Sonnet 92: What is so blessed fair that fears no blot?

Painting sonnet 92 (September 12-16, 2016)
Lena Levin. Sonnet 92. 20"x20". 2016
Lena Levin. Sonnet 92. 20″x20″. 2016

But do thy worst to steal thyself away,
For term of life thou art assured mine;
And life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine.

Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs,
When in the least of them my life hath end.
I see a better state to me belongs
Than that which on thy humour doth depend:

Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,
Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie.
O what a happy title do I find,
Happy to have thy love, happy to die!

But what’s so blessed-fair that fears no blot?
Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 92

There is this traditional, commonly received, reading of the sonnets sequence  as a story of the poet’s infatuation with a “fair youth”, almost a romantic diary.

But the longer I stayed with the sonnets, the more I felt how utterly incomplete, how almost absurdly shallow this interpretation really is. Again and again, I had to reach out to much deeper — and much less “romantic” — layers of their meaning, because there was just no other way for me to paint them. With this sonnet, this “infatuation with fair youth” interpretation broke down completely.

This poem is so definitely not about an untrustworthy lover and planning a suicide (or anticipating dying from broken heart) if they abandon you. It’s about the unity — identity even — between love and life: by the end of the sonnet, these words are just two phonetic variants pointing to the same thing.   

What is this thing?

Well, what is so blessed-fair that fears no blot? Thou may be false, and yet I know it not.

Rembrandt. The supper at Emmaus. Oil on paper on panel. 39 x 42 cm. Circa 1628.
Rembrandt. The supper at Emmaus. Oil on paper on panel. 39 x 42 cm. Circa 1628. Click to read more about this painting.

There is no answer — only the question. When I first started to contemplate this sonnet, Rembrandt’s “Supper at Emmaus” floated to my mind — a figure which might be there, or it might be not. I know it not. I wanted the painting to be a structural and coloristic equivalent of the poem’s love/life music, possibly with a glimpse of a figure that might not be there.

To my mind, the ninety second painting — finally! — embodies this idea I’ve been dreaming about, and visualising, for so long: the pure movement of colour, barely restrained by geometry and lines. There was something in this sonnet that finally let this vision manifest itself in a painting: something liberating in its way of communicating the idea that life and love is one and the same thing, that they are both in constant flux of revolving inconstancy.

The beginning of Rembrandt study and the unbearable lightness of being (February 5, 2016)

2016-02-05 16.18.19There seemed remarkably little to journal about this day.

A strange experience: the day feels full, but it’s completely devoid of stories. It’s been filled with unbelievable, story-less lightness of pure being. That’s the experience I’ve longed for, but it feels strange nonetheless. I wanted my mind to stop working vainly wasting its energy in pointless circling thoughts, and it did. I feel both light — light-hearted, and strange at the same time. I am not quite accustomed to this way of being yet — it’s as though I don’t quite know what’s been happening.   

2016-02-05 13.02.02One thing is clear, though: I finally started my Rembrandt study today, however scary it seemed. I just understood that the emotions stirred by all the preliminary studies of this painting, “The return of the prodigal son” — they created the inner need, the right inner environment, for doing this work, and I could no longer delay it.

My canvas, 60”x48”, is somewhat smaller than Rembrandt’s, but it’s the largest I’ve ever worked on (not counting the whole sonnets compositions, but that’s slightly different). And I started it in a decidedly non-Rembrandt fashion, with a Cézanne-like French Ultramarine preliminary drawing — and with a very vague plan to build up colour from the darks up to the lightest lights. I am not sure yet how dark my background will be — how far the painting will deviate from Rembrandt’s original.

2016-02-05 15.03.43For now, I was just surprised by the flow — how light and easy this work has been so far — just trusting Rembrandt, and my brush; listening rather than thinking. I see that my brush deviates from the original quite strongly, but still — in some other sense — stays with it at a deeper level. And it somehow happens “on its own”. I had thought this study might take a year, but now I think I’ll just dedicate the whole of the next week to it, and see where this takes me. It changes some other plans, but that feels like the right thing to be doing.

2016-02-05 16.18.06I had assumed I’d limit myself to blue outlines during the first day, but then colour started to introduce itself, with the background faces. There is a certain risk in painting them without the support of background colour, but this study has always been a risk to begin with…  For now, I just enjoy watching this painting emerge.