Disarmed

Fleisch / Meat (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Fleisch / Meat (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Reading Deleuze is a somewhat disorienting undertaking, but not without its rewards. The cascade of words, the veritable excess of words that skirt around the ideas, approaching them from all sides, unsystematic, rhythmic, and hypnotic, seduce us like poetry. One can easily be swept along by the words, so it takes extra concentration to seize hold of the ideas and trace them through the burbling writing. We are not greeted with signposts, but we trustingly hold a thread and allow ourselves to be pulled along.

It is the jolt that his writing gives us that is electrifying and spurs us into activity. The disorienting metaphors short circuit our thinking and force us to question concepts that have become second nature. We inevitably become habituated and even stuck in our patterns of thought and behaviour; Deleuze offers us an escape. What at first seems outlandish is maybe the only thing strong enough to break our habits—habits in both thought and practice.

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For his book on Bacon is fascinating to me as a painter, not only as a philosopher. It is not only in intellectual discussions that figure and ground have become comfortable concepts; whatever artists call them, if they use words at all, there is much physical evidence that many painters work with such a binary division in mind. It is the kind of thinking encouraged by art history, that of treating figures as if they were stickers that could be lifted and repositioned at will, removable symbols. There are painters who indeed paint in this way: treating the edge of a figure with a biting crispness that severs the two zones with clumsy cruelty. Such paintings haplessly proffer us a paper cut-out against a disconnected stage. In such paintings the edge is a cliff, wrenching an eternity between subject and setting, and betraying the conceptual simplicity of the artist. But there are other painters who recognise the crucial interplay between figure and ground, and who couldn’t conceive of divorcing the two. These painters do not simply fill in the holes around the figure, but work each shape into the other, find two-dimensional rhythms through the image that traverse space in three-dimensionally impossible ways, notice and celebrate fortuitous kisses between distant but aligned objects, and think about the asymptotic turning away of form and the subsequent expanse of flesh to be treated at this intersection, despite its retreat from our line of sight. These painters know that ‘something happens in both directions’ (Deleuze, 2003: 12).

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But Deleuze (2003: 6) attempts to break our brains with his deliberations on Bacon’s ‘three fundamental elements of painting’: the material structure, the round contour and the raised image. From the start, he catches us off-guard with unfamiliar terms that we have to chew over a bit, grasp more deliberately, rather than permitting us to feel we are entering the discussion with our concepts firmly in place. Deleuze deliberately disarms us, but this is part of the fun, because as philosophers we know there are not enough words to name our ideas, and as painters we hardly care to give them names, as long as we can form them with our hands. So we follow him trustingly to see where these new terms will take us, what new aspects they will bring to our attention.

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Firstly, a new name for the ground, the ‘material structure,’ shakes us out of our habit of thinking of a passive, receding substrate waiting to be animated by the ‘real’ content of the picture. It grants comparable status to the bits around the figure. The concepts of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ remain faithful to the illusion of space, which urges us to see some things set behind others; ‘material structure’ against ‘raised image’ suggests a more immediate visual interaction. We are urged to notice that the material structure coils around the raised image, seeping into its crevices and constricting the image with a muscular strength of its own.

And the plot thickens: for by naming the intersection between them we draw attention to its significance, and grant this feverish zone a physical presence too. But Deleuze (2003: 12) has more to derail our predictable thought patterns: he insistently describes the contour as a place. Habitually, we would consider the ground to be the setting; Deleuze perplexingly transfers this status to the contour. But if we humour him and deliberate on it a while, a new thought takes shape—that there is something powerful in conceiving of the contour as the site of the action. For while it is not the literal setting in which the subjects of the picture act, it is undeniably the physical territory where image and material mingle, vie for predominance, press upon each other with such force that we must admit that this is where the action indeed takes place, at the quivering border of two shapes, where neither is considered positive or negative but both brandish equal power.

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Indeed, Deleuze challenges our worn understanding of ‘figure,’ appropriating Lyotard’s distinction between ‘figurative’ and ‘figural,’ and reserving the capitalised ‘Figure’ for the subject. The figurative comes to stand for representation—which Deleuze (2003: 2) lightly defines as any time a relationship between picture and object is implied. The but the Figure need not always be representational, and to avoid the figurative or representational is not necessarily to turn to the abstract. Deleuze (2003: 8) argues that there is another way to salvage the Figure, to make it work in other less literal, less narrative ways, without dissolving into the drifting Figureless mists of pure abstraction. This is the way of the ‘figural,’ a twist on familiar vocabulary that tries to carve out a different painterly intent. The figural is about ‘extraction’ and ‘isolation,’ and Deleuze (2003: 2; 15) batters us with imagery of escape through bodily orifices, through the bursting membrane of the contour, through screams, through ‘mouths’ on eyes and lungs. The Figure must, demands Deleuze (2003: 8) be extracted from our ordinary and overused figurative approach to painting, and the visual means by which this is done plays on these squeezing and heaving forces.

