Painting sonnet 95: Art in the light of conscience

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

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

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

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

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

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 95

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 94

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

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

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

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

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

Sonnet 93: How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow

Painting Shakespeare’s sonnet 93

Lena Levin. Sonnet 93. 2016
Lena Levin. Sonnet 93. 2016

So shall I live, supposing thou art true,
Like a deceived husband; so love’s face
May still seem love to me, though altered new;
Thy looks with me, thy heart in other place:

For there can live no hatred in thine eye,
Therefore in that I cannot know thy change.
In many’s looks, the false heart’s history
Is writ in moods, and frowns, and wrinkles strange.

But heaven in thy creation did decree
That in thy face sweet love should ever dwell;
Whate’er thy thoughts, or thy heart’s workings be,
Thy looks should nothing thence, but sweetness tell.

How like Eve’s apple doth thy beauty grow,
If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 93

The previous sonnet equates love with life, and ends with not knowing, with rejecting the desire to know. This one plays with this temptation — with the tension, or even irresolvable contradiction between love and knowledge — and ends with the image of Eve’s apple: the desire to know leads one into exile from the garden of Eden.

Rhythmically, the sonnet falls into two parts. In the first two quatrains, the thought tends to stop, to pause between the lines, or even in the middle of the line. Then, starting with But Heaven in thy creation did decree, the thought flows, as though the resolution of the tension is found: love wasn’t created to for us know it; it resists knowledge. And yet, the mention of creation invokes Eve’s apple: the temptation is always there.

We are caught in the conundrum of three oppositions: love versus know, looks (beauty) versus heart, true versus false. The mind wants to decide whether truth lies in love or in knowledge, but there is no answer.   

In the painting, a curtain of beauty and love — a rain of colour — hides a twisted human figure. I don’t know whether this twisted human form represents the invisible essence of the addressee, or the self-torture of the speaker’s struggle to decide whether he wants to love or to know. Perhaps both — perhaps there is no difference between the two.

Sonnet 92: What is so blessed fair that fears no blot?

Painting sonnet 92 (September 12-16, 2016)
Lena Levin. Sonnet 92. 20"x20". 2016
Lena Levin. Sonnet 92. 20″x20″. 2016

But do thy worst to steal thyself away,
For term of life thou art assured mine;
And life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine.

Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs,
When in the least of them my life hath end.
I see a better state to me belongs
Than that which on thy humour doth depend:

Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,
Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie.
O what a happy title do I find,
Happy to have thy love, happy to die!

But what’s so blessed-fair that fears no blot?
Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 92

There is this traditional, commonly received, reading of the sonnets sequence  as a story of the poet’s infatuation with a “fair youth”, almost a romantic diary.

But the longer I stayed with the sonnets, the more I felt how utterly incomplete, how almost absurdly shallow this interpretation really is. Again and again, I had to reach out to much deeper — and much less “romantic” — layers of their meaning, because there was just no other way for me to paint them. With this sonnet, this “infatuation with fair youth” interpretation broke down completely.

This poem is so definitely not about an untrustworthy lover and planning a suicide (or anticipating dying from broken heart) if they abandon you. It’s about the unity — identity even — between love and life: by the end of the sonnet, these words are just two phonetic variants pointing to the same thing.   

What is this thing?

Well, what is so blessed-fair that fears no blot? Thou may be false, and yet I know it not.

Rembrandt. The supper at Emmaus. Oil on paper on panel. 39 x 42 cm. Circa 1628.
Rembrandt. The supper at Emmaus. Oil on paper on panel. 39 x 42 cm. Circa 1628. Click to read more about this painting.

There is no answer — only the question. When I first started to contemplate this sonnet, Rembrandt’s “Supper at Emmaus” floated to my mind — a figure which might be there, or it might be not. I know it not. I wanted the painting to be a structural and coloristic equivalent of the poem’s love/life music, possibly with a glimpse of a figure that might not be there.

