Just trying to say it right

The struggle (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

There are few people who can both write about art and produce it. I have been cautioned against attempting the superhuman feat of doing both. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of impassioned but mutilated thought that has been scribbled down, and a lot of cleverly strung together ruminations that entirely miss the point of the artwork in question. Regrettably, frenzied vehemence and smooth yet detached theorising tend to be accepted as legitimate encounters between art and writing, as though art ought to infect words with its garbled passions, and as though crystalline categorisations really said the whole of what is to be said about art. An honest, steady, thoughtful middle ground is difficult to attain, but it is this gravity and lucidity that Susan Sontag manages to achieve in her essays on film, theatre and literature. Against Interpretation and Other Essays thrusts us deep into the works in question, considering them, as it were, from the inside. Sontag is both artist and thinker: author and critic; able to love and to measure, to experience and to judge.

The essay. Perhaps, itself, a dying artform. It is easy to dash off an article, a commentary, a review, some quick thoughts, or a summary. But to engage with ideas–whether they emerge from books or paintings or elsewhere–involves something more. It involves a cohesive train of thought, an argument, an insight, a real willingness to enter a zone of intellectual conflict. In the case of writing about art, the essay is a knife, sharpened for the express purpose of permeating the flesh of the artwork to get at what is inside, to taste it, to judge it, to display its qualities for what they are. Perhaps things were ever as dire as they seem to be now: but writing about art, if at all penetrable, is so often vapid promotional cotton candy; sugary teasers that are little more than loosely-clad advertising, slick and professional, treading lightly so as not to crush any toes.

As for myself: Perhaps you have traced my artistic education, observing my first tentative steps into the world of painting, as I respectfully recounted it online. I kept my eyes open, I exposed myself to many things. I thought fiercely and critically about all of it–all of it–I agonised over the disappointments, the ineptitude, the obtuseness, the deception, the sheer ignorance. I think one does not improve unless one learns to discover faults, and can explain why they are faults, and propose ways of addressing them. As an artist, I kept these considerations to myself and applied them in practice. But in writing about art, I maintained a certain reverence. I made a conscious choice to be just, but positive: to focus on the best things.

Copy after Klinger

A curious but probably predictable thing came from this: I was plagiarised. My thoughts found themselves rehashed, sloppily restitched and dimly cited in monstrous word-spaghetti that no longer conveyed the original idea, if any at all. I went to exhibitions where my own words were read back to me, translated into German. It made me consider who has these jobs, and why they don’t know what to say about art. Certainly, artists don’t always know how to write about their work, and that’s why they paint it. But if people who are otherwise proficient writers can’t produce a faithful and insightful piece on a work of art, the problem seems to be deeper. They cannot think about art. They stand before a painting in a distracted panic.

But not all of us do. Some of us approach an artwork attentively, quietly, patiently. We take our time with it, revisit it, think on it. Sontag (1966: 12) is not at all incorrect to say that ‘attention to form in art’ is urgently needed. The formal properties–how colour is used, how strokes are applied, linear rhythms and the balance of shapes–might not be the entirety of a painting, but taking them in is surely the place to start. The little ripples of paint will soon chase away the anxiety, drawing us into a silent and timeless realm, inviting us to reflect. Our thoughts will scurry around with the worries and agitations that we hug to ourselves every waking minute, but these, too, will slow down. A painting is a shy creature, but approached through its form, it might let us near it.

Copy after Claudel

Sontag’s essays, as a collection, make me consider the art I encounter and what is being said about it. I have known highly trained painters, self-taught painters, casual painters, designers, illustrators and conceptual artists across the world. Sontag looked fiercely at the world around her, she wrote about the time in which she lived, about America, about Europe. Her essays are not lighthearted, not necessarily short, not lazy Sunday supplements. They are the product of an active and alert mind wrestling with works that stimulate it or disappoint it and unleash a response. Goodwill is no vice, but the critic, the thinker, has work to do, and goodwill must not cloud the public discussion about art. We came to be impressed, to be stirred, to greet grand ideas–when art fails us, it is not we who should be ashamed, apologetically carrying home our embarrassment at the artist’s deficiency like a tail between our legs. Our critical faculties have not failed us. The art is rubbish.

Sontag (1966: 12) demands a kind of criticism that genuinely responds to art, rather than one that ‘usurp[s] its place.’ Words continue to threaten to replace the artwork, but the situation has grown considerably worse: the words are disposable, interchangeable, unilluminating and cheap. Barely able to capture a coherent thought, they could hardly hope to upstage an artwork. The real threat is whether such vacuous feel-good writing blinds us to art entirely, dulling our sensibilities, subduing our objections. The remedy has been around for some fifty years. We need:

‘Acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis.’

(Sontag, 1966: 13)

The conjunction of sharp and loving is surprising but utterly natural. For how can one love a painting without discernment? How can one withhold affection from a painting that satisfies visually and stirs thoughts even in the silent mechanisms of its construction? Sontag (1966: 14) urges us to recover our senses, and that call is no less urgent now. Once we’ve learned to trust our senses, we must also remember to sharpen our judgements of what we perceive: to be fair, incisive and to demonstrate our love for thoughtful, well-crafted art.

Copy after Veronese

Sontag, Susan. 1966. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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Hand & eye

Why can’t you be (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I persist with Deleuze because, like me, he cannot let go of the physical, sensuous nature of painting, the way the body permeates painting, invigorates it, enlivens it. Should we think of painting as a process, says Deleuze (2003: 160), it is one of a ‘continual injection of the manual … into the visual,’ and this claim stresses that painting is both active and bodily, even though it belongs to the visual domain. Painting thus offers us an unexpected opportunity to extend our idea of the visual, precisely because it exists in the overlap of hand and eye. Deleuze (2003: 161) suggests it might help us overcome the duality of the optical versus the tactile. Painting that is haptic subordinates neither hand nor eye, but through it ‘sight discovers in itself a specific function of touch that is uniquely its own’ (Deleuze, 2003: 155).

The hand, argues Deleuze (2003: 154-5), can surface in painting in different ways. It might be completely subordinated to the eye and hence merely a limp tool of an ‘ ‘ideal’ optical space’ (Deleuze, 2003: 154). In this case, ‘the hand,’ he (Deleuze, 2003: 154) forebodingly pronounces, ‘is reduced to the finger.’ This makes it, naturally, digital, which carries some lingering echo of Goodman (1976: 121; 160), no less for linking the discrete, pulsing, on-off series of digits with a code. Optical space proceeds by way of cerebral systems that make sense of and organise forms by way of an ‘optical code.’ But there is an optical space which incorporates some manual qualities such as depth, contour and relief, and we could call this a tactile breed of the predominantly optical space (Deleuze, 2003: 155). But when the hand takes precedent, in a frenzy of unthinking action, we are confronted with the manual. Form is obliterated and the eye is ravaged by roaming, nonsensical marks (Deleuze, 2003: 155).