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All this metaphor can send one in circles, but perhaps Deleuze pushes us to circle around the idea because of it’s very unfamiliarity. He stalls us a moment. If we momentarily let go of our representational concerns, we might ponder the middle ground a while. Is there some immovable core of this Figure that touches us more directly than its unaltered exterior? Is there something about the insides of this Figure that should pervade its exterior, remould it, alter the way we choose to apply paint? Many of us already ask ourselves such questions in some manner, whether we trouble ourselves with such intentionally picky language or not. We might still be struck by how much further this thought can take us, once put into words.

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The paint can certainly touch us more directly—Bacon (in Deleuze, 2003: 35) ponders the way it sometimes reaches us by long and slow means through the brain, and other times makes direct contact with the nervous system. Deleuze’s preoccupation with meat cuts to the heart of this matter. Faithful representation results in satisfying deception; other visual mutations prompt entirely other trains of thought that bring us to the core of the Figure with startling immediacy, or jolt us back into our bodies with an immediate sensory experience. Our skins keep us together, stitched up, polished and presentable, though we know we are made of flesh. But to dwell on our meaty composition is something subterranean and sensual, it is an unusual meditation on our physicality.

And paint, in its materiality, seems so well suited to such fleshy contemplation. Deleuze (2003: 22; 23) enters with his high-sounding words—musing on the ‘objective zone of indiscernibility,’ the ‘common zone of man and the beast’ that meat insinuates. Meat, more immediate than flesh, less individual, more raw and yet dripping with a quickly-fading life, is indeed a more urgent, primal way of categorising our substance. It brings us right back to our earthy origins, out of our skins that rendered us fit for society, to a brutish, sub-intellectual level of our existence. As the painter dwells on meat rather than flesh, she touches a nerve, she penetrates us so swiftly that we are enthralled before we have had time to think.

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Anatomical studies at the Josephinum, Vienna

Meat is not supposed to be disgusting, however. Primitive and physical, yes, but not brutal. Deleuze (2003: 39) discovers no emotion in Bacon, only sensation. If anything, he finds a peculiar reverence for the essence of a being. An artist—such a physical creature—demonstrates her profound respect for the physical and the earthy in her unflinching confrontation with meat. Perhaps in her incisiveness she cuts us to the marrow—but she ‘goes to the butcher’s shop as if it were a church’ (Deleuze, 2003: 24).

The verbal cycles that Deleuze wrings us through slowly spin an ever thicker web of ideas that challenge the conceptual laziness we so easily lapse into. Perhaps it is nothing but games, but a patient thinker and an investigative painter might yet find such absurdity the very chute through which she can escape ingrained modes of thinking and working.

Copy after Poussin

Copy after Poussin

 

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

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Reverie

Baden oil sketch © Samantha Groenestyn

Baden (oil sketch) © Samantha Groenestyn

Going to the gallery without headphones is a sure way to subject yourself to the painful sound of people trying to demonstrate their cleverness about art history to their miserable companions. Wrenched from your dreamy pictorial-musical reverie, you will very quickly become aware that people seem to spend very little time contemplating paintings and much more time reciting history. What, then, is one to do at a gallery, if not to recall historical facts? How does one make sense of paintings—those vast, still frames; flat surfaces invoking every conceivable illusion in order to masquerade as three-dimensional, as some slice of reality? On our way to answering these questions, we might find some kinship between painting and poetry.

Poetry: that mysterious web of words. It takes our ordinary language and heightens it; it snatches away our very means of communication and taunts us to work harder to understand. How does one edge closer to poetry? A thick anthology full of lofty words is every bit as daunting as a day ticket to a high-ceilinged Gemäldegalerie. These are slow arts, meditative arts, not like going to the cinema. By repeated and unhurried acquaintance, we grow to love paintings as we grow to love poems.

Conrad

Conrad

Perhaps, then, there is something to be learned from poetry lovers about the nature of loving paintings. The ever discerning Conrad recently loaned me a book by Edward Hirsch, How to read a poem and fall in love with poetry. Hirsch makes the interesting assertion that poem and reader operate in a sort of circuit: ‘Reading poetry is for me an act of the most immense intimacy, of intimate immensity. I am shocked by what I see in the poem but also by what the poem finds in me’ (1999: 8). This strongly echoes my experience of gazing at paintings. A painting evokes many thoughts and moods, many of them irrelevantly personal, but connected nonetheless to our experience of looking at that particular painting. Having our thoughts gently guided by a visual cue, we are not simply trying to understand a picture, but are in turn probed by it.

