The Magpie, or how Claude Monet has changed our sense of vision

Claude Monet. The magpie. 1868-1869. Oil on canvas.
Claude Monet. The magpie. 1868-1869. Oil on canvas.

Paul Cézanne once said: “Monet is just an eye, but my God what an eye”, and it’s easy to see what he meant. When looking at this painting, “The Magpie”, one is overwhelmed with the sheer variation of colour in something as self-evidently white as a field of sunlit snow. It is less visible in reproduction, but luckily it is now available on the Google Art Project website, where you can zoom in to see all the details (it’s still not the same that seeing the original, but there is a bonus: no museum guards to warn you sternly away the moment you step closer to the painting than their rules allow).

But was it really Monet’s eye that just happened to have more sensitivity to colour than most of us are born with?

I am not sure how literally Cézanne meant his remark to be understood, but one often encounters a somewhat overly simplistic reduction of colour vision to the sensitivity of the eye, and its individual mix of photoreceptors. Had it been so simple, each of us would just have to be content with what we are genetically endowed with — there seem to be no way to change this mix of photoreceptors. Yet, with possible exception of some cases of colour-blindness, the very experience of looking at this painting shows the beholders that it’s not their eyes that usually prevent them from seeing these nuances of colour in snow — because, after all, we do see them in the painting, don’t we? And this means our eyes are capable of perceiving this variation — but we don’t have access to this ability most of the time. Why?  And is it possible to change this?

Eric Kandel writes in his book, “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present”:

“The brain’s Creativity is evident in the visual system’s ability to reveal the same picture under strikingly different conditions of light and distance. As we move from a brightly lit garden into a dimly lit room, for instance, the intensity of the light reaching the retina may decrease a thousandfold. Yet in the dim light of the room, as in the bright light of the sun, we see a white shirt as white and a red bow tie as red. We see the bow tie as red because the brain is interested in acquiring information about the constant characteristics of an object, in this case its reflectance. How is this accomplished? The brain adjusts for the changes in light; it recomputes the colour of the tie and of the shirt to ensure that those critical identifying features are maintained under a wide variety of circumstances.”

Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral at noon. 1894.
Claude Monet. Rouen Cathedral at noon. 1894.

Obviously, all these creative adjustments happen well below the threshold of consciousness: one will see snow as uniformly white because that’s what their brain is interested in. And it has a point: it probably is (or at least was) much more essential for survival to recognise snow as snow (as opposed to, say, earth or asphalt) than to get immersed in all the nuances of light and colour. But Claude Monet spent his long painting life unrelentingly undoing this specific aspect of the brain’s unconscious creativity — for himself and for us. That’s what his famous series (his haystacks, Waterloo Bridge, Rouen Cathedral) are all aboutseeing (and showing) how breathtakingly different the same thing looks from one moment to another.

But what is the point of undoing the evolution’s hard work of fine-tuning human brains for perception of colour constancy?

Here is the rub: in presenting us with recomputed uniform colours, however useful this might be in some circumstances, the brain, by the same token, robs us of one of the purest delights this life has to offer, of the pleasure of witnessing, moment to moment, the glorious interplay of light and colours all around us. Could it be, then, that Claude Monet’s work is not undoing the evolution’s work, but rather continuing it, pushing it forward? Now that the immediate pressures of survival are not that pressing anymore, wouldn’t it be grand to adjust the vision system of the brain to make our life more joyful and (literally) more colourful?

Let’s have a closer look at how this system is organised. Kandel writes:

“Vision <…> begins in the eye, which detects information about the outside world in terms of light. The lens of the eye focuses and projects a tiny, two-dimensional image of the outside world onto the retina, a sheet of nerve cells covering the back of the eye. The data emerging from specialized cells in the retina resemble the visual world in the same way that the pixels in the image on your laptop computer resemble the actual image that you see on the screen. Both the biological and the electronic system process information. The visual system, however, creates representations in the brain (in the form of neural codes ) that require far, far more information than the modest amount the brain receives from the eyes. That additional information is created within the brain. Thus, what we see in “the mind’s eye” goes dramatically beyond what is present in the image cast on the retina of our real eye.”

Kandel emphasises that the information on the retina is insufficient for creating an image in the brain, but what’s important for us here is the opposite: it is, at the same time, a much richer information about light and colour than what will eventually reach the level of consciousness. These “raw data” are available to the brain (if not necessarily to the conscious mind). This conclusion coincides with what we have learned from looking at Monet’s painting: I see more colours in Monet’s snow than I would have seen in the real-life snow on the same day. The context of looking at a painting — as opposed to freezing on a snowy day and dreaming of a cup of hot tea or mulled wine — somehow changes the way my brain processes all these neural codes, so that I get a better, more direct conscious access to the raw data of my eyes.

How does the brain recompute these raw data? It seems to be rather a complicated and multilevel process; I don’t know about you, but just Kandel’s list of brain regions involved makes me a bit giddy, and this is just a short summary of what is known:

“The nerve cells that process visual information are grouped into hierarchical relays that send information along one of two parallel pathways in the visual system. These relays begin in the retina of the eye, go on to the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, continue to the primary visual cortex in the occipital lobe, and then to some thirty additional areas in the occipital, temporal, and frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex. Each relay performs a particular transformation process on the incoming information. ”

One of these parallel pathways has to do with what we see (including colour), the other determines where these objects are located. For now, we are interested only in the first one, and here is what happens when its information reaches the higher regions of the brain:

“<…> it is reappraised. This top-down reappraisal operates on four principles:

  • disregarding details that are not behaviorally relevant in a given context;
  • searching for constancy;
  • attempting to abstract the essential, constant features of objects, people, and landscapes;
  • and, particularly important, comparing the present image to images encountered in the past.”

I have added bullet points to Kandel’s plain list of four principles, because they all seem very important in my quest to transform the vision system of my own brain. To begin with, the concept of “behavioural relevance in a given context”  offers a clear explanation of why we see in a painting what we usually miss “in real life”: the painting creates a “sanctified place” where other behavioural concerns are suppressed by the very process of seeing. I imagine it somehow sends a “top-down” signal to the brain to pay attention to nuances rather than to search for constancy and for familiar objects.

A different — but not less rewarding — change of context happens in the very process of painting, especially en plein air. I know from experience that my colour vision changes perceptibly between the “in-painting” mode and  the “default”, outside-painting mode (it is possible, though, to switch to the “in-painting” mode of paying attention even outside the context of painting, and enjoy it for its own sake).

Lilla Cabot Perry recalls in her reminiscences of Claude Monet (in “The American Magazine of Art”, March 1927) that he once said to her:

“When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it gives your own naive impression of the scene before you.”

She also recalls that he wished to have been born blind, and then suddenly gain sight, so he could paint without knowing what are the objects before him. It sounds to me like he tried to consciously switch off the third principle in Kandel’s list, that is, to train his unconscious vision system not to search for “essential features” of objects and people, at least not in the “in-painting” mode. Or maybe that is impossible — I don’t know — but the system can certainly be trained to focus on a completely different range of “objects”: these squares of blue, and oblongs of pink, and streaks of yellow.

Be it as it may, the last principle — the relevance of past visual experiences — gives us hope that once we have seen colours in snow (instead of always seeing it as plain white), the brain may begin to “get” that that’s also interesting and rewarding, and so gradually learn to make more colours from the raw data of the eye accessible to the conscious mind.

