I dreamt of standing on a street, and a huge truck passing by. Something happened, like a bump on the road, and the truck’s rear doors flew open just in front of me. Behind them, the whole back of the truck’s load was covered with paintings. My paintings, specifically: some I recognised clearly, others seemed less familiar, but I knew they were all mine. Mostly landscapes (I include some of those I recall as illustrations).
As the doors opened, all these paintings — a couple dozens of them — fell onto the ground in a messy heap. The truck stopped, and two or three guys went round to see what happened. I asked them why these paintings were there, unpacked, not even fastened to anything. They explained thatthe paintings used to be the packaging material for some precious musical instrument. They were not needed for that purpose anymore, but “these are kind of good, too”, he said (I remember this turn of phrase), so they didn’t want to throw them away. I know, I said, because they are mine.
And so I ask them to leave the paintings with me: after all, it can hardly be a random accident that this mishap happened right in front of me, can it? They hesitate, but then agree and leave. Standing there, wondering what to do with the paintings now, I woke up.
I read recently that dreams show us “in the third person”, as something “out there”, things that we don’t want to acknowledge and accept “in the first person”, as a part of our own inner space. If so, then it is really me — not the cold world out there — who thinks of them as just some packing material for a musical instrument. And the musical instrument? Is it me, too? Or something precious in myself that I hide with paintings from the cold outer world? Do my paintings cover, conceal something (rather than reveal)? Is there a difference?
I don’t know why, but this dream reminded me of a quote from Maria Mitchell’s “A life in journals and letters” I came across a couple of days ago on “Brain Pickings”:
“Who judges a work of art and sees only with his own eyes? Who listens to a lecture and hears only with his own ears? We turn aslant as we stand before the picture to see what good judges are looking. We open the guide book to see what we ought to admire…. Insensibly our judgment is inspired by that of those around us. It is not a weakness to be deplored. We were more than conceited did we rate ourselves so much above the rest of the world that we needed no outward aids to judgment. We were born dependent, our happiness is in the hands of others. Our character is molded by them and receives its coloring from them as much as our feeling relates the parental impress.”
I remember the time when I would have read this nodding my head in agreement. People who would proudly proclaim their independence of others’ judgements seemed to me simply unconscious of their own dependencies, while the most brilliant and independent people I knew were, just like Maria Mitchell, very much aware of them.
It is indeed not a weakness to rely on “outward aids to judgement”, and especially for knowledge (as when we open a guide book in an unfamiliar city). But there is a weakness here, and it is in the very compulsion to judge. As we stand before a picture, there is no need to judge. So there is no need to look away from the picture, so that the only thing we see is not the picture itself, but the opinion of “good judges”.
And now that I have written this, I finally understand why this memory resonates with the dream. There was a judgement on my paintings in the dream: they are “kind of good”. And it is, quite evidently, my own judgement; and, for me, “kind of good” is not good enough.
I woke up very early today, just after four in the morning.
I journaled a bit, and then meditated — one hour instead the usual half-an-hour: although I thought I was calm, the inner turmoil was too powerful.
Looked around the internet, and through my inbox — filled with a confusing cocktail of fear, anger, blame, disappointment, and hope, and compassion. Made an effort to listen to both speeches…
And then decided to paint a bit, with no other intention than to experience the unity of life that emerges in the painting process. And something unexpected happened…
I had this little, 12”x12”, study I started on Monday — as a preparatory study for the ninety fifth sonnet, and the bouquet of roses I painted from was still there in the studio. I abandoned it at a rather disharmonious and very abstract stage — not because it felt complete, but because I was ready to begin the sonnet painting itself.
So the idea was to return to it, and — to just let everything that wanted to express itself do so, without intervening too much in the process.
I expected some darkness to merge, some suggestion of a gaping hole in the fabric of reality — but instead, this happened: the blossoming of roses, the movement of light around them… So this is, I guess, my contribution to peace and courage on this stormy day.
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.
Why am I a poet and not a painter? — asks Frank O’Hara in this poem. I’d rather be a painter…
But what kind of answer is possible here? It’s obviously not about some deliberate, conscious decision — free will or not, one doesn’t really get to choose what they are. The only marginally answerable re-wording of this question would be something like “What is it in my inner make-up, in the way my perception and cognition work, that makes me a poet, and not a painter?”
