My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still: painting sonnet 85

Lena Levin. Sonnet 85. 20″×20″. June 2016.

My tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still,
While comments of your praise richly compiled,
Reserve thy character with golden quill,
And precious phrase by all the Muses filed.

I think good thoughts, whilst others write good words,
And like unlettered clerk still cry ‘Amen’
To every hymn that able spirit affords,
In polished form of well-refined pen.

Hearing you praised, I say ”tis so, ’tis true,’
And to the most of praise add something more;
But that is in my thought, whose love to you,
Though words come hindmost, holds his rank before.

   Then others, for the breath of words respect,
Me for my dumb thoughts, speaking in effect.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 85


… the sonnet is a painfully precise description of my own perception of my life as an artist, coloured and shaped by acute awareness of its overwhelming context: the long history of art, the sky-scraping mountains of books already written and paintings already painted.

May 25, 2016: Golden and Blue
Paul Cezanne. Pool And Lane Of Chestnut Trees At Jas De Bouffan. 1880
Paul Cezanne. Pool And Lane Of Chestnut Trees At Jas De Bouffan. 1880

The painting began with a glimpse of colour contrast, “golden” versus “blue”, as an expression of the tension between polished, well-refined comments and dumb thoughts. This contrast, yellow versus blue stands for light versus dark, visible versus invisible, material versus spiritual, outer (apparent) versus inner (real). Kandinsky writes about this range of associations in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, but there is also a link to how Paul Cezanne started his paintings, his first grey-blue compositional lines — so blue becomes the colour of unexpressed, under-developed thought.    

May 26, 2016: Colour Charts and Ornaments

2016-05-26 15.10.02The golden versus blue idea was a starting point for the colour chart for this painting. I originally thought of these charts as a way of figuring out the colour harmony of the painting; now, I do this rather as form of more active, visually focused mode of meditation. It’s a way the create a (mental) space for the future painting to show up.

The compositional idea clarified itself in the process: the golden areas of picture plane are more ornamental, more refined, almost like a golden frame, enclosing and constraining the rougher, more sketch-like, less expressed bluish areas.

Pablo Picasso. Queen Isabella. 1908
Pablo Picasso. Queen Isabella. 1908

It also brought in two other painterly associations: Picasso’s “Queen Isabel”, with its play on flatter ornamental areas, and Klimt’s golden ornamental backgrounds. But I still don’t see the subject matter of the future painting, nor is there any real inner opening to the sonnet. No emotional connection strong enough to form the seed of a painting. I am still on the surface of the sonnet, not within.

Gustav Klimt. Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. 1907
Gustav Klimt. Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. 1907
May 27, 2016: Painting from Life and Dutch Flowers

A pause in the study of the sonnet. There was an overwhelming sensation of life’s bleak meaninglessness the night before, hence the urgent need just to paint from life — doesn’t matter what, just about anything, simply to reconnect with life. Yes something from the sonnet process transferred into this painting (“Window”) — the contrast between expressed and under-expressed, refined and rough.

Lena Levin. "Window" (in-progress)
Lena Levin. “Window” (in-progress)

Contrary to all conventional advice, the vantage point here doesn’t allow for the illusion of seeing the whole scene at the same time: I couldn’t see the still life on the windowsill and all areas of the landscape outside with one glance. There is an eye movement within this painting; it is a kind of “quilt” made from different paintings, different areas of the scene seen and painted separately.

Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, 'A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase on a Ledge with further Flowers, Shells and a Butterfly', 1609-10.
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder, ‘A Still Life of Flowers in a Wan-Li Vase on a Ledge with further Flowers, Shells and a Butterfly’, 1609-10.

This quality reminded me of the “Dutch flowers” exhibition we saw a couple of weeks back in London. It was perhaps the first time I paid real attention to this genre; I used to perceive it as very alien, way too decorative, too well-refined, too polished. There is a conspicuous association with this want to distance oneself from others’ words in Shakespeare: polished, over-expressed, overly refined and richly decorative. But there is also another connections: these floral scenes, presented like bouquets to the unknowing eye, were often composed of flowers from different seasons — flowers which couldn’t be possibly present within a single bouquet. They couldn’t be seen at the same time, in juxtaposition to one another, except in a painting. So there is a hidden “patchy” quality to these paintings. They are also quilt-like, albeit in a completely different way from mine.