This, I believe, is how Claude Monet changes the unconscious vision system of the beholder — and that’s how he has changed our reality.

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Julian Jaynes on consciousness and language: Part 1

Every once in a while, a genuine breakthrough in science remains unnoticed (or almost unnoticed) and unabsorbed in the relevant domain of knowledge for a long time. The history of science knows many such episodes — but, of course, only those that were “found” and appreciated later on, when the domain was ready, or the intellectual climate has changed. There might have been more — either still waiting to be found, or forgotten forever, or otherwise rediscovered afresh by someone else.

August Rodin. The thinker
August Rodin. The thinker

I’ve come to believe Julian Jaynes’s “The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind” (1976) may be such a breakthrough — if not exactly unnoticed, but certainly underappreciated and unabsorbed by the domains of knowledge which his theory might potentially change. There are many of them — from psychiatry to archeology; the book is refreshingly cross-disciplinary in our age of increasingly stifling specialisation. There might not be a single scholar active in the world today who would be competent enough to evaluate the theory in all its details. As for me, I can only speak for linguistics — the only domain I used to work in — and I truly wish I knew about this book when I did; in fact, I wish it were (formally or informally) part of required reading for all linguists.

Not because Jaynes was necessarily right in all details and nuances of his theory (he probably wasn’t), but because the book questions some very fundamental, core assumptions of the domain — and when they are challenged, it turns out that they aren’t really justified by much more than “common beliefs” and overall intellectual climate of the age. Personally, one of the most life-consuming projects of my years in linguistics both originated and, ultimately, failed, because of my own unquestioned belief in these received assumptions (this research project is way too technical to discuss in the context of this site — and, as I said, it was a failure anyway — but, come to think of it, this work had probably prepared my mind for Jaynes’s book. It may also be, of course, that this is just how my consciousness prefers to build my personal narrative, my own story of my life — just because it would be too hard to accept all those years as total waste).   

Luckily for us all, Jaynes was also an excellent writer, and his book is written as though for an intellectually curious layman (rather than just for peers, as scholarly books usually are). Given the cross-disciplinary scope of the book, he probably had no other choice: a peer in one domain is inevitably a layman in another. I may be better versed in general linguistics than he was, but I am certainly nothing but a curious layman in all other domains he touches upon; but even in linguistics, although I do find some details of the theory doubtful (and certainly often speculative), yet it is still an enlightening, even eye-opening read overall.

Marc Chagall. I and The Village. 1911
Marc Chagall. I and The Village. 1911

More importantly still, it was a mind-opener on a more personal level. It has changed the way I see other people, and the world, and my own place in it. In particular, it changed — for me — the historical and intellectual context of this project, Sonnets in Colour, so I will certainly write about it more here in the future. But the book should certainly be read in its mind-boggling entirety — it is really a brilliant book: I am not at all surprised that it is still in print, after nearly forty years since it was first published.        

One of the key points of Jaynes’s theory is that consciousness, the subjective human mind as we experience it, could emerge only at a certain, and relatively recent, stage of language evolution. To put it even more strongly, consciousness is generated by language, and lots of things must have happened in the evolution of language from its humble beginnings as rudimentary communication system before such a thing as modern consciousness could become possible.  

But what is consciousness? It is simultaneously most self-evident and most elusive thing in the world. Most self-evident because it is our immediate experience of the world (as we know it, or, more precisely — as we know that we know it). Most elusive because we tend to understand things by way of comparing them with something more familiar, more evident, more directly accessible to our outward-directed senses — in short, by finding an appropriate metaphor from the “real world”. But, as Jaynes writes:    

“If understanding a thing is arriving at a familiarizing metaphor for it, then we can see that there always will be a difficulty in understanding consciousness. For it should be immediately apparent that there is not and cannot be anything in our immediate experience that is like immediate experience itself. There is therefore a sense in which we shall never be able to understand consciousness in the same way that we can understand things that we are conscious of.”

Incidentally, as far as I could gather, much of the controversy around Jaynes’s theory when it was first published was generated by huge differences in how the very word, “consciousness”, was understood (and a range of derivative words, corresponding to — supposedly — different types of consciousnesses, have been introduced since then, which didn’t make things much clearer). It was not, I believe, because of Jaynes’s failure to define what he is talking about, nor of his readers’ failure to understand his definition. It might just be in the nature of consciousness to hide from itself, to resist observation and analysis: turning consciousness upon itself makes one quite giddy and all but makes the concept itself dissolve into thin air.

And it’s also in consciousness’s nature to present itself as a much deeper, larger, essential part of our mental life than it really is. However it is defined, it is clear that a lot happens in our minds without us being conscious of it at all. Jaynes himself uses the metaphor of flashlight:

“Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

I’ve used the word “metaphor” twice in this post so far, but there are hundreds of metaphors in it already. Just for instance, I called consciousness a thing a couple of paragraphs above, just because it easier to talk about things; that’s how nouns of our languages work, even though we routinely use them to point to things which aren’t things at all (like consciousness, for example). And just now, I said that nouns “work”, implicitly drawing in the metaphor of language as some sort of machine. That’s the way we talk, mostly without noticing it and, as a matter of habit, using metaphors that are already deeply embedded in our languages. But the way we talk is, more or less, the way we think, at least consciously — and this understanding is at the core of Jaynes’s argument.

And there is an important historical dimension to it, because metaphors that are now so deeply embedded in languages that we don’t even recognise them as such were once quite fresh and new — like, for example, Jaynes’s metaphor of consciousness as flashlight above. And before they were new, they didn’t exist at all — it took a long, long time to extend language’s capacity to its current familiar state, and for all this time consciousness as we know it couldn’t exist.

Pavel Filonov. Heads. 1924
Pavel Filonov. Heads. 1924

I will return to the topic of metaphors and Jaynes’s idea of their consciousness-generating potential next week. For now, let me introduce one essential example of metaphor: the mind-space, that inner space into which one can go to think, to ask oneself questions, to recall one’s memories or to imagine the future, where one can see solutions and grasp complex ideas — in other words, the space where consciousness “takes place”. Jaynes writes:

“<…>when we introspect, we seem to look inward on an inner space somewhere behind our eyes. But what on earth do we mean by ‘look’? We even close our eyes sometimes to introspect even more clearly. Upon what? Its spatial character seems unquestionable. Moreover we seem to move or at least ‘look’ in different directions. And if we press ourselves too strongly to further characterise this space (apart from its imagined contents), we feel a vague irritation, as if there were something that did not want to be known, some quality which to question was somehow ungrateful, like rudeness in a friendly place.”

Not only do we “have” this space within our heads, but we also assume it in others, even though

“we know perfectly well that there is no such space in anyone’s head at all! There is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissue of one sort or another. <…> It means that we are continually inventing these spaces in our own and other people’s heads, knowing perfectly well that they don’t exist anatomically; and the location of these ‘spaces’ is indeed quite arbitrary. The Aristotelian writings, for example, located consciousness or the abode of thought in and just above the heart, believing the brain to be a mere cooling organ since it was insensitive to touch or injury.”

Wherever it is located, this illusionary inner space seems absolutely essential to the very existence of conscious thought, and it is implied in a whole range of everyday words and expressions. But where does it come from, and when did it originate?

I’ll be back with Jaynes’s answer to this question next week — please stay tuned!

