Sonnet 90: Give not a windy night a rainy morrow (August 18-24, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 90: Give not a windy night a rainy morrow. 20″×20″. 2016.

Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now;
Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:
Ah! do not, when my heart hath ‘scaped this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquered woe;
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purposed overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come: so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune’s might;
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compared with loss of thee, will not seem so.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 90

Between the summer travels, and the marathon of re-designing the “Art of seeing” site, I completely dropped the ball on journaling — even though the process of studying and painting the sonnets managed to keep up its biweekly rhythm.

There is hardly a single line on this sonnet in my notes, and — even though it has only been a month — I don’t really remember anymore how exactly this image of sunflowers, squashed between the darkness and the shattered space, emerged from the sonnet.

An unexamined life isn’t worth living,” Socrates reportedly said, but at least I have a painting to show for this unexamined and unrecorded chunk of my life. That’s a consolation.

Since the motto of this studio journal is rawness, I decided not to try and revive these memories to make up a story, but just leave this here, as a note to self (and to you, since you are here reading it): never to neglect journaling again. The fabric of life can dissolve from memory so incredibly fast, and so completely below the threshold of consciousness.

One thing I remember though: that this image somehow rhymed with the sunflowers I painted for Sonnet 18, the very beginning of this love story which has by now completely run its course.  

Lena Levin. Sonnet 18: Thy eternal summer. 2012
Lena Levin. Sonnet 18: Thy eternal summer. 2012 (click to see a larger image and to read the sonnet).


Painting sonnet 89 (July 21 — August 4, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 89: Say thou didst forsake me for some fault. 20″×20″. 2016.

Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault,
And I will comment upon that offence:
Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt,
Against thy reasons making no defence.
Thou canst not, love, disgrace me half so ill,
To set a form upon desired change,
As I’ll myself disgrace; knowing thy will,
I will acquaintance strangle, and look strange;
Be absent from thy walks; and in my tongue
Thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell,
Lest I, too much profane, should do it wrong,
And haply of our old acquaintance tell.
For thee, against my self I’ll vow debate,
For I must ne’er love him whom thou dost hate.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 89

July 21, 2016

When would you be more willing to disgrace yourself than to blame someone you love?

My first association was a conversation with a friend several months back. He talked about his experience of not being loved by God: that he valued, even cherished, that experience, and did not want to let it go. Even leaving aside this tiny detail that I don’t really know what he meant by “God”, I don’t think I know this experience either, but it must be close to what this sonnet speaks about. My guess is, if you feel unloved by God, you assume that this is because you are unloveable, not because God is to blame.

The lack of love is not the same as an absolute absence, absolute emptiness.

I zoomed in on my childhood feeling of not being good enough to be loved by my parents, trying to witness it without allowing myself to drown in the sorrow of it. The core of this experience is my mother’s “silent treatment”, which felt like complete and absolute abandonment, like the end of the world. From this place, I feel the first word of the sonnet, Say, as a kind of prayer, a desperate plea: say at least something, acknowledge my existence, let me know thy will. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s absence. It’s silence.

First hints of mental imagery. Grey clouds covering the sun completely. The image of black sun. The absence of red is not green: it is red being split into violets and oranges. Hints of orange behind violet-grey clouds? A movement of violet clouds across the picture plane, from its left edge to the right. A movement that doesn’t engage the viewer; it doesn’t even notice the viewer. I remembered Van Gogh’s clouds, but they are different. Van Gogh’s desperation is not emptiness; it’s a movement from which you are absent.

Lena Levin. Colour study for sonnet 89
Lena Levin. Colour study for sonnet 89

I did a small colour study, to explore this idea of movement, and the splitting of red into violet/magenta and orange/lemony yellow, surrounded by black and white (and possibly grey). How different silence can be, I thought — love can be silent, as in “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, and then there is this silence which is the complete absence of love. This is the silence the speaker of the sonnet tries to break.

The image of grey-violet clouds flying from one side of the picture plane to the other, without any interaction with the viewer. Closed, horizontal; threatening. Splashes of black, orange, and white in the background. Interplay of flat areas and Van Gogh-like movement and thickness.

July 26, 2016
Lena Levin. Still life with onions (study for sonnet 89).
Lena Levin. Still life with onions (study for sonnet 89).

I still don’t see the sonnet, although I suspect it must be abstract, just like the previous one. One thing I see, though, is the patches of clear blue in a curve across the picture plane. The heart of the sonnet is the slow wave of longing beginning with And in my tongue // thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell. The sonnet begins with an appeal to say something and ends with a vow split between silence and “debate”: the speaker doesn’t know whether it’s better to remain silent or to debate against oneself.

I decided to rework an earlier still life with onions today, treating it as a study for the sonnet, concentrating on its movement, its mental gestures.

July 29, 2016

In its quest for the vision of this sonnet, my imagination vacillates somewhere between black stars against lemony yellow sky, and dark-violet thunderclouds with warm yellow and orange barely visible behind. And there are always these patches of bright blue, arranged in a kind of curve (maybe I will need a bright blue ground for this painting?). The very idea of bright blue ground scares me, so I should probably go ahead with it.

In the poem, there is this repeated mismatch between rhythmic breaks (between quatrains and lines) and semantic breaks (between sentences and lines of thought). I keep returning to this tender, slow movement around your sweet beloved name: this wave of longing is the why and wherefore of the sonnet.