May 31 — June 1: My tongue-tied Muse

Over the weekend, the subject matter of the future sonnet painting emerged, almost without me noticing it: yellow, golden-coloured roses. I bought a bunch of them on Sunday, to paint the sonnet from life.

Painting in-progress
Painting in-progress

This choice of subject matter seems random: what does it have to do with the young gentleman to whom the sonnet is addressed? The idea of flowers is probably connected to the Dutch flowers. This association has still a more important part to play in the emergence of this painting. But more generally, flowers — and roses in particular — seem to be one the running theme of the series; this motive is evidently anchored in the sonnets sequence as a whole.

More importantly, though, this sonnet, like many others, calls for re-interpreting its addressee as something more like Universe as a whole — everything in reality, not just one particular person. There is no way for me to find an inner opening to the sonnet without this expansion of its “you”, to align my experience of the world — the narrow keyhole (using Kafka’s expression) through which I see it — with the keyhole offered by the sonnet. Come to think about it, expanding the “you” of the sonnet to the universe as a whole might be closer to its inner meaning than imagining any one individual person as its “you”.   

This opening — the inner connection to the sonnet — finally emerged only during the first day of painting. I had to start painting with only a vague idea of what I am doing, but in the process, I suddenly realised that the sonnet is a painfully precise description of my own perception of my life as an artist, coloured and shaped by acute awareness of its overwhelming context: the long history of art, the sky-scraping mountains of books already written and paintings already painted.

 My  tongue-tied Muse in manners holds her still. I am constrained into “manners” (and, quite often, into silence) by everything that has already been painted and written, by the knowledge that there are already enough words and enough paintings in the world — much, much more than any human being can read and see in a lifetime. It does indeed feel exactly like this: all one can do to express one’s own thoughts is cry “Amen” to others, like an unlettered clerk. After all, what is this whole “Sonnets in colour” series if not such an “Amen” (sort of)?

This clarified meaning brought into the painting a “quote” from one of Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s decorative florals: two pinkish buds in the left bottom corner, and the glass vase. They stand for — or point to — the well-polished, golden, richly compiled refinement of “other”. The constraining “frame”, within which my rough, under-expressed painting from life (one’s own dumb thoughts) is enclosed, turned into a circle — another, more abstract compositional quote from de Heem.

This quote — combining as it does flowers separated by centuries as though within a single bouquet — was needed in the painting, but it modified and largely obscured the original contrast between “golden” refinement and “blue” sketchy outline; the painting became more complex, and the contrast between “words” and “thoughts”, more multi-dimensional and, for the time being at least, less clear.

June 2: Contrasts and unity

The next painting session was about clarifying and strengthening these contrasts: clarifying colours and the ornamental quality of the right-most rectangular area of picture plane, tightening and refining the flowers quoted from de Heem, and changing the yellow roses in the upper left corner into something more abstract, non-representational, un-expressed.

As always the case with paintings focusing on “internal” stylistic contrasts, the challenge is to make these contrasts clear while keeping the whole composition stylistically unified nonetheless. On another level, this is the challenge of trying to combine pointers to reality and reality itself within the same artwork.

June 3: Final Notes

The last, very slow, painting session; further clarification and tightening of contrasts and details. The last touches, the last steps are always the hardest and the slowest.

I posted an in-progress photo on Google+, and Terrill Welch’s comment about unusually “circular” and softer brushwork gave me the idea of strengthening this additional contrast, the contrast between smoothness and “roundness” of refined expression and rectangular roughness of “dumb thoughts”.

I am almost sure there will be a return to some areas later on (especially in the context of the overall nine-sonnets composition), but for now, I am leaving the painting be.

