Sight & touch

Tea and sympathy (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Tea and sympathy (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder penned some truly delightful thoughts on Sculpture that make my fingers itch to knead and shape wax or clay. His observations, dripping with unexpected warmth and vitality, dip and meander through many themes, some more credible to our modern intelligence than others.

Sight and touch, he begins without delay, are fundamentally distinct, and we stand to gain very much by teasing them apart (Herder 2002: 33). Not least, we might gain a deeper understanding of beauty, a heavily sight-oriented notion (Herder 2002: 39). Touch demands something more solid of beauty than does sight, something more connected to purpose and to strong and healthy forms than to the shimmering and retreating effects of light. Touch searches out truth. This truth grounds us in the world of physical bodies, of living beings and of complete forms, discoverable even in the dark. ‘The dark of night’ even comes to the aid of our sense of touch: ‘with its sponge it removes all the colours from things and obliges us to attend to the presence and existence of an object’ (Herder 2002: 81).

Leave it to the other arts, urges Herder, to chase after ‘breath and speech,’ after the breeze that animates hair and drapery, after ‘the fugitive butterfly of wit and abstraction’ (Herder 2002: 97). Sculpture, like the very stone or wood or clay from which it is formed, is too weighty for such preoccupations—lovely though they are. ‘For this the statue is too true, too complete, too unified, too sacred’ (Herder 2002: 97). Let us touch on each in turn.

Copy after Rodin in wax

Copy after Rodin in wax

 

Too true

While sight allows us to swiftly estimate beauty, it only permits us to assess a surface, as it were. The physical world, as delivered to us by sight, is far more comparable to a flat picture than we commonly admit: sight gives us shapes, and only the ones revealed by light: we see but ‘a continuum of things placed alongside one another’ (Herder 2002: 35, 36). If we have learned to see bodies, to understand that they occupy space, that they consist in a substantial volume that is not at all times present to our eyes, we have learned to supplement our sight with touch, argues Herder (2002: 40): this ‘is not something we can learn through sight.’ It is merely that since childhood we have quickly learned to use these ‘sister’ senses together, such that they have all but fused together in a seamless partnership (Herder 2002: 39).

Sight affords us many excellent things, of course. What is present before our eyes is perceivable in an instant, and does not die away as do sounds. Because of this, Herder describes sight as the most philosophical of the senses, if the most artificial; it coaxes us into meditation and contemplation (Herder 2002: 39).

Rodin

‘Sight gives us dreams, touch gives us truth’ (Herder 2002: 38). The more we concentrate on the surface features of an object, on the shapes revealed to us by light, on the flattened field before us obscured by roving shadows, the less attentive we are to the physical body before us (Herder 2002: 81). ‘It is remarkable how rarely a person appears to us,’ he (2002: 82) writes, ‘that someone embraces another person and holds him in such affection that he carries the person with him and gives him eternal existence.’ Touch uncovers the object, the person before us, by revealing to us how she consumes space, how her masses flow into each other, how they integrate and how they jointly operate. Light glancing off a shoulder tells us nothing of the fleshy functioning of the shoulder girdle, nothing of the astonishing flexibility of the clavicle, nothing of the tensing and softening machinations of the pulsing and breathing body before us. Touch gives us our first shocking awareness of substance.

And once we admit something substantial into our presence, we are able to inhabit that other form, as it were: ‘inner sympathy alone, feeling and the transposition of our entire human self into the figure we touch, is the true teacher and instrument of beauty’ (Herder 2002: 78). Observation is not enough, insists Herder (2002: 79; 81); we must also exist and feel in order to approach truth.

Riemanschneider

 

Too complete

Herder summons the Greeks and their arguably unsurpassed sculpture to demonstrate the strength of the whole in sculpture. The soul ‘expresses itself through the entire body,’ (Herder 2002: 79; 81) and each feature, each limb, each mass, each connecting joint displays the bearing of a person, all united to honestly convey something about the inner workings of that person. And conventions play no part here, Herder insists. Beauty consists in inner perfection, betrayed by the completeness of body (Herder 2002: 77):

‘The sublimity and beauty of the human body, whatever form it may take, is always an expression of health, life, strength and well-being in every limb of this artful creature.’