Van Gogh’s starry night brings together the incompatible — this huge sky, and the town underneath. The key to this painting is to combine the black against lemony yellow with the violet covering hints of orange.

Lena Levin. Still life with a black sun (study for sonnet 89).
Lena Levin. Still life with a black sun (study for sonnet 89).

Another attempt to study the sonnet through painting, returning to a still life with pears and apples to introduce a diagonal downwards movement of blue and a “black sun” (reversing Van Gogh’s “Starry night”). I know there must be this black sun in lemon-y skies in the upper part of the painting, and a movement of violets covering glimpses of orange in the lower part, and they must be separated by a powerful movement of blue across the picture plane.

August 1-4, 2016
Michail Vrubel. Demon seated. 1890.
Michail Vrubel. Demon seated. 1890.

I cannot believe I had converged on the Demon motive for this painting last week in meditation, and then completely forgot it. I knew there was something missing all through weekend, but it took a bit of more contemplation in the night to recall this vision. So now I know the motive, the structure, and the colour. And I know I have to start with bright and deep blues.

The core insight from the first painting painting session was that the “demon” and the “black sun” is one and the same thing. I also realised that Demon is not human. The human shape in Vrubel’s painting is just him conforming to the conventions of the time, and the strange outbursts of colour around the Demon ought to actually be him. As it is, his inner turmoil, and his inner dark light, are moved outside the figure to be visible. In my study — in this sonnet painting — it must all be within.

Set me light: painting sonnet eighty eight (July 5 — July 20, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 88 (Set me light). 20″×20″. 2016.

When thou shalt be disposed to set me light,
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side, against myself I’ll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn.

With mine own weakness being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults concealed, wherein I am attainted;
That thou in losing me shalt win much glory:

And I by this will be a gainer too;
For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to myself I do,
Doing thee vantage, double-vantage me.

Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
That for thy right, myself will bear all wrong.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 88

Reading through my notes for this sonnet, I see that my idea (hope, really) that the previous subsequence, The Paradox of Muse, was the deepest, lowest, darkest part of this journey was both true and false. I am moving faster, that’s true. And it is getting lighter (as in “more light”) — that is true as well. This tells that it may, indeed, be the beginning of the upward leg of this path. But it is by no means easier. It is steep, and dark, and fuzzy, and I don’t know what I am doing most of the time. And this the first time that the process of painting a sonnet had such noticeable effects on my physical body.

2016-07-22 14.59.21Here is this sonnet’s initial colour chart. The colour harmony, it seems, has mostly clarified itself from the very beginning: the dominance of red/pinks, underlined by muted bluish greens.

At that point, I thought the painting was going to be a landscape, a Cezannesque pre-cubist landscape. I seemed to see something like a mountain, or a roof, and some back and forth movement of colour: greenish patches receding, and reds/pinks popping forward. But I didn’t see any connection: why should it be a landscape? No idea.

Set me light rang like the key phrase to unlocking this sonnet. It seems to strike such a different emotional chord, out of tune with the rest of the poem.

The structure, the inner geometry of the painting emerged later on, as I was lying awake at night: it was basically the same as in the final painting, only without the foreground bushes. When I saw this structure, there was this sensation of aha-moment, a moment of recognition, but still no conscious understanding of what this structure has to do with the sonnet.

Later, in the morning, I recognised the connection to the spatial tension in the imagery the sonnet: my side versus thy side. It’s a vision of separation, both strengthened and mediated by the longing to be on the other side from self.

The sonnet tries to present one’s own problem — the anticipation of being abandoned, set light — as the other’s problem. The speaker wants to believe that the forsworn lover needs some rationalisation for the breakup, and that he would seek this justification in questioning the speaker’s merit. This gives the speaker a chance to still be “together” with the lover, on his side — because who is better placed to provide such justification than he, who really knows his weakness, and faults concealed? (This sentence about story of faults concealed, interrupted by the line break, somehow evokes Horatio’s speech in the last scene of “Hamlet”: And let me speak to the yet unknowing world //  How these things came about.)

At first sight, this whole conceptual structure seems contrived and disingenuous: who would really want to help the other blame oneself, and find sincere joy in it? But there is a lot of psychological truth to it, for me at least. It’s really the one being abandoned, not the one doing the abandoning, who desperately needs to rationalise what is going on — and “it’s all my fault” seems to be as good as avenue for such a rationalisation as any. At the very least, it saves one from ruining what feels like the best part of oneself, love. And it does creates this temporary illusion of ongoing unity, of being “on the same side”, even in spite of the inevitable separation.

I interpreted my purely geometrical vision as a river, or some other water surface, separating the viewer from the other side. “This side”, then, should be visible in the foreground, blocking the “entrance” to the pictorial space.

The next insight came next night (I was awake for a couple of hours once again). I realised that this sonnet painting is going to be abstract, more abstract than anything I had painted before. It was not an accident that the geometry of the composition was so clear to me, while its representational motive remained vague.

And this realisation ties in with the future of my painting practice more generally: in order to move forward, I have to engage with abstraction more directly (something I had been consciously avoiding for years). In a very experientially clear sense, this realisation does set me light.   

Next day, while walking around the nearest lake, I noticed a group of dark-green bushes leaning left under the wind. This impression is the source for the painting’s foreground: some traces of representational motive, separating the viewer from the abstraction of pictorial space. Once this element clarified itself, I was ready to start the painting. Colour — these reds and pinks which were there from the start — is the unifying force in the painting. It stands for the desperate attempt at unification in the face of separation.

