Representation: Some groundwork

Veronese Hercules

(After Veronese)

To establish some groundwork for my investigation into painting as language, I want to linger a while on the concept of representation, at the same time considering its intimate connection with expression. In the studio, I have seen the word ‘representational’ used passionately, dogmatically, often loosely, but sometimes also cautiously—generally to single out a particular kind of painting that pitches itself against ‘abstract’ painting, though it is also sometimes the preferred term of painters who are equally opposed to ‘realistic’ painting of a more photographic flavour. In such circles, ‘representational painting’ roughly categorises the kind of painting that recognisably looks like something, even if, as in the case of, say, Vuillard, the eyes must linger a while and actively search. Among such artists, there are always some (myself included) who would assert that all painting is an abstraction to some degree—or perhaps better: even the paintings that most closely approximate reality are still an interpretation of things seen.

I like this barrier between painting and the world itself that abstraction and interpretation insert, because it reinforces the idea that an artist never tries to and indeed never can duplicate the physical world, but humbly models her own take on it, a version of it mingled with her own thought and with her own labour—with her very body. Thus, there is only a certain kind of abstraction that such artists would distance themselves from, and it is one that shuns the physical world entirely, expelling it even from memory; a kind of painting that removes all content and distils painting to an exercise in formal properties like shape, colour, tone and the physicality of the surface of the paint. And even then, these representational artists are already very well-versed in such abstractions and use them as jubilantly as their opponents—and usually much more knowledgeably and subtly. The difference, then, must come down to a desire for content, or for the lack thereof.

Thus, we might crudely say that representation implies content—some thing represented. And it may be represented with a high degree of abstraction, though the artist risks being misunderstood the further she strays from the recognisable, or from interpretations of reality that we are already familiar with. The Impressionists took just such a risk, though they finally succeeded when we learned to make sense of their organisation of light (in Gombrich 1959: 275). But much philosophical work has been done on the finer points of representation. It is certainly not enough to appeal to the level of similarity between a picture and that which it represents. Plato (in Gombrich, 1959: 99) decried art for deceiving the mind with illusions, but we are certainly not so taken in by paintings that we believe ourselves transported to another realm, or that we believe the person portrayed to be standing before us. Likeness or resemblance was thus a very early explanation of representation, a crude equivalence of which we have both nothing to fear (in terms of deception) and little to gain. For while Velázquez’s portrait represents Philip IV of Spain, Philip IV does not represent his portrait.

(After Van Dyck)

(After Van Dyck)

Goodman (1976: 4) points out this simple observation in Languages of Art, and I think it is a good place to start, if only to remind artists themselves that likeness is not the Promised Land, and that representation opens up a much more generous, exploratory realm. To capture this idea that representation implies content, but that the implication only goes one way, Goodman (1976: 5; 233) appeals to the term ‘denotation.’ When a picture represents some object, the picture denotes the object, that object is denoted by the picture. Denotation introduces symbolism into representation. The picture operates as a symbolic reference to the object, but the object does not symbolically refer to the picture, whatever similarity exists between the two. ‘Denotation is the core of representation and is independent of resemblance,’ explains Goodman (1976: 5). Denotation more explicitly conveys the asymmetry of representation, since we naturally think of a symbol as somehow dependent on the thing it signifies. Denotation runs in one direction.

We thus need another term to capture the relation in the other direction: Goodman (1976: 52; 233) chooses ‘exemplification.’ The object exemplifies what is represented in the picture. With such a relation, we can identify a particular object in a painting, though it was not the very same painted by the artist. We might even align our own private emotions with the content of the picture, finding the picture to be expressive of an emotion we personally feel. The artist surely did not seek to paint our emotion, but our emotion exemplifies that embedded in the painting. More complex than plain symmetry, Goodman has developed a system grounded in symbols comprised of two opposing currents, markedly different in character.