Just like there is an arc, a curve in the process of painting each individual sonnet, there is probably a similar (albeit much longer) U-like curve to the whole “Sonnets in colour” series. If so, this painting — or may be this whole composition (“Poet and Muse”) — feels like the deepest, the lowest segment of this “U”. The months spent painting these sonnets were filled with all kinds “negotiating” my own place in the world, and the place of my work — with myself and with my Muse. At some level, this sonnet feels like a culmination of these negotiations.

Or maybe I am just fooling myself — entertaining the hope that the curve will go upwards from here, that it will be easier from now on.

On pure being (January 9-10, 2016; sonnet 81)

I haven’t painted this weekend, but there was quite a lot of stuff worth noting in my newly envisioned Studio Journal.

These were two days of pure being. Meditations, and walks, and conversations, and watching Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet”, and even some kitchen-cleaning, and an extraordinary dream (more about it later), and — as a gift from the universe — a clear vision of the next sonnet painting.

I know it’s January, but it’s spring already here in Northern California. Probably happy with a few days of rains, the new grass is incredibly, shiningly green — almost painful to the eyes, if it wasn’t so obviously filled with delight. Torn between rain and sun, the sky is of the kind that cannot be painted, simply because nobody would believe me. People would think I am just trying to express something esoteric — with a grand diagonal across the sky, clear blue to the right, violet-grayish clouds to the left, with a pale-yellow sun barely visible through them. So I won’t even try to paint it — but just note that the color variations are exactly what I need for this next sonnet.

The kitchen-cleaning, though — what could it possibly have to do with Studio Journal? But it does — because it was one of the obviously successful manifestations of the new way of living I am trying out: a life without planning, but just riding the waves of intentions, desires, impulses, and inspirations. Not forcing myself to do anything by putting it on “to-do lists”, but not delaying things either: just do it when the impulse arises. If someone else promised me in advance this impulse to clean the kitchen, I probably wouldn’t believe them — but it came, and I actually cleaned it; pure action, without plans, without delays, without resistance, without procrastination, without spending any mental energy on the endless game between “will” and “resistance”. The kitchen example is admittedly ridiculous, I know, but I’ve decided to put it here nonetheless — just because the boundaries between different realms of life are, in a sense, even more ridiculous.

Paul Cezanne. Self-portrait. 1866.
Paul Cezanne. Self-portrait. 1866.

The dream — I haven’t experienced dreams so colourful before…  Put in plain terms, the dream was about a hike across America (from Los Angeles up north towards Canada) with a young Paul Cézanne (looking more or less like he does in this picture). It seems to me that I was much younger than I actually am in this dream, too. It was a painting trip, but also a quest — where we had to find different places, and there were pictures supposed to guides to the next place. I remember three things about this trip most clearly: a view, with stones and bushes on the top of a hill, which I suggested we should paint. His utter surprise that it can be colder in the south than in the north. And the fact that Highway 5 was a bright-yellow downward slope, which one could traverse with amazing speed sitting on one’s bottom — quite useful when one is hiking from Los Angeles to Canada, actually.   

 2016-01-04 13.07.02-1And lastly, the vision for the next sonnet painting, 81 — not completely “out of the blue” — I’ve been staying with this sonnet for quite some time already — but unexpected nonetheless. I believe it might have been blocked by the crisis with the previous one, even though I didn’t understand it. I did contemplate the sonnet — it’s somewhat controversial meaning, it’s ambiguous relationship to truth, the question of who talks to whom in this sonnet (I will write more about it later on). And I did a colour chart for its colour harmony. But there was still no structure, no imagery; I couldn’t really start the painting; it was all too fuzzy.

But now it’s here. Its basic geometry — the contrast between a large, Turner-like circle of light, and the rough, earthly, stony foreground. The flickering oranges against shiny greys. I now know exactly how the painting ought to look like. All that remains is to paint it!