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These present-absent with swift motion slide: On painting sonnet 45

Lena Levin. Sonnet 45: The other two, slight air and purging fire.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 45: The other two, slight air and purging fire. 20″x20″. Oil on canvas. 2013

[line]

The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppressed with melancholy;

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 45

[line]

This is the second painting of the diptych for two sonnets, forty fourth and forty fifth; in a sense, another essay on the same question: the source of landscapes’ power to touch our emotions, to express a state of mind.

The first painting explores one answer, suggested by the theory of four elements: looking at a landscape is like looking into the inner life of a human being because they are composed of the same fundamental elements. Another answer — or maybe just another version of the same answer, I am not sure — has to do with the way our brains create what we see from the input of our senses.   

What one sees, and how one sees it, is not just “what is there”. The image is modulated by the beholder’s state of mind. The brain doesn’t just perceive what’s presented to the eyes; it creates an image based both on the sensory information and on its own state —  it’s not for nothing that “rose-coloured glasses” became an idiom. And a painted landscape — in contrast to a natural one — contains as it were both the view and a pair of mind-altering glasses created by the painter: as the beholders share in the way the artist re-created the view, so they share in the state of mind intrinsic to this recreation.

Thomas Cole. Catskill Mountain House, The Four Elements. 1843-1844.
Thomas Cole. Catskill Mountain House, The Four Elements. 1843-1844.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that the state of mind perceived by the beholder is identical to the state of mind consciously intended (or unconsciously channelled) by the artist; nor that you and I will have the same emotional reaction while looking at the same painting. Obviously, each viewer adds their own “inner glasses”, tinted by their own mood and life experiences, and their brain recreates the image once again (by the way, looking at a painting together with friends opens this quite unique channel of communication — an opportunity to compare your ways of seeing the world).

Even if the viewers’ perceptions will inevitably vary, and the artist knows that, a landscape usually represents a unified, harmonious image: in a sense, one state of mind, one mood. But this conventional approach wouldn’t do for painting the forty fifth sonnet, where the mood changes back and forth quickly, as though something happens within the time frame of writing the sonnet, even but now:

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.

 Some commentators believe that these assurances of fair health must come from a letter (arriving just as the poet is pouring his depression into the sonnet).

I don’t think so. The whole point of the sonnet is in this incredible swiftness with which one’s thoughts and desires move (sliding from here to there and back):

The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

I believe it has nothing to do with letters, and everything to do with the very nature of our thought processes, and the barely controllable rapidity of their unpredictable jumps from place to place, from subject to subject, from memory to imagination. Our thoughts don’t need letters (or any other external stimuli) to change from moment to moment; they change all the time as it is (unless one happens to be fully immersed in something truly challenging and/or exciting — but more about this later).

In my experience, there are people who know this about themselves, and those who don’t. Maybe there are even some sages who are exempt (from what I’ve read, a lifetime of meditation practice can probably do that to a person), and it’s never a good idea to generalise too broadly from one’s own experience — people, I am finding, may differ from one another more than we (or I, at least) tend to assume. Still, I believe that some people are unaware of this swift motion within themselves simply because consciousness does its best to conceal it from us and present itself as a more consistent and reliable guide to reality than it is. As Tor Norretranders writes in his book on consciousness, it is a very good liar. But these lies can be unmasked with a smallest attempt at introspection: just close your eyes, wait for the first thought to occur and make your best effort to keep it there, in the focus of your conscious attention, unchanged.

My guess is that you’ll find your thoughts flying somewhere else fairly quickly, within a minute; suddenly, you are somehow — you don’t know why and wherefore — thinking about something else entirely. If that’s the case, you are in good company, because this, I am sure, is what this sonnet is about.     

So am I trying to say that a human being is incapable of consistently focused thinking (not even Shakespeare)?

Of course not. The modern science seems to have discovered the neural underpinnings of two “modes”: one is a mind concentrated, immersed in something, “in the flow”, and the other is a mind left to its own devices, wandering, “absent” (they call the latter “default mode”). It’s in the “default” state that one’s thoughts and desires jump from “here and now” to other places (and moments in time) all the time.

My guess is that focusing on the very experience of one’s thoughts and desires being elsewhere — concentrating enough for the experience to emerge as a poem — would “switch” the brain’s mode to the state of complete immersion in the process. If so, then it is this immersion in creating a sonnet that brings the thoughts and desires (slight air and purging fire) back to the poet to restore life’s compositioneven but now — and then this meta-experience itself goes into the poem, too. But once it’s recognised for what it is, the thoughts and desires immediately go straight back to the original experience of separation and longing.

Where does this leave me as far as my painting “translation” is concerned?

The thing is, the painting process — at its best, at least — has the same effect; it vacillates between a state of mind (or an emotional state, if you wish) the painter brings to the view to begin with and the (completely different) state of focused interaction between the painter and the painting, the flow of painting — when life’s composition is restored. At a risk of oversimplification, there is a joy in a painting going well even if it expresses (or is intended to express) sadness. My challenge, then, was to express this meta-experience of swift vacillation in a single painting (while still holding the painting together as a unified visual impression).

To do so, I have made a compositionally risky decision to follow the sonnet in its reliance on the theory of four elements and four humours.

The view itself contains, of course, all four elements — earth, water, air and fire (if you accept the sun as a manifestation of fire). It is, originally, a real-life view from Anchor Bay in Northern California; the painting is based on this plein air study.

Lena Levin. Talking to Vincent at Anchor Bay.
Lena Levin. Talking to Vincent at Anchor Bay. 12″×16″. Oil on linen panel. 2013.

But the four elements also make their appearance as “states” of human mind, in the way — or, to be more precise, in the multiple ways — the view is re-created in the painting. The painting is structured as four overlapping squares — roughly corresponding to water, earth, fire and air if you look at the painting clock-wise beginning from the bottom left. I think of them as four semi-transparent slides, four pairs of “inner glasses” through which the inner state of mind modulates one’s way of seeing what’s presented to the senses.

In the centre of the painting, where all four squares overlap, all elements are united to recure life’s composition.

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On art as Baron Munchausen’s pigtail

BaronMunchThere is an age-old paradox inherent in any attempt to “live a better life”, or “to better oneself” consciously: your life reflects who you are, and you are shaped by your life. To change your life, you’ve to got to change yourself; and to change your self, you’ve got to change your life; so where to begin? Whether you want to or not, you find yourself in the position of Baron Munchausen trying to pull himself (and his horse) out of a swamp by his pigtail (I believe this is called “bootstrapping” nowadays).

I was reminded of this paradox when I read the following passage from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book on “Creativity”, where he explains why it makes sense — for any one of us — to study lives of extraordinarily creative people:

“Their lives suggest possibilities for being that are in many ways richer and more exciting than most of us experience. By reading about them, it is possible to envision ways of breaking out from the routine, from the constraints of genetic and social conditioning, to a fuller existence. <…> Indeed, it could be said that the most obvious achievement of these people is that they created their own lives. And how they achieved this is something worth knowing, because it can be applied to all our lives, whether or not we are going to make a creative contribution.”

Is it really possible to change one’s life in this way, just by learning how extraordinary people live theirs?

I believe it is, if only because sometimes it’s just a matter of removing a “blind spot”: you suddenly see a possibility for change in your environment — maybe something easy, small, seemingly insignificant — which will turn out to be a catalyst for further changes, in your life and in your self, the beginning of a new path.