The painting process was difficult and scattered, partly because of the construction work still going on outside. But I wasn’t feeling too well physically either — as though my body was trying to accommodate some changes, but could not. There was a feeling of weakness, some kind of overall weirdness, even dizziness. Whatever the cause, the whole week was filled with this strange impatient tension, the sensation of being out of place, scattered. Could it be the sonnet’s sensation?

One night — awake again — I decided to confront this feeling directly. A huge, dark sadness raised from what felt like an infinite depth. Sadness, despair. I witnessed it with no understanding where it came from. And when this wave of sadness passed, there came an enormous darkness. The void of infinite night, tempting me to fall into it. I stared at this darkness within, trying to neither flinch nor fall into it. Then there was light, and then the tension was over, replaced by the feeling of calm. And I fell asleep.

All these inner experiences come mostly in very abstract form, without “materialising” (or “visualising”) themselves — there are no concrete, specific images; just darkness, and light, and sometimes some colour.

At the deepest level, where all random particulars are removed, the sonnet is about blaming oneself for separation from one’s better self — in the hope that that this will somehow restore unity. For me, it turned out to be about the feeling of separation from being an artist, from the artist self of me. From this place, the desire to blame oneself, and with gusto too, seems more than natural — it’s almost unavoidable. This may have been the cause of this weakness, darkness, tension I had been feeling all this time.

I am not sure whether the painting is complete, but this potential incompleteness now seems to be intrinsic to the sonnet, at least in the overall context of the “letting go” sequence: this process, of letting go, is nowhere near complete here (neither is the move towards complete abstraction I have envisioned for myself).

Painting sonnet 87 (June 22 — July 7, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 87: Farewell, though art too dear for my possessing.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 87: Farewell, though art too dear for my possessing.

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate,
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me to whom thou gav’st it else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 87

The work on this sonnet translation was somewhat haphazard, with short and erratic studio sessions (and woefully irregular studio notes).

There was an excuse: the on-going construction work on our building. The building was as well as de-constructed around us and is now being put together again. This has meant a lot of deafening noise and commotion, and, quite often, construction workers’ friendly faces looking right into our windows (including bathroom windows and studio windows, both at most importune moments).

And there was what felt like a deeper reason. This sonnet begins a new sub-sequence, a new multi-sonnet composition. A “farewell” sequence, hence a series of painting united by the motive of “letting go”. Immersing myself in it sent me into a full-blown existential crisis (partly reflected in the last week’s series of essays).

It sounds irrational, but these two don’t feel completely unrelated, but rather like two manifestations of essentially the same thing. The experience of construction work on a building you live in is like a metaphor of reality crumbling around you, and then slowly repairing itself back into a semblance of stability.

I think Cat has had a similar experience.

We, at least, had had some warning, and some kind of reasonable understanding of what was happening, and why it was necessary. Her world was shaking (noisily) without any warning, without any rhyme and reason.

But she has this uncanny ability to adjust to anything the life throws her way after a minimal exposure to new experiences. And she also has me to look at with this questioning expression on her face — so I had to keep calm if only to reassure her that all is right in the world. Another metaphor, I suppose.     

All in all, it feels like a miracle that this sonnet got painted during this time at all.

June 22, 2016

There is this weakness, softness, femininity in the sonnet. The impression is mostly due to feminine rhymes, so unusual for Shakespeare, these repetitive ing endings. Visually, the verse invokes Renoir’s seascapes. The first colour associations are around light violets and deep greens, but it’s all very vague still.

June 24, 2016

A clearer vision of the future painting in meditation: a diagonally divided picture plane, with a seascape with distant land on the right (very dreamy, very sad), and a still life with bills and charters on the left.

A moment of panic: where will I find historically accurate bills and charters to paint from? I saw such documents from Shakespeare’s time in museums, but there is no chance I can get something like that into the studio.

These occasional (inner) demands for historical accuracy come, I think, from my linguistic past. A part of me wants to approach this whole project as though I were a Shakespearean scholar.

But this series is not a scholar’s inquiry into literary history, I keep reminding myself. If anything, it’s an artist’s inquiry into eternity. What is essential here is not how everything has changed, but how everything has stayed the same. The visual impressions that feed into this series can only be my own, from my life and my time. So I banished the thoughts about historical accuracy, and threw together a still life arrangement of my own random bills and envelopes, my check book, and my mother’s old wallet.

Lena Levin. Still life with a check book in progress (Study for sonnet 87)
Lena Levin. Still life with a check book in progress (Study for sonnet 87)

I keep all kinds of random finance-related oddities in this wallet (like my Italian taxpayer’s card, which I needed for about a week many years ago, so I could be paid for a couple of guest lectures). For this occasion, though, I put in a real credit card (even though the inside of the wallet is not visible at all).   

I just painted this still life today, as a preliminary study for the sonnet. While painting, I realised that the essence of this part of the painting should be in separations, divisions. The focus is on the boundaries between these objects, and the subtle shadows they throw onto one another. So how they themselves look like is of no consequence at all.

June 27, 2016

A start on painting the sonnet, focusing on the contrast between the more realistic “still life with a check book”, and the dreamier, dissolving “farewell” seascape (with some internal references to Renoir). The unformed quality of the seascape, as a translation equivalent of weak rhymes in the sonnet.