On giving paintings time to work their miracle

Paul Cezanne. Self-portrait with palette. c. 1890
Paul Cezanne. Self-portrait with palette. c. 1890

For several weeks in autumn 1907, Rainer Maria Rilke was visiting Cézanne’s memorial retrospective in Paris nearly every day, and spent hours in front of his paintings. This encounter has transformed him, as a man and as a poet, “[b]ut, — he wrote to his wife —

“it takes a long, long time. When I remember the puzzlement and insecurity of one’s first confrontation with his work, along with his name, which was just as new. And then for a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes …” (from Rainer Maria Rilke. “Letters on Cézanne.”).

Continue reading On giving paintings time to work their miracle

On Time and Space in Paul Cézanne’s alleys, and Cézanne’s limitless objectivity of vision

Paul Cezanne. Lane of Chestnut trees at the Jas de Bouffan. 1871
Paul Cezanne. Lane of Chestnut trees at the Jas de Bouffan. 1871

What is the secret of Cézanne’s Time: its breathtaking stillness, as though eternity was sitting silently right there in the painting? The answer must lie in the way he organises space, because our experience of space is the source for our understanding of time.

There is this immanent tension in painting between two-dimensional picture plane and three-dimensional space. An easy way to describe it would be to say that a painter projects a three-dimensional region of space onto a two-dimensional surface, and faces two opposite challenges: one, more obvious, is to create the illusion of depth and volume, the other is not to “break” the picture plane in the process. Both aren’t really universal — depending on the age and the context, a painter can abandon the illusion of three-dimensionality altogether, or push it to extremes — but Cézanne is a paragon of keeping this tension alive, creating volume and maintaining picture plane at the same time.

This quality of Cézanne’s composition is at the core of Erle Loran’s classic book on the subject. Here is how he illustrates the challenge:

2015-04-01 12.50.10-1“Diagram V is a configuration of overlapping planes that recede toward a vanishing point at the horizon. The exaggerated effect of deep space is the result of an uncompensated perspectival convergence and diminishing of sizes. The diagram illustrates what is meant by a funnel effect and a hole in the picture.

The illusion of space cutting into the picture plane results when no provision for a return out of depth is made. Cézanne never created this kind of effect, and it is intended here as an illustration of a very disturbing and tasteless kind of three-dimensional arrangement” (p. 20).

This illusion of “hole” is so easy to create because we are accustomed to “seeing” space extending away from us to (what amounts to) invisible infinity: we know that if things seem smaller and smaller, it means they are more and more distant, and we know that if at some point they become too distant to discern, it doesn’t mean the space ends there; and the brain uses this knowledge to compute the coherent picture it presents to the consciousness. As Loran mentions, Cézanne never lets the beholder fall into this illusion — there are no holes in his picture planes. This post is illustrated by his paintings of alleyways, where the view itself presents the quintessence of the “funnel” challenge, and you can see that, in one or another way, they all do indeed stop this mental motion towards infinite space and return the beholder out of depth.    

Paul Cezanne. The Alley at Chantilly. 1888,
Paul Cezanne. The Alley at Chantilly. 1888,

Erle Loran traveled Cézanne’s country and took photos of the same views — as close to Cézanne’s motifs as he could. One of his goals was to study how Cézanne modified nature to prevent the illusion of the space’s infinite expanse and preserve the essential two-dimensionality of the picture plane. He notices how Cézanne disregards perspective, raises the earth plane to make it “closer” to the picture plane (diagonal rather than horizontal), makes distant objects larger to bring them forward, “turns” the walls of houses and other structural planes (as though different parts of the view are seen from different vantage points).

At first, these observations seemed to me like the answer to my question: that’s how Cézanne changes the space in front of him to create this special sensation of time. Indeed, if the whole infinite expanse of space is brought within the flatter “picture box” and placed between its foreground and background planes, the corresponding sensation of time would bring all eternity within the single moment of now.

Paul Cezanne. The alley at Chantilly. 1988.
Paul Cezanne. The alley at Chantilly. 1988.

But there is something wrong here.

