January 12, 2016: The painting bringing a kind of clarity to the poem (Sonnet 81), if not to itself

2016-01-12 13.32.59

This day’s painting session was shorter than I had hoped and expected — just two hours. Not even two full hours — rather two academic hours, with an interval in between; that’s how I generally structure my work time.

And yet, in spite of this brevity, it has noticeably moved the painting into the “right” direction; it is not complete, but it made sense to stop. Just because it may be the case that there is very little to be done at this point, and I don’t want to move forward without more clarity.

But that’s not the only thing that’s happened in this session.  There was also an “aha-moment” of (what I hope is) a deeper understanding of the sonnet. Not “the” solution to the puzzle of this sonnet. I think this puzzle, like most of Shakespeare’s many puzzles is not there to be “solved”, but rather to puzzle the mind, to make it give up and let go. Just recently, discussing “Hamlet” with Eugene, I told him that all the puzzling contradictions are there intentionally — otherwise, there would be nothing to talk about and interpret, and the play wouldn’t have fascinated us for these four centuries. This (kind of) implied that this was Shakespeare’s way to gain popularity and even his path to immortality. But that’s not the case, I don’t really think so. What Shakespearean puzzles remind me of is this 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 pure perception of reality.

So it’s not a “solution” — not even for myself, just a new way to think about the puzzle. The question that’s been bothering me all along is this: who is that “you” who can be immortalised in Shakespeare’s poetry while “I” remains completely, earthly mortal? So the “solution” would be the identity of “you” and “I”, which would fit the situation “perfectly”, which I might “argue for” in some sort of scholarly commentary.

I don’t have such a solution, but what I realised during the painting session (“remembered” would probably be a better word here) was that, in the act of creation, the usual sense of “I” is suspended. The “I” who is doing the 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 is created — by listening to this inner voice, not by “talking” or “arguing”. So the tension between two “I”s, two “selves” is inherent in the process of writing poetry — and there is every reason to believe that that’s how Shakespeare composed his sonnets, too (at least, most of the time).

But it’s not as simple as 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.

January 11, 2016: The puzzle of sonnet 81

Most of today’s working time was spent on writing for “The making of a great painting” (Module 2), but today is also the start of sonnet 81 painting; the “underpainting day”.

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.

A rare occasion when the modern reader is also a character of the poem: we are these eyes not yet created, we are these tongues to be. The promise of immortality — or at least of a life well beyond the usual human limitations — is thus apparently upheld by the very fact that this poem is still being read and rehearsed. With one caveat: this is Shakespeare’s immortality, not anyone else’s. Not his young friend (or lover, or patron) — the assumed addressee of the sonnet (unless, of course, we decide to count the centuries-long fascination with his true identity as a kind of immortality).   

It’s not the first time in the sequence its author 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 author’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 superficial reading (a poet addressing someone) is wrong. There must be something else going on here: the first, 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 is their mortalities (or immortalities) 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 what this poem is denying. And secondly — it’s the name of the listener that the sonnet is supposed to immortalise (your name from hence immortal life shall have). But the name of a young man is never even mentioned — not here, not elsewhere 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!

And 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 (momentarily, the mind is tempted by the idea 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 this well may be so. But, after all, that’s the point of immortality — Shakespeare holds a mirror up to everyone, and I am no exception. But I don’t think so, not in this case, because of the context of this poem in the sequence: the context of a relationship between a poet and his muse. This context, I beleive, offers a key to this puzzle.

2016-01-11 13.54.05The painting — as I see it now, and as I started it today — will work on the opposition between earth and air (picking up the theme of “breathing”, and the implied link between breathing and inspiration). It continues to explore the painterly contrast between cubism and Turner, and, I hope, will strengthen it (compared to previous sonnet paintings). It’s the opposition between straight lines and a circle, between harsh edges and subtle variations of colour.

  

Experiencing versus witnessing (Sonnet 80, January 8, 2016)

2016-01-08 14.16.46I didn’t really know what to expect in the studio today: was the yesterday’s breakthrough real — will it survive the next morning, or will I be pushed right back to the struggle and despair?

I so wanted to finally bring to completion both 79 and 80 — I felt that today was the day; that was the intention I brought to the studio. I didn’t touch 79, which is probably to the better; the whole trio that begins this sixteen-sonnets composition should be left alone for now, till the final integration of the whole composition. But I believe I did complete the 80 — brought it to this stage where I want to let it rest for a few months, while I work my way through the next ones.