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The looking, like the reading, is not passive. Our active immersion unearths little treasures in the painting or the poem, and perhaps in ourselves. There is more in a painting than we can actively take in all at once, and so our eyes wander along investigative trails. Hirsch (1999: 8) talks of being coaxed and quieted by the steady stream of words: ‘The words move ahead of the thought in poetry. The imagination loves reverie, the daydreaming capacity of the mind set in motion by words, by images.’ In this light, it makes little sense to speak of understanding a painting. Its elements run ahead of us, being present all at once, all vying for our attention. The whole makes one impression, the parts make others, the rhythms that connect them urge our eyes onwards. As we begin chasing brushstrokes through the picture, we begin to infuse them with our own runaway thoughts.

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The painting, a silent and motionless panel on the wall, begs to be inhabited: ‘The work of art … is mute and plaintive in its calling out its need for renewal. It needs a reader to possess it, to be possessed by it. Its very life depends on it’ (1999: 8). The painter, like the poet, ‘issues a concealed invitation through metaphor which the listener makes a special effort to accept and interpret’ (1999: 15), though our imagery, perhaps to our advantage, is visible. Indeed, our visual medium is so powerful that ‘unlike the poet, [Leonardo da Vinci] writes, the painter can so subdue the minds of men that they will fall in love with a painting that does not represent a real woman’ (Gombrich, 1959: 82). (True story, insists da Vinci.)

Conrad

Conrad

The spell is not weakened for being more literal. Imagery drawn from life is nonetheless different from life, and deliberately composed by the painter. Each representation is infused with the vision and the emotions of the painter. Colours and forms are manipulated and compelled to create a mood. What seems literal for being so easily read by the eye is a carefully contrived artifice, and herein lies the enchantment. Representational painting seductively augments reality without straying too far from it—it is this delicately balanced illusion which stirs our imagination. Painting borrows from life, but reworks life into dreamy other worlds. Poetry is a fine example, made of nothing but words, but infusing them with new power: ‘Poetry charts the changes in language, but it never merely reproduces or recapitulates what it finds. The lyric poem defamiliarises words, it wrenches them from familiar or habitual contexts, it puts a spell on them’ (Hirsch, 1999: 12).

Baden

As Gombrich (1996: 158) argues, ‘ordinary language’—which ‘develops as a social tool to communicate ordinary experiences … fails notoriously when we want to convey the elusive states of subjective reactions and automatic responses.’ He (1996: 159) cites Plato’s discomfort with the capacity of art to reach us outside the limits of reason, and by deceptive means at that: ‘To him illusion was tantamount to delusion. He saw art in terms of a drug that enslaved the mind by numbing our critical sense.’ Painting, like poetry, is beyond ordinary language, and even beyond ordinary vision. It might mimic life, but remains ever defiant, reworking life into something less enslaved to natural laws.

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Being static, a painting must find other ways to move and thus to move us. While a poem can be read aloud, can merge with our breath, pulse to our heartbeat, and so become animate by borrowing our own bodies, a painting yet hangs on the wall. It is for this reason that drawing—copying in the gallery, or drawing from life—can be a more alert and engaged way of looking. But even if we only trace it with our eyes, a painting can propel our gaze by a purely visual rhythm. Arcs through limbs and twists of drapery, undulating counter-rhythms down the sinuous length of a figure, the ebbing and flowing of fullness of nebulous masses—these rhythms, like those to be met in poetry, create ‘a pattern of yearning and expectation, of recurrence and difference. … [Rhythm] takes us into ourselves; it takes us out of ourselves’ (Hirsch, 1999: 21).

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Looking at paintings demands time: quiet, thoughtful time, searching for a way in, being seduced by the rhythms, by the colours. One doesn’t march up to a picture, extract information and walk away. And paintings lure us back, and ‘the repetitions loosen the intellect for reverie’ (1999: 22). Our love grows with familiarity, as though these paintings were poems we could recite, owned deep within our bodies, known by heart. The gallery might become a portal to ‘another plane of time, outside of time;’ it might, as poetry does for Hirsch (1999: 8,9), ‘give me access to my own interior realms.’ A visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum might resemble one to T. S. Eliot’s (1963: 52) Hyacinth garden:

‘—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Öd’ und leer das Meer.’

Baden

 

Eliot, T. S. 1963. Selected poems. Faber: London.

Hirsch, Edward. 1999. How to read a poem: and fall in love with poetry. Harvest: San Diego.

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.

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

 

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