Technical things

It is remarkable how Deleuze has forged the impassioned ramblings of Francis Bacon into a deep and cohesive philosophy. I find there is nothing particularly incoherent about Bacon’s convictions about painting, only that in themselves they are almost banal, and Deleuze has elevated them to a surprisingly intellectual status. Nevertheless, Bacon’s mundane observations, perhaps cryptic to a non-painter, are at least refreshingly down-to-earth and as such offer fertile soil for the creator of concepts—the philosopher. The meta-reading of these interviews, then, is that a philosopher may not need to dig so deep, but to simply meditate on the relations between things, and his own philosophy will emerge organically, firmly rooted in ordinary experience (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 90).

For any painter will laugh upon reading Bacon’s solemn answer to David Sylvester’s (1975: 18) inquiry about his decision to stop a painting: ‘the canvas becomes completely clogged, and there’s too much paint on it—just a technical thing, too much paint, and one just can’t go on.’ Is this a technical thing? Indeed, sometimes one piles on so much paint that the thing gets out of control, edges mash that should not, would-be layers collapse into each other; it is better to let the thing dry than to go on today—a thoroughly non-philosophical answer, disappointing to thinkers, entirely obvious to painters, and thus despite its lack of claim to being an active ‘technique,’ possibly something that can indeed be cast into the fearful ‘technical’ category.

In this sense, ‘technical things’ are all those unspeakable, messy processes that happen in secret behind the closed studio door, generally barred from aesthetic discussions that would rather poke at the dry, finished result (preferably from behind glass, and with a very long stick). They could even include preliminary decisions, perhaps in the art shop, about the size and shape of brushes to buy, whether to select natural or synthetic fibres, preferences for the ‘springiness’ of the bristles (tested by an expert hand, but verbally inexplicable). They might encompass having to cope with stiff, old brushes out of sheer poverty. They could include unforeseeable and uncontrollable lighting conditions afforded by uncooperative weather, shifting the hue of the work without the conscious knowledge of the painter.

In any case, before we even come to talk about intentional use of colour or tone, there are many inputs and decisions that steer the course of a painting and directly influence what we like to think of as the aesthetic qualities of the work. Deleuze (2003: 86; 93) would include them in his ‘givens,’ the ‘clichés’ that pollute the canvas before a painting is started. But in Bacon’s (1975: 82) rugged simplicity, he speculates that he is ‘probably much more concerned with the aesthetic qualities of a work’—the technical, as opposed to the psychological, aspects of his painted screams. This is a particularly nice observation. Many artists simply care more for the visual qualities of their work than for conveying something to some audience. These visual qualities, coaxed into existence by a perceptive painter, may finally move some unsuspecting viewer and stir all sorts of lofty thoughts in his contemplative mind. But as the genesis of these thoughts, possibly inextricable from these thoughts, might not these mere ‘technical things’ themselves comprise a very important part of aesthetics? Are they not precisely what we want to talk about?

For a humble painter is one of the few willing to simply confront a work on its own physical terms. She surveys the array of technical choices and chances, the resulting relationships between elements, and considers their degree of success. She is willing to consider what the paint itself may say, not merely what it may allude to or denote or represent. Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 61) shrewdly notes ‘that most people enter a painting by the theory that has been formed around it and not by what it is.’ They prefer to approach a painting through an indirect, non-visual route. They could shut their eyes and listen to information instead.

It is in abstract painting that people might find the courage to let mere colours and shapes touch them, rather than to search for ideas outside of the painting. What is clear to non-abstract painters is that the sensory force of colours and shapes is available and able to be manipulated even in very naturalistic painting. Abstract painting ‘can convey very watered-down lyrical feelings,’ scoffs Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 60), ‘because I think any shapes can.’ And timid observers can project themselves and most anything they like onto the distilled forms of abstract painting. The point is so plain it is hardly raised among painters. It is simply part of our job to actively design an image, to exert control over it, even if we hide our tracks and make it feel inevitable.