Herder takes us on a sensuous tour of the expressive parts of the body, describing how each reveals some inner truth about the person before us. Some suggestions are rather fanciful, but others quite profound, no less for an artist, who, in learning to construct the body, finds that no part exists in isolation. Even the humble foot, far from being a simple load-bearing base for the body, is ‘animated through to its smallest parts.’ The dedicated student of anatomy will attest that one does not simply learn to draw a foot, but ever thinks of how the block of the ankle, though quite distinct, flows seamlessly from the tibia into the prism of the foot; how the outer bump of the ankle is none other than the end of the fibula which stretches inflexibly up to the knee, where the hamstrings—some crossing two joints, reaching down from the pelvis—latch on to it. Our divisions are arbitrary: the foot ‘is not detached from the rest of the body and pulled on as if it were the shoe of a worm, but is one with the whole, which flows into it and is supported by it’ (Herder 2002: 75).

Von Stuck

 

Too unified

Painting has opportunity to explore abstractions, ideas, relations and stories, but sculpture, Herder argues, is not only too direct for such preoccupations, but is too pared-back and concrete. Sculpture gives us the person as a unified whole, divested of complex relations and extraneous props and setting. ‘It is never abstract love that stands before us, but the god or the goddess of love’—‘a single ensouled whole’ (Herder 2002: 97; 100). Sculpture suffers when it ventures into allegory, into weak and faceless ideals; it grows in strength when it presents a real, grieving woman to us rather than a vague and anonymous Pietà. Sculpture cannot cope with ‘the butterflies of wit and meaning,’ with the divisive interplay of multiple personalities in a group (necessary to depict a story), which rend the form with jarring wedges of air (Herder 2002: 100, 101).

Figures

And in more formal terms, a sculpture is unified in its independence, in its fierce solitariness. Herder (2002: 93) beautifully asserts:

‘A statue does not stand in light, it creates its own light; a statue is not placed in space, it creates its own space. … Sculpture does not possess a viewpoint: it explores everything in the dark, following the shape of limbs and forms.’

Too sacred

We sensuous human beings are so susceptible to touch. But a gravity accompanies sculpture, where a picture would stir our easily aroused imaginations. The truth embodied in sculpture, argues Herder (2002: 92), must encourage the graver failing of idolatry. An imposing physical form comes alive in still and solemn moments, in darkened and deserted rooms; ‘the daemon that animate[s] it [is] also present to the senses.’ Faced with such seductive, convincing, powerful forms, we must decide ‘either to pray to them or to destroy them.’

Though, Herder (2002: 92) notes, this spell does not last forever. The Italians’ long cohabitation with sculpture demonstrates the inevitable decline of art: ‘their extreme and exalted feeling would, with time, have resolved itself into art; art would have resolved itself into taste; and taste into disgust and neglect.’

Alex as statue (oil on linen--grisaille)

Alex as statue (oil on linen–grisaille)

Sight and touch, so often united, pull us in different directions. Sight is ever quick to carry us away, to adapt to new conditions of light, to new arrangements of colour and shape, to stimulate our fancy by seductive paint or by gleaming pixels, or by the very play of light rays reflecting off the natural world as if it too were nothing but a flat panel, a high-resolution display. Touch is simultaneously solemn and seductive; it returns us to the flesh, it grounds us, it makes us press ourselves up against truth. Painting is a playground for imagination; sculpture is the art form that ‘is able to hold us fast to substance and to reality’ (Herder 2002: 98). Should we accept such a distinction, we would have access to a deeper kind of beauty anchored in substance—in health, in content, in function, in truth—rather than appearances.

 

Herder, Johann Gottfried. 2002 [1778]. Sculpture : Some Observations On Shape And Form From Pygmalion’s Creative Dream. Translated by Jason Gaiger. Chicago: University of Chicago.