Representation, for Goodman (1976: 40), bears some similarity to verbal description. It runs in the same direction with respect to the object: both verbal descriptions and visual representations denote the object. But for Goodman, the emotional tint of the picture runs counter to this cold, symbolic summary of the object. The emotions come from the side of the viewer, who apprehends the picture ‘through the feelings as well as through the senses’ (Goodman 1976: 248). The expressiveness of the picture is then a subjective experience, coming from the way the spectator identifies with the content of the picture. He integrates its symbols into his own symbol system, and finds his own emotions reflected back at him.

(After Pacetti)

(After Pacetti)

Gombrich (1959: 310) openly questions the division of expression from representation in Art and Illusion. Writing almost two decades earlier than Goodman, he is more liberal with his language analogy, pointing out that not only is verbal language descriptive, it can at the same time be highly charged with emotion, and every shade in between (1959: 310). He suggests a simpler blending of the two, rather than a fundamentally and logically opposed relation. Thus, representation is not simply comparable to verbal description, not simply a record of information by translatable symbols, but it is the very means by which we convey a broad spectrum of descriptive and expressive content. ‘Representation,’ argues Gombrich (1959: 319) ‘is the instrument of information and expression.’

But what can this ‘instrument’ really refer to other than the way paint itself is used? By which I mean the body of the artist mingling, through movement, with the substance of the paint to give both physical form and visual presence to things thought, seen, or imagined. To remove the paint, or other medium, is to force a reliance on something purely conceptual that may take on any physical guise: probably symbols, which may be more readily substituted for words. And this is a mistake that Gombrich falls into. Continuing the analogy with language, Gombrich (1959: 326) argues that ‘all human communication is through symbols.’ Painting, then, may be blanched of its paint, may be stripped to its pictorial skeleton, dissected, analysed, and thus understood. My complaint with him (and with Goodman) is that symbols are not enough; representation consists in so much more: that when we represent something visible by visual means, every physical element is necessary and contributes in some way, even if ever so slightly, even if with such feathery nuance, even if so delicately integrated with other elements that it cannot be individually extracted and examined. Representation may indeed serve description and expression in such a blended way, but always via the medium invoked.


(from the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter)

Gombrich’s appeal to illusion is grounded in a very simple example, which I think demonstrates this fundamental problem in his position on representation. He cites the optical illusion of the duck-rabbit—a picture that at some times resembles a duck, but which by effort of the attention transforms its beak into the long ears of a rabbit. Gombrich’s argument is that one cannot experience illusion at the same time as one experiences reality. It is either rabbit or duck. Thus we cannot be absorbed in the illusion of the picture and at the same time consciously aware of the painted surface. What Gombrich disregards is that we can indeed simultaneously see that the rabbit, drawn in fastidious lines, is printed in black ink on paper, and that likewise, the duck, comprised of the same lines, even as it appears as a duck is evidently printed in black ink upon a page. It is the duck and the rabbit—the content of the representation—that we cannot see at the same time. In fact, the illusion works precisely because of the printed ink: paint would destroy the trick, for colours would suggest different creatures and tone would give greater or lesser volume to beaks and ears than our eyes would believe. In each case, the representation is bound up in the simplicity of the medium of pen and ink, which can conveniently leave out information that would detract from the other representation. The analogy is misplaced: we certainly cannot see simultaneous competing representations, but we can see a representation and at the same time be aware of its physical extension.

(After Delacroix)

(After Delacroix)

Better than illusion, then: let us follow Wollheim (1987: 185) in finding in representation a call to imagination. We are too aware to be fooled into thinking that representations are reality, or that we do not notice what the representation consists in. But we can gain immense satisfaction from picking up the hints a picture drops and adventuring along a train of thought that it sets in motion. For Wollheim (1987: 101), representation does more than communicate something, and more than stimulate some private daydream. It coaxes us in a particular direction, at the urging of the artist, who inscribes her very trails of thought in wandering streaks of paint. For Wollheim (1987: 7, 15) the medium is indispensable; one cannot divorce the meaning of a painting from the paint. For thoughts are worked through, laid up, reconsidered through the medium. And representation and expression—by means of the medium—‘are the two basic forms of pictorial meaning’ (Wollheim 1987: 305). Rather than looking for a dialogue between painter and spectator, Wollheim grounds everything in a kernel of meaning buried deep in a picture, discoverable, moving, compelling, but not linguistic, not ceremoniously imparted from ‘speaker’ to ‘listener.’ A painting does not speak, but guards a thought.