It was a good day, “in the flow” kind of day. For me, it rarely happens on the days of “final touches” — the final brushstrokes that bring a painting to its completion, the final decisions. When it does happen, it’s because the whole process is a single experience of flow, when the painting has started to “sing” the sonnet back to me somewhen early in the process. Then, it all happens easily, organically — you just do what the painting asks you to. But I couldn’t expect anything like this today — not after these months of hopeless struggle against I don’t even know what.

And yet, it was a good day; spent in harmony with the sonnet, and with the painting. The strength of sonnet-like response from the painting was not as clear as it sometimes is, but it was there, and the despair — which is, after all, there in the text — was finally refined, distilled fully into painting. It has become beautiful — not dangerous and murderous anymore.

Somewhere in the midst of the painting sessions I caught these words in my head: “Find the rhythms of the universe”. The rhythmical structure of the sonnet finally found its way into the painting today; the rhythmical contrast between the tonal themes of “my saucy boat” versus “his of tall standing and of goodly pride”. This contrast was always supposed to be there, enacted through the difference between two parts of the painting (the lower and the higher), but now it seems to have found a more straightforward expression — with strengthening of the vertical movement from within the “proud” boat up, opening the composition upwards in the right top corner, and partly closing it on the left with darkening of the sky.

The painting is saved, I think — for now at least. And I seem to be out of this void of despair — survived, once again. As I was editing the journal entry from yesterday, I understood that I was still “hiding” from myself the most obvious source of this despair — Shakespeare, the sonnet itself. The process does require going deep into the “mood” of the sonnet, so I could paint from that place. And I do that, but I don’t always acknowledge it to myself; I allow myself to forget that it’s not “my” despair, and so it becomes mine.

This despair-to-be-painted should be experienced fully, but witnessed in a different way. It’s not a guarantee from falling into a depression-like state of mind, but at least a chance. To be both the experiencer and the witness simultaneously. That’s the key to the connection between the sonnets series and the “problem of consciousness” in general.

Commitment to rawness (January 6th, 2016)

2016-01-06 13.33.25The “core” concept of this studio day is “rawness”.

This is how I’ve decided to resurrect this blog in 2016 — as a rough, unpolished, almost unedited studio journal of my work on the “Sonnets in colour” series (which occasionally includes working on other paintings as well). Superficially, this decision is motivated simply by my desire to resurrect it and keep it going — experience shows that, for now at least, I cannot sustain both regularity and my ideal of a blog post as a refined “essay” at the same time. But there are deeper reasons — at least two of them are visible to me at the moment.

First, I see the sonnets series as an inquiry into the nature and structure of human consciousness, and also as a project in shifting my own consciousness away from its (apparently natural) self-centred modus operandi. This implies self-reflection: witnessing the on-going process and contemplating it. And this self-reflection is not the result of this inquiry, but rather its raw data. It stands to reason, then, that it ought to be as raw, as “unedited” as possible. I am not sure, for the time being, that I really can achieve the necessary level of rawness and openness in writing, but I intend to learn — and the best way to learn is by doing.

And secondly, I’ve come to believe that I tend to use the aura of refinement, “cultured-ness” as a protective shell — something which allows me to hide, both from myself and from everyone else; like a nice, well-designed dress. Occasionally, it shows itself as “prettiness”, conventionality, platitude. What I want — nay, need — to do now is to break and shake off this protective shell completely.

And this concerns not only writing, but — albeit, I hope, to a lesser degree — painting, too. That’s why “roughness” and “rawness” were the core concepts of my today’s painting session as well. Quite fittingly for the first “official” entry in this studio journal, this session was not about the sonnets, but about a more direct, unmediated reflection on “self” — self-portrait.

Lena Levin. Portrait of the artist as a young woman. 36″×24″. January 2016.

This self-portrait originated in a dream, a strange dream I had several months ago. That dream pushed me not only to this portrait, but also to making some rather drastic changes in my life. In the dream, I was hurrying to catch a train (an old-fashioned kind of train: almost magical, with some delicate woodwork on the doors, and adorned with something of a deep red, velvety colour). I was hurrying, but couldn’t really, because I was dragging someone else with me. Someone who was obviously unable to walk (or run) as fast as myself — an older, heavier woman. I couldn’t or didn’t see her face — throughout the whole experience, I only saw her legs moving slowly, while she was trying to follow me, leaning heavily on my arm. And then all the doors closed, and the train started to move away from the platform, leaving us behind. I was left there with this heavy old woman, and someone I really wanted to be with was going away on that train.

