Hand & eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Copy after Bammes)

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

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

Copy after Rubens

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

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

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

Copies after Rubens

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

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

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


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.


Notation, language & painting

Cracked (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Cracked (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Robert Nelson’s (2010: 167; 169) treatise on The Visual Language of Painting dwells on an analogy between painting and language, an analogy deemed ‘ill-considered’ by Richard Wollheim (1987: 181) for the way in which it ‘foists upon painting something akin to grammar’ with its array of syntactic and semantic requirements. But Nelson (2010: 178) pleads that ‘it is unfair to judge visual language by the prejudicial, logocentric criteria of verbal language,’ conceding nonetheless that this ‘seems like an almost anti-intellectual deflection of dialectic and intelligent responsibility.’ Nelson (2010: 181) insists that ‘the semantics are less important than the consciousness that they scramble for,’ and I would like to cast a sympathetic eye over his book and ask whether there is, after all, something valid to be gained from an analogy between painting and language, or whether he is indeed wading into dangerous territory.


To begin, let us consider his motivation for pursuing this analogy. Nelson (2010: x), familiar with the internal machinations of a fine art academy, opens his book with the premise that painting needs rescuing: ‘The only power that will resuscitate painting and give it long-term sustainability is language: verbal language that recognises visual language, the visual language proper to representational painting.’ Nelson is operating under the assumption that painting is stuck with words: whether it be artist statements, catalogue notes or doctoral theses, the written word clings to painting as a child to its mother’s skirt. In many ways, all this talk obscures painting itself. Our literacy perhaps hinders our visual attentiveness, our perceptiveness. Perhaps we can better learn to approach paintings, surmises Nelson, if we borrow this reassuringly familiar concept of language and describe what it could metaphorically mean in the visual realm of painting. Perhaps we could encourage a comparable ‘visual literacy’ in order to actually liberate painting from words. Words might then accompany painting, rather than smother it.

In no way does Nelson want to establish a strict framework for painting, then; he sees it already constricted by verbal language and he is seeking salvation by means of language. Language literally, in that we will write about painting and discuss it in words, and language metaphorically, in that we will apply the concept of language to the visual realm. This is a vastly different project to an analytical investigation of aesthetics.


Nelson’s metaphor leads him to consider what might be most salient about language, and to then import this trait into painting. Among the many uses and virtues of language, Nelson—like Tolstoy (in Wollheim 1980: 119)—gravitates most strongly towards its communicative possibilities. ‘Visuality,’ he explains of a term he uses interchangeably with ‘the visual language,’ ‘is implicitly a recognition of the visual as being recognisable and capable of transacting communications, a form of language, then, which presents the contemporary world with a certain urgency’ (Nelson, 2010: 167). The visual language is grounded in the intention of the artist and her desire to communicate to others. Not everything that is visible is in a language: rather, it is only when things seen make a ‘purposeful address to the eyes, [that] they become linguistic in character’ (Nelson, 2010: 168). And even when he considers the development and expression of individual thoughts by means of language, he insists on the status of language as a ‘social system’ which above all enables the ‘transaction’ and ‘recognition’ of those thoughts (Nelson, 2010: 176).


At this point we might pose a little interjection from Wollheim, who does in fact entertain the analogy between art and language, though he uses it to demonstrate flaws in what he calls the Ideal Theory of art, which I shall not consider here. First, he very cautiously asks the crucial question, ‘how are we to use the analogy?’ (Wollheim, 1996: 118). Then he firmly states that ‘a point is reached at which the analogy runs out’ (Wollheim, 1980: 137). Wollheim (1980: 137) notes that there is some discomfort at the idea of calling art ‘communicative,’ when it might be pitched precisely against language as ‘expressive.’ That is to say, art and language have different and incomparable functions. But he brushes this objection aside with the simple observation that ‘the theory that language is essentially concerned with communication of ideas is a dogmatic notion, which does not even take account of the variety of ways in which ideas are communicated’ (Wollheim 1980: 137).

There are three things we might say on this. First, Wollheim seems very sensible to caution that the analogy between language and painting might hold, but perhaps not unconditionally. It might only be relevant for demonstrating one point (such as the validity of the Ideal Theory), but we might push it too far if, for example, we demand an actual visual grammar. Should we want to wield this analogy, we must be very precise about why and how we are using it, and upfront about its limitations. Painting is not, after all, literally a language, and metaphors are poetic illustrations and not statements of logical identity.

Second, Wollheim is right to note that there are many important traits of language, possibly co-equal ones, and we might equally consider the way language functions as a medium for private thought, a tool of analysis, a descriptive record of information, a poetic mode of expression and so forth. Then we would need to ask whether it is legitimate to import all of these functions into painting, and why such a correspondence should hold. This motivation might have something to do with finding a lack of generosity in, for example, contemporary painting, in its persistent refusal to visually connect with its viewers, necessitating the dependence on actual text.

