February 10, 2016: a return to sonnet 82

2016-02-10 14.04.43There was a sensation of being scattered about this day, as though everything was slightly out of focus.

The day’s visible core is the completion of sonnet 82. Well, I have already kind of completed it once, but there was a lingering feeling of uncertainty about this — and the longer it was sitting there in the corner of my studio, the louder the inner voice of the need to return to it.

The painting of this sonnet developed from a stark contrast between the god-like state of poet and his crushed, solitary state of isolated self towards a more unified view of these opposing states, their interconnectedness, even a harmony between them. This last day of painting just strengthened and clarified this unification, both in its colour and its geometry. The figure in the bottom right corner of the painting is now not a lonely victim, but also the source of the rainbow-y space. And even though the inner link between the painting and the sonnet may not be immediately apparent, the painting does rehearse the sonnet more clearly now — which is to say, when I look at it, the sonnet immediately begins to rehearse itself in my head.

There was one personal insight, one “aha-moment”, in the process of painting this sonnet. I tend to think of enlightenment, self-transcendence as the destination of a journey; the journey may be long and difficult, but once you arrive, you are “firmly” there. The vacillation between two states of consciousness in this sonnet (and in the painting) made me realise that this is not quite the right metaphor: that the choice exists within every single moment, and needs to be renewed every single moment.   

78-82And one more painting-internal event I want to remember. At one point, there was an ambivalence in my mind about the top right corner of the painting, and how to resolve it. Basically, that was the last unclear aspect of the painting; the last question to be answered.

At this moment, another sonnet, sonnet 78, started “playing” in my head instead of this one. Sonnet 78, which — in this composition of sixteen paintings — will find itself right above this one. I decided to listen to this voice, and to have a look at how these paintings are going to work together — and a clear solution suggested itself immediately.   

Looking back, the development of this sonnet painting involved a gradual transformation of the rainbow — from a two-dimensional curve into a more topologically complex and mysterious space; and this slight change in the right top corner not only linked this sonnet more visibly to the one above it, but also completed this transformation.

The beginning of Rembrandt study and the unbearable lightness of being (February 5, 2016)

2016-02-05 16.18.19There seemed remarkably little to journal about this day.

A strange experience: the day feels full, but it’s completely devoid of stories. It’s been filled with unbelievable, story-less lightness of pure being. That’s the experience I’ve longed for, but it feels strange nonetheless. I wanted my mind to stop working vainly wasting its energy in pointless circling thoughts, and it did. I feel both light — light-hearted, and strange at the same time. I am not quite accustomed to this way of being yet — it’s as though I don’t quite know what’s been happening.   

2016-02-05 13.02.02One thing is clear, though: I finally started my Rembrandt study today, however scary it seemed. I just understood that the emotions stirred by all the preliminary studies of this painting, “The return of the prodigal son” — they created the inner need, the right inner environment, for doing this work, and I could no longer delay it.

My canvas, 60”x48”, is somewhat smaller than Rembrandt’s, but it’s the largest I’ve ever worked on (not counting the whole sonnets compositions, but that’s slightly different). And I started it in a decidedly non-Rembrandt fashion, with a Cézanne-like French Ultramarine preliminary drawing — and with a very vague plan to build up colour from the darks up to the lightest lights. I am not sure yet how dark my background will be — how far the painting will deviate from Rembrandt’s original.

2016-02-05 15.03.43For now, I was just surprised by the flow — how light and easy this work has been so far — just trusting Rembrandt, and my brush; listening rather than thinking. I see that my brush deviates from the original quite strongly, but still — in some other sense — stays with it at a deeper level. And it somehow happens “on its own”. I had thought this study might take a year, but now I think I’ll just dedicate the whole of the next week to it, and see where this takes me. It changes some other plans, but that feels like the right thing to be doing.

2016-02-05 16.18.06I had assumed I’d limit myself to blue outlines during the first day, but then colour started to introduce itself, with the background faces. There is a certain risk in painting them without the support of background colour, but this study has always been a risk to begin with…  For now, I just enjoy watching this painting emerge.

Painting sonnet 81: vacillation of “self (January 9-14, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 81. 20″×20″. 2016.