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Painter virtues

Selbstbildnis als Philosophin / Self portrait as philosopher (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Selbstbildnis als Philosophin / Self portrait as philosopher (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Painter virtues stray a little from those of ordinary people. I have been devotedly following in the footsteps of a very dear painter who perhaps doesn’t realise how firmly astute he is, how perfectly disciplined he is, how resolutely he holds onto the very virtues that divorce him somewhat from the rest of the world, but that render him as sharp and penetrating as a painter may be. He leads by example, by folding me into his tranquil space, and I lose the impulse to write, and succumb to the all-consuming desire to paint.

And I paint slowly, as I always have. When I retreat into the realm of vision, I permit myself to tread carefully, sagaciously, deliberately. There are many pauses, there is much stepping back, sitting down, daydreaming. As an unobtrusive presence in Ryan’s studio, since the early days, I observed that there is at least as much idleness as activity involved in painting. One must devote a lot of time to looking and evaluating. There is a moment when you realise you are able to paint much faster than you normally do. And then you realise that the slowness is an integral part of your work, making room for ordered thoughts. Rilke observed the same unhurried attention in Rodin, in his beautiful little book on the sculptor. ‘‘Man muß sich nicht eilen’, sagte Rodin den wenigen Freunden, die um ihn waren, wenn sie ihn drängten. (Rilke 1942: 14). ‘‘One mustn’t hurry,’ said Rodin to the few friends who were around him, if they pressed him.’

da vinci

The breaks stretch out languidly as the afternoon sun yawns and stretches deep into my studio, and sometimes books steal my attention. And not even in a scholarly way, but in a guilty, indulgent way. This is the best kind of reading, and probably the deepest well of ideas. I think of Käthe Kollwitz with her Goethe, of both Delacroix and Rodin with their Dante. These writers who lodged deep inside the hearts of those painters and ever held the power to renew their weary minds and reinvigorate their work. It can hardly be surprising that Rilke, a poet, would apprentice himself to a sculptor, when that sculptor maintained a lifelong apprenticeship to a poet. Rilke (1942: 18-19) recounts of Rodin that ‘Er las viel. Man war gewohnt, ihn in Brüssels Straßen immer mit einem Buch in der Hand zu sehen, aber vielleicht war dieses Buch oft nur ein Vorwand für das Vertieftsein in sich selbst, in die ungeheuere Aufgabe, die ihm bevorstand.’ ‘He read a great deal. One was accustomed to seeing him in the streets of Brussels ever with a book in his hand, but perhaps this book was often only a front for being absorbed in himself, in the immense task hanging over him.’

giorgione

Rilke suggests that all this reading enables the reader to inhabit the ideas well before one turns to clay or paint or copper plate. Books that really awaken the mind and animate personalities, archetypes, heroes and monsters, do much of the work in our idle, daydreamy hours before we begin to work. Rodin’s mind was fertilised by Dante and Baudelaire: ‘Seit jenen Tagen blieben diese beiden Dichter ihm immer nah, er dachte über sie hinaus und kehrte zu ihnen zurück. … Später, als er als Schaffender diese Stoffkreise wieder berührte, da stiegen ihre Gestalten wie Erinnerungen aus seinem eigenen Leben, weh und wirklich, in ihm auf und gingen in sein Werk wie in eine Heimat ein’ (Rilke 1942: 20) ‘Since those days, both these poets remained ever near him, he also thought about them and returned to them. … Later, when he touched on this subject matter again as creator, their forms rose like memories out of his own life, painfully and truly, out from inside him and entering into his work as if into a home.’

bammes

In my mind I see Ryan as a figure deeply absorbed in his sketchbook. I never knew another person to love drawing as deeply as he does; I’ve never witnessed such simple and honest devotion to drawing. One can talk about drawing forever; Ryan disappears wordlessly into his sketchbook and enters another universe. Should the sea turn to paper, I fear it wouldn’t satiate his urge to draw. I’ve come to learn that only the act of drawing proves my love of it. And I’ve come to realise what an indispensible support this act is. How steadying it is, how each hatched line helps sift a thought until my head grows clear again. Drawing is an act that restores balance; to think of it merely as a preparatory work is to undermine the pivotal position it plays in our lives. Everything turns on it. It loosens the mind and weaves it back together in an orderly way. A visible amble across the page; a scribed daydream.