Cézanne’s paintings give an impression of ultimate objectivityin Rilke’s words, “limitless objectivity, refusing any kind of meddling in an alien unity (October 18, 1907). In an earlier letter (October 12), Rilke describes his conversation with Mathilde Vollmoeller in front of Cézanne’s paintings; she says: “He sat there in front of it like a dog, just looking, without any nervousness, without any ulterior motive.” As an example of a quite different beholder, about half a century later, here is how Colin Wilson, in “The Outsider”, compares Van Gogh and Cézanne:

“…the difference is more than a difference of technique; it is a completely different way of seeing. Cézanne rendered painstakingly, as Henry James rendered his pictures of European society, with innumerable small brush strokes. The final result has an orderliness that springs out of discipline. From Cézanne’s painting, we learn a great deal about the surface of the object painted and its distance from the eye, and a great deal about the will of the man who was determined to render it fully. We learn nothing of Cézanne’s emotion.”

Again, the distinct impression that we see the objective reality, including the objects’ “distance from the eye” — in an apparent contradiction to Loran’s objective observations. So, is the impression of Cézanne’s limitless objectivity false? Is it just an illusion created by a master painter with clever manipulation of structural planes?

I don’t think so. Rilke and Loran obviously look at Cézanne from very different perspectives — Rilke is a poet, Loran a painter — and Rilke would have probably been the first to defer to a painter’s superior knowledge. But there is one point on which they agree, and it is that Cézanne didn’t have a good conscious access to his insights as a painter (although Rilke talks about it with admiration, and Loran, with a certain degree of frustration), and this means he didn’t manipulate his structural planes with a conscious pictorial intention in mind. Although the desire to learn from Cézanne might seem more obvious in Loran, but it is also present in Rilke — and while Loran was learning to paint, Rilke focused on learning to see. He felt he had a special “private access” to Cézanne’s paintings, because their work intersected at some place where the difference between poetry and painting ceases to matter. He writes:

“It is the turning point in these paintings which I recognised, because I had just reached it in my own work or had at least come close to it somehow, probably after having long been ready for this one thing which so much depends on.”

And it is in this context, in the letter of October 18, 1907, that he mentions Cézanne’s limitless objectivity, refusing any kind of meddling.

What does he mean? The thing is, it’s not quite the case that a painter creates two-dimensional projections of a real three-dimensional space, simply because the images our eyes receive and transmit to the brain for further computing are two-dimensional projections to begin with (in case of landscapes, it’s essentially the same image in both eyes). Just like everyone else, what the painter’s eyes register is a temporal sequence of two-dimensional signals. The difference lies in what happens next.

Paul Cezanne. Bend in forest road. 1906
Paul Cezanne. Bend in forest road. 1906.

I touched upon this difference in my post on Claude Monet’s vision: the “normal” process of computing a coherent three-dimensional model of what we see involves a lot of what Eric Kandel, in “The age of insight”, calls “brain’s creativity”. He writes

“A digital camera will capture an image, be it a landscape or a face, pixel by pixel, as it appears before us. The eye cannot do that. Rather, as the cognitive psychologist Chris Frith writes: “What I perceive are not the crude and ambiguous cues that impinge from the outside world onto my eyes and my ears and my fingers. I perceive something much richer— a picture that combines all these crude signals with a wealth of past experience.… Our perception of the world is a fantasy that coincides with reality.”” 

The assumption that this fantasy coincides with reality sounds somewhat too far-fetched to me, but that’s obviously the same assumption Loran made in his book: he compared Cézanne’s paintings with photos, and with a three-dimensional fantasy created by his own brain (and based on his own past experience), and found that Cézanne modified reality.

But what Cézanne did, I believe, is the opposite: as Rilke intuited, he didn’t let his brain meddle with what he saw in the way people normally do, didn’t let his past everyday experiences interfere between the present visual reality and its painting. Or to put it another way, the decades of painting experiences retrained his brain to see more directly, without reconstructing what the eyes cannot see on the basis of prior “common sense” knowledge or any intellectual conceptions. I believe it is this non-meddling that creates the effects observed by Loran; Cézanne’s painting don’t extend into infinite space behind the background simply because the eyes don’t see that space — it is a fantasy of the brain.