And that’s the question O’Hara seems to have had in mind. At least his answer — if it is an answer — comes in the form of two short stories, one about the process of painting, the other about the process of writing a poem. And there seems to be a clear difference in underlying cognitive processes:
The painting starts with a thing (“It needed something there”— says the painter; something = some thing) and transforms into an abstraction, because the thing was “too much”.
The poem starts with an abstraction — a thought about colour — and transforms into pages of words (in prose), much more descriptive than the painting. Here is the beginning of these poems, “Oranges”:
“Black crows in the burnt mauve grass, as intimate as rotting rice, snot on a white linen field.”
Quite a lot of things — which are, in some mysterious ways, generated by the thought of “orange”. Perhaps as mysterious a transformation as the transformation of sardines into a flurry of colours in Goldberg’s painting:
The painter starts with the image of a thing and transforms it into colour because the thing “was too much”; the poet starts with the idea of colour and transforms into words, because “there should be so much more, not of orange, of words, of how terrible orange is and life”. Orange is never enough for a poet, sardines are too much for a painter.
Is this the answer to the initial question? In a sense, yes, but not quite. The poem is more complex than that, and the complexity resides in how these two little stories fit together.
Both stories — the one about the painter, and the one about the poet — are written (mostly) in the characteristic, and overly simplistic, “I do this, I do that” style, in a mixture of simple present and continuous present tenses. This makes it seem as though the second story followed the first in the real-life unfolding of the events.
But this is not really the case: the poem, “Oranges”, was written in 1949, and the painting, “Sardines”, was painted in 1955. But there is a connection — beyond the mere contrast of cognitive processes; it might be invisible in the poem, but it’s obvious once you see the painting. This painting’s colour harmony is orange-y: mix all its colours together, and you’ll end up with orange. It is this colour that connects the first story to the second, as though it’s Goldberg’s painting that inspired O’Hara’s thinking about orange. Not in the realm of real time-space (where it might well have been the other way round), but in the internal logic of the poem itself: after all, O’Hara could have chosen any of his poems to compare the processes. I believe it’s the colour: orange that led him to recall this particular one (or rather a series of twelve, as it happens).
And this creates a kind of semantic circle, which belies the overt simplicity of this poem’s structure: the painting follows the poem in “real life”, but invokes it within the logic of this poem.
And there is another circular movement which replaces the logical, narrative one. This is not mentioned in the poem, but the second story, the story of “Oranges” has a real-life painting-related sequel: in 1952, another painter friend of O’Hara’s, Grace Hartigan, painted a corresponding series, also entitled “Oranges”, incorporating O’Hara’s words into the paintings. So there was a painting process directly inspired by the poem.
But the poem ends quite differently, with O’Hara seeing Goldberg’s painting in a gallery. It is entitled “Sardines”, even though there are no more sardines in it, just like the poem is called “Oranges”, in spite of having no oranges in it. Both the poet and the painter retained the original “source” of the work in the title, even though it had as well as disappeared in the process. The poem circles back to where it started — to disappearing sardines, and concludes itself with a similarity between two processes, not with the contrast which might explain why the poet is not a painter. Instead, the two processes emerge almost as two sides of the same one, two different views of the same phenomenon.
Since my fun in this life is (mostly) in painting poems, how could I resist the temptation of responding to this poem “in kind” — by a painting entitled “Why I am not a poet?”. I honestly believe the answer given by this painting is about as clear as the answer given by the poem. At least to me it is…
Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,
Some in their garments though new-fangled ill;
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure,
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks and horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
All this away, and me most wretched make.
William Shakespeare. Sonnet 91
August 26, 2016
It’s a strange sonnet — it doesn’t seem too flattering oruplifting, to put the supposed cherished love roughly in the same category as horses or new garments (badly sewn to boot), does it? How would you feel if your lover said to you that they certainly cherish you more than a new piece of cloths?
Inexplicably, the first image that emerged in my attempt to see the future painting is a circle. Maybe because the essence of the sonnet is vanity, a circular multitude of nonsense.
August 27, 2016
This night’s meditation opened up a deeper understanding of the sonnet.
