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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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.’)

spring1

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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