The Brain is just the weight of God

Painting Emily Dickinson

Lena Levin. The Brain is just the weight of God. After Emily Dickinson. 2016.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Emily Dickinson

A dramatic shift in pace and in age — I’ve been painting an Emily Dickinson poem these days. On the one hand, it is a part of this grander quest for a space of unity between poetry and painting. On the other, I am following ModPo 2016 at, and this week’s assignment was close reading of a poem by Emily Dickinson. The painting is — possibly — still in-progress, and below are my close-reading notes informed by this attempt at painting translation.

1. Brain

Dickinson uses this word in such a way as to override the mind-matter duality: brain “stands for” both the material tissue inside one’s head and the mind. In my dictionary, these are two different meanings for brain (1. Tissue; 2. Mind). In lexicography, this structure implies that these meanings cannot be present simultaneously: in each individual usage, the word means either one or the other (otherwise, they would be listed under the same number, in a comma-separated list). I believe my dictionary is correct as far as everyday usage of this word is concerned.

But in this case (as probably in many others), the English language is smarter than its users and lexicographers. Ask a scientist, and the mind and the brain turn out to be the same thing — or rather, two alternative ways to describe the same thing. But the language knew that already, and that’s what Dickinson sees and brings out here. She “wipes away” the duality and falsifies the artificial boundary between the two meanings. In the poem, brain has both meanings simultaneously: the “matter” meaning is evoked by talking about dimensions and weight, the “mind” meaning — by its ability to contain the sky (and the sea, and God). Had she used the word mind here, the poem would have become both trivial (we all know that one’s mind contains the sky, and the sea, and God, too) and false (mind has neither spatial dimensions nor weight).

2. Contain // With ease — and You — beside

An interesting — pseudo-rational — argument of why the brain is wider than the sea. It’s simply because once we put the sea in it, there is still place for You. It can be my (the speaker’s) brain containing the person I talk to (you), or it can be your (the listener’s) brain containing yourself (apart from the sea). Here, too, I believe both interpretations are invoked at the same time.

3. Blue to Blue

This quatrain begins as though it is going to be structurally and semantically parallel to the first one: wider than the sky, deeper than the sea. This expectation is interrupted by the puzzlingly surprising idea that Brain is Blue. Why is it?

On the one hand, it invokes the meaning of blue as “sad, melancholic, depressed”. On the other, I am reminded of Kandinsky’s insight into what he calls “spiritual meanings” of colours. For him, Blue stands for spiritual (as opposed to material), divine, heavenly. This is related to the fact that blue recedes: if something is bluer, it’s generally perceived as being more distant, or even moving away (this effect is often called “atmospheric perspective”). I am not sure, of course, whether it was Dickinson’s intention to invoke this quality.

4. Absorb As Sponges—Buckets—do—.

Because of the non-conventional punctuation, and because the first meaning of bucket is “container”, I first interpreted Buckets as an alternative to Sponges (a kind of “correction”, where the brain is compared to a bucket, rather than a sponge). But then, buckets don’t really absorb, do they?

So the intended meaning is probably buckets as in “large quantities of liquid”. But I think it’s important that the language’s pervasive tendency to conflate “containers” and their contents as meanings of one single word is invoked here, in the reader’s momentary confusion over which meaning to choose. I think it’s important, because its reminiscent of the core motive of the poem: the brain as both a container and its “contents”.   

5. just the weight of God.

The poem suddenly moves from truisms (“the sky is wide, the sea is deep”) to an (almost) blasphemy: God is heavy? You can heft him (or her, or it, or them) Pound for Pound? The idea of God being heavy is smuggled in almost imperceptibly at first, through the lullaby quality of the sky-is-wide-sea-is-deep comforting parallelism.

It’s really this Pound for Pound that brings it home, strikingly, especially after the much more lyrical Blue to Blue of the second quatrain. It invokes a rather disturbing, Dali-worthy, picture of a person carefully hefting a pound of God in one hand and a pound of (their own?) brain in the other. In its turn, this picture brings with it the Merchant of Venice, and his pound of flesh just about to be cut off.

How did it happen, that God becomes as heavy as the sky is wide and the sea is deep? One image that comes to mind is an ocean shore, where all one sees is the sky, and the sea, and the rocks breaking the waves. Now here is something as prototypically heavy as the sea is deep. It is as though God replaces rocks in a familiar seascape.

Interestingly, there is another expectation broken by this quatrain. The width in the first quatrain, and the depth in the second, prime the reader for the third spacial dimension, height. And indeed, God is high would be much “easier” than God is heavy.

