Shakespeare on subjective experience of time: Painting sonnets 50 and 51

Our subjective experience of time is one of the most mysterious and paradoxical things I know. Mostly, we seem to just flow with the time, unable or unwilling to step outside and marvel at the strangeness of the whole experience.

Shakespeare’s “horseback” sonnets (fifty and fifty one) give us an opportunity to look at this strangeness “from the outside”, while still experiencing its emotional repercussions vicariously. They share a very well-defined “objective” setting: their speaker is on a road, riding away from his beloved. The scene is so concrete and tangible that it’s easy to think about these sonnets as a missing soliloquy from “Romeo and Juliet”: Romeo on the road to Mantua.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 50: How heavy do I journey on the way
Lena Levin. Sonnet 50: How heavy do I journey on the way. 2013. Click the image to see the sonnet and the painting together.

The continuity of this setting forms the background for an amazingly swift and drastic change of the speaker’s subjective experience. Heaviness, sadness, and anger of the fiftieth sonnet transform into lightness, joy, and love in the fifty first. Even the speed of the horse seems to have increased dramatically, but this cannot be the case — what have changed instead is the rider’s experience of time.

Just try to read these sonnets aloud to yourself to feel this change and notice how the rhythm changes, reflecting this increasing speed (or, if you prefer to listen to them, click the first line to hear Edward Bennett reading them):

How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
‘Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!’

The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider loved not speed being made from thee.

The bloody spur cannot provoke him on,
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan,
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;

For that same groan doth put this in my mind,
My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.

Thus can my love excuse the slow offence

Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed:
From where thou art why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.

O what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind;
In winged speed no motion shall I know:

Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire of perfect’st love being made,
Shall neigh — no dull flesh — in his fiery race;
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade:

Since from thee going he went wilful slow,
Towards thee I’ll run, and give him leave to go.

The question was, how to translate this transformation into the language of painting?

The answer I found is in the next question: how the rider sees what’s in front of him before and after the transformation? Since its the mind that constructs visible “reality” from the data supplied by the eyes, the view must change dramatically. This is what these two paintings show: one landscape as seen from inside two different states of mind.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 51: In winged speed no motion shall I know. 2013.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 51: In winged speed no motion shall I know. 2013. Click the image to see the sonnet and the painting together.

If you don’t think such a change is possible, it’s just because such extreme changes in the inner state tend to detract our attention from visual experiences.

But how did this happen?

A levelheaded, reasonable person might probably answer that the speaker sees things “as they really are”, “objectively” in the first sonnet  — but then moves to a dreamy (if not downright hallucinatory) state in the second. I must admit, my paintings might seem to suggest something of this interpretation: the first one certainly looks more “representational” than the second — but wouldn’t the swift extremity of motion blur the landscape?

Anyway, I believe this reasonable character I imagined in the previous paragraph would miss the whole point: the mental shift that accomplished this transformation is not from “objective reality” to a hallucination, and not from the present to the future — but from one future to another, just a bit more distant one. If someone looked at the whole scene really, really “objectively”, from outside the speaker’s mind, then the momentary present state of affairs would be exactly the same on the journey back — the same road, the same horse, the same aloneness of the rider (well, the horse would be looking in the opposite direction, but this certainly isn’t enough to explain the sudden change of mood).

This means it is not the present that is reflected in the rider’s gloomy mood in the first sonnet, it’s the future — the future of being away from the beloved. This future shapes the rider’s present into the sensations of weight in me, sadness and irrational anger towards the poor beast (who, after all, just follows his unexpressed wish to slow down even more). That’s why this swift shift to another future is enough to change subjective experience of the present so completely. And after all, the moment-to-moment subjective experience is all we have — and thus the future appears to define the present (instead of being determined by it, as we ordinarily think about it).

Why is it that the future has so much power over the present?

Take love, for example: the illusion of “happy ever-after” is so seductive that the genuineness of present love is often equated with its indefinite extension into the future. If we followed this idea to its logical conclusion, it would turn out that one cannot know for sure if the love they feel now is “true” until they are dead. Doesn’t this sound absurd? Thankfully, love tends to bring one into the present moment so forcefully and irresistibly that the subjective experience of time almost dissolves into thin air, as though the time didn’t exist at all. Otherwise, the uncertainty of future would lead us to hopelessly loveless lives and cancel any possibility of “happy ever-after” altogether. 

What if, like I suggested in the beginning of this post, we read these sonnets as a “missing scene” from “Romeo and Juliet”? Here are the words that would precede this scene (the link will take you to the whole farewell scene on the “Open source Shakespeare” website):

Juliet: O think’st thou we shall ever meet again?
Romeo: I doubt it not; and all these woes shall serve
For sweet discourses in our time to come.

