In search for meaning in the realm of freedom: Hannah Arendt on the threat of automation

It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.

I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt’s “The human condition” (1958) — on and off over the last couple of weeks, because it feels, most of the time, like a very depressive read, a look into a bleak and hopeless future of the humankind.

She writes about severable foreseeable events that threaten this future, and by now, one of them has already happened — or rather, is happening right now:

This is the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity. Here, too, a fundamental aspect of the human condition is at stake, but the rebellion against it, the wish to be liberated from labor’s “toil and trouble,” is not modern but as old as recorded history. Freedom from labor itself is not new; it once belonged among the most firmly established privileges of the few. In this instance, it seems as though scientific progress and technical developments had been only taken advantage of to achieve something about which all former ages dreamed but which none had been able to realize.

It may not feel like this liberation is happening right now — especially not to someone working long hours in a soul-deadening job and/or struggles to make the ends meet. But it is here, we are living it — even if this dream sometimes feel like a nightmare, showing itself in the threatening guises of unemployment and decreasing labor participation rate (so that “job creation” — making new opportunities for labor out of thin air — is perceived like a most useful activity). By the way, another well-know face of this dream come true is procrastination: one doesn’t procrastinate about something one is really bound to do by life’s necessity; procrastination is a sign of freedom — of a freely made choice to do something.

A slightly more “advanced” version of a society liberated from labour was (rather vividly) imagined by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1952 dystopia, “Player Piano”. There, nobody needs to worry about paying their bills, and most people don’t need to do anything — everyone has enough to consume; but, contrary to all expectations, this doesn’t make the liberation from labor feel like a dream come true either, because life becomes meaningless.

The threat, then, is not automation per se — the threat is our inability to find meaning in the realm of freedom from necessity. That’s how Arendt describes this threat:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.

I feel this painful contradiction every day; I am living it. I dropped out of “labor force” quite a few years ago, and, apart from a few smallish household chores, I don’t really need to do anything which would qualify as “labor” — that is, anything necessary for the process of life. For all intents and purposes, I am living in the realm of freedom from life’s necessities, and my private realm of freedom is filled with painting, reading, contemplation, and love. Surely, nothing could be better.

But this lack of need for me to do anything often feels like it’s me that is not needed, and then the realm of freedom appears to me as the barren desert of uselessness and meaninglessness. I can probably think of myself as one of these few solitary individuals mentioned by Arendt in passing, those who still “consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living” (I have to, if only because I am not making a living). But an activity qualifies as “work” only insofar as its result enter the public realm — insofar as they are shared and, at least to some extent, seen.

And so my days are split between painting and this (blind and somewhat desperate) quest for contribution, for action, for participation in life. A search of how to share whatever it is I have to share — is it a search for meaning in the realm of freedom, or a quest to be bound by something, not so weightlessly and carelessly free? It requires some willpower and effort to drag myself away from the realm of freedom towards the whole range of different attempts to transform what I am doing into “work”, into something that has an existence, a way of being, in the public realm. And yet I keep doing it… all the time feeling that I would rather just paint privately and be free.     

I came across an interesting idea on Scott Young’s website the other day: if you work at home, he says, stop counting your work hours. Instead, maximise the free time — the time that remains when the necessary daily “work” tasks are taken care of. This idea brought this contradiction into the light of clarity: if I think of painting as “work”, this advice makes no sense at all; painting is something I want to be doing, not something I want to get done. It can only happen in the realm of freedom.

Arendt acknowledges that the artist is, in a sense, exempt from the general trend:

… we have almost succeeded in leveling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance. Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of “making a living”; such is the verdict of society, and the number of people, especially in the professions who might challenge it, has decreased rapidly. The only exception society is willing to grant is the artist, who, strictly speaking, is the only “worker” left in a laboring society.

