heard of Lance Bressow that he returned to it, picking up right where he left off. There’s amazing courage in first giving up the thing that drives you, and then in returning to it and getting on with it. Yet Brian describes it as a straightforward enough thing, and one must simply do what one must do.

The works for Brian’s upcoming show at the RQAS are lush rainforest and swamp scenes, and I think to call them landscapes would be to neglect something important about them. These are not lovely false windows to hang on your wall, decorative pieces to remind one of the natural world beyond. One senses that these large paintings—at least a couple of metres across—are real portraits of real places, capturing the spirit of the places and recording the features. He alters things, certainly, for compositional harmony, but the places are recognisable, especially to his Aboriginal friends who know the places intimately. Brian’s work powerfully respects that sense of place, and it comes across so strongly that he has a profound sense of what it is to be in a place.

His paintings got me thinking about the idea of reverence and awe and a sort of secular experience of the sacred. It’s strange to me that the Western response to an expanse of landscape is that it’s a nice chunk of scenery, and that we can only experience the sacred through our own constructs. A forest is just a forest, possibly good for logging and mining, but a cathedral is the holiest of holies, and you’d better not bare your sinful shoulders that the Good Lord gave you. We worship ourselves rather than things bigger than us, and have no time for the so-called primitivism of the Aboriginal sense of sacred places.

Tackle © Brian Deagon

Tackle © Brian Deagon

‘Little animals’ are beginning to make an appearance in Brian’s work, sprouting amongst the lush riots of greenery—tiny unclothed people wrestling. ‘We’re only little animals!’ he explains, chuckling a little. ‘We fight over food, territory or mates. Nothing else.’ When I return to the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna just a few weeks later I’m struck that Brian’s project echoes a beautiful painting by Paolo Veronese and his workshop, Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Paradise. Veronese’s forest is deep and shadowy, his trees falling to the edges of the painting as if they are at the edge of the earth. The canopy feels impenetrable, and hides all the animals—including some little human ones—in its darkness. There is a real wildness to this painting, a sense of having to tame something so untameable. Brian’s paintings tap into this same sort of wildness. Rather than cloaking his little human animals in the shadow of evil, he grows them out of the frenzy of vital colour. There is nothing shameful or sinful in Brian’s paintings, just a matter-of-fact appreciation of life.

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from paradise © Paolo Veronese

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from paradise © Paolo Veronese

Some paintings Brian begins tonally, laying down a grisaille and introducing the electric colour later—phthaelo greens winning the day. One large canvas (and most of them are a couple of metres across) remains a grisaille, a dramatic, near nocturnal variation. Some of the smaller ones are painted without green paint at all, relying on yellow and black, and even red in places. Brian chuckles about the ability of the human eye to see red as green. He is immensely interested in what sort of trickery the painter can achieve.

Besides this, he is thoroughly playful in following his thought progressions. Another painting he has chopped into squares no bigger than a hand and framed each individually (in gold frames of course) to abstract them. He then repainted them, larger, on canvases that can be rearranged infinitely; an ultimate abstraction. He and Ryan discuss this idea of abstraction emerging from something representational, and of being excited by the abstract design inherent in found things.

Waterhole at Kundulomdulom © Brian Deagon

Waterhole at Kundulomdulom © Brian Deagon

The most profound lesson is perhaps in Brian’s character: he is a man of immense humility, who has never stopped learning. He gladly takes classes with people much his junior, because he wants to learn from them. His extensive website—boasting a beautifully written collection of thoughtful essays—describes this best. He writes admiringly of Ryan, teacher at the Atelier Art Classes, after taking a class with him:

We really need to say more about what I see as Daffurn’s idealism. It’s not the kind where everyone has a “Greek” nose and all female breasts defy gravity in their perfect cones. It goes much deeper philosophically in a Kantian or Heideggerian sense. It comes from a reverence for the constructed body, and a profound understanding of its structure in three dimensions, and the fourth dimension being potential movement in time, and all within a space of light and colour, revealing and concealing the body at the same moment.

Nothing really needs to be invented, just deeply understood.

It’s a proud stance, underpinned by humility. Incidentally, the controlled art studio lighting is not mandatory, it’s just a help to the student. This is all based on a reverence for nature and the body we inhabit. More than that, it presupposes a profound belief in the intelligence of artist and audience, and the visual language they use. We intend to edify our viewer, not shock them. This might not be fashionable, but it’s not “dead” as some post-structuralists might claim. To invoke beauty, hope, intelligence, diligence, persistence, structure, design etc may be idealistic and even naïve, but its not wrong. Drawing of this kind is much more than a skill set or an arcane knowledge. It implies a moral relationship between artist and model.