What resonated with me most in Csikszentmihalyi’s book is what he says about the role of our visual environment: beauty not just a source of pleasure and fleeting enjoyment, but as a shaper of our thoughts and feelings. I did read before about stubborn scientific problems magically solved when a scientist all but gives up and goes on vacation to one beautiful place or another — but I used to assume all these stories were mainly about letting one’s thoughts incubate below the threshold of consciousness rather than about the role of beauty in this process.

I now think it might have been a wrong assumption. Csikszentmihalyi writes:

“The belief that the physical environment deeply affects our thoughts and feelings is held in many cultures. The Chinese sages chose to write their poetry on dainty island pavilions or craggy gazebos. The Hindu Brahmins retreated to the forest to discover the reality hidden behind illusory appearances. Christian monks were so good at selecting the most beautiful natural spots that in many European countries it is a foregone conclusion that a hill or plain particularly worth seeing must have a convent or monastery built upon it.”

A possible reason for this, he suggests, is that complex and harmonious sensory experiences influence our cognition even when we don’t focus on them, and lead our minds to “novel and attractive patterns” — not a simple causal connection (just go to a beautiful place, and your mind will overflow with beautiful solutions and beautiful thoughts), but a connection nonetheless.   

Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers. 1888.
Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers. 1888. Oil on canvas. 92.1 × 73 cm.

What, then, about art? — not as a grand transformative experience one might have in a museum, or in the Sistine chapel, but as something just silently present in the visual environment of your life, often below the threshold of conscious attention.

There is a chapter in Csikszentmihalyi’s book about what people make of their home (and office) environments — and this, of course, applies not only to extraordinary people, but to every one of us. He writes:

“In one of my studies we interviewed two women, both in their eighties, who lived on different floors of the same high-rise apartment house. When asked what objects were special to her in her apartment, the first woman looked vaguely around her living room, which could have passed for a showroom in a reasonably pricey furniture store, and said that she couldn’t think of anything. She gave the same response in the other rooms—nothing special, nothing personal, nothing meaningful anywhere. The second woman’s living room was full of pictures of friends and family, porcelain and silver inherited from aunts and uncles, books she loved or that she intended to read. The hallway was hung with framed drawings of her children and grandchildren. In the bathroom the shaving tools of her deceased husband were arranged like a tiny shrine. And the life of the two women mirrored their homes: the first followed an affectless routine, the second a varied, exciting schedule.”

Here, of course, there is no simple and direct causal connection either: its not like the homes of the two women created their lives all by themselves. It seems much more likely that each woman created her own home and her own life: the same difference between them that we see in their homes is also reflected in their lives. After all, we are who we are, and changing our home decoration won’t change that, right? We are back with Baron Munchausen, and his horse, and his pigtail…

But let me tell you a story about myself, and how home decoration saved my life… 

Vincent Van Gogh. Head of a woman. 1883.
Vincent Van Gogh. Head of a woman. 1883.

 In 1996, we moved to Germany because I accepted a job at the University of Bielefeld. This town, Bielefeld, had been almost completely ruined by the Allied aviation during the Second World War, and then rebuilt in the spirit of austerity and pragmatism: reasonably comfortable, but without a touch of beauty. We rented a furnished apartment; it used to belong to the owner’s elderly mother, and the furnishings reflected that — it probably looked similar to that old woman’s apartment visited by Csikszentmihalyi. I remember there were remote controls for the bed and for all armchairs and only one small writing desk (certainly not enough for our family of three).

I was completely focused on finding my way in the university, learning to teach  in a rather unfamiliar language, arranging my son’s school matters, dealing with the quirks of department head’s temperament, and so on, and so forth — the usual routine of life, made more stressful by the move to another country. Our visual environment wasn’t on my list of priorities. In retrospect, I believe I took it as an immutable fact of this new life, without giving it a moment’s thought.

But then we went to Paris for a few days, and somewhere, in a small street behind Musée d’Orsay, serendipitously found a small dark shop filled with heaps upon heaps of reproductions in various sizes. Believe it or not, the idea that we can add reproductions of our favourite paintings to our environment in Bielefeld had not even crossed my mind before this chance encounter — it was only then that I understood clearly what had been missing in my life all along.

Marc Chagall. Over the town. 1918.
Marc Chagall. Over the town. 1918. Oil on canvas. 45 x 56 cm.

I don’t remember how much time we spent there, browsing through all these heaps of prints, but we went away with several huge posters to bring back — Chagall, Matisse, Van Gogh —  most of them for our apartment, and a nude by Matisse for my office (the very anticipation of shocking my head of department was just too tempting to resist; to his credit, he took it in his stride, which had the unexpected effect of improving our working relationship).

Henri Matisse. Nude seated with crossed legs. 1941-1942.
Henri Matisse. Nude seated with crossed legs. 1941-1942.

It would be a lie if I told you that our life changed miraculously once these posters were hanging on the walls of our Bielefeld apartment— all problems resolved, stumbling blocks dissolved, research ideas flowing freely and happily. Not quite. But it had certainly become much more of a life: I was feeling more alive every day, there seemed to be more reasons to get up in the morning, more laughter, more research, more trips to beautiful places.

What is probably more important and more to the point, I began to see more aspects of my life as changeable: seemingly unbreakable constraints and routines were being gradually unmasked as limiting but transient illusions. To repeat Csikszentmihalyi’s words, I was growing more and more aware of “ways of breaking out from the routine, from the constraints of genetic and social conditioning, to a fuller existence”. Now — nearly twenty years since that trip to Paris — I see that my life and my self have transformed completely, or at least more than I could have imagined then; this seemingly small change opened a path to revitalising — and living — my childhood dreams.

Does it all sound like one of Baron Munchausen’s adventures?

Have I pulled myself out of a swamp by my own pigtail (which doesn’t even exist)? I don’t think so — I believe it was the presence of Matisse, Chagall and Van Gogh that pulled me out. Since then, I had never again forgotten that I need paintings on my walls to be alive, and our collection of printed reproductions had been constantly growing before (much, much later) I began to replace them with my own oil studies of my favourite paintings.

And yet I obviously used to have this “blind spot” before that visit to Paris: I didn’t see what was lacking, even though the depressing emptiness was right in front of me. That’s what I recalled when I read about this old woman living in a showroom of a furniture store — maybe it’s not really who she was at all. Maybe she could have lived a different life — but no serendipitous occasion had helped her to recognise a similar “blind spot”, to become aware of what’s missing, what can be changed in her environment.

 I wish I had a time machine to go back and give her the right poster for her wall — for some reason, I imagine a nude by Matisse might have amused her… After all, if it did amuse my department head in Bielefeld, then everything seems possible.

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If the dull substance of my flesh were thought: on painting sonnet 44

Lena Levin. Sonnet 44.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 44: if the dull substance of my flesh were thought. 20″x20″. Oil on canvas. 2013.

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way,
For then despite of space I would be brought
From limits far remote where thou doth stay

No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee,
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought
To leap large length of miles when thou art gone,
But that, too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Receiving naught from elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 44

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Where does landscapes’ power to touch our emotions come from — beyond the pure enjoyment of beautiful or exotic views, or comforting peacefulness of green pastures?

Painting this sonnet has given me a novel way of looking at this question, because the sonnet connects so sublimely sea and land — as elements of a landscape, and water and earth — as fundamental elements of life’s composition: the speaker’s woes, and the dull heaviness of his tears, are made of exactly the same stuff as the sea and land that separate him from his beloved. From this perspective, looking at a landscape is like looking into the inner life of a human being.