In the first two lines, there is a hidden opposition between the outer, worldly possessions (wealth, garments, horses), and the inner, personal qualities (skill, body’s force). But when this list is revisited in the last quatrain (Thy love is better than high birth to me), the inner side is conspicuously absent. This makes the ostensible compliment even more dubious.
At the heart of the sonnet, there is this special rhythmic power of But these particulars are not my measure.
In harmony with this realisation, the composition clarified itself as a juxtaposition of a circle and an upward-looking triangle. It is as though the circle “stands for” the never ending wheel of vanity and worldly possessions, and the triangle, for one general best (which I am reluctant to equate with thy love).
In the painting process, two ideas became clearer than ever. One, it is not about romantic love, or infatuation (at least not exclusively so). The other: don’t take all this too seriously, it’s all vanity, dissolving into thin air. We are the stuff dreams are made of.
The initial circle has evolved into a swirling spiral broken by the upwards-moving triangle.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Who is it that says most, which can say more,
Than this rich praise, that you alone, are you,
In whose confine immured is the store
Which should example where your equal grew?
Lean penury within that pen doth dwell
That to his subject lends not some small glory;
But he that writes of you, if he can tell
That you are you, so dignifies his story.
Let him but copy what in you is writ,
Not making worse what nature made so clear,
And such a counterpart shall fame his wit,
Making his style admired every where.
You to your beauteous blessings add a curse,
Being fond on praise, which makes your praises worse.
William Shakespeare. Sonnet 84
There is a straightforward thematic unity between this poem and the previous one: the eighty third is about the “subject matter” needing no painting, this one is about impossibility of “objectivity” in art: itsinability of simply tell that you are you. This shared angle is slightly different from the “Poet and Muse” one: its about “Poet and Matter” (a modern writer might call it “Content”; in Shakespeare the theme of “matter” will return in the eighty sixth sonnet).
Just like I had to expand the “matter” in painting the previous sonnet — from the addressee of the sonnet to the whole of life, so it is with this one. The sonnet is written as though the ultimately impossible task of telling that you are you uniquely applies to the young man, but it’s just the surface of things. The problem is not that the addressee is fond of praise — this isn’t what precludes “objectivity”: one just literally cannot copy in poetry what is writ in life. Or if one can, this is an astounding achievement — and that’s what the poem is about. This applies to painting no less than to poetry, in spite of their seeming difference and the illusion of “realism” in painting.
Isn’t it the inner goal of any true work of art — just telling that you are you, that mountain is (a) mountain, and apple is (an) apple. Expressing the objective reality of life?
There is a fundamental problem in translating poetry into painting, which this poem brings to clear light — because it highlights — and thus relinquishes — its (poetry’s) advantage. Words aren’t things themselves, they are symbols (invoking “concepts”) and pointers (indicating “things”). And, among other things, they can point back to themselves, and even to the absence of themselves. So it is easier to write a poem about not writing poems than to paint a painting about not painting. Or like in this case, to write about inability to say something is easier than to paint the inability to paint something.
This poem says what it claims to be impossible to tell, just by straightforwardly using these words, you are you. Here, the words are spoken — and this is obviously not what is meant by being able to tell that you are you, to copy what in you is writ. And in so doing, it doesn’t just talk about inability to express, but expresses this inability to express.
My painting has to be not just about the impotency of painting, it has to express this impotency, to enact it — in painting. How can one do that? The solution I began exploring in the first study is the device of “displaced contour” — a conspicuous discord between colour and contours expressing their inability to “copy” life.
The study was an interesting one to paint, but I didn’t really feel that I was closer to knowing how to paint the sonnet. I felt encouraged about this approach to composing this painting in general, but completely unsure about its subject matter. I feel a certain leeway of randomness in this, because whatever the subject, one cannot “copy” what in it is “writ”.
Another “study” painting session: still experimenting with the discord between contours and colour, for the eighty fourth sonnet, and adding the idea of reflection(s).
The missing piece of this painting’s puzzle, the missing visual idea came from a strange interplay of light, shadows and reflections of leaves (there is a tree just outside) on my bathroom floor in the morning: their utterly failed, and yet charming, attempt to “represent” the leaves. This was the beginning of this sonnet painting today, even though there was less clarity in mind than I had imagined in advance: some things had to clarify themselves in the process.
