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 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.

After the death of painting (on Malevich’s “Black square”)

It hit me ten days ago, while painting in the studio, that Kazimir Malevich’s “Black square” (1915) represents the death of painting. A huge fat full stop in its evolution.

Kazimir Malevich. Black square. 1915.
Kazimir Malevich. Black square. 1915.

I have always hated this painting. It is, of course, not unique in representing the death of painting, but it seems to do so in the purest, clearest, inevitable form. I remember a friend of mine weeping uncontrollably in front of this painting in George Pompidou Centre in Paris, as though at a funeral of someone she used to love. And my own feeling of detached alienation — in contrast to her, I didn’t want, I couldn’t let it in.

I guess I never wanted to accept that this painting, and the end it represents, are both logical and inevitable. But now there is no other way for me to go any further.

I think this change must have been brought about by reading and re-reading Gottfried Richter’s “Art and Human Consciousness”. In this book, he presents a grand story of visual art as both a manifestation and a driving force of the transformation of human inner experience of reality, from Ancient Egypt till the first part of the twentieth century.

Painting appears in this story relatively late, when it detaches itself from architecture as an independent art form. This separation itself is part of the history-long movement from huge to small, and from “outer” to “inner” experience of reality. For Richter himself, this represents a movement of the Divine from being “out there”, in the non-human cosmos, inward, into the inner world of human beings — and the crucial point in this movement is, of course, the death and resurrection of Christ. But the “hard facts” of this story are all about the human experience of reality and its visual representation in art: they don’t really depend on religious interpretation.

In painting, this movement from “outer” to “inner” shows up as the path leading from grand historical and biblical motives — through the human, earthly visual reality of portraits, landscapes and still lifes — and then, ultimately, to abstraction, as an attempt to represent feelings in a way completely independent from the outer “world of visible things” (this was Malevich’s conscious intent in his “suprematism” paintings, like “Black square”).

And it is by no means an accident that this powerful urge in visual art to withdraw completely from the visual reality happens simultaneously with Freud’s invention of the “ego”, and its ultimate world-alienation.

But a complete withdrawal from sensory reality of life is death, there is just no way around it, no other name for it. And for painting, the withdrawal from visual reality is the ultimate contradiction: after all, it cannot help but appeal to the viewer’s sense of vision, and it’s hard to do that while simultaneously rejecting one’s own sense of vision as a valid window to reality.

And so we find ourselves in the after-life of painting, which seems to go on, in spite of everything, due to our unquenchable inner need to paint.

Is it a resurrection? I don’t know.



The paradox of letting go (June 29 — July 5, 2016)

The letting go is a real death, a real dying; it costs us an enormous amount of energy, the price, as it were, which life exacts from us over and over again for being truly alive.

Brother David Steindl-Rast

June 29, 2016

Something huge — and very scary — happened while I was meditating this morning.

It began as a sensation of enlightenment, literally: a dissolution of the self into something that felt like pure light. The thought that followed was that, contrary to what I wanted to believe, my life’s purpose — the source of its meaning — is not in painting per se, but something beyond that, something different.

The thought felt like an “aha-moment”, because it clarified — in retrospect — lots of murky, ambiguous sensations and events of the last days, weeks, and maybe even months. And, at the same time, it was scary, big-time scary — because I don’t want to abandon painting. I am scared to let it go, because that’s what makes me feel alive.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 87 in-progress.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 87 in-progress.

In the studio, while painting the eighty seventh sonnet, I realised the connection. I have known for a while that this new composition, the one starting with this sonnet, is about the paradox of letting go. I had long since accepted that this series does things to me, that it is not really separate from my life — so I had a premonition that I would have to let go something huge in the process. I just didn’t think, not for a moment, that it would be painting.

July 3, 2016

I woke up in the middle of the night, and stayed awake for about two hours, meditating, doing my best to listen to what’s going on inside me.

And I understood more about this thing-beyond-painting, the glimpse of which I had in meditation a couple of days ago. It has to do with witnessing and (self)-examining the process of painting: contemplating this process “from the inside”, from within the experience, from the inner space of painting.

This brings together my two “projects”, which have been pulling me, painfully, in two different directions, “Sonnets in Colour” and “Art of Seeing”. Or so it seemed. Now, they feel rather like two pillars of the same meaning, or two sides of the same process.

This is a liberating insight. It intensifies the feeling of meaningfulness and freedom, but there is a catch.