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live, such virtue hath my pen,
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

The first glimpse of the eighty first sonnet painting appeared on January 9th, 2016. Not exactly “out of the blue” — I had been staying with this sonnet for quite some time, but unexpected  nonetheless. It might have been blocked by the crisis with the previous one, and just appeared when this block was finally removed.

2016-01-04 13.07.02-1Even through this crisis, I did contemplate the sonnet: it’s somewhat controversial meaning, it’s ambivalent relationship to truth, its ambiguous addressee; and I made a colour chart, in an attempt to access its colour harmony. But there was no structure, no imagery — nothing to start a painting with. The glimpse I saw on January 9th was of the painting’s basic geometry: the contrast between a large, Turner-like circle of light, and the rough, earthly, stony foreground; and the core colour effect: flickering oranges against shiny greys. I started the underpainting for this sonnet on January 11th.

This sonnet is one of the rare occasions when the modern reader is also its character: we are its eyes not yet created, we are its tongues to be. The sonnet’s promise of immortality is thus apparently upheld by the very act of reading it, but with one caveat: this is Shakespeare’s immortality, not anyone else’s. In particular, not his young friend (or lover, or patron) to whom the sonnet is traditionally supposed to be addressed.

It is not the first time in the sequence its speaker promises immortality-through-art to its addressee, but this is the first time (as far as I recall) that this promised immortality is so explicitly opposed — twice! — to the speaker’s own mundane mortality (the earth can yield me but a common grave). It is this opposition that makes the poem’s promise an apparent lie.

This contradiction puzzles the mind, and suggests — to me at least — that the traditional reading (a poet addressing a friend) misses something fairly important. There must be something else going on here: the conventional interpretation just doesn’t work, and there are two more aspects of the poem that make it fall apart. First, the opposition between the listener’s immortality and the speaker’s mortality is introduced by although and though — as if their mortality (or immortality) are expected to be intrinsically linked to one another. Well, they are, in a sense — insofar as a poem’s immortality and the poet’s immortality are essentially the same thing. But that’s exactly what this poem is denying. And secondly, it’s the name of the addressee that the sonnet is supposed to immortalise (your name from hence immortal life shall have). But the name of the young man is never ever mentioned in the sequence! Dante might have immortalised the name of his Beatrice, and Petrarch, the name of his Laure — but Shakespeare left the name unnamed!

That’s why I cannot believe this poem is (a part of) a conversation between the poet and his beloved. In some way, it must be a conversation between two different “selves” of the poet (and here, momentarily, the mind is tempted by all these theories of alternative authorship: one person’s verse is immortalising the name of another). “Two selves” might sound like introducing too much modernity into Renaissance poetry, and maybe it does. But, after all, isn’t that the point of artistic immortality — Shakespeare holds a mirror up to everyone, reaching far into the future, and I am no exception. But I don’t  really think so, because of the context of this poem in the sequence: the context of a relationship between a poet and his muse (and a muse is, arguably, a version of another self). This context gives a key to the puzzle of the sonnet.

2016-01-11 13.54.05At this stage, the painting was envisioned as a contrast between earth and air (picking up the sonnet’s theme of “breathing”, and the implied link between breathing and inspiration). It continues the strand of juxtaposing Turner with cubism; geometrically, it’s a juxtaposition of straight lines and a circle, harsh lines and subtle variations of colour.


The work on this painting continued on January 12, but the painting session was shorter than expected, because I didn’t quite know what to do next, and didn’t want to move forward without more clarity.

2016-01-12 13.32.59This painting session contained an “aha-moment”, an insight into the deeper meaning of the sonnet. Not “the” solution to its puzzle; this puzzle, like most of Shakespeare’s many puzzles is probably not there to be “solved”, but rather to puzzle the mind, to make it give up and let go. What Shakespearean puzzles remind me of is a Buddhist teaching practice, which amounts to offering the mind something so absurdly paradoxical and incomprehensible that it gives up, and “goes away” for a moment at least, opening the gap into a direct, “untranslated”, perception of reality.