I stood there, frustrated and disappointed — and then my mobile rang. I knew it was this someone on the train, calling to check what’s happened to me, why I am not there. The screen of my phone showed me that person: a photo (before that, I didn’t know who it really was). It was my younger self,  a familiar old photo — in the posture I have captured in the portrait. I understood then that the heavy old woman I stayed behind with was also myself; another version of myself. Not at all the one I wanted to be “in”, or “with”.

There was a despair in this staying behind, as though my true, real life was going finally and irrevocably away on that train. The despair was strong enough to wake me up, as though it were a nightmare; and when I woke up, I decided  to take this dream not as a final verdict on my wasted life, but as a warning — as a last chance to “catch” this train, moving away so rapidly. That’s what I’ve been trying to do — in various ways — ever since, and the first gesture of this commitment was this self-portrait.

Although it went through various stages — some more convincing, some less — I was by no means satisfied with it (even though, on some occasions, I tried to convince myself that I was). There was always something in me that wanted to make it “pretty”, comme il faut; to make myself look like a nice, good girl. This “prettiness” was what I’ve been eliminating today, in an attempt to get to the raw truth.

Michael Atavar on “12 rules of creativity” and losing the ego

Lena Levin. Sonnet 66. 20"x20". 2014
Lena Levin. Sonnet 66. 20″x20″. 2014

Every once in a while, usually after reading someone’s excited blogpost, I decide that I ought to read “The Artist’s way” by Julia Cameron, but invariably get dissuaded by Amazon reviews (both positive and negative alike). The most recurrent complaint, it seems, is the overwhelming abundance of references to God in the book, which seems to frustrate even moderately religious readers, let alone non-religious ones.

Michael Atavar’s little book on “12 rules of creativity” deals with the same problem — creative blocks, and how to find one’s way through them — but without any references to God whatsoever. To be completely honest though, I must add this qualification:

Continue reading Michael Atavar on “12 rules of creativity” and losing the ego

Rainer Maria Rilke on colour and self-awareness

Vincent Van Gogh once wrote to his sister that “it is possible to express poetry by means of a good arrangement of colours and nothing more”.

What did he mean? There is a superficial answer — as obvious as it is misleading — which would reduce this intuition to the “content” of art or even to “messages” it conveys. Take, for example, Leo Tolstoy — characteristically pleonastic — description of art:

“The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. … And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.”

The content of poetry and painting is the same — feelings and experiences; a painter can “receive” the feelings expressed in a poem and express them in a painting (and vice versa). Simple as that. But I don’t think that was what van Gogh meant: he was not talking of colour expressing the same thing as poetry does, but of colour expressing poetry itself. His intuition of affinity between poetry and painting goes beyond the divide between “content” and “form” (utterly meaningless in the realm of art anyway).

Paul Cézanne. Self-portrait. Oil on canvas. 1880.
Paul Cézanne. Self-portrait. Oil on canvas. 1880.

Rainer Maria Rilke sensed this affinity from, as it were, the other side, as a poet learning from painting, above all from Paul Cézanne. On October 21, 1907, he writes to his wife, Clara Rilke:

“<…> no one before him ever demonstrated so clearly the extent to which painting is something that takes place among the colours, and how one has to leave them completely alone, so that they can come to terms among themselves. Their mutual intercourse: this is the whole of painting. Whoever meddles, whoever arranges, whoever injects his human deliberation, his wit, his advocacy, his intellectual agility in any way, is already disturbing and clouding their activity.”        

He talks about painting and colour, but the whole context of Rilke’s “Letters on Cézanne” makes it clear that he is also thinking about poetry and language: a poem as a mutual intercourse of words. Like van Gogh, he is talking about interaction of colours, but there is an interesting point of divergence, underscored by their use of words “arrangement” (van Gogh) and “whoever arranges” (Rilke). Van Gogh speaks as an active participant in the process of painting, as though a director putting on a play in which colours are actors, whereas Rilke mistrusts any conscious human interference with the interplay of colours. He continues:

Ideally a painter (and, generally, an artist) should not become conscious of his insights <…> That van Gogh’s letters are so readable, that they are so rich, basically argues against him, just as it argues against a painter (holding up Cézanne for comparison) that he wanted or knew or experienced this and that; that blue called for orange and green for red: that, secretly listening in his eye’s interior, he had heard such things spoken, the inquisitive one.”

