Painting sonnet 95: Art in the light of conscience

Lena Levin. Sonnet 96: How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame. 2016.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 96: How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame. 2016.

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!
O! in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose.

That tongue that tells the story of thy days,
Making lascivious comments on thy sport,
Cannot dispraise, but in a kind of praise;
Naming thy name blesses an ill report.

O! what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!

Take heed, dear heart, of this large privilege;
The hardest knife ill-used doth lose his edge.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 95

This sonnet was hard to connect with at first, but then it happened with uncommon ease.

I had to engage with, and then reject — not for the first time — the conventional “unfaithful lover” meaning, which makes the sonnet so incredibly shallow. Incredibly, if one assumes (as I do) that the author of the sonnets and the author of the plays are one and the same man. Telling someone you supposedly love how really evil and sinful they are, their vices barely covered with beauty’s veil — it isn’t really love, is it? This is about as common, shallow, mediocre pastime as it gets — and it’s just not what one would expect from Shakespeare the playwright, with his boundless-as-the-sea bounty of universal humanity and compassion.

So, if not an unfaithful lover, who is it he is talking to?

He gives an answer, right here in the sonnet — by first repeating name thrice, and then actually naming the addressee: dear heart. So, is his own heart the addressee of this sonnet? Of course, “dear heart” can be addressed to a person, too. This is not common in Shakespeare (this address occurs only five times in all his works, and only twice in the sonnets), but this possibility is there, on the surface of the sonnet, even though no single person is ever named in the whole sequence…

There is more: it is not just any name, it is thy budding name. What does it mean? Here is my wild guess: can it be art budding within heart? Can it be Art itself the poet is talking to?

Art would certainly “fill the bill”. It does all those things the sonnet laments, far better than any human, enclosing sins in sweetness and covering vices with beauty’s veil. In fact, this sonnet reminded me of an essay by Marina Tsvetayeva’s, “Art in the light of conscience” — another great poet writing about Art’s maddening and utter indifference to human morality. Art has no shame, it knows no sins (Art didn’t eat that apple in the Garden of Eden, Tsvetayeva says at one point, Adam did). Art is a mansion where sins and vices can reside with impunity, veiled by its beauty and seductive power.

People tend to think about Art either as something good and useful (occasionally, even as therapy), or as something irrelevant and useless — not as something utterly unconcerned with us at all. That is because they believe it is something humans make. But that’s not how great artists — those who know Art most intimately — experience it. They don’t make art. It’s more like a force of nature expressing itself than a product designed by humans for human consumption. Tsvetaeva calls it one of the elements: the Russian words for “the elements” and “poem”, стихии and стихи, sound even more alike than heart and art do.

For an artist, this interaction with art as an objective force is a matter of subjective experience. But there is a science to it, too.  Richard Dawkins, in “The Selfish Gene”, introduced the concept of “meme” — a gene-like unit of another layer of evolution, which uses our brains and our nervous systems as its building materials, its vehicles for survival.

We live side by side with a whole population of such memetic “life forms”. Languages and arts are certainly among them. We are essential for their continued existence (just like soil, air,  water, and all the life forms we eat are essential for ours), but they are as “selfish” as genes are — and as unconcerned with our individual needs and desires. They live and evolve according to their own laws, which have little (if anything) to do with our morality, our vices, and our desires. Humans have lamented language change from the very beginning of recorded time, but this has never prevented languages from changing (and, occasionally, dying).

Art, poetry, language — the survival and procreation of these life forms depends on their ability to “plant” themselves in as many humans as they can muster. But what happens in the inner world of a human in whom their evolution makes a major leap forward — in a poet as great as Shakespeare? For all I know, it must have been an intense and dangerous relationship — it can even be called a love affair.   