For all its apparent pre-scientific naiveté, the theory of “four humours” recognises our essential unity with nature, in a striking contrast to the more modern experience of an isolated self.

Alan Watt writes in “The book: on the taboo of knowing who you are”:

“Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body—a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”

But the sciences (be they modern or antiquated) cannot really touch us emotionally — after all, that’s not how they are supposed to work. One can read a hundred books about one’s thoughts and desires being — if not exactly air and fire, but some bundles of electrochemical activities in a highly organised lump of neural cells, which are themselves highly organised lumps of simpler elements —  and all this knowledge won’t change the emotional experience of lonely self in the slightest.

Poetry, though, is another matter entirely.

Letting this sonnet sink into myself, living with its change of rhythm from nimble jumps to heavy slowness, with its almost imperceptible transformation of see and land into tears and dullness, I cannot help but feel this unity, perceive it as my own experience. The landscape (or, more precisely, the seascape) that emerged as my painting translation of this  sonnet fuses together several of my own impressions associated with the images of distance, space, separation.   

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Lena Levin. Tomales Bay Blues. 20"x16". 2013
Lena Levin. Tomales Bay Blues. 20″x16″. 2013

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Lena Levin. Pacifica. 20"x16". 2011.
Lena Levin. Pacifica. 20″x16″. 2011.

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But the sonnet isn’t simply a poetic expression of the “four humours” theory with its inherent unity between man and nature. There is a tension between two world views, two experiences of self: the ancient identity of fundamental elements in all their manifestations (from sea and land to human woes and dullness) versus the modern separation between thoughts and flesh, which echoes the separation between the lovers. A clash between antiquity and modernity.

William Turner. The blue Rigi lake of Lucern sunrise. Watercolour. 1842.
William Turner. The blue Rigi lake of Lucern sunrise. Watercolour. 1842.

The process of painting reflected this tension: I felt it as a continual struggle between two opposing impulses: one drove me towards establishing a clear contrast between nimble thought and dull substance of flesh, while the other kept trying to obliterate these contrasts in favour of unity, to dissolve the self-imposed formal boundaries (which seemed increasingly artificial and simplistic). The painting, as it is now, emerged as a blend of partially erased pictorial contrasts — in the blue-green colour harmony, in the horizontally divided composition, in the opposing rhythms in different areas of the painting.   

Pablo Picasso. Houses on the hill. 1909. Oil on canvas.
Pablo Picasso. Houses on the hill. 1909. Oil on canvas.

In the end, the painting’s organising contrast, which clarified itself in the process, is between the heavy, cubist-like geometry with its hard, rectilinear edges — and the light, subtle, almost Turner-like build-up of closely related colours. Somehow — I cannot really tell why — this contrast stands, for me, for all the multilayered oppositions of the sonnet at the same time: flesh versus thought, water and earth versus air and fire, isolation versus unity, modernity versus antiquity.

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On life’s composition: reading sonnets 44 and 45

What are we made of?

This diptych of sonnets, forty forth and forty fifth, is a fusion of two answers to this question — answers which seem like they come from two different worlds.

[accordion][accordion_item title=”Sonnet 44“]
If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way,
For then despite of space I would be brought
From limits far remote where thou doth stay

No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee,
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought
To leap large length of miles when thou art gone,
But that, too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Receiving naught from elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.
[/accordion_item]

[accordion_item title=”Sonnet 45“]
The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppressed with melancholy;

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.
[/accordion_item][/accordion]

Shakespeare begins with a dream all too easy to co-feel for anyone who has lived through what is now called “long-distance relationships”:

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way…

Wouldn’t it be just glorious if we could travel as fast as our thoughts can:

For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

A familiar experience, isn’t it: our thoughts easily, and with supernatural velocity, carrying the mind wherever it wants to go, quite unconstrained by dull physical limits. If only our whole bodies could do the same — if only teleportation were possible…

Johannes Vermeer. Woman reading a letter. 1662-1663
Johannes Vermeer. Woman reading a letter. 1662-1663

So here we have our first answer: our life is made of thought and flesh, mind and matter — the fundamental duality of human condition.

It may not be an ultimate scientific truth, but it is something that we seem to have a direct, everyday, experience of: I have thoughts, and I have flesh; I experience myself as a mind in a body — and for all I know, this is generally how modern people experience themselves, give or take. It seems like a fundamental property of our worldview — shared, it would seem, by Shakespeare.

But not quite, because there is the second answer — it is brought into the poem by mere mention of sea and land, which immediately transform into earth and water:

… too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Here earth and water are two of the four fundamental elements of life, or roots, along with fire and air — which make their appearance in the beginning of the forty fifth sonnet:

The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

periodic tableSo humans, just like everything else, are composed of earth, water, air and fire. In contrast to the flesh and thought answer, this ancient idea (traced back to Empedocles, a fifth century BCE Greek philosopher) may sound quite bizarre to the modern ear — at least to a Western one (an Eastern one may just notice that the fifth element is lacking, or that the elements are not quite right). We no longer think of the world, let alone ourselves, as being composed of these elements; and they aren’t even elements anymore — we have a whole periodic table instead, and beyond that, all those fascinating particles of the modern physics.

In spite of this, the imagery still works within the domain of poetry — a space protected as it were from the changing challenges of our scientific worldview. We hear these words as metaphors — and these are strong and very intuitive metaphors: even now, with the underlying theory all but forgotten, we still see that fire and air are “quicker” than earth and water, and that desires are rather like fire than like earth, and that life would sink to death without air and fire. But in Shakespeare’s time, this theory was science as it were — and the foundation of their understanding of human condition, both in medical practice and in psychology.   

(c) Welcome images
(c) Welcome images

The theory of “four humours”, first introduced by Hippocrates (ca. 450–370 BCE), was very much in vogue in Shakespeare’s time (and influenced medical practice for quite some time afterwards). The “four humours” were thought of as four bodily fluids (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood), but they were supposed to correspond to the four “elements of nature”. To be more precise, the humours themselves were composed of two elements each (for instance, the black bile was air plus water) — there is a remarkable resemblance, in fact, to the Ayurvedic teachings (emerged at about the same time), where the “humours” (called doshas) are also composed of two elements each. And similarly, health was assumed to depend on all the elements being in some sort of balance, and that was what the various cures (like blood-letting) were aiming at.   

By ABenis at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons"
By ABenis at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons”

What is really important about this theory — but hard to “get”, looking from our age of fully internalised mind-body divide — is that the “four humours” didn’t belong to either side of this divide: they were both “mental” and “bodily” at the same time. In fact, we know them somewhat better in their purely psychological guises of “four temperaments” (melancholy, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic) — even though this classification, too, seems to have been rejected in the modern psychology. The crucial point is, it’s not that a melancholy disposition, or an excess of melancholy, was explained as resulting from out-of-balance “black bile”: the “black bile” and “melancholy” were the same thing (“melancholy” is “black bile” in Greek). In a sense, the state of mind is the state of the body, and vice versa.

That’s why this ancient theory wasn’t a particular favourite with the Christian Church in medieval times — because of this glaring contradiction with the basic Christian distinction between body and soul; but it served as the starting point for the Western medicine during the Renaissance. Here is what one finds on the National Library of Medicine website about medical views in Shakespeare’s time:

During the Renaissance and early modern periods (ca. 1350–1650), most practicing physicians and medical writers continued to understand health and illness within the framework handed down to them by their ancient and medieval predecessors. Medieval representations of the humoural perspective circulated widely in the Renaissance period, book publishers produced attractive editions of Hippocrates’ and Galen’s works, and Avicenna’s Canon continued to enjoy great success as a textbook well into the seventeenth century.   