I read this sonnet as a commentary on absurdity of thinking about love in terms of business transaction, so the uncharacteristic weakness of the verse becomes an expression of inadequacy of this approach.

2016-06-27 15.13.26While the society has moved away from the finance-based concept of marriage in the meanwhile, the tendency to assign monetary value to anything and everything has only increased. This makes the motive personally relevant.

These decidedly “non-painterly” still life objects correspond to the sonnet’s decidedly unpoetic financial and legal language.   

June 28, 2016

I could only paint a little today (because of the construction work), but the painting seems to be taking shape. All in all, I see the future painting; it just has to be clarified a bit from its current state.

Shakespeare, of course, could play with weakening his verse deliberately. He could afford to. But can I afford to play with weakening my painting? Why not, after all?

June 29, 2016

What I want to emerge in this painting is the utmost absurdity of the check book, and the dazzling colour in the seascape part. Dazzling colour of separation — trembling and vibrating.

June 30, 2016

Again, a short painting session. The painting is still not quite where I want it to be. There is this vision of vibrating blues crossing the boundary between the two areas of the painting. It is in my mind, but not in the painting.

2016-07-01 14.27.43
July 6-7, 2016

I returned to the eight seventh sonnet painting, because its weaknesses and inconsistencies were bothering me. I guess I couldn’t afford this radical weakening of my painting after all.

There were few changes today, but the painting seems to have “come together” and clarify itself at last. I leave it be for now.

What it means to be an artist, or on “Uncertainty Principle” in Art

Pablo Picasso. Painter and his model. 1963.
Pablo Picasso. Painter and his model. 1963.

… all you’ve got to do is be alive, just be alive, to the very end. — Boris Pasternak

I’ve spent some time this week browsing ideas of what it means, “to be an artist”.

(Within the realm of internet, Maria Popova’s “Brain Pickings” site is a very helpful, since she reads a lot about art, and provides so many meaningful hyperlinks; an then there is the “Art Quotes” site to complement that.)

An internet search for how to be an artist is a bit like a search for how to eat well: you can find anything you like, and take your pick. There is whole range of often mutually contradictory ideas, along with scientific evidence in favour of each.

And so, an artist can be someone who does something as useless as possible, lives a life of recognition and luxury, and feels extraordinarily blissful about the whole arrangement.

Or it can be someone who bears the burden of spiritual growth of the humankind on their shoulders (all alone), leads a solitary, impoverished life, and is in agony all the time (or almost all the time).

Which one would you rather be?

Two things are clear though.

First, this feels like an important question. Lots of people — including any artist of the last century whose name you can remember, and many, many more — have been contemplating it and writing about it (historically, though, this seems to be a relatively new preoccupation).

Secondly, everyone who is interested will have to (and is free to) find their own answer, even if it’s just choosing from one of the already available options.

So what do I think, myself?    

All ideas on what it means to be an artist seem to cluster about two distinct sides of the question, which can probably be called “subjective” and “objective”.

“Subjective” is about the artist’s own experience (both of their work process, and of life in general). The keywords in this domain are “self-expression” and “being alive”. “Self-expression” stands, essentially, for the desire to do the work, as a means of self-actualisation and making one’s own life meaningful. And “being alive” is an attempt to capture the experience of intensified vitality and unity with life that emerges in the process.

But these experiences are not really limited to traditionally “artistic” pursuits, are they? They are the birthright of every human being — actually, every being, not only human; after all, my cat has as much right (and, from what I can see, as strong a desire) to feel truly alive as I do. An artist, then, is simply someone who needs to do something “artistic” to achieve these experiences.

The second intuition has to do with “objective” qualities of the work. These are hard to put into words, and one often hears nowadays that “all art is subjective”. But it is not, at least it is not supposed to be. It is supposed, in some sense, to open a pathway to Reality, to communicate what would have remained hidden or misunderstood otherwise. Kafka said that our personal existence is a keyhole through which we perceive the grandeur of life. “Self” is this keyhole, and an artist is someone who has trained the “self” to see and show more than the ordinary perception would allow. As Alexander Blok once said, to open highways to the paradise of my outlandish songs.

If one does that, one cannot help but express their self — the outlines of their personal keyhole — but that’s not the goal, that’s a limitation. This limitation is the subjective in art. And if there is nothing more in the work, then it just doesn’t have this objective quality, that inexpressible beyond-the-self essence we find in the work of a true artist. This, in any event, what the second intuition about what it means to be an artist boils down to. Let’s call an artist who can do that Artist with a capital “A”.

The problem is, of course, that it is genuinely impossible for an artist to know for certain whether their work have this quality, whether they are an Artist: they are bound to see the work through the very same keyhole. One may call it, I guess, Uncertainty Principle in Art — in the words of Boris Pasternak, “and your self will never be able to distinguish your failure from your success”.    

This “Uncertainty Principle” is, I believe, what generates the need for external validation. But this doesn’t really work either, it is never enough, and we know it: recognition (let alone material success) in one’s own lifetime is not a good sign of the work’s objective quality at all.

So what remains to an artist whose ambition is to be an Artist?

There is this Kandinsky’s idea of “inner need”, which binds the “subjective” and “objective” together. In the final analysis, the idea is to have faith that the subjective experiences that pull you to art are a sign of something beyond-the-self wanting to express itself through you. So, just do your best to keep your keyhole clean, and there is hope that this objective quality of Artistry will emerge in your work.

