Secrets

Balthus

Balthus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I peered into the disquieting world of Balthus last week. A collection of his works is gathered in Vienna, which seems particularly fitting to me, knowing him to be a lifelong favourite of and inspiration to Francis Giacco, who is a role model of mine and one-time inhabitant of fair Vienna. Giacco paints dreamy still-lives dappled with fractured afternoon sunlight, layering patterns upon patterns in a quietly hypnotic fashion, the arrangements comprised of treasures gathered in Europe—musical instruments, luscious woven fabrics, curious marionettes, and globes that revolve and ache with Fernweh. His predilection for Balthus filled me with extra keenness to discover some hidden secrets.

Balthus

Balthus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Balthus is shrouded in secrecy. I once encountered a book on him, a picture-heavy volume that began with an anecdote that Balthus preferred an artist statement along the lines of: ‘Balthus is a painter. No one knows anything about him.’ On reading these lines, I felt to continue reading the book would amount to painterly betrayal; I feasted only on the pictures. And when I finally met him face-to-face at this exhibition, I honoured his wishes and ignored the copious text printed on the walls of the Kunstforum. I can’t tell you anything about Balthus; I even forgot to check where he is from. But isn’t that a wonderful thing?—To talk, rather, about his paintings.

Balthus

Balthus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

His paintings cloak the rooms in an overwhelmingly sinister atmosphere. This is surprising, given their apparent simplicity, their bold, clear, often flattened shapes, their often very plain subject matter: children loafing about, unpretentious portraits, still lives. How can such simple imagery fill one with such a sense of dread, leave one so unsettled? Perhaps it is the quiet implications: the tense and inappropriate relation of girl to boy; the gutting disinterest of men in their wives; the invitation to see just a little too far up a little girl’s dress; the huge knife thrust menacingly through the loaf of bread. And the evil cats, perched like demons above melodramatically exuberant figures. One feels oppressed in these rooms, for Balthus alone is not to blame: we are complicit in his quiet evils because we fail to avert our eyes.

Balthus

Balthus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And why can’t we look away? I think it is something to do with how formally strong the paintings are. Shapes are pieced together firmly; arcs swing through figures and drive our gaze forcefully. People are reassuringly geometric: strong, balanced and mathematically pleasing. But the flatness is deceptive—foreshortened arms reveal Balthus’ understanding of space, but deliberate curvature of it. He shatters the picture plane with tables bent into conflicting perspectives; he plays with proportions and mocks our sense of sight, subduing it to his own dark purposes.

The drawing in the paintings is usually firm, calculated and assured. This confidence is beguiling. The apparent simplicity of the paintings is really supported by intelligent, knowledge-laden lines, surreptitiously used with purpose. We are enchanted by the result, but the structure beneath is carefully planned and artfully disguised. I think Balthus’ drawing, though not aiming at naturalism, is not as naive and simple as it seems. This is why the paintings strike us so forcefully.

Balthus

Balthus

And then there is the paint. Balthus’ surfaces are often rough, paint viciously scrubbed on, the pock-marks gleefully disturbing the pictorial flatness. This dimension cannot be overstated when describing Balthus’ painting: otherwise low-contrast, neutral colours—as in his landscapes—which gently merge and ripple, are simultaneously hacked as if from the inside thanks to this many-layered scumbling. ‘The idea of a layered process is celebrated and the opticality of the surface is animated by a lively push and pull at the scale of the weave’ (Nelson, 2010: 156). This rough manner of applying paint works its own quiet effect on the viewer in unison with the content of the image and with the careful construction of it. Balthus gives the paint itself a voice, and it is a coarse, goading one, just as provocative as the cats and the knives and the underage girls.

Copy after Balthus with bonus Holbein

Copy after Balthus with bonus Holbein

I think an important key to Balthus is the possibility of friendship with children. This is a very delicate subject, fraught with predatory dangers. And yet, on the flip side, there is some sort of violence we wreak on children when we oppress them for their rational deficiencies. Children are not fully rational, but nor are they completely ignorant, and certainly not innocent. Meeting children on a more level footing involves acknowledging their evils, and permitting them the space for self-determination. It is a desperately lonely feeling as a child to feel that you know yourself, that you have independent thoughts, and yet you are an outsider to the world of decision-making; you are an observer of your own life. And yet, perhaps this childhood solitude is just what Balthus wrenches us back to, as Rilke (1997: 41-42). writes:

‘Aber vielleicht sind das gerade die Stunden, wo die Einsamkeit wächst; denn ihr Wachsen ist schmerzhaft wie das Wachsen der Knaben und traurig wie der Anfang der Frühlinge. Aber das darf Sie nicht irre machen. Was not tut, ist doch nur dieses: Einsamkeit, große innere Einsamkeit. In-sich-Gehen und stundenlang niemandem begegnen,—das muß man erreichen können. Einsam sein, wie man als Kind einsam war, als die Erwachsenen umhergingen, mit Dingen verflochten, die wichtig und groß schienen, weil die Großen so geschäftig aussahen und weil man von ihrem Tun nichts begriff.’