And third, Wollheim does something quite spectacular when he says language does not hold a monopoly over communication. And he is correct: ideas are conveyed in many ways, though the types of ideas may vary by medium. Much is conveyed through body language, for example, or diagrams, or music, or the extremely controlled movement of the body that we call dance. Certainly, a ballet does not communicate the same thoughts as a scientific report. But it can wordlessly transmit other ideas about the human condition. In fact, Wollheim’s dismissive observation invites us to think of many things as being at least partially analogous with language. Though perhaps what he really wants to emphasise is that communication and language are not identical, and that painting might be more closely analogous to some other mode of communication.


The way that Nelson uses the analogy between language and painting is rather loose and imprecise. He senses that there are limits, and thus centres all his comparisons on his chosen principle trait of communication, which is arguably the most obvious trait of language, without necessarily excluding the nuance of a perspective like Wollheim’s. As for why, Nelson is motivated by painting’s existing bondage to verbal language. He wants to defeat language with language.

Let us look at how Nelson conceives of the visual language of painting—how he applies the analogy. He is very quick to emphasise that the visual language of painting does not consist purely in technique, though technique turns out to be a fruitful way of investigating it. He argues that a ‘visual perspicacity and mental agility’ necessarily merge with the material when the visual language of painting is used effectively (Nelson, 2010: xi). This makes his position psychological rather in the way that Wollheim’s (1987: 22) is, because he necessarily incorporates the inner life of the artist—particularly her thoughts and intentions—into the manipulation of the medium. Keeping this attitude in mind, Nelson turns to the complicated and interlocking technical components of painting—each chapter dealing with the nebulous themes of colour, drawing, structure and composition, tone and plasticity, gesture, edge control and atmosphere, detail and weight, and layering and luminosity—in an effort to build up a rich tapestry of the visual language. Music, he concedes, lends itself much more easily to parallels with language, mostly because it is easier to compare them since it is easier to identify their ‘quantum units’ (Nelson, 2010: 170). It is easier to point to a note, a word, and compare—for example—their symbolic possibilities. Painting offers no obvious quantum unit; only a gently fluctuating integration of such elements as those listed above, and quite probably more. As such, painting ‘is harder to recognise as a language’ (Nelson, 2010: 172).

Here the analogy becomes a little hazy. Nelson (2010: xi; 170) starts dropping words like ‘symbol;’ right from the beginning he talks about the thoughts of the artist being ‘pictorially encoded’ in the medium. Again, we might defer to the thorough Wollheim (1980: 132): ‘The analogy… is one between art and language. The insistence is necessary: for there is another analogy, which bears a superficial resemblance to mine, and which may, deliberately or in error, be substituted for it. That is the analogy between art and a code.’ Wollheim (1980: 132) identifies two corresponding streams of thought, both of which he says lead into error: the first, that the more apt analogy holds between art and code than art and language; the second, that language and code ‘become so confused or transposed’ that the analogy slips, and ‘in point of fact it is to a code, not to language, that art is assimilated.’ In Robert Nelson’s case, the confusion is only slight, and his resistance of syntax likely saves him from labouring the idea of a code too far. But in the case of Nelson Goodman, the analogy undeniably shifts to code, and, as I see it, leaves the question of language and painting unresolved, and certainly not refuted.


Goodman, in Languages of Art, is cautious in his approach, starting with the theme of pictorial representation. He tentatively proposes an ‘analogy between pictorial representation and verbal description,’ that is, between one aspect of painting and one aspect of language (Goodman, 1976: 40). ‘The temptation is to call a system of depiction a language; but here I stop short,’ says Goodman (1976: 41), with immense restraint. And from here he embarks on a long, technical investigation of ‘what distinguishes representational from linguistic systems’ (Goodman, 1976: 41). He makes a fundamental division in the arts which leads him to focus on notation, and that division stems from the puzzle of forgeries: ‘in music, unlike painting, there is no such thing as a forgery of a known work’ (Goodman, 1976: 112).

Goodman identifies that there is something importantly different about ‘single’ and ‘multiple’ arts, and, explains Wollheim (in a supplementary essay to Art and its Objects, 1980: 167), ‘thinks that the more fundamental division within works of art is between the ‘autographic’ and the ‘allographic.’’ For an autographic work of art, the original and the copy are importantly distinct (Goodman, 1976: 113). It matters very much how the work came into being: its history of production—for whether it was or was not painted by, say, Van Dyck makes a spectacular difference. Each autographic work is a one-off. But we may perform a Chopin Nocturne without compromising the integrity of that work of art. ‘Thus painting is autographic, music nonautographic, or allographic’ (Goodman, 1976: 113). Wollheim’s (1980: 168) terms are a little less imposing: he simply speaks of ‘individuals’ (paintings), and ‘types’ and their ‘tokens’ (plays, books, musical pieces and their instances). Yet their categories are drawn up a little differently: Wollheim (1980: 167; 170) considers history of production across all art forms to be essential. Goodman (1976: 122), however, considers it only relevant to one-off works, simply as the means of identifying them. Allographic works, he argues, are severed from their creator and freed of their history of production, and because of that we need an alternative way to identify them: a notation.