And so Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 58) repeatedly explains that he is seeking just such direct contact between the painting and the nervous system—the immediate impact of colours and shapes (and every other technical thing), without the mediation of the brain. His phrasing seems oblique and troubling to Sylvester and deep and insightful to Deleuze. One senses that Bacon has finally thought of some words that best approximate this very ordinary painterly experience that might finally get across to these wordy people, that they swirl around in his head until they take the form of some mystical mantra. His words are exceptionally nice, and give the painter a little jolt: because she, too, knows that the best painting works without intellectualisation, that the body itself responds to an exquisite harmony of colours or a pulsing, rhythmic line. Good painting feels immediate, it does not require deciphering, though it may entice one to look longer, to dwell upon the picture and soak up its sensations.

Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 120) is firmly convinced that this immediacy, this freshness, must come about through chance. That the coveted deftness of touch, effortless finish, virtuoso resolution, can only be captured unawares, never intentionally. Though he seeks order in painting, he fears that it will look laboured, and prefers that the work look as though ‘it hasn’t been interfered with’ (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 120). This exposes the naïveté of a painter who does not know how to set himself technical problems and to set about solving them. For while he is right that freshness is compelling, such fluency can most certainly come about through knowledge and disciplined application. More adept painters than Bacon have used their knowledge to produce lucid and nervous-system-gripping works, still driven by their own personal sensibilities.

And this is another nice observation of Bacon’s, painfully unnoticed by too many painters. The inventiveness of an artist lies not in the originality of her techniques, but in the pursuit and cultivation of her own sensibility. ‘I’ve never felt it at all necessary to try and create an absolutely specialised technique,’ Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 107) declares, and one must not reflect long to call to mind the futile manner in which artists—now more than ever—try to distinguish themselves, dreaming up novelties external to themselves: watercolours fabricated out of dissected felt-tip pens, drawing in crayon onto torn pieces of cloth, tearing old posters from the street, growing seeds inside a pyramid of fluorescent lights. The novelty of our technique may win us some attention, but it will never remedy a weak sensibility.

Sensibility, of course, being a well-chosen word: it draws our attention to an artist’s sensory intersection with the world. The point warrants attention, because I think a non-painter is content to let most of the visual world wash over him, hardly taking it in. A non-painter uses his senses for gathering relevant information; a painter stops to drink in the pink and blue ferment of the sky and shouts, ‘Look at the clouds!’ while the helpful and oblivious non-painter replies, ‘Don’t worry, the storm is moving away from us.’ A painter, one worthy of the name, is genuinely attentive to visual stimuli, is acutely perceptive, is besotted with sight. She hardly has to invent visually interesting things—she is overcome by the sensory cornucopia of existence and is struggling to survive such abundance by her feeble attempt to instate order through her brush. A painter’s sensibility will most certainly emerge if she works with technique rather than against it, as she comes nearer to her sensory reality as her facility with her techniques grows. Perhaps a furious linear energy drives through the human form; perhaps muscles swell according to certain rhythms. Though she ‘may use what’s called the techniques that have been handed down,’ like Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 107), she may use them to create powerful work that has never yet been made, declaring with Bacon: ‘my sensibility is radically different.’

Copy after Steinl, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

I am not defending the type of fluency that produces indistinguishably polished works. Rather, the painter should use her hard-won ability to investigate, to explore, to forge connections that others might not see. One way to stay alert is to make things harder for oneself. Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 91) explains: ‘Half my painting activity is disrupting what I can do with ease.’ His insight has always been made by the kind of painters who prefer to test their abilities and extend them more than they care to show off. David Paulson is the kind of painter who works with stubs of pencils, works with his left hand, intercepting his habits with stumbling blocks that force him to work hard to regain control, or, more accurately, to gain a different kind of control.