(‘But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But that must not confuse you. What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours—that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn’t understand a thing about what they were doing.’)

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Seeing eye-to-eye with children and their simple but nonetheless penetrating sorrows is probably what is required to truly befriend them. I suspect few people really befriend children, preferring rather to look down on them, talk down to them, and consider their inferiority endearing, their companionship like that of a stupidly loveable dog. Balthus intimates that children are more like cats: crafty and guileful, if at our adult disposal. And Balthus disconcerts us by coaxing us into the secret world of childhood, inviting us to converse with children as equals. I think of Gurdweill’s unfussy interactions with children in David Vogel’s (2013 [1930]: 93-94) novel:

‘Gurdweill stood up to leave. He pinched Fritzi on his smooth, fat cheek; the baby cupped Gurdweill’s nose in his clumsy hand; and an alliance was cemented between them. … And now he had a new friend: little Fritzi!’

But perhaps such friendships are themselves a fantasy, being by definition imbalanced, and requiring some artificiality on the part of the adult. Perhaps it is this very imbalance that Balthus disquiets us with. He leaves us feeling that such friendships are, after all, unnatural, and inevitably shadowed by dread and secrecy.

Balthus

Balthus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘How do we then progress
to a ‘childlike wisdom’
in this confusing universe
of impossible electrons,
without completely
reverting back to
childhood?’

(Jacques Pienaar)

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1997. Briefe an einen jungen Dichter / Briefe an eine unge Frau. Diogenes: Zürich.

Vogel, David. 2013 [1930]. Married life. Trans. Dalya Bilu. Scribe: Melbourne.

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Disrespect

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Philosophy demands a certain arrogance. Clear and deep thinking requires a solid grounding in and familiarity with the thought of our forebears, as intelligent painting requires an intimate communion with painting of the past. But the type of philosophy that hovers over the past, circling like ravenous vultures, and only cautiously picking at things that have already been thought, tentatively offering patches for small tears in the fabric, or perhaps safely offering an historical overview of thinkers long deceased, is desperately timid.

tinte

This acceptable sort of philosophy, while courteous and respectful, seems to discard the real purpose of philosophy, the true inquisitive nature of it. Philosophy is a razor-sharp tool that can be turned upon the world to make incisive insights, to fundamentally change our view of it. Wittgenstein (1953: 47) says decisively and dramatically, ‘Die Philosophie ist ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unsres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache.’ (‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.’)

pencil

It’s difficult to imagine Wittgenstein diligently attending seminars on how to narrow the scope of his research questions, how to situate his small contribution among the multitudinous academic literature, how to structure his dissertation—beginning with the immovable words of some philosophical heavyweight, detailing the near impenetrable ideas and only at the end offering some humble amendments. Did Wittgenstein’s potential supervisors chide him, ‘Herr Wittgenstein, don’t be a hero’? Imagine the number of scholars who would be put out of work had Wittgenstein been deterred by advice that philosophy should not be visionary!

Ivo

My philosopher friend Kim Solin (2013: 57) notes in his own dissertation that ‘there is sometimes an assertive tone in Wittgenstein’s writings, since the descriptions and objects of comparison need to be taken seriously, so that they will change the way we view things.’ Wittgenstein’s arrogance stems not exactly from disrepect or disregard for the past, but from a firm belief in how philosophy operates, and why. Unlike in science, Wittgenstein (1953: 47) is at pains to make clear, we are not proposing and testing some hypothesis with the goal of piecing together a theory. We do not need an army of lab-rats filling in gaps and completing Kant’s or Descartes’ or Hume’s ‘theories.’ Philosophy, rather, turns a light on the problems we encounter in life, be they moral problems or aesthetic problems, mathematical problems or political problems. It allows us, at a distance from the practical domain, to inspect the nature of those problems, to deepen our understanding and to help us find a new way forward:

‘We must do away with all explanation and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its power of illumination—i.e. its purpose—from the philosophical problems. … The problems are solved not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.’