‘Why,’ Goodman (1976: 121) asks, is the use of notation appropriate in some arts but not in others?’ In short, because some can already be identified by their history of production. The purpose of devising a notation is to ensure we are in fact encountering this specific work of art in one of its instances. And, further, they are necessary for the kinds of works of art that would overtax an individual: notations enable us ‘to transcend the limitations of time and the individual’ (Goodman, 1976: 121). By means of a score, a script, a manuscript, we can both reproduce and identify a work of art, divorced from its author (Goodman, 1976: 122).

And thus, on Goodman’s (1976: 121) terms, painting does not qualify as amenable to notation. But nor, he goes on to explain, do any of our natural languages qualify as notational systems (Goodman, 1976: 178). Goodman’s (1976: 225) analysis of musical scores (an arguably arbitrary choice which sets up the framework for his entire book) leads him to submit five semantic and syntactic requirements for a notational system; language is only able to meet the first two syntactic requirements. His analogy remains firmly between painting and code, and in rejecting any congruence between painting and notation, he does not reject possible parallels between painting and language. And I am quite happy to abandon this conception of a painterly notation (in the very literal sense of encoding meaning into a strict painterly grammar). As, I am sure, is Nelson, who takes great pains to describe the fluidity and unpredictability of his proposed visual language, while nevertheless insisting that painters hold fast to their communicative responsibility. And Wollheim (1980: 83) is unimpressed when he entertains the idea of notation permeating the entire range of the arts: ‘With such a notation there would no longer be any executant arts: the whole of the execution would have been anticipated in the notation.’ Painting, along with the other art forms, would collapse into a display of ‘mechanical skills’ (Wollheim, 1980: 84). Painting as notation is not an attractive analogy and is not the idea being put forward.


Yet Goodman (1976: 192) perseveres: ‘A sketch,’ (and by extension other autographic works of art like paintings) ‘is not in a language.’ No, he considers these works to be in entirely nonlinguistic systems, which ‘differ from languages … primarily through lack of differentiation—indeed through density (and consequent total absence of articulation)—of the symbol system’ (Goodman, 1976: 226). Painting would belong to a representational system, which must be dense, which one might imagine as continuous like an analogue gauge. Language does not represent, but describes; and descriptions, by contrast, are articulate, like discrete digital measures (Goodman, 1976: 230). Painting, Goodman (1976: 234) is trying to get us to understand, is too flexible, too nuanced, too direct (where it actually exemplifies the colour, shape, or feeling represented) to be subsumed under a structured, differentiated and abstracted system like language.

But to insist on the articulacy of language would be to discredit its qualities of subtlety and expression. Wollheim’s (1980: 135) level-headed remark brings that back into focus: ‘The elements or alphabet of a code are denumerable, whereas no precise limit can be set to the vocabulary of a language.’ Language itself has enough fluidity to perhaps rival the density of painting. And perhaps painting would profit from finding limits to its unbounded physical possibilities—perhaps this very limitlessness is what leads painting into incomprehensibility. Perhaps language teaches us (only by analogy) that if we want to capture meaning, to even make ourselves understood, we need to find common ground with our audience.


Language thus may still be nebulous enough a concept to import into painting, but we must ask ourselves seriously what for, and how far we are committed to drawing that analogy—and at what point it runs out. If Nelson’s reason for seizing a metaphorical visual language as a way to escape the tyranny of a limited verbal language in the current practice of painting is compelling, I do not see a reason against it, at least not from Goodman’s notation-focussed perspective. It only prompts us to consider whether other, better, analogies might exist—between, perhaps, painting and music, or painting and dance—and forces us to examine our obsessive preoccupation with language and our tendency to view it as the key to unlock all our problems. Literacy has swollen into the panacea of our age, but perhaps illegitimately so.



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

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

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

Wollheim, Richard. 1980. Art and Its Objects: With Six Supplementary Essays. Reprinted 2. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University.


On meaning

Das Bett / The bed (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Das Bett / The bed (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)


Richard Wollheim’s meticulous and absorbing book Painting as an Art stands, all three hundred and fifty hefty pages of it, in opposition to explanations of meaning in painting that depend on comparisons with language. I have found some useful analogies for painting in language, but such a rigorous book leads me to consider that my preoccupation with an ill-defined ‘visual language’ disguises a deeper concern with meaning itself in painting. I have considered Susan Sontag’s (1969) argument that ‘silence’ in paintings belies an absence of meaning, and have picked up her appeals to a kind of discussion, a back and forth between painter and spectator. But perhaps it is more illuminating to be yet clearer about the type of meaning that is to be manipulated (by the artist) and found (by the spectator) in paintings, and to be strict about the distinction between painting and language.