Abstraction takes the intellectual high-road and develops an optical space that stills the quivering hand as much as possible; abstract expressionism, at the opposite extreme, aims for pure, sensuous but senseless physicality (Deleuze, 2003: 103, 104). And then there is Francis Bacon. Indeed, what should we call these pockets of directed fury, these tangled ferments of wildness carefully hemmed in by neatly landscaped contours? For Bacon, the code remains in the brain and fails to electrify us, it fails to directly jolt our nervous system because it is devoid of sensation. But the purely sensual is desperately confused. Bacon represents a third way, argues Deleuze (2003: 108-110), a way that pumps the volatile manual into the stable visual, but in controlled doses. Bacon’s formula, he (Deleuze, 2003: 98) continually reminds us, is to ‘create resemblance, but through accidental and nonresembling means.’

This appeal to accident can be troubling, but it is precisely here that the manual enters. Two important things surface here: that the artist never confronts an empty  canvas, and that her intentions are inevitably thwarted by the wilfulness of the paint. Deleuze (2003: 86; 93) explains Bacon’s reliance on chance as a method of wrestling with the ‘givens’ in the canvas—which can encompass everything from figurative conventions, the schema of photography, personal predilections and habits, and even the prescribed limits and centre of the familiar quadrilateral canvas, the parts of whose surface are thus not equally ‘probable’ before the poised brush. Artists are well aware of this invisible weight, they know that the unmarked surface is laden with preconceptions. Certainly, many dutifully slather paint into their well-worn grooves; the task of an alert painter is to find a new way out of the canvas, to create something, in the rawest sense of the word. Deleuze—creator of concepts—calls the improbable creation the ‘Figure’ (Deleuze, 2003: 94), and wants to see the painter extract it out of the low drone of clichés.

Bacon’s (seemingly misunderstood) way, as elucidated by Deleuze (2003: 156), is to seize upon chance. The method is simple: Start with the figurative form, with the intention to represent some particular thing or person, and thwart the representation by permitting the hand to become possessed. The chaos of the manual is invoked but carefully contained within the contours of the form; chance is permitted to wreak havoc in a designated zone. Deleuze—creator of concepts—calls this feverish scrambling the ‘diagram’ (Deleuze, 2003: 99). The diagram is whatever the demon-hand deigns to scar the canvas with: scraping, rubbing, scratching, smearing, throwing paint at all conceivable angles and speeds; revelling, in short, in the paint itself, in its unpredictability. I would suggest this manual violence is the logical extreme of an utterly banal—though crucial—fact of painting, which is that paint is always an unknown, that there is always some disconnect between the mark the artist tries to make and the mark that she makes. The most careful stroke can slip, bending disobediently, or its edge can violate another, mingling colours that were never meant to be mingled, more smoothly and thickly in a liquid manner, or abrasively and roughly as a dry brush trespasses an intended boundary. The manual is difficult to escape, and arguably those who get their marks down where and how they want them either have a practiced formula (which does not permit of healthy artistic invention) or they have mastered that happy skill of manipulating chance (Deleuze, 2003: 94).

For Bacon’s cleaning lady, Bacon (in Deleuze, 2003: 95) concedes, could indeed pick up a brush and summon chance, but the accident alone is usually not enough. The artist must wrestle with the aberrations of paint and find a way to take advantage of them, to manipulate them and reincorporate them into her greater vision. Rather than wielding ultimate control over the paint, the artist seeks to beat it at its own slippery game. The destructive ‘scrambling’ of the hand makes a defiant challenge to the artist’s intentions, but she may seize this opportunity to craft something unexpected and new, and regain control of the painting. Painting, on these terms, consists in the delicate balance between intentions and the hiccups of reality.

The question, then, is how the artist is ‘to pass from the possibility of fact to the fact itself’ (Deleuze 2003: 160). How to move from her intention, her nascent visual idea, finding a path out of the cliché-burdened surface, navigating the hazards of accident inherent in the act of painting, to the actual image made up of physical and three-dimensional marks that fossilise her movements. Deleuze (2003: 159) insists that the measure is whether a Figure emerges from this process, a Figure which delightfully deviates from ordinary representational formulae, without dissolving the picture into painterly anarchy. This middle ground marries the two: ‘The Figure should emerge from the diagram and make the sensation clear and precise’ (Deleuze, 2003: 110). If no such Figure materialises from the manual intervention of the hand, the process has failed (Deleuze, 2003: 159). That is, the artist has been defeated by chance, the hand has supremacy, and the haptic potential of the painting is lost.

By way of example, Deleuze (2003: 156) describes Bacon’s intention to paint a bird. In the process of painting, the physical reality of the paint intervenes; the form remains, but the paint caresses it in unexpected ways and the relations between the pictorial elements change—an umbrella begins to show itself and Bacon claims this Figure instead. ‘In effect,’ Deleuze (2003: 156) explains, ‘the bird exists primarily in the intention of the painter, and it gives way to the whole of the really executed painting.’ It is not simply that the form changes, out of sheer inadequacy or laziness, but that new relations are suggested during the act, and the artist can make up her mind to seize them. Representation is achieved by another course.

The scrambling can take place without a metamorphosis of forms: a head, begun as a portrait, could equally be scrambled ‘from one contour to the other,’ triggering new relations that distance the image further and further from a likeness, indulging more and more in the paint, in the movement of the arm, until ‘these new relations of broken tones produce a more profound resemblance, a nonfigurative resemblance for the same form’ (Deleuze, 2003: 158). We are back at Bacon’s solution for fighting against the already-laden surface, a fight that incorporates the belligerence of the hand in a controlled manner.

But let us inject a little skepticism into this discussion. Perhaps Bacon has simply discovered that a convincing enough outline, with, say, recognisable ears and chin, can be ruthlessly abused without entirely losing its claim on representation. Perhaps he has found a way to intellectualise his technical shortcomings. Why should we permit him such liberties with form; why should we find something compelling in these muddied faces? Why should we indulge him this chance-driven and thus possible unskilled ‘injury’ against his sitter (Sylvester, 1975: 41)?

For a start, his whole attitude to paint is worth some attention. The appeal of paint is inseparable from a desire to paint; an image alone is never enough for a painter. There are simpler means of recording images than struggling with uncooperative and toxic substances. If one is to paint, one ought to delight in the possibilities paint affords: the tactile, unpredictable and infinitely manipulable properties that paint alone possesses. Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 58) certainly relishes the materiality of paint itself, explaining that in contrast to the smooth and crisp texture of a photograph, which appeals to our brain, ‘the texture of a painting seems to come immediately onto the nervous system.’