And there is also this idea that just being truly alive is enough. So if the subjective aspects of being an artist are there — the meaningfulness of life, the intensified vitality, doesn’t it make sense to do it even this faith happens to be a delusion? To quote Boris Pasternak again: all you’ve got to do is be alive, just be alive, to the very end.      


After the death of painting (on Malevich’s “Black square”)

It hit me ten days ago, while painting in the studio, that Kazimir Malevich’s “Black square” (1915) represents the death of painting. A huge fat full stop in its evolution.

Kazimir Malevich. Black square. 1915.
Kazimir Malevich. Black square. 1915.

I have always hated this painting. It is, of course, not unique in representing the death of painting, but it seems to do so in the purest, clearest, inevitable form. I remember a friend of mine weeping uncontrollably in front of this painting in George Pompidou Centre in Paris, as though at a funeral of someone she used to love. And my own feeling of detached alienation — in contrast to her, I didn’t want, I couldn’t let it in.

I guess I never wanted to accept that this painting, and the end it represents, are both logical and inevitable. But now there is no other way for me to go any further.

I think this change must have been brought about by reading and re-reading Gottfried Richter’s “Art and Human Consciousness”. In this book, he presents a grand story of visual art as both a manifestation and a driving force of the transformation of human inner experience of reality, from Ancient Egypt till the first part of the twentieth century.

Painting appears in this story relatively late, when it detaches itself from architecture as an independent art form. This separation itself is part of the history-long movement from huge to small, and from “outer” to “inner” experience of reality. For Richter himself, this represents a movement of the Divine from being “out there”, in the non-human cosmos, inward, into the inner world of human beings — and the crucial point in this movement is, of course, the death and resurrection of Christ. But the “hard facts” of this story are all about the human experience of reality and its visual representation in art: they don’t really depend on religious interpretation.

In painting, this movement from “outer” to “inner” shows up as the path leading from grand historical and biblical motives — through the human, earthly visual reality of portraits, landscapes and still lifes — and then, ultimately, to abstraction, as an attempt to represent feelings in a way completely independent from the outer “world of visible things” (this was Malevich’s conscious intent in his “suprematism” paintings, like “Black square”).

And it is by no means an accident that this powerful urge in visual art to withdraw completely from the visual reality happens simultaneously with Freud’s invention of the “ego”, and its ultimate world-alienation.

But a complete withdrawal from sensory reality of life is death, there is just no way around it, no other name for it. And for painting, the withdrawal from visual reality is the ultimate contradiction: after all, it cannot help but appeal to the viewer’s sense of vision, and it’s hard to do that while simultaneously rejecting one’s own sense of vision as a valid window to reality.

And so we find ourselves in the after-life of painting, which seems to go on, in spite of everything, due to our unquenchable inner need to paint.

Is it a resurrection? I don’t know.



The paradox of letting go (June 29 — July 5, 2016)

The letting go is a real death, a real dying; it costs us an enormous amount of energy, the price, as it were, which life exacts from us over and over again for being truly alive.

Brother David Steindl-Rast

June 29, 2016

Something huge — and very scary — happened while I was meditating this morning.

It began as a sensation of enlightenment, literally: a dissolution of the self into something that felt like pure light. The thought that followed was that, contrary to what I wanted to believe, my life’s purpose — the source of its meaning — is not in painting per se, but something beyond that, something different.

The thought felt like an “aha-moment”, because it clarified — in retrospect — lots of murky, ambiguous sensations and events of the last days, weeks, and maybe even months. And, at the same time, it was scary, big-time scary — because I don’t want to abandon painting. I am scared to let it go, because that’s what makes me feel alive.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 87 in-progress.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 87 in-progress.

In the studio, while painting the eighty seventh sonnet, I realised the connection. I have known for a while that this new composition, the one starting with this sonnet, is about the paradox of letting go. I had long since accepted that this series does things to me, that it is not really separate from my life — so I had a premonition that I would have to let go something huge in the process. I just didn’t think, not for a moment, that it would be painting.

July 3, 2016

I woke up in the middle of the night, and stayed awake for about two hours, meditating, doing my best to listen to what’s going on inside me.

And I understood more about this thing-beyond-painting, the glimpse of which I had in meditation a couple of days ago. It has to do with witnessing and (self)-examining the process of painting: contemplating this process “from the inside”, from within the experience, from the inner space of painting.

This brings together my two “projects”, which have been pulling me, painfully, in two different directions, “Sonnets in Colour” and “Art of Seeing”. Or so it seemed. Now, they feel rather like two pillars of the same meaning, or two sides of the same process.

This is a liberating insight. It intensifies the feeling of meaningfulness and freedom, but there is a catch.

I had to let go of the idea of “being an artist”, let go of painting. It doesn’t mean quitting painting, this letting go in the Buddhist sense: setting painting free, releasing attachment. But it was incredibly hard to do, and incredibly scary: I so don’t want to lose painting, I really need it to be alive. But I knew I had to do it, and I so I did — trying to comfort myself with the thought that you can only lose what you have never had.

July 4, 2016

The first painting session after the letting go experience the night before: I returned to the preliminary study for Sonnet 87, “Still life with check book”. I left it alone a couple of weeks ago, because it fulfilled it’s “study” purpose: I understood, or thought I understood, how I need to paint the still life part of the sonnet painting.

Why I returned to this painting?

One reason is a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the current stage of the sonnet painting itself. On the other, there seemed to be a potential in this smaller painting: it could be more than it currently was.