This the exact same motion of the mind towards another future that we see in the sonnets (this parallel is what made me imagine the speaker of the sonnets as Romeo in the first place). But if the rider of the sonnets is Romeo, then we know that this better future never happened; Romeo’s return to Verona was in fact more tragic than the journey to Mantua. But what of that? When this new present came, it could in no way change the quality of this moment. Romeo just creates for himself a present moment of love-filled joy out of thin air (just like Juliet creates an earlier moment of togetherness by believing that a lark is a nightingale, and that it is not yet near day in the farewell scene). And in the timeframe of their short lives, every moment of joy is worth a year at least.  

 The Romeo and Juliet interpretation of the sonnets is, of course, totally speculative. It’s just a way to illustrate the idea that the future need not exist to affect the present. These three scenes — Romeo and Juliet’s farewell, his journey away, and his journey back — are nested within one another like Matryoshka dolls: as the farewell contains the journey away as its defining moment, so the journey away contains the journey back. This nesting seems to me to be a fitting metaphor for all the futures that shape our present moments: they are contained within the present, and that’s where their power over it comes from.

It’s quite likely that what I will say in conclusion is the most obvious thing in the world for you — or, on the contrary, it might sound most counterintuitive and bizarre. As for me, I tend to vacillate between these points of view, yet these sonnets made me experience the visceral truth of this: At any present moment, the future doesn’t exist except within this moment (and of course, only insofar as it is present within someone’s mind).

The good news, of course, is that one can choose a “future” that shapes their personal present with sheer power of imagination — and see the world transform, (more or less) as it does in these two paintings.

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Why Shakespeare? — Who else: “And you in every blessed shape we know”

Lena Levin. Sonnet 53: And you in every blessed shape we know...
Lena Levin. Sonnet 53: And you in every blessed shape we know…

This weekend marked, for me, a huge step in sharing the sonnets series: I have updated my portfolio website to share the sixteen-sonnets composition comprising sonnets from fifty three to sixty eight — a story on the power of Art, Love, and Beauty.

I look at the dates and see that it took me more than a year to complete, from September 2013 to November 2014, and then this half a year of reviewing, photographing, editing, writing, more thinking, and just plain old procrastination before I could share it in its entirety. I am still not quite sure about some of them — I might still return to them later on, but that’s in the nature of this series: the waves and repercussions from painting each sonnet go in both directions, into the future and into the past. For now, they are all there, with all their unexpected compositional links.

It will take more time to edit (and in some cases, write up) the background stories of reading and painting these sonnets (but there is one already published on this blog, on sonnet sixty five). Today it’s just this short story of the very first sonnet in this composition, fifty three.

Reading tends to play tricks the meanings of pronouns: if you read “I”, it temporarily shifts from the author who has written it to you, the reader (as an aside, that’s how pronouns are called in some linguistic theories, “shifters”). In this case, though, the “you” of the sonnet has also, inevitably, shifted: from the addressee of the sonnet to its author. Here is the sonnet:

What is your substance, whereof are you made,
That millions of strange shadows on you tend?
Since every one hath, every one, one shade,
And you but one, can every shadow lend.

Describe Adonis, and the counterfeit
Is poorly imitated after you;
On Helen’s cheek all art of beauty set,
And you in Grecian tires are painted new:

Speak of the spring, and foison of the year,
The one doth shadow of your beauty show,
The other as your bounty doth appear;
And you in every blessed shape we know.

In all external grace you have some part,
But you like none, none you, for constant heart.

if we of this sonnet are actually “we” — his twenty first century audience, then who can be you but Shakespeare himself? Harold Bloom writes in his foreword to “Living with Shakespeare”:

“In my long career as a teacher, I have found that students, interviewers, and fellow readers keep asking me, “Why Shakespeare?” It seems a question as necessary to ask as it is impossible to answer, unless you respond, “Who else is there? Who but Shakespeare has influenced so many creative intellects?” The genealogy includes Milton, Austen, Dickens, Keats, and Emily Dickinson, and many of the strongest writers of our own generation. Who besides Shakespeare has perfected expressions of experience, and broadened and defined the horizons of human possibility?

<…> His is the most capacious of consciousnesses. He comprehends and apprehends realities that are available to us but beyond our ken until he manifests them.

<…> His is an electrical field. Anything entering it will light up, but Shakespeare powers the illumination.

There is no God but God, and his name is William Shakespeare. Yahweh is not God. William Shakespeare is God. Heinrich Heine said, “There is a God, and his name is Aristophanes.” On Heine’s model, I again remark: there is a God, there is no God but God, and his name is William Shakespeare.”

