Studio notes on sonnet 83, plus some thoughts on “distributed artistry” [March 31 — April 8]

Lena Levin. Sonnet 83 (The barren tender of a poet’s debt). April 2016.

I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set;
I found, or thought I found, you did exceed
The barren tender of a poet’s debt:

And therefore have I slept in your report,
That you yourself, being extant, well might show
How far a modern quill doth come too short,
Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow.

This silence for my sin you did impute,
Which shall be most my glory being dumb;
For I impair not beauty being mute,
When others would give life, and bring a tomb.

There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise.

This is one of the sonnets that have a special significance in the context of the “Sonnets in colour” project, because it equates sonnets with paintings. Its theme is an interruption in the flow of sonnets — silence. It glorifies the poet’s silence in the face of life and beauty — this silence might seem like a sin, but it shall be most my gloryfor I impair no beauty, being mute.

And when the poet is silent, the painter stops painting.

I have already grown accustomed to my life mirroring the events and experiences of the sonnets — so I wasn’t surprised that this painting was preceded by a long interruption in the flow of sonnet paintings (it was not even a full-blown “artist’s block”; just a conspiracy of life events).

A poet questioning the role of poetry. The theme of immortality through art, so fundamental to the sequence, is reversed here: far from bestowing immortality, it brings a tomb. One might read this, superficially, as a condemnation of another poet — a rival. But at a deeper level, it is about poetry in general, perhaps about art in general. No wonder, then, that my encounter with this sonnet branched into a series of essays questioning the role of painting (on my “Art of seeing” blog).

Shakespeare’s take on the role of art — the need for art — seems at first to be radically alien to our age: it’s neither about the artist’s “inner need” to create, nor about the audience’s need to be touched by art. Instead, it questions whether it is a need for the “subject matter” — the thing to be represented and expressed (in verse or in colour). Seemingly, he talks only about his particular subject matter — the addressee of his sonnets — but there is this more general question behind the appearance: does life need to be the subject matter of art

Living through this question — as I had to in order to paint this sonnet — somehow lead me to a new way of seeing this strange quality of the modern world, which often seems to have more poets than readers and more painters than viewers of paintings. We are accustomed to another state of affairs: a few artists — authors, painters, composers — and a multitude of their audience. And now, we seem to live in a different world entirely, in a world with a multitude of speakers and not a lot of listeners. In a sense, this quality brings the condition of the modern artist closer to the condition of a Renaissance sonneteer: after all, these sonnets were not intended for publication when they were written; they were not for public. Even though Shakespeare did know that the sonnets will be read so long as men can breath and eyes can see, yet originally, this was purely an act of interaction between the poet and his subject matter, who was also his Muse.   

And this seems radically different from how the role of art is generally envisioned. Wassily Kandinsky writes in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”:

“The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forwards and upwards. This movement is the movement of experience. It may take different forms, but it holds at bottom to the same inner thought and purpose.

Veiled in obscurity are the causes of this need to move ever upwards and forwards, by sweat of the brow, through sufferings and fears. When one stage has been accomplished, and many evil stones cleared from the road, some unseen and wicked hand scatters new obstacles in the way, so that the path often seems blocked and totally obliterated. But there never fails to come to the rescue some human being, like ourselves in everything except that he has in him a secret power of vision. He sees and points the way. The power to do this he would sometimes fain lay aside, for it is a bitter cross to bear. But he cannot do so.”

The role of an artist, then, is to see and to point the way of spiritual progress; the intended addressee of this act of communication is not its subject matter, but the whole of the humankind; and the artist does so even if the humankind doesn’t seem to look (or listen).

In Kandinsky’s view of the world the artist is, of course, a lonely genius; someone quite unique, one in a multitude. But what we see now is that more and more people making art in spite of unwelcoming circumstances. Can it be that the artist’s “inner need”, which was once the fate of a few, is now felt by many? Can this be a manifestation of the spiritual evolution of human consciousness — the same evolution Kandinsky talks about? Or, in more down-to-earth terms, the humanity’s movement up the Maslow hierarchy, towards the need for self-actualisation?

Nowadays, the common name for this desire to make art seems to be “self-expression”. And, to be frank, if one’s goal is to “express one’s self”, then no wonder nobody is willing to listen — everyone is predictably interested in one’s own self, not in other selves. But I believe “self-expression” is a remarkably misleading term. The artist’s inner need is, in a sense, impersonal: it’s not the need of an artist’s self; it’s something larger, more universal, wanting to be expressed. Can it be that it’s indeed life wanting — needing — to be expressed through art? Can it be that what our age has to express can only be expressed through this distributed artistry, not through lonely geniuses?

I have no answers to these questions, but I needed to write down these “mentations”, as raw as they were invoked by the process of painting this sonnet. It had to be a painting about not-painting, about a breakdown of painting in the face of life and beauty, a painting questioning its own right to exist. This meant, formally, a breakdown of picture plane: painting the illusion of “holes” in the picture plane, as though something were visible through it, rather than on it.

I have always felt some sort of tension about the modern painting’s “law” insisting that a picture plane must never be “broken”; I even remember being criticised for violating this law as a child. This memory has always stayed with me as a potential point of entry into something yet unclear, not quite understood — but wanting to be understood. A vague feeling that there is a meaning in breaking the picture plane, but without the slightest idea of what this meaning might be. This is the meaning I found in this sonnet: the tension between painting and non-painting, between poetry and silence.    

There are three openings, three “holes” in the picture plane. I wanted the world revealing itself beyond these openings to be brighter, more full of light and life and beauty, than the “flat” areas of the picture. There is not much of “representation” going on in this painting — it works mostly through geometry of colour — but there is a hint at a juxtaposition of sun “behind” the picture plane and sunflowers on the picture plane.

The painting is really just a fragment of the overall composition of sixteen sonnets about Poet and Poetry, Poet and Muse. It is in this context that it ought to be seen (and, quite possibly, reworked later on, when all its sister paintings are ready and assembled).

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