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).

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…

January 23, 2016: the first vision of sonnet 82

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 22, 2016: Shakespeare and Rembrandt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 20, 2016: the beginning of Sonnet 82 painting

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

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

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

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

Hamle Ha, ha! Are you honest?

Ophelia. My lord?

Hamlet. Are you fair?

Ophelia. What means your lordship?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016-01-12 13.32.59

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

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

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

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

I don’t have such a solution, but what I realised during the painting session (“remembered” would probably be a better word here) was that, in the act of creation, the usual sense of “I” is suspended. The “I” who is doing the creating is definitely not the everyday “I” navigating in the world. In poetry especially, by all accounts, the ancient mechanism of suspending the “left-brain consciousness” to let another voice speak audibly still works. That’s how great poetry is created — by listening to this inner voice, not by “talking” or “arguing”. So the tension between two “I”s, two “selves” is inherent in the process of writing poetry — and there is every reason to believe that that’s how Shakespeare composed his sonnets, too (at least, most of the time).

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

January 11, 2016: The puzzle of sonnet 81

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

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

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

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

This contradiction puzzles the mind, and suggests — to me at least — that the superficial reading (a poet addressing someone) is wrong. There must be something else going on here: the first, conventional interpretation just doesn’t work — and there are two more aspects of the poem that make it fall apart.

First, the opposition between the listener’s immortality and the speaker’s mortality is introduced by although and though — as is their mortalities (or immortalities) are expected to be intrinsically linked to one another. Well, they are, in a sense — insofar as a poem’s immortality and the poet’s immortality are essentially the same thing. But that’s what this poem is denying. And secondly — it’s the name of the listener that the sonnet is supposed to immortalise (your name from hence immortal life shall have). But the name of a young man is never even mentioned — not here, not elsewhere in the sequence! Dante might have immortalised the name of his Beatrice, and Petrarch, the name of his Laure — but Shakespeare left the name unnamed!

And that’s why I cannot believe this poem is (a part of) a conversation between the poet and his beloved. In some way, it must be a conversation between two different “selves” of the poet (momentarily, the mind is tempted by the idea of alternative authorship: one person’s verse is immortalising the name of another).

“Two selves” might sound like introducing too much modernity into Renaissance poetry, and this well may be so. But, after all, that’s the point of immortality — Shakespeare holds a mirror up to everyone, and I am no exception. But I don’t think so, not in this case, because of the context of this poem in the sequence: the context of a relationship between a poet and his muse. This context, I beleive, offers a key to this puzzle.

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

  

Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespearean Beauty, and some absurdly optimistic thoughts on love and vision

Once upon a time, as a ten-year old girl, I found myself contemplating “the three wishes” I would ask a fairy to fulfil; not that I really believed in fairies, but I reckoned it would make sense to be prepared just in case.

I had some qualms about my appearance, so the first thought that floated up my mind was “beauty”, but I had read enough fairy tales to be careful. I knew all the fairies have this uncanny ability to turn one’s wishes upside down by understanding them too literally. I imagined that if I asked for “beauty”, without any specifics, I might accidentally turn into some kind of boring and stupid “ideal”, which would have nothing to do with me. For example, I was sure I would by no means want to end up as a fair blue-eyed blonde; I’d rather turn into a frog.

Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches. 1887.
Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches. 1887.

Faced with this very real danger, I spent some time trying to make my wish more specific and close any potential loopholes for the future fairy’s mischief, but the more I thought about it, the more hopeless the whole enterprise seemed: whatever desirable quality I tried to formulate with the required precision, my mind would immediately come up with some overblown, absurd visual interpretation. I ended up resolving that I’d rather remain as I am, with all my imperfections on my head, than risk any of the fairy’s cosmetic efforts.

Thus, as a child, I stumbled upon the conflict between beauty and individuation, this feeling that turning into a perfect beauty may, by the same token, turn me into some “non-me” (and the resulting impossibility to describe beauty as a set of specific qualities), which, according to Stephen Greenblatt, originates in Renaissance ideas on beauty. He begins his essay on “Shakespearean beauty marks” (in the Shakespeare’s Freedom) with this quote from Leon Battista Alberti’s Art of Building:

“[Beauty] is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse… ”   

 Greenblatt writes:

“The cunning of this definition is its programmatic refusal of specificity. It is not this or that particular feature that makes something beautiful; rather it is an interrelation of all the parts in a whole.”   

This way to think of beauty explains

“<…> why there is so little specificity in Renaissance accounts of beauty, including Shakespeare’s. Responses to beauty are everywhere in his work, and they are often remarkably intense, but for the most part they are, to borrow Musil’s phrase, “without qualities”. “Those parts of thee that the world’s eye doth view,” begins sonnet 69, “Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend.” The visible beauty of the beloved literally leaves nothing to the imagination, and the fact that the parts are not specified in any way only reinforces the sense that the effect is produced not by this or that attractive attribute but by a harmonious integration of ideal proportions.”