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Rhythms of time

Lena Levin. Timber Cave: Rhythms of Time. 2014.
Lena Levin. Timber Cave: Rhythms of Time. 2014. 16″x20″. Oil on linen panel. Click the image for more

Ocean waves glide towards the shore in a slow rhythm, one after another, measuring the time like an ancient, gently murmuring clock. But there is a grander, slower rhythm, which looks like a frozen present to the human eye. Here and now, it seems that the shore is shaping the waves, constraining and breaking them, yet in the grand scheme of things, it’s the other way round: the curves of the high shore have been molded by the tides over the centuries and centuries of steady beat.

The most momentary of all — and most fleetingly picturesque — is the sea foam, its glistering fireworks erupting at the meeting point of water and earth, and disappearing in a matter of seconds. If the foam could think, it would probably imagine itself to be the main actor on this grand stage, the hero of the story being told — full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


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On Time and Space in Paul Cézanne’s alleys, and Cézanne’s limitless objectivity of vision

Paul Cezanne. Lane of Chestnut trees at the Jas de Bouffan. 1871
Paul Cezanne. Lane of Chestnut trees at the Jas de Bouffan. 1871

What is the secret of Cézanne’s Time: its breathtaking stillness, as though eternity was sitting silently right there in the painting? The answer must lie in the way he organises space, because our experience of space is the source for our understanding of time.

There is this immanent tension in painting between two-dimensional picture plane and three-dimensional space. An easy way to describe it would be to say that a painter projects a three-dimensional region of space onto a two-dimensional surface, and faces two opposite challenges: one, more obvious, is to create the illusion of depth and volume, the other is not to “break” the picture plane in the process. Both aren’t really universal — depending on the age and the context, a painter can abandon the illusion of three-dimensionality altogether, or push it to extremes — but Cézanne is a paragon of keeping this tension alive, creating volume and maintaining picture plane at the same time.

This quality of Cézanne’s composition is at the core of Erle Loran’s classic book on the subject. Here is how he illustrates the challenge:

2015-04-01 12.50.10-1“Diagram V is a configuration of overlapping planes that recede toward a vanishing point at the horizon. The exaggerated effect of deep space is the result of an uncompensated perspectival convergence and diminishing of sizes. The diagram illustrates what is meant by a funnel effect and a hole in the picture.

The illusion of space cutting into the picture plane results when no provision for a return out of depth is made. Cézanne never created this kind of effect, and it is intended here as an illustration of a very disturbing and tasteless kind of three-dimensional arrangement” (p. 20).

This illusion of “hole” is so easy to create because we are accustomed to “seeing” space extending away from us to (what amounts to) invisible infinity: we know that if things seem smaller and smaller, it means they are more and more distant, and we know that if at some point they become too distant to discern, it doesn’t mean the space ends there; and the brain uses this knowledge to compute the coherent picture it presents to the consciousness. As Loran mentions, Cézanne never lets the beholder fall into this illusion — there are no holes in his picture planes. This post is illustrated by his paintings of alleyways, where the view itself presents the quintessence of the “funnel” challenge, and you can see that, in one or another way, they all do indeed stop this mental motion towards infinite space and return the beholder out of depth.    

Paul Cezanne. The Alley at Chantilly. 1888,
Paul Cezanne. The Alley at Chantilly. 1888,

Erle Loran traveled Cézanne’s country and took photos of the same views — as close to Cézanne’s motifs as he could. One of his goals was to study how Cézanne modified nature to prevent the illusion of the space’s infinite expanse and preserve the essential two-dimensionality of the picture plane. He notices how Cézanne disregards perspective, raises the earth plane to make it “closer” to the picture plane (diagonal rather than horizontal), makes distant objects larger to bring them forward, “turns” the walls of houses and other structural planes (as though different parts of the view are seen from different vantage points).

At first, these observations seemed to me like the answer to my question: that’s how Cézanne changes the space in front of him to create this special sensation of time. Indeed, if the whole infinite expanse of space is brought within the flatter “picture box” and placed between its foreground and background planes, the corresponding sensation of time would bring all eternity within the single moment of now.

Paul Cezanne. The alley at Chantilly. 1988.
Paul Cezanne. The alley at Chantilly. 1988.

But there is something wrong here.

Cézanne’s paintings give an impression of ultimate objectivityin Rilke’s words, “limitless objectivity, refusing any kind of meddling in an alien unity (October 18, 1907). In an earlier letter (October 12), Rilke describes his conversation with Mathilde Vollmoeller in front of Cézanne’s paintings; she says: “He sat there in front of it like a dog, just looking, without any nervousness, without any ulterior motive.” As an example of a quite different beholder, about half a century later, here is how Colin Wilson, in “The Outsider”, compares Van Gogh and Cézanne:

“…the difference is more than a difference of technique; it is a completely different way of seeing. Cézanne rendered painstakingly, as Henry James rendered his pictures of European society, with innumerable small brush strokes. The final result has an orderliness that springs out of discipline. From Cézanne’s painting, we learn a great deal about the surface of the object painted and its distance from the eye, and a great deal about the will of the man who was determined to render it fully. We learn nothing of Cézanne’s emotion.”