The elimination of conscious self from the process (so markedly and refreshingly different from the discourse of “self-expression”, so overwhelmingly common nowadays) is the very core of Rilke’s understanding of art, be it painting or poetry. On October 18, he writes about Cézanne’s work:

“This labor which no longer knew any preferences or biases or fastidious predilections, whose minutest component had been tested on the scales of an infinitely responsive conscience, and which so incorruptibly reduced a reality to its colour content that it resumed a new existence in a beyond of colour, without any previous memories. It is this limitless objectivity, refusing any kind of meddling in an alien unity, that strikes people as so offensive and comical in Cézanne’s portraits. They accept, without realising it, that he represented apples, onions, and oranges purely by means of colour (which they still regard as a subordinate means of painterly practice), but as soon as he turns to landscape they start missing the interpretation, the judgment, the superiority, and when it comes to portraits, there is that rumour concerning the artist’s intellectual conception, which has been passed on even to the most bourgeois, so successfully that you can already see the signs of it in Sunday photographs of couples and families.”

Colours, as Rilke encounters them in Cézanne, act as sentient beings, as though they were aware of themselves. Here is how he describes one of Cézanne’s portraits (a portrait of Madame Cézanne), in the next letter (October 22, 1907): 

Paul Cézanne. Portrait of Madame Cézanne. c. 1886. Oil on canvas.
Paul Cézanne. Portrait of Madame Cézanne. c. 1886. Oil on canvas.

“It’s as if every part were aware of all the others—it participates that much; that much adjustment and rejection is happening in it; that’s how each daub plays its part in maintaining equilibrium and in producing it: just as the whole picture finally keeps reality in equilibrium. For if one says, this is a red armchair (and it is the first and ultimate red armchair in the history of painting): it is that only because it contains latently within itself an experienced sum of colour which, whatever it may be, reinforces and confirms it in this red. To reach the peak of its expression, it is very strongly painted around the light human figure, so that a kind of waxy surface develops; and yet the colour does not preponderate over the object, which seems so perfectly translated into its painterly equivalents that, while it is fully achieved and given as an object, its bourgeois reality at the same time relinquishes all its heaviness to a final and definitive picture-existence. Everything, as I already wrote, has become an affair that’s settled among the colours themselves: a colour will come into its own in response to another, or assert itself, or recollect itself. Just as in the mouth of a dog various secretions will gather in anticipation at the approach of various things—consenting ones for drawing out nutrients, and correcting ones to neutralise poisons: in the same way, intensifications and dilutions take place in the core of every colour, helping it to survive contact with others. In addition to this glandular activity within the intensity of colours, reflections (whose presence in nature, always surprised me so: to discover the evening glow of the water as a permanent coloration in the rough green of the Nenuphar’s covering-leaves—) play the greatest role: weaker local colours abandon themselves completely, contenting themselves with reflecting the dominant ones. In this hither and back of mutual and manifold influence, the interior of the picture vibrates, rises and falls back into itself, and does not have a single unmoving part …”

And as a living and sentient being, a colour may have a story, almost a biography, in which individual painters are but stages in its evolution:

“And I noticed that this blue is that special eighteenth-century blue that you can find everywhere, in La Tour, in Peronnet, and which even in Chardin does not cease to be elegant, even though here, as the ribbon of his peculiar hood (in the self-portrait with the horn-rimmed pince-nez), it is used quite recklessly. (I could imagine someone writing a monograph on the colour blue, from the dense waxy blue of the Pompeiian wall paintings to Chardin and further to Cézanne: what a biography!) For Cézanne’s very unique blue is descended from these, it comes from the eighteenth-century blue which Chardin stripped of its pretension and which now, in Cézanne, no longer carries any secondary significance.” [October 8, 1907]

The following little gallery illustrates this episode in Blue’s biography, from La Tour to Cézanne:

But, of course, it’s also the same Blue that lives in nature:

“… In the east behind Notre-Dame and Saint-Germain l‘Auxerrois all of the last, gray, half-discarded days had bunched together, and before me, over the Tuileries, toward the Arc de l’Étoile, lay something open, bright, weightless, as if this were a place leading all the way out of the world. A large fan-shaped poplar was leafing playfully in front of this completely supportless blue, in front of the unfinished, exaggerated designs of a vastness which the good Lord holds out before him without any knowledge of perspective.” [October 11, 1907]

