Composing as emotional construction

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve spent some time lately in the galleries trying to come to an understanding about composition. Not really knowing what I was looking for, I took my sketchbook and pencil and set about collecting some information, reducing it, simplifying it, hoping to see some sort of pattern emerge. In fact, many different patterns emerged from my little thumbnails.

Composition thumbnails 1

In Van Dyck’s Gefangennahme Samsons (1628/30) the heavy weave of the fabric of the painting showed a tightly constructed image, the whole picture electrified with energy and motion, though the frenzy offers no relief for the eye. His Mystische Verlobung des Heiligen Hermann Joseph mit Maria (1630) concentrates the action into a similarly dense knot, with figures and drapery tangling together, but the rhythms run three-dimensionally, not confined to the flat pictorial space. An oval slopes deep into the picture, running through the loop of arms at the centre. Similar retreating ovals swing through Rubens’ Heilige Ambrose und Kaiser Theodosius (1615/16) and Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum (1630/32), intersecting with the two-dimensional arrangement.

Titian’s Diana revealed complex braids of arcs through the dizzyingly busy picture. Actually each curve is a wonderfully simplified statement that seems to keep the picture in motion, a liquid in suspension, not snagged by unnecessary points of elbows or knees. And Degas blares out as the most unselfconsciously shape-loving painter, with his charmingly intimate square pastels, both Nach dem Bad, almost pieced together from strong, insistent shapes rather than representations of interiors. And yet, despite the prominence of these shapes, Degas never relinquishes the fullness of forms.

Composition thumbnails 2

While these investigations turned up some interesting ideas, the jumble of thoughts they produced in my mind left me no clearer of how I ought to approach composition. And despite the importance of concrete examples, I was looking for a more unifying, fundamental way to grasp the concept. It was at this point I returned to Robert Nelson.

The main point to hold in your mind when thinking about composition is that it is, at heart, about construction. You’ll forgive my constant sideways remarks about photography, but our aesthetic vision is currently somewhat obscured by the lens, and in the matter of composition, by the viewfinder. ‘Photography as a process, certainly in its documentary incarnations, might be described as a roving rectangle in search of a motif,’ writes Nelson (2010: 99), continuing sympathetically but firmly, ‘The nomadic and scavenging character of documentary photography makes for an art of great complexity; but it is essentially different from the constructed technologies of the past.’ As a painter, I know my own understanding of composition was clouded by this idea of finding and framing. Yet the painter suffers no such constraints: she is at complete liberty to compose, exactly as the musician may draw notes from his mind and not wait to capture them. Dewey (1934: 75) compares it to the ordering of thoughts of the writer: ‘As the painter places pigment upon the canvas, or imagines it placed there, his ideas and feeling are also ordered. As the writer composes in his medium of words what he wants to say, his idea takes on for himself perceptible form.’

Sankt Marx composition

Nelson (2010: 95-6) argues that, despite the popularity of the idea, there are no ‘design principles,’ no rules to be taught, no natural laws to transform aesthetics into a science. Conventions of the past were simply that—conventions, not eternal ideals. Golden means and overlaid geometry reek of ‘numerological witchcraft’ to him. Yet composition remains vital to painting because of the deliberateness it entails. The painter actively arranges not only elements, but space and even, he (2010: 98) argues, ‘the way that you encounter the motif.’ The whole is a carefully contrived experience, deliberately built up from nothing.

Rather than groping fruitlessly after scientific justifications for the success of compositions, Nelson (2010: 96) suggests turning to the poetic. Composition, far from submitting to rules, is rather a matter of expression, and perhaps even, as Dewey suggests, of emotion. Dewey (1934: 70) writes of the deliberate arrangement of the whole: ‘The determination of the mot juste, of the right incident in the right place, of exquisiteness of proportion, of the precise tone, hue, and shade that helps unify the whole while it defines a part, is accomplished by emotion.’ The painter has complete control over how the stage is to be set, over how the experience is to unfold. The balance or imbalance is completely at her disposal; the weight of the tones may set the mood she desires, the space may be moulded or the shapes emphasised or the rhythms interlaced as best suits her own expressive purpose. Dewey (1934: 62) is quick to clarify, however, that this expression, however emotional, remains calculated and controlled:

‘To discharge is to get rid of, to dismiss; to express is to stay by, to carry forward in development, to work out to completion. A gush of tears may bring relief, a spasm of destruction may give outlet to inward rage. But where there is no administration of objective conditions, no shaping of materials in the interest of embodying the excitement, there is no expression. What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might better be termed one of self-exposure; it discloses character—or lack of character—to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.’