Again, the distinct impression that we see the objective reality, including the objects’ “distance from the eye” — in an apparent contradiction to Loran’s objective observations. So, is the impression of Cézanne’s limitless objectivity false? Is it just an illusion created by a master painter with clever manipulation of structural planes?

I don’t think so. Rilke and Loran obviously look at Cézanne from very different perspectives — Rilke is a poet, Loran a painter — and Rilke would have probably been the first to defer to a painter’s superior knowledge. But there is one point on which they agree, and it is that Cézanne didn’t have a good conscious access to his insights as a painter (although Rilke talks about it with admiration, and Loran, with a certain degree of frustration), and this means he didn’t manipulate his structural planes with a conscious pictorial intention in mind. Although the desire to learn from Cézanne might seem more obvious in Loran, but it is also present in Rilke — and while Loran was learning to paint, Rilke focused on learning to see. He felt he had a special “private access” to Cézanne’s paintings, because their work intersected at some place where the difference between poetry and painting ceases to matter. He writes:

“It is the turning point in these paintings which I recognised, because I had just reached it in my own work or had at least come close to it somehow, probably after having long been ready for this one thing which so much depends on.”

And it is in this context, in the letter of October 18, 1907, that he mentions Cézanne’s limitless objectivity, refusing any kind of meddling.

What does he mean? The thing is, it’s not quite the case that a painter creates two-dimensional projections of a real three-dimensional space, simply because the images our eyes receive and transmit to the brain for further computing are two-dimensional projections to begin with (in case of landscapes, it’s essentially the same image in both eyes). Just like everyone else, what the painter’s eyes register is a temporal sequence of two-dimensional signals. The difference lies in what happens next.

Paul Cezanne. Bend in forest road. 1906
Paul Cezanne. Bend in forest road. 1906.

I touched upon this difference in my post on Claude Monet’s vision: the “normal” process of computing a coherent three-dimensional model of what we see involves a lot of what Eric Kandel, in “The age of insight”, calls “brain’s creativity”. He writes

“A digital camera will capture an image, be it a landscape or a face, pixel by pixel, as it appears before us. The eye cannot do that. Rather, as the cognitive psychologist Chris Frith writes: “What I perceive are not the crude and ambiguous cues that impinge from the outside world onto my eyes and my ears and my fingers. I perceive something much richer— a picture that combines all these crude signals with a wealth of past experience.… Our perception of the world is a fantasy that coincides with reality.”” 

The assumption that this fantasy coincides with reality sounds somewhat too far-fetched to me, but that’s obviously the same assumption Loran made in his book: he compared Cézanne’s paintings with photos, and with a three-dimensional fantasy created by his own brain (and based on his own past experience), and found that Cézanne modified reality.

But what Cézanne did, I believe, is the opposite: as Rilke intuited, he didn’t let his brain meddle with what he saw in the way people normally do, didn’t let his past everyday experiences interfere between the present visual reality and its painting. Or to put it another way, the decades of painting experiences retrained his brain to see more directly, without reconstructing what the eyes cannot see on the basis of prior “common sense” knowledge or any intellectual conceptions. I believe it is this non-meddling that creates the effects observed by Loran; Cézanne’s painting don’t extend into infinite space behind the background simply because the eyes don’t see that space — it is a fantasy of the brain.

In my experience, the idea of objectivity is often confused in everyday language with what would more accurately be called “common sense”, that is, some sort of coordination between people’s world views: something is objective if everyone can agree on it; if only one person sees things in a certain way, then it surely must be “subjective”. But what if this one person has spent more time and effort cleansing and refining his sense of vision, awakening himself to the visual reality, than anybody else? Wouldn’t it make sense to assume that he sees more clearly and objectively than the rest of us? Obviously, Rilke thought so, and he spared no effort in learning to see from Cézanne:

“When I remember the puzzlement and insecurity of one’s first confrontation with his work, along with his name, which was just as new. And then for a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes …” [October 10, 1907]

And when one does, one begins to perceive Cézanne’s space in nature, undistorted by any “common sense” human knowledge:

“A large fan-shaped poplar was leafing playfully in front of this completely supportless blue, in front of the unfinished, exaggerated designs of a vastness which the good Lord holds out before him without any knowledge of perspective.” [October 11, 1907]

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On Time in painting

Lena Levin. Formula of Time (after Cezanne's "Pont de Maincy"). 2014. 30"x24". Oil on canvas.
Lena Levin. Formula of Time (after Cezanne’s “Pont de Maincy”). 2014. 30″x24″. Oil on canvas. Click the image for more…

Even when I first started thinking about painting Shakespeare’s sonnets, I knew that Time would be the crux of this project. Not just because it’s one of Shakespeare’s central themes, and not even just because the sensation of Time is such an essential aspect of human experience. I was fascinated and overwhelmed by the radical differences in how poems and paintings can represent Time, express Time, and even situate themselves in Time.