The way Rilke describes colours — their intercourse within a painting, a single colour’s evolution through history — that’s how one might also describe words: their interaction and interplay within a poem, a single word’s history from one age to another, punctuated by contributions of individual authors. His eyes trained by Cézanne, Rilke reaches out to language for words that would express the nuances of colour, and the biography of blue spills out into the realm of language: a barely-blue, a blue dove-gray, a densely quilted blue, an ancient Egyptian shadow-blue, a waxy blue, a self-contained blue, a wet dark blue, a listening blue, a thunderstorm blue, a bourgeois cotton blue, a light cloudy bluishness, a juicy blue, and, in van Gogh’s landscapes, full of revolt, Blue, Blue, Blue.

Both colour and language have their mundane, pragmatic, adaptive functions; we use colour to recognise objects in our environment, and we use language for everyday communication. But in painting and poetry, colour and language become as it were aware of themselves; it is indeed as though they know themselves better than any human being possibly could.

I don’t mean it in any mystical or supernatural sense: this self-awareness must, for all I know, rely on the same neural substrate as our own. It is in our brains, just not fully accessible to the conscious mind, even if it’s the mind of a painter or a poet. And so it follows that the artist’s challenge is, in Rilke’s words, to “leave them completely alone”, not to meddle with them, not to let the human conscious self interfere with their play; indeed, to remove one’s own self from the process altogether.

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If the dull substance of my flesh were thought: on painting sonnet 44

Lena Levin. Sonnet 44.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 44: if the dull substance of my flesh were thought. 20″x20″. Oil on canvas. 2013.

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way,
For then despite of space I would be brought
From limits far remote where thou doth stay

No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee,
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought
To leap large length of miles when thou art gone,
But that, too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Receiving naught from elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 44

[line]

Where does landscapes’ power to touch our emotions come from — beyond the pure enjoyment of beautiful or exotic views, or comforting peacefulness of green pastures?

Painting this sonnet has given me a novel way of looking at this question, because the sonnet connects so sublimely sea and land — as elements of a landscape, and water and earth — as fundamental elements of life’s composition: the speaker’s woes, and the dull heaviness of his tears, are made of exactly the same stuff as the sea and land that separate him from his beloved. From this perspective, looking at a landscape is like looking into the inner life of a human being.

For all its apparent pre-scientific naiveté, the theory of “four humours” recognises our essential unity with nature, in a striking contrast to the more modern experience of an isolated self.

Alan Watt writes in “The book: on the taboo of knowing who you are”:

“Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body—a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”

But the sciences (be they modern or antiquated) cannot really touch us emotionally — after all, that’s not how they are supposed to work. One can read a hundred books about one’s thoughts and desires being — if not exactly air and fire, but some bundles of electrochemical activities in a highly organised lump of neural cells, which are themselves highly organised lumps of simpler elements —  and all this knowledge won’t change the emotional experience of lonely self in the slightest.

Poetry, though, is another matter entirely.

Letting this sonnet sink into myself, living with its change of rhythm from nimble jumps to heavy slowness, with its almost imperceptible transformation of see and land into tears and dullness, I cannot help but feel this unity, perceive it as my own experience. The landscape (or, more precisely, the seascape) that emerged as my painting translation of this  sonnet fuses together several of my own impressions associated with the images of distance, space, separation.   

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Lena Levin. Tomales Bay Blues. 20"x16". 2013
Lena Levin. Tomales Bay Blues. 20″x16″. 2013

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Lena Levin. Pacifica. 20"x16". 2011.
Lena Levin. Pacifica. 20″x16″. 2011.

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But the sonnet isn’t simply a poetic expression of the “four humours” theory with its inherent unity between man and nature. There is a tension between two world views, two experiences of self: the ancient identity of fundamental elements in all their manifestations (from sea and land to human woes and dullness) versus the modern separation between thoughts and flesh, which echoes the separation between the lovers. A clash between antiquity and modernity.

William Turner. The blue Rigi lake of Lucern sunrise. Watercolour. 1842.
William Turner. The blue Rigi lake of Lucern sunrise. Watercolour. 1842.

The process of painting reflected this tension: I felt it as a continual struggle between two opposing impulses: one drove me towards establishing a clear contrast between nimble thought and dull substance of flesh, while the other kept trying to obliterate these contrasts in favour of unity, to dissolve the self-imposed formal boundaries (which seemed increasingly artificial and simplistic). The painting, as it is now, emerged as a blend of partially erased pictorial contrasts — in the blue-green colour harmony, in the horizontally divided composition, in the opposing rhythms in different areas of the painting.   