Painting as an Art inextricably binds meaning in painting to the materials of painting. Paint itself can be transformed into a medium that can ‘be so manipulated as to give rise to meaning’ (Wollheim 1987: 7). What Wollheim (1987: 15) wants to hold on to here is the very ‘paintingness’ of a painting as integral to its meaning—that meaning must be contained within the painting, implanted in it by the artist, discoverable by the spectator, and independent of external validation or explanation.


‘Pictorial meaning,’ concedes Wollheim (1987: 22), ‘is diverse.’ From the outset, he casts aside any theory with a linguistic scent. ‘Structuralism, iconography, semiotics and various breeds of cultural relativism’ look for the kind of meaning that language has in painting. That is, they try to make sense of paintings by decoding them according to a variety of rules and conventions and symbol systems. But, argues Wollheim (1987: 22), while these sometimes influence the meaning of a painting, such codes do not lie at the heart of pictorial meaning.

And so Wollheim (1987: 22) sets out his own account of pictorial meaning, which he brands a psychological account in contradistinction to these linguistic theories. The core components of this account—and there are three—align happily with factors I have, as a painter myself, come to consider crucial in appreciating painting. Though initially uncomfortable with the term ‘psychological,’ I grow ever more convinced that it captures as fundamental something of the elusive inner, emotional machinations of the artist which a linguistic account might only add on later. Wollheim’s (1987: 22) triad of factors upon which pictorial meaning rests are:

  1. The mental state of the artist

  2. The way this causes him to mark the surface

  3. The mental state that the marked surface sets up in the sensitive and informed spectator.

Or, more descriptively (Wollheim 1987: 22):

‘On such an account what a painting means rests upon the experience induced in an adequately sensitive, adequately informed, spectator by looking at the surface of the painting as the intentions of the artist led him to mark it. The marked surface must be the conduit along which the mental state of the artist makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator if the result is to be that the spectator grasps the meaning of the picture.’

Beginning with the painter (for, as Wollheim (1987: 36) argues, ‘if we are interested in understanding either painting as such or individual paintings, we must start from the artist’) demands something substantial of the painter. It says that we expect her to embody some thought, some idea, in the paint she is carefully mixing on her palette, preparing to smear across her canvas. It does not say that we demand to know her history, her biography, her certified statement on the meaning of the painting. Wollheim (1987: 44) emphasises again and again that the information we seek should be embedded in the painting itself. Turning to the painter’s mental state is important because it demands an intention of her, not something careless, accidental, or mindless. A painting that does not embody a meaningful idea does not qualify, on Wollheim’s (1987: 13) terms, as art—and he is keen to do away with the type of painters that are not artists. This addresses Sontag’s (1969) concern for silent paintings that in fact have nothing to say to the spectator, without yet having to depend on a spectator. For the artist’s ‘major aim,’ so Wollheim (1987: 44) contends, is ‘to produce content or meaning.’


Wollheim (1987: 185) does not deny the spectator a role, but he treads very carefully where he fears that a painting might be endowed with meaning ‘after it left the hands of the artist and without any concomitant alteration to its marked surface.’ For this reason, he asks us to call to mind the posture of the artist: standing in front of her easel. This image of the artist before her work should continually remind us that the artist herself occupies ‘a multiplicity of roles:’ she must be both agent and spectator (Wollheim 1987: 43). ‘Inside each artist is a spectator upon whom the artist, the artist as agent, is dependent’ (Wollheim 1987: 43). This precise formulation captures exactly what I have observed when I have considered the self-indulgent hours an artist may pass considering her own work, without even picking up a brush: the apparent idleness that is actually a necessary (though passive) role by which the artist tests the calculated effect of her work (Wollheim 1987: 95).

We must, argues Wollheim (1987: 96) take care to recognise that the artist hypothetically, not categorically, imagines a spectator when she herself steps into the role of spectator. She does not necessarily paint with a specific spectator in mind, nor even approach her work with the attitude that another spectator will ever approach the painting. This further distinguishes painting from language, in Wollheim’s eyes. A painting may or may not be a form of communication, but it is not inherently a mode of communication. ‘Necessarily communication either is addressed to an identifiable audience … or is undertaken in the hope that an audience will materialise’ (1987: 96). I am not thoroughly persuaded on this point. A writer may similarly write for themselves, or for no one, in precisely the medium of language. Reams of private notes or sketches can be records addressed precisely to their creator in her role as spectator. The artist’s multiple roles seem, rather, to enable the possibility of an internal conversation.