A poet has all the means for expressing Time accumulated by their language — words, metaphors, tenses. Add to this rhythms and meters, which enact and measure Time within the space of the poem. A poem can jump from the present to the future to the past easily and naturally, like thought, and imposes its own time flow on the listener (or reader), its own stresses and pauses, word after word, line after line.

A painting is always in the present, within a single on-going moment in time. One could even say, it is time-less. A modern viewer expects a painting to represent one moment, and the painting opens itself to the beholder as a whole, all at once. The unfolding of this experience in time is entirely up to the beholder (if, indeed, they even care to spare more than a glance for it before passing to the next one).

So, is there Time in painting?

In the golden time of man’s innocence, a painter could rely on allegories, or represent sequences of events within the scope of the same painting: these are essentially literary, story-telling devices of representing Time, beyond the realm of painting per se. Resorting to such devices might have resulted in a successful illustration, but my quest is for translation of sonnets into the language of painting.

Paul Cezanne. The bridge at Maincy. 1879.
Paul Cezanne. The bridge at Maincy. 1879.

I knew that some paintings can change the beholder’s sensation of Time, at least temporarily — just like the subjective sensation of Time often changes “in real life”.  Just compare Claude Monet to Paul Cézanne: Monet’s time is as fleeting as it gets (and he fully enjoys the flow), Cézanne’s stands still, like eternity manifested in every single moment. It sometimes seems to me that I wouldn’t even be able to wrap my head around the idea of eternity within now if I hadn’t spent so much time with Cézanne’s paintings.

How does the sensation of Time in painting arise? How is it created? I believe it must be more primal than any concept of Time mediated by language, simply because the way our languages — and our verbal thinking — treat time is based almost entirely on spatial metaphors (Shakespeare, of course, uses a variety of other metaphors for Time, but the spatial ones are unavoidable). When we think about time, we use the way we perceive space and its internal organisation as an explanatory source, as the basis for understanding (or an illusion of it). But the organisation of space is the realm of painting, and no one was better at it than Paul Cézanne.

My pathway to Time in painting had to lie through a study of Cézanne’s space and time, and the first steps on this path are this month’s theme on this blog. If you are interested in this topic, I’d love you to subscribe.

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Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak and Marc Chagall)

Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak and Marc Chagall). Oil on canvas. 2014. 36"x24".
Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak and Marc Chagall). Oil on canvas. 2014. 36″x24″. Click image for more.
From Boris Pasternak’s “Magdalene”:

Each night, my demon is here again,
My reckoning for the past,
Memories of harlotry
will come and suck my heart,
When, a slave to men’s whims,
I was a raving fool,
And the street was my shelter.

A few minutes left,
before the deathly silence.
But, before they pass away,
Having come to the edge,
As an alabaster vessel,
I break my life before thee.

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Lena Levin. Awakening. 2014. 24"x12". Oil on canvas.
Lena Levin. Awakening. 2014. 24″x12″. Oil on canvas. Click for more.

“The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the wakening hour. Then there is at least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance fills the air — to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit and prove itself to be good, no less than the light.”

Henry David Thoreau. “Where I lived, and what I lived for”

Click to browse other paintings from this series…

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On Vincent van Gogh’s vision, or memory of the Garden of Eden

Vincent van Gogh. Memory of the garden at Etten. 1888.
Vincent van Gogh. Memory of the garden at Etten. 1888. Oil on canvas. 73.5 × 92.5 cm.

Last week, we talked about how to see like Claude Monet — that was an easy one: to begin with, his was an insight that, once found, is easy to share; and, probably more importantly, seeing like Monet is a mental skill that, once learned, tends to fill one’s life with joy. In a very palpable sense, it makes you a happier person (not unlike meditation practice). That’s why he created this movement that’s still alive today: you won’t find too many post-impressionists or cubists working today, and — more to the point for today’s topic — hardly any “cloissonnists”, but there are many a painter working today associate their work with impressionism.

Vincent van Gogh’s is an entirely different story. No easily shareable insights, no trainable skills to acquire. In a sense, one just cannot learn to see like van Gogh; and to the extent you can, it is very unlikely to make you happier. More intense, more compassionate — perhaps, but hardly happier. And if he can be said to have had any followers in the history of painting, they departed from any representation of visible world altogether. I know why: many, many years ago I stopped painting because there was just no point in painting after van Gogh. I distinctly remember the moment of this decision, which had defined my life for the following twenty years at least: I was standing in a doorway to my room in my childhood home and taking in, for a millionth time, a reproduction of his blue tree trunks on the wall.