So my “aha-moment” wasn’t the solution, not the answer to the question of who is the “you” who can be immortalised in Shakespeare’s poetry while its “I” remains completely, earthly mortal. Instead, I remembered that, in the act of creation, the usual sense of “I” is suspended. The “I” who is creating is definitely not the everyday “I” navigating in the world. In poetry especially, by all accounts, the ancient mechanism of suspending the “left-brain consciousness” to let another voice  speak audibly still works. That’s how great poetry emerges — by listening, not by “talking” or “arguing”. So this tension between two “I”s, two “selves” is inherent in the process of writing poetry.

But this tension is not just the relationship between a poet and his Muse. The “I” who is talking here is more complex, more ambiguous: on the one hand, it knows itself to be fully, completely, earthly, humanely mortal; on the other, it speaks of all breathers of this world with a mind-boggling detachment, as though it’s not one of them. There is a vacillation between mortality and immortality, between the speaker and the listener, between two “selves” — all throughout the poem, like the very rhythm of breathing in and out.

The painting was completed on January 14, or at least as “completed” it could be before all its “sister paintings” (other parts of the same sixteen-sonnets composition) are here. The final insight was that the painting shouldn’t try to be the solution to the puzzle of the sonnet; rather, it should be as puzzling to the mind as the sonnet. And this puzzle is not about mortality versus immortality (both of them, after all, are rather boring) — but rather about the vacillation between two “selves”: the experiencer and the witness, the story-telling I (the left-brain consciousness in Julian Jaynes’s sense), on the one hand, and something larger than that. With this insight, the painting changed. From the painting “about” earth and air, it turned into something about this trembling, fascinating vacillation between two “selves”, where you don’t quite now, at each particular moment, which one of them is “you”.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 81 (preliminary photo).
Lena Levin. Sonnet 81 (preliminary photo).

When I first envisioned this composition, I was confused about the location of the circle (or rather, the location of its centre): sometimes, it wanted to be right in the middle of the painting; other times, slightly off. In the current version, there are two circles with different centres, even though the eye of the beholder might be puzzled about it. And a similar re-affirmation of ambiguities, ambivalences between alternative “solutions”, happened to other aspects of the painting, too (greys versus blues, curves versus straight lines).

And the painting process was itself an instance of vacillation between the experiences of two selves. I berated myself for this for a time, because I believe that the authentic painting process ought to come from this larger, deeper version of “self”. But then again — if I am to paint this trembling, this vacillation, akin to the motion of breathing in and out, then I am bound, in a sense, to experience it in the process. This is the experience the painting comes from.

Life-hacking (looking back at the month of January)

There were lots of different things happening over the last three days, but one of them was this: I was chasing a dream of re-reading all my January entries and making sense of this first month of the new year.

The dream was to “summarise” these into a single blog post, or newsletter — but I cannot seem to do it, at least not right now. But the essential point is — a lot of meaningful things have been happening in all areas of my life, much more than I would have ever imagined possible just a short while ago. There was a definite, palpable “shift” of gears somewhere around the turn of the year, moving the whole experience of life to a different level.

I don’t think I can trace this shift to one specific cause, but I believe the new approach to life I’ve been experimenting with, and the accompanying new “structure” of the day, have a lot to do with it. And so I’ve decided to just summarise it here for now — because this structure has been pieced together, gradually, from a variety of sources, and among them from people sharing with the world, in books or in blogs, their own approaches and “daily routines”. So, I gather, mine can help others, too. I am very far from thinking that a single strategy can “work” for everyone, so there are no guarantees, but maybe you can find something useful for yourself.

But first, the cornerstone of this approach.

Any meaningful “work process” has its own curve, its own timeline, which includes, almost inevitably, a stage of “struggle”, of diving into the very depth of something (I am not quite sure what). But once this depth is reached, there is an impulse to act, to swim back upwards as it were. It’s not unlike the process of breathing in and out — and just as it makes little sense to force oneself to breath out before one has breathed in, it’s pointless to try and force oneself to act, to make something, before the stage of struggle, of “deep dive” has been accomplished. There is an art to riding these waves of “struggle” and “flow” — and I am by no means an expert in this, I am just learning.

