Painting sonnet 82: dissolving dualities (January 20 – February 10, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 82 (I grant thou weren’t married to my Muse). 20″x20″. 2016

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

The beginning of this sonnet painting was rooted in two initial impressions:

First, the way this sonnet contrasts with the previous one, 81: the markedly increased distance between “I” and “thou/you” of the sonnet. If the eight first sonnet suggested that “I” and “thou” are, in a sense, two “selves” of the poet, here they are definitely different “persons”. And the other person is not even the poet’s Muse anymore — this idea is replaced by (not) being married to her.

Secondly, the repetitive juxtaposition of fair and true — and their interaction within the sonnet — reminded me of what Hamlet tells Ophelia about incompatibility of honesty and beauty. And “true” repeated four times within the space of two lines: a conspicuously pervasive insistence on one’s own honesty.

This insistence on truth highlights the major challenge of “translating” this sonnet: its falsehood, in the plainest sense of saying something one doesn’t believe to be true. That’s what happens when you write a letter to someone you are really angry with, but whom you don’t want to anger; you want to let them know how wrong they are, but try to be polite and politic, even to flatter them — but only to get your point across, which makes you even angrier, because all the while you don’t believe a single word you are saying. It is this forced falsehood that finally breaks the all too elegant flesh of the sonnet with the four repetition of true in lines eleven and twelve.

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

These questions connected themselves with the contrast between two “selves”: the more expansive “self” of Sonnet 81, capable of bestowing immortality, and the narrowed, contracted “self” of Sonnet 82, overcome with absurd jealousy to “rival poets” – the “smaller” self, which takes charge when the larger one collapses in response to being hurt, angered, jealous, afraid.

The stronger one’s connection to the higher self, the more painful this collapse must be; one can almost hear the scratching sound of the whole infinite space crushing into a narrow “hole” of limited perception. This is the experience enacted in this sonnet, and this is the experience that had to be expressed in the painting.

2015-09-09 14.27.59This understanding brought with it the initial vision for the painting: an open space expanding from the left upwards to the right, and the small (flat, cubistic, not quite whole) human figure crushed in the bottom right corner. From the very beginning, this painting connected itself to the motive of the sonnet 78 painting — located right above it the future sixteen-sonnets composition: the god-like Muse, who was raising the human up to the heaven, has finally thrown the him to the earth.

Pablo Picasso. The old blind guitarist.
Pablo Picasso. The old blind guitarist.

And then the open space of this concept filled itself with a rainbow. It happened when I caught a tiny glimpse of rainbow on my shower floor. The rainbow presented itself as a way to introduce two — apparently contradictory — sensations emanating from the sonnet: its background tone of a higher, “god-like”, self, and its pretence, its superficial falsity. There had been “signs” of the part a rainbow has to play in this painting before: the couple of rainbows we saw on Saturday, and a later moment when my attention was drawn to the twentieth sonnet painting with its — not quite successful — rainbow (interestingly that sonnet contains the word “hue”, like this one; it may well be that this word naturally brings the rainbow into the imagery of a sonnet). But this tiny funny rainbow in the small pool of water on the floor of my shower was the “last straw” that clarified this idea.

Another aspect of the painting clarified itself on the same morning— not quite directly, but the painting would “refer” to Picasso’s old blind guitarist. That was enough to start the painting process, but this process turned out to be both harder and more rewarding than I had anticipated.

2016-01-26 15.49.33By the end of two painting days, the rainbow looked way more garish than I felt comfortable with. In a sense, that was the intended reflection of the “false sound” of the sonnet, but it didn’t quite work nonetheless. I felt an aversion to the look and feel of the painting, but wasn’t sure whether it’s essentially the same aversion I feel towards the pretence of the poem. All in all, I didn’t like the paintings’ “present”,  and I couldn’t see its future.

2016-01-27 12.54.51The next night brought some clarity: a still vague way of gradually muting the colours of the rainbow, without fully losing its rainbow-y feel. The rainbow was now just an underpainting; if there is a rainbow out there in this space, then the sonnet hides it, rather than revealing it. As I began to implement this new vision, the initial contrast between space and flatness, colour and greyness has softened into some sort of unification. However humbled and degraded the poet in this sonnet, it is still he — not someone else — who generates the space he has fallen from, the heaven he has — temporarily at least — lost. The new composition was barely there, but I finally saw, even if not quite clearly, the future of the painting; and there was a sense of breaking through yet another false duality, the duality of two “selves”. I love these moments of clarification happening inside the process, when the painting is not just an implementation of a pre-conceived vision, but a rightful participant, with its own contribution to the result.

Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912
Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912

And another source for this painting (apart from Picasso’s musician) has revealed itself: Chagall’s homage to Apollinaire. There are two shared ideas, which might appear quite disconnected from one another: the dominance of a circle in the composition, and the explicit tension between duality and unity. All in all, the painting of this sonnet turned out to be a private exercise in dissolving and overcoming dualities.

What I initially perceived as the core of the sonnet, the recorded experience of falling into the constraints of smaller, angrier self, has revealed itself to be — not wrong exactly, but too limited, insufficient. Understood too straightforwardly, it led me to what can be justly called gross painting (to use the sonnet’s own words): too direct, too superficial, garish, gaudy.

2016-01-29 14.44.49What was needed was to acknowledge that both layers of self are there; perhaps they cannot exist one without the other. Stressing the opposition — without recognising the underlying unity — is but a deeper-level falsehood, another misplaced duality. The same voice both falls from the heaven and generates the heaven. Dissolving the contrast (while still keeping it alive, in a sense) involved changes in colour, in the overall geometry of the painting, and, on the purely representational level, in the change of the hand gesture (it now links this painting to the sixty fifth sonnet painting). And then something strange happened — quite unforeseen, unplanned: the dissolution of the duality between the poet and the muse.

In the future sixteen-paintings composition, this painting will be directly below the seventy eighth one, with its huge Muse supporting the poet in the sky. I assumed this one would then “read” as the defeated poet having been thrown down — but by the end of the day, this painting’s figure palpably identified itself with the muse. In a sense, it is now both the poet and the muse. This was the resolution of the painting’s (and the sonnet’s) conflict.

I left the painting to sit there for a while, uncertain about whether it was complete. And the longer it was sitting there in the corner of my studio, the louder the inner voice of the need to return to it, so I returned to it on February 10, 2016. This day strengthened and clarified the unification of the two contrasting parts of the painting, both in its colour and its geometry. The figure in the bottom right corner of the painting is now not a lonely victim, but also the source of the rainbow-y space. And the rainbow itself has gradually transformed itself from a garish flat curve into a more topologically complex, multidimensional, and mysterious space.

January 30, 2016: dissolving dualities

2016-01-29 14.44.49Today’s painting session, a roller caster of ups and downs, but I believe the painting is as complete as it can be at this stage. Perhaps more important have been the accompanying shifts and insights into the meaning of the sonnet.

Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912
Marc Chagall. Homage to Apollinaire. 1912

There is an additional, more hidden, source for this painting (apart from Picasso’s musician): Chagall’s homage to Apollinaire. This understanding crossed my mind a couple of days ago, so I looked at Chagall’s painting this morning. There are two shared ideas, which might appear quite disconnected from one another: the dominance of a circle in the composition, and the explicit tension between duality and unity.

All in all, the painting of this sonnet turned out to be a private exercise in dissolving and overcoming dualities.

It started with my struggle with two layers of the sonnet — one corresponding to its overt, “literal” meaning, and the second, “deeper” one: the speaker recording himself lying, in a futile attempt to please the person he is angry with. A couple of days ago, I reread Helen Vendler’s analysis of this sonnet, and was struck by the complete absence of this second layer in her interpretation. At the time, I decided to disregard this, since it was so obviously incompatible with what I perceived as the core of the sonnet, the recorded experience of falling into the constraints of smaller, angrier self.

But it didn’t quite work, did it? Understood too straightforwardly, too forcefully, it led me to what can be justly called gross painting (mentioned in the sonnet): too direct, too superficial, garish, gaudy.

What I needed to move away from that was to acknowledge that both layers are there, and that they cannot exist one without the other. Stressing their difference — without recognising the underlying unity — is but a deeper level falsehood, another misplaced duality. The same voice, the same being both falls from the heaven and generates the heaven. There is no choice of one over the other, and if imposed, it leads to another “gross painting” (remarkably, I had nearly forgotten the couplet, with its mention of “gross paintings” in the process).

Lena Levin. Sonnet 65. 2014.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 65. 2014.

Dissolving the contrast (while still keeping it alive, in a sense) was the essence of today’s work on the painting: in colour, in the overall shared compositional movement, and — on the purely representational level — in the change of the hand gesture (which links this painting to sixty fifth sonnet painting). And then something strange happened — quite unforeseen, unplanned: the dissolution of the duality between the poet and the muse.

2015-09-09 14.27.59In the future sixteen-paintings composition, this painting will be directly below the seventy eighth one, with its huge Muse supporting the poet in the sky. I assumed this one would then “read” as the defeated poet having been thrown down — but by the end of the day, this painting’s figure palpably identified itself with the muse. In a sense, it is now both the poet and the muse. This was the resolution of the painting’s (and the sonnet’s) conflict.

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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