Yet this is no kindergarten, and an artist ought not simply revel in the delightfulness of paint. As a thinking, observant, functioning adult, she can harness the possibilities of paint toward some directed purpose. Bacon cares for both: he thrills at the shock to his nervous system and he demands some order and sense. He doesn’t abandon his intentions entirely, but he reconsiders them as reality turns up new possibilities, precisely because he recognises the nature of paint and the way it interacts with his own movements, his own hand. A mature artist can be expected to push the possibilities of paint, to see what new and sophisticated relations she can wrest from it. The paint is both Bacon’s opponent and his accomplice; were it otherwise for any artist, we might question their motives.

(Copy after Bammes)

Ruprecht von Kaufmann is a painter who demonstrates a similar attitude. His work can be vividly true to life, it can actively represent things and events and people, with a sensitivity to form and to light and to space. But in his most representational work, the intoxication with paint ferments at the surface; he seamlessly weaves the quirks of paint into his steady design. I would venture that he seeks out the anomalies of paint, that he dares the paint to defy him, and when he brings his immense experience to the task he subdues the unruly paint with a surprising virtuosity—giving it that freshness and agility that Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 120) calls ‘inevitability’—and aligns it to his purposes. His portrait series probably comes nearest to Bacon’s process: these pictures feel as if they start out guided by a clear (representational) idea, but then collide head-on with paint. Swirls and smears and heavy dollops of paint reconfigure the face, and the question that remains is whether a Figure emerges or whether each face fruitlessly suffers this violence at von Kaufmann’s hand. And so, lastly, I would argue that Deleuze’s defence of Bacon holds if we grant that it is possible to say something truer about what we see by deviating from its actual appearance. Von Kaufmann’s portraits seethe with the human qualities a person might ordinarily keep submerged under their skin; he makes brutal observations a perceptive person might make, and his brush (or Lino-cutter) gives him the means to represent them.

But besides this, the diagram might have less to do with chance or accident, and more to do with the parameters the artist sets for herself. My own portraits, insistently representational, refuse to satisfy the usual preferences for lighting and colouring, being rather abruptly coloured and forcefully lit, and my attention is usually absorbed in sculpting a head on the stubbornly flat surface. My sitters must be alarmed at my ungenerous attention to their bulging cheeks and their sunken eyes, to the fascinating furrows beneath their sockets and to their heartily constructed noses. The scrambling that takes place within my contours is indebted to my obsession with volume and with lively but systematic colour, colour ordered by the logic of three-dimensional colour space rather than strictly by what I see—my lovely, hapless model serving more as a suggestion for the complex system of the physical world I have compiled in my mind.

Copy after Rubens

And this brings us, finally, to language. According to Deleuze (2003: 117), Bacon’s ‘middle way’ through the digital and the manual, the abstract and the abstract-expressionist, the optical and the tactile, constructs a language out of the diagram. He calls it an ‘analogical language’ (Deleuze, 2003: 113; 117), a ‘language of relations.’ As I understand it, the painter takes hold of the actualities of paint and orders them into a fluid and manipulable system that she can use to represent strong and clear ideas. I bend paint to my ideas of volume, of the way light and colour interact, but I also incorporate its temperamental nature into my system. With time, I build up a language not of symbols, but of relations of colour and tone and light and texture and edge, and a thousand other things. But the versatility of this analogue, rather than digital, language, is rooted in the chaotic partnership of hand and paint. The language is rich and infinite because it is continually reenergised by the manual, non-thinking impulses that Deleuze names the diagram. Conceptions that insist on a code, on symbols, on the binary constitution of the digital, restraining the hand as the countable digit of the finger, enter a discussion with painting purely through the brain and not through the body. Goodman (1976: 234) is right to find a code too rigid and discrete for the continuous flow of paint, which must be described as analogue. Deleuze distinguishes a fittingly analogue language by which sensations and not symbols speak to us.

This analogical language of painting, Deleuze (2003: 118) elaborates, has three dimensions: planes, colour and body. But he expresses a particular enthusiasm for colour, which guides us towards that particularly haptic painting that he craves (Deleuze, 2003: 140). He esteems colourists above all other painters for their delicious facility with the entire language of painting, for if you can sensitively modulate colour and powerfully manipulate its relations, ‘then you have everything’ (Deleuze, 2003: 139). Colour incorporates tone (or value, the black and white scale of lightness and darkness)—yellow is already a lighter tone than blue; to darken it one must modulate through browns or greens, at the same time coping with neutralisation. In lightening a blue, adding white immediately neutralises it, and one must also think through the colour of the light that brightens it, which might be of a stark yellow-orange, demanding a shift in hue towards its opposite. Colour incorporates edge and thus line. It demarcates planes that describe form. Tone (or value), concerned solely with the presence or absence of light, is much more straightforward: a ‘pure code of black and white,’ binary, digital (Deleuze, 2003: 134).

Tonal painters are able to achieve dramatic results by punching in their high-contrast code; the code renders their work sensible in spite of nonsensical colours. But their simpler codification of light is, argues Deleuze (2003: 133), limited to the optical function of light. It sits primly and politely in optical space and only appeals to our intellect. But colour bites directly into our nervous system. Though it engages our eyes, it engages our whole body through our eyes. It wrenches us into haptic space. The language of painting, then, in all its analogue complexity, in its infinite variability, its carefully modulated relations, remains rooted in the body—in both the movements of the painter and in the sting that the viewer’s raw nerves suffer. Invoking the body electrifies painting and expands our otherwise quickly-shrinking conception of the visual.

Copies after Rubens

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

Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 2. ed. Hackett: Indianapolis, Ind.

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

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Ever searching

louvre

A pilgrimage to Paris, to encounter Delacroix and Manet in the flesh, reaffirmed that we need not be committed to one way of working. A true artist does not bind herself to a ‘style,’ but searches endlessly after some elusive thing—let us call it truth, in an indulgently romantic fashion. Truth may be uncovered and approximated and represented in many ways, and despite the way we put our artists into categories, their work is rarely so easily defined, so one-dimensional.

Delacroix

Delacroix

I saw Delacroix work of a very fine quality with well-defined contours and smoothly-modelled forms, and work of a more thick and fast quality, all the way up to very course, feverish and rough work, near incomprehensible smears of paint dancing upon the canvas. It brought me a devilish pleasure to see his most violent and spattered work hanging on the same wall as Ingres, classed together as ‘academic art,’ though as far removed from each other as imaginable. Ingres, with his linear emphasis; though his meticulously designed (and redesigned) lines are expertly integrated with his finely-modelled paint into eggshell-smooth rolling forms. The edges are airy, working in a magical unity with the forceful and clear lines. An unobservant viewer might be inclined to write off Ingres as formulaic and predictable, but finally encountering him face to face I am amazed at how his work breathes with such variety from within his preferred parameters. Crisp and deeply modelled spherical forms in rich ruby and emerald colours cloak his Joan of Arc in a convincingly medieval air, while a Venus basking in golden southern rays is treated in such a diffuse, hazy way that counters the severe artifice of the arc of her shoulders. Paint is put to such different use as the picture demands, and though he holds fast to his draughtsmanship, even this does not dictate the application of paint. Baudelaire (1972: 51) is quick to point out to the oversimplifying critic that colour and line are not alien to each other: ‘You do not know in what proportions nature has combined in every mind the taste for line and the taste for colour, nor by what mysterious alchemy she produces the fusion between them, the result of which is a picture.’