But this seems to have changed: the society’s verdict is now that the artist, too, has to either “make a living” or be condescendingly relegated to the status of “hobbyist”. Arendt writes about this change:

The same trend to level down all serious activities to the status of making a living is manifest in present-day labor theories, which almost unanimously define labor as the opposite of play. As a result, all serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness. In these theories, which by echoing the current estimate of a laboring society on the theoretical level sharpen it and drive it into its inherent extreme, not even the “work” of the artist is left; it is dissolved into play and has lost its worldly meaning. The playfulness of the artist is felt to fulfil the same function in the laboring life process of society as the playing of tennis or the pursuit of a hobby fulfils in the life of the individual.”

But here, I think, there is a glimpse of hope: a hope to turn the threat into a challenge, a way to perceive the liberation from necessity for the wished-for paradise it really is. What we lack, after all, what makes this wish come true into a threat is just the knowledge of “those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won”. The search for this knowledge one of the greatest challenges of our age, and the artist’s playful labor might just be one of the seeds from which it will emerge.

Painting Sonnet 84: On the impossibility of objectivity in Art (Studio notes April 19-April 29, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 84: You are you. 20″×20″. 2016.

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

April 19

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: its  inability 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.

April 20

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.

Lena Levin. Study for Sonnet 84. April 2016. 20″×10″.

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”.

April 21

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).

Lena Levin. Still life on a glass table (study for sonnet 84). April 2016.
Lena Levin. Still life on a glass table (study for sonnet 84). April 2016.
April 24
Sonnet 84 (the beginning)
Sonnet 84 (the beginning)

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.

April 28
Sonnet 84 (in progress)
Sonnet 84 (in progress)

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.    

April 29

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: painting sonnet 85

Lena Levin. Sonnet 85. 20″×20″. June 2016.

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
Paul Cezanne. Pool And Lane Of Chestnut Trees At Jas De Bouffan. 1880
Paul Cezanne. Pool And Lane Of Chestnut Trees At Jas De Bouffan. 1880

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

2016-05-26 15.10.02The 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.

Pablo Picasso. Queen Isabella. 1908
Pablo Picasso. Queen Isabella. 1908

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.

Gustav Klimt. Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. 1907
Gustav Klimt. Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. 1907
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.

Lena Levin. "Window" (in-progress)
Lena Levin. “Window” (in-progress)

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.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, 'A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase on a Ledge with further Flowers, Shells and a Butterfly', 1609-10.
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ‘A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase on a Ledge with further Flowers, Shells and a Butterfly’, 1609-10.

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.

Painting in-progress
Painting in-progress

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.

 My  tongue-tied Muse in 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.

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse?

Lena Levin. "Window". 30"x20". In progress.
Lena Levin. “Window”. 30″x20″. In progress.

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.   

Studio notes on sonnet 83, plus some thoughts on “distributed artistry” [March 31 — April 8]

Lena Levin. Sonnet 83 (The barren tender of a poet’s debt). April 2016.

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 be most my gloryfor 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.   

And this seems radically different from how the role of art is generally envisioned. Wassily Kandinsky writes in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”:

“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).

On the responsibility of the artist [April 6-7, 2016]

Rembrandt. Artist in his studio. 1626.
Rembrandt. Artist in his studio. 1626.

Over the last several weeks, I somehow lost the rhythm of daily writing — which I seemed to have found, and integrated firmly into the overall structure of my day, in the beginning of this year.

The inner core of this rhythm is journaling, in my own, very inner, very private journal; writing down, every evening, all the impressions and insights of the day — in studio and elsewhere; having a deeper look into my own mind. The public, blogging facade — this “Studio Journal” — is an outshot of that. I would re-read every evening what I’ve written the day before, and if there was something worth sharing, I would edit the entry into a “Studio Journal” blog post, which is to say — edit out all the stuff which I feel should remain private; things completely personal and unrelated to the studio process.