I had to let go of the idea of “being an artist”, let go of painting. It doesn’t mean quitting painting, this letting go in the Buddhist sense: setting painting free, releasing attachment. But it was incredibly hard to do, and incredibly scary: I so don’t want to lose painting, I really need it to be alive. But I knew I had to do it, and I so I did — trying to comfort myself with the thought that you can only lose what you have never had.

July 4, 2016

The first painting session after the letting go experience the night before: I returned to the preliminary study for Sonnet 87, “Still life with check book”. I left it alone a couple of weeks ago, because it fulfilled it’s “study” purpose: I understood, or thought I understood, how I need to paint the still life part of the sonnet painting.

Why I returned to this painting?

One reason is a vague sense of dissatisfaction with the current stage of the sonnet painting itself. On the other, there seemed to be a potential in this smaller painting: it could be more than it currently was.

Lena Levin. Still life with my check book (a study for sonnet 87). 2016.

From the impressionistic study, it wanted to move towards something more “analytical”: analytical cubism, or Filonov’s “analytical realism”. There is something in painting wallets and check books as quasi-aesthetic objects — something more than I have achieved so far. And the still life setting was still there in my studio, since it played a role in the sonnet painting, too.

I approached the painting with the intention, a request to myself, to “channel” the experience of analytical cubism. In the process, it transformed into a return to the long-running motive of “colourful cubism”, the quest to reconcile these opposites. There was also a palpable influence of having spent two last weeks with Matisse’s remake of de Heem’s “A table of desserts”: the painting moved in the direction of dark versus light contrasts distributed all over the picture plane. The underlying inner experience is an experience of separation. This painting day “flattened” the pictorial space (as expected from the “cubist” approach), but also “broke” the picture plane (in defiance of cubism).

July 5, 2016

There was an Awakin Weekly letter in my inbox this morning, with an excerpt from an old essay by Brother David Steindl-Rast. He writes:

This inner gesture of letting go from moment to moment is what is so terribly difficult for us; and it can be applied to almost any area of experience. […] The letting go is a real death, a real dying; it costs us an enormous amount of energy, the price, as it were, which life exacts from us over and over again for being truly alive. For this seems to be one of the basic laws of life; we have only what we give up.

This is a better description of these last few days than I could write myself.

Stepping back (June 18 — June 30, 2016)

Lena Levin. Trees on Alameda Creek. June 2016.
Lena Levin. Trees on Alameda Creek. June 2016.

The intention for the whole “Sonnets in Colour” series was to find the space of unity between language and colour, between poetry and painting. The space where this duality dissolves. I suspect I received exactly what I wished for, albeit not in the form I expected…

I sometimes catch myself measuring my life against a somewhat vague ideal of a “real grown-up” — who knows exactly who they are, and their rightful place in the world. In other words, someone who knows everything there is to know.

When I write it down like this, it seems utterly absurd: the ideal I compare myself with turns out to be a self-satisfied, decaying fool. Because who but a fool can “know all there is to know”, and what one can do but decay once this enviable state is achieved?

It is useful to step back occasionally to witness (with frustration and amusement) this kind of absurdity in one’s own thought processes (and one’s own life).

And this is a large part of what I was doing over these last two weeks — apart from doing my best to keep up with the established rhythms of activities: the bi-weekly rhythm of “Sonnets in colour” series (it’s been sonnet 87 these two weeks), and the weekly rhythm of writing for my “Art of Seeing” project — an attempt to share my way of interacting with painting: painting as seeing (and feeling), painting as being, painting as doing.

Oh, and I got myself outside once for this one plein air painting.

Looking back — and re-reading my notes from these days — this one plein air session feels like the most intensely and self-evidently meaningful event, a peak experience. But this is not quite true — there was another intensely meaningful moment, which felt very scary and, seemingly at least, in direct contradiction with this experience: the moment when I understood that painting isn’t enough, not for me — not for what I vaguely feel I have to do.

In a nutshell, this is the reason for this stepping back. My only “compass” for moment-to-moment choices in life is the inner sensation of meaningfulness; the intuitive distinction between meaningful and meaningless moments. At its core, this sensation doesn’t depend on any outer circumstances. It is in feeling and being, in letting oneself be open to as rich and full flow of sensory perceptions as possible. And, for me, this means painting.

And yet, at another level, I feel that that’s not enough; in the same sense that breathing in is not enough without breathing out. If I stay with this private, inner sensation of meaningfulness, I will have failed to live up to something. The inner need for expression which isn’t satisfied with painting alone, which calls for writing — almost drags me towards writing against my own will.