Pablo Picasso. Houses on the hill. 1909. Oil on canvas.
Pablo Picasso. Houses on the hill. 1909. Oil on canvas.

In the end, the painting’s organising contrast, which clarified itself in the process, is between the heavy, cubist-like geometry with its hard, rectilinear edges — and the light, subtle, almost Turner-like build-up of closely related colours. Somehow — I cannot really tell why — this contrast stands, for me, for all the multilayered oppositions of the sonnet at the same time: flesh versus thought, water and earth versus air and fire, isolation versus unity, modernity versus antiquity.

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On life’s composition: reading sonnets 44 and 45

What are we made of?

This diptych of sonnets, forty forth and forty fifth, is a fusion of two answers to this question — answers which seem like they come from two different worlds.

[accordion][accordion_item title=”Sonnet 44“]
If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way,
For then despite of space I would be brought
From limits far remote where thou doth stay

No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee,
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought
To leap large length of miles when thou art gone,
But that, too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Receiving naught from elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.
[/accordion_item]

[accordion_item title=”Sonnet 45“]
The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppressed with melancholy;

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.
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Shakespeare begins with a dream all too easy to co-feel for anyone who has lived through what is now called “long-distance relationships”:

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way…

Wouldn’t it be just glorious if we could travel as fast as our thoughts can:

For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

A familiar experience, isn’t it: our thoughts easily, and with supernatural velocity, carrying the mind wherever it wants to go, quite unconstrained by dull physical limits. If only our whole bodies could do the same — if only teleportation were possible…

Johannes Vermeer. Woman reading a letter. 1662-1663
Johannes Vermeer. Woman reading a letter. 1662-1663

So here we have our first answer: our life is made of thought and flesh, mind and matter — the fundamental duality of human condition.

It may not be an ultimate scientific truth, but it is something that we seem to have a direct, everyday, experience of: I have thoughts, and I have flesh; I experience myself as a mind in a body — and for all I know, this is generally how modern people experience themselves, give or take. It seems like a fundamental property of our worldview — shared, it would seem, by Shakespeare.

But not quite, because there is the second answer — it is brought into the poem by mere mention of sea and land, which immediately transform into earth and water:

… too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Here earth and water are two of the four fundamental elements of life, or roots, along with fire and air — which make their appearance in the beginning of the forty fifth sonnet:

The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

periodic tableSo humans, just like everything else, are composed of earth, water, air and fire. In contrast to the flesh and thought answer, this ancient idea (traced back to Empedocles, a fifth century BCE Greek philosopher) may sound quite bizarre to the modern ear — at least to a Western one (an Eastern one may just notice that the fifth element is lacking, or that the elements are not quite right). We no longer think of the world, let alone ourselves, as being composed of these elements; and they aren’t even elements anymore — we have a whole periodic table instead, and beyond that, all those fascinating particles of the modern physics.

In spite of this, the imagery still works within the domain of poetry — a space protected as it were from the changing challenges of our scientific worldview. We hear these words as metaphors — and these are strong and very intuitive metaphors: even now, with the underlying theory all but forgotten, we still see that fire and air are “quicker” than earth and water, and that desires are rather like fire than like earth, and that life would sink to death without air and fire. But in Shakespeare’s time, this theory was science as it were — and the foundation of their understanding of human condition, both in medical practice and in psychology.   

(c) Welcome images
(c) Welcome images

The theory of “four humours”, first introduced by Hippocrates (ca. 450–370 BCE), was very much in vogue in Shakespeare’s time (and influenced medical practice for quite some time afterwards). The “four humours” were thought of as four bodily fluids (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood), but they were supposed to correspond to the four “elements of nature”. To be more precise, the humours themselves were composed of two elements each (for instance, the black bile was air plus water) — there is a remarkable resemblance, in fact, to the Ayurvedic teachings (emerged at about the same time), where the “humours” (called doshas) are also composed of two elements each. And similarly, health was assumed to depend on all the elements being in some sort of balance, and that was what the various cures (like blood-letting) were aiming at.   