It is through marking the surface, intentionally applying paint, that the artist attempts to give form to and perhaps eventually to convey her thoughts. Among the artist’s intentions, Wollheim (1987: 86) lists ‘thoughts, beliefs, memories, and, in particular, emotions and feelings, that the artist had and that specifically caused him to paint as he did.’ The key is that there ought always be a connection between the marks set down and the inner, mental state of the artist. For Wollheim, this connection is never one of direct transcription, as in language, but there is always a correspondence.

But more than this: the artist also intends that ‘a spectator should see something in [the marked surface]’ (Wollheim 1987: 101). This particular intention is what Wollheim calls respresentation. He (Wollheim 1987: 101) here finds room to introduce a standard of correctness and incorrectness: Since the artist had something in mind, and tried to put it down, a spectator might understand that intention correctly or incorrectly. Of course, spectators bring all sorts of personal musings to a painting, and there is a case to be made for reverie, but these wayward, subjective reflections can never comprise the core meaning of a painting. The artist’s intention can be grasped or misunderstood, or partially recognised. But respect for the artist’s intention is crucial if we are to salvage painting from the meaningless mire of subjectivity. Our personal reflections ought only augment the artist’s original idea.

The second important point here is that the spectator should discover this idea in the marked surface. We move smoothly from the intentions of the artist to the response of the spectator via the uncomplicated physicality of paint itself. We spot a glimmer of hope that ‘the sensuous and the meaningful can here for once be fused into an indissoluble unit,’ as Ernst Gombrich (1996: 453) writes of the Greek awakening to the expressiveness of the human form. The spectator can expect to discover, with enough patience and attention, what the artist hoped to convey, by viewing the picture itself. The painting reveals, after all, the way in which the artist worked. If we acknowledged this, rather than fumbling for written explanations of paintings, we would come a long way in restoring dignity to painting as a carrier of meaning.


The spectator, in turn, must bring something to the painting in order to grasp its meaning, though not in the sense of permitting a plurality of meanings, nor in the institution-dependent sense of being thoroughly educated in art history or appealing to authorities. The ‘sensitive’ and ‘informed’ spectator brings, rather, certain fundamental perceptual capacities, on Wollheim’s (1987: 45) account, and there are three:

  1. Seeing-in

  2. Expressive perception

  3. The capacity to experience visual delight.

Wollheim is a delightfully thorough writer: he is strict on his terms and takes the time to develop each of them fully, probing their weak spots and plugging them with logically necessary qualifications. One must not be deterred by his terms: though precise, they are not as difficult as their rigidity makes them appear. I am so taken with his explanations of the above three capacities that I intend to devote far more attention to them in dedicated essays. For now, let us introduce them, keeping his broader system in view.


By seeing-in, or twofoldness, Wollheim (1987: 46) means the very remarkable yet familiar experience of being aware of a surface but at the same time seeing something in it. This is, I contend, one of the most important aspects of a painting: it is not merely an image, nor do we desire to be completely drawn into some illusion of reality. The physicality of paintings stands ever at the fore. The very paint is seductive and never quite escapes our view, whatever image we see. Wollheim (1987: 46; 71) calls seeing-in a ‘distinct kind of perception’ upon which representation depends. The spectator, then, should notice both the paint and what is represented in paint, and see that both play a role in the meaning of a painting.

Emotion, that slippery aspect that ever eludes language but seems to be the particular strength—and perhaps even point of—art, enters with expressive perception. We know from experience that we are able to look at a painting and see it as depicting an emotion, and it is simply this ‘species of seeing’ that Wollheim (1987: 80) wants to capture with this term. He (Wollheim 1987:80) believes that because it is a genuine species of seeing, ‘it is capable of grounding a distinctive variety of pictorial meaning.’ What is attractive about this account is that it tries to establish the emotional content of a painting as a credible part of the meaning of the painting. The spectator must be attentive to it, and able to follow the painter’s cues, which may be far more complex than symbols.


The artist relies on the sensitive and informed spectator to bring a certain ‘cognitive stock’ to the painting in order to uncover its meaning, particularly some information about how it came to be made. But, Wollheim (1987: 89) emphasises, this information should be embedded by the artist in the painting itself. ‘What is invariably irrelevant,’ he (Wollheim 1987: 95) writes, ‘is some rule or convention that takes us from what is perceptible to some hidden meaning: in the way in which, say, a rule of language would.’ This information only gives itself up slowly, with long and attentive deliberation, and perhaps a familiarity with the larger body of the artist’s work. ‘Often careful, sensitive, and generally informed, scrutiny of the painting will extract from it the very information that is needed to understand it’ (Wollheim 1987: 89).

Lastly, the artist demands of the spectator the ability to experience pleasure in his encounter with art. Pleasure does not simply come from subject matter, Wollheim (1987: 98-99) argues, but rather from the way the artist carefully controls the spectator’s propensity to see the emotional character she has laid over an otherwise recognisable, and perhaps utterly ordinary image. Without the capacity for visual delight—which the artist is bursting to transmit—the spectator would remain unmoved by painting; an impenetrable barrier would ever stand between him and the appreciation of paintings, their meaning would ever elude him.