The subject matter of this painting — a bunch of flowers — repeats itself three times: the flowers themselves — with some discord between contour and colour; their shadows below, and their vague reflection in the space on the left. Three representations, neither of which captures reality.
Today’s painting session: further work on the eighty fourth sonnet, and some adjustments to the eight third one.
Somewhat surprisingly to myself, the theme of these two sonnets — the questioning of art itself, and its relationship to reality — shifted the colour harmony of both paintings: red seeped out of them, which is unusual both for this series, and for my colour harmony in general. What remains is the tension between yellows and blues.
A short painting session, but it seems to have brought the eighty forth painting (84) to some stage of completion. The interplay of space and light is beginning to play out, although I am not quite sure it quite expresses the impossibility of objective expression. But I have to leave it at that, and see how it works in the context of the overall “Poet and Muse” composition.
My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still,
While comments of your praise richly compiled,
Reserve thy character with golden quill,
And precious phrase by all the Muses filed.
I think good thoughts, whilst others write good words,
And like unlettered clerk still cry ‘Amen’
To every hymn that able spirit affords,
In polished form of well-refined pen.
Hearing you praised, I say ”tis so, ’tis true,’
And to the most of praise add something more;
But that is in my thought, whose love to you,
Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.
Then others, for the breath of words respect,
Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.
William Shakespeare. Sonnet 85
… the sonnet is a painfully precise description of my own perception of my life as an artist, coloured and shaped by acute awareness of its overwhelming context: the long history of art, the sky-scraping mountains of books already written and paintings already painted.
May 25, 2016: Golden and Blue
The painting began with a glimpse of colour contrast, “golden” versus “blue”, as an expression of the tension between polished, well-refined comments and dumb thoughts. This contrast, yellow versus blue stands for light versus dark, visible versus invisible, material versus spiritual, outer (apparent) versus inner (real). Kandinsky writes about this range of associations in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, but there is also a link to how Paul Cezanne started his paintings, his first grey-blue compositional lines — so blue becomes the colour of unexpressed, under-developed thought.
May 26, 2016: Colour Charts and Ornaments
The golden versus blue idea was a starting point for the colour chart for this painting. I originally thought of these charts as a way of figuring out the colour harmony of the painting; now, I do this rather as form of more active, visually focused mode of meditation. It’s a way the create a (mental) space for the future painting to show up.
The compositional idea clarified itself in the process: the golden areas of picture plane are more ornamental, more refined, almost like a golden frame, enclosing and constraining the rougher, more sketch-like, less expressed bluish areas.
It also brought in two other painterly associations: Picasso’s “Queen Isabel”, with its play on flatter ornamental areas, and Klimt’s golden ornamental backgrounds. But I still don’t see the subject matter of the future painting, nor is there any real inner opening to the sonnet. No emotional connection strong enough to form the seed of a painting. I am still on the surface of the sonnet, not within.
May 27, 2016: Painting from Life and Dutch Flowers
A pause in the study of the sonnet. There was an overwhelming sensation of life’s bleak meaninglessness the night before, hence the urgent need just to paint from life — doesn’t matter what, just about anything, simply to reconnect with life. Yes something from the sonnet process transferred into this painting (“Window”) — the contrast between expressed and under-expressed, refined and rough.
Contrary to all conventional advice, the vantage point here doesn’t allow for the illusion of seeing the whole scene at the same time: I couldn’t see the still life on the windowsill and all areas of the landscape outside with one glance. There is an eye movement within this painting; it is a kind of “quilt” made from different paintings, different areas of the scene seen and painted separately.
This quality reminded me of the “Dutch flowers” exhibition we saw a couple of weeks back in London. It was perhaps the first time I paid real attention to this genre; I used to perceive it as very alien, way too decorative, too well-refined, too polished. There is a conspicuous association with this want to distance oneself from others’ words in Shakespeare: polished, over-expressed, overly refined and richly decorative. But there is also another connections: these floral scenes, presented like bouquets to the unknowing eye, were often composed of flowers from different seasons — flowers which couldn’t be possibly present within a single bouquet. They couldn’t be seen at the same time, in juxtaposition to one another, except in a painting. So there is a hidden “patchy” quality to these paintings. They are also quilt-like, albeit in a completely different way from mine.