(Copy after Ingres)

(Copy after Ingres)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is sheer madness to think that there is one way to apply paint, one method that defines us. The French are ever searching. They are testing the limits of paint, not out of ennui, not in a distracted pursuit of novelty, nor out of despair that everything has already been done. They are searching for the manner of expressing what they want to express. They are pushing paint to the very limits of its expressiveness. And perhaps they don’t succeed every time, but they certainly make many surprising breakthroughs.

delacroixs

Delacroix

Delacroix positively shimmers, in every way. His lines vibrate with urgency and vitality. The drawing alone is joyously bursting with life, exploding with energy. I take out my sketchbook and copy two women, crouched and one clasping the other, hair hanging tossed heavily over the head like an extra limb, extending the arch of the body. A perfectly designed foot curves with a lively flourish. My chunky drawing has found the Rubens in these draped figures, in their interlocking arms and their thick wrists and meaty bodies. Without a doubt, Rubens is flowing through these paintings, however loose Delacroix’s paint becomes—in the drawing and in the colours alike. For Delacroix’s colours vibrate as much as his lines. Hanging among Géricault in this huge hall, Delacroix’s colour is punchy, judiciously applied, not overdone, but strong and resonant. Gold gleams and beads twinkle, hair shimmers like falling water and satin shines in its dampened way. A trembling wrist persuades me that Delacroix is able ‘to express simply by contour man’s gesture, however violent;’ while his glinting fabrics and glowing skin demonstrate his ability ‘to evoke with colour alone what might be called the atmosphere of the human drama, or the spiritual mood of the creator’ (Baudelaire 1972: 361).

Delacroix

Delacroix

Perhaps only a painter could find pictures so unrelentingly brutal to be so abundant with life, because she cares more for the paint than for the subject matter. I reflect that it is almost a paradox to speak of Delacroix’s paintings being alive when his themes are almost exclusively death—though Baudelaire (1972: 359) shares my conviction that ‘he succeeded in translating the spoken word into plastic images, more full of life and more appropriate than those of any other creator of the same profession.’ Perhaps this pulsating energy comes from the realisation that life is but a vicious and frenzied struggle against death, which we are destined to lose.

Manet

Manet

In Manet I find the same ambitious range. His Olympia consists in such lovely drawing; all the lines lead you irresistibly to her crotch, where the most delicious drawing is concentrated in the expertly foreshortened hand, foreshortened by means of line, tone and colour, so meaningfully and powerfully conveyed in such a short stretch of painting. I think of the controversies Manet sparked, and I can imagine them as unintentional, unwanted controversies, the inescapable consequence of his search after truth. Olympia is certainly striking, but it is no provocative statement that makes her so compelling to a painter. The challenges to the male gaze and other art historical renderings of this picture seem remote and improbable when one stands before the canvas as a humble artist. Baudelaire (1972: 397) would remind us that ‘with two or three exceptions…the majority of artists are, let us face it, very skilled brutes, mere manual labourers, village pub-talkers with the minds of country bumpkins.’ A mere painter would see her task in much simpler terms than the intellectualising public might expect: she would simply be obliged to use all means available to make the image as cohesive and strong as possible. How could it be otherwise than that Manet reserve his best drawing, his soundest use of tone and colour, ‘all the means his craft gives him’ (Baudelaire 1972: 51), for this most fertile region of this modern nude? Formally, she is a strong, arresting, complete unity. Conceptually, she is shocking, because of what strong painting does when it mixes with the present. Can the present abide strong painting? Manet has not let me down.

degashands

Degas

In Degas I discover such variety of mark making, often within the one picture. Degas coaxes a self portrait, a luminous pair of hands, out of the surface, working the delicate transitions by near imperceptible degrees without compromising the overall form. He builds them up with increasing intensity from thin, rubbed-out raw umber, as if extracting them slowly from the mud. The humble raw umber underpainting and its gently undulating quality remains visible in places. Pictures grow out from the earthy and close but precise tones, the chroma gradually increasing with smears of rubbed-out opaque colour, and then a finishing touch of a thick and sure stroke of colour at a yet higher chroma. And likewise, the dark tones are deepened with yet darker blues and blacks and browns. The unity is preserved: the variations stay in their place, ever subordinate to the greater mass.

Degas

Degas

And I enjoy his alternating demands on the paint according to his intentions. The double portrait of himself and the top-hatted gentleman is arresting at a distance; the dark forms of the men come starkly to the fore, but their faces are finely treated, sympathetic to complex and restrained emotions, the creases of the eyes firm and clear but ever so slightly softened. A single, delicious specular highlight adorns one corner of the square end of the gentleman’s nose. His top hat is a perfect, straight extension of his proud head. Paris glimmers behind them, a positive mash of pale pinkish and bluish whites, somewhat abrasive up close, but remarkably effective. The textural contrast should be insulting to the vision, but this brash experiment has succeeded—against all expectations, the discord harmonises: the picture forms a striking unity.

Rodin

Rodin

Rodin’s breadth strikes me just as strongly. Certainly I know of his harried surfaces, the presence of his fingertips in thick smatterings of clay. I know this look of frenzied concentration in his rough man-handling of the surface, this working and reworking that belies his countless reattempts at truth, so poorly imitated by those who equate unthinking sketchiness with ‘expressiveness’ devoid of content. But perhaps more unexpected was that sometimes he can be so slick and precise, that he can introduce the most gentle twist, an understated arc perceptible from all angles, though unbelievably slight. That he can be so anatomically careful, and model so accurately. He can magnify this naturalism to monstrous proportions, and subject the body to fantastic strains and tensions—the compression of a foot firmly planted but screwing into the ground, the push and pull of flexors and extensors in heavily-set legs. Yet he can confine all this physical anguish within a smoothly-modelled exterior. And then he can absolutely let loose and let these taught, herculean, muscular bodies melt into strong but somehow unreal creatures, human but somehow superhuman, more flexible, more arched, more sinewy; deformed by their suffering. In these overbearing figures one feels the lithe energy of the smaller, quickly-sketched maquettes that trickle down the Gate of Hell. They are overgrown mud-men, bent and twisted in the cruel hands of a merciless god.

Rodin

Rodin

‘A good picture,’ opines Baudelaire (1972: 365-6), ‘faithful and worthy of the dreams that gave it birth, must be created like a world. Just as the creation, as we see it, is the result of several creations, the earlier ones always being completed by the later, so a harmonically fashioned picture consists of a series of superimposed pictures, each fresh surface giving added reality to the dream, and raising it by one degree towards perfection.’ And as creators, we must not fall into habit, and thus disengage from our work, but approach each work with fresh eyes. We must bring to it the knowledge that it demands, and ever try to augment that knowledge through our investigations. There is no one way of working, even if we are trying to get at the same truth.