Albrecht Dürer. Melencolia I. 1514.
Albrecht Dürer. Melencolia I. 1514.

So for Shakespeare, these were not “just” poetic metaphors; the theory of four humours was very much part of his worldview — and his understanding of psychology, which thoroughly informed his plays. Apparently, he was most interested in melancholy: from Open Source Shakespeare, one can learn that he used this word seventy times — compared to ten for choleric, five for sanguine, and a mere one for phlegmatic.   

But the forty fifth sonnet doesn’t quite follow the theory: according to the theory, melancholy is composed of water and air, whereas water and earth combined give phlegm. And yet Shakespeare writes:

For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppressed with melancholy;

Is it just because being phlegmatic isn’t really an appropriate state of mind for a lover seized with longing for his beloved — and so his melancholy, in contradiction to the theory, is composed of water and earth?

Not quite, it seems: the ultimate reality of his sadness isn’t in the exact identity of remaining “elements”, nor even in his separation from his beloved — but in the separation between thought and flesh, which violates life’s composition:

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.

The cure, the forty fifth sonnet seems to suggest, comes not from the body following the mind to where the beloved is, and not even from the beloved’s own return, but just from the lighter elements, fire and air, returning to join the heavier elements, water and earth — or, in other words, from thoughts being reunited with flesh, the mind returning to its body.

As we would probably say now, from being present here and now.

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On the first performance of “Hamlet”

[content_band inner_container=”true” padding_top=”0px” padding_bottom=”10px” border=”all” bg_color=”#efefef”]This is an accidental post: a writing assignment for the course on “Hamlet” on FutureLearn.com I am taking (by the way, it’s a great place to learn). The assignment is to pretend to be an Elizabethan who has just been to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time ever. They asked to write as a blog post, and I decided the topic is quite fitting for my “Studio Journal”, especially because I just saw the old BBC production with Derek Jacobi… [/content_band]

I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts on a new production of Hamlet — I saw it yesterday — but the only thought that’s floating in my head right now is that I couldn’t be more thoroughly confused.

The public — me included — seemed to expect a remake of Kyd’s Hamlet we remember from a few years back: an honest revenge play. We should have known better: one can always trust Shakespeare to introduce confusion, and befuddlement, and a heap of questions instead of answers and straightforward action.

It’s not that there is no action at all: everyone dies by and by; but — at first at least — most of its happens off-stage and to wrong people (the main villain is also killed eventually, but not before he has managed to bring about the deaths of almost everyone else, Hamlet included).

But otherwise — I felt as though we are witnessing not what is actually happening, but what’s going on in Hamlet’s head (interchanging madness and reason, without any warnings). First of all — what is this Ghost? Is he real or is he an illusion? The soldiers and Horatio see it, too — but then, why doesn’t the queen, in a later scene?

And where does it come from? From what he says it seems like he resides in Purgatory (“for a certain term”, if I remember correctly) — but don’t we, in our enlightened age, already know that Purgatory is a vile invention of Papists? What might Shakespeare possibly mean with this? And then Hamlet talks of death as of a country from whose bourn no traveller returns — and yet he seems to take the Ghost quite seriously (if not without some mistrust — quite justifiable, by the way, if you ask me).

Is Hamlet mad? He himself seems to think that he just “puts it on”, that he is “mad in craft”… But isn’t “putting it on” madness in itself — all it seems to do is to arouse the king’s suspicions, so Hamlet is constantly being watched — not the best way to accomplish his revenge, if that’s what he has in mind. It looked to me as though he has just found a pretext (for himself, if for nobody else) to let his inward storm of madness out — I know firsthand how tempting it might be when the whole world seems to crumble around you.

Why doesn’t he kill his uncle right after the play, when he is finally sure that the Ghost was telling the truth? Does he really believe that a murderer and a villain will go to Heaven? Or is he just more interested in having his say with his mother? Or maybe he just doesn’t like to kill (no wonder here)?

As I said, I am befuddled. All these questions just keep boiling in my head, as though I have become a bit of a Hamlet myself…

On Marc Chagall’s “The Blue House” as commentary on Self

Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 1917. Oil on canvas. 66 x 96.8 cm.
Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 1917. Oil on canvas. 66 x 96.8 cm.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””] “… the strange blue creature that is barely visible inside the house gradually begins to emerge as a realistic depiction of Self.”[/feature_headline]


The contrast between inner and outer, soul and body, substance and showthat same duality Art has the power to overcome — this contrast is one of the central motives in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence (just as it is a central motive of our lives). Can a painter express this contrast in colour, which is, after all, nothing but “show” par excellence?

This is exactly what Marc Chagall does in “The Blue House”.    

Marc Chagall. La Mariée. 1950. Gouache, pastel.
Marc Chagall. La Mariée. 1950. Gouache, pastel.

“The Blue House” is as it were duality embodied: the house and its surroundings don’t really belong together; they come as though from different sides of reality.

Of course, combining things that don’t belong together is a hallmark of the twentieth century painting, and Chagall was no stranger to this trend.

But “The Blue House” is different: unlike violin-playing goats, houses naturally belong to landscapes (and cityscapes). So where does this tangible feeling of non-belonging, of separateness come from?

It is achieved (almost) entirely through colour: the yellow-green-red landscape versus the monochrome blueness of the house. There are touches of blue here and there in the landscape, but that’s because there are certain insurmountable limits to disintegrating a single painting into two clashing parts, which, apparently, even Chagall could not break. As someone who has attempted this kind of disintegration many times in my own paintings, I am almost sure that he did try to make it work without any blues outside the house — but the painting needed these blue patches in order not to fall apart completely. So he confined these blues to roofs and fences, and made his point by not letting any appear in the sky, even though the overall child-like, honey-and-milk quality of the landscape seems to call for a bright blue sky.

Apart from these patches of blue, the colours on the left are straightforwardly realistic, albeit in their child-like, somewhat too straightforward, way. There is nothing unexpected in this yellow ground, green river bank, the white walls and red foods of houses, and (last but not least) the brownish dog in the foreground enjoying the sunny day. It’s all as it should be.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Yellow House. 1988. Oil on canvas.
Vincent Van Gogh. The Yellow House. 1988. Oil on canvas.

But the blue house? In contrast to, say, Van Gogh’s “yellow house” — which, we may assume, was yellow “in real life” — the blueness of this house belongs decidedly to the painting, not to the thing being painted. We see that the house is bare wood; its “true” colour would be close to that in “The house in grey” (below), from the same year (quite likely, another approach to the same pictorial motive). The blue of the house comes into the painting as though from another world entirely — not from the visible, but from the invisible.

Marc Chagall. The house in grey.
Marc Chagall. The house in grey. 1917. Oil on canvas. 68 x 74 cm.

And the house is not just blue – not in the same sense Van Gogh’s house is yellow; not as a “real” blue house would look like in a realistic or impressionistic painting. It is monochrome (with blue standing for black), without any variations in hue. That’s how we see things in the darkness, when the cones of our retinas don’t have enough light, and only rods are doing the seeing.