I keep using the word “profound”. Because it is.

One could reflect this sentiment back on Brian, who, though for many years denied the technical education, is bold and audacious, but a humble student. There is a profound lesson in this.

See Brian’s show at the Royal Queensland Art Society, Petrie Terrace, Brisbane, 20 July to 3 August 2013. Don’t miss the ones in gold frames.


Dangerous liaisons

Les liaisons dangereuses c Samantha Groenestyn

Les liaisons dangereuses © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on canvas)

The winds of change bring not just cooling Autumn rain, but also new adventures: within a month I will be leaving warm, sleepy Australia for sparkling Vienna. I’ll be trading rough and ready Brisbane for a (the?) global cultural capital, whiling away my hours swooning over paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, spending my evenings at the opera, and doing some Very Serious Painting over gold-leaf-flecked cakes and creamy coffee.

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Having recently finished an ambitious book that links together art, neuroscience, psychology and Vienna, I am filled with confidence at a new aspect to my direction in life. Eric R Kandel’s The Age of Insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present talks intelligently to the reader, delving into current brain research and treating Freud’s brazenly novel ideas with honest admiration for what they set in motion. Plus, it is illustrated, with Klimt’s dreamy paintings and Kokoschka’s and Shiele’s charged paintings an optically pleasing counterbalance to brain diagrams and psychology flow-charts in the quest for the unconscious. The most striking thing about the book is that Kandel does not have to draw tenuous threads through these diverse fields: He simply situates them, historically, in one small city of two million people at the turn of the twentieth century, and unfolds a narrative of minds fertilising one another in an intellectually electric environment.

Austrian Parliament

Austrian Parliament

That environment was cultivated in a very specific way. Vienna in 1900, argues Kandel (p. 499), ‘provided a social context—the university, coffeehouses, and salons—in which scientists and artists could readily exchange ideas.’ He cites Berta Zuckerkandl’s salon several times, and the luminaries she drew together, such as Klimt and Rodin. He writes extensively of the influence of Rokitansky in the Vienna Medical School, and the social connections struck up through the university between faculties. Vienna was a small place, something like Brisbane, and one can imagine the intimacy—in Brisbane there is a joke that there are only two degrees of separation between all of its inhabitants. Importantly, Kandel (p. 499) points out, scholars of the sciences and arts alike were united by a common interest: that of ‘unconscious mental processes,’ enabling a true dialogue of benefit to all parties.


The dialogue between art and brain science, Kandel (p. xvi) explains in his opening comments, is of mutual benefit because these two fields ‘represent two distinct perspectives on mind. Through science we know that all of our mental life arises from the activity of our brain. … Art, on the other hand, provides insight into the more fleeting, experiential qualities of mind, what a certain experience feels like.’ Where Freud could envision an idea of the unconscious that appeared to fit with his experience with his patients, and where brain science could seek to explain why these mysterious patterns exist, Kokoschka could, through his expressionist brushwork and symbolism, explain these concepts visually. Klimt’s art in particular drew on his knowledge of emerging science, and symbols of fertility permeate his paintings while visually describing sensuality in a very moving way. Kandel (p. 507) traces right back to da Vinci, who ‘used his newly gained knowledge of the human anatomy to depict the human form in a more compelling and accurate manner.



All of this work chips away at the same problem from different angles, giving us different ways in, providing different insights, recording different aspects of our experience of our own minds. In a context where the work of these various fields can influence each other, new questions can arise; the cumulative body of work can grow in ways that each strain could not achieve independently. ‘It is quite likely,’ Kandel (p. 506) argues, ‘that finding new interactions between aspects of art and aspects of the science of perception and emotion will continue to enlighten both fields, and that in time those interactions may well have cumulative effects.’

Wiener Rathaus

Wiener Rathaus

Kandel (p. 501) asserts the need for a ‘third way, a set of explanatory bridges across the chasm between art and science.’ He envisions this third, conciliatory way as enabling discussion between heretofore restricted intellectual fields—a modern salon, centred around the universities (p. 505). It is at this point that I realise the immense value of the position I inhabit. A philosophy graduate, still tied up in the university, romantically partnered with a quantum physicist and able to move freely in these academic circles, I am also a painter, spending much of my time in the company of artists of an especially intellectual breed. While the Atelier exists outside of the university, it seeks to fulfil aspects of artistic study that I would venture that the fine arts in the university context in Australia cannot: pursuing excellence in practice and rigorous analytical thinking wholly tied up in that practice, not in conceptualising about social commentary or confusing the viewer through impenetrable artist statements and other trickery. Bringing these minds together—painters, philosophers and physicists—is about the noblest cause I can think of.