Under this kind of self-sabotaging lies a desire to find and apprehend new problems. Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 37) discusses the difference between working from photographs of paintings, such as the Velazquez popes he had about his studio, and working from photographs of people, explaining that the paintings present problems that are already solved. An artist makes copies of old masters because there is something to be learned by tracing the solutions of someone more advanced. She recognises the problem she would like to confront, and follows the thought processes of another by mimicking their actions. ‘The problem that you’re setting up, of course,’ says Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 37) ‘is another problem.’ It is when we apprehend the physical world through our own senses that we discover problems demanding fresh solutions. And when we find ourselves turning again and again to the same reliable solutions, we must interrupt the process manually, thwarting our usual responses such that we not only respond in a new way, but set up the problem in entirely different terms.

And Bacon rightly recognises that few are sympathetic to this personal struggle. Each new painting, each portrait sitting, offers the opportunity to probe some quietly festering problem. It demands untested approaches, not guaranteed to succeed. The sitter expects an exquisite rendering of their face; the painter relishes the opportunity to wrestle with bold new ideas. The sitter grows apprehensive, gradually becomes alarmed. ‘In what sense do you conceive it,’ what you are doing to their face, ‘as an injury?’ asks the moderate Sylvester (1975: 41). The painter can hear Bacon scowl. ‘Because people believe—simple people at least—that the distortions are an injury to them’ (in Sylvester, 1975: 41). And distortions they must be, in the tussle with the problem, in the trial of new responses. Because of this, it can become unpleasant to work with a model. We must pretend that we are immortalising their appearance, to placate their doubts; we would rather shut them out entirely, except for the bundle of gripping visual problems they represent, and ‘practice the injury in private by which [we] think [we] can record the fact of them more clearly’ (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 41). Sylvester (1975: 43) tries to extract something psychological out of the discomfort: Perhaps ‘what you are making may be both a caress and an assault?’ Bacon assures him he need not make so much of the matter. It is hardly a deep psychological tension, but simply that ‘they inhibit me’ (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 41).

Copies after Titian, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The thrust of Bacon’s discussion of painting, however, might be reduced to the omnipresent frustration that paint does what it wants. When he trusts everything to chance, he is giving himself over to the fact that paint is disobedient, that the most controlled stroke defies control. He almost boasts that ‘in my case all painting … is accidental,’ because ‘it transforms itself by the actual paint’ (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 16). All of Bacon’s (in Sylvester, 1975: 97) language about paint—‘such a fluid and curious medium’—suggests the near superstitious reverence of paint familiar to the painter. Paint seems to have agency—perhaps painters secretly believe it. ‘I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do,’ admits Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 16; 54), or ‘how [these marks] will behave,’ as though the paint is another active participant, responding to his choice of a large brush with an unexpected manoeuver. Paint is so deliciously malleable but it does not bend to our every intention; paint is ever the volatile element in a painting (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 93). He fears to invite a story into the painting, in case it should ‘talk louder than the paint’—which, we might presume, is talking too, if softly (Bacon, in Sylvester, 1975: 22). Perhaps it sounds mystical to speak in hushed tones about this silent back-and-forth between painter and paint, to attribute the uncontrollable features of paint to its own will. But Bacon describes something very real to the most experienced of painters, something which lies at the heart of the attractiveness of painting. Painting will always be a challenging and thus deeply demanding and rewarding medium, because of paint.

‘I don’t think that generally people really understand how mysterious, in a way, the actual manipulation of oil paint is,’ Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 121) comments, and perhaps here he gives the most profound insight of all. To an outsider, a painter must simply master those tricky technical things, master paint, and put this mastery to good use. But the pleasure and the satisfaction of painting derive from paint’s continual defiance of the painter’s every attempt to constrain it, to impose order, to systematise, to achieve fluency. It is paint itself that is profoundly and infinitely interesting—those mere technical things that scamper at the edges of aesthetics. The non-painter need not dig so deep for profound insights, for they are not so intellectual as might be supposed.

 

Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Trans. Daniel W. Smith. 1 edition. Continuum: London.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Félix. 1994 [1991]. What is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. Columbia: New York.