Lena Levin. Still life with my check book (a study for sonnet 87). 2016.

From the impressionistic study, it wanted to move towards something more “analytical”: analytical cubism, or Filonov’s “analytical realism”. There is something in painting wallets and check books as quasi-aesthetic objects — something more than I have achieved so far. And the still life setting was still there in my studio, since it played a role in the sonnet painting, too.

I approached the painting with the intention, a request to myself, to “channel” the experience of analytical cubism. In the process, it transformed into a return to the long-running motive of “colourful cubism”, the quest to reconcile these opposites. There was also a palpable influence of having spent two last weeks with Matisse’s remake of de Heem’s “A table of desserts”: the painting moved in the direction of dark versus light contrasts distributed all over the picture plane. The underlying inner experience is an experience of separation. This painting day “flattened” the pictorial space (as expected from the “cubist” approach), but also “broke” the picture plane (in defiance of cubism).

July 5, 2016

There was an Awakin Weekly letter in my inbox this morning, with an excerpt from an old essay by Brother David Steindl-Rast. He writes:

This inner gesture of letting go from moment to moment is what is so terribly difficult for us; and it can be applied to almost any area of experience. […] The letting go is a real death, a real dying; it costs us an enormous amount of energy, the price, as it were, which life exacts from us over and over again for being truly alive. For this seems to be one of the basic laws of life; we have only what we give up.

This is a better description of these last few days than I could write myself.

Stepping back (June 18 — June 30, 2016)

Lena Levin. Trees on Alameda Creek. June 2016.
Lena Levin. Trees on Alameda Creek. June 2016.

The intention for the whole “Sonnets in Colour” series was to find the space of unity between language and colour, between poetry and painting. The space where this duality dissolves. I suspect I received exactly what I wished for, albeit not in the form I expected…

I sometimes catch myself measuring my life against a somewhat vague ideal of a “real grown-up” — who knows exactly who they are, and their rightful place in the world. In other words, someone who knows everything there is to know.

When I write it down like this, it seems utterly absurd: the ideal I compare myself with turns out to be a self-satisfied, decaying fool. Because who but a fool can “know all there is to know”, and what one can do but decay once this enviable state is achieved?

It is useful to step back occasionally to witness (with frustration and amusement) this kind of absurdity in one’s own thought processes (and one’s own life).

And this is a large part of what I was doing over these last two weeks — apart from doing my best to keep up with the established rhythms of activities: the bi-weekly rhythm of “Sonnets in colour” series (it’s been sonnet 87 these two weeks), and the weekly rhythm of writing for my “Art of Seeing” project — an attempt to share my way of interacting with painting: painting as seeing (and feeling), painting as being, painting as doing.

Oh, and I got myself outside once for this one plein air painting.

Looking back — and re-reading my notes from these days — this one plein air session feels like the most intensely and self-evidently meaningful event, a peak experience. But this is not quite true — there was another intensely meaningful moment, which felt very scary and, seemingly at least, in direct contradiction with this experience: the moment when I understood that painting isn’t enough, not for me — not for what I vaguely feel I have to do.

In a nutshell, this is the reason for this stepping back. My only “compass” for moment-to-moment choices in life is the inner sensation of meaningfulness; the intuitive distinction between meaningful and meaningless moments. At its core, this sensation doesn’t depend on any outer circumstances. It is in feeling and being, in letting oneself be open to as rich and full flow of sensory perceptions as possible. And, for me, this means painting.

And yet, at another level, I feel that that’s not enough; in the same sense that breathing in is not enough without breathing out. If I stay with this private, inner sensation of meaningfulness, I will have failed to live up to something. The inner need for expression which isn’t satisfied with painting alone, which calls for writing — almost drags me towards writing against my own will.

The intention for the whole “Sonnets in Colour” series was to find the space of unity between language and colour, between poetry and painting. The space where this duality dissolves. I suspect I received exactly what I wished for, albeit not in the form I expected (isn’t this always the case?). Now I have to acknowledge this, and to learn to deal with it. Which basically means, I have to learn how to write…         

Painting of the eighty sixth sonnet (June 7 — June 17, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 86. 20″×20″. 2016.

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all too precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonished.
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast;
I was not sick of any fear from thence:
But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 86

June 6-7, 2016

This is the last painting in this nine-sonnets collage. The Shakespearean tradition refers to these, not without some justification, as the “rival poet(s)” sonnets. But this theme, albeit obviously present in the sonnets, is just an opening into the depth of stuff much more fundamental to the experience of art.

The approach I have chosen for this series sonnets splits it, with some degree of randomness, into fourteen compositions, fourteen “chapters” of a story. About a year ago, already fully immersed in the series, I realised that the title of each chapter ought to follow the pattern “The paradox of X”. And right now, as I am writing this down, I realise that the whole series might be called “Paradoxes of love”. Or “Fourteen paradoxes of love”.

There is a certain ring of truth to this idea of the sonnets series as a sequence of paradoxes, unresolvable puzzles of human condition. But I didn’t have this kind of title for this, on-going, chapter, not till is very end. I called it, for myself, “Poet and Muse”. Now, the title is “Paradox of Muse”.   

Since this is the last painting, it has to complete the overall composition. The sonnet contains, in a sense, a summary of the whole nine-sonnets subsequence, and ends in a complete breakdown of “matter” (then lacked I matter). In the future painting, I imagine, it is represented as a cubist-like breakdown of form. The colour harmony is largely determined by the painting’s role in the composition: it leans towards reds, to complement the others. This is a very abstract, very vague vision, but it’s a beginning.