My reading of the sonnet has been vacillating between it being about Art and its ability to veil every vice with beauty — Art in the light of conscience, and it being about a human heart — and its ability to enclose in sweetness and loveliness all kinds of things which the mind (and the conscience) would hurry to label as sinful. These interpretations, however, are closer to one another than it might seem. After all, its our hearts — not our minds or our consciences that Art enchants for survival and procreation. It is in our hearts that it hides itself from the light of conscience.

In my painting translation, there are close-up fragments of a rose in the foreground, which transform themselves into (almost completely abstract) glimpses of a mansion, and of beauty’s veil — its lines and images as utterly unable to contain the flow of colour as the human mind is unable to control the flow of art.

Painting sonnet 94: lilies as they are to themselves (October 10-14, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 95: To itself, it only live and die. 2016.

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 94

What struck me in this sonnet is this little insight, this line hidden within, almost as an aside — seemingly almost unconnected to the sonnet’s “message”: though to itself, it only live and die 

This tension, the contrast between what a thing is to itself, within itself, and what it is to others, to the world — to the summer. There is a first approach to this tension in the opening quatrain, in that do not do the thing they most do show. But here, while the sonnet stays in the realm of human affairs — the inner world remains impenetrable, unperceived. Unmoved, as stone — this is not a view from within, this is said by an outside observer.

It’s only when the sonnet goes into the realm of flowers — so beautiful, so fragile, so fleeting even on the human time scale — that this trembling, living line, to itself, it only live and die happens. And then, the sonnet closes with proverb-like, objective-sounding generalities.

Thus the structure of the sonnet really enacts its insight: it has a stone-like, unmoved, “objective” outer shell, in its opening and closing lines. But hidden within, there is this living, subjective thing-to-itself. A sudden penetration into the inner world of a flower, as though the poet momentarily becomes the flower’s subjective consciousness.

And so I got myself a bunch of lilies, and tried to feel them from the inside, as they are to themselves, in the painting process. As they are to themselves —without a care in the world about how they appear (or smell) to us. And I enclosed them into this inner frame of flatter, stone-like outer areas of the pictorial space.

On being an artist

Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak). 2014.
Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak). 2014.

Why don’t I “put myself out there”? The usual accessories of an “art career” — gallery representations, art competitions, solo shows: I neither seek nor want any of this. Why?

And, more interestingly perhaps, why this question bothers me at all — enough to be writing this?

An easy answer to the second question is that there is a social pressure to “put yourself out there”, to do all these things. That’s what professional artists do, that’s what gives you the “title”. In fact, there is a belief system in which it’s only recognition by the “Art World” that transforms what you are doing into “Art”.

But not only is this answer easy, it is also “lazy”, because, in the final analysis, I “generate” this social pressure myself — through books I read, mail lists I subscribe to, websites I visit, and so on. Nobody else can put this pressure on me if I don’t cooperate.

It won’t be too hard not to feel it (which will make it, for all intents and purposes, non-existent). Even if I don’t want to withdraw from all these networks of information completely (because there are other reasons not to), it should not, in theory, be a problem to tune myself out of this pressure — just like I am tuned out of loads of other things that neither interest nor “trigger” me in any way.

But it doesn’t work this way: although I am genuinely not interested in all these career opportunities, but I still do put all this pseudo-social pressure on myself, and, what’s more, I am as genuinely curious about why it is I am not interested.

I see it as a contradiction, a tension — something to explore and to live through, if only to know myself better. But it is also possible that this — relatively superficial and personal question — covers a deeper and more general one hiding behind it, just out of mind’s reach.

So why does this question bother me?

The usual suspect is fear: it’s often our fears that make us avoid something we really want.

So maybe I really do want something of a “successful art career”, complete with solo exhibitions in prestigious spaces, but I am scared of it, too. Scared, perhaps, of being somehow hurt in the process — if not me as a whole, then my ego at least. This suspicion is not something to be cast aside lightly, even if I don’t seem to feel this fear, because fears have a way of camouflaging themselves. It’s way too easy to rationalise a fear as something more respectable. So I’ll leave this possibility open for the time being — it may be that what bothers me here is the fear of fear, the suspicion that I am succumbing to a fear without realising it.