This healthy disrespect for restrictive academic processes is a sort of intellectual self-preservation: Solin (2013: 61) writes that it is not exactly that we lack respect, rather that ‘one should try to protect oneself from being taken into possession by [in his case] mathematics. … Showing some disrespect might just well be what is needed for that.’ The structures within academia attempt to preserve rigorous standards of thought. They prevent crackpots from publishing incoherent madness; they extend a tradition rather than permitting ruptures; they encourage common languages among scholars, rather than letting them rave unintelligibly past each other. I have nothing against this. But these firm structures should not paralyse us with fear—they should not possess us. We have something to say, and it might not only be a counter-claim. We are observing the world, too, and probing into the nature of problems. Our backgrounds—some practical, some theoretical—afford us different insights. Facing the wall of opponents we are expected to politely challenge, we feel nothing but an indescribable fatigue. Perhaps we can leave such work for others—perhaps we have some new and optimistic description to offer.

Copy after Rubens

Copy after Rubens

Of course, this does not mean the world is unbounded. We stand firmly upon the work that has gone before, we read and read, we learn to think by thinking through the thoughts of others. We set meaningful and useful parameters for our own work, we attempt to define limits. We strive after clarity and humbly keep quiet and listen when we meet an idea worth attention. Our attitude reflects Wittgenstein’s, as elucidated at the outset of his Tractatus (1963 [1921]: 7):

‘Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, läßt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muß man schweigen. Das Buch will also dem Denken eine Grenze ziehen, oder vielmehr—nicht dem Denken, sondern dem Ausdruck der Gedanken: Denn um dem Denken eine Grenze zu ziehen, müßten wir beide Seiten dieser Grenze denken können.’

(‘Anything that can be said at all, can be said clearly; and what one cannot speak about, one must keep quiet about. This book wants to draw a limit for thought, or rather—not for thought, but for the expression of thoughts: for in order to find the limits of thought we must be able to think on both sides of that border.’)

Copy after Maler

Copy after Maler

We do not deny the significance of what came before us, neither in art nor in philosophy. We do not seek to upend and discard everything and begin afresh. We only hope for enough room to advance our own ideas. We fear that, like Nelson (2010: 161), we might be forced to ‘come laden with contemporaneous references which plug up my case with footnotes, as though art were a leaky vessel, the flow of whose life-humours only art-historical paranoia can staunch.’ For we agree with Nelson (2010: 161) that ‘no number of footnotes carries as much intellectual authority as a poetic insight.’ And we do not forget that it was Wittgenstein (1963 [1921]: 7-8) himself, that revered pillar of philosophy, who brazenly commenced his work with a shamelessly visionary attitude:

‘darum gebe ich auch keine Quelle an, weil es mir gleichgültig ist, ob das was ich gedacht habe, vor mir schon ein anderer gedacht hat.’

(‘Hence I am also not providing any sources, because I am indifferent as to whether what I thought was already thought by another before me.’

dancer

 

 

 

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Solin, Kim. 2013. The mathematician as mathematics: Theories of computation in light of Wittgenstein’s thought. Uppsala: Filosofika institutionen.

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

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1963 [1921]. Tractatus logico-philosophicus Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung. Suhrkamp.

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Lernen & Lehren

Morgens / Mornings © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Morgens / Mornings © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I have begun to teach drawing. It’s a dizzying experience: a job for which I have full responsibility—in the content, the delivery, the managing of people, organisation, physical premises, money and the division of time. It’s a careful balance to pull everything together. I am a performer, I set the tone. It’s humbling to see people trust my guidance, trust in what I do. I see, plötzlich, how my own teachers felt falsely idolised when they knew the limitations of their own work. But I also see a logical way to lay out the learnings I have gathered from many places over several years, a systematic way to present them to others, to share the discoveries that blew my mind.

Ivo

And what is it that we teach? When I think over my own artistic education, all its variegations and approximations, all the extended drawings and prolonged investigation, all the gentle praise and gentle corrections, all the forceful criticisms and all the times someone else took my pencil and violated my page—I would have to agree with Wittgenstein about the importance of experience. Artists are constantly making judgements, and cementing them in material form. Some judge better than others, because their knowledge is deeper. And this, like the knowledge that enables one to judge ‘the genuineness of expressions of feelings,’ is certainly learned, but not ‘by taking a course in it, but through experience’ (Wittgenstein, 1953: 227).