May 31 — June 1: My tongue-tied Muse
Over the weekend, the subject matter of the future sonnet painting emerged, almost without me noticing it: yellow, golden-coloured roses. I bought a bunch of them on Sunday, to paint the sonnet from life.
This choice of subject matter seems random: what does it have to do with the young gentleman to whom the sonnet is addressed? The idea of flowers is probably connected to the Dutch flowers. This association has still a more important part to play in the emergence of this painting. But more generally, flowers — and roses in particular — seem to be one the running theme of the series; this motive is evidently anchored in the sonnets sequence as a whole.
More importantly, though, this sonnet, like many others, calls for re-interpreting its addressee as something more like Universe as a whole — everything in reality, not just one particular person. There is no way for me to find an inner opening to the sonnet without this expansion of its “you”, to align my experience of the world — the narrow keyhole (using Kafka’s expression) through which I see it — with the keyhole offered by the sonnet. Come to think about it, expanding the “you” of the sonnet to the universe as a whole might be closer to its inner meaning than imagining any one individual person as its “you”.
This opening — the inner connection to the sonnet — finally emerged only during the first day of painting. I had to start painting with only a vague idea of what I am doing, but in the process, I suddenly realised that the sonnet is a painfully precise description of my own perception of my life as an artist, coloured and shaped by acute awareness of its overwhelming context: the long history of art, the sky-scraping mountains of books already written and paintings already painted.
Mytongue-tied Musein manners holds her still. I am constrained into “manners” (and, quite often, into silence) by everything that has already been painted and written, by the knowledge that there are already enough words and enough paintings in the world — much, much more than any human being can read and see in a lifetime. It does indeed feel exactly like this: all one can do to express one’s own thoughts is cry “Amen” to others, like an unlettered clerk. After all, what is this whole “Sonnets in colour” series if not such an “Amen” (sort of)?
This clarified meaning brought into the painting a “quote” from one of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s decorative florals: two pinkish buds in the left bottom corner, and the glass vase. They stand for — or point to — the well-polished, golden, richly compiled refinement of “other”. The constraining “frame”, within which my rough, under-expressed painting from life (one’s own dumb thoughts) is enclosed, turned into a circle — another, more abstract compositional quote from de Heem.
This quote — combining as it does flowers separated by centuries as though within a single bouquet — was needed in the painting, but it modified and largely obscured the original contrast between “golden” refinement and “blue” sketchy outline; the painting became more complex, and the contrast between “words” and “thoughts”, more multi-dimensional and, for the time being at least, less clear.
June 2: Contrasts and unity
The next painting session was about clarifying and strengthening these contrasts: clarifying colours and the ornamental quality of the right-most rectangular area of picture plane, tightening and refining the flowers quoted from de Heem, and changing the yellow roses in the upper left corner into something more abstract, non-representational, un-expressed.
As always the case with paintings focusing on “internal” stylistic contrasts, the challenge is to make these contrasts clear while keeping the whole composition stylistically unified nonetheless. On another level, this is the challenge of trying to combine pointers to reality and reality itself within the same artwork.
June 3: Final Notes
The last, very slow, painting session; further clarification and tightening of contrasts and details. The last touches, the last steps are always the hardest and the slowest.
I posted an in-progress photo on Google+, and Terrill Welch’s comment about unusually “circular” and softer brushwork gave me the idea of strengthening this additional contrast, the contrast between smoothness and “roundness” of refined expression and rectangular roughness of “dumb thoughts”.
I am almost sure there will be a return to some areas later on (especially in the context of the overall nine-sonnets composition), but for now, I am leaving the painting be.
Just like there is an arc, a curve in the process of painting each individual sonnet, there is probably a similar (albeit much longer) U-like curve to the whole “Sonnets in colour” series. If so, this painting — or may be this whole composition (“Poet and Muse”) — feels like the deepest, the lowest segment of this “U”. The months spent painting these sonnets were filled with all kinds “negotiating” my own place in the world, and the place of my work — with myself and with my Muse. At some level, this sonnet feels like a culmination of these negotiations.