aktzeichnen

Again and again I defend the use of my time: time spent reading, drawing, looking is never wasted. The painter can never apologise for her idleness. She needs, above all, a clear head, and that clarity is only reachable with ample time and space to follow every thought without the pressure to produce. Our practices are often compared to—or sometimes explicitly linked with—meditation, but I think this is a false connection. The painter’s focused and penetrating dissection of the world, grounded in observation, carried by a heightened alertness, inescapably chases after meaning and order, not the sort of egoless abandonment of thought prized by meditation. The painter rather invites a thousand times the stimuli of an ordinary person, and takes the time to sift them for gold, reviewing them one by one, delighting in them, arranging them in meaningful ways.

aktzeichnen

This delight cannot be overestimated. As I travel on long, winding roads through the Czech Republic, I indulge in the visual feast that unfolds—unfurling hills and forests and rivers melting in and out of each other, and the light that shifts in hue and angle as hours pile upon hours. I feel like I could explode when I see the blue-grey clouds against the golden sky in the mist of a light rain. I see that Ryan is equally absorbed in the neutral blue of the shadowy trees that back on to grass bathed in an unearthly yellow by the oblique evening sun. It’s then I realise what motivates us: we seek not to reproduce pleasant scenes, but to reproduce the staggering wonder at the visual relationships we stumble upon in the real world. Sometimes something as simple as the shocking harmony between two colours captivates us, and it is this delight that we are driven to transmit, more than anything else. ‘Look!’ we cry, stabbing our canvas with the brush, ‘Look how excellent the world is!’

aktzeichnen

These small visual treats furnish us with small tasks, and that is also enough. Rilke (1942: 17) writes of Rodin that ‘Seine Kunst baute sich nicht auf eine große Idee auf, sondern auf eine kleine gewissenhafte Verwirklichung, auf das Erreichbare, auf ein Können.’ ‘His art did not build itself on a grand idea, but rather on a small, diligent attainment, on the achievable, on a ‘can.’’ The grandeur grows out of the mastery of the small things; the big ideas emerge from the tumble of small delights rolling together and gathering momentum. Ryan’s comments, as he devours every mark of my painting, always lean towards the subtle treatments that most people overlook. ‘This is so subtle’ has come to resound as the highest praise as he deftly picks out the intricate decisions that most captivated me as I worked.

Claudia

Our preoccupation with such small observations might make us feel we are getting left behind, that we are perpetual beginners, but this humility is the door to learning. Our inexpert trials and ill-conceived experiments, our genuine curiosity means many abortive paintings, some even dead-ends, as we try to instate order in our work. It can be lonely, and when people do speak with us, they miss the point of our efforts, they fail to see the driving impulse and the exploratory thread that weaves through our work. Rodin was rejected by the public for a long time, and when he emerged from his solitude, fully formed, he had already put himself through every test: ‘Jahre und Jahre ging Rodin auf den Wegen dieses Lebens als ein Lernender und Demütiger, der sich als Anfänger fühlte. Niemand wußte von seinen Versuchen, er hatte keinen Vertrauten und wenig Freunde’ (Rilke 1942: 18). ‘For years and years Rodin went along the roads of this life as a humble learner, as one who felt himself a beginner. No one knew of his attempts, he had no confidants and few friends.’ This is a double virtue: we can take our apprentice status and couple it with the sobering solitude that buys us more time to become. And the fruit of this lonely, self-testing time is an unshakeable confidence in ourselves, in our work, in every tiny detail of our approach. ‘Da, als man anfing, an ihm zu zweifeln, hatte er keinen Zweifel mehr an sich selbst. … In der Zeit, als er wurde, klang keine fremde Stimme zu ihm, kein Lob, das ihn hätte irre machen, kein Tadel, der ihn hätte verwirren können’ (Rilke 1942: 21). ‘Because, as one began to doubt him, he had no more doubt in himself. … In the time when he was becoming, no foreign voice sounded about him, no praise that would have led him into error, no reproach that could have confused him.’