But one thing I do know: that a strict schedule, a pre-conceived “plan” goes against the grain of this organic process. Because if there is an impulse to act on one thing (say, X), and I have another (say, Y) in a pre-determined “plan”, it’s the weakest point of the whole arrangement: the point where procrastination kicks in, and neither X nor Y is actually happening: X doesn’t happen because I feel obliged to do Y, and Y doesn’t happen because there is an impulse to do X. So the cornerstone of my new way of life is not to have any Ys, as far as possible, but to act instantly on X when the impulse arises. And I must say, it works miraculously…

Having said that, this is supported by a certain “structure” of the day, which helps me “keep track” of all the various processes I am juggling…   It has three components, for “morning”, “midday”, and “evening”.

  • Morning
    • “Day creation” journaling begins with writing some notes of what has transpired, what has been understood, since the last evening (in my dreams, or in the waking periods of the night). The next stage is to re-connect with what I am doing here, and why. What is it that I want to accomplish in the long run? This is followed by revisiting all the major processes going on — all major work and life areas. After that, I decide what I want and intend to do today, and when.
    • “Day creation” is followed by a half an hour of meditation.
  • Midday. It doesn’t necessarily happen midday, but it’s really simple: a walk in the nearest park.
  • Evening. Journaling, which consists of two parts: reflecting on the events of this day, and re-reading and editing the journal entry from the previous day, in case there is something relevant to my studio practice to post here.

And that’s it, basically…

January 30, 2016: dissolving dualities

2016-01-29 14.44.49Today’s painting session, a roller caster of ups and downs, but I believe the painting is as complete as it can be at this stage. Perhaps more important have been the accompanying shifts and insights into the meaning of the sonnet.

Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912
Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912

There is an additional, more hidden, source for this painting (apart from Picasso’s musician): Chagall’s homage to Apollinaire. This understanding crossed my mind a couple of days ago, so I looked at Chagall’s painting this morning. There are two shared ideas, which might appear quite disconnected from one another: the dominance of a circle in the composition, and the explicit tension between duality and unity.

All in all, the painting of this sonnet turned out to be a private exercise in dissolving and overcoming dualities.

It started with my struggle with two layers of the sonnet — one corresponding to its overt, “literal” meaning, and the second, “deeper” one: the speaker recording himself lying, in a futile attempt to please the person he is angry with. A couple of days ago, I reread Helen Vendler’s analysis of this sonnet, and was struck by the complete absence of this second layer in her interpretation. At the time, I decided to disregard this, since it was so obviously incompatible with what I perceived as the core of the sonnet, the recorded experience of falling into the constraints of smaller, angrier self.

But it didn’t quite work, did it? Understood too straightforwardly, too forcefully, it led me to what can be justly called gross painting (mentioned in the sonnet): too direct, too superficial, garish, gaudy.

What I needed to move away from that was to acknowledge that both layers are there, and that they cannot exist one without the other. Stressing their difference — without recognising the underlying unity — is but a deeper level falsehood, another misplaced duality. The same voice, the same being both falls from the heaven and generates the heaven. There is no choice of one over the other, and if imposed, it leads to another “gross painting” (remarkably, I had nearly forgotten the couplet, with its mention of “gross paintings” in the process).

Lena Levin. Sonnet 65. 2014.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 65. 2014.

Dissolving the contrast (while still keeping it alive, in a sense) was the essence of today’s work on the painting: in colour, in the overall shared compositional movement, and — on the purely representational level — in the change of the hand gesture (which links this painting to sixty fifth sonnet painting). And then something strange happened — quite unforeseen, unplanned: the dissolution of the duality between the poet and the muse.

2015-09-09 14.27.59In the future sixteen-paintings composition, this painting will be directly below the seventy eighth one, with its huge Muse supporting the poet in the sky. I assumed this one would then “read” as the defeated poet having been thrown down — but by the end of the day, this painting’s figure palpably identified itself with the muse. In a sense, it is now both the poet and the muse. This was the resolution of the painting’s (and the sonnet’s) conflict.

January 27, 2016: muting the rainbow

2016-01-27 12.54.51I was not sure the would be any painting happening today when I went to sleep last night — I only had time for a short painting session, and the day left me with foggy, ambivalent feelings about the painting: I did not know what to do with it, and whether I even want to see it again.