To my mind, the ninety second painting — finally! — embodies this idea I’ve been dreaming about, and visualising, for so long: the pure movement of colour, barely restrained by geometry and lines. There was something in this sonnet that finally let this vision manifest itself in a painting: something liberating in its way of communicating the idea that life and love is one and the same thing, that they are both in constant flux of revolving inconstancy.

Sonnet 91: But these particulars are not my measure (August 26 – September 1, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 91: But these particulars are not my measure. 20″×20″. 2016.

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 or uplifting, 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).

August 28, 2016

The vision is now clear: the painting will be a variation on “Table of desserts” (both de Heem and Matisse).

August 29, 2016 — September 1, 2016

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.

Painting sonnet 89 (July 21 — August 4, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 89: Say thou didst forsake me for some fault. 20″×20″. 2016.

Say that thou didst forsake me for some fault,
And I will comment upon that offence:
Speak of my lameness, and I straight will halt,
Against thy reasons making no defence.
Thou canst not, love, disgrace me half so ill,
To set a form upon desired change,
As I’ll myself disgrace; knowing thy will,
I will acquaintance strangle, and look strange;
Be absent from thy walks; and in my tongue
Thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell,
Lest I, too much profane, should do it wrong,
And haply of our old acquaintance tell.
For thee, against my self I’ll vow debate,
For I must ne’er love him whom thou dost hate.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 89

July 21, 2016

When would you be more willing to disgrace yourself than to blame someone you love?

My first association was a conversation with a friend several months back. He talked about his experience of not being loved by God: that he valued, even cherished, that experience, and did not want to let it go. Even leaving aside this tiny detail that I don’t really know what he meant by “God”, I don’t think I know this experience either, but it must be close to what this sonnet speaks about. My guess is, if you feel unloved by God, you assume that this is because you are unloveable, not because God is to blame.

The lack of love is not the same as an absolute absence, absolute emptiness.

I zoomed in on my childhood feeling of not being good enough to be loved by my parents, trying to witness it without allowing myself to drown in the sorrow of it. The core of this experience is my mother’s “silent treatment”, which felt like complete and absolute abandonment, like the end of the world. From this place, I feel the first word of the sonnet, Say, as a kind of prayer, a desperate plea: say at least something, acknowledge my existence, let me know thy will. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s absence. It’s silence.

First hints of mental imagery. Grey clouds covering the sun completely. The image of black sun. The absence of red is not green: it is red being split into violets and oranges. Hints of orange behind violet-grey clouds? A movement of violet clouds across the picture plane, from its left edge to the right. A movement that doesn’t engage the viewer; it doesn’t even notice the viewer. I remembered Van Gogh’s clouds, but they are different. Van Gogh’s desperation is not emptiness; it’s a movement from which you are absent.

Lena Levin. Colour study for sonnet 89
Lena Levin. Colour study for sonnet 89

I did a small colour study, to explore this idea of movement, and the splitting of red into violet/magenta and orange/lemony yellow, surrounded by black and white (and possibly grey). How different silence can be, I thought — love can be silent, as in “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, and then there is this silence which is the complete absence of love. This is the silence the speaker of the sonnet tries to break.

The image of grey-violet clouds flying from one side of the picture plane to the other, without any interaction with the viewer. Closed, horizontal; threatening. Splashes of black, orange, and white in the background. Interplay of flat areas and Van Gogh-like movement and thickness.

July 26, 2016
Lena Levin. Still life with onions (study for sonnet 89).
Lena Levin. Still life with onions (study for sonnet 89).

I still don’t see the sonnet, although I suspect it must be abstract, just like the previous one. One thing I see, though, is the patches of clear blue in a curve across the picture plane. The heart of the sonnet is the slow wave of longing beginning with And in my tongue // thy sweet beloved name no more shall dwell. The sonnet begins with an appeal to say something and ends with a vow split between silence and “debate”: the speaker doesn’t know whether it’s better to remain silent or to debate against oneself.

I decided to rework an earlier still life with onions today, treating it as a study for the sonnet, concentrating on its movement, its mental gestures.