In my experience, the idea of objectivity is often confused in everyday language with what would more accurately be called “common sense”, that is, some sort of coordination between people’s world views: something is objective if everyone can agree on it; if only one person sees things in a certain way, then it surely must be “subjective”. But what if this one person has spent more time and effort cleansing and refining his sense of vision, awakening himself to the visual reality, than anybody else? Wouldn’t it make sense to assume that he sees more clearly and objectively than the rest of us? Obviously, Rilke thought so, and he spared no effort in learning to see from Cézanne:

“When I remember the puzzlement and insecurity of one’s first confrontation with his work, along with his name, which was just as new. And then for a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes …” [October 10, 1907]

And when one does, one begins to perceive Cézanne’s space in nature, undistorted by any “common sense” human knowledge:

“A large fan-shaped poplar was leafing playfully in front of this completely supportless blue, in front of the unfinished, exaggerated designs of a vastness which the good Lord holds out before him without any knowledge of perspective.” [October 11, 1907]

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On Time in painting

Lena Levin. Formula of Time (after Cezanne's "Pont de Maincy"). 2014. 30"x24". Oil on canvas.
Lena Levin. Formula of Time (after Cezanne’s “Pont de Maincy”). 2014. 30″x24″. Oil on canvas. Click the image for more…

Even when I first started thinking about painting Shakespeare’s sonnets, I knew that Time would be the crux of this project. Not just because it’s one of Shakespeare’s central themes, and not even just because the sensation of Time is such an essential aspect of human experience. I was fascinated and overwhelmed by the radical differences in how poems and paintings can represent Time, express Time, and even situate themselves in Time.

A poet has all the means for expressing Time accumulated by their language — words, metaphors, tenses. Add to this rhythms and meters, which enact and measure Time within the space of the poem. A poem can jump from the present to the future to the past easily and naturally, like thought, and imposes its own time flow on the listener (or reader), its own stresses and pauses, word after word, line after line.

A painting is always in the present, within a single on-going moment in time. One could even say, it is time-less. A modern viewer expects a painting to represent one moment, and the painting opens itself to the beholder as a whole, all at once. The unfolding of this experience in time is entirely up to the beholder (if, indeed, they even care to spare more than a glance for it before passing to the next one).

So, is there Time in painting?

In the golden time of man’s innocence, a painter could rely on allegories, or represent sequences of events within the scope of the same painting: these are essentially literary, story-telling devices of representing Time, beyond the realm of painting per se. Resorting to such devices might have resulted in a successful illustration, but my quest is for translation of sonnets into the language of painting.

Paul Cezanne. The bridge at Maincy. 1879.
Paul Cezanne. The bridge at Maincy. 1879.

I knew that some paintings can change the beholder’s sensation of Time, at least temporarily — just like the subjective sensation of Time often changes “in real life”.  Just compare Claude Monet to Paul Cézanne: Monet’s time is as fleeting as it gets (and he fully enjoys the flow), Cézanne’s stands still, like eternity manifested in every single moment. It sometimes seems to me that I wouldn’t even be able to wrap my head around the idea of eternity within now if I hadn’t spent so much time with Cézanne’s paintings.

How does the sensation of Time in painting arise? How is it created? I believe it must be more primal than any concept of Time mediated by language, simply because the way our languages — and our verbal thinking — treat time is based almost entirely on spatial metaphors (Shakespeare, of course, uses a variety of other metaphors for Time, but the spatial ones are unavoidable). When we think about time, we use the way we perceive space and its internal organisation as an explanatory source, as the basis for understanding (or an illusion of it). But the organisation of space is the realm of painting, and no one was better at it than Paul Cézanne.

My pathway to Time in painting had to lie through a study of Cézanne’s space and time, and the first steps on this path are this month’s theme on this blog. If you are interested in this topic, I’d love you to subscribe.

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Rainer Maria Rilke on colour and self-awareness

Vincent Van Gogh once wrote to his sister that “it is possible to express poetry by means of a good arrangement of colours and nothing more”.