Or maybe I am just fooling myself — entertaining the hope that the curve will go upwards from here, that it will be easier from now on.
This week, I started the preliminary study of Sonnet 86 (“Was it the proud full sail of his great verse…”). “Study” is probably not the right word for this process of letting the sonnet sink fully into my mind-body system and create the seed of a future painting. This description makes the process seem awfully like sexual intercourse, and maybe it is, indeed, a more appropriate simile than “study”.
I am trying to get (back) into biweekly rhythm for this series — a week of preliminary deep engagement with the sonnet, and then a week of painting the sonnet. Like slow (very slow) breathing in and out. This gives me every other week to paint other things — just to keep me alive through the “breathing in” week. This week, I returned to the view from my studio window, which I started two weeks earlier, while studying Sonnet 85.
Unexpectedly, I realised on Monday that 86 is the last sonnet of the composition I am working on, which I call, for now, “Poem and Muse”.
There is a certain randomness in how the sequence gets broken into these nine-sonnets and sixteen-sonnets sequences; the only mathematical “given” in this is that there will be ten nine-sonnets composition and four sixteen-sonnets composition — this “solution” is determined uniquely by the total number of sonnets. For some reason, I imagined this one will contain sixteen sonnets, but there is a very logical thematic break between eight six and eighty seven – I have no idea how I missed it before. It means that a lot of compositional adjustments I did to individual paintings to create the sense of overall unity were misguided, but somewhat miraculously, the unexpected shift to the nine-sonnets idea works, even though it changes the relative positioning of the individual paintings radically.
On the other hand, the shift gives me an opening into this sonnet, the last sonnet of the composition. It contains, in a sense, a summary, a collage of the whole subsequence, and ends in a complete breakdown of “matter” (“then lacked I matter“). In the future painting, I imagine, it will be a cubist-like breakdown of form. And the colour harmony is also largely determined by the painting’s role in the composition: it ought to lean towards reds, for the sake of the overall harmony. This is a very abstract vision so far, but it’s a beginning.
I love how this sonnet suggests familiarity with ghosts/spirits/muses that visit the “rival” poet, as though they are the same ghosts. This rhymes with my thoughts over these last days, about our basic (in)ability to share experiences. Even if we think we recognise an experience from someone else’s description, it may still be a delusion.
On many levels, it’s a continuation of the previous sonnet’s themes; 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 need to share is already expressed, so there is nothing to be added. It’s only the gap between inner experience and its outer expression, their incomplete alignment, that opens the path for the next artist, the hope to add something new, even if it’s only saying the same old thing in a new way.
I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set;
I found, or thought I found, you did exceed
The barren tender of a poet’s debt:
And therefore have I slept in your report,
That you yourself, being extant, well might show
How far a modern quill doth come too short,
Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow.
This silence for my sin you did impute,
Which shall be most my glory being dumb;
For I impair not beauty being mute,
When others would give life, and bring a tomb.
There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise.
This is one of the sonnets that have a special significance in the context of the “Sonnets in colour” project, because it equates sonnets with paintings. Its theme is an interruption in the flow of sonnets — silence. It glorifies the poet’s silence in the face of life and beauty — this silence might seem like a sin, but it shall bemost my glory — for I impair no beauty, being mute.
And when the poet is silent, the painter stops painting.
I have already grown accustomed to my life mirroring the events and experiences of the sonnets — so I wasn’t surprised that this painting was preceded by a long interruption in the flow of sonnet paintings (it was not even a full-blown “artist’s block”; just a conspiracy of life events).
A poet questioning the role of poetry. The theme of immortality through art, so fundamental to the sequence, is reversed here: far from bestowing immortality, it brings a tomb. One might read this, superficially, as a condemnation of another poet — a rival. But at a deeper level, it is about poetry in general, perhaps about art in general. No wonder, then, that my encounter with this sonnet branched into a series of essays questioning the role of painting (on my “Art of seeing” blog).
Shakespeare’s take on the role of art — the need for art — seems at first to be radically alien to our age: it’s neither about the artist’s “inner need” to create, nor about the audience’s need to be touched by art. Instead, it questions whether it is a need for the “subject matter” — the thing to be represented and expressed (in verse or in colour). Seemingly, he talks only about his particular subject matter — the addressee of his sonnets — but there is this more general question behind the appearance: does life need to be the subject matter of art?