Indeed, although the young man’s beauty is a major “hero” of the sonnets, we know next to nothing about how he actually looks. There is no specific image, no individual features; nothing to help us picture him. His beauty might leave nothing to the viewer’s imagination, but the way it is translated into sonnets leaves (paradoxically) everything to the reader’s imagination (so I, for example, am free to imagine him as Titian’s young man with a glove). Greenblatt’s point, though, is that this very lack of individuation is a representation of the Renaissance highest ideal of beauty, which finds its expression in painting as well:

Featurelessness is for Elizabethan culture the ideal form of human beauty. In her many portraits the queen’s clothes and jewels are depicted with fantastic attention to detail, but her face again and again is a blank, expressionless mask. Perhaps, despite the intense emphasis on materiality in the representation of dress, the mask of the face is the Renaissance intimation of what Schiller called the “annihilation of the material” in a truly beautiful work of art or what Winckelmann termed the quality in beauty of Unbezeichnung: “Beauty should be like the most perfect water drawn from the lap of the spring, which, the less taste it has, the healthier it is considered to be, because it is purified of all foreign parts.” The figures Shakespeare celebrates as beautiful cannot altogether float free of matter, but the conspicuous lack of content in the term beauty, as he uses it, is a gesture toward this freedom.”

Leonardo da Vinch. Lady with an ermine. 1489–1490
Leonardo da Vinch. Lady with an ermine. 1489–1490

Any sign of individuation, any mark of uniqueness, any kind of personality can only be a deviation from the ideal canon of beauty. In short, what makes us different — distinguishable from one another in any way — is what makes us ugly.

In Shakespeare’s time, according to Greenblatt, this fusion between individuation and ugliness was underscored by the fact that blemishes (moles, birthmarks, scars) and deformities were the only evidence available to identify someone, be it — as often happens in Shakespeare’s comedies — a long-lost child, a fallen soldier on the battlefield, or a run-away slave. In absence of dental records, fingerprints, and DNA samples, if you are to be recognised at all, it’s by blemishes on your skin and deformities of your body, these obvious deviations from the ideal human being. As an aside, I cannot help thinking that our age of Botox and Photoshop has but materialised the Renaissance ideal of expressionless faces and spotless bodies.

Shakespeare, on the contrary, did a lot to subvert this ideal — I will return to this theme when I come to the “dark lady” sonnets. The “young man” sonnets, though, seem to embody the ideal of featureless perfect beauty, but with one important qualification: what is challenged in this sequence is the mythological (one might even say, spiritual) foundation of this ideal, the implied Neo-Platonic link between goodness and beauty, between sin and ugliness.

Greenblatt traces the idea of featureless beauty to the power of Christianity:

“For centuries, Jesus and Mary were both routinely described, in the most literal as well as metaphoric sense, as immaculate, uniquely born without blemish or mark. Beauty, writes a mid-seventeenth-century English clergyman, “consists in three particulars; the perfection of the lineaments, the due proportion of them each to other, and the excellency and purity of the colour. They are all complete in the soul of Christ.” And it is not Christ’s soul alone, the preacher observes that is the epitome of perfect beauty, but his body as well.”

Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta. ca. 1490.
Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta. ca. 1490.

The reference is to a book of sermons preached by the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank, printed in 1672. The reverend goes on to observe that every human being ever born has some defect, some kind of stain or mole; in fact, if we cannot see one another’s ugliness (representing outwardly our inescapable sinfulness), it’s only because of congenital defect of our vision. Greenblatt writes:

“Such defect, in this time-honoured Christian vision (a vision that effortlessly crossed the boundary dividing Catholic and Protestant), is the outward mark of the inner sin that stains all humans from their conception. Could we see with perfectly clear eyes, we would find nothing to praise in mortal bodies.”

The perfect beauty, then, is the outward manifestation of perfect goodness and innocence, impossible for mortals:

“Thus it is only in and with Christ, in the resurrected bodies of those who are saved, that human beings are cleansed of their unsightly blemishes. At the Last Judgment, according to theologians, all scars, wrinkles, and other marks on the flesh of the blessed would disappear, and each individual body would achieve its perfect form. All forms of “spottedness,” as John Wilkins enumerated them—“Blemish, Blot, Blur, Mote, Mole, Freckle, Speck, Stain, Soil”—would be erased.”

From this vantage point, the young man’s perfect, indescribable beauty is as subversive as it gets (if not outright blasphemous), especially because his inner goodness (the beauty of thy mind) is often questioned, in sonnet 69 as in many others. There is something no less subversive — and, in some strange way, fascinating — in the idea that today’s Botox parlours, along with the whole industry of commercialised beauty standards and artificial eternal youthfulness, are deeply rooted in medieval Christianity: what they sell, indeed, is nothing short of earthly resurrection.

As a painter, I was particularly struck by the idea of “congenital defect of vision”, which — apparently — prevents us from seeing “with clear eyes” that there is no beauty in this world. What is it that makes us blind to one another’s ugliness? The answer, though, has nothing to do with painting. It was given long ago (Greenblatt quotes Lucretius and Shakespeare on this, but they are certainly not alone): it’s love that makes us blind, and it’s the one we love that we see as most beautiful.

But the effect is broader than the concept of romantic love suggests, because one doesn’t see everyone else as ugly either, at least not always. We see everything through the mind’s eye, and there are moods that make one see inherent ugliness everywhere, but there are also states of mind which make everything and everyone beautiful. And this — quite unexpectedly — leads me to an absurdly optimistic conclusion that the humankind is more capable of love than we generally give ourselves credit for — insofar as we don’t see this ugliness in everyone the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank talks about. What he sees as our congenital blindness is, by this reckoning, just our inborn love and compassion for one another.   

The question remains, of course, whose eyes are “clear” (or at least clearer): the eyes of someone who loves, or the cold eyes of someone perfectly indifferent? The eyes (and mind) of someone who sees beauty or the eyes of someone who sees ugliness? This is, to me, but one version of the eternal question of whether we say “yes” or “no” to life — and, frankly, I am all for “yes-saying” (as, I believe, is Shakespeare, most of the time), which means — doesn’t it? — that love clears our vision rather than blinds us.

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