Vincent van Gogh. Tree trunks in the grass. Oil on canvas. 1890.
Vincent van Gogh. Tree trunks in the grass. Oil on canvas. 1890.

I was overwhelmed by a confusing mixture of admiration and despair, love and pain; it was the beautiful, irresistible path I felt I had to follow, but could not, not even close. It was like to be or not to be, which, at that moment, was resolving itself into not to be — to stop what I had, by then, come to see as my life, to make my quietus — not with a bare bodkin, but by abandoning my childhood dream. This is the memory that his “Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)” keeps bringing back to my mind.

What is the mystery of van Gogh’s sense of vision? I believe the closest anyone had come to expressing it in prose was Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to his wife (June 24, 1907; published in “Letters on Cézanne”):

“<…> works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity …”

Except for van Gogh, it was — almost always — a direct visual experience. He could see all the way to the end, to the point where a visual motif becomes personal, singular, and irrepressible, to where there is no difference between the outside and the inside; I believe this was (or it had gradually become) an immanent part of his sense of vision. And it is not a skill one can learn: it’s a new danger, new risk, new void every single time. No wonder Rilke’s train of thought — begun as a contemplation on art in general (and based, doubtlessly, on his own experience) — lead him to van Gogh. He writes in the same letter:

“I often think to myself what madness it would have been for van Gogh, and how destructive, if he had been forced to share the singularity of his vision with someone, to have someone join him in looking at his motifs before he had made his pictures out of them, these existences that justify him with all their being, that vouch for him, invoke his reality. He did seem to feel sometimes that he needed to do this in letters (although there, too, he’s usually talking of finished work), but no sooner did Gauguin, the comrade he’d longed for, the kindred spirit, arrive than he had to cut off his ear in despair, after they had both determined to hate one another and at the first opportunity get rid of each other for good.”

I said “almost always” just now, because this painting, “Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)”, is, in a sense, an exception: not a single visual experience, but its explicit, conscious merger with the memory of another one. This painting is a response to his attempt to open himself to Paul Gauguin’s influence, during their nine-weeks sojourn in Arles — something that happened within Rilke’s “no sooner”. Here is what van Gogh wrote to his sister about this painting:

 “I do not know if you can understand that it is possible to express poetry by means of a good arrangement of colours and nothing more, just as one can express consolation by means of music. In addition, the bizarre, contrived and repetitive lines that twist through the whole picture are not meant to represent the garden as it normally looks, but to render it as we might see it in a dream, in its true character, yet at the same time stranger than in reality.”

For all we know, this intentional distance from what how things “normally look” is a result of his attempt to follow Gauguin’s concept of painting as an abstraction from nature, simplified and formalised, subordinated to a two-dimensional visual idea designed by the artist (rather than borrowed from visible reality). Living as they were in the midst of an earth-shattering change in painting, they all seem to have been obsessed with finding the one true path for it, and Gauguin had just participated in launching a new movement, called “cloisonnism”. And van Gogh didn’t just (in Rilke’s words) “share the singularity of his vision” with Gauguin, he almost completely opened himself to Gauguin’s influence, trying to absorb this new approach to painting. Almost, but not quite. Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger write in “Vincent van Gogh. The complete paintings”:

“Paul Gauguin, after giving the matter careful thought, had evolved a ethos of making painting independent of the obsessions, spontaneous reactions and passing moods of the artist, and Vincent van Gogh, appropriating the method, used it for his own immature purposes, his own self-admiring ends, his need for intense dedication!”

Incidentally, isn’t it strange that, while writing a book on van Gogh, they seem to identify completely with Gauguin’s point of view? One can almost hear Gauguin’s own frustration in their choice of words: “immature”, “self-admiring” — even though, from what we know, if there was any “self-admiration” in their studio in Arles, it was all Gauguin’s.

Rilke’s concept of art was, it would seem, closer to van Gogh’s:

“So surely we have no choice but to test and try ourselves against the utmost, but probably we are also constrained to keep silence regarding it, to avoid sharing it, parting with it in communication before it has entered the work of art: for the utmost represents nothing other than that singularity in us which no one would or even should understand, and which must enter into the work as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic.”

He pinpoints — with precision which would have been almost unbelievable in anyone but Rilke — the exact point of divergence between van Gogh and Gauguin. One feels that, for Rilke, the very idea of “independence” of a work of art from artist’s mood and obsessions would have sounded as shallowness, falsehood, self-deceit.    