The landscape and the house are painted in two quite distinct value ranges, as though they existed in different lighting conditions: the landscape is light, the house is dark. There is nothing unusual in contrasting value areas in a painting; what is unusual here is that both light and dark areas are rich with essential details. Painters generally avoid this, because the human vision works in such a way that we cannot see both sets of details simultaneously:

1-the-blue-house-1918Concentrate on the landscape, and your eyes adjust to its sunlight, and then you notice the reflections in the river, and the grazing cows on the other bank, and the dog.

1-the-blue-house-1917Concentrate on the house, and your eyes adjust to its darkness, and then you see a strange, lonely, human-like creature inside.

We experience this adjustment of vision in real life when we enter a dark house on a sunny day, but we would normally expect the outside of the house to be just as sunlit as its surroundings. Here, it is as though the outer walls of the house, not only its interior, are lit not by the sun outside, but by some meagre blue light source within.

There is an additional effect of this blueness which might not be obvious when you look at the painting on your computer screen, but would be quite conspicuous if you were to look at the original: blues “recede”. This is because, in real life, the farther away something is from us, the bluer it looks; reds, yellows, greens — they all disappear with distance. This effect is commonly used by painters to suggest distance in landscapes to the viewer’s eye, but Chagall does quite the opposite — almost all his reds are reserved for the distant vista, almost all his blues, for the house in the foreground. We know that the house must be closer to us than the cityscape, but this effect of receding blues still works on another, unconscious, level.       

To strengthen the near-split of the painting into two separated realities, Chagall defies one of the major laws of composition and divides the pictorial space right in the middle of picture plane. He couldn’t have known it in 1917 (at least not consciously), but a modern scientifically-minded viewer might notice that if they view the painting as a whole, it’s the left eye (hence the right hemisphere of the brain) that sees the landscape, while the right eye (and thus the left hemisphere) is presented with the blue house. If a viewer spares this painting but a brief glance (as, unfortunately, people often do in museums), the two sides of their brain would, for all we know, go away with two nearly opposite impressions of what is actually depicted in the painting, let alone its overall mood.     

While writing the above, I even began imagining an experiment to check this hypothesis, but, of course, it is far more interesting to know what the painting conveys to an attentive viewer — someone who would spend some time switching between two conflicting views and letting a coherent impression emerge in its own time, as the two sides of their brain try to integrate these two quite different pictures into a coherent image through their (rather narrow) channels of communication.

For me, the viewing of this painting feels like switching between two states of mind: the state of complete, child-like openness to the visible world, with all its richness of colour, and the state of being immersed in my own thoughts, in the dialogue between me and myself; the mind directed outside and the mind focused on itself; vita activa and vita contemplativa. And then the strange blue creature that is barely visible inside the house gradually begins to emerge as a realistic depiction of Self.

Maybe even somewhat too realistic for comfort…

P.S. If I was briefly tempted to offer an explicit interpretation of the message Chagall wanted to convey to the viewer in “The Blue House”, he himself dispelled this temptation with a small detail of “The house in grey”. You might have missed it if you don’t read Russian (and even if you do), but there is a graffiti message on the fence, right in the center. It says, in capital letters: FOOL.  

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On Art as Möbius strip

In their recent book, “Art as therapy”, Alain de Bottom and John Armstrong write that the question of what Art is for “has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent.”

Do I share this feeling — and the accompanying reluctance to discuss this question?

Leonid Pasternak. Rilke
Leonid Pasternak. Rilke

I think so, yes: if someone were to ask me this question, “What is Art for?” in a personal conversation, I would probably feel awkward and look sheepish (or arrogant — these two are commonly confused). Questions feel impudent if you feel obliged to know the answer, but don’t. And so it is with this question: I don’t know the answer — even though, as a painter, I feel that I probably should have one ready. But then again, it may be one of the questions that don’t really have the answer; one may have to live the question, as Rilke said in a letter to a young poet. “Perhaps, — he continued, — you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.

Perhaps I should just go ahead and memorise Rilke’s suggestion just in case someone asks me? Because insofar as I feel like I have lived into some answer to this question (an answer if not the answer), how can I put it into words? Try to put it in general, universal terms — and it sounds too audacious, too lofty, way over the top (I almost hear myself telling myself “Come off it” before I even open my mouth). Try to be more personal — but then the question feels way too private, the answer too intimate to be voiced (as though someone were to casually ask me to explain what it is I love about my husband).

Edouard Manet. Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Oil on canvas. 1863
Edouard Manet. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Oil on canvas. 1863

And so, unfairly or not, but the question does end up feeling illegitimate and impudent — which makes it immensely tempting to resort to the familiar “art for art’s sake” adage; perhaps Kandinsky was right: it’s the best the age we were born into can attain to.

But there is the rub: we aren’t just born into this age; it’s also we ourselves who make it what it is, complete with its growing art-alienation (which may be but another aspect of the life alienation of the modern world). As Kandinsky puts it, “those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing.”  Or, in de Botton and Armstrong’s somewhat more detached language:

“We are likely to leave highly respected museums and exhibitions feeling underwhelmed, or even bewildered and inadequate, wondering why the transformational experience we had anticipated did not occur.”     

And this is what they propose to change with their concept of “art as therapy” — the concept of art as a “tool” that, like other tools, “has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with.” Art “compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties.

Lascaux animal painting
Lascaux animal painting

Metaphors are our way of understanding the unknown: we equate it with something familiar, something we feel we already know. “Art-as-therapy” is such a metaphor: therapy stands for a familiar, established way of healing human psyches — or, if we abandon Greek and put it in plain English, of healing our souls. If an artist were to tell you that he is out to heal and transform your soul (as Kandinsky does, by the way), it would likely sound pretentious and overblown to a modern sceptical ear. “Art as therapy” metaphor has exactly the same meaning, but adds a demystifying, comforting, almost “scientific” ring to it. Actually, I am hypothesising here, because I happen to be less familiar with (and more suspicious of) therapy than with art. After all, art has been around for fifty thousands years at least, while therapy is what? Barely one century old?

“Art-as-tool” is another demystifying metaphor; after all, we’ve got lots of tools for expanding the capacities of our minds — so art must be just one of them, something like an old-fashioned Google Search (in fact, compensating for the inborn weakness of human memory is the very first “function of art” discussed in the book; I suspect Google Search might be a more effective tool for this particular job).

The value of these metaphors (of which, as you might have noticed, I am not entirely convinced) will become clear (or not) in how well they “work”: whether they make their way into our shared worldview and help to decrease the art alienation in our world (and the book is filled with specific proposals to this end).

In the meanwhile, they made me think of another metaphor for art — something I could honestly say if casually asked what art is for. Here it is:

Art is a Möbius strip for reality.   
MC-Escher-Moebius-Strip-I-1961
M.C. Escher. Möbius strip I. 1961

If you don’t know what “Möbius strip” is, it might not seem like a good metaphor. But you can do it yourself very easily: just take a paper strip, give it a half-twist, and then join the ends to form a loop. What happens is this: the paper strip now has only one surface. If you look at it at any specific point, it still seems to  have two neat sides — but follow it from this point with a finger tip, and it will soon find itself on “the other side”, without ever actually jumping from one side to another. With one movement, you have created an object with a single surface. And not only this: it now has neither a beginning nor an end. I still remember the sense of unbelievable miracle when my father showed me how it works (I must have been about five — one is eager for miracles at that age, but this one still stays with me).