Sylvester, David. 1975. Francis Bacon, Interviewed by David Sylvester. Pantheon: New York.

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Disarmed

Fleisch / Meat (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Fleisch / Meat (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Reading Deleuze is a somewhat disorienting undertaking, but not without its rewards. The cascade of words, the veritable excess of words that skirt around the ideas, approaching them from all sides, unsystematic, rhythmic, and hypnotic, seduce us like poetry. One can easily be swept along by the words, so it takes extra concentration to seize hold of the ideas and trace them through the burbling writing. We are not greeted with signposts, but we trustingly hold a thread and allow ourselves to be pulled along.

It is the jolt that his writing gives us that is electrifying and spurs us into activity. The disorienting metaphors short circuit our thinking and force us to question concepts that have become second nature. We inevitably become habituated and even stuck in our patterns of thought and behaviour; Deleuze offers us an escape. What at first seems outlandish is maybe the only thing strong enough to break our habits—habits in both thought and practice.

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For his book on Bacon is fascinating to me as a painter, not only as a philosopher. It is not only in intellectual discussions that figure and ground have become comfortable concepts; whatever artists call them, if they use words at all, there is much physical evidence that many painters work with such a binary division in mind. It is the kind of thinking encouraged by art history, that of treating figures as if they were stickers that could be lifted and repositioned at will, removable symbols. There are painters who indeed paint in this way: treating the edge of a figure with a biting crispness that severs the two zones with clumsy cruelty. Such paintings haplessly proffer us a paper cut-out against a disconnected stage. In such paintings the edge is a cliff, wrenching an eternity between subject and setting, and betraying the conceptual simplicity of the artist. But there are other painters who recognise the crucial interplay between figure and ground, and who couldn’t conceive of divorcing the two. These painters do not simply fill in the holes around the figure, but work each shape into the other, find two-dimensional rhythms through the image that traverse space in three-dimensionally impossible ways, notice and celebrate fortuitous kisses between distant but aligned objects, and think about the asymptotic turning away of form and the subsequent expanse of flesh to be treated at this intersection, despite its retreat from our line of sight. These painters know that ‘something happens in both directions’ (Deleuze, 2003: 12).

ryandrawingslickhair

But Deleuze (2003: 6) attempts to break our brains with his deliberations on Bacon’s ‘three fundamental elements of painting’: the material structure, the round contour and the raised image. From the start, he catches us off-guard with unfamiliar terms that we have to chew over a bit, grasp more deliberately, rather than permitting us to feel we are entering the discussion with our concepts firmly in place. Deleuze deliberately disarms us, but this is part of the fun, because as philosophers we know there are not enough words to name our ideas, and as painters we hardly care to give them names, as long as we can form them with our hands. So we follow him trustingly to see where these new terms will take us, what new aspects they will bring to our attention.

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Firstly, a new name for the ground, the ‘material structure,’ shakes us out of our habit of thinking of a passive, receding substrate waiting to be animated by the ‘real’ content of the picture. It grants comparable status to the bits around the figure. The concepts of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ remain faithful to the illusion of space, which urges us to see some things set behind others; ‘material structure’ against ‘raised image’ suggests a more immediate visual interaction. We are urged to notice that the material structure coils around the raised image, seeping into its crevices and constricting the image with a muscular strength of its own.

And the plot thickens: for by naming the intersection between them we draw attention to its significance, and grant this feverish zone a physical presence too. But Deleuze (2003: 12) has more to derail our predictable thought patterns: he insistently describes the contour as a place. Habitually, we would consider the ground to be the setting; Deleuze perplexingly transfers this status to the contour. But if we humour him and deliberate on it a while, a new thought takes shape—that there is something powerful in conceiving of the contour as the site of the action. For while it is not the literal setting in which the subjects of the picture act, it is undeniably the physical territory where image and material mingle, vie for predominance, press upon each other with such force that we must admit that this is where the action indeed takes place, at the quivering border of two shapes, where neither is considered positive or negative but both brandish equal power.