The medium shows its significance in a more primitive visual experience that logically precedes representation: that of ‘seeing-in.’ Wollheim (1987: 306) finds it most expedient to explain what it is to represent by this simple and familiar experience. It is exactly that cited by da Vinci (in Gombrich 1959: 159) as a stimulus to imagination—of seeking forms and faces, even battles and civilisations, in the coarse textures of crumbling walls—and exactly that deemed impossible by Gombrich, of seeing at the same time the suggestion of a figure and the ragged plaster. These simple fancies are the result of imagination, but exist by chance, moulded by the ravages of nature and not carefully crafted after human intentions, and so they are not representations. But the same thing happens when we look at a crafted picture: we are both ‘aware of the surface and [see] something in it’ (Wollheim 1987: 46). When the artist makes use of this feat of vision and applies her paint with the intention that a spectator should discover some particular thing in those marks, this intention, says Wollhem (1987: 101), is representation.

the artist

Expression, for Wollheim (1987: 89), colours representation. Emotions are crucial to painting, and expression describes the way they weave through the application of paint, the organisation of the picture, the deliberate colour choices and the atmospheric decisions, to list but a few variables, in order to provoke a particular emotional response from the viewer. This means the painter in fact steers away from ‘cold’ naturalism, from faithful visual description, and imbues her representation with visual qualities that imply something intangible. It means that we are invited to see emotion, as it plays out in the delicate interplay of painterly techniques. Something in reality is sacrificed, some accuracy or disinterested depiction, in order to co-opt expression into representation. The two are woven together with paint into one visual output. Expression abstracts representation into a more emotional variation on things seen or imagined.

But the viewer needs to bring a certain sensitivity to the expressive tint of the picture, a type of perception even, which Wollheim (1987: 80) calls ‘expressive perception.’ As Wollheim (1987: 82) elaborates, there are mirrored means of transferring emotions between ourselves and the external world; either our own mood alters the way we perceive what is around us—what we would commonly call projection—or we are affected by our surroundings. It is true that we could project our own feelings, likewise, onto a painting, but since the artist has mixed emotional content into the paint, a greater receptiveness promises to yield something specific from the painting. It is our own ability to project emotions onto what we see that enables us to sympathise with a painter doing the same in paint. She asks us to forget ourselves for a moment and to see through her eyes, through her sunny disposition or her fog of melancholy.


Wollheim’s demand for expressive perception is rather nice, because it requires a certain kind of attention from the viewer, but does not permit him to read just anything he likes into a painting. Viewers like to have something to do (Gombrich 1959: 169), and we will grant them this responsibility without giving away the creative authority of the artist. Wollheim’s (1987: 305) demand means that a standard of correctness accompanies both representation and expression. The artist intends to convey certain content laden with certain emotions, all of which is accessible to the viewer by direct communion with the picture, with the implication that he can be correct or incorrect about what he discovers there (Wollheim 1987: 85, 101).

But such standards hardly remove the pleasure of looking at a painting. Wollheim (1987: 98, 100) is eager to convey that seeing the paint is a delightful experience in itself, and that simple visual delight in a painting, provoked by the deliciously expressive qualities of paint and its handling, comprises no small part of our encounter with painting. Wollheim sends us in the direction of Proust for a lovely elucidation of this experience. Chardin, Proust (1988: 102) describes, has seen serene beauty in a humble arrangement in a kitchen, and has painted it with palpable tenderness; his ‘pleasure was so intense that it overflowed into smooth strokes, eternal colours.’ The viewer, utterly seduced by Chardin’s vision, thenceforth notices that a fresh charm falls over ordinary domestic scenes. This delight, notes Wollheim (1987: 99), is stirred up by Chardin’s expert control of his own emotional projection that he invites us to sample. ‘Your awareness had to wait until Chardin entered into the scene to raise it to his level of pleasure’ (Proust 1988: 102).