6. As Syllable from Sound

Which is of these is compared to God, and which to Brain? Dickinson leaves the question open. But even if she didn’t, it won’t help us decide which might turn out to be a little heavier, because how do we compare Sound to Syllable?

On the one hand, Syllable is a kind of Sound. It is a linguistic sound, a component of speech, and there are certain structural constraints (there ought to be one vowel, and — possibly — one or more consonants on either side of it). So Syllable is something much more defined than Sound, and much more human: it is a part of human language, whereas sounds can be non-human. It is also the stuff of poetry: syllabic structure is much more salient in a poem than in the language in general.

With the most general sense of sound in mind, one can say that Syllable is something much smaller (lighter?) than Sound. But Sound can also refer to a single phoneme (or phone) of language (as in “the sounds of the English language”): if we focus on this meaning, then a syllable consists of one or more sounds — so it is potentially larger than a sound, but not necessarily (/a/ is both a sound (in this sense) and a syllable).

So, in the end, which is which? Which of this strange pair is Brain, and which is God in Dickinson’s comparison?

I am inclined to think God might be to Brain what Sound is to Syllable (that is, that this is the insight of this poem), because Syllable is more human, and more structurally constrained, and more unambiguous than Sound. But the puzzling quality of the comparison might be even more important than any answer after all.   

Still, I cannot help thinking that Colour is to Painting what Sound is to Syllable.

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

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

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,
Some in their garments though new-fangled ill;
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure,
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks and horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
All this away, and me most wretched make.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 91

August 26, 2016

It’s a strange sonnet — it doesn’t seem too flattering or uplifting, to put the supposed cherished love roughly in the same category as horses or new garments (badly sewn to boot), does it? How would you feel if your lover said to you that they certainly cherish you more than a new piece of cloths?

Inexplicably, the first image that emerged in my attempt to see the future painting is a circle. Maybe because the essence of the sonnet is vanity, a circular multitude of nonsense.

August 27, 2016

This night’s meditation opened up a deeper understanding of the sonnet.

In the first two lines, there is a hidden opposition between the outer, worldly possessions (wealth, garments, horses), and the inner, personal qualities (skill, body’s force). But when this list is revisited in the last quatrain (Thy love is better than high birth to me), the inner side is conspicuously absent. This makes the ostensible compliment even more dubious.

At the heart of the sonnet, there is this special rhythmic power of But these particulars are not my measure.

In harmony with this realisation, the composition clarified itself as a juxtaposition of a circle and an upward-looking triangle. It is as though the circle “stands for” the never ending wheel of vanity and worldly possessions, and the triangle, for one general best (which I am reluctant to equate with thy love).

August 28, 2016

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

August 29, 2016 — September 1, 2016

In the painting process, two ideas became clearer than ever. One, it is not about romantic love, or infatuation (at least not exclusively so). The other: don’t take all this too seriously, it’s all vanity, dissolving into thin air. We are the stuff dreams are made of.

The initial circle has evolved into a swirling spiral broken by the upwards-moving triangle.

Sonnet 90: Give not a windy night a rainy morrow (August 18-24, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 90: Give not a windy night a rainy morrow. 20″×20″. 2016.

Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now;
Now, while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss:
Ah! do not, when my heart hath ‘scaped this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquered woe;
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purposed overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last,
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come: so shall I taste
At first the very worst of fortune’s might;
And other strains of woe, which now seem woe,
Compared with loss of thee, will not seem so.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 90

Between the summer travels, and the marathon of re-designing the “Art of seeing” site, I completely dropped the ball on journaling — even though the process of studying and painting the sonnets managed to keep up its biweekly rhythm.

There is hardly a single line on this sonnet in my notes, and — even though it has only been a month — I don’t really remember anymore how exactly this image of sunflowers, squashed between the darkness and the shattered space, emerged from the sonnet.

An unexamined life isn’t worth living,” Socrates reportedly said, but at least I have a painting to show for this unexamined and unrecorded chunk of my life. That’s a consolation.

Since the motto of this studio journal is rawness, I decided not to try and revive these memories to make up a story, but just leave this here, as a note to self (and to you, since you are here reading it): never to neglect journaling again. The fabric of life can dissolve from memory so incredibly fast, and so completely below the threshold of consciousness.

One thing I remember though: that this image somehow rhymed with the sunflowers I painted for Sonnet 18, the very beginning of this love story which has by now completely run its course.  

Lena Levin. Sonnet 18: Thy eternal summer. 2012
Lena Levin. Sonnet 18: Thy eternal summer. 2012 (click to see a larger image and to read the sonnet).