mikes253

Indeed, Deleuze challenges our worn understanding of ‘figure,’ appropriating Lyotard’s distinction between ‘figurative’ and ‘figural,’ and reserving the capitalised ‘Figure’ for the subject. The figurative comes to stand for representation—which Deleuze (2003: 2) lightly defines as any time a relationship between picture and object is implied. The but the Figure need not always be representational, and to avoid the figurative or representational is not necessarily to turn to the abstract. Deleuze (2003: 8) argues that there is another way to salvage the Figure, to make it work in other less literal, less narrative ways, without dissolving into the drifting Figureless mists of pure abstraction. This is the way of the ‘figural,’ a twist on familiar vocabulary that tries to carve out a different painterly intent. The figural is about ‘extraction’ and ‘isolation,’ and Deleuze (2003: 2; 15) batters us with imagery of escape through bodily orifices, through the bursting membrane of the contour, through screams, through ‘mouths’ on eyes and lungs. The Figure must, demands Deleuze (2003: 8) be extracted from our ordinary and overused figurative approach to painting, and the visual means by which this is done plays on these squeezing and heaving forces.

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All this metaphor can send one in circles, but perhaps Deleuze pushes us to circle around the idea because of it’s very unfamiliarity. He stalls us a moment. If we momentarily let go of our representational concerns, we might ponder the middle ground a while. Is there some immovable core of this Figure that touches us more directly than its unaltered exterior? Is there something about the insides of this Figure that should pervade its exterior, remould it, alter the way we choose to apply paint? Many of us already ask ourselves such questions in some manner, whether we trouble ourselves with such intentionally picky language or not. We might still be struck by how much further this thought can take us, once put into words.

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The paint can certainly touch us more directly—Bacon (in Deleuze, 2003: 35) ponders the way it sometimes reaches us by long and slow means through the brain, and other times makes direct contact with the nervous system. Deleuze’s preoccupation with meat cuts to the heart of this matter. Faithful representation results in satisfying deception; other visual mutations prompt entirely other trains of thought that bring us to the core of the Figure with startling immediacy, or jolt us back into our bodies with an immediate sensory experience. Our skins keep us together, stitched up, polished and presentable, though we know we are made of flesh. But to dwell on our meaty composition is something subterranean and sensual, it is an unusual meditation on our physicality.

And paint, in its materiality, seems so well suited to such fleshy contemplation. Deleuze (2003: 22; 23) enters with his high-sounding words—musing on the ‘objective zone of indiscernibility,’ the ‘common zone of man and the beast’ that meat insinuates. Meat, more immediate than flesh, less individual, more raw and yet dripping with a quickly-fading life, is indeed a more urgent, primal way of categorising our substance. It brings us right back to our earthy origins, out of our skins that rendered us fit for society, to a brutish, sub-intellectual level of our existence. As the painter dwells on meat rather than flesh, she touches a nerve, she penetrates us so swiftly that we are enthralled before we have had time to think.

josephinum-beine

Anatomical studies at the Josephinum, Vienna

Meat is not supposed to be disgusting, however. Primitive and physical, yes, but not brutal. Deleuze (2003: 39) discovers no emotion in Bacon, only sensation. If anything, he finds a peculiar reverence for the essence of a being. An artist—such a physical creature—demonstrates her profound respect for the physical and the earthy in her unflinching confrontation with meat. Perhaps in her incisiveness she cuts us to the marrow—but she ‘goes to the butcher’s shop as if it were a church’ (Deleuze, 2003: 24).

The verbal cycles that Deleuze wrings us through slowly spin an ever thicker web of ideas that challenge the conceptual laziness we so easily lapse into. Perhaps it is nothing but games, but a patient thinker and an investigative painter might yet find such absurdity the very chute through which she can escape ingrained modes of thinking and working.

Copy after Poussin

Copy after Poussin

 

Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. 1 edition. London: Continuum.