Claudia

Drawing is ultimately about making judgements, and I firmly believe that you can make intelligent ones if you have reasons behind the judgements you make. My driving instructor used to say, ‘Driving is only a little bit about knowing how to operate a car. Driving is mostly about making decisions, and I can only show you how to begin to make those decisions for yourself.’ An experienced draughtsman draws on years of accumulated knowledge when he decisively puts a line down. The trouble is that this knowledge cannot be transmitted through words alone, even if it can be explained. Intellectual understanding of properties of prisms and spheres and cylinders, of perspective and anatomy, is not enough to be able to draw: you must constantly use this understanding, for drawing is an act. Only once your intellect and your motor skills align can you be said to have acquired this particular knowledge, and it is experience that marries the two.

Short poses

‘Can someone else be a man’s teacher in this?’ asks Wittgenstein (1953: 227). How does one go about transmitting this knowledge, about conveying these sublte things that one has collected over the years from many sources, from countless painstaking investigations? How is it that I can be so bold as to offer a course in drawing? Things that I know by sight are difficult to put into words; anatomical names fall away as I silently use the visual knowledge rather than speak about it. I hold tin cans and boxes at exaggerated angles and grasp clumsily at words to express something about an elusive three-dimensional rhythm through space, trying to argue that we can transcend reality and, through art, inject even more life into life itself—wait, what? I slow down: I can isolate tasks, and focus my students on one idea, and thus wrap their shaky hands around a steady tool, but their minds are more active than their wrists. Wittgenstein (1953: 227) remains hopeful about teaching one to recognise the genuineness of expressions of feelings, and I too remain hopeful about passing on the ability to draw:

‘Can someone else be a man’s teacher in this? Certainly. From time to time he gives him the right tip.—This is what ‘learning’ [Lernen] and ‘teaching’ [Lehren] are like here.—What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgements. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right.’

So much is cast into the ether, so much grain scattered in the hope that one or two seeds will germinate in a fertile mind. I try to rain down tips on my students, carefully hung together tips, carefully organised and logically arranged, but I know that most will scatter like seeds and few will take root. Successful teaching, successful learning, demands the improbably fortunate meeting of a knowledgeable mind with a humble, hungry one, and even then most of the substance is lost, washing over the over-tasked student, who can actually only learn through active, sustained and repeated doing. The key is patient repetition, and providing a guided space in which to gain experience, gently corrected experience. I make my students draw as much as possible. All my clever explanations will come to nothing if they cannot discover the truths themselves through the very doing.

Copies after Bammes

Copies after Bammes

Besides smoothing the path and attempting to remove discouraging obstacles, besides dropping tips like crumbs, the best I can hope to transmit to my students is a love of drawing and for drawings. If I can invite them a little way into my private sphere where drawings and paintings work their intoxicating magic on me, I can bring them to the best teacher of all. For living in art is the firmest way to grow one’s experience; filling one’s head with it such that one’s hand can’t hold still, but itches to mimic those curves and to reproduce those shapes and in doing so to imprint the physical knowledge in one’s own body. As Rilke (2006 [1903]: 21) once urged a young poet, on recommending him his most treasured and life-changing books:

‘Leben Sie eine Weile in diesen Büchern, lernen Sie davon, was Ihnen lernenswert scheint, aber vor allem lieben Sie sie.’

‘Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all: love them.’ I will do my best to impart knowledge to my students, but more than this, I will encourage them to slowly, steadily, concentratedly build their experience, and most of all, I will try to show them what it is to love drawing. And I can only hope that tentatively inviting others into my private mental space will strengthen my own judgements and help me to stand by them with even greater conviction.

Bammes hands

Copies after Bammes

 

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 2006. Briefe an einen jungen Dichter / Briefe an eine junge Frau. Diogenes: Zürich.

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

Details about my classes are on my website.

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A dialogue

Erdbergstraße © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Erdbergstraße © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stille

Pflaumen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Pflaumen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

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

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

Birnen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Birnen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

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

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

silence speech silence

 

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

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

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

For Ryan.