The intention for the whole “Sonnets in Colour” series was to find the space of unity between language and colour, between poetry and painting. The space where this duality dissolves. I suspect I received exactly what I wished for, albeit not in the form I expected (isn’t this always the case?). Now I have to acknowledge this, and to learn to deal with it. Which basically means, I have to learn how to write…         

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The return of the prodigal son, or how to face one’s fears

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The temporary exile from my studio didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t paint: after all, there is all my plein air gear out there in the garage — I could just go out and paint landscapes every day. But I didn’t. It seemed too cumbersome to store oil paintings in this tiny hotel room; and I felt tired and a bit ill, so I decided to just take time to reflect, and to read, and just give myself some breathing space.

And so it came to happen that I didn’t paint for two weeks or so — an unusually long interruption in the painting process.

Back in the studio, I decided to start with my huge Rembrandt study. This kind of communion with Rembrandt felt just like the right way to break the painting fast. As it turned out, there was even more to this feeling that I had anticipated: this return to painting felt exactly like the return of the prodigal son in the parable, and in Rembrandt’s painting.   

It may seem ridiculous — after all, a fortnight away doesn’t seem to qualify for such a grand interpretation. But the truth, there was a time in my life when I abandoned painting for years — for decades even — prodigally spending whatever gifts and talents I was given in other pursuits. This, I believe, is why even short pauses in my studio work tend to trigger fears and doubts: each of them feels, at some level, like that decades-long time away from myself. I am afraid that I won’t be able to return, that Painting won’t take me back, that the door will be closed forever.

Hence the core experience of my first painting session — sensing that Painting does accept me back, with the same unconditional, raspberry-coloured tenderness as the father accepts his prodigal son in Rembrandt’s painting.

And in the course of this painting session, I suddenly remembered that I did see myself in the parable of the prodigal son back then. A couple of years after I had abandoned painting, a poem came to me — a poem where I promised to return, just like the prodigal son did; or to be more precise, a poem predicting this return. It now seems very strange that I had forgotten that poem, and didn’t even recall it when I started this Rembrandt study a couple of months ago. Could it be that this whole hiatus was actually needed to continue this study, to feel my way into it at a deeper level?

But there is more to it… The thing is, I’ve been painting “full time” for many years now. These two weeks for the renovation project have, objectively speaking, nothing to do with the long years of my “prodigal” youth. So why is it that the fears I seem to have overcome when I came back to painting back in the beginning of this century — why do they re-surface so easily, with a minimal “trigger”? Why am I so terrified of even brief disturbances to my studio “routine”, as though each of them is just waiting to transform into a lifetime of exile from painting?   

In an instance of serendipity, or synchronicity (or whatever is the right word for this kind of happenings), I followed someone’s link to Paramahamsa Nithyananda’s book, “Living enlightenment” (at, and read my way towards the chapter on fear. His take on fears is somewhat different from what I have encountered so far — because here, fear presents itself not as something to be conquered, not as a sign of weakness, but almost something to be celebrated. He writes:

<…> fear is a part of the nature of life. You can be fearless if you are already in your grave! Then there is no need to be afraid of anything because you have nothing to lose. If you have something to lose, you will have fear. This is the nature of life itself.

His advice, then, is neither to fight the fear you are facing (because this empowers it), nor to distract yourself from the fear (because then it stays with you, just hidden from your conscious attention), but just to “look at it”, live it, accept it. I guess my favourite strategy all these years used to be not to pay attention to fears. It has the obvious advantage of doing what you’ve got to do in spite of any fears, but it keeps the fears well and alive in your inner space, always ready to resurface.

And when I decided to follow his advice and look directly at my fear of “painting not taking me back”, I saw another, deeper and darker fear lurking behind it: the fear of being completely and utterly delusional about my whole relationship with painting; the fear of being delusional about being an artist. It scares the hell out of me — even now, as I write the words, I feel as though I am making this potentiality more “real” than it would have been had it remained in the darkness, outside the realm of conscious “naming”. But this makes my next challenge clear: to live and accept that fear. Paramahamsa Nithyananda writes:    

<…> fearlessness doesn’t mean non-existence of fear. It means the fear is there, but you have tremendous energy or courage to live with it and face it. Fearlessness means the energy or the courage to live even with the maximum fear — going beyond that fear and being neither attached not detached from the fear.

The next question to live is, then, whether I happen to have this energy or this courage… We’ll see, I guess.

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

Lena Levin. Sonnet 81. 20″×20″. 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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