July 29, 2016

In its quest for the vision of this sonnet, my imagination vacillates somewhere between black stars against lemony yellow sky, and dark-violet thunderclouds with warm yellow and orange barely visible behind. And there are always these patches of bright blue, arranged in a kind of curve (maybe I will need a bright blue ground for this painting?). The very idea of bright blue ground scares me, so I should probably go ahead with it.

In the poem, there is this repeated mismatch between rhythmic breaks (between quatrains and lines) and semantic breaks (between sentences and lines of thought). I keep returning to this tender, slow movement around your sweet beloved name: this wave of longing is the why and wherefore of the sonnet.

Van Gogh’s starry night brings together the incompatible — this huge sky, and the town underneath. The key to this painting is to combine the black against lemony yellow with the violet covering hints of orange.

Lena Levin. Still life with a black sun (study for sonnet 89).
Lena Levin. Still life with a black sun (study for sonnet 89).

Another attempt to study the sonnet through painting, returning to a still life with pears and apples to introduce a diagonal downwards movement of blue and a “black sun” (reversing Van Gogh’s “Starry night”). I know there must be this black sun in lemon-y skies in the upper part of the painting, and a movement of violets covering glimpses of orange in the lower part, and they must be separated by a powerful movement of blue across the picture plane.

August 1-4, 2016
Michail Vrubel. Demon seated. 1890.
Michail Vrubel. Demon seated. 1890.

I cannot believe I had converged on the Demon motive for this painting last week in meditation, and then completely forgot it. I knew there was something missing all through weekend, but it took a bit of more contemplation in the night to recall this vision. So now I know the motive, the structure, and the colour. And I know I have to start with bright and deep blues.

The core insight from the first painting painting session was that the “demon” and the “black sun” is one and the same thing. I also realised that Demon is not human. The human shape in Vrubel’s painting is just him conforming to the conventions of the time, and the strange outbursts of colour around the Demon ought to actually be him. As it is, his inner turmoil, and his inner dark light, are moved outside the figure to be visible. In my study — in this sonnet painting — it must all be within.

Set me light: painting sonnet eighty eight (July 5 — July 20, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 88 (Set me light). 20″×20″. 2016.

When thou shalt be disposed to set me light,
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side, against myself I’ll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn.

With mine own weakness being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults concealed, wherein I am attainted;
That thou in losing me shalt win much glory:

And I by this will be a gainer too;
For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to myself I do,
Doing thee vantage, double-vantage me.

Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
That for thy right, myself will bear all wrong.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 88

Reading through my notes for this sonnet, I see that my idea (hope, really) that the previous subsequence, The Paradox of Muse, was the deepest, lowest, darkest part of this journey was both true and false. I am moving faster, that’s true. And it is getting lighter (as in “more light”) — that is true as well. This tells that it may, indeed, be the beginning of the upward leg of this path. But it is by no means easier. It is steep, and dark, and fuzzy, and I don’t know what I am doing most of the time. And this the first time that the process of painting a sonnet had such noticeable effects on my physical body.


2016-07-22 14.59.21Here is this sonnet’s initial colour chart. The colour harmony, it seems, has mostly clarified itself from the very beginning: the dominance of red/pinks, underlined by muted bluish greens.

At that point, I thought the painting was going to be a landscape, a Cezannesque pre-cubist landscape. I seemed to see something like a mountain, or a roof, and some back and forth movement of colour: greenish patches receding, and reds/pinks popping forward. But I didn’t see any connection: why should it be a landscape? No idea.

Set me light rang like the key phrase to unlocking this sonnet. It seems to strike such a different emotional chord, out of tune with the rest of the poem.

The structure, the inner geometry of the painting emerged later on, as I was lying awake at night: it was basically the same as in the final painting, only without the foreground bushes. When I saw this structure, there was this sensation of aha-moment, a moment of recognition, but still no conscious understanding of what this structure has to do with the sonnet.

Later, in the morning, I recognised the connection to the spatial tension in the imagery the sonnet: my side versus thy side. It’s a vision of separation, both strengthened and mediated by the longing to be on the other side from self.