But there was a long waking period this night — I have them, occasionally, and I stopped thinking of this as of insomnia, because these are, almost invariably, very fruitful times, filled with insights and discoveries. This night, it felt like a barrier has fallen (or been broken through); the sensations of lightness and joy, as though I had been carrying a heavy load, and now it somehow disappeared.

I didn’t even think of the painting, but some clarity has emerged anyway — a way of gradually muting the colours of the rainbow, without fully losing its “rainbow-iness”. The rainbow is just an underpainting, it turned out; if there is a rainbow out there, then the sonnet obscures it (rather than reveals it).

Since it was a short painting session, this new vision hasn’t quite been implemented yet, just started. But there was also an emergence of a new structure — revealed just by scratching away bits and pieces of paint. The original contrast between space and flatness, colour and greyness has softened into some sort of unification. However humbled and degraded the poet, it is still he — not someone else — who generates the space he has fallen from, the space he has — temporarily at least — lost. The new structure is barely there, but I see something now — I have a hope for this painting. There is a sense of breaking through yet another false duality, the duality of two “selves”.

There are lots of theories, and all of them from good authorities too — about how much you’ve got to see of the future painting before you can actually start painting it: anywhere from nothing to everything. As for me, I love this moment of clarification inside the process, when the painting is not just an imperfect implementation of a vision, but a rightful participant, with its own contribution to the result.

As I edit these public “Studio Journal” entries (usually the day after they were written), I leave out whole chunks of my private journal entries. And I am not sure this is quite justified, since these other processes going on in my life — especially in my inner life — undoubtedly “feed into” the painting process. It compromises the intended rawness of the data, but I have not quite found the way to talk openly about thoughts and processes that touch, in one sense or another, other people; overlap and intersect with their own life stories. This is the current unresolved question…

January 23, 2016: the first vision of sonnet 82

2015-09-09 14.27.59Both Friday themes — the Rembrandt detail study, and the eighty second sonnet — continued on Saturday.

2016-01-23 12.56.12I didn’t really plan to paint on Saturday — the plan was a long walk in the park, and the sky was beautiful. But it started raining, and this created a “window” for a brief painting session, some more work on the Rembrandt study. I wanted to focus on the periphery of the portrait, the breathtaking colours of his clothing, but noticed some mistakes in and around the head. The experience was much less unambiguously positive than yesterday — a fair bit of struggle and frustration; not quite the joyful flow of yesterday. It seems the very mode of “correcting mistakes” is not really conductive to the flow, and I don’t quite know what to do with it (given that mistakes do happen, and have to be corrected). I will probably return to this study — and to this question — later this week.

What I really wanted to happen to me this week is a vision of the eighty second sonnet painting, and it did. By the end of the walk, I was overwhelmed (crushed almost) with the anxiety and fear about a sore spot on my gum, and the accompanying anticipation of all the visits to my dentist this might lead to — a petty fear that managed to completely break the miraculous experience of unity with nature.

But however unpleasant and humbling, this clarified two things for me. At some intuitive level, I know this gum can heal without any involvement of the dentist — but for that, I need to let go of pride, the sensation of which lives somewhere between the throat and the forehead. This little sore place in my body is not a nuisance, it’s a signal. I’ve noticed lately that I almost completely lost the ability to feel “negative” feelings (like pride or fear) as emotions — they are felt as physical sensations in the body.

On the other hand, this experience clarified the theme of the sonnet: here was this collapse of a god-like “self” (in Shakespeare’s case, of someone capable of bestowing immortality and conversing with muses) to a small, pitiful one, overcome and crushed with anger, fear, and petty jealousy. This is the collapse I’ve got to paint.

And so I have the vision for the sonnet: a space expanding from the left upwards to the right, and the small (flat, cubistic, not quite whole) human figure crushed in the bottom right part. And this one will “rhyme” with the painting located just above it in the future sixteen-sonnets composition (and at the top of this post — Sonnet 78) — as though this god-like muse has finally thrown the human to the earth. Something to work on tomorrow, and for the whole week.