And so Wollheim (1987: 185) hopes to persuade us that representational paintings do not ‘trade on illusion,’ but rely on, rather, ‘in a supplementary role, imagination.’ Representation does not simply hand us a likeness, it does not forge a strict equivalence with the world, or simply stand in for it symbolically; nor does it seek to deceive us. Instead, it appeals to our pleasure in discovering that guarded thought in the lather of paint. This underlines the irrevocable importance of the paint, the matiére, the medium that carries the thoughts of the artist via her movements.

Representation, in a sort of self-conscious way, hopes to draw attention to its physicality while seducing us with a hint of something recognisable shot through with emotions. It invites us to linger on the interlocking cues in the way the paint is applied and in the content, to discover something of the artist’s insight. We are asked to imagine the world intentionally reconfigured in muddy paste on a flat surface; we are asked to imagine the way one feels if one looks at the world and projects emotions that colour the world this way or that. Representation is more fundamentally grounded in the technical than in resemblance, symbols or illusion. In bringing us ever back to the way paint is applied, it offers a firm starting point for a theory of a visual language.


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

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

Proust, Marcel. [1954] 1988. ‘Chardin: The Essence of Things,’ trans. Mina Curtiss, in Against Saint-Beuve and Other Essays. Penguin: London.

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


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.


Eine Einladung

It was a real delight to show my most recent works in Takt Keller several weeks ago. Dazzling Vienna set the perfect backdrop: its secret cellars and multifariously talented inhabitants simply beg to be combined. The thing about Vienna is, no one ever seems to be only one thing. A physicist is also a concert pianist; an interpreter is also a dancer; a dancer is also a photographer; a biologist is also an artist; an engineer is also a linguist. Everyone seems to have a little extra to give, and it is these overlaps that seem to make conversation fluid and to ignite friendships and partnerships.

It was plain to me that an art show in Vienna could not simply be an art show, but should be an immersive aesthetic experience. And so we not only hung our arched brick bunker with paintings and drawings, but flooded it with candlelight, adorned it with understated white flowers, and drenched the air with music—a live piano performance by Pawel Markowicz. A little wine and some gently intelligent conversation transported our unsuspecting guests into a ‘ganz zauberhaft’ evening.

As I explained on the evening, the show was, from its inception, an invitation into my studio. I wanted to simply share my self-educatory efforts and my grappling with the physical world, with light and space and extended objects, my fledgling steps into the domain of oil-painting, my foundational exercises by which I hope to bolster future imaginative work. I’ve a long way to go to painterly maturity, but perhaps there is something revealing about the stage I am in, and something of intellectual interest to my open-minded friends and acquaintances. I see myself in an intermediate stage—having secured the fundamentals of my craft, and ventured out on my own, I am now taking the impressive pieces in the European galleries as my teachers, building up a tool kit of visual imagery while gleaning everything I can from those who went before. This sort of independent learning is perhaps invisible if not wholly neglected in our time: mainstream art schools strive to teach the inventiveness and fluency that comes only with experience and practice; independent art schools preach realism as an end in itself and produce competent student-painters with limited scope.