The sonnet tries to present one’s own problem — the anticipation of being abandoned, set light — as the other’s problem. The speaker wants to believe that the forsworn lover needs some rationalisation for the breakup, and that he would seek this justification in questioning the speaker’s merit. This gives the speaker a chance to still be “together” with the lover, on his side — because who is better placed to provide such justification than he, who really knows his weakness, and faults concealed? (This sentence about story of faults concealed, interrupted by the line break, somehow evokes Horatio’s speech in the last scene of “Hamlet”: And let me speak to the yet unknowing world //  How these things came about.)

At first sight, this whole conceptual structure seems contrived and disingenuous: who would really want to help the other blame oneself, and find sincere joy in it? But there is a lot of psychological truth to it, for me at least. It’s really the one being abandoned, not the one doing the abandoning, who desperately needs to rationalise what is going on — and “it’s all my fault” seems to be as good as avenue for such a rationalisation as any. At the very least, it saves one from ruining what feels like the best part of oneself, love. And it does creates this temporary illusion of ongoing unity, of being “on the same side”, even in spite of the inevitable separation.

I interpreted my purely geometrical vision as a river, or some other water surface, separating the viewer from the other side. “This side”, then, should be visible in the foreground, blocking the “entrance” to the pictorial space.

The next insight came next night (I was awake for a couple of hours once again). I realised that this sonnet painting is going to be abstract, more abstract than anything I had painted before. It was not an accident that the geometry of the composition was so clear to me, while its representational motive remained vague.

And this realisation ties in with the future of my painting practice more generally: in order to move forward, I have to engage with abstraction more directly (something I had been consciously avoiding for years). In a very experientially clear sense, this realisation does set me light.   

Next day, while walking around the nearest lake, I noticed a group of dark-green bushes leaning left under the wind. This impression is the source for the painting’s foreground: some traces of representational motive, separating the viewer from the abstraction of pictorial space. Once this element clarified itself, I was ready to start the painting. Colour — these reds and pinks which were there from the start — is the unifying force in the painting. It stands for the desperate attempt at unification in the face of separation.

The painting process was difficult and scattered, partly because of the construction work still going on outside. But I wasn’t feeling too well physically either — as though my body was trying to accommodate some changes, but could not. There was a feeling of weakness, some kind of overall weirdness, even dizziness. Whatever the cause, the whole week was filled with this strange impatient tension, the sensation of being out of place, scattered. Could it be the sonnet’s sensation?

One night — awake again — I decided to confront this feeling directly. A huge, dark sadness raised from what felt like an infinite depth. Sadness, despair. I witnessed it with no understanding where it came from. And when this wave of sadness passed, there came an enormous darkness. The void of infinite night, tempting me to fall into it. I stared at this darkness within, trying to neither flinch nor fall into it. Then there was light, and then the tension was over, replaced by the feeling of calm. And I fell asleep.

All these inner experiences come mostly in very abstract form, without “materialising” (or “visualising”) themselves — there are no concrete, specific images; just darkness, and light, and sometimes some colour.

At the deepest level, where all random particulars are removed, the sonnet is about blaming oneself for separation from one’s better self — in the hope that that this will somehow restore unity. For me, it turned out to be about the feeling of separation from being an artist, from the artist self of me. From this place, the desire to blame oneself, and with gusto too, seems more than natural — it’s almost unavoidable. This may have been the cause of this weakness, darkness, tension I had been feeling all this time.

I am not sure whether the painting is complete, but this potential incompleteness now seems to be intrinsic to the sonnet, at least in the overall context of the “letting go” sequence: this process, of letting go, is nowhere near complete here (neither is the move towards complete abstraction I have envisioned for myself).

Painting sonnet 87 (June 22 — July 7, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 87: Farewell, though art too dear for my possessing.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 87: Farewell, though art too dear for my possessing.

Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate,
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me to whom thou gav’st it else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgement making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 87

The work on this sonnet translation was somewhat haphazard, with short and erratic studio sessions (and woefully irregular studio notes).

There was an excuse: the on-going construction work on our building. The building was as well as de-constructed around us and is now being put together again. This has meant a lot of deafening noise and commotion, and, quite often, construction workers’ friendly faces looking right into our windows (including bathroom windows and studio windows, both at most importune moments).