Delacroix

Delacroix

 

Baudelaire, Charles-Pierre. 1972 [1842-1860]. Selected writings on art and artists. Trans. P. E. Charvet. Penguin: Harmondsworth, England.

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On naturalism

Pantzergasse, Winter (c) 2016 Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Pantzergasse, Winter (c) 2016 Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

When I paint, I am ever torn between two conflicting intentions. I am driven towards what we might call naturalism, the honest representation of things as they appear to me in the natural world, but I am constantly diverted by the lusciousness of paint and by my own systems of manipulating that substance that I have cobbled together from things learned and things discovered. As I stand before my canvas, I anticipate how convincingly naturalistic my finished painting will be, but my brain immediately sets to work in undermining that intention by ordering what I see into a complex system of relationships. In short, I cannot paint what I see, because paint promises the possibility of depicting things in more suggestive ways, and because it also imposes certain physical limits, within which I try to condense my understanding of what I see.

This leads me to survey my work with dismay: my paintings positively glow with an unearthly artificiality. The objects and people that populate them are glaringly constructed, and set under a contrived light, though observed from life. I see a more naturalistic painting and I despair at my own artifice.

Selbstbildnis

But I do not despair for long, because I quickly turn to questioning naturalism itself. And on this point I am persuaded by two claims from Ernst Gombrich. In Art and Illusion, he argues that ‘all representations are grounded on schemata which the artist learns to use’ (Gombrich, 1959: 264). And very quickly thereafter, he points out that the very ‘stimulus … is of infinite ambiguity’ (Gombrich, 1959: 264-5). ‘Naturalism’ is something of a misleading idea because it disguises how variable nature and our own visual experience of it is. At the very least, we might demand that the term be broad enough to admit many types of representation that aim at capturing something honest about the natural world. But one breed of naturalism tends to prevail as the most correct or ‘realistic’ in our modern eyes: the kind that makes us mistake paintings for photographs. We have permitted photography to become the unerring benchmark for ‘reality’ in the visual realm. Photography conditions our experience of sight.

Photography, it must be pointed out (for it is often forgotten), lets us down on many accounts. It fails to match the rich spectrum of colours our eye is able to enjoy, or to exhibit such a fine sensibility towards tonal gradations; it is not binocular, and does not have the luxury of flitting around a scene just as our ever-active eyes devour it, composing a view out of collected fragments. A photograph, an arbitrary slice of time, is often precisely the ‘wrong’ slice that we feel does not represent us, caught blinking or speaking or chewing. Focal lengths distort perspective, bending our physical constitution. As a measure for ‘reality,’ photography makes a fairly poor standard, and probably a worse one for coming so close and deserting us when we least expect it. If we are ignorant of its shortcomings, our conception of ‘reality’ is itself swallowed up by photography.

Selbstbildnis 2

I do not want to attempt to define reality, for this is an immense task I should not like to claim responsibility for. But I want to suggest that our own vision is more remarkable than photography. When we judge the success of any representation, painted or otherwise, we might remark how near to our own complex visual experience it comes. And we might bear in mind that sight is one thing, and representations are quite another, and the camera, let us not forget, offers but another mode of representation.

And as Gombrich argues, every representation is founded on schemata. Painting that orients itself via photography imports the schemata of photography into painting. The schemata of photography are not simply felt in the work of artists who copy photographs. They permeate the work of many who work ‘from life,’ who directly observe the world, but whose strategy in painting is to organise what they see just as a camera would. They crush dark tones together, even ones that are not actually shadows. They blanch and flatten light areas, uninterested in the undulating forms of the voluminous object before them. They impose a high tonal contrast—very dark against very light—to great dramatic effect, but utterly without nuance. Softness and blur takes on the uniform flavour of the lens, unlike the scattered haze that bleary or myopic eyes encounter. But when refining a surface they disguise lack of structural understanding with microscopic precision: paying painful attention to the blemishes and creases and stray hairs that are prized as ‘detail.’ ‘The artist’s starting point will determine the final product,’ cautions Gombrich (1959: 92); ‘The schema on which a representation is based will continue to show through the ultimate elaboration.’

self-portrait-2

Put differently: choose your influences, guide your aesthetic. A painter is constantly growing and adjusting her schemata according to what she pays attention to. It was at this point in my reflections that I realised my paintings are bound to become jubilantly vivid and muscular: I feed on a steady visual diet of Baroque paintings. What I relish are full forms, highly energised compositions, three-dimensional rhythms flowing in and around each other, electrified but systematic application of light in its confrontation with colour. Rubens hands down his schemata which celebrate the writhing, swelling, interlocking qualities of the natural world, basked in vivifying light.

And thus, when I paint, I bring other concerns to my easel than the artist who corrects himself by the standards of photography. Uninterested in a snapshot moment, I wade into the confusing and rich task of melting together a multiplicity of moments. A painting takes time to make, and my eyes take time to wander over my subject, drinking in every shifting property and letting them settle into a sustained, unified impression. I continually consider the whole, the way the elements relate to and influence each other. I use line to investigate visually pleasing trails, and I use drawing to animate nature. I orchestrate the elements into a cohesive composition, uninterested in a ‘found’ image, but determined to take responsibility for the construction of this image from the very first.

hands-ink

I make tonal decisions—how closely to group my dark tones, while preserving a logical gradation; separating shadows from halftones so I can meaningfully describe the way light plays over the surfaces. I consider the gamut of colours available to me in my paint choices—how a cadmium yellow and a pale rose red can stretch it further than a yellow ochre and a deep transparent red. I know that no matter what, paint does not have the reach of light, and it is not possible to match the full range that I see. So I establish my limits, reserving the highest chroma available to me for where I most need it, and correspondingly dulling the rest. I impose a logical system of neutralising colour with the falloff of light, conceptualising the relationships between colours as a three-dimensional space that I can move through with increasing fluency. When I vary yellow, I factor in the way purple neutralises it, and what that would mean in my picture, and I consider the ‘vertical’ shift I want to make in tone and in chroma as I transition from one colour to another.

hands-ryan

I think about the brush in my hand, how stiff or springy its bristles are, how splayed, how neat and flexible, and I invoke textures by the movement of my hand. Those textures hang in relation to one another, I must reserve certain techniques for smooth objects compared to coarse ones. And everything must fit into the system dictated by the quality of the light: whether it is diffuse, grey natural light, or blue unclouded daylight, or orange-yellow artificial light, or something else. ‘Every artist has to know and construct a schema before he can adjust it to the needs of portrayal,’ Gombrich (1959: 99) is right to insist. And my schema, derived from many places, but notably not from photography, is reasonably sophisticated.