What did he mean? There is a superficial answer — as obvious as it is misleading — which would reduce this intuition to the “content” of art or even to “messages” it conveys. Take, for example, Leo Tolstoy — characteristically pleonastic — description of art:

“The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it. … And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based.”

The content of poetry and painting is the same — feelings and experiences; a painter can “receive” the feelings expressed in a poem and express them in a painting (and vice versa). Simple as that. But I don’t think that was what van Gogh meant: he was not talking of colour expressing the same thing as poetry does, but of colour expressing poetry itself. His intuition of affinity between poetry and painting goes beyond the divide between “content” and “form” (utterly meaningless in the realm of art anyway).

Paul Cézanne. Self-portrait. Oil on canvas. 1880.
Paul Cézanne. Self-portrait. Oil on canvas. 1880.

Rainer Maria Rilke sensed this affinity from, as it were, the other side, as a poet learning from painting, above all from Paul Cézanne. On October 21, 1907, he writes to his wife, Clara Rilke:

“<…> no one before him ever demonstrated so clearly the extent to which painting is something that takes place among the colours, and how one has to leave them completely alone, so that they can come to terms among themselves. Their mutual intercourse: this is the whole of painting. Whoever meddles, whoever arranges, whoever injects his human deliberation, his wit, his advocacy, his intellectual agility in any way, is already disturbing and clouding their activity.”        

He talks about painting and colour, but the whole context of Rilke’s “Letters on Cézanne” makes it clear that he is also thinking about poetry and language: a poem as a mutual intercourse of words. Like van Gogh, he is talking about interaction of colours, but there is an interesting point of divergence, underscored by their use of words “arrangement” (van Gogh) and “whoever arranges” (Rilke). Van Gogh speaks as an active participant in the process of painting, as though a director putting on a play in which colours are actors, whereas Rilke mistrusts any conscious human interference with the interplay of colours. He continues:

Ideally a painter (and, generally, an artist) should not become conscious of his insights <…> That van Gogh’s letters are so readable, that they are so rich, basically argues against him, just as it argues against a painter (holding up Cézanne for comparison) that he wanted or knew or experienced this and that; that blue called for orange and green for red: that, secretly listening in his eye’s interior, he had heard such things spoken, the inquisitive one.”

The elimination of conscious self from the process (so markedly and refreshingly different from the discourse of “self-expression”, so overwhelmingly common nowadays) is the very core of Rilke’s understanding of art, be it painting or poetry. On October 18, he writes about Cézanne’s work:

“This labor which no longer knew any preferences or biases or fastidious predilections, whose minutest component had been tested on the scales of an infinitely responsive conscience, and which so incorruptibly reduced a reality to its colour content that it resumed a new existence in a beyond of colour, without any previous memories. It is this limitless objectivity, refusing any kind of meddling in an alien unity, that strikes people as so offensive and comical in Cézanne’s portraits. They accept, without realising it, that he represented apples, onions, and oranges purely by means of colour (which they still regard as a subordinate means of painterly practice), but as soon as he turns to landscape they start missing the interpretation, the judgment, the superiority, and when it comes to portraits, there is that rumour concerning the artist’s intellectual conception, which has been passed on even to the most bourgeois, so successfully that you can already see the signs of it in Sunday photographs of couples and families.”

Colours, as Rilke encounters them in Cézanne, act as sentient beings, as though they were aware of themselves. Here is how he describes one of Cézanne’s portraits (a portrait of Madame Cézanne), in the next letter (October 22, 1907): 

Paul Cézanne. Portrait of Madame Cézanne. c. 1886. Oil on canvas.
Paul Cézanne. Portrait of Madame Cézanne. c. 1886. Oil on canvas.