We cannot forget the point of our painterly values, so at odds with the world of outcomes and products and services and profits and efficiency. As with any virtue ethics, we chase after excellence. Excellence as humans and excellence in our work. However we exist in the world and whatever we leave behind in it, let’s hope that everything glows with that unmistakeable sheen. I smile with satisfaction when I hear Ryan say again and again, ‘I’m sorry it’s not perfect.’ We will slow down and look and consider and try again until it is.

centaur

 

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1942. Auguste Rodin. Leipzig: Insel.

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Disrespect

aktzeichnen

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

tinte

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

pencil

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

Ivo

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

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

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

Copy after Rubens

Copy after Rubens

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

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

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

Copy after Maler

Copy after Maler

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

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

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

dancer

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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Lernen & Lehren

Morgens / Mornings © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Morgens / Mornings © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

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

Ivo

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

Claudia

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

Short poses

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

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

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

Copies after Bammes

Copies after Bammes

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

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

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

Bammes hands

Copies after Bammes

 

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

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

Details about my classes are on my website.

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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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Little by little people began to come to the rue de Fleurus

Anfang © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Anfang © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Paintings, as we’ve discussed before, are to be seen. The painting, the work itself, is an object, not merely an image. It has what philosophers might call ‘extension’ in the physical world—stretcher bars, linen, three-dimensional paint caked on the surface—and it arguably exists autonomously, divested of its author. If such an object is worth seeing in person, irrespective of its originator, we should consider how it might be seen. There is no doubt that paintings must be exhibited, but in what manner ought this exhibition happen?

Conrad

Conrad

Conrad, one of my trusted book-recommenders, gifted me Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and I spent the Festtagen indulging in her reminiscences of early twentieth-century Paris. Thinking about how painters are marketing their work now, renting gallery space, paying commission to private galleries, entering competitions, paying for residencies for the opportunity to exhibit under prestigious organisations, and even pushing their wares in the overwhelming monstrosity that is the international art fair, I was especially taken with how Stein’s companions forged their paths, and her instrumental role in their success. The crux of the matter seems to be that Gertrude Stein herself recognised something of value, and acquired that thing for herself, cherished it, and shared it. How different this attitude is from that of considering a painting a product that may or may not float in the marketplace.

Elena

Gertrude Stein and her brother collected paintings. They bought the paintings that really struck them, that they genuinely appreciated. They hung them in their Parisian apartment, as ‘Alice Toklas’ (2001: 10) describes:

‘The home at 27 rue de Fleurus consisted then as it does now of a tiny pavillon of two stories with four small rooms, a kitchen and bath, and a very large atelier adjoining. Now the atelier is attached to the pavillon by a tiny hall passage added in 1914 but at that time the atelier had its own entrance, one rang the bell of the pavillon or knocked at the door of the the atelier, and a great many people did both, but more knocked at the atelier. I was privileged to do both. I had been invited to dine on Saturday evening which was the evening when everybody came, and indeed everybody did come.’

the gang

Gertrude Stein’s collection was eclectic, and she began to make the acquaintance of the painters she collected, who began to come to her apartment for meals. In their mid-twenties, she and Pablo Picasso forged an intimate friendship through these very dinners and the portrait sittings they led to. Matisse became a regular guest and dear friend. Painters from disconnected quarters of Paris began to converge in the social hub of the rue de Fleurus, and in their wake, a string of curious art admirers. Toklas (2001: 14) describes the intimidating collection of paintings, unsettling paintings that existed at the periphery of the established art institutions, which flooded Stein’s atelier:

‘They completely covered the white-washed walls right up to the top of the very high ceiling. … It is very difficult now that everybody is accustomed to everything to give some idea of the kind of uneasiness one felt when one first looked at all these pictures on these walls. In those days there were pictures of all kinds there. … At that time there was a great deal of Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Cézanne but there were also a great many other things. There were two Gaugins, there were Manguins, there was a big nude by Valloton that felt like only it was not like the Odalisque of Manet, there was a Toulouse Lautrec.’