Kürbisse © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Kürbisse © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

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

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The perfectionist, revisited

sewingmachine

My Nanna came to visit from New South Wales and I was very pleased to spend some time sewing under her direction. Nanna, born Aleida Grul—though forced to give up her name through anglicisation and marriage—grew up in Holland, where her father was a tailor, and she herself trained in the same field. As a young woman, she sewed for a living, paying board to her parents and saving up the equivalent of ten full weeks’ wages to buy her own sewing machine—a fierce and serious Swiss-made tank of a machine, driven by a pedal at the knee, which has accompanied her for the rest of her life. Her school was determined to take her on as a teacher, but toward the end of her studies, she and her family immigrated to Australia. Nanna paid her own way with the income she made from sewing. She and her younger sister took over a local sewing business in New South Wales, but eventually the demands of family life took precedent—her own family grew to five children. Still, children need dressing, and grandchildren too, and Nanna has continued to sew prolifically.

cutting

When she came up to visit us, I pulled out some lovely, soft, creamy, floral fabric I had found in Vienna, and an unopened vintage sewing pattern I had discovered in Berlin. The pattern pieces were flimsy and sage-coloured, marked only with perforated words and symbols—‘EINHALTEN’, ‘FADENLAUF’—and the instructions ran in stiff, old-fashioned German. A combination of my German, her Dutch, and her practical knowledge of patterns allowed us to piece the thing together.

But more than receiving a little guidance, I was treated to a wonderful insight into her past and her attitude to work and to life. I’ve always known her as cheerful, contented, and unfazed by difficulties, but I failed to appreciate her quiet acceptance of her compromises, her driven and hardworking nature, and her adherence to the high standard she demands of herself. As we carefully measured and remeasured fabric, pattern and me—‘where is your tape measure?’ (my mother recollects Nanna ever having her tape measure hanging from her neck, never out of reach)—she spoke softly about the past, as though the act of sewing were a method of time-travel, a direct portal to the times she had sewn before. And this time I was permitted to travel with her.

pattern

At the very beginning of our work, Nanna confessed to constantly unpicking her own work to this day, which surprised me. I wondered that she could be so unsure with her hands. But I quickly learnt that this stemmed from no uncertainty, but from very exacting demands. Should an unwanted pucker appear, should a collar sit too tightly, should a gathered edge not sit pleasingly, it must be undone. From my own viewpoint, of ‘good enough is good enough, no one will know the difference,’ it was a pleasant surprise to be held accountable to someone who produces the best work she possibly can, no matter how ignorant her audience.

Cat sewing

For no one would notice the length of my stitches should they learn I had sewn my own blouse—they would only be impressed, useless as they are with their hands, that I had made something. But Nanna, from the adjoining room, called out gently, ‘your stitches are too short. Small stitches look very unprofessional,’ a judgment made from the sound of my humming sewing machine alone. I lengthened my stitches, I worked more slowly, I took care with the intersections of seams, until my mum expressed surprise at the steady and controlled pace of my machine.

Sachsen Bluse

Following instructions is one thing, but working under the guidance of an expert is another entirely. There are things to learn that don’t read well in explanations—like how to make the back of the shoulders ‘roomier,’ and precisely where to overlap the seams of specific pieces. I began to be less assertive, asking for more help instead, hoping she would reveal more secrets to me at every step. Without malice, but matter-of-factly, Nanna told me, ‘the difference between what you know and what I know is very obvious.’ And I realised with what arrogant confidence I go about the works of my hands! Whether I sew, or knit, or paint, or draw—and this confidence, this ‘just and manly confidence in himself,’ as Joshua Reynolds calls it (p. 211), being ‘among the first moral qualities … which a Student ought to cultivate,’ is undoubtedly necessary. But equally necessary is the humility that comes with recognising a greater power than yourself, and the magnitude of the path they have already travelled, and that lies yet before you.

Three monkeys

I also realised that perfectionism coupled with diligence is no terrible thing. For all her unpicking, Nanna, Aleida—now Alice—is ever moving forward, and no amount of redoing sets her back, discourages her, or prevents her from finishing something.

Nanna

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Eine ästhetische Erziehung

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I have been reflecting on the endless hours I’ve spent acquainting myself with the contents of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Belvedere in Vienna, and feeling grateful for the riches I carry around in my memory as I drive Brisbane’s visually polluted highways. I revisited those galleries like the lines of a familiar poem. I adopted those visits as a daily ritual, as habitual as drinking coffee. I seized those delicacies as daily necessities. Reading Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses that he presented to the Royal Academy in the 1770s and 1780s, I grasp all at once how valuable those seemingly idle hours were, how integral to my learning (Reynolds, 1997: 98):

‘Whoever has so far formed his taste, as to be able to relish and feel the beauties of the great masters, has gone a great way in his study; for, merely from a consciousness of this relish of the right, the mind swells with an inward pride, and is almost as powerfully affected, as if it had itself produced what it admires. Our hearts frequently warmed in this manner by the contact of those whom we wish to resemble, will undoubtedly catch something of their way of thinking; and we shall receive in our own bosoms some radiation at least of their fire and splendour.’