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Habit and curiosity

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

There is an inherent tension between a painter’s sensory encounters with the world and her own habits. As I push myself to paint and draw with increasing intensity, I am driven by conflicting impulses to improve and to investigate. Improvement requires repetition and practice, but investigation tends to tear down all this dedicated work. My understanding and my repertoire broaden and deepen with investigation, but my improvement stagnates, or worse, everything I was so anxiously holding together comes completely undone.

Steffi drawing

In moments of doubt, I return to trusty Robert Nelson (2010: 121), who reassures me, ‘We all have habits.’ In his judicious way, he writes that habits have their advantages and disadvantages. Hard-earned habits through which we have assimilated knowledge ‘are at the root of our fluency, our readiness, our comfort in tackling the lofty task of representation by the senses and the hand’ (2010: 121). Without such dependable tools, we would face each new picture completely disarmed, unprepared and overwhelmed at the formidable task before us. And these tools, once acquired, need maintenance, and permit refinement, and generally positively benefit from regular and sustained attention.

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

My attention has turned rather feverishly toward copying: with religious zeal I am flooding pages and pages of my sketchbook with wholly unoriginal drawings; copies of old master paintings, copies of anatomy drawings. It can be a very passive way to draw: the burden of having an original idea or making an original investigation is gently taken away from me. It could yet be investigative—with due concentration, I could, through such copies, begin to unpack the decisions of the artists who produced the originals. And sometimes I do. But sometimes I just copy, pleasantly pulling my pencil across the page, enjoying the motion, and daydreaming a bit. This pleasure drawing has its advantages: the habit of going to the gallery, of plunging into the anatomy book, means I give time to some form of drawing with dedicated regularity. And each time I start, there is the possibility that my brain will actively engage. The act itself, begun unthinkingly, can trigger thought.

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

But as I practice and practice, investing in my favoured media, becoming more accustomed to their limitations (and my own), I fall into patterns of working, and the patterns lead to ruts and their accompanying frustration. What looks like fluency and adeptness and confidence to outsiders actually feels like being stuck. Showmanship can get in the way of honest engagement with the physical world, and instead of turning afresh to sensory experience we rely on mechanistic motions. ‘By and large,’ writes Nelson (2010: 130), ‘a mechanical application of directional gestures is about superficially looking flash or stylistically sophisticated, or emotionally confident, or artistically full of panache and bravura rather than serving exploration and curiosity.’

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

And so despite the benefits and even necessity of forming (hopefully good) habits, Nelson cautions the painter against a ‘mechanistic’ approach, a mindless, formula-driven mode of working that crowds out the possibility of active picture-making. ‘Making art from habit,’ he writes (2010: 121), ‘has questionable consequences.’ For we are not simply producing polished products, little one-man factories. We are constructing pictures by means of a certain kind of logic: an organic, integrative logic that brings together all of the knowledge we have collected about tone and colour and gesture and space and texture and so on (2010: 117; 124). Though we can separate out each element and map out distinct stages of a painting through time, the most thoughtful pictures are those that weave everything together, and this unity, argues Nelson, has its origin in the sensory experience, and not in well-oiled mechanistic habits. ‘All of the painting is about building, constructing forms, constructing spatial relationships and constructing rapports in colour; and these are integral to looking, seeing, remembering and imagining’ (2010: 124).

‘The painting conceived in this way replicates, on a somewhat clumsy and grandiose scale, the process of perception itself, constantly gauging relationships and skipping all over the field in order to assess the spatial calibre of what is observed.’ (2010: 122-3)

Such alertness means we have to sacrifice some of our hard-won ability. Confronted with a real subject, with differing light conditions, with the air shimmering at the horizons of the forms, with compositionally compelling shapes that compete with descriptive and meaty forms, we find our assortment of tools to be lacking. What served us well in countless previous situations is not up to the task at hand. The world is ever lavishing new sensory experiences upon us, and the genuinely curious painter responds to the experience, indulges his senses, rather than repeating his well-rehearsed performance.