The other usual suspect is contribution: if an artist is supposed to make a contribution to the world, and to art, then the work needs to be seen, right? If nobody sees it, then it might as well have never existed at all. If I believe my paintings can contribute something, then I should really care about shows and “exposure” — so why don’t I?

Well, that’s not quite the case — because I do show my stuff on the internet. It’s not exactly the same thing (or rather, absolutely not the same thing) as seeing paintings “in person”, but there is an option of visiting my studio, or getting paintings sent over to your home to live with. Letters I receive from people who live with my paintings on their walls are often filled with such depth of emotion and vulnerability as to leave me in no doubt that the paintings do their work — that some sort of contribution does happen.

But still — shouldn’t I make more of an effort to “be seen”, to make it easier for people to see my work? And aren’t shows, and other conventional kinds of exposure, the only way to do so?

The problem is, there are just too many shows. Too many people trying to be make a contribution by being seen (and not enough people trying to see). Collectively, we create a visual equivalent of a room in which everyone is shouting in an attempt to be make easier for others to hear them — and this noise all but drowns any real potential for contribution.

To my own surprise, this metaphor — the image of a room filled with shouting people — revealed, for me, the real question; the real, general tension hiding behind my personal turmoil.

This is a tension between two concepts of art, two stories.

In the familiar, old story, few people are artists — those who can show something for others to see; there are artists, on the one hand, and audiences, on the other. This is the concept embodied in nearly all existing frameworks and social structures known as “Art World”.

The alternative concept is that being an artist is the only way to being fully human. I would call this a “new story”, except it was created in Ancient Greece. This is how Gottfried Richter describes this insight in “Art and Human Consciousness”:

“<…> the human being who simply gives himself up to the workings of the forces of life remains dull, passionate, immoderate and akin to the animal. Whoever simply shoves these forces aside in favour of the spirit may gain clarity and a measure of morality, but he also becomes a withered intellectual and can never be sure that they will not come back to him some day and exact a terrible revenge. The man who really overcomes them and attains his freedom is the “muse-filled” or artistic human being who stands in the middle between the other two like Pythia, Apollo’s priestess, who sat over the pit out of which the dragon’s vapours rose and at the same time received inspiration from the divine forces coming down to her from above. This is man between the animal and God, where the breath of freedom blows that becomes one with a higher necessity.”    

However old, this insight has never been more relevant and urgent than now, when the rise of productivity and automation is rapidly freeing human beings from the necessities of labor. But it doesn’t really “fit” the established social structures — if we try, the result is the room where everyone is shouting, and no conversation is possible. The ideal world, a world in which everyone is fully human, needs another, new way of being an artist, neither attached to nor defined by result-oriented things like showing work to audiences and being accepted by the art world.

And for this new way of being an artist to emerge, it needs to be found and explored — and that is, I guess, what I am doing, and a conventional “art career” just doesn’t fit the bill.

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).

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.

On fears, and courage, and how a painting declares itself complete

Lena Levin. Paradox of Death (Sonnets 10-18). 60"x60".
Lena Levin. Paradox of Death (Sonnets 10-18). 60″x60″.

The last two weeks have been centred around a rework of the second composition from the sonnets series, Sonnets 10-18. And although I did write about the process in my private journal, I said nothing about it here, in this public “Studio Journal”. This is because this particular process stirred just way too much “personal stuff”, the raw story of my life. Its specifics seemed so completely irrelevant — and so potentially painful to people close to me — that I decided to leave them silent, unsaid.

But there was a doubt lurking behind this decision: isn’t it really motivated by my own fear: fear of being too vulnerable, too naked in eyes of men? There is this theory that all our fears are ultimately, deep down, the primordial fear of death. And this composition is actually very much about death, and the fear of death. Its working title, for now, is “Paradox of Death”.