In order to express something clearly, to honestly transcribe emotive experiences, the painter must keep the whole before her, and work in a flexible way. Her medium needs to be pliant enough to push around, to adjust, to exaggerate, to search out (Gombrich 1996: 214). Drawing is the most obvious starting place, offering a reductive description, a non-committal, experimental visualisation of the unborn painting. Without labouring details, the painter can think through the unity of the whole and observe the interaction of the ill-defined parts. She can crop and re-crop. She can design, she can grow the image organically. In keeping the whole at the fore, she can keep the emotional experience tight and true. Da Vinci (in Gombrich 1996: 213) confirms this fluid mode of working and the connection between emotion and composition in both his hairy drawings and his writings:

‘Now have you never thought about how poets compose their verse? They do not trouble to trace beautiful letters nor do they mind crossing out several lines so as to make them better. So, painter, rough out the arrangement of the limbs of your figures and first attend to the movements appropriate to the mental state of the creatures that make up your pictures rather than to the beauty and perfection of their parts.’

I expect I’ll continue to collect thumbnails at the gallery, but with renewed purpose: There are no codes to decipher and assimilate, no universal truths to unearth. There is only the deliberate hanging-together of the whole—directed by the emotional impulse of the author—to unravel and to admire. And my own emotional intent to orchestrate in my own paintings, beginning with my ever-pliable pencil.

Sankt Marx

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

Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The essential Gombrich: Selected writings on art and culture. Ed. Richard Woodfield. Phaidon: London.

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

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The devil

Copy after Bartholomäus Spranger, Der Sündenfall

Copy after Bartholomäus Spranger, Der Sündenfall

It’s undeniable that the Dutch and Flemish painters particularly relished detail. When I look at their paintings I see the glee that sparkled in their eyes, thinking of the heavy texture of a rug and the crystal gleam of glass, the rumpled satin and copious strings of pearls—almost without a thought for their sitter. Every corner of the painting is precious space to be maxed out in all its textural glory. One squints in wonder at the precision with which paint is applied, with, one presumes, unimaginably tiny brushes. I’m a sucker for this. I don’t care if it’s showing off. I want to discover more and more.

Detail of Peter Paul Rubens

Holy fuck, detail of Peter Paul Rubens

There is a point, though, when detail becomes garish and visually distressing. It’s one thing to satisfyingly distinguish between course woven carpets and soft skin and silky garments, but another to be forced to train one’s eyes on pores and individual hairs and knuckle wrinkles. Hyperrealism is a visual torrent of truthful information that our eyes, when grappling with the real world, graciously blend into one viewpoint. We can’t concentrate on everything at once, and such paintings ask the impossible of us, forcing our eyes to train, hawklike, on every aspect at once. I’ve seen ceiling-high paintings that are like frightening projections of microscope slides of old people’s noses, and I have to say that I don’t think they are very clever. Has the artist a scientific interest in dermatology? Are they a failed biologist?

A broad simplification of this matter is summed up in the dichotomy of detail versus structure, which Nelson probes with some scepticism. Whence this dichotomy, he asks? Does it have its roots in ‘romantic versus classic? Instinct versus discipline? Liberal versus anal-retentive? Modernism versus tradition?’ (p. 145). I’m reminded of this Western inclination to equally partition things, divide them into ‘us and them,’ as Alice Jardine (in Walker 2009 p. 46) notes: ‘The question of “the couple” has become the object of contemporary philosophical fascination, where all metaphysical couples are in the process of being discoupled, recoupled differently and urgently: active/passive, form/matter, speech/writing, conscious/unconscious.’ Whether or not this coupling project is useful, it seems to hold our fascination, and has certainly been in my mind as I flit between the Dutch-German-Flemish and Italian-Spanish-French wings of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, unable to help engaging in comparative study.