hands-ink-2

 

 

Painting the ever-shifting natural world demands visual acuity, but also a mental acuity. For as painters, we do not merely observe and transcribe, but we organise what we see. When we paint, we establish relationships, and the character of those relationships—of light to dark, of vividness to neutrality, of smoothness to coarseness to softness to brittleness—directs the quality of the painting. Painting is not, as Gombrich (1959: 78) argues, ‘a faithful record of a visual experience but the faithful construction of a relational model.’ All painters construct relational models; it is only a question of what the model is based on, and how well the painter understands that model.

self-portrait-7

And the crucial point is whether a painter is passive or active. Because an artist worthy of our attention and respect does not work mindlessly, or randomly, or uncritically. She tests every new observation, and wrestles with it until she finds a way to work it into her system. She pushes her system to do more and more, to cope with greater ambiguity, to suggest more with less, to reflect the shimmering richness of the natural world. To do that, she will probably have to move away from the sufficient but sorely limited laws of the lens, to embrace the sticky willfulness of paint and to try to subdue the chaos in new ways, even if they are unsuccessful at first. ‘[The artist] is the man who has learned to look critically, to probe his perceptions by trying alternative interpretations both in play and in earnest,’ (Gombrich 1969: 265).

My paintings are a head-on struggle between what I see and the beautifully restricted medium in which I work. They document the hard-won schemata that I continue to grow as I bounce between the natural world and the teachings of other artists living and dead. ‘Naturalism’ in painting should never be fettered to the camera, for photography is only another means of representation, with other limits that painting can be blissfully free of. We are mistaken to find a painting more ‘realistic’ the more its relationships match those we are familiar with through photography, because, as Gombrich (1959: 75) puts it, ‘there is no neutral naturalism.’ Paint offers so many subtle and lively possibilities that approach the rich and nuanced experience of sight in ways that photography never will.

Selbstbildnis

 

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

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Questions

The decision (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The decision (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

In his eminently readable paper, ‘How I see philosophy’ (collected in the book of the same name), Friedrich Waismann urges us on to the dizzying thrill of the questions that originally brought our buzzing, inquisitive minds to philosophy. His plea perhaps grows increasingly relevant as philosophy becomes more analytically constrained, as the scientific project and its quest for order and explanation and proof creeps into all spheres of our lives, as ordinary people demand answers that ring with the clarity of science. Waismann makes a plea for the fog, for the roving unrest it stirs in us, for the rabbit holes it leads us down and the impassioned discussions it gives rise to. ‘The genius of the philosopher,’ asserts Waismann (1968: 16) ‘shows itself nowhere more strikingly than in the new kind of question he brings into the world. What distinguishes him and gives him his place is the passion of questioning.’ And yet further: ‘There is nothing like clear thinking to protect one from making discoveries’ (Waismann, 1968: 16).

holbein-erasmus

This is not to decry reason and to rally behind an unthinking mental anarchy. Quite the opposite. It is to stimulate original thought, to pursue reason wherever she may lead, away from convention if she must, out of habits, disrupting prejudices (Waismann, 1968: 32). It is to remember why we started–we and our compatriots in thought, all the way back to Plato–quite simply: wonder (Waismann, 1968: 3). Waismann (1968: 16) urges us, as we flounder in the heady haze of brain-breaking wonderment, to take heart that ‘some of the greatest discoveries have even emerged from a sort of primordial fog.’ The ‘clarity neurosis’ will not furnish us with solutions, but only with the appearance of them. Clarity is reassuring, it gives us no reason to challenge the well-worn groove we circle around in, and for that very reason it extinguishes our creative spark before it gets a chance to warm up.

rubens-wonder

Waismann does not champion confusion. Rather, he sees philosophy as having a different aim than science (Waismann, 1968: 34). He reflects on a tradition grounded in Descartes and Spinoza, in which precise definitions, like quanta of knowledge, stack up—Lego-like—into tight axioms, by which we can deductively prove that the finite and infinite substances and all their attributes are none other than God himself, Q.E.D. (Spinoza, 1677). Such a logical project is admirable in its ambition, noble in its intentions. And Descartes (1997 [1637]: 7), after all, would not force his method on us (‘Es ist also nicht meine Absicht, hier die Methode zu lehren, die jeder befolgen muß, um seinen Verstand richtig zu leiten, sondern nur aufzuzeigen, wie ich versucht habe, den meinen zu leiten’—‘It is not my intention here to teach the methods that everyone must follow in order to correctly guide his reason, rather to demonstrate how I have tried to guide my own’). No, Waismann (1968: 20) does not seek confusion, but he does call for a change of outlook, defiantly declaring in the face of all this elegant reasoning that ‘insight cannot be lodged in a theorem.’

Franz von Stuck - Amazone

Franz von Stuck, Amazone (copy after sculpture)

Insight! When we had hoped for answers and airtight proofs, Waismann leads us back to the questions in order redefine the essence and purpose of philosophy. And the essential feature, he (Waismann, 1968: 32) argues, is vision. A philosopher is not a builder of systems, but an agile thinker who cannot help but challenge our accepted modes of thought. She takes nothing for granted, and takes everything in with the same open-eyed amazement as a child, with the same persistent ‘why’ dogging every new piece of knowledge she encounters. She keeps a level head in that primordial fog, and, says Waismann (1968: 10), if she reframes the troubling question she might just ‘dissolve’ rather than ‘solve’ it. But this, he adds, would be a meagre and negative task for philosophy, to simply dispel fogs. No, the positive task for philosophy, he (Waismann, 1968: 21) argues, ‘what is essential in philosophy, is the breaking through to a deeper insight.’ And the purpose, far from satisfying us, is to keep us ruffled and amazed: ‘to open our eyes’ (Waismann, 1968: 21).

Rubens - Venusfest

Rubens, Venusfest

What Waismann calls for is an attentive outlook that is willing to look at things sideways, to chew them over backwards, and to act in a creative manner. A search for answers already makes a fatal assumption. I am reminded of the notoriously inquisitive physicist, Dr Jacques Pienaar, who guilelessly prefaces his papers with such opening statements as, ‘In order to solve the problem of quantum gravity, we first need to pose the problem.’ This is the hallmark of the born philosopher: ‘the passion of questioning’ is in his blood. He navigates the fog not in order to obscure, not in order to destroy, but because of an insatiable sense of wonder backed up by the courage to cast a discerning eye over all intellectual territory. Emerson’s (1847: ‘Self-reliance’) words echo in Waismann’s: ‘Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.’

self-portrait-1

What is compelling about Waismann’s view is that is recaptures the philosophical spirit, it reminds us why we started. It reassures us in our hours of solitude, when we are trapped deep in a problem—a snare which we nonetheless find energising. It reassures us when, at our desks, in our libraries, we struggle to formulate our nascent insights into accepted parlance. It reassures us that we are on the right course, so long as we are asking the questions that stir us the most: ‘You don’t choose a puzzle, you are shocked into it’ (Waismann, 1968: 37). It rings in tune with our restless, roving minds.