Stein’s collection began with the value she personally saw in these ambitious new works, and extended to friendship with the people behind them. She seems to have recognised both the work as an object of value, and the originator as a fragile conduit for the bringing of such objects into the world: the painter needed to be sustained in order to bring these objects into being. And sustain them she did, with friendship, intellectual discourse, interesting and varied society, food and the purchase of countless paintings.

Brukner group journal club

Brukner group journal club

Despite the worth she personally attached to these paintings, Stein (2001: 17) rather off-handedly comments that ‘at that time these pictures had no value and there was no social privilege attached to knowing anyone there,’ with the result that ‘only those came who really were interested.’ This revealing statement demonstrates an important attitude: that ‘value,’ as we normally speak of it, is all tied up in monetary worth, in the demand for products in a market. Stein’s language betrays this attitude, though her actions demonstrate her ability to find and nurture a different sort of value.

Anna

And the contrast is stark: if we begin by considering the painting as a product, we are forced to think how to attribute monetary worth to it, how to convince people that they desire or need such a product; in short, to create demand. If there is one thing to learn from Gertrude Stein about the value of art, it is to turn this idea on its head and start from the other end. Yes, the painting is an object, but not a product, and its value takes a certain insight, a certain understanding, to see. It is an autonomous object left behind in the world, enriching the world in an intangible, difficult to define manner. But it is also a visual stand-in for an idea that has the power to leave its mark on our intellectual landscape. It is the signal of a person who originates such an idea, a person existing in the world and striving to articulate that idea while they yet live. It is a physical sign pointing to a collective of thinkers who cluster around that idea, and in this sense a physical gateway into an intellectual circle. Behind a painting of real worth is an idea that exists in living beings.

In my studio © Sasa

In my studio © Sasablanik

Stein’s atelier burgeoned into a hive of activity. Having seized upon an idea, and gathered about her the people who harboured this idea inside themselves and expressed it in their works, interest in these paintings and in these people grew organically. The atelier would be populated with ‘scattered groups, single and couples all looking and looking.’ Stein would mingle, joining the various discussions. She (2001: 17) would respond to knocks at the door: ‘and the usual formula was, de la part de qui venez-vous, who is your introducer. The idea was that anybody could come but for form’s sake and in Paris you have to have a formula, everybody was supposed to be able to mention the name of somebody who had told them about it. It was a mere form, really everybody could come in and as at that time these pictures had no value and there was no social privilege attached to knowing any one there, only those came who really were interested.’

But soon, more were interested than was really practical. Though things began slowly—‘little by little people began to come to the rue de Fleurus to see the Matisses and the Cézannes,’—the invitees began to come ‘at any time and it began to be a nuisance’ (Stein, 2001: 47). The curiousity of the well-decked atelier of 27 rue de Fleurus naturally demanded its own form, and that form became ‘the Saturday evenings,’ the weekly dinners that Stein would host for artists and intellectuals and passers-through and those newly arrived in Paris.

27 rue de Fleurus emerged as a very particular way in which to see paintings, a truly independent alternative to the official salons of Europe. Matisse gained a following by exhibiting in the more orthodox manner, showing ‘in every autumn salon and every independent. Picasso, on the contrary, never in all his life has shown in any salon. His pictures at that time could really only be seen at 27 rue de Fleurus’ (Stein, 2001: 72). Picasso’s influence extended from the Saturday sessions at Gertrude Stein’s house, and found its way into the salons by way of his followers (Stein, 2001: 73). The salon was not redundant, but it was not the only way to have one’s paintings seen, nor to gain international reknown.

Siberian

A third element remains to this story of artworks making their way into the world and being seen. Stein writes with palpable respect for Parisian ‘picture dealers’ who believed in the idea rather than cautiously making profit-driven transactions. ‘There are many Paris picture dealers who like adventure in their business,’ she writes (Stein, 2001: 261). She continues:

‘In Paris there are picture dealers like Durand-Ruel who went broke twice supporting the impressionists, Vollard for Cézanne, Sagot for Picasso and Kahnweiler for the cubists. They make their money as they can and they keep on buying something for which there is no present sale and they do so persistently until they create its public. And these adventurers are adventurous because that is the way they feel about it. There are others who have not chosen as well and have gone entirely broke. It is the tradition among the more adventurous Paris picture dealers to adventure.’