Living through this question — as I had to in order to paint this sonnet — somehow lead me to a new way of seeing this strange quality of the modern world, which often seems to have more poets than readers and more painters than viewers of paintings. We are accustomed to another state of affairs: a few artists — authors, painters, composers — and a multitude of their audience. And now, we seem to live in a different world entirely, in a world with a multitude of speakers and not a lot of listeners. In a sense, this quality brings the condition of the modern artist closer to the condition of a Renaissance sonneteer: after all, these sonnets were not intended for publication when they were written; they were not for public. Even though Shakespeare did know that the sonnets will be read so long as men can breath and eyes can see, yet originally, this was purely an act of interaction between the poet and his subject matter, who was also his Muse.
“The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forwards and upwards. This movement is the movement of experience. It may take different forms, but it holds at bottom to the same inner thought and purpose.
Veiled in obscurity are the causes of this need to move ever upwards and forwards, by sweat of the brow, through sufferings and fears. When one stage has been accomplished, and many evil stones cleared from the road, some unseen and wicked hand scatters new obstacles in the way, so that the path often seems blocked and totally obliterated. But there never fails to come to the rescue some human being, like ourselves in everything except that he has in him a secret power of vision. He sees and points the way. The power to do this he would sometimes fain lay aside, for it is a bitter cross to bear. But he cannot do so.”
The role of an artist, then, is to see and to point the way of spiritual progress; the intended addressee of this act of communication is not its subject matter, but the whole of the humankind; and the artist does so even if the humankind doesn’t seem to look (or listen).
In Kandinsky’s view of the world the artist is, of course, a lonely genius; someone quite unique, one in a multitude. But what we see now is that more and more people making art in spite of unwelcoming circumstances. Can it be that the artist’s “inner need”, which was once the fate of a few, is now felt by many? Can this be a manifestation of the spiritual evolution of human consciousness — the same evolution Kandinsky talks about? Or, in more down-to-earth terms, the humanity’s movement up the Maslow hierarchy, towards the need for self-actualisation?
Nowadays, the common name for this desire to make art seems to be “self-expression”. And, to be frank, if one’s goal is to “express one’s self”, then no wonder nobody is willing to listen — everyone is predictably interested in one’s own self, not in other selves. But I believe “self-expression” is a remarkably misleading term. The artist’s inner need is, in a sense, impersonal: it’s not the need of an artist’s self; it’s something larger, more universal, wanting to be expressed. Can it be that it’s indeed life wanting — needing — to be expressed through art? Can it be that what our age has to express can only be expressed through this distributed artistry, not through lonely geniuses?
I have no answers to these questions, but I needed to write down these “mentations”, as raw as they were invoked by the process of painting this sonnet. It had to be a painting about not-painting, about a breakdown of painting in the face of life and beauty, a painting questioning its own right to exist. This meant, formally, a breakdown of picture plane: painting the illusion of “holes” in the picture plane, as though something were visible through it, rather than on it.
I have always felt some sort of tension about the modern painting’s “law” insisting that a picture plane must never be “broken”; I even remember being criticised for violating this law as a child. This memory has always stayed with me as a potential point of entry into something yet unclear, not quite understood — but wanting to be understood. A vague feeling that there is a meaning in breaking the picture plane, but without the slightest idea of what this meaning might be. This is the meaning I found in this sonnet: the tension between painting and non-painting, between poetry and silence.
There are three openings, three “holes” in the picture plane. I wanted the world revealing itself beyond these openings to be brighter, more full of light and life and beauty, than the “flat” areas of the picture. There is not much of “representation” going on in this painting — it works mostly through geometry of colour — but there is a hint at a juxtaposition of sun “behind” the picture plane and sunflowers on the picture plane.
The painting is really just a fragment of the overall composition of sixteen sonnets about Poet and Poetry, Poet and Muse. It is in this context that it ought to be seen (and, quite possibly, reworked later on, when all its sister paintings are ready and assembled).