January 22, 2016: Shakespeare and Rembrandt

2016-01-22 15.03.36Quite a day in the studio — in communion, as it were, with two towering geniuses, Rembrandt and Shakespeare (they are both so unmistakably god-like that I am tempted to write communion with a capital “C”…)

Now I think about that, I should have somehow add Bach to this company — to cover all realms of art while I am at it. But even as it was, it was filled with awe and joy: that’s the joy of the path I have chosen in art, the path towards complete surrender, letting go of the idea of “self-expression”.

So, two themes of this studio day: approaching sonnet eight two, and my Rembrandt study (the very initial stages of it).

2016-01-22 15.04.15The sonnet work started with a colour chart, just as a way to feel my way into it, and then, later on, continued with letting it play in my mind during the afternoon walk in the park. While making this colour chart, I understood that the major challenge of this sonnet is in its falsehood, in the plainest sense of saying something one doesn’t believe to be true. That’s what happens when you try to write a letter to someone at whom you are really mad, but whom you don’t want to anger; you want to let them know how wrong they were, but not directly. You are trying to be polite and politic, to put yourself in their shoes, to see and accept their point of view. Even to flatter them — if only to get your point across, which makes you even angrier;  but all the while you don’t believe a single word you are saying. It is this falsehood, I felt, that finally breaks out from the all too elegant flesh of the sonnet with the four repetition of “true” in lines eleven and twelve (“The lady doth protest too much” all over again).

But how on earth can I find a way to express this falsehood, a falsehood that sees itself for what it is, in a painting? How do you make a painting false, but simultaneously true at a higher level — at the level of faithfully recreating the experience of pretending? This particular experience of pretending because you are hurt, but don’t want to be hurt even more?

In Shakespeare, this falsehood shows up as an increased politeness, elegance, regularity. My colour chart revolves around clashing of greens and reds, and muted magentas/greys — that seems to be my preliminary colour solution, but there is no vision of the painting yet.

I tried to remember all the times when I wrote this kind of letters (the first association was the experience of responding to a negative and stupid “peer review”), but that didn’t seem to be emotionally charged enough, not anymore.

During the walk, though, it seems I was able to dig a bit deeper. My earlier thoughts connected themselves with this contrast between two levels of communication, two “selves”: the more expansive understanding of “self” suggested by Sonnet 81, and the narrowed, contracted “self” of Sonnet 82. The “smaller” self, which arises when the larger one collapses in response to being hurt, angered, jealous, afeared.

A poet has a better channel of communication with the more expansive “self” than most of us, but they are also a “person”, a narrow self. So this clash, this contraction of self, this scratching when the whole space collapses through a narrow “key hole” of the smaller, personal “self” — this clash is more tangible, more palpably felt. This is the experience I ought to paint here — and I left this train of thoughts at this point, hoping that from that the painting would emerge from them later on.

Most of the time in the studio was spent on this study of Rembrandt: the old man’s head from “The return of the prodigal son”. I expected much more struggle, more technical problems, but the overall experience was effortlessly joyful, exhilarating even. When you just paint what you see — the colours, the brushstrokes, without thinking about any recognisable objects (like eyes, or forehead, or lips), and then the old man’s tired face emerges out of this brushwork as though by a miracle, just by trusting Rembrandt leading your hand.

I deviated from his brushwork, and his way of paint application, quite substantially though. And I was aware, while painting, that my emotional connection to this painting, or at least to this study, is sustained by the understanding, the guess, the recognition, that that’s how my father might have looked like had he been alive now. My attention slipped a bit by the end of the session — and that immediately showed up in the painting. This slip of attention was experienced as an attempt to paint the face (as opposed to “just” Rembrandt’s colour areas), which resulted in it looking much less like a face.

I will (obviously) return to both these themes in the days to come…

January 20, 2016: the beginning of Sonnet 82 painting

First approach to Sonnet 82 today — just letting it play in my head (and, hopefully, heart), letting it sink in, find its connection to the core of my being. I “put it into my head” before going for a walk, and so the time in the park was spent with the sonnet “in the background”:

I grant thou wert not married to my Muse,
And therefore mayst without attaint o’erlook
The dedicated words which writers use
Of their fair subject, blessing every book.
Thou art as fair in knowledge as in hue,
Finding thy worth a limit past my praise;
And therefore art enforced to seek anew
Some fresher stamp of the time-bettering days.
And do so, love; yet when they have devised,
What strained touches rhetoric can lend,
Thou truly fair, wert truly sympathised
In true plain words, by thy true-telling friend;
And their gross painting might be better used
Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abused.