These multi-sonnet compositions emerged in the process of painting this series almost on their own, one might say, accidentally. When we were organising an “open studio” exhibition of my work three years ago, it crossed my mind that arranging the first sonnets in this kind of “collages” would be the only feasible way of hanging them. That done, there emerged a unity I hadn’t anticipated. In terms of pure geometry, this was a result of the consistent use of a certain way of structuring the squares along their “golden section” verticals and/or horizontals. But there was more to it — barely visible to me at the time.

As the series progressed, I gradually started to work towards these compositions more consciously — while still keeping the individual sonnet paintings relatively independent of one another. And then, two more things happened.

First, I realised that I had to return to the first sonnets — the sonnets themselves influenced my painting too strongly in the intervening years; the first compositions were not quite compatible with the later ones. Some rework was needed (although I did not yet see how much). I understand, with some trepidation, that this decision, once taken, can put this series into an endless cycle of rework. I don’t know how many times I will have to go back to keep the series coherent. My friend and fellow artist, Terrill Welch, tells me that she knew from the start that this series will be my life’s work — thankfully, she decided not to share this knowledge with me back then, when I just started. Now, I am ready to accept it — there is no point in “timing” this process, or attaching “measurable goals” to it. This isn’t about “productivity”… Still, it would be really lovely to have the series completed by the time of my death, and this means, the time will come when I will have to make the decision that it is complete, and to let it go. And this decision itself will be the end of a huge part of my life, a death before the death.

Secondly, the unifying themes for these accidental “chunks” of the sonnets sequence began to emerge, gradually revealing a new interpretation of the whole sequence, and making comprehensible and clear what used to be mysterious and puzzling before. And the theme of this second composition is — as I have mentioned already — Paradox of death. A paradox, because the death — which presents itself to us an ultimate end, is also the origin of everything meaningful in this life. There are many theories about the origin of human consciousness, but they all seem to converge on one undeniable “cause”, one point of departure: the humankind’s awareness of individual mortality. Which is, in a sense, just another way of saying that it’s the fear of death that underlies all our fears and generates our actions.

And this particular painting process ended (that is, completed itself) in quite an unusual way; an experience I’ve never had before. I had been working on this composition throughout the last week, and every single day of the week, I felt like the painting is almost complete, nearly there — that this day would be the last. And invariably, by the end of the day, I felt that I am nowhere near the end of the process — lots and lots to be done yet. In fact, I was beginning to suspect that this whole experience of being almost over, and then not over after all, is, in a sense, an enactment of the theme of this composition, the paradox of death. So I decided I should avoid introducing any impatience into this whole process, and even thinking about when it would be complete.

But it seems to have happened within a single painting session — even less, in barely more than one hour. I am not yet quite certain about this, because this experience is unprecedented for me. As I started working, I was thinking about fears, fearlessness, courage. I am convinced that courage is the single most important thing in being (or becoming) an artist, but the question that was playing itself in mind was: what kind of courage? Where does this courage ought to show itself? For example, does my unwillingness to share the raw specifics of this process show the lack of artistic courage? Or should the locus of this courage be — for a painter — in painting, and in painting only?

Frankly, I don’t like it when these seemingly irrelevant trains of thoughts interfere with the painting process. It usually indicates that something has turned awry… But I have mastered — or almost mastered — a paradoxical technique of dealing with this kind of mental “noise”: rather than chasing the thoughts away, I concentrate on listening to them. When listened to, the noise fades away — and sometimes, there is something important to hear. Like in this case, when I heard, loud and clear, an unexpected answer to my question: And sometimes, courage shows itself in declaring the painting complete and letting it go.

It was so clear that this answer pertains to this particular painting, that it momentarily threw me into a feat of panic: there was so much I still planned to do! And yet, I knew that I had to listen — so I stepped away, looked at the painting from afar; and decided to leave it alone, for now at least.   