Wollheim’s Painting as an Art is dense but rewarding: his search for meaning within the painting itself, driven by the intention of an artist with something to express, not only restores dignity to the distinctly visual nature of painting, but does so without recourse to language or its associated symbols, conventions and syntaxes, which he considers an unfortunate and ‘ill-considered analogy’ (Wollheim 1987: 181). Ever reminding us of the limitations of such an analogy, Wollheim offers instead a persuasively thorough conception of meaning in painting that I find well worth deeper consideration. This continual return to the painting itself is just the sort of philosophical system that seems to allow for a breed of objectivity to surface. And this is a path through the murky forest of aesthetics which I should like to go down.



Gombrich, E. H., and Richard Woodfield. 1996. The Essential Gombrich: Selected Writings on Art and Culture. London: Phaidon Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1969. ‘The aesthetics of silence.’ In Styles of radical will.

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


Eloquence and drawing

Russian plant © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Russian plant © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Language, woven of conventions, adapts and evolves, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s account of its progression takes a delightfully unexpected path. Language, he (2009: 294) declares, was born of the passions: ‘Neither hunger nor thirst, but love, hatred, pity, anger wrested the first voices from them.’ Physical needs are easily signalled; but the complexities of expressing gently nuanced emotions—of swelling love overlaid with brittle melancholy; of restless expectation shaded with pleasant hope—demand a more developed mode of intimation. The first words to escape our trembling lips must thus have been effusive outpourings of raw poetry, only to be subdued and ordered much later by reason. Language’s intellectual ripening carried it further and further from its first poetic utterances: ‘In proportion as language was perfected, melody imperceptibly lost its ancient energy by imposing new rules upon itself’ (Rousseau 2009: 329).



But painting may be spared this ruthless pruning. Painting, as language, has never been reigned in to express concepts with logical precision. It rather remains an unruly address to the eyes that harmonises with the chaotic cadences of our hearts. We are moved because we discover our passions and imitations of the objects of our passions candidly reflected in paint—it is in this empathetic manner that paintings speak with us. And ‘one speaks to the eyes much more effectively than to the ears,’ Rousseau assures us (2009: 291).

Dresden galerie

Rousseau reserves particularly high praise for drawing. Good painting touches us, certainly; but we ought not overestimate the role of colour in this. Colours, argues Rousseau (2009: 319), operate at a simple sensory level. They strike us immediately, they catch our attention, they please our eyes, but colours alone cannot move us. ‘It is the design, it is the imitation, that endows these colours with life and soul, it is the passions which they express that succeed in moving our own, it is the objects which they represent that succeed in affecting us’ (Rousseau 2009: 319). Colourless drawings retain their expressive force; but colours without contours melt into pure sensory pleasantness (Rousseau 2009: 319).

yellow field

Rousseau privileges drawing with a more fundamental position than words, much nearer to the earth and to our volatile passions. Love, that consuming passion, ‘has livelier ways of expressing itself’ than with the very words it summoned into existence, however poetic those words may be (Rousseau 2009: 290). Love is fabled to be the impulse that compelled the first drawing. Rousseau (2009: 290) swoons with evident delight: ‘What things she who traced the shadow of her lover with so much pleasure told him! What sounds could she have used to convey this movement of a stick?’ And so we clutch our sticks, the ‘Griffel’ of Max Klinger’s (1985: 21) ‘Griffelkunst,’ with renewed vigour, finding ourselves closer to the poetic expressiveness we crave. ‘Writing, which seems as if it should fix language,’ systematically changes language—categorically domesticating it, demanding ever more precise adaptations, shedding its poetic origins. Drawing, by contrast, abandons the pursuit of precision in order to move us in more complex and thus deeper ways (Rousseau 2009: 300).

jedes buch

It is this resolute devotion to the passions that lends drawing its eloquence. Our visual language, built of rhythmic lines and deliberately constructed compositions, possesses all the tools of charming and winning over our audience: we have not the means to persuade, but to stir. We rely not on arguments, but on poetry, and poetry and eloquence, says Rousseau (2009: 318), have the same origin. While we search out logical colour series, and look for technical solutions that make clear statements about light, about form, about perspective, our technical grammar is subservient to our elusive poetic aims. We ought not forget our advantage, for even words derive their eloquence from the visual, as Rousseau (2009: 291) reminds us; they move us most when infused with imagery and colour through metaphor.