 But that summer in Arles, that wasn’t — I believe — what van Gogh must have felt. His attempt to follow Gauguin’s path, his admiration and reverence were genuine and sincere. And fully opening himself to influences — nearly dissolving himself in other artist’s visions — this was his strength, his way of enriching his sense of vision. This is, after all, what van Gogh’s famous “discovery of colour” in Paris was all about. And it was also, I believe, one of his ways, in Rilke’s words, to put himself in that danger that leads to artistic insight— and he had to go through this “experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further”. “Memory of the Garden at Etten” was such an end to this particular experience: he couldn’t follow Gauguin any further.

Paul Gauguin. Old women of arles. Oil on canvas. 1888.
Paul Gauguin. Old women of arles. Oil on canvas. 1888.

Van Gogh’s painting is arguably much more powerful than Gauguin’s simplified, decorative take on the same motive. Gauguin’s painting is visually impressive, but not much more than that; van Gogh’s is, as he intended, poetry expressed in colour — the poetic unity between human beings and nature, and between seemingly distant moments in time, the present as seen now and the past remembered and contained in the present. All its black contours (a defining feature of cloisonnism) cannot interrupt the unity and fluidity of colour and shapes; their conspicuous presence just stresses their inability to break this unity.

But there is something else here, too: the experience of an end, of a path one felt one had to follow, but couldn’t. There is this sadness, a to be or not to be on the verge of resolving into not to be, an overwhelming self-doubt— this is why, I believe, this painting makes me relive the moment of abandoning painting again and again. Etten is a small village where van Gogh’s father served as a pastor, but I must have misinterpreted this unfamiliar name as a child — and had been convinced, for an embarrassingly long time, that this painting is about the memory of the Garden of Eden. Such childish errors are usually corrected soon enough, but not this one. Is there something in the painting’s dreamlike quality that reinforced this interpretation in my mind, or is it just that painting is, and always was, my “Garden of Eden”, my own lost paradise? I don’t really know…—  but I have always known I would return.

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The Magpie, or how Claude Monet has changed our sense of vision

Claude Monet. The magpie. 1868-1869. Oil on canvas.
Claude Monet. The magpie. 1868-1869. Oil on canvas.

Paul Cézanne once said: “Monet is just an eye, but my God what an eye”, and it’s easy to see what he meant. When looking at this painting, “The Magpie”, one is overwhelmed with the sheer variation of colour in something as self-evidently white as a field of sunlit snow. It is less visible in reproduction, but luckily it is now available on the Google Art Project website, where you can zoom in to see all the details (it’s still not the same that seeing the original, but there is a bonus: no museum guards to warn you sternly away the moment you step closer to the painting than their rules allow).

But was it really Monet’s eye that just happened to have more sensitivity to colour than most of us are born with?

I am not sure how literally Cézanne meant his remark to be understood, but one often encounters a somewhat overly simplistic reduction of colour vision to the sensitivity of the eye, and its individual mix of photoreceptors. Had it been so simple, each of us would just have to be content with what we are genetically endowed with — there seem to be no way to change this mix of photoreceptors. Yet, with possible exception of some cases of colour-blindness, the very experience of looking at this painting shows the beholders that it’s not their eyes that usually prevent them from seeing these nuances of colour in snow — because, after all, we do see them in the painting, don’t we? And this means our eyes are capable of perceiving this variation — but we don’t have access to this ability most of the time. Why?  And is it possible to change this?

Eric Kandel writes in his book, “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present”:

“The brain’s Creativity is evident in the visual system’s ability to reveal the same picture under strikingly different conditions of light and distance. As we move from a brightly lit garden into a dimly lit room, for instance, the intensity of the light reaching the retina may decrease a thousandfold. Yet in the dim light of the room, as in the bright light of the sun, we see a white shirt as white and a red bow tie as red. We see the bow tie as red because the brain is interested in acquiring information about the constant characteristics of an object, in this case its reflectance. How is this accomplished? The brain adjusts for the changes in light; it recomputes the colour of the tie and of the shirt to ensure that those critical identifying features are maintained under a wide variety of circumstances.”

Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral at noon. 1894.
Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral at noon. 1894.

Obviously, all these creative adjustments happen well below the threshold of consciousness: one will see snow as uniformly white because that’s what their brain is interested in. And it has a point: it probably is (or at least was) much more essential for survival to recognise snow as snow (as opposed to, say, earth or asphalt) than to get immersed in all the nuances of light and colour. But Claude Monet spent his long painting life unrelentingly undoing this specific aspect of the brain’s unconscious creativity — for himself and for us. That’s what his famous series (his haystacks, Waterloo Bridge, Rouen Cathedral) are all aboutseeing (and showing) how breathtakingly different the same thing looks from one moment to another.