And there was what felt like a deeper reason. This sonnet begins a new sub-sequence, a new multi-sonnet composition. A “farewell” sequence, hence a series of painting united by the motive of “letting go”. Immersing myself in it sent me into a full-blown existential crisis (partly reflected in the last week’s series of essays).

It sounds irrational, but these two don’t feel completely unrelated, but rather like two manifestations of essentially the same thing. The experience of construction work on a building you live in is like a metaphor of reality crumbling around you, and then slowly repairing itself back into a semblance of stability.

I think Cat has had a similar experience.

We, at least, had had some warning, and some kind of reasonable understanding of what was happening, and why it was necessary. Her world was shaking (noisily) without any warning, without any rhyme and reason.

But she has this uncanny ability to adjust to anything the life throws her way after a minimal exposure to new experiences. And she also has me to look at with this questioning expression on her face — so I had to keep calm if only to reassure her that all is right in the world. Another metaphor, I suppose.     

All in all, it feels like a miracle that this sonnet got painted during this time at all.

June 22, 2016

There is this weakness, softness, femininity in the sonnet. The impression is mostly due to feminine rhymes, so unusual for Shakespeare, these repetitive ing endings. Visually, the verse invokes Renoir’s seascapes. The first colour associations are around light violets and deep greens, but it’s all very vague still.

June 24, 2016

A clearer vision of the future painting in meditation: a diagonally divided picture plane, with a seascape with distant land on the right (very dreamy, very sad), and a still life with bills and charters on the left.

A moment of panic: where will I find historically accurate bills and charters to paint from? I saw such documents from Shakespeare’s time in museums, but there is no chance I can get something like that into the studio.

These occasional (inner) demands for historical accuracy come, I think, from my linguistic past. A part of me wants to approach this whole project as though I were a Shakespearean scholar.

But this series is not a scholar’s inquiry into literary history, I keep reminding myself. If anything, it’s an artist’s inquiry into eternity. What is essential here is not how everything has changed, but how everything has stayed the same. The visual impressions that feed into this series can only be my own, from my life and my time. So I banished the thoughts about historical accuracy, and threw together a still life arrangement of my own random bills and envelopes, my check book, and my mother’s old wallet.

Lena Levin. Still life with a check book in progress (Study for sonnet 87)
Lena Levin. Still life with a check book in progress (Study for sonnet 87)

I keep all kinds of random finance-related oddities in this wallet (like my Italian taxpayer’s card, which I needed for about a week many years ago, so I could be paid for a couple of guest lectures). For this occasion, though, I put in a real credit card (even though the inside of the wallet is not visible at all).   

I just painted this still life today, as a preliminary study for the sonnet. While painting, I realised that the essence of this part of the painting should be in separations, divisions. The focus is on the boundaries between these objects, and the subtle shadows they throw onto one another. So how they themselves look like is of no consequence at all.

June 27, 2016

A start on painting the sonnet, focusing on the contrast between the more realistic “still life with a check book”, and the dreamier, dissolving “farewell” seascape (with some internal references to Renoir). The unformed quality of the seascape, as a translation equivalent of weak rhymes in the sonnet.

I read this sonnet as a commentary on absurdity of thinking about love in terms of business transaction, so the uncharacteristic weakness of the verse becomes an expression of inadequacy of this approach.

2016-06-27 15.13.26While the society has moved away from the finance-based concept of marriage in the meanwhile, the tendency to assign monetary value to anything and everything has only increased. This makes the motive personally relevant.

These decidedly “non-painterly” still life objects correspond to the sonnet’s decidedly unpoetic financial and legal language.   

June 28, 2016

I could only paint a little today (because of the construction work), but the painting seems to be taking shape. All in all, I see the future painting; it just has to be clarified a bit from its current state.

Shakespeare, of course, could play with weakening his verse deliberately. He could afford to. But can I afford to play with weakening my painting? Why not, after all?

June 29, 2016

What I want to emerge in this painting is the utmost absurdity of the check book, and the dazzling colour in the seascape part. Dazzling colour of separation — trembling and vibrating.