There was a scattered, unfocused quality to the last week in the studio, after the second sonnet composition “completed itself” so unexpectedly, leaving me without a clear plan for studio work. And this lack of focus spilled over to the practice of “studio journaling”, too. This is certainly something I’ve got to change: after all, one of the purposes of studio journaling is increased awareness of these periods of lost concentration — and if I stop doing it when such periods roll over me, it cannot really work, can it?
In retrospect, it probably makes more sense to see this week as a slow, hesitant approach to the eighty third sonnet painting (I never saw that you did painting need… ). It’s one of the sonnets which — in the context of this sequence — almost inevitably shift the reference points, and begin to feel as though it’s me talking to Shakespeare: I never saw that you did painting need…
I keep marveling at how my life mirrors the sonnets I am working on with uncanny effortlessness. After all, this particular sonnet obviously refers to a long pause in the flow of sonnets, which somehow provoked frustrated questions from the addressee: where is my next sonnet? Why don’t you write? Why have you slept in my report?
With the second composition complete, and the eighty third sonnet painting decidedly not ready to start spilling onto canvas, I had two options: to return to Rembrandt study (an ultimate remedy for any “artist’s block”), or to try and re-invigorate my sense of vision with some painting from life.
And since it just so happened that I bought a bunch of sunflowers over the weekend, that’s what I decided to do — using an earlier (utterly failed) painting of irises as “underpainting”. Apart from just the pure joy of painting from life, without agenda or expectations, I had this fleeting idea of combining two moments in time within a single canvas — and two opposing themes of “Irises” and “Sunflowers”, both inspired by Van Gogh. In the painting, this theme shows itself as a tension between two “styles”, two different “geometries”. But as a lived painting experience, it was simply a tension between the existing painting of irises (representing the past), and the visual experience of sunflowers in the here and now.
Although the eighty third sonnet kept reciting itself in the background of my mind, it didn’t bring me perceptibly closer to actually starting the painting. So the next day, I decided to take another roundabout — to have a closer look at the previous paintings from the overall composition it belongs to.
It is supposed to be a sixteen sonnets composition (the working title is “Poet and his Muse”) and there are five completed (or quasi-completed) paintings so far. There was a hope that this experience will bring me closer to painting the eighty third, and a slight suspicion that there maybe something to be changed in these previous paintings. Of these five, it was the eightieth sonnet that (once again) called powerfully to be changed, shouting out its incompleteness, its lack of ultimate clarity.
How strange that this one has turned out to be so hard, the process so long and windy — even though its visualisation is so clear and straightforward. Maybe it’s not the sonnet per se, but just repercussions from the difficult, dark months of the last fall. Or maybe this is just another case of sonnets playing havoc with my life: after all, this sonnet reaches deep into shadowy doubts in one’s artistic powers (and the fact that it’s Shakespeare, and not me, who engages in virtual self-flagellation here, doesn’t really help much; if anything, it makes it worse).
And that morning, behind and beyond seeing imperfections on the surface of this painting with a fresh eye, there were two strong impulses for change. One came from the neighbouring sonnet painting, with its strong circular movement — a tangible need to support and clarify the radiance of this shape by strengthening a similar, rhyming, larger circle partially visible in this painting. And the other, more internal motivation: the need to express more clearly that, after all, it’s the poor, wretched, wrecked, saucy boat — the self-representation of the speaker — that creates and shapes the space of this sonnet and gives it its light and power (without losing any of its wretchedness in the process). In a sense, these impulses turned out to be the same, or almost the same (because it’s actually the sail of the small boat that gives shape to the circular movement linking this sonnet painting with the next one).
There was a small — or seemingly small — experience during this short painting session, which seems strangely significant. At some point, I noticed a black spot — or rather couple of small spots — near the upper edge of the painting (close to the centre of the large sail). It was obviously just dirt, and so, at some point, when the painting declared its completeness (or near-completeness) to me, I decided it was about time to paint over these random spots.
I couldn’t resist making a couple of other small alterations at the same time, so when the painting turned out to have weakened when I stepped back again, I attributed it to those other changes, and partially reversed them — but that just wasn’t enough. To return the painting to its peak strength, I had to re-introduce — although in a somewhat different way — that darker and greyer spot near the upper edge, replicating what had seemed to be “just” random dirt. It was almost as though painting had been trying somehow to “correct” itself while I wasn’t paying attention to it — and all I had to do was listen to its cues…