American girl

And this is the tightrope we walk: trying to furnish ourselves with tuned and ready instruments that are fit for the sensory experiences we are constantly greeted by, but remaining open to those experiences, adaptive, and seriously investigating them. It’s no good to throw away what we’ve learned and start from zero every time, but we must also open our eyes and engage our brains. Nelson (2010: 129), ever eloquent, describes the clash of habits entrenched in the body and the inquisitive encounter with the world thus:

‘The brush is constantly invoking the seen: it requires a certain nerve, a zeal for finding out what is perceived or imaginatively solicited and then for correcting what is conjectured. Unless somehow designed with a Platonic conceptual remove, it is all chop and change at a sensory and intellectual level. Add to that the co-ordination of the hand by impulses, the way that the process draws upon the muscles and uses the body: it demands a stance before the canvas and a rhythm of subliminal choreographic vibrations.’

It would be foolish to be dogmatic about either emphasis, for both are crucial. Each destroys the other, but only to rebuild it more firmly, and more enmeshed with the other.

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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Death kit

Susan Sontag’s Death Kit (1967) is a bit of a mind-bender. Likeable, hateable, excruciatingly average Dalton ‘Diddy’ Harron dreams about wolf-boys, lives in the shadow of his thoughtless, successful brother Paul and is effortlessly good at his mind-numbing microscope sales job.

We meet Diddy the Good on a business trip. He takes the train from New York, meets a lovely blind—in contrast to his business of seeing acutely—girl, Hester, and bludgeons a workman to death in a tunnel—he believes, somewhat shakily, from self-defence—but Hester, his only witness and confidante, refuses to believe he left their train compartment to commit such an atrocity.

Sontag trips a fine line between the agonising boredom of a perfectly normal life and a brutal, violent, nauseating one, suggesting a causal link between the two. She has woven an immensely sensory work with constant references to nausea and hunger and scent and sight and blindness. Diddy is suffering a more intense existential crisis than the nausea of Jean-Paul Sartre. Diddy is dying.

‘Meaning, seriously, to kill himself, Diddy swallowed half a bottle of sleeping pills one evening; after walking the dog, who sprawls (now) before the fireplace in the living room. It’s twelve-thirty; in his bedroom, door closed, Diddy lies back and shuts his eyes. Begins to float down, softly, peaceably. Followed by an interval of undetermined length: some dark time, in which it’s hard to breathe’ (p. 6).

What follows is an intricate narrative of events taking place on a business trip, peppered with dreams and memories, and always the nausea, always ‘riding out the tide of nausea’ (p. 8). It’s explained that Diddy woke up. He hit his head, smelled something putrid by his bed, glimpsed a nurse, was carried away to hospital—‘reprieved from death … reprieved either by his own vitality or by the merest accident. … A posthumous person has certain new resources, new strengths’ (p. 7).

Hester is this new resource. Hester is Diddy’s vitality. Hester cannot see the ugliness of the world, and because she lives in darkness, she can bear to live. Blinded by her mother as a teenager, Hester experiences the world in a better dimension, and Diddy comes to idolise her sightlessness, a purifying trait that he tries to mimic by shutting himself away in darkness.

It is not that Diddy meets a healing character; rather, he descends into a strange internal world on the cusp of death and meets a new, stronger part of himself that wants to live. He speculates that Hester, this stronger part of himself, has gained some new wisdom and is now too intelligent to suffer. ‘Doesn’t the capacity to suffer depend on a kind of superior stupidity? So thinks Diddy. With his eyes closed, becoming drowsier’ (p. 207). Aching for this wisdom that will allow him to rise above his suffering, Diddy knows that Hester’s teaching him is his only hope.

