Lately I have found it increasingly difficult to communicate my ideas in the studio verbally. This isn’t just a problem with my friends and family but with other painters as well. This would not be difficult if these ideas did not inspire a need to be voiced with the same intensity that my more juvenile revelations did. The likelihood of miscommunication and alienation seems to be increasing.
This is particularly the case regarding the subject of composition, which I believe is rarely dealt with holistically, that is to say in a fashion that treats perception, abstraction, and conceptualization as a continuum as opposed to separated genres as it is so often taught. This fragmentation of our understanding is rooted in a pervasive mind-body dualism which plagues our culture, painting being of the less dire victims. But that is a conversation for another day.
The desperation to articulate my ideas did not become evident to me until I saw them finally reflected outside of myself. After one of my last shifts at Plant Zero Cafe I stumbled across a book on Cezanne. In it I found a passage that deeply moved me, that so articulated how I have come to understand my craft. Cezanne states:
To look upon nature is to discern the character of one’s model. Painting does not mean slavishly copying the object: it means perceiving harmony amongst numerous relationships and transposing them into a system of one’s own by developing them according to a new, original logic.
If you are a painter and do not understand the above statement, study composition, especially the historical modes of organizing an image, meditate on their relationship to perception, and the ways in which they act as a metaphor, and with practice, it will become clear.
Although historical modes of composing are a major part of the curriculum I teach at Virginia State University the precise ways in which perception, abstraction, and concept overlay and work to create a whole composition is elusive to my students. Their education seems fragmented even when the dots are explicitly connected for them. I realize now that some relationships, some understandings, come with hard earned experience. They have to make the journey, all I can do is provide a map.
So teaching fails to relieve me of my inability to communicate. Fortunately if I can not speak directly to the living, I have access to the letters of the dead.
Christine Lockerby, my brilliant girlfriend, bought me a copy of Cezanne A Life by Alex Danchev for Christmas. After stumbling across the above passage I eagerly dug into this book in search of new insights and reflections. One quote that particularly resonated with me was from Pissaro:
When I start a painting, the first thing I strive to catch is its harmonic form. Between this sky and this ground and this water there is necessarily a link. It can only be a set of harmonies, and that is the ultimate test of painting…. The big problem to solve is to bring everything, even the smallest details of the painting, to an integral whole, this is to say harmony.”
Yes! Harmonic form! Something that realist like myself seldom concern themselves with when striving to make a thing look like the thing! Painting, by its limited nature, is never a copy of nature, but a transposition of relationships, and like a melody being transposed to a new key , our perceptions of the relationships between various wavelengths of light can be subject to multitudes of transpositions on the picture plane. And how often do painters neglect the harmonic possibilities available to them, relying on habitual prescribed palettes and modes with no concern for the vocabulary and metaphors inherent in the visual language. I blame this in part to the hard division drawn between realism and abstraction, leaving many realist who think they are “redeeming” art pathetically incapable of comprehending the very act of painting. They lack a broad scope, a vision, satisfying their egos because “this looks just like the thing I was looking at” as if there is some inherent virtue to mimicry. This is not to diminish the importance of perceptual study, it is paramount, but not an end in itself. When treated as an end, the art of painting is reduced to a parlour trick.
It is not mimicry that ultimately counts but experience. The experience of engaging the world, seeking out relationships for one’s self, and the intrinsic value of a work of art as it is experienced.
This sentiment is well articulated in the following quote from Cezanne:
The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read. However, we should not be content with memorizing the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors. We have seen a dictionary, as Delacroix used to say, where we will find all the words. Let us go out. Let us study nature in all its beauty, let us try to grasp its spirit, let us seek to express ourselves according to our individual temperament. Besides, time and reflection modify our vision, little by little, and finally understanding comes.”
Yes! Solitude! More solitude! The absence of which is the thorn in my side when trying to educate young artists who struggle to distinguish the carefully cultivated experience of popular media from the wild wilderness of individual human experience.
“No you can not just copy an image you found on google, go out and seek your own subject matter.”
Their wells are shallow, but they are young, and too their credit are often in search of their own humanity. The very act of which seems to spit in the face of the status quo. As Cezanne said regarding Pissaro:
“Study modifies our vision to such an extent that the humble and colossal Pissarro find his anarchist theories substantiated”
What I seek, in an age of rigid identity politics and methodological stances, is transgressive. If linear perspective was a means of obliterating the 4th wall between the tangible and the allegorical, and tenebrism the light of God illuminating a dark world, and neo-classicism the contemplation of ideals, and impressionism the fleeting glimpses of a new fast moving industrialized world, and cubism the admission of doubt about the objective self, then please lets take a moment to ask ourselves what is the metaphor of cutting and pasting? Seriously, take a moment to reflect not just on the subject of our images but the content that arises through the means by which they are created. If to be an artist is to simply appropriate previously digested images with prescribed social meanings, where is their room for the inner self?
Where do we meet? Will I find you tending to the media, or in the wilderness of your being?
Do you follow me? If you don’t, then no worries. If I sound a bit mad I promise I am impassioned but my wits are with me. The self is a vast place.
I am comforted by these words by Rilke, words I have quoted before, and I am sure will again:
“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend. Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust…. and don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”