The return of the prodigal son, or how to face one’s fears

2016-03-08 14.51.37

The temporary exile from my studio didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t paint: after all, there is all my plein air gear out there in the garage — I could just go out and paint landscapes every day. But I didn’t. It seemed too cumbersome to store oil paintings in this tiny hotel room; and I felt tired and a bit ill, so I decided to just take time to reflect, and to read, and just give myself some breathing space.

And so it came to happen that I didn’t paint for two weeks or so — an unusually long interruption in the painting process.

Back in the studio, I decided to start with my huge Rembrandt study. This kind of communion with Rembrandt felt just like the right way to break the painting fast. As it turned out, there was even more to this feeling that I had anticipated: this return to painting felt exactly like the return of the prodigal son in the parable, and in Rembrandt’s painting.   

It may seem ridiculous — after all, a fortnight away doesn’t seem to qualify for such a grand interpretation. But the truth, there was a time in my life when I abandoned painting for years — for decades even — prodigally spending whatever gifts and talents I was given in other pursuits. This, I believe, is why even short pauses in my studio work tend to trigger fears and doubts: each of them feels, at some level, like that decades-long time away from myself. I am afraid that I won’t be able to return, that Painting won’t take me back, that the door will be closed forever.

Hence the core experience of my first painting session — sensing that Painting does accept me back, with the same unconditional, raspberry-coloured tenderness as the father accepts his prodigal son in Rembrandt’s painting.

And in the course of this painting session, I suddenly remembered that I did see myself in the parable of the prodigal son back then. A couple of years after I had abandoned painting, a poem came to me — a poem where I promised to return, just like the prodigal son did; or to be more precise, a poem predicting this return. It now seems very strange that I had forgotten that poem, and didn’t even recall it when I started this Rembrandt study a couple of months ago. Could it be that this whole hiatus was actually needed to continue this study, to feel my way into it at a deeper level?

But there is more to it… The thing is, I’ve been painting “full time” for many years now. These two weeks for the renovation project have, objectively speaking, nothing to do with the long years of my “prodigal” youth. So why is it that the fears I seem to have overcome when I came back to painting back in the beginning of this century — why do they re-surface so easily, with a minimal “trigger”? Why am I so terrified of even brief disturbances to my studio “routine”, as though each of them is just waiting to transform into a lifetime of exile from painting?   

In an instance of serendipity, or synchronicity (or whatever is the right word for this kind of happenings), I followed someone’s link to Paramahamsa Nithyananda’s book, “Living enlightenment” (at, and read my way towards the chapter on fear. His take on fears is somewhat different from what I have encountered so far — because here, fear presents itself not as something to be conquered, not as a sign of weakness, but almost something to be celebrated. He writes:

<…> fear is a part of the nature of life. You can be fearless if you are already in your grave! Then there is no need to be afraid of anything because you have nothing to lose. If you have something to lose, you will have fear. This is the nature of life itself.

His advice, then, is neither to fight the fear you are facing (because this empowers it), nor to distract yourself from the fear (because then it stays with you, just hidden from your conscious attention), but just to “look at it”, live it, accept it. I guess my favourite strategy all these years used to be not to pay attention to fears. It has the obvious advantage of doing what you’ve got to do in spite of any fears, but it keeps the fears well and alive in your inner space, always ready to resurface.

And when I decided to follow his advice and look directly at my fear of “painting not taking me back”, I saw another, deeper and darker fear lurking behind it: the fear of being completely and utterly delusional about my whole relationship with painting; the fear of being delusional about being an artist. It scares the hell out of me — even now, as I write the words, I feel as though I am making this potentiality more “real” than it would have been had it remained in the darkness, outside the realm of conscious “naming”. But this makes my next challenge clear: to live and accept that fear. Paramahamsa Nithyananda writes:    

<…> fearlessness doesn’t mean non-existence of fear. It means the fear is there, but you have tremendous energy or courage to live with it and face it. Fearlessness means the energy or the courage to live even with the maximum fear — going beyond that fear and being neither attached not detached from the fear.

The next question to live is, then, whether I happen to have this energy or this courage… We’ll see, I guess.