“It’s as if every part were aware of all the others—it participates that much; that much adjustment and rejection is happening in it; that’s how each daub plays its part in maintaining equilibrium and in producing it: just as the whole picture finally keeps reality in equilibrium. For if one says, this is a red armchair (and it is the first and ultimate red armchair in the history of painting): it is that only because it contains latently within itself an experienced sum of colour which, whatever it may be, reinforces and confirms it in this red. To reach the peak of its expression, it is very strongly painted around the light human figure, so that a kind of waxy surface develops; and yet the colour does not preponderate over the object, which seems so perfectly translated into its painterly equivalents that, while it is fully achieved and given as an object, its bourgeois reality at the same time relinquishes all its heaviness to a final and definitive picture-existence. Everything, as I already wrote, has become an affair that’s settled among the colours themselves: a colour will come into its own in response to another, or assert itself, or recollect itself. Just as in the mouth of a dog various secretions will gather in anticipation at the approach of various things—consenting ones for drawing out nutrients, and correcting ones to neutralise poisons: in the same way, intensifications and dilutions take place in the core of every colour, helping it to survive contact with others. In addition to this glandular activity within the intensity of colours, reflections (whose presence in nature, always surprised me so: to discover the evening glow of the water as a permanent coloration in the rough green of the Nenuphar’s covering-leaves—) play the greatest role: weaker local colours abandon themselves completely, contenting themselves with reflecting the dominant ones. In this hither and back of mutual and manifold influence, the interior of the picture vibrates, rises and falls back into itself, and does not have a single unmoving part …”

And as a living and sentient being, a colour may have a story, almost a biography, in which individual painters are but stages in its evolution:

“And I noticed that this blue is that special eighteenth-century blue that you can find everywhere, in La Tour, in Peronnet, and which even in Chardin does not cease to be elegant, even though here, as the ribbon of his peculiar hood (in the self-portrait with the horn-rimmed pince-nez), it is used quite recklessly. (I could imagine someone writing a monograph on the colour blue, from the dense waxy blue of the Pompeiian wall paintings to Chardin and further to Cézanne: what a biography!) For Cézanne’s very unique blue is descended from these, it comes from the eighteenth-century blue which Chardin stripped of its pretension and which now, in Cézanne, no longer carries any secondary significance.” [October 8, 1907]

The following little gallery illustrates this episode in Blue’s biography, from La Tour to Cézanne:

But, of course, it’s also the same Blue that lives in nature:

“… In the east behind Notre-Dame and Saint-Germain l‘Auxerrois all of the last, gray, half-discarded days had bunched together, and before me, over the Tuileries, toward the Arc de l’Étoile, lay something open, bright, weightless, as if this were a place leading all the way out of the world. A large fan-shaped poplar was leafing playfully in front of this completely supportless blue, in front of the unfinished, exaggerated designs of a vastness which the good Lord holds out before him without any knowledge of perspective.” [October 11, 1907]

The way Rilke describes colours — their intercourse within a painting, a single colour’s evolution through history — that’s how one might also describe words: their interaction and interplay within a poem, a single word’s history from one age to another, punctuated by contributions of individual authors. His eyes trained by Cézanne, Rilke reaches out to language for words that would express the nuances of colour, and the biography of blue spills out into the realm of language: a barely-blue, a blue dove-gray, a densely quilted blue, an ancient Egyptian shadow-blue, a waxy blue, a self-contained blue, a wet dark blue, a listening blue, a thunderstorm blue, a bourgeois cotton blue, a light cloudy bluishness, a juicy blue, and, in van Gogh’s landscapes, full of revolt, Blue, Blue, Blue.

Both colour and language have their mundane, pragmatic, adaptive functions; we use colour to recognise objects in our environment, and we use language for everyday communication. But in painting and poetry, colour and language become as it were aware of themselves; it is indeed as though they know themselves better than any human being possibly could.

I don’t mean it in any mystical or supernatural sense: this self-awareness must, for all I know, rely on the same neural substrate as our own. It is in our brains, just not fully accessible to the conscious mind, even if it’s the mind of a painter or a poet. And so it follows that the artist’s challenge is, in Rilke’s words, to “leave them completely alone”, not to meddle with them, not to let the human conscious self interfere with their play; indeed, to remove one’s own self from the process altogether.

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