Stein (2001: 60) describes how all the painters in her circle were very grateful to one Mademoiselle Weil who had a bric-à-brac shop in Montmartre, since ‘practically everybody who later became famous had sold their first little picture to her.’ She relates the story of the German Kahnweiler who had worked in England until he had saved enough money to realise his dream of having a picture shop in Paris. He invested heart and soul in the cubists, establishing his gallery in the rue Vignon. Eventually, Stein (2001: 118-19) relates, ‘they all realised the genuineness of his interest and his faith, and that he could and would market their work. They all made contracts with him and until the war he did everything for them all. … He believed in them and their future greatness.’

The attitude of the dealers mirrors Stein’s own: these art buyers saw more than a product, more than a business opportunity. They were able to estimate value in another way, and supported individual painters because they saw these painters as embodying certain ideas that needed to be upheld and disseminated. Of course, the picture dealers had a very difficult role in having to try to make monetary value match up with this other, more difficult to define value that they saw in the works. Perhaps as businessmen and women they were foolish. But as messengers trying to draw attention to something of worth, they acted admirably, and I wonder if they have a counterpart in our own time.

In my studio Conrad Ohnuki

In my studio © Conrad Ohnuki

‘But to return to the pictures’ (Stein 2001: 13). They are supposed to be seen, and we will find a way for them to be seen. Most importantly, this way will unfurl organically, and with the multifaceted support of those who spot a particular kind of value in works of art, and who can’t help but defend this value and stand behind the ideas they esteem.

 

Stein, Gertrude. 2001 [1933]. The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Penguin: London.

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Good art

The October night © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The October night © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

When one is persistently critical, sometimes people tire of you at parties, and they demand a positive explanation rather than a judgement. I’m in favour of such a broad, visionary task, but it depends on the genuine interest and attention of the questioner, because it is far more demanding and far-reaching than simply dealing with the artwork to hand. Nevertheless, when you are at a party, and someone impatiently drops the question, ‘What is good art, then?’ you feel an immense weight descend on your weary shoulders, and the magnitude of the task makes your beer-soaked brain tremble with fatigue. You scratch around desperately for somewhere to begin, but you are gripped by the certainty that you cannot bring this person to the place where you are— (T. S. Eliot):

And would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
‘That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.’

Wittgenstein felt the futility of expounding such an explanation. When we talk about the arts, he (1966: 7) says, ‘the word we ought to talk about is “appreciated.” What does appreciation consist in?’ What happens to us when we stand before a painting, and it weaves its spell on us, and the mysterious effects that belong to good art take possession of us? ‘It is not only difficult to describe what appreciation consists in, but impossible,’ Wittgenstein (1966: 7) declares without apology. ‘To describe what it consists in we would have to describe the whole environment.’ He knows that this question is facetious, that the questioner cares little for the totality of the environment, and turns decisively to criticism as a more productive approach. He is correct, of course. But perhaps we can magnanimously respond to the genuine questioner with the beginnings of a broad, positive conception of things that contribute to the ‘goodness’ of art.

Copy after Titian

Copy after Titian

I would propose three categories of ‘goodness’ in painting (my favourite art, you’ll forgive the preference), each of which would demand long treatises to clarify just what their whole environment consists in. But their domains are helpfully distinct. The first is the technical brilliance of the work, the second is its poetic brilliance, and the third is its successful communion with the viewer.

Technical brilliance encompasses an understanding of all the elements of painting: composition, colour, texture, form, line, tone, properties of light, gesture, design, perspective, anatomy—it would be no small task to give an exhaustive list, and to deal with each component in turn. Nathan Goldstein has given much attention to this task, with admirable results. But this colossal body of knowledge is only that which any serious artist applies herself to, and finds that she needs a lifetime to master and to integrate.

Copies after Ryan Daffurn; Titian

Copies after Ryan Daffurn; Titian

It is in this domain that we might speak of a painting as being ‘correct’: ‘A good cutter won’t use any words except words like, “Too long,” “All right.” ’ (Wittgenstein, 1966: 7). And a good painter makes similar corrective remarks at the gallery, consumed as she is by the technical construction of a painting. Thanks to her immense conceit, she can look at any Old Master as a mere human rival, and lament his shortcomings. But we would do well to name her an expert in this domain, since her judgements are based on knowledge of and experience in her craft.