Drawing—design—with unlimited poetic potential, saves the visual language of painting from too strict a grammar. Because though there are means of drawing more accurately, more naturalistically, more literally, the best drawings may be judged to harness the grammatical concerns of truth and precision for more expressive purposes, to elevate something poetic in the subject. An able draughtsman pursues accuracy; a good draughtsman tells seductive lies with his eloquent stick. His impassioned retellings are more captivating than the truth; the visual grammar he works within does not ever refine itself towards rational precision. Good drawing orders a painting according to another kind of logic. It makes the painting a painting, not a mirror image, not a soup of sensations.

painting carnage

Our language, as painters, is rooted in the grammar of design. We must search out the visual patterns, impose hierarchies, intentionally structure our images, and chase endlessly after the stirring undulations of our lines, for herein lies their emotive strength. Used forcefully, we may speak with an eloquence that moves our viewers more deeply than any string of words. Words have evolved as a tool of persuasion, and ‘by cultivating the art of convincing, that of moving the emotions was lost’ (Rousseau 2009: 329). Drawing, and through it, painting, has not suffered as a language at the hand of progress. Its conventions, though they shift and change, tie it ever to its emotional source.

Leipziger Atelier


Klinger, Max. 1985 [1885]. Malerei und Zeichnung. Leipzig: Philipp Reclam.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2009 [1781]. Essay on the Origin of Languages and Writings Related to Music. Edited by John T. Scott. Trans. from the French edition. Hanover N.H.: Dartmouth.




A dialogue

Erdbergstraße © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Erdbergstraße © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I find the metaphor of language to be very illuminating when talking about painting. Of course pictures do not communicate with us in the direct and specific way that words do. But the visual realm affords a certain kind of exchange: some form of expression on the part of the artist, and some form of inner response on the part of the viewer. We can think of this exchange as a manner of communication, and the medium as a language. A visual language might extend our toolbox, allowing us to say something about emotion, for example, with a force or clarity that words might lack: Wittgenstein (1966: 1) reminds us that ‘I have often compared language to a tool chest, containing a hammer, chisel, matches, nails, screws, glue. It is not a chance that all these things have been put together—but there are important differences between the different tools.’


Painters take up the tools of the visual language, but before they ever try to say something with this language to another person, they use it to arrange their thoughts. They think through the medium of paint, and their thoughts are of a corresponding nature—such thoughts are not readily thought in words. ‘Art itself becomes the innovator’s instrument for probing reality,’ as Gombrich (1959: 274) aptly describes it.


The truly thoughtful painter is an experimenter: she tries new combinations, she feels her way in paint until she finds what works. ‘There is no way of finding out,’ writes Gombrich (1959: 279), ‘except by trial and error, in other words, through painting.’ Successful experiments open doors to innovation: genuine discoveries that grow the language. But this growth, as it must be in verbal language, is something closer to a rearrangement, a small adjustment, rather than a dramatic break. ‘Language grows by introducing new words,’ observes Gombrich (1959: 274), ‘but a language consisting only of new words and a new syntax would be indistinguishable from gibberish.’ This gentle adjustment of the visual language through experiment reminds me of Wittgenstein’s assertion that ‘the problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.’


Language as a metaphor helps emphasise the deliberateness of experimentation in paint. As Gombrich (1959: 274) writes, ‘The systematic explorer can afford less than anyone else to rely on random actions. He cannot just splash colours about to see what happens, for even if he should like the effect he could never repeat it.’ The shadowy threat of silence hangs over chance discoveries: perhaps the discovery is so far removed from the current dialogue that no one understands it. The painter who really wants to use paint to ‘speak’ with others must be generous enough not to completely break her connection with the viewer.


But from the other side, the viewer must work to follow the painter’s cues and make an effort to learn the ever-growing visual ‘vocabulary.’ I think it is at this point that we begin to be troubled by the idea of subjectivity in painting. When someone looks at a painting and hears only silence, he would rather blame the painter’s self-absorption than his own inadequacy with the language. But the painter might say of her painting as Wittgenstein says of his writing (1953: x), ‘I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.’


Speaking of a visual language helps us be clear that the painter is deliberately emerging from the silence and attempting to engage another person in a dialogue. She brings new insights, distilled and eloquently articulated thoughts, and even variations on the language into the discussion, for she is an author in that language. She is an expert in the orchestration of that language. But the viewer, like a well-versed reader, must be ready to receive such ‘literature,’ he must know enough to understand the core of it, and be willing to actively work to grasp the rest. As he absorbs the developments into his understanding, the dialogue continues, the language grows. The apparent subjectivity of the work dissolves as painter and viewer mutually advance the language.


Gombrich (1959: 275) is quite right to say that ‘the assertion of subjectivity can be overdone.’ He uses the Impressionists as an example. Their genuine visual discovery that the world might be seen in terms of flecks of light was initially met with great resistance. The public found this reframing of the visible world ‘hard to read and hard to accept because it had not yet been trained to interpret these new combinations in terms of the visible world’ (Gombrich 1959: 275). This resistance is now hard to imagine, the Impressionists now being so dearly loved by so many, but that is precisely because, having learned this vocabulary, having turned it upon the physical world, we have found this visual description in fact very apt, and very pleasing.