The sonnet continues the previous sonnet’s theme: the challenge is not the very existence of someone else’s great verse (or great paintings, as it happens), but the suspicion that the experience you have to express is already expressed, so there is nothing to be added. This reminded me of something Lidia Chukovskaya once said: that being a younger contemporary of Anna Akhmatova prevented her from becoming a poet — not because of Akhmatova’s great verse, but because it was filled with shared experiences.

June 8, 2016

By this morning, I somehow had the image for this painting in my mind: a figure, lying on the back, with raised knees, with the head towards the viewer (almost perpendicular to the picture plane). The details are vague. I might need some figure drawing of reclining nudes to go forward.

June 10, 2016

I am still struggling with the composition, the pose — still no idea where it comes from, what it is about, where should I look for the source for this pose.

June 12, 2016

There was a long waking period this night, marked by a new experience in meditation. It’s an experience of a well-lit space rushing towards me, almost about to drown me in itself — somewhat dizzying. I tend to flinch when something unexpected like this happens in meditation, to resist the experience, but I (almost) didn’t this time.

And I finally understood the pose, the figure in the painting which I’ve been desperately trying to see more clearly: this is the pose of a person who sees him/herself, lying (probably at night — there are repeated references to nighttime in the sonnet). So what I need is to study myself in this position, with both the knees (in the background), and the hand/arm — closer to the foreground — within the square picture plane. It also means there is no head in the picture (one doesn’t see one’s own head), so the head ought to be “cut off” by the edges of the painting.

I also realised that the future composition is organised around a grand triangle, with side edges along the legs and the hand/arm, and saw some glimpses of blood-like red brushstrokes. The way these paintings are emerging in my field of vision feels as though each painting already exists, and my only challenge is to see it — at least enough to start painting it.

June 13, 2016
Sonnet 86 in-progress
Sonnet 86 in-progress

The first day of painting. The composition is established and, structurally, it seems to work with other paintings of the collage.

There are things that came up in while contemplating the painting, but are still not present — or not present enough — on the canvas: the cubist treatment of space and form, the dissolution of matter; the blood-like bright-red brush-strokes, the barely visible hints at the motives of earlier sonnets (sail in particular). But the triangular composition seems to work, and the motive of hand rhymes with the first sonnet of the collage.

As I was painting today, suddenly a poem by Boris Pasternak floated to the surface of my consciousness (the link above goes to a rough translation, but the original is there, too). It’s about how he didn’t know just how serious this whole thing — art, poetry —  would turn out to be in the end, in his old age — how Art would be over, and Soil and Fate would be breathing in his lines instead. I felt as though that I am approaching the moment, where this experience becomes genuinely true for me, where I know what he meant — where my life is at stake. Can this be that this motive is present in this sonnet, too?

Whatever it was, it was really frightening, but I felt like I was ready to face it, to take it as it comes. For now, it’s just me and this painting — today was a good start, but there is a lot of work ahead.

June 14, 2016
Sonnet 86 in-progress
Sonnet 86 in-progress

It seems that I’ve brought the painting to the stage where I don’t really what to do with it. At some level, it seems complete. At another, it needs clarification, simplification, cleaning up of colours.

June 15, 2016
Sonnet 86 in-progress
Sonnet 86 in-progress

Working on strengthening the triangular essence of the composition, and the tension between contours, colour, and the dissolution of “matter”.

The lack of matter, combined with a dreamy vision of one’s own body in reclining position. The painting comes close to the vision, but there is a lot of work to do. The angularity of the composition need to be strengthened and some of its reds, muted.

I painted less today than I thought I would — there was a slowness to the process, some lack of clarity — I didn’t really know what to do. Or, to be more precise, there were intermittent moments of clarity in the midst of uncertainty. Could it be that the theme of the sonnet gets itself involved in my painting process?

June 16, 2016

I’ve decided to let the sonnet painting dry a bit today — there was no way I could do what needed to be done on the surface this wet.

Lena Levin. Still life with a Chinese cup. In progress.
Lena Levin. Still life with a Chinese cup. In progress.

So my studio time went into a small (20”x10”) painting from life, a still life with a Chinese cup.

I really needed to paint from life today — as a way to reconnect with reality. I don’t know whether I will return to this painting later on, or maybe I’ll just scrape it away, and start something new on this canvas. In this case, the meaning was fully in the painting-as-process, and I have no idea whether the result can turn into a painting-as-thing. The intention was pure connection — painting what I see, not what I know; not reconstructing anything, not aligning anything, just pure impressions. A novel object in the still life — the Chinese cup — introduced to intensify the process with a new challenge, and also as a way to understand the Dutch flowers experience better (they loved using Chinese vases for their flowers).

June 17, 2016

The eighty sixth sonnet painting is complete, which completes the whole composition, “The paradox of Muse”. Most likely, there will be more work, once the paintings are arranged together as a collage — there usually is, but they have to dry a bit first anyway. At this point, I don’t think there will be much to do, though, since I’ve been constantly looking at them together while painting, but I’ll have to look at them afresh in a couple of months.

Looking back at the long months of work on this composition, I see some themes I didn’t anticipate — the rhythm of hands, the interplay of circles and triangles. The painting experience has also shifted in the process — I am now better at paying attention to the flow of thoughts emerging in response to the painting, at really listening of what I want to tell myself.