I know — I’ve learned it the hard way — that journaling is essential for my life and work, for their organic, effortless flow. But there is a paradox in that, a paradox rooted in fear. Journaling is a tool for self-reflection, as a mirror of my mind. It creates a pause needed to take a step back from the fleetingness of life, and to see what’s really going on, to accept and “integrate” the achievements, and to acknowledge the failures, to gain some measure of clarity for my journey into the future.

It is as essential as “stepping back” in the painting process — when you stop the process, and look at what you are doing from a distance. If you don’t do it with some regularity, you are likely to end up with a mess — or, at the very least, with something dramatically different from what you imagined you were painting. And the danger is that, sometimes, there is a temptation to delay stepping back precisely because you really sense you need it — but this sensation means that something might have gone wrong, and you are not fully aware of it. There is a temptation in keeping the illusion of flow intact, to let it live for a while. And so you don’t do it precisely because you need to do it.   

I think I got it right with the painting process — reacting almost automatically when this sensation begins to arise. But the journaling practice is newer and weaker (although I did journal in the past, this was long ago). And so the routine broke exactly when it was most needed, when I began to feel that something might have gone wrong, but — apparently — didn’t really want to see it clearly. Life — at least my life — unfolds in these waves of ups and downs. I renewed journaling on the upward movement — precisely because I wanted to gain more awareness about what actually happens during the “downs”, and hoped that the habit will “hold” — but it broke almost at the first hint of the first downward movement.

So there is only one way — to renew it right now, without waiting for the next “up” (even though I suspect that this very determination might signal the beginning of the next “up” — which would be very welcome, by the way). And not only “internal” journaling — the “Studio Journal” blog, too; after all, the idea is that raw reflections on the process of painting the sonnets are an inherent part of the whole project.   

But this entry is not about sonnets — not directly. We had to go to San Francisco on Wednesday, and decided to use this opportunity to visit Pierre Bonnard’s exhibition in Legion of Honor. We’ve never really seen his work properly, even though he is represented in many museums we’ve been to. But on those occasions, competition was usually too strong — just too many things that I needed to see more; there was never enough time and space for Bonnard. In retrospect, I think it was good that I didn’t see his work properly before, because this was a completely unexpected experience, and a strikingly unpleasant one. Not because he is not a powerful painter — rather, because he is.

The essence of painting is showing the invisible — sharing one’s inner experience of the world with the viewer(s). And the experience communicated by Bonnard is that of an extreme world-alienation; more so: life-alienation. It is impressionism for the age of life-alienation — or rather, in Bonnard’s case, of complete alienation between human beings, a total, cold, unbearable breakdown of empathy and compassion.

His world of is the world populated by human beings who are absent even though their bodies are there — but just as material objects that affect the distribution of light and colour. Sometimes their heads are just cut off by the edge of the picture plane, sometimes shadowed to the point of invisibility. But even when they are visible, people are expressionless, nearly faceless — they are not present as human beings; if the eyes are windows into the soul, they have no souls (and even self-portraits don’t really constitute an exception). The only beings who have souls in this world are cats (and, less so, dogs).

I know this experience is real; there is a truth in it — after all, it’s not without reason that the ability to be present is being praised as a spiritual achievement. But, frankly, the last thing I want is for this experience to be magnified by painting — and Bonnard certainly has the power to do so. As a matter of fact, I hope that the peak — or rather the darkest depth — of the age of alienation might be over, that we are moving away from that. And these paintings — they certainly don’t help. That’s why I don’t even want to illustrate this post with a reproduction…   

I’ve been reading this book, “Art and Human Consciousness”, by Gottfried Richter. I keep planning to write about it in more detail, but it is hard to find my language for that — because his language is strongly shaped by his worldview, which is, in many ways, alien to me. I was able to transcend this gap in reading, but it is more difficult to do in writing.