Joshua Reynolds (1997: 27) neatly summed up the painter’s maturation into three stages some two hundred and fifty years ago: ‘Having well established his judgment, and stored his memory, he may now without fear try the power of his imagination’ (my emphasis). Having laid up some observational skills, I find myself in the phase of ‘amass[ing] a stock of ideas, to be combined and varied as occasion may require’ (1997: 26). I am ‘now in the second period of study, in which his business is to learn all that has been known and done before his own time.’ And as the studious works in the show demonstrated, ‘this period is … still a time of subjection and discipline’ (Reynolds 1997: 26). In a world where students are prematurely ushered into imaginative realms before their technical abilities can support their ideas, or where the over-zealous student and her studio nudes are put upon a pedestal, I am simply happy to invite you to cast your glance over the efforts of a painter somewhere in between. I am not yet free of observation and of subjection to the masters of the past, and my inventive efforts are yet tentative and unsteady. But perhaps my very openness about this is fascinating to art lovers who expect a finished product.

And so, rather than inviting people into a thinly-disguised shop, I discarded titles, explanatory captions and prices. I gave a short speech in which I drew attention to technical concepts and pointed to my paintings as experiments with these ideas. I spoke briefly about colour as being fundamentally about relationships, and how I had learned so much from simply setting many colours against the purple walls of my Viennese flat. I contrasted form with tone as a method of creating illusory depth, and my motivation for exploring form.

Given something comprehensible to grasp, people displayed infinite curiosity. Questions no longer revolved around matters of time or money. Instead, people wanted to know, ‘How does that plant look full and round? How does the light come through the windows like that? How do those lemons pop right out, and why does it feel like there is depth and heavy space when there are no shadows?’ Suddenly, I wasn’t defending my income or expounding on tenuously strung-together concepts or even talking about myself. Suddenly, I was having detailed discussions with non-painters about the very building blocks of a painting, about my struggles and my intentions and my motivations. And people seemed pleasantly surprised to understand and even genuinely intrigued by such ideas.

Indeed, it was satisfying for me to talk about paint and how I use it, for that is where most of my own thinking is directed, far more than into motifs and messages and missions. For anyone might try to decode symbols, but not everyone is privy to the secret life of paint, and as John Dewey (1934: 199) argues, in paint, ‘media and esthetic effect are completely fused.’ And he (1934: 199) is none too kind on ‘critics who tell us how they feel without telling or knowing in terms of media used why they feel as they do,’ nor on ‘persons who identify gush with appreciation.’ It was satisfying to me to help people appreciate just what it was that had so caught their attention, to equip them with a way to speak intelligently about what they saw, to express their impressions about painting in a meaningful way.

While Dewey (1943: 199) concedes that ‘it is true that artists seem themselves often to approach a work of art from an exclusively technical standpoint,’ he defends our bias thus: ‘for the most part, they so feel the whole that it is not necessary to dwell upon the end, the whole, in words, and so they are freed to consider how the latter is produced’ (1943: 200). It was incredible to invite people to look at my pictures in this way. It was liberating to draw attention to these pictures as steps toward something else—without qualifying them, without aggrandising them, only presenting them as the result of my recent investigations.


Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

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

Vielen Dank to Jacques Pienaar and to Kathrin Buczak for this fantastic opportunity! x



Copy after Van Dyck; Hermann Joseph, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Copy after Van Dyck; Hermann Joseph, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

What is perhaps most fascinating for me in viewing old master paintings, and what seems to be lost on people distracted by clouds of angel babies and voluptuous nudes being fawned upon by the gods of Greek or Christian persuasion, is the representation of the wholly natural third dimension.

Upon first noticing it, one has not words for this, and thinks it must be something in the paint, in the mixing of colours, in the adeptness with tone. Perhaps exotic ancient pigments. But when your eyes at last adjust to the idea of pictorially representing three-dimensional space, the image suddenly alters under your gaze, like the illusions of Gestalt psychology in which a single image may be viewed as either a rabbit or a duck but never at the one time. Of these duck-rabbit switch images, Gombrich (in Kandel p. 208) thought it significant that ‘the visual data on the page do not change. What changes is our interpretation of the data.’ Your eyes flicker, and you suddenly see that Van Dyck thought not only of the harmonious arc of figures and the sloping, hierarchical diagonal through their hands, but that he also saw depth, and, indeed, has depicted this illusion so convincingly on a  completely flat surface. Our modern eyes, however, are actively trained to resist this representation, and conform to flattened compositional devices, colour, symbolism, and—most of all—subject matter. Blinded by our disdain for religion, our modern eyes miss the plane of depth extending back into the picture and fail to recognise just how rare this is in modern painting.