Reynolds’s discourse on imitation (VI) strongly defends the relevance of ‘the antients’ (sic) and the mastery of ‘the old masters.’ Rather than stifling our inventiveness, he considers an ongoing communion with the time-honoured masters the only path to inspired invention—‘however it may mortify our vanity’ (1997: 106). ‘Invention is one of the great marks of genius;’ he (1997: 98) writes, ‘but if we consult experience, we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others, that we learn to invent; as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think.’ The artistic poverty of our time and locality may have less to do with dedicated arts funding and more to do with a disdain for ‘the antients,’ a malaise that even Reynolds lamented in his own time and situation. He ‘venture[d] to prophesy, that when [the ancients] shall cease to be studied, arts will no longer flourish, and we shall again relapse into barbarism’ (1997: 106).

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

It cannot be denied: Brisbane lacks the cultural riches of Vienna, and a native Australian painter is debilitated in her artistic education unless she transplants herself to Europe for the daily nourishment her chosen career demands. Sheer optimism and hard work are not enough: the mind needs substance in order to grow, and it grows toward that which it focuses on. Joshua Reynolds (1997: 98) cautions us, ‘The mind is but a barren soil; a soil which is soon exhausted, and will produce no crop, or only one, unless it be continually fertilized and enriched with foreign matter.’

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

It is of utmost importance, then, to give our minds every opportunity to be enriched. If we permit ourselves mediocre habits, our efforts will soon follow. Reynolds (1997: 98) is very firm on this: ‘It appears, of what great consequence it is that our minds should be habituated to the contemplation of excellence.’ I’m reminded of Delacroix’s (2010: 20) chiding himself on lapsing into trivial distractions, writing in his journals, ‘Poor fellow! 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.’

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind (c. 1390/1400)

Australia’s focus on employment, activity, early rising, physical exertion, and contempt for any who dare to think they are ‘above all that and better than us’ sucks one into a cycle of inconsequentialities and mental tiredness that offers very little nourishment and even less opportunity for tending to one’s thoughts. I realise with greater certainty that being in Europe is no luxury, but an indispensible part of my education. Without this first-hand contact with Titian, with Rubens, with Van Dyck, with Raffael, I would not know what painting could be. I would turn to inferior teachers, and unknowingly trust them with my education. I would observe the work of my peers and take notice of their race to absurdity in their pursuit of novelty. I would bring my questions to walls of badly-applied paint, poor drawing, and punch-line titles instead of to excellence, and my work could only suffer. A familiarity with real excellence is indispensible in one’s aesthetic education.

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

For as original as we strive to be, we are always influenced by our surroundings and by those we associate with—we constantly imitate. Reynolds (1997: 99) suggests it would be better to absorb the thoughts of old masters than what is currently fashionable, or attempting to turn inwards. ‘The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on his own stock: he who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will be soon reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has before often repeated.’ We need a deeper source than ourselves, a more reliable one than our peers.

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

Our individuality comes not from ourselves alone, but is formulated by our own perspective on the work of others as well as what we see in the physical world. Instead of a narcissistic cycle of imitating our own work, we might gain from the successful labours of others. We might accelerate our learning by discovering the physical world through the eyes of the masters. And we might truly challenge ourselves by taking them not as gods but as rivals. Raffael was but a human being, and we have the advantage of being able to learn from him and to push further than him. Reynolds encourages more than unthinking plagiarism, but a ruthless competition, an outstripping, a struggle to steal from the past and improve on it. Having thought their thoughts, we bring our own hand and conceal our theft in our own inventions. Our brush borrows shamelessly, but our thoughts are combined in a way that is entirely our own, and it is from here that our originality stems. Reynolds (1997: 96) leaps to our defense: ‘I am on the contrary persuaded, that by imitation only, variety, and even originality of invention, is produced.’

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

‘We behold all about us with the eyes of those penetrating observers whose works we contemplate; and our minds accustomed to think the thoughts of the noblest and brightest intellects, are prepared for the discovery and selection of all that is great and noble in nature,’ (Reynolds, 1997: 99). So let us not take our situation lightly, for nothing of consequence comes out of isolation and mental starvation.

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

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

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

I began the above self-portrait on my arrival in Vienna two years ago. It has suffered many iterations, growing and transforming with my own ideas and observations and abilities. My constant struggle with this painting became somewhat representative of my own aesthetic education, and its thickening layers of paint akin to my deepening understanding. The yellow Reclam book is, natürlich, from Schiller. x

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