‘The heart’s unrest is not to be stilled by logic.’

(Waismann, 1968: 13).

 

Descartes, René. 1997 [1637]. Von der Methode des richtigen Vernunftsgebrauchs und der wissenschaftlichen Forschung. Übs.: Lüder Gäbe. Felix Meiner: Hamburg.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. 1847. Essays: First Series. http://www.emersoncentral.com/essays1.htm.

Pienaar, Jacques L. 2016. The Relativity Principle in Quantum Mechanics. http://perimeterinstitute.ca/videos/relativity-principle-quantum-mechanics.

Spinoza, Baruch de. [1677]. Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata. („Ethik, nach geometrischer Methode dargestellt“).

Waismann, Friedrich. 1968. How I See Philosophy. Ed. R Harré. Macmillan: London.

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The world or the picture

manet-nymphe-surprise

In Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman undertakes an analytical investigation into precisely what qualifies as aesthetic. His search leads him on a rather arduous journey through some linguistic problems in order to conclude that it might be more helpful to suggest symptoms, rather than criteria, of the aesthetic (Goodman 1976: 252). In short, what he finds rather a hindrance is the persistent intuition that the cognitive and the aesthetic are by nature divorced from each other. This lingering ‘vague yet harsh dichotomy’ distracts us from seeing that the emotions, admittedly of special importance to the arts, ‘function cognitively’ (Goodman 1976: 254-5, 248). Goodman (1976: 264) suggests that by approaching aesthetics analytically, we are encouraged to leave behind our prejudices and discover some pleasant affinities between art and science (without attempting to say that the two are equivalent). His efforts to account for the emotions and their accompanying philosophical difficulties are laudable, but are distorted by the breadth of understanding he demands of art.

Setting aside his broader project of clarifying the nature of the aesthetic, let us concentrate on a ripe branch thereof. The aesthetic experience marks our intersection with art, as artist or spectator or both. Goodman, a symbolist, proposes some very strong aspects of that experience. We each carry about with us a personal symbol system through which we organise and make sense of the world around us, says Goodman (1976: 260; 265), and we expand and adapt these systems as we encounter new symbols. The aesthetic experience is accordingly an inquiring, inquisitive one that requires us to read an artwork—in our case, a painting (Goodman 1976: 14).

Tizian Danae

The aesthetic experience, Goodman (1976: 241-2) asserts, is active. ‘It involves making delicate discriminations and discerning subtle relationships. … The aesthetic attitude is restless, searching, testing—it is less attitude than action: creation and recreation.’ Goodman is right to demand such attentive engagement in an encounter with a painting; he gets rather carried away when he assigns the spectator a creative role. His enthusiasm leads him to declare that ‘nature is a product of art and discourse,’ (Goodman 1976: 33) and from here it is a swift descent into relativism, which he fiercely argues for.

He is lured into assigning the spectator a disproportionately creative role by the false assumption that preserving the picture makes us passive. We must, as he requires, certainly approach a painting attentively, engage with it inquiringly. Wollheim (1987: 22), who indeed argues that the picture is fixed, similarly demands that the spectator be ‘adequately sensitive, adequately informed’ when attending to the canvas. But Goodman’s (1976: 112) tone becomes palpably frustrated when he belligerently describes ‘the time-honoured Tingle-Immersion theory,’ which is how he characterises positions like Wollheim’s, ‘which tells us that the proper behaviour on encountering a work of art is to strip ourselves of all the vestments of knowledge and experience (since they might blunt the immediacy of our enjoyment), then submerge ourselves completely and gauge the aesthetic potency of the work by the intensity and duration of the resulting tingle.’

This view that the ‘direct apprehension of what is presented,’ the direct encounter with a painting, amounts to ‘passive contemplation of the immediately given’ to the exclusion of all else is to crudely caricature a position that respects the stability of the painting and the intentions of the artist (Goodman 1976: 241). Wollheim (1987: 44; 185) indeed insists that the spectator cannot tamper with the meaning of the painting: such permissiveness would embrace the idea that ‘the picture would have to gain content after it left the hands of the artist and without any concomitant alteration to its marked surface.’ And closer to Wollheim’s (1987: 95) central thesis, the spectator need not tamper with the meaning. His more subtle account emphasises that the painting already contains a rich font of information, expressively inscribed in paint, ready to be discovered by the inquisitive spectator. It is a careless and distracted spectator who discards the contents of the painting for his own interpretation.

titian-wine

But let us indulge Goodman, and ask what concerns him so much about a static picture. I see two concerns. The first is the varied understandings we have of the same paintings. The second is that our emotions never quite seem to align with those prompted by the painting—they are usually ‘muted and oblique,’ or even reversed (Goodman 1976: 245). Goodman (1976: 245) is bursting to tell us that ‘any picture of aesthetic experience as a sort of emotional bath or orgy is plainly preposterous.’ I would contend that few artists are carried away by such ecstasies, let alone respectable gallery visitors, and inducing such heightened emotion can hardly be the point of painting. Wollheim (1987: 45; 80) treats this question of the emotions as a matter of ‘expressive perception,’ which captures both the expressive treatment of what is depicted and the ability of the sensitive spectator to perceive the emotions infused therein. Wollheim (1987: 129) goes so far as to posit a mediator, an imaginary protagonist, whose position we step into and whose emotions we savour at a safe distance—a useful device that permits the dampening of emotions. And regarding the first concern: Wollheim (1987: 101) simply argues that the spectator can be correct or incorrect. He does not permit flexibility of the painting, and thus does not permit flexibility in the spectator; should differences arise, Wollheim is not afraid to call someone wrong. He refers ever back to the intentions of the painter, who has sought to embody some idea in paint (Wollheim 1987: 86).

titian-sacred-and-profane

By contrast, Goodman wants to permit a plurality of interpretations, ones that depend on context and personal experiences, and that take their cue from symbols embedded in the painting. The artist merely provides a stimulus for the spectator, who, on Goodman’s account, is the real creator—the agent to assign meaning. The spectator, ever refining his personal bank of symbols, is shaping the world itself in his encounter with art: ‘interpreting works and reorganising the world in terms of works and works in terms of the world.’ (Goodman 1976: 241; 260). And each encounter bears new fruit, not because we have been more attentive to the painting and the richness already contained within it (as I would argue, in sympathy with Wollheim), but because ‘what we read from and learn from a symbol varies with what we bring to it’ (Goodman 1976: 260). Because of our ever-evolving conception of the world, and to support our continual reconstruction of the world, Goodman (1976: 43; 231) argues for the full relativity of representation. Paintings are but carriers of symbols, and a symbol, he explains, ‘is only representational according to its own relationships to other symbols in a given system’ (Goodman 1976: 226). We are left with nothing firm beneath our feet: the world is completely awash.