While it’s interesting to take a historical viewpoint of painting and note the evolution from deep to flat, it’s startling to realise precisely where one is situated in this history and to realise the implications this has on one’s understanding of paintings made in ages past. This flattening in art was certainly an intentional educational progression. Viennese painter Adolf Hölzel wrote an influential essay Über Formen und Massenvertheilung im Bilde and introduced the ideas contained within as part of the school curriculum from 1906. We have grown up in the wake of this tradition; we have been trained to see this way, to appreciate our flat canvas for the two dimensions it has, and not to manipulate it to contain more, nor to try to read more than two into it. In this respect, something previously integral to painting has not merely been forgotten but intentionally erased. While Nelson (p. 178) alludes to techniques of looking and making being ‘revised and reworked, gained and lost and rediscovered afresh, over centuries,’ it is clear that some things were not simply forgotten but thrust aside, and the implications of this hang heavily in the air of the gallery today.

Belvedere, Wien

Belvedere, Wien

A current exhibition at the Oberes Belvedere, Wien, sheds light on but one aspect of this intentional shift. Die Formalisierung der Landschaft (Shaping of the landscape) exhibition traces the efforts of Hölzel and his contemporaries and followers in the late 1890s to embrace the flatness of the pictorial space, and the general move in the German-speaking countries away from the illusionism that had propelled artists since the Renaissance. Books emphasising negative space in Rubens and the like started to permeate schools—these are the very ideas I recall being plied with, without having the depth-dependent alternative demonstrated to me. To my generation, and perhaps a few before, painting simply is flat, and if one cares to model form one ought to turn to sculpture or installation. Lacking this historical contrast, we have failed to see just how striking this two-dimensional shift was, and, I would venture, have even been cheated out of a fuller understanding of the painting of earlier times. When one can’t see past the plump nudes reclining in courts or the heavy religious topics of Rubens, it probably has a lot to do with lacking the perceptual abilities needed to see the multi-axial compositional genius of his paintings.

Nevertheless, just before 1900, compositional ideas were shifting, and the rise of photography seems to have played no small part in this. Rather than concentrating on illusionistic compositional devices to do with depth or perspective, the fading neutrals of the distance, or the convincing volume of objects, painters and photographers alike were investigating the idea of flat shapes delineating a single-planed composition. The Belvedere exhibition specifically offers the work of the painters Ludwig Dill, Emilie Mediz-Pelikan, Theodore von Hörmann, Rudolf Ribarz, Karl Mediz and Carl Moll as examples, as well as that of the Viennese photographers Heinrich Kühn, Hugo Henneberg and Hans Watzek. The paintings and prints are remarkably alike in their stiff stillness, their solemn but hazy tree silhouettes against the Dachau moors echoing (and intentionally so) the positive and negative ink blots of the Gestalt psychologists.

Taken in this historical context, the paintings are fascinating—just how much were they influenced by psychology, or psychology driven by art? And did photography lend its tone-simplifying characteristics to the thought-process of painters, despite arguments that with the advent of photography painters were forced to diversify, and turn to ornamentation? As Gombrich (in Kandel, p. 109) suggested, ‘The photographer was slowly taking over the functions that had once belonged to the painter. And so the search for alternative niches began. One such alternative lay in the decorative function of painting, the abandoning of naturalisms in favour of formal harmonies.’ Klimt was a prominent Viennese convert to flatness and ornamentation in the face of the possibilities of photography (Kandel p. 115). Nevertheless, the New Dachau artists provide a nice counterpoint of perhaps some of the earliest painting directly influenced by the aesthetics of photography. These aesthetics endure with us today, and not merely through the slavery many a painter has come to have to her camera as a convenient way of freezing her subject, but through the lack of understanding of light and shadow zones and compositional construction when one has done so much of one’s visual learning from the flat, pre-framed and tonally compressed picture plane of the photograph.