June 30, 2016

Again, a short painting session. The painting is still not quite where I want it to be. There is this vision of vibrating blues crossing the boundary between the two areas of the painting. It is in my mind, but not in the painting.

2016-07-01 14.27.43
July 6-7, 2016

I returned to the eight seventh sonnet painting, because its weaknesses and inconsistencies were bothering me. I guess I couldn’t afford this radical weakening of my painting after all.

There were few changes today, but the painting seems to have “come together” and clarify itself at last. I leave it be for now.

Painting of the eighty sixth sonnet (June 7 — June 17, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 86. 20″×20″. 2016.

Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,
Bound for the prize of all too precious you,
That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,
Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?
Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write
Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?
No, neither he, nor his compeers by night
Giving him aid, my verse astonished.
He, nor that affable familiar ghost
Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,
As victors of my silence cannot boast;
I was not sick of any fear from thence:
But when your countenance filled up his line,
Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 86

June 6-7, 2016

This is the last painting in this nine-sonnets collage. The Shakespearean tradition refers to these, not without some justification, as the “rival poet(s)” sonnets. But this theme, albeit obviously present in the sonnets, is just an opening into the depth of stuff much more fundamental to the experience of art.

The approach I have chosen for this series sonnets splits it, with some degree of randomness, into fourteen compositions, fourteen “chapters” of a story. About a year ago, already fully immersed in the series, I realised that the title of each chapter ought to follow the pattern “The paradox of X”. And right now, as I am writing this down, I realise that the whole series might be called “Paradoxes of love”. Or “Fourteen paradoxes of love”.

There is a certain ring of truth to this idea of the sonnets series as a sequence of paradoxes, unresolvable puzzles of human condition. But I didn’t have this kind of title for this, on-going, chapter, not till is very end. I called it, for myself, “Poet and Muse”. Now, the title is “Paradox of Muse”.   

Since this is the last painting, it has to complete the overall composition. The sonnet contains, in a sense, a summary of the whole nine-sonnets subsequence, and ends in a complete breakdown of “matter” (then lacked I matter). In the future painting, I imagine, it is represented as a cubist-like breakdown of form. The colour harmony is largely determined by the painting’s role in the composition: it leans towards reds, to complement the others. This is a very abstract, very vague vision, but it’s a beginning.

The sonnet continues the previous sonnet’s theme: the challenge is not the very existence of someone else’s great verse (or great paintings, as it happens), but the suspicion that the experience you have to express is already expressed, so there is nothing to be added. This reminded me of something Lidia Chukovskaya once said: that being a younger contemporary of Anna Akhmatova prevented her from becoming a poet — not because of Akhmatova’s great verse, but because it was filled with shared experiences.

June 8, 2016

By this morning, I somehow had the image for this painting in my mind: a figure, lying on the back, with raised knees, with the head towards the viewer (almost perpendicular to the picture plane). The details are vague. I might need some figure drawing of reclining nudes to go forward.

June 10, 2016

I am still struggling with the composition, the pose — still no idea where it comes from, what it is about, where should I look for the source for this pose.

June 12, 2016

There was a long waking period this night, marked by a new experience in meditation. It’s an experience of a well-lit space rushing towards me, almost about to drown me in itself — somewhat dizzying. I tend to flinch when something unexpected like this happens in meditation, to resist the experience, but I (almost) didn’t this time.

And I finally understood the pose, the figure in the painting which I’ve been desperately trying to see more clearly: this is the pose of a person who sees him/herself, lying (probably at night — there are repeated references to nighttime in the sonnet). So what I need is to study myself in this position, with both the knees (in the background), and the hand/arm — closer to the foreground — within the square picture plane. It also means there is no head in the picture (one doesn’t see one’s own head), so the head ought to be “cut off” by the edges of the painting.

I also realised that the future composition is organised around a grand triangle, with side edges along the legs and the hand/arm, and saw some glimpses of blood-like red brushstrokes. The way these paintings are emerging in my field of vision feels as though each painting already exists, and my only challenge is to see it — at least enough to start painting it.