But the Bonnard exhibition reminded me of one of Richter’s observations about the art of the twentieth century. He believes that, in earlier ages, artists were, in a sense, protected: as though there was an angel guarding the doorway to the darkness. If you were a true artist, you could be assured that all the insights you get — all the inner experiences you express — come from the light side of the spiritual realm (even though this doorway, too, was guarded by an angel). But now, both angels have left the world, and both doorways are unguarded. The artist now bears the full responsibility of knowing whether an experience come from the darkness or from the light. You can be a true artist, and still help in spreading the darkness in the world. And that was my experience of Bonnard.

I never saw that you did painting need… (March 22-25)

Lena Levin. Sunflowers and Irises (in progress). 24"x20".
Lena Levin. Sunflowers and Irises (in progress). 24″x20″.

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… 

Interestingly, this painting was nearly ready to start several weeks ago, just before the whole renovation project disrupted my life and work (sooner than expected). But when back in the studio, I couldn’t return to it right away, vacillating instead between my Rembrandt study and the rework of the second composition, “Paradox of death”.

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?

And so my life, and the steady progress of my studio work, make a swerve, creating a mirroring pause in the flow of sonnet paintings: me sleeping in Shakespeare’s report. And if that wasn’t enough, the whole theme of need for painting branched out into a newly emerged plan for a series of essays for my “Art of Seeing” site…   

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.

Sonnet 80 (O how I faint when I of thee do write...)
Sonnet 80 (O how I faint when I of thee do write…)

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).

Sonnet 81
Sonnet 81

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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting sonnet 82: dissolving dualities (January 20 – February 10, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 82 (I grant thou weren’t married to my Muse). 20″x20″. 2016

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

The beginning of this sonnet painting was rooted in two initial impressions:

First, the way this sonnet contrasts with the previous one, 81: the markedly increased distance between “I” and “thou/you” of the sonnet. If the eight first sonnet suggested that “I” and “thou” are, in a sense, two “selves” of the poet, here they are definitely different “persons”. And the other person is not even the poet’s Muse anymore — this idea is replaced by (not) being married to her.

Secondly, the repetitive juxtaposition of fair and true — and their interaction within the sonnet — reminded me of what Hamlet tells Ophelia about incompatibility of honesty and beauty. And “true” repeated four times within the space of two lines: a conspicuously pervasive insistence on one’s own honesty.

This insistence on truth highlights the major challenge of “translating” this sonnet: its falsehood, in the plainest sense of saying something one doesn’t believe to be true. That’s what happens when you write a letter to someone you are really angry with, but whom you don’t want to anger; you want to let them know how wrong they are, but try to be polite and politic, even to flatter them — but only to get your point across, which makes you even angrier, because all the while you don’t believe a single word you are saying. It is this forced falsehood that finally breaks the all too elegant flesh of the sonnet with the four repetition of true in lines eleven and twelve.

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

These questions connected themselves with the contrast between two “selves”: the more expansive “self” of Sonnet 81, capable of bestowing immortality, and the narrowed, contracted “self” of Sonnet 82, overcome with absurd jealousy to “rival poets” – the “smaller” self, which takes charge when the larger one collapses in response to being hurt, angered, jealous, afraid.

The stronger one’s connection to the higher self, the more painful this collapse must be; one can almost hear the scratching sound of the whole infinite space crushing into a narrow “hole” of limited perception. This is the experience enacted in this sonnet, and this is the experience that had to be expressed in the painting.

2015-09-09 14.27.59This understanding brought with it the initial vision for the painting: an open space expanding from the left upwards to the right, and the small (flat, cubistic, not quite whole) human figure crushed in the bottom right corner. From the very beginning, this painting connected itself to the motive of the sonnet 78 painting — located right above it the future sixteen-sonnets composition: the god-like Muse, who was raising the human up to the heaven, has finally thrown the him to the earth.

Pablo Picasso. The old blind guitarist.
Pablo Picasso. The old blind guitarist.