Diddy and Hester marry, with plans to move to a new place, to go for walks and for Diddy to describe the scenery, smell the air as she does, read to her. ‘Diddy knows a remedy. There’s something else, rather someone else, to think about. When the spectre looms up before his retrograde vision, she comes to caress his face and to kiss his eyes. To banish the workman, to heal Diddy. She never fails to come. But always after. The workman arrives first. Diddy driven and counter-driven’ (p. 80).

The struggle is fierce. Though we meet him on a train, going into a tunnel, on a swift, dark track to death, the train is halted and Diddy and Hester have their first heady encounter. Though their marriage is full of hope, a strong, unifying decision at last, they begin to sink. They move into Diddy’s old apartment, draw the blinds and live in a dark, stifling den. Diddy becomes dependent on Hester, who takes care of all the cooking, the dusting, clipping Diddy’s toenails. The apartment descends into chaos, as filthy as the original train, strewn with cigarette butts, LPs languishing without their covers, the windows grimy with the city’s pollution. Diddy thinks of the view as that from the train window, only motionless. Diddy is returning to the place where we met him.

‘“Darling, we have to talk,”’ Diddy confronts Hester (p. 276). He has struggled; he has made his choice. As long as Hester remained to look after him, ‘death had refused his hectic, inept petition. … Diddy was afraid to die’ (p7). But Diddy (now) afraid no longer. ‘“Help me, Hester!”’ is his last plea. “‘What are you afraid of?” “I guess….I guess, I’m afraid that I’ll have to do something, something I’m not doing”’ (pp. 279-80).

Diddy and Hester return to the tunnel. A gory scene takes place, in which Diddy again splits the skull of the workman, has one last violent encounter with Hester, whom he then leaves slumped the way he left the workman the first time. Hester is defeated, now Diddy is left to explore his impending demise, in a cavernous vault of carefully catalogued and preserved corpses. The nurse reappears, and the hideous smell.

A little online research suggests that Sontag was harshly criticised for Death Kit when it was first published. At best, it was reviewed as a Kafkaesque dreamscape. And this would not be incorrect, since the entire narrative takes place within a dream, a dream laced with memories, sensations and internal struggles. Sontag constantly reminds us that it is a long moment, a lingering instant—it is always (now). It is gritty and grotesque. But it seems that it was received literally, and that readers failed to interpret it as a whole.

Sontag had written a paper three years prior to Death Kit entitled Against Interpretation. In it, she argues, ‘What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art.’ This she extends to literature, saying that modern literature and our expectation of what may be done within the literary form has become so uninspired that it is mostly undisguised news or information, or, if more loosely disguised, ‘it is still peculiarly visible.’

This is, of course, the easy to churn out pulp fiction, with characters who are simply colour-by-number cardboard cut-outs, designed for a purpose, mouths stuffed with one-liners, objects strewn like candlesticks in conservatories, lead pipes in billiard rooms, ready to be wielded for their scripted purpose. Rather than trying to be so obscure as to destroy meaning, or at the other extreme, becoming purely decorative in an effort to ‘elude the interpreters,’ Sontag proposes another way to inject meaning into work without the audience needing to reinterpret it in terms of Marxist-feminist-deconstructivist-postmodernism: ‘by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be … just what it is.’

And so she has presented us with a self-contained capsule of a work that we can swallow whole and meditate upon. It presents all its ideas, it relies on its strong internal imagery, it uses its own, specially crafted literary devices (now) with their own stipulated meanings. Certainly, you may need to read it again to appreciate the meanings woven throughout, which you had taken at face value at the outset, but you can trust it to be a complete, self-referencing, consistent work, with all the clues you need, should you search for them.

‘What is important now is to recover our senses,’ Sontag argues in the face of a swathe of books that dull our sensory experience. She has ‘selected lilacs for their scent’ (DK p. 65), and if at any time you are bewildered at the plot, you are riding a sensory rush so powerful it is hard to alight.

‘“Draw those curtains, Goldberg, will you? The light’s in my eyes,” said Reager irritably,’ (p. 83).

*Sontag, Susan. 2009 [1967]. Death Kit. Penguin Books: London.

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