Wöllflin (Nelson 2010 p. 145; 148) put forward this particular artistic and culturally ‘normatively informed’ coupling. According to his proposed division, Renaissance artists of the northern and more liberal regions are swamped in a glittering frenzy of detail, while their southern counterparts soberly attend to the structure of the entire image. Or perhaps the stiff and accurate detail is sober, and the giddy motion grows out of a compositional frenzy. In Nelson’s (p. 145-6) summarisation, ‘Whereas artists like Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Robert Campin and Dürer fill their busy rectangles with copious detail in an even and democratic spread, artists like Giotto, Masaccio, Piero, Michaelangelo and Titian are interested in a single spatial proposition, with a key volumetric argument, usually centralised and tending to command a perspective of an ideal and single viewpoint.’

My own investigations have led me to believe it is not so simple as this. Certainly, I was amazed at the stiff simplicity of Titian’s (non-fur) drapery—the simple and ungraduated laying down of three tones in awkward triangular shapes. Where his faces were careful and smooth, his compositions focussed and kind to the viewer, his textures seemed sometimes a mere afterthought, an irrelevant feature that would only distract from his main pictorial assertion. And there is no denying the narrative motion inherent in a stunning painting by Strozzi, of the widow and her son with Elias, in which the textures are dampened and softened to great effect, letting the eyes marvel over the weight and presence of the subjects. And the Dutch brazenly flaunt the golden weave of baskets and the pink sheen of satin, and carefully delineate every leaf of a tree. Nevertheless, it seems more a question of degree and emphasis.

Detail of Bernardo Strozzi, The prophet Elias and the widow of Sarepta

Detail of Bernardo Strozzi, The prophet Elias and the widow of Sarepta

Where Van Dyck paints incredibly subtle yet expressive faces and positively floating angel garments, the detail in which he revels is supported by a strong and intentional composition. I am in awe of his Vision of the blessed Hermann Joseph with Mary, the centre of which forms a diagonal rectangle between the faces, with a three-dimensional convergence of the arms of Mary, Joseph and the helpful angel. The fourth head to the left completes a satisfying arc through the four, closing off the design in a tight fashion. Detail does not interfere with or stand in isolation from the structure; the two function far more dependently.

Copy after Peter Paul Rubens, Maria Himmelfahrt

Copy after Peter Paul Rubens, Maria Himmelfahrt

And when one considers the phenomenal Rubens, and his overwhelming visual cacophony of flying babies and intense if idealised character types, with their cascading hands, lavishly surrounded by exotic fruits, it seems that composition is equally in his mind, only with grander, more complex visions, interlocking countless tiny narratives. The voluminous flesh of his figures demonstrates more of a virtuosity with respect to the human form than a strict adherence to the truth of perception. His detail seems largely driven by questions of motion, unlike the more believable individuality of Van Dyck’s figures. A Rubens hand is above all engaged in some action, and mightily idealised; a Van Dyck hand belongs to its owner alone. As Nelson (p. 147) argues, the northern artists isolated by Wöllflin ‘nevertheless organised their fields fastidiously.’

Copy after Veronese, Lucretia

Copy after Veronese, Lucretia

Veronese expertly directs the viewer through the narrative of the painting, but not at the expense of lavish decoration—heavy brocade, gleaming jewels, deftly-woven golden hair—his Judith and Lucretia are in fine murderess getup (homicide or suicide), and this brings a certain theatricality to the tight but expressive compositions. One’s eyes feast on the jewels at their shoulders, drawn to the most brightly-lit part, and unquestioningly follow their arms—symbols of action, I speculate—to the bloody acts at their fingertips, cloaked in darkness.

Detail of Veronese, Judith

Detail of Veronese, Judith

Nelson wisely draws our attention back to the fact that the decisions we make as painters are based on perception, but ought not be enslaved by it. Every painter makes those decisions not only based on preference, cultural affiliations or schooled traditions, but in response to the stimulus itself. Perceptual art, he argues (p. 150), ‘is a poetic process of interpreting perception in order to make paintings and drawings. … The interest will always be in the strength of the image, the consistency of vision, the poetic agreements between the technique and the perception.’ Whichever camp sways you, your debt is to the subject alone.

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

Walker, Michelle Boulous. 2009. ‘Writing couples: Reading Deutscher on Sartre and Beauvoir.’ In Crossroads IV(1): pp. 45-52.

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