June 13, 2016
Sonnet 86 in-progress
Sonnet 86 in-progress

The first day of painting. The composition is established and, structurally, it seems to work with other paintings of the collage.

There are things that came up in while contemplating the painting, but are still not present — or not present enough — on the canvas: the cubist treatment of space and form, the dissolution of matter; the blood-like bright-red brush-strokes, the barely visible hints at the motives of earlier sonnets (sail in particular). But the triangular composition seems to work, and the motive of hand rhymes with the first sonnet of the collage.

As I was painting today, suddenly a poem by Boris Pasternak floated to the surface of my consciousness (the link above goes to a rough translation, but the original is there, too). It’s about how he didn’t know just how serious this whole thing — art, poetry —  would turn out to be in the end, in his old age — how Art would be over, and Soil and Fate would be breathing in his lines instead. I felt as though that I am approaching the moment, where this experience becomes genuinely true for me, where I know what he meant — where my life is at stake. Can this be that this motive is present in this sonnet, too?

Whatever it was, it was really frightening, but I felt like I was ready to face it, to take it as it comes. For now, it’s just me and this painting — today was a good start, but there is a lot of work ahead.

June 14, 2016
Sonnet 86 in-progress
Sonnet 86 in-progress

It seems that I’ve brought the painting to the stage where I don’t really what to do with it. At some level, it seems complete. At another, it needs clarification, simplification, cleaning up of colours.

June 15, 2016
Sonnet 86 in-progress
Sonnet 86 in-progress

Working on strengthening the triangular essence of the composition, and the tension between contours, colour, and the dissolution of “matter”.

The lack of matter, combined with a dreamy vision of one’s own body in reclining position. The painting comes close to the vision, but there is a lot of work to do. The angularity of the composition need to be strengthened and some of its reds, muted.

I painted less today than I thought I would — there was a slowness to the process, some lack of clarity — I didn’t really know what to do. Or, to be more precise, there were intermittent moments of clarity in the midst of uncertainty. Could it be that the theme of the sonnet gets itself involved in my painting process?

June 16, 2016

I’ve decided to let the sonnet painting dry a bit today — there was no way I could do what needed to be done on the surface this wet.

Lena Levin. Still life with a Chinese cup. In progress.
Lena Levin. Still life with a Chinese cup. In progress.

So my studio time went into a small (20”x10”) painting from life, a still life with a Chinese cup.

I really needed to paint from life today — as a way to reconnect with reality. I don’t know whether I will return to this painting later on, or maybe I’ll just scrape it away, and start something new on this canvas. In this case, the meaning was fully in the painting-as-process, and I have no idea whether the result can turn into a painting-as-thing. The intention was pure connection — painting what I see, not what I know; not reconstructing anything, not aligning anything, just pure impressions. A novel object in the still life — the Chinese cup — introduced to intensify the process with a new challenge, and also as a way to understand the Dutch flowers experience better (they loved using Chinese vases for their flowers).

June 17, 2016

The eighty sixth sonnet painting is complete, which completes the whole composition, “The paradox of Muse”. Most likely, there will be more work, once the paintings are arranged together as a collage — there usually is, but they have to dry a bit first anyway. At this point, I don’t think there will be much to do, though, since I’ve been constantly looking at them together while painting, but I’ll have to look at them afresh in a couple of months.

Looking back at the long months of work on this composition, I see some themes I didn’t anticipate — the rhythm of hands, the interplay of circles and triangles. The painting experience has also shifted in the process — I am now better at paying attention to the flow of thoughts emerging in response to the painting, at really listening of what I want to tell myself.

I used to think of this flow of thoughts as a distraction, the product of “monkey mind” — and, in many respects, it was (and, occasionally, still is). But I’ve learned this “mind hack”, which is as counterintuitive as almost any other “mind hack” — instead of following the temptation to trying to shut up this stream of partly verbalised thoughts (which usually doesn’t work anyway), the really needed mental gesture is a shift towards attentive listening. Once I concentrate on listening, the non-sensical or unrelated mental noise fades away, and if something remains, it is usually worth listening to and directly relevant to what I am doing.

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.