This work is already underway, in the coffee shops of Brisbane, in parties in old Queenslander houses, and in the old bomb factory warehouse that houses the Atelier. Ryan recently instituted a public lecture series at the Atelier, where intellectuals of all fields are invited to talk to artists in the spirit of collaboration. Jacques enthusiastically gave the first talk a couple of weeks ago, introducing current ideas in physics that might meld with ideas in art (you’ll be able to see his talk here soon). Ian Neill followed with a presentation on academicism in art. Rumour has it that Kari Sullivan will be sharing some linguistic observations pertaining to art, and that others have thoughts on the haphazard modern art education contrasted with the rigorous and ordered education of music, and the critical value of the peer review system sorely lacking in the visual arts where any amateur can demand respect. The topics are endless, the speakers willing, and the growing audience is stimulated.

Streets of Vienna

Streets of Vienna

Most of all, I intend to continue to open my home—be it in Brisbane, Vienna, or anywhere else in this intellectually vibrant world—and share tasty food, abundant wine and fierce discussion with passionate thinkers in all fields. Consider this your invitation.


* Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The Age of Insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present. Random House: New York.


Full time

I’ve almost forgotten I have a home, because I’ve been bunkered down at the Atelier which I pretty much never want to leave. You may recall I’m taking a three-month intensive, having thrown in all steady employment in favour of a full-blown art frenzy, and I’m happy to report that it’s everything I hoped and dreamed.

My glorious new routine involves getting up at the same time every day (what luxury!), and this time is not remotely near 5am, taking some brain food such as Bammes or Scott’s ‘book’ to a pleasant, sunny café, and cruising down to the studio by 9.30 to work intently until late afternoon (tea breaks allowed).

Scott’s book

I then potter around a while, working on some illustration and such before the evening class, and head home after about twelve hours of making art. Some days there are models, some days there are casts, some days there are cylinder horses. I’ve investigated the properties of cylinders, discovered three-point perspective, faceted David’s eye, explored turning points through colour, carved masses out of charcoal smudges and rendered some velvety legs. It’s extremely satisfying to work hard all day and to feel like all the knowledge one has gained barely scratches the surface. A lifetime of challenge and intellectual stimulation awaits—art is inexhaustible.

So much of what we do is learning to see, and we learn to see by doing. There’s no fixed curriculum, no exams, no term times, no lectures. The teachers attend to us one at a time, demonstrating their own distinct methods and directing us through exercises that correspond to what we already know and what we hope to gain. I don’t note down anything, I only listen and question and try for myself, and listen again and try again. The teachers bring new explanations, new examples, deftly trailing their pencils across my page to unpack things, connect things, describe things. A new language is penetrating my vocabulary as anatomical words drift along assured pencil strokes. Hearing a piece of information doesn’t cement it, but there is always a day when the new knowledge leaps from the page and everything becomes clear.

Tools are always to hand—skulls, flayed figure casts, iPads, books. Books on bones and muscles, books on artists, historical books, philosophy books. Discussion trips from brushstrokes to politics to sugar-free diets. Cake is shared. Those who find scant time for art feel something when they come—they feel compelled to justify their life choices, assure us of their artistic capabilities, make us understand how big they are in the outside world. But at the atelier, life is art. Nothing else is as pure or simple or profound, and those who seek refuge elsewhere are but making weak excuses for themselves.

Also, we are having a summer show. It’s soon! It’s in Paddington, Brisbane! If you want to hear us wax lyrical about art and see a bunch of drawings of Nicolo (and some other things), you should drop by the RQAS gallery on Petrie Terrace on Saturday 8 December. I’m going to be showing Rufus (‘a painting worthy of its name’—‘well I’d best name it, then’):

Rufus © Samantha Groenestyn


‘This willingness to continually revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet makes its sweep through a certain patch of sky.’ (Scarry*, p. 7).

Time to go make some more art. x

*Scarry, Elaine, 1999. On beauty and being just. Princeton University Press: New Jersey.