Technical brilliance seems to be in some way evident to non-painters, but perhaps they are unable to explain exactly why. And perhaps, because of this, the real genius of a work will forever elude them. Perhaps they ought to take responsibility for learning something about the building blocks of painting in order to be able to intelligently engage with paintings, and to be able to tell a poorly-constructed painting from a well-constructed painting: ‘We want to be able to distinguish between a person who knows what he is talking about and a person who doesn’t,’ says Wittgenstein (1966: 6) unceremoniously. ‘If a person is to admire English poetry, he must know English.’

Copy after Van Dyck

Copy after Van Dyck

But technical brilliance should be at the service of some loftier aims. Ideally, a painter has such skills at her disposal when she has some profound poetic insight—perhaps in being deeply moved by an observation or an experience. Then she is fully equipped and fully prepared to capture, to notate, to describe that insight. Her work is not simply well-executed, nor merely expressive: like an elegant equation it gracefully and satisfyingly grasps the essence of that insight. It is poetically brilliant for expressing it in an eloquent way. There is nothing forced, or stilted, or lacking; nothing fussy, nothing overstated. All the technical elements that are used weave seamlessly into each other and strengthen each other in a wholly integrated way.

Importantly, as the ever exacting Adrien reminds me, it is not only artists who are capable of such insights. But as he explains his painfully recognised inability to grasp the significance of such moments, of lacking a means of savouring them and perhaps saving them and sharing them, I begin to see that the artist has some responsibility to meditate on these themes on behalf of everyone else. She is no more insightful than anyone else, but perhaps she is particularly attentive to the profound in the mundane, particularly sensitive to the poetic in life, and, as noted, has a means of distilling them into an object, with the aim of planting these insights into souls of others.

Copy after Adriaen de Vries

Copy after Adriaen de Vries

And here is the final measure of ‘goodness:’ the painting’s capacity to work some effect in the viewer. We speak in metaphor: the painting moves us, it touches us. That insight, so poetically captured in the luscious strokes of paint, carried in the marks, is recreated in the mind of the viewer. Wittgenstein is firm in separating the satisfying way something is constructed from the profound way in which reaches into us. He writes (1966: 8):

When we talk of a Symphony of Beethoven we don’t talk of correctness. Entirely different things enter. One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art. In certain styles in Architecture a door is correct, and the thing is you appreciate it. But in the case of a Gothic Cathedral what we do is not at all to find it correct. It plays an entirely different role with us. The entire game is different.

Ideally, the good painting, too, transcends its technical proficiency, and does more than record a private contemplation, reaching into the thoughts of the viewer and having an irresistible sway over them, moving the viewer and giving his thoughts a heretofore unrealised expression. And this two-way communion is significant: the painting does not simply implant a thought in the viewer, but merges with the thoughts of the viewer. He needs to close the circuit: he needs to make the connections, be they technical or poetic. He needs to seek out the linear rhythms, acknowledge the deliberate variation of edges, perhaps, or consider the subdued contrast in tone; he needs to recognise with what economy and fluency the picture was created, to read the sure hand of the painter. But he should equally bring his own thoughts to the painting, for it is this private reverie that the painting seeks to connect with.

Copy after Rubens

Copy after Rubens–tracing them connections

We undoubtedly share common mental experiences, and a good painting unites us in savouring the grandeur of these private moments. A good painting speaks for all of us, where ‘es fehlen uns die Worter’—‘our vocabulary is inadequate’ (Wittgenstein 1953: 159). Good paintings constitute a different language for those quiet but shared insights for which ‘we lack the words.’

Copy after Brueghel

Copy after Brueghel

Eliot, T. S. 1966. Selected poems. Faber & Faber: London.

Goldstein, Nathan. 1989. Design and composition. Pearson: Boston.

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

Wittgenstein, L. 1966. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Ed. Cyril Barrett. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

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