In contrast to the previous one, it exists on an unambiguously “interpersonal” level, with a tangible and “polite” distance between its “I” and its “thou”. The idea of (not) being married to the poet’s Muse comes entirely from the outside the sonnets sequence itself — the context of the sonnets implies that the addressee is the Muse, not her spouse. So thou wert not married to my Muse allows for two readings: the “inner” one (no, you aren’t married to her, you are her), and the “outer” one (no, you aren’t married to her, you are a free agent and can enjoy other poets’ offerings).    

The other striking aspect of the sonnet, is, of course, the repetitive fair and true — and their interaction. “True” repeated four times in the space of two lines — from someone so “good with words”, this cannot be accidental. I’ll have to try and find a painting “equivalent” for that. For now, though, it reminded me of this conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia:

Hamle Ha, ha! Are you honest?

Ophelia. My lord?

Hamlet. Are you fair?

Ophelia. What means your lordship?

Hamlet. That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no
discourse to your beauty.

Ophelia. Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty

Hamlet. Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once.

Thinking about this sonnet — in its intrinsic opposition to the previous one — clarified my understanding (or rather — my feeling) of this weird thing we call “I”, firmly enclosed within itself and yet somehow distributed all over the place.

And this, in turn, brought the first answer to the question I’ve been living lately: my decreased “studio time”, and the somewhat paradoxical effect of this decrease on the “results”. I have sacrificed some of my studio time to various self-reflection and “just being” activities, let alone working on the “Art of Seeing” platform — and I’ve been feeling acutely that I don’t spend enough time painting. So how could it happen that, at the same time, I’ve been actually painting more?

I realised that the very validity of this question hinges on the validity of the concept of solid “I”.  Who is it that’s spending (or not spending) time in the studio? Obviously, some of the time my body spent was painting during the last months of 2015, “I” was barely in the room. And today during the walk, much more of it was actually involved in the process of painting — while walking at the same time.

January 19, 2016: is it complete?

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I had time for three hours in the studio, and these were intended for the first sonnets composition (1-9), continuing the work started yesterday: (finally) bringing this composition to its (hopefully) completed and unified version.

But I stopped earlier — about twenty minutes earlier, in fact. I couldn’t go on because the painting overwhelmed me when I stepped back to look at it and decide what’s yet to be done. The feeling emanating from it was so strong that I couldn’t really “judge” it, couldn’t even begin to decide whether I need to do anything else. And it’s not often that this sensation of a painting’s power is so strong; one has to cherish it — and trust it, to some extent. Maybe the painting is, indeed, finally complete — or maybe not. But in any event, by the end of this studio day, I was in no position to decide.

The changes I’ve made today have mainly to do with “propagation” of the blues throughout the painting, and with its overall tonal structure. Both are attempts to achieve a more unified impression.

One problem, of course, is that the very idea to have these multi-sonnets compositions emerged after these nine have been built into a collage. This idea came to me “out of the blue” and seemed to be purely “pragmatic” at the time — it was easier to hang them this way. It was the explicit “golden ratio”-based structure in the composition of each individual painting that created the first hint of unification, which I hadn’t quite foreseen. Later on, I began to think about this unity “in advance” — although I still work on individual paintings one by one, I try to keep the whole composition in mind.

Here, though, this compositional unity was just at the point of emergence. Now, it seems to be complete.

The sonnets came back to me as I was working all over the composition — each still has its own voice. But now, I believe, the unified “meaning” of this composition — including the repetitive “conflicts” between dark and light — seems to be there, and rhyming with the paradoxical meaning I read in the sonnets.

It crossed my mind today, during the walk, that I have to let go of the idea that time spent doing something matters at all. It seems that the same connection to nature I used to experience only when painting from life, I now achieve just by walking; and why not? It is certainly a more ecologically responsible way of life. But the time might come when I am ready for the next level of unity — and this might “require” more painting. For now, though, I am content with how the life happens to me — and if it means less studio time, so be it.