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

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

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

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 89

July 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 88

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 87

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

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

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

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

I think Cat has had a similar experience.

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

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

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

June 22, 2016

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

June 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

June 28, 2016

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

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

June 29, 2016

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

June 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

What it means to be an artist, or on “Uncertainty Principle” in Art

Pablo Picasso. Painter and his model. 1963.
Pablo Picasso. Painter and his model. 1963.

… all you’ve got to do is be alive, just be alive, to the very end. — Boris Pasternak

I’ve spent some time this week browsing ideas of what it means, “to be an artist”.

(Within the realm of internet, Maria Popova’s “Brain Pickings” site is a very helpful, since she reads a lot about art, and provides so many meaningful hyperlinks; an then there is the “Art Quotes” site to complement that.)

An internet search for how to be an artist is a bit like a search for how to eat well: you can find anything you like, and take your pick. There is whole range of often mutually contradictory ideas, along with scientific evidence in favour of each.

And so, an artist can be someone who does something as useless as possible, lives a life of recognition and luxury, and feels extraordinarily blissful about the whole arrangement.

Or it can be someone who bears the burden of spiritual growth of the humankind on their shoulders (all alone), leads a solitary, impoverished life, and is in agony all the time (or almost all the time).

Which one would you rather be?

Two things are clear though.

First, this feels like an important question. Lots of people — including any artist of the last century whose name you can remember, and many, many more — have been contemplating it and writing about it (historically, though, this seems to be a relatively new preoccupation).

Secondly, everyone who is interested will have to (and is free to) find their own answer, even if it’s just choosing from one of the already available options.

So what do I think, myself?    

All ideas on what it means to be an artist seem to cluster about two distinct sides of the question, which can probably be called “subjective” and “objective”.

“Subjective” is about the artist’s own experience (both of their work process, and of life in general). The keywords in this domain are “self-expression” and “being alive”. “Self-expression” stands, essentially, for the desire to do the work, as a means of self-actualisation and making one’s own life meaningful. And “being alive” is an attempt to capture the experience of intensified vitality and unity with life that emerges in the process.

But these experiences are not really limited to traditionally “artistic” pursuits, are they? They are the birthright of every human being — actually, every being, not only human; after all, my cat has as much right (and, from what I can see, as strong a desire) to feel truly alive as I do. An artist, then, is simply someone who needs to do something “artistic” to achieve these experiences.

The second intuition has to do with “objective” qualities of the work. These are hard to put into words, and one often hears nowadays that “all art is subjective”. But it is not, at least it is not supposed to be. It is supposed, in some sense, to open a pathway to Reality, to communicate what would have remained hidden or misunderstood otherwise. Kafka said that our personal existence is a keyhole through which we perceive the grandeur of life. “Self” is this keyhole, and an artist is someone who has trained the “self” to see and show more than the ordinary perception would allow. As Alexander Blok once said, to open highways to the paradise of my outlandish songs.

If one does that, one cannot help but express their self — the outlines of their personal keyhole — but that’s not the goal, that’s a limitation. This limitation is the subjective in art. And if there is nothing more in the work, then it just doesn’t have this objective quality, that inexpressible beyond-the-self essence we find in the work of a true artist. This, in any event, what the second intuition about what it means to be an artist boils down to. Let’s call an artist who can do that Artist with a capital “A”.

The problem is, of course, that it is genuinely impossible for an artist to know for certain whether their work have this quality, whether they are an Artist: they are bound to see the work through the very same keyhole. One may call it, I guess, Uncertainty Principle in Art — in the words of Boris Pasternak, “and your self will never be able to distinguish your failure from your success”.    

This “Uncertainty Principle” is, I believe, what generates the need for external validation. But this doesn’t really work either, it is never enough, and we know it: recognition (let alone material success) in one’s own lifetime is not a good sign of the work’s objective quality at all.

So what remains to an artist whose ambition is to be an Artist?

There is this Kandinsky’s idea of “inner need”, which binds the “subjective” and “objective” together. In the final analysis, the idea is to have faith that the subjective experiences that pull you to art are a sign of something beyond-the-self wanting to express itself through you. So, just do your best to keep your keyhole clean, and there is hope that this objective quality of Artistry will emerge in your work.

And there is also this idea that just being truly alive is enough. So if the subjective aspects of being an artist are there — the meaningfulness of life, the intensified vitality, doesn’t it make sense to do it even this faith happens to be a delusion? To quote Boris Pasternak again: all you’ve got to do is be alive, just be alive, to the very end.      


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…