Framed in this way, subjectivity need not enter into painting at all. A dialogue has two sides, and though the speaker may ask extra of the listener through her incremental experiments, the listener can be richly rewarded for tasking himself with learning the language and trying to keep up.


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

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

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1966. Lectures and conversations on aesthetics, psychology and religious belief. Ed. Cyril Barrett. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.



Pflaumen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Pflaumen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

There have always been things too profound to express, and humanity has always sought ways to grapple with these elusive, ineffable thoughts. Whether through religion, philosophy or art, we have spent sleepless nights labouring over the questions we cannot quite articulate, the chains of reasoning we cannot quite lay out systematically, the conclusions which evade us as fog resists our grasp. Wittgenstein (in Sontag 1969: XII) says that ‘everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said at all can be said clearly. But not everything that can be thought can be said.’

And so, argues Susan Sontag (1969: XIII), ‘the artist issues his own call for a revision of language.’ The artist invites—‘administers,’ even—silence. The artist acts in the face of ‘the habits of lifeless, static verbalisation, presenting models of “sensual speech”.’ So much is said, and yet so little gained by this cacophony. And so much more is lost: for all our eloquence, our senses are blunted. With painful accuracy, Sontag (1969: XIII) writes: ‘We lack words, and we have too many of them.’ Words fail to get at what we really want to illuminate: they prove themselves crude, but in their desperately mounting explanations and arguments they bathe us in an unbearable busyness, ‘inviting a hyperactivity of consciousness … which actively deadens the mind and blunts the senses.’

Birnen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Birnen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The artist, unsurprisingly, cowers from this chatter. The serious artist, Sontag (1969: II) suggests, ‘is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate.’ The artist, living more fully in his body, thinking in sensory experiences more than in verbal ideas, is not retreating solely to contemplate, nor to ready himself to explain himself. He really stands at the edge of the abyss, desperate to plunge himself into silence. ‘For, to be a victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a further sense, superior to everyone else. It suggests that the artist has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, as well as that he possesses stronger nerves and higher standards of excellence.’


Yet silence need not consume us completely. According to Sontag (1969: XV), Rilke considers it enough ‘to cut back drastically the scope and use of language.’ Similarly, she (1969: XIII) describes Mallarmé’s intention to use words—poetry—‘to clean up our word-clogged reality—by creating silences around things.’ Silence both implies and demands its opposite, and that calls on the artist to produce something dialectical: to participate in a dialogue, even if his role is to punctuate that dialogue with silences.

silence speech silence


For what precedes words, and what follows them, but silence? Sontag (1969: XIII) explains, ‘Silence, then, is both the precondition of speech, and the result or aim of properly directed speech.’ The artist sandwiches speech with his wordless meditations, guiding avid speakers through quiet milieux. ‘The efficacious artwork leaves silence in its wake,’ just as Wittgenstein considered his Tractatus a ladder to be climbed and cast aside with the attainment of understanding; just as he abandoned philosophy after producing this work and turned to humble menial labour in Vienna. The yawning silence that Wittgenstein left behind him was not a disavowal of everything he had said; rather, his work had been a sort of deliverance (Sontag 1969: II). The artist does not search for his voice, his message, his marketable style: he seeks closure, the stillness of silence, and his work is the only means he has to reach this delicious promised land.


In smaller doses, silence provides some relief from the continuous barrage of speech. It makes room for thought—for its prolongation, extension; for exploring the hidden alleys and backstreets of thought that we’d otherwise avoid. Because, ‘notably, speech closes off thought’ (Sontag, 1969: XIII). But used deliberately in speech, silence brings gravity and solemnity to words. It slows their burbling pace and lends dignity to them: ‘when punctuated by long silences, words weigh more; they become almost palpable.’ And we ourselves become more palpable to ourselves, we become more aware of our bodies: ‘when one talks less, one starts feeling more fully one’s physical presence in a given space.’

Art—painting, perhaps literature, poetry, music, at the very least—takes up the lofty aims of philosophy and religion to clear our heads, to touch something difficult to reach, to slow the rush of businesslike verbal exchange. For even ‘language can be employed to check language, to express muteness’ (Sontag 1969: XIII). But my beloved painting and drawing stand in a firmly wordless domain, resisting thorough explanation and description, demanding but to be seen, tugging at the senses. And they remain painfully, infuriatingly, resolutely silent in the face of words, warring against words in their reclamation of the body, of the senses. Sontag’s (1969: XIII) rallying cry defends this retreat: ‘Art must mount a full-scale attack on language itself, by means of language and its surrogates, on behalf of the standard of silence.’

For Ryan.

Kürbisse © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Kürbisse © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Sontag, Susan. 1969. ‘The aesthetics of silence.’ In Styles of radical will.