I used to think of this flow of thoughts as a distraction, the product of “monkey mind” — and, in many respects, it was (and, occasionally, still is). But I’ve learned this “mind hack”, which is as counterintuitive as almost any other “mind hack” — instead of following the temptation to trying to shut up this stream of partly verbalised thoughts (which usually doesn’t work anyway), the really needed mental gesture is a shift towards attentive listening. Once I concentrate on listening, the non-sensical or unrelated mental noise fades away, and if something remains, it is usually worth listening to and directly relevant to what I am doing.

In search for meaning in the realm of freedom: Hannah Arendt on the threat of automation

It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.

I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt’s “The human condition” (1958) — on and off over the last couple of weeks, because it feels, most of the time, like a very depressive read, a look into a bleak and hopeless future of the humankind.

She writes about severable foreseeable events that threaten this future, and by now, one of them has already happened — or rather, is happening right now:

This is the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity. Here, too, a fundamental aspect of the human condition is at stake, but the rebellion against it, the wish to be liberated from labor’s “toil and trouble,” is not modern but as old as recorded history. Freedom from labor itself is not new; it once belonged among the most firmly established privileges of the few. In this instance, it seems as though scientific progress and technical developments had been only taken advantage of to achieve something about which all former ages dreamed but which none had been able to realize.

It may not feel like this liberation is happening right now — especially not to someone working long hours in a soul-deadening job and/or struggles to make the ends meet. But it is here, we are living it — even if this dream sometimes feel like a nightmare, showing itself in the threatening guises of unemployment and decreasing labor participation rate (so that “job creation” — making new opportunities for labor out of thin air — is perceived like a most useful activity). By the way, another well-know face of this dream come true is procrastination: one doesn’t procrastinate about something one is really bound to do by life’s necessity; procrastination is a sign of freedom — of a freely made choice to do something.

A slightly more “advanced” version of a society liberated from labour was (rather vividly) imagined by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1952 dystopia, “Player Piano”. There, nobody needs to worry about paying their bills, and most people don’t need to do anything — everyone has enough to consume; but, contrary to all expectations, this doesn’t make the liberation from labor feel like a dream come true either, because life becomes meaningless.

The threat, then, is not automation per se — the threat is our inability to find meaning in the realm of freedom from necessity. That’s how Arendt describes this threat:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.

I feel this painful contradiction every day; I am living it. I dropped out of “labor force” quite a few years ago, and, apart from a few smallish household chores, I don’t really need to do anything which would qualify as “labor” — that is, anything necessary for the process of life. For all intents and purposes, I am living in the realm of freedom from life’s necessities, and my private realm of freedom is filled with painting, reading, contemplation, and love. Surely, nothing could be better.

But this lack of need for me to do anything often feels like it’s me that is not needed, and then the realm of freedom appears to me as the barren desert of uselessness and meaninglessness. I can probably think of myself as one of these few solitary individuals mentioned by Arendt in passing, those who still “consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living” (I have to, if only because I am not making a living). But an activity qualifies as “work” only insofar as its result enter the public realm — insofar as they are shared and, at least to some extent, seen.

And so my days are split between painting and this (blind and somewhat desperate) quest for contribution, for action, for participation in life. A search of how to share whatever it is I have to share — is it a search for meaning in the realm of freedom, or a quest to be bound by something, not so weightlessly and carelessly free? It requires some willpower and effort to drag myself away from the realm of freedom towards the whole range of different attempts to transform what I am doing into “work”, into something that has an existence, a way of being, in the public realm. And yet I keep doing it… all the time feeling that I would rather just paint privately and be free.     

I came across an interesting idea on Scott Young’s website the other day: if you work at home, he says, stop counting your work hours. Instead, maximise the free time — the time that remains when the necessary daily “work” tasks are taken care of. This idea brought this contradiction into the light of clarity: if I think of painting as “work”, this advice makes no sense at all; painting is something I want to be doing, not something I want to get done. It can only happen in the realm of freedom.

Arendt acknowledges that the artist is, in a sense, exempt from the general trend:

… we have almost succeeded in leveling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance. Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of “making a living”; such is the verdict of society, and the number of people, especially in the professions who might challenge it, has decreased rapidly. The only exception society is willing to grant is the artist, who, strictly speaking, is the only “worker” left in a laboring society.

But this seems to have changed: the society’s verdict is now that the artist, too, has to either “make a living” or be condescendingly relegated to the status of “hobbyist”. Arendt writes about this change:

The same trend to level down all serious activities to the status of making a living is manifest in present-day labor theories, which almost unanimously define labor as the opposite of play. As a result, all serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness. In these theories, which by echoing the current estimate of a laboring society on the theoretical level sharpen it and drive it into its inherent extreme, not even the “work” of the artist is left; it is dissolved into play and has lost its worldly meaning. The playfulness of the artist is felt to fulfil the same function in the laboring life process of society as the playing of tennis or the pursuit of a hobby fulfils in the life of the individual.”

But here, I think, there is a glimpse of hope: a hope to turn the threat into a challenge, a way to perceive the liberation from necessity for the wished-for paradise it really is. What we lack, after all, what makes this wish come true into a threat is just the knowledge of “those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won”. The search for this knowledge one of the greatest challenges of our age, and the artist’s playful labor might just be one of the seeds from which it will emerge.