Heldenplatz mit Flieder, Carl Moll 1900-1905

Heldenplatz mit Flieder, Carl Moll 1900-1905

Carl Moll stands out in this Belvedere exhibition for his ability to integrate these new ideas without completely sacrificing the old. The gaudy, brightly-coloured and texture-driven paintings of Mediz-Pelikan and Von Hörmann don’t come marginally close to Moll’s delicate representation of lakes and trees and gardens of Vienna. His globes of pruned plants are full and round; their dampened purples vivid in his intelligently considered context, unlike the more crude primaries of his contemporaries. The distance recedes in a harmonious haze of neutralised colours not unlike the true dusty fuzz of a Wiener summer sky. And yet, the shapes dominate and tell the real story, with vast stretches of grass filling broad swathes of the canvas, or expanses of shimmering lake filing the entire foreground. Moll expertly manipulates the modern ideas of flatness without giving up any illusionism. Does he cling to fast to the old? Perhaps, if one only measures success by progress. But I find Moll far more intelligent for his ability to discern between the valuable aspects of all ideas at his disposal to make truly beautiful and engaging paintings. The other paintings may simply be glanced at as examples of their school, but do not stand alone as strong and memorable images.

The march of history need not mean we abandon the powerful techniques left to us by those before. Flatness and ornamentation have been exciting and visually stimulating approaches, and much of the illustration I admire clings fast to these impulses. But to discard other tools simply because they have a longer history is perhaps to deny oneself the tools one needs to truly express something significant.

Heldenplatz, Wien

Heldenplatz, Wien

Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The age of insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present. Random House: New York.

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


Mad drawing-demon


I’ve just returned from the sparkling shores of Sydney Town, where I spent an action-packed week, a week bursting at the seams, getting my fill of all things art at the Julian Ashton Art School. I signed up for an intensive week and went every morning, afternoon and evening and drew like a woman possessed by a mad drawing-demon. I’ll fill you in, as I gather my thoughts.


The nicest thing was feeling so at home at Ashton’s—the teachers are, after all, my artistic grandparents, and it felt right that I should waltz in and claim my place in this revered institution. I had the feeling that the Atelier and Ashton’s are sister schools, striving toward the same end, students and teachers interchangeable; we simply carry on our combined project in the north and in the south respectively. I was welcomed as a country cousin, proving my heritage by my skills and processes.

Figure painting sketch

The teaching has the benefit of being extremely varied—the sheer number of teachers means that there are many methods and preferences and views to absorb. While we speak the same language—talking of tone, form, shadow shapes, space, weight, alignment, measurement—there is no predicting in what manner each teacher will draw these elements together, and what insights will be gained from uniting them in this way. The challenge with each new class was to identify which element is key for each teacher, and to work to extract from them why this element, and why this way. Some think in terms of the distribution of weight through a figure, beginning from the foot and working up in a loose sort of way; others think in terms of points aligned on a grid, connecting a constellation of accurate dots into a precise outline. Others sculpt a face thinking of up-planes and down-planes, front and side, independent of light; others show depth by offsetting tones—some of which adhere to shadows, others to planes. Emphasise planes too much and be accused of being academic; use straight lines too rigidly and be accused of drawing robotically—the only way to proceed is to ask pointed questions and be willing to adapt.

Figure painting

After being stuffed full of new ideas, techniques, anatomical knowledge and ways of considering a drawing, I came to the realisation that a school like Ashton’s is an enabling environment, but that one ought not be too pliant. The vast range of styles and approaches in the students—all extremely talented—is evidence that people come to grow their own abilities, not to have a way imposed upon them. Failing to emulate is no failure at Ashton’s; what is learned goes deeper than a visual mimicry. My own style remained evident in my drawings, but my thinking has changed. I have a few new tools in my belt.