But what does it have to do with art? The thing, our lives are happening in the constant state of duality — between spirit and matter, between soul and body, between consciousness and nature, between “inner” and “outer” (each age choosing its own terms).

Whether this duality is real or illusionary is an interesting question, turning the duality on itself: Does it reside in consciousness or in nature? Does it belong to the mind or the matter side of itself? And which of these sides is actually real? Be it as it may, we are stuck with it, because it is so deeply and unavoidably embedded in our languages: one cannot even begin to talk without, consciously or unconsciously, dragging the duality in. Notice how it is right there when de Botton and Armstrong explain the function of art (in the quote above), in this case opposing the mind and the body.

What art does with reality is exactly what a Möbius strip does: it temporarily banishes its duality. It gives the reality a half-twist and momentarily joins the ends. It quite simply, literally doesn’t belong to either side (or belongs to both of them, which is the same thing), however we define or describe the split: it’s the inner making an appearance in the outer, the mind shaping the matter, the subjective transforming into the objective (and vice versa).

As I was writing this, Maria Popova published a post about Anne Lamott’s book (“Stitches: a handbook of meaning, hope and repair”). Here is one quote:

When you love something like reading — or drawing or music or nature — it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great. If you are lucky enough to know this, then your search for meaning involves whatever that Something is.    

This sense of connection comes, I believe, from the dissolution of duality — from connecting the two sides of life into one. That’s what Art is for.

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On holding Time: the painting of sixty fifth sonnet

Lena Levin. Sonnet 65: Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? 20"x20". Oil on canvas. 2014
Lena Levin. Sonnet 65: Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? 20″x20″. Oil on canvas. 2014

[accordion_item title=”Read the sixty fifth sonnet again…“]

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil o’er beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

[/accordion_item]

[pullquote type=”right”] Wouldn’t holding the flow of time amount to dispelling an illusion, the illusion that there is anything to hold to begin with? [/pullquote]

The first, blurry, visualisation of this sonnet came easily: it’s all about holding something, or failing to hold (the verb hold is repeated thrice in different contexts, in every quatrain). And then there is this beautifully mixed metaphor of strong hand holding Time’s swift foot back in the eleventh line — so hands appeared in the very first sketch for this painting.

The hand imagery also offered a straightforward “translation” of the miracle of the sonnet: poetry transformed into painting. One hand will be holding a brush and actually painting the painting; just like this in this miracle self-references the sonnet, the painting will reference itself (I was indeed painting this hand from life, while working on this very painting).

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]But what is it that these hands are trying to hold?[/feature_headline]

The question kept teasing me: I was convinced my vision of the future painting was so blurry because I didn’t have the answer, yet I decided to start, in the hope that the answer will come in the process. That’s, after all, what I probably love most about the process of painting: painting as a peculiar way of thinking, a word-less dialogue between the vision and the material. “Wordless” sounds like an oxymoron for a sonnet painting; but it’s only the words of the sonnet that are present: no inner discussions of its meaning or interpretation.      

Has the question resolved itself in this painting? The answer is both yes and no. The “yes” of it is this: the hands are trying to grasp the meaning of life. I spent some time looking for a historical grounding for this reading, but it emerged in my mind all by itself in the process of painting, an offspring of this strange interaction between poetry and colour.

It’s there in the painting: this is why there is, in a sense, nothing they hold, except for the chaotic movements of colour and the brush: the meaning of life is as impossible to grasp and hold as summer’s honey breath.

And this is the “no” of it: I don’t know what the meaning of life is, so all I could do was paint the question. Or put it this way: I know the meaning of life as it happens, but one cannot grasp it and cage it — neither in words, nor in concrete images. The blurriness of my initial image, it has turned out, was not an imperfect visualisation; it was its essence.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]But Shakespeare doesn’t say a word about the meaning of life, does he?[/feature_headline]

The sonnet is all about the non-existence of immortality, the impossibility of holding Time. Am I not, then, adding something alien to the sonnet, something that was never there at all? Maybe I am — it might even be inevitable (openness to such bizarre interactions with future minds is, arguably, what makes a poem immortal). Still, I believe this reading, the seed of it at least, is right there in the sonnet: immortality is relevant to the life of mortals only insofar as it is conceived of as the locus of meanings, the larger-than-life context of mortal life.

After all, it might have been natural to understand the meaning of life in terms of immortality when the world around humans was immortal. That’s how they looked at it in antiquity:

”Praise, from which came glory and eventually everlasting fame, could be bestowed only upon things already “great,” that is, things that possessed an emerging, shining quality which distinguished them from all others and made glory possible. The great was that which deserved immortality, that which should be admitted to the company of things that lasted forever, surrounding the futility of mortals with their unsurpassable majesty” (Arendt “Between Past and Future”, 1961: 47).

But if the world is mortal, as it is now (and as it evidently was for Shakespeare), then there is no obvious reason why something should be immortal to be meaningful: if something is fleeting, it is not necessarily futile; its fleetingness makes it all the more glorious. And yet, when we see and recognise this emerging, shining quality, the inherited conceptual link in the time-worn semantic network of our intellectual tradition still points to immortality, calls out for it, but there is only a great void where immortality used to be.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]Shakespeare sees this shining quality in fleeting beauty, faces the great void, and hopes to fill it with poetry. How? [/feature_headline]

Can art hold the flow of time: hold Time’s swift foot back, hold out against its wrackful siege, hold a plea with its rage? Can it capture the fleeting, shining moment of transient beauty? This, I feel, is just another version of the question I’ve been painting; another way to put its elusive answer in words: what these hands are trying to hold is Time. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t seem as inherently, despairingly impossible as to hold meaning.

Holding a moment, making it “sit still” for a while, even if only within the pictorial space, is the very essence of painting. It’s harder to depict, in a painting, the flow of time, its swift movement. This painting tries to achieve this with two explicit pictorial contrasts: one between movement and stillness, and the other, between (the illusion of) three-dimensionality and two-dimensional flatness.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 65 (Detail).
Lena Levin. Sonnet 65 (Detail).

This latter strategy exploits the way we (or rather: our languages) spatialise Time, that is, the way we think and talk of Time as the fourth spatial dimension, in which we can travel in one direction only, and with the pre-ordained velocity (unless, of course, we are time-travelling in our imagination). As holding the flow of time would reduce this four-dimensional time-space to a three-dimensional single moment, so the painting relinquishes its illusion of three-dimensionality in the bright warm area in the top right corner, above the brush. This area, the “painting within painting”, is both still and flat, overtly two-dimensional: the painting hand holds the flow of time and so protects the shining brightness of summer’s honey breath against the chaotic movement of cold colours.

This gives rise to the final paradox: after all, this painting, as any painting, is still and two-dimensional, whatever its contents and technique; movement and depth are but illusions created in interaction between a painting and its viewer’s sense of vision. The painting hand “collapses” the third dimension and “stops” the movement that were never really there in the first place. It has always been an illusion, a trick of senses, perhaps as illusionary as the fourth spatial dimension, in which our future pretends to exist “before us” and the past, “behind”. Wouldn’t holding the flow of time amount to dispelling an illusion, the illusion that there is anything to hold to begin with — no swift foot, no wrackful siege? Wouldn’t the world then be just like a painting that is still and flat, with neither depth nor movement? Wouldn’t it be boring and utterly devoid of meaning?

I don’t have answers, and these may well be the wrong questions — but these are the questions painting this sonnet leaves me to live with…

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