By ABenis at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons"
By ABenis at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons”

What is really important about this theory — but hard to “get”, looking from our age of fully internalised mind-body divide — is that the “four humours” didn’t belong to either side of this divide: they were both “mental” and “bodily” at the same time. In fact, we know them somewhat better in their purely psychological guises of “four temperaments” (melancholy, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic) — even though this classification, too, seems to have been rejected in the modern psychology. The crucial point is, it’s not that a melancholy disposition, or an excess of melancholy, was explained as resulting from out-of-balance “black bile”: the “black bile” and “melancholy” were the same thing (“melancholy” is “black bile” in Greek). In a sense, the state of mind is the state of the body, and vice versa.

That’s why this ancient theory wasn’t a particular favourite with the Christian Church in medieval times — because of this glaring contradiction with the basic Christian distinction between body and soul; but it served as the starting point for the Western medicine during the Renaissance. Here is what one finds on the National Library of Medicine website about medical views in Shakespeare’s time:

During the Renaissance and early modern periods (ca. 1350–1650), most practicing physicians and medical writers continued to understand health and illness within the framework handed down to them by their ancient and medieval predecessors. Medieval representations of the humoural perspective circulated widely in the Renaissance period, book publishers produced attractive editions of Hippocrates’ and Galen’s works, and Avicenna’s Canon continued to enjoy great success as a textbook well into the seventeenth century.   

Albrecht Dürer. Melencolia I. 1514.
Albrecht Dürer. Melencolia I. 1514.

So for Shakespeare, these were not “just” poetic metaphors; the theory of four humours was very much part of his worldview — and his understanding of psychology, which thoroughly informed his plays. Apparently, he was most interested in melancholy: from Open Source Shakespeare, one can learn that he used this word seventy times — compared to ten for choleric, five for sanguine, and a mere one for phlegmatic.   

But the forty fifth sonnet doesn’t quite follow the theory: according to the theory, melancholy is composed of water and air, whereas water and earth combined give phlegm. And yet Shakespeare writes:

For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppressed with melancholy;

Is it just because being phlegmatic isn’t really an appropriate state of mind for a lover seized with longing for his beloved — and so his melancholy, in contradiction to the theory, is composed of water and earth?

Not quite, it seems: the ultimate reality of his sadness isn’t in the exact identity of remaining “elements”, nor even in his separation from his beloved — but in the separation between thought and flesh, which violates life’s composition:

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.

The cure, the forty fifth sonnet seems to suggest, comes not from the body following the mind to where the beloved is, and not even from the beloved’s own return, but just from the lighter elements, fire and air, returning to join the heavier elements, water and earth — or, in other words, from thoughts being reunited with flesh, the mind returning to its body.

As we would probably say now, from being present here and now.

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On Marc Chagall’s “The Blue House” as commentary on Self

Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 1917. Oil on canvas. 66 x 96.8 cm.
Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 1917. Oil on canvas. 66 x 96.8 cm.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””] “… the strange blue creature that is barely visible inside the house gradually begins to emerge as a realistic depiction of Self.”[/feature_headline]


The contrast between inner and outer, soul and body, substance and showthat same duality Art has the power to overcome — this contrast is one of the central motives in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence (just as it is a central motive of our lives). Can a painter express this contrast in colour, which is, after all, nothing but “show” par excellence?

This is exactly what Marc Chagall does in “The Blue House”.    

Marc Chagall. La Mariée. 1950. Gouache, pastel.
Marc Chagall. La Mariée. 1950. Gouache, pastel.

“The Blue House” is as it were duality embodied: the house and its surroundings don’t really belong together; they come as though from different sides of reality.

Of course, combining things that don’t belong together is a hallmark of the twentieth century painting, and Chagall was no stranger to this trend.

But “The Blue House” is different: unlike violin-playing goats, houses naturally belong to landscapes (and cityscapes). So where does this tangible feeling of non-belonging, of separateness come from?

It is achieved (almost) entirely through colour: the yellow-green-red landscape versus the monochrome blueness of the house. There are touches of blue here and there in the landscape, but that’s because there are certain insurmountable limits to disintegrating a single painting into two clashing parts, which, apparently, even Chagall could not break. As someone who has attempted this kind of disintegration many times in my own paintings, I am almost sure that he did try to make it work without any blues outside the house — but the painting needed these blue patches in order not to fall apart completely. So he confined these blues to roofs and fences, and made his point by not letting any appear in the sky, even though the overall child-like, honey-and-milk quality of the landscape seems to call for a bright blue sky.