titian-lucretia

Goodman proceeds to unpack the concept of representation. At first he suggests it might be a kind of denotation, which makes it similar to verbal description—though only as an analogy (Goodman 1976: 40). ‘A picture that represents Churchill, like a predicate that applies to him, denotes him’ (Goodman 1976: 58). Unlike Wollheim (1987: 22), who sees expression as bound up in the very marks that represent the thing represented, Goodman (1976: 46) separates representation from expression. He finds them irreconcilable upon logical analysis: they run in opposite directions. To express is not to denote but to metaphorically exemplify, or to possess and demonstrate an array of properties (Goodman 1976: 85). These properties, says Goodman (1976: 85), may be as diverse as colours, feelings, and thoughts, and the feelings and thoughts may be those of the artist or those of the spectator alike.

titian-lucretia-head

Goodman’s appeal to logic sounds authoritative—especially in the face of someone, like Wollheim (1987: 8), who turns trustingly to the painting when in doubt. But I find his explanation of expression problematic, not least in that it is so divorced from representation. Expression can hardly be so arbitrary—a thought or feeling must be expressed by someone, in an intentional way. A colour is certainly exemplified, but I find it troubling to treat emotions as the same type of properties as colours. As a spectator, I might encounter a picture that, by chance, ‘possesses’ the same emotion as me at a certain moment. But the painting hardly expresses my emotion, because there is no connection between me and the painter, who inscribed that emotion in the painting. At best, I could say that the picture ‘captures’ the emotion that I am also and independently feeling. The causal connection is not there; and in fact, I could understand the painting without mirroring the embedded emotion, whether accidentally or at the suggestion of the painting. I am far more persuaded by Wollheim, who weaves expression into the very manner of representation: lively, giddy, thick brushwork or diffused, foggy edges betray much of what is to be expressed, and are inseparable from the very representation of the thing represented. ‘The marked surface must be the conduit along which the mental state of the artist makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator’ (Wollheim 1987: 22). Wollheim (1987: 39) concedes that ‘adopting the perspective of the artist requires us to give pride of place to what the agent does.’ But he continues: ‘it does not require us to ignore or reject the point of view of the spectator. It requires us only to rethink it.’

Dissatisfied with his initial explanation of representation, at any rate—because he cannot find a way to distinguish representation from other modes of denotation—Goodman (1976: 225) argues that an analysis of symbol systems allows us to be clearer on the nature of representation. ‘Representation,’ Goodman (1976:226) argues now, ‘is relative to a symbol system’—‘nothing is intrinsically a representation.’ A painting is thus completely in flux, and its meaning is bound up in every individual spectator’s own personal web of symbols. Further, a symbol is representational only in terms of ‘its own relationships to other symbols in a given system’ (Goodman 1976: 226).

titian-woman-dont-touch-me

By Goodman’s account, only the symbol is preserved, and our relationship to the symbol and its own relationship to other symbols is relative and variable, and the painting is merely a vessel for symbols. Wollheim (1987: 306), too, gives the imagination a lot of range, but tries to preserve the picture and its intended meaning—our relationship to that picture can be correct or incorrect. This difference traces back to the type of meaning sought: should the painting merely be a tool for understanding the world and our place in it, it is uninteresting as a fixed, self-contained entity.

poussin-diana-mad-again

When Goodman considers meaning in a painting, he steps right back and asks what the painting means in the world, how it contributes to our understanding of the world. His scope of understanding is very broad. The role of the artist is to ‘remake our world.’ She looks for new configurations: ‘And if the point of the picture is not only successfully made but is also well-taken, if the realignments it directly and indirectly effects are interesting and important, the picture—like a crucial experiment—makes a genuine contribution to knowledge’ (Goodman 1976: 33). The physical painting, which thus offers a plethora of meanings, remains relevant only as a vessel: ‘Discoveries become available knowledge only when preserved in accessible form’ (Goodman 1976: 260). Goodman (1976: 258) draws our attention to the purpose of symbolisation: ‘the drive is curiosity and the aim is enlightenment,’ he declares, ‘use of symbols … is for the sake of understanding; … what compels us is the urge to know, what delights is discovery.’

poussin-sabines

Wollheim, by contrast, narrows his scope to the painting itself. Wollheim wants to know what the painting means, to read the meaning contained within the four borders of the frame. He dignifies the painting as a self-contained statement—a complex, nuanced statement—originated by a thoughtful artist driven by particular intentions. I’m reminded of Friedrich Waismann’s (in McGuinness 2011: 198; 205) deference to Kafka as an artist of great prowess, able to shape language in order to carry the reader into unchartered mental territory: ‘The edges of Kafka’s world are lost in darkness; or, to put it differently, we come up here against the ineffable. … Perhaps, after all, that is the most interesting thing about Kafka: his attempt to say something for which we have no proper language. … It all seems patent nonsense. And yet, as I was reading, it came with a curious impact upon me, as if I had known these things before and forgotten all about them. … I was haunted by the novel. I was sure that there must be something behind it, and yet I was utterly unable to say why.’ It is Kafka, the creative agent, who is able to express these nuanced things, and who gently guides the reader into that particular aesthetic experience.

Poussin khm

In thus respecting the intentions of the artist, Wollheim lessens the role of interpretation, and offers other ways of dealing with the fluctuations of understanding and emotion, namely by calling for more attentive, more knowledgeable apprehension of the picture and the ability to perceive it expressively. His position is more attractive: it gives greater expressive power to the tools of the painter—such as composition, texture, design, edge treatment and other formal qualities—than symbolism allows.

poussin-composition-khm

To his credit, it is admirable that Goodman does not refer us to a fixed dictionary of symbols. His symbol systems attempt to account for the more delicate reading of a painting than such simple transcription would allow. But his symbol systems, in weaving the specatator and his experiences of the world into the meaning of the painting are too fluid and stray too far from the intentions of the artist. He makes this dramatic leap because he believes the painting offers us a means of understanding and recreating the world (Goodman 1976: 265). It becomes clear why we must be certain what kind of meaning we are pursuing. A painting may have its own internal meaning, as carefully explicated by Wollheim, or it may be a fragment of a greater context, and thus a tool for helping us understand the world. I stand by the integrity of the work, and urge fellow artists and spectators not to abandon the meaning of the work itself, lest our own unpredictable vacillations plunge us into the bottomless depths of relativism.

titian-girl-with-fan

 

Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 2. ed., [Nachdr.]. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett.

McGuinness, Brian, ed. 2011. Friedrich Waismann: Causality and Logical Positivism. Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook 15. Dordrecht ; New York: Springer.

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

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An unlikely protagonist

Aschersleben (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Aschersleben (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

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

Ascherslebensketch

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

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

Ascherslebencolourstudy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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