And then the open space of this concept filled itself with a rainbow. It happened when I caught a tiny glimpse of rainbow on my shower floor. The rainbow presented itself as a way to introduce two — apparently contradictory — sensations emanating from the sonnet: its background tone of a higher, “god-like”, self, and its pretence, its superficial falsity. There had been “signs” of the part a rainbow has to play in this painting before: the couple of rainbows we saw on Saturday, and a later moment when my attention was drawn to the twentieth sonnet painting with its — not quite successful — rainbow (interestingly that sonnet contains the word “hue”, like this one; it may well be that this word naturally brings the rainbow into the imagery of a sonnet). But this tiny funny rainbow in the small pool of water on the floor of my shower was the “last straw” that clarified this idea.

Another aspect of the painting clarified itself on the same morning— not quite directly, but the painting would “refer” to Picasso’s old blind guitarist. That was enough to start the painting process, but this process turned out to be both harder and more rewarding than I had anticipated.

2016-01-26 15.49.33By the end of two painting days, the rainbow looked way more garish than I felt comfortable with. In a sense, that was the intended reflection of the “false sound” of the sonnet, but it didn’t quite work nonetheless. I felt an aversion to the look and feel of the painting, but wasn’t sure whether it’s essentially the same aversion I feel towards the pretence of the poem. All in all, I didn’t like the paintings’ “present”,  and I couldn’t see its future.

2016-01-27 12.54.51The next night brought some clarity: a still vague way of gradually muting the colours of the rainbow, without fully losing its rainbow-y feel. The rainbow was now just an underpainting; if there is a rainbow out there in this space, then the sonnet hides it, rather than revealing it. As I began to implement this new vision, the initial contrast between space and flatness, colour and greyness has softened into some sort of unification. However humbled and degraded the poet in this sonnet, it is still he — not someone else — who generates the space he has fallen from, the heaven he has — temporarily at least — lost. The new composition was barely there, but I finally saw, even if not quite clearly, the future of the painting; and there was a sense of breaking through yet another false duality, the duality of two “selves”. I love these moments of clarification happening inside the process, when the painting is not just an implementation of a pre-conceived vision, but a rightful participant, with its own contribution to the result.

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

And another source for this painting (apart from Picasso’s musician) has revealed itself: Chagall’s homage to Apollinaire. There are two shared ideas, which might appear quite disconnected from one another: the dominance of a circle in the composition, and the explicit tension between duality and unity. All in all, the painting of this sonnet turned out to be a private exercise in dissolving and overcoming dualities.

What I initially perceived as the core of the sonnet, the recorded experience of falling into the constraints of smaller, angrier self, has revealed itself to be — not wrong exactly, but too limited, insufficient. Understood too straightforwardly, it led me to what can be justly called gross painting (to use the sonnet’s own words): too direct, too superficial, garish, gaudy.

2016-01-29 14.44.49What was needed was to acknowledge that both layers of self are there; perhaps they cannot exist one without the other. Stressing the opposition — without recognising the underlying unity — is but a deeper-level falsehood, another misplaced duality. The same voice both falls from the heaven and generates the heaven. Dissolving the contrast (while still keeping it alive, in a sense) involved changes in colour, in the overall geometry of the painting, and, on the purely representational level, in the change of the hand gesture (it now links this painting to the sixty fifth sonnet painting). And then something strange happened — quite unforeseen, unplanned: the dissolution of the duality between the poet and the muse.

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

I left the painting to sit there for a while, uncertain about whether it was complete. And the longer it was sitting there in the corner of my studio, the louder the inner voice of the need to return to it, so I returned to it on February 10, 2016. This day strengthened and clarified the unification of the two contrasting parts of the painting, both in its colour and its geometry. The figure in the bottom right corner of the painting is now not a lonely victim, but also the source of the rainbow-y space. And the rainbow itself has gradually transformed itself from a garish flat curve into a more topologically complex, multidimensional, and mysterious space.

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

Lena Levin. Sonnet 81. 20″×20″. 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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