But what is the point of undoing the evolution’s hard work of fine-tuning human brains for perception of colour constancy?

Here is the rub: in presenting us with recomputed uniform colours, however useful this might be in some circumstances, the brain, by the same token, robs us of one of the purest delights this life has to offer, of the pleasure of witnessing, moment to moment, the glorious interplay of light and colours all around us. Could it be, then, that Claude Monet’s work is not undoing the evolution’s work, but rather continuing it, pushing it forward? Now that the immediate pressures of survival are not that pressing anymore, wouldn’t it be grand to adjust the vision system of the brain to make our life more joyful and (literally) more colourful?

Let’s have a closer look at how this system is organised. Kandel writes:

“Vision <…> begins in the eye, which detects information about the outside world in terms of light. The lens of the eye focuses and projects a tiny, two-dimensional image of the outside world onto the retina, a sheet of nerve cells covering the back of the eye. The data emerging from specialized cells in the retina resemble the visual world in the same way that the pixels in the image on your laptop computer resemble the actual image that you see on the screen. Both the biological and the electronic system process information. The visual system, however, creates representations in the brain (in the form of neural codes ) that require far, far more information than the modest amount the brain receives from the eyes. That additional information is created within the brain. Thus, what we see in “the mind’s eye” goes dramatically beyond what is present in the image cast on the retina of our real eye.”

Kandel emphasises that the information on the retina is insufficient for creating an image in the brain, but what’s important for us here is the opposite: it is, at the same time, a much richer information about light and colour than what will eventually reach the level of consciousness. These “raw data” are available to the brain (if not necessarily to the conscious mind). This conclusion coincides with what we have learned from looking at Monet’s painting: I see more colours in Monet’s snow than I would have seen in the real-life snow on the same day. The context of looking at a painting — as opposed to freezing on a snowy day and dreaming of a cup of hot tea or mulled wine — somehow changes the way my brain processes all these neural codes, so that I get a better, more direct conscious access to the raw data of my eyes.

How does the brain recompute these raw data? It seems to be rather a complicated and multilevel process; I don’t know about you, but just Kandel’s list of brain regions involved makes me a bit giddy, and this is just a short summary of what is known:

“The nerve cells that process visual information are grouped into hierarchical relays that send information along one of two parallel pathways in the visual system. These relays begin in the retina of the eye, go on to the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, continue to the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe, and then to some thirty additional areas in the occipital, temporal, and frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. Each relay performs a particular transformation process on the incoming information. ”

One of these parallel pathways has to do with what we see (including colour), the other determines where these objects are located. For now, we are interested only in the first one, and here is what happens when its information reaches the higher regions of the brain:

“<…> it is reappraised. This top-down reappraisal operates on four principles:

  • disregarding details that are not behaviorally relevant in a given context;
  • searching for constancy;
  • attempting to abstract the essential, constant features of objects, people, and landscapes;
  • and, particularly important, comparing the present image to images encountered in the past.”

I have added bullet points to Kandel’s plain list of four principles, because they all seem very important in my quest to transform the vision system of my own brain. To begin with, the concept of “behavioural relevance in a given context”  offers a clear explanation of why we see in a painting what we usually miss “in real life”: the painting creates a “sanctified place” where other behavioural concerns are suppressed by the very process of seeing. I imagine it somehow sends a “top-down” signal to the brain to pay attention to nuances rather than to search for constancy and for familiar objects.

A different — but not less rewarding — change of context happens in the very process of painting, especially en plein air. I know from experience that my colour vision changes perceptibly between the “in-painting” mode and  the “default”, outside-painting mode (it is possible, though, to switch to the “in-painting” mode of paying attention even outside the context of painting, and enjoy it for its own sake).

Lilla Cabot Perry recalls in her reminiscences of Claude Monet (in “The American Magazine of Art”, March 1927) that he once said to her:

“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you.”

She also recalls that he wished to have been born blind, and then suddenly gain sight, so he could paint without knowing what are the objects before him. It sounds to me like he tried to consciously switch off the third principle in Kandel’s list, that is, to train his unconscious vision system not to search for “essential features” of objects and people, at least not in the “in-painting” mode. Or maybe that is impossible — I don’t know — but the system can certainly be trained to focus on a completely different range of “objects”: these squares of blue, and oblongs of pink, and streaks of yellow.

Be it as it may, the last principle — the relevance of past visual experiences — gives us hope that once we have seen colours in snow (instead of always seeing it as plain white), the brain may begin to “get” that that’s also interesting and rewarding, and so gradually learn to make more colours from the raw data of the eye accessible to the conscious mind.

This, I believe, is how Claude Monet changes the unconscious vision system of the beholder — and that’s how he has changed our reality.

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