Apart from these patches of blue, the colours on the left are straightforwardly realistic, albeit in their child-like, somewhat too straightforward, way. There is nothing unexpected in this yellow ground, green river bank, the white walls and red foods of houses, and (last but not least) the brownish dog in the foreground enjoying the sunny day. It’s all as it should be.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Yellow House. 1988. Oil on canvas.
Vincent Van Gogh. The Yellow House. 1988. Oil on canvas.

But the blue house? In contrast to, say, Van Gogh’s “yellow house” — which, we may assume, was yellow “in real life” — the blueness of this house belongs decidedly to the painting, not to the thing being painted. We see that the house is bare wood; its “true” colour would be close to that in “The house in grey” (below), from the same year (quite likely, another approach to the same pictorial motive). The blue of the house comes into the painting as though from another world entirely — not from the visible, but from the invisible.

Marc Chagall. The house in grey.
Marc Chagall. The house in grey. 1917. Oil on canvas. 68 x 74 cm.

And the house is not just blue – not in the same sense Van Gogh’s house is yellow; not as a “real” blue house would look like in a realistic or impressionistic painting. It is monochrome (with blue standing for black), without any variations in hue. That’s how we see things in the darkness, when the cones of our retinas don’t have enough light, and only rods are doing the seeing.

The landscape and the house are painted in two quite distinct value ranges, as though they existed in different lighting conditions: the landscape is light, the house is dark. There is nothing unusual in contrasting value areas in a painting; what is unusual here is that both light and dark areas are rich with essential details. Painters generally avoid this, because the human vision works in such a way that we cannot see both sets of details simultaneously:

1-the-blue-house-1918Concentrate on the landscape, and your eyes adjust to its sunlight, and then you notice the reflections in the river, and the grazing cows on the other bank, and the dog.

1-the-blue-house-1917Concentrate on the house, and your eyes adjust to its darkness, and then you see a strange, lonely, human-like creature inside.

We experience this adjustment of vision in real life when we enter a dark house on a sunny day, but we would normally expect the outside of the house to be just as sunlit as its surroundings. Here, it is as though the outer walls of the house, not only its interior, are lit not by the sun outside, but by some meagre blue light source within.

There is an additional effect of this blueness which might not be obvious when you look at the painting on your computer screen, but would be quite conspicuous if you were to look at the original: blues “recede”. This is because, in real life, the farther away something is from us, the bluer it looks; reds, yellows, greens — they all disappear with distance. This effect is commonly used by painters to suggest distance in landscapes to the viewer’s eye, but Chagall does quite the opposite — almost all his reds are reserved for the distant vista, almost all his blues, for the house in the foreground. We know that the house must be closer to us than the cityscape, but this effect of receding blues still works on another, unconscious, level.       

To strengthen the near-split of the painting into two separated realities, Chagall defies one of the major laws of composition and divides the pictorial space right in the middle of picture plane. He couldn’t have known it in 1917 (at least not consciously), but a modern scientifically-minded viewer might notice that if they view the painting as a whole, it’s the left eye (hence the right hemisphere of the brain) that sees the landscape, while the right eye (and thus the left hemisphere) is presented with the blue house. If a viewer spares this painting but a brief glance (as, unfortunately, people often do in museums), the two sides of their brain would, for all we know, go away with two nearly opposite impressions of what is actually depicted in the painting, let alone its overall mood.     

While writing the above, I even began imagining an experiment to check this hypothesis, but, of course, it is far more interesting to know what the painting conveys to an attentive viewer — someone who would spend some time switching between two conflicting views and letting a coherent impression emerge in its own time, as the two sides of their brain try to integrate these two quite different pictures into a coherent image through their (rather narrow) channels of communication.

For me, the viewing of this painting feels like switching between two states of mind: the state of complete, child-like openness to the visible world, with all its richness of colour, and the state of being immersed in my own thoughts, in the dialogue between me and myself; the mind directed outside and the mind focused on itself; vita activa and vita contemplativa. And then the strange blue creature that is barely visible inside the house gradually begins to emerge as a realistic depiction of Self.

Maybe even somewhat too realistic for comfort…

P.S. If I was briefly tempted to offer an explicit interpretation of the message Chagall wanted to convey to the viewer in “The Blue House”, he himself dispelled this temptation with a small detail of “The house in grey”. You might have missed it if you don’t read Russian (and even if you do), but there is a graffiti message on the fence, right in the center. It says, in capital letters: FOOL.  

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