On Rilke’s “Letters on Cézanne”

Rilke wrote “Letters on Cézanne” to his wife, Clara (she was a sculptor), and perhaps this book couldn’t have been written any other way.

There is so much he doesn’t feel the need to explain, to spell out.

The story unfolds against the backdrop of shared knowledge and mutual understanding. One can intuit the depth of this private connection, and even perceive its beauty, but not penetrate it fully. Just glimpses of it, if one really pays attention.

On October 2, 1907, Rilke describes van Gogh’s blooming trees by saying (in brackets): “as only Jacobsen could do them”.

Vincent van Gogh. The pink orchard. 1888. Click to zoom in (on van Gogh museum site)

One might have read Jens Peter Jacobsen, or if not, google and figure out that he was a Danish poet and novelist, and that Rilke loved his work and called him his “tutelary spirit”. But this is not enough, is it?

This information barely touches the surface of shared memories and insights encapsulated in these words, like a barely understandable note in a bottle brought to the shore by the ocean about a century too late.

And there is more to this brief remark: this implicit knowing that doing trees with words and doing them with paints are similar, if not identical, acts. Rilke knows this deep place where there is no difference between painting and poetry, this place from where my “Sonnets in Colour” come. He has been there.

This is why he can feel such affinity with Cézanne, and learn from him. This is why I keep rereading this book.

Just today, I saw an advice on the internet, attributed to a mature writer: he said to a student that one can only learn to write by reading and writing. A mature painter might just as well say that one can only learn to paint by looking and painting.

There is a lot of truth to it, but rereading Rilke still feels like coming home, to a place where one truly belongs, a place of synergy between painting and poetry, where words and colors can play and dance together, quite oblivious to the boundaries imposed by human beings.

I am starting a new program this Sunday, which combines Rilke’s letters with paintings he was looking at and learning from into a sequence of daily e-mails. The intention is to recreate Rilke’s more than century old experience of vision cleansed and transformed by paintings.

Please check it out and sign up if it resonates with you!

  

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

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

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

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 89

July 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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On Vincent van Gogh’s vision, or memory of the Garden of Eden

Vincent van Gogh. Memory of the garden at Etten. 1888.
Vincent van Gogh. Memory of the garden at Etten. 1888. Oil on canvas. 73.5 × 92.5 cm.

Last week, we talked about how to see like Claude Monet — that was an easy one: to begin with, his was an insight that, once found, is easy to share; and, probably more importantly, seeing like Monet is a mental skill that, once learned, tends to fill one’s life with joy. In a very palpable sense, it makes you a happier person (not unlike meditation practice). That’s why he created this movement that’s still alive today: you won’t find too many post-impressionists or cubists working today, and — more to the point for today’s topic — hardly any “cloissonnists”, but there are many a painter working today associate their work with impressionism.

Vincent van Gogh’s is an entirely different story. No easily shareable insights, no trainable skills to acquire. In a sense, one just cannot learn to see like van Gogh; and to the extent you can, it is very unlikely to make you happier. More intense, more compassionate — perhaps, but hardly happier. And if he can be said to have had any followers in the history of painting, they departed from any representation of visible world altogether. I know why: many, many years ago I stopped painting because there was just no point in painting after van Gogh. I distinctly remember the moment of this decision, which had defined my life for the following twenty years at least: I was standing in a doorway to my room in my childhood home and taking in, for a millionth time, a reproduction of his blue tree trunks on the wall.

Vincent van Gogh. Tree trunks in the grass. Oil on canvas. 1890.
Vincent van Gogh. Tree trunks in the grass. Oil on canvas. 1890.

I was overwhelmed by a confusing mixture of admiration and despair, love and pain; it was the beautiful, irresistible path I felt I had to follow, but could not, not even close. It was like to be or not to be, which, at that moment, was resolving itself into not to be — to stop what I had, by then, come to see as my life, to make my quietus — not with a bare bodkin, but by abandoning my childhood dream. This is the memory that his “Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)” keeps bringing back to my mind.

What is the mystery of van Gogh’s sense of vision? I believe the closest anyone had come to expressing it in prose was Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to his wife (June 24, 1907; published in “Letters on Cézanne”):

“<…> works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity …”

Except for van Gogh, it was — almost always — a direct visual experience. He could see all the way to the end, to the point where a visual motif becomes personal, singular, and irrepressible, to where there is no difference between the outside and the inside; I believe this was (or it had gradually become) an immanent part of his sense of vision. And it is not a skill one can learn: it’s a new danger, new risk, new void every single time. No wonder Rilke’s train of thought — begun as a contemplation on art in general (and based, doubtlessly, on his own experience) — lead him to van Gogh. He writes in the same letter:

“I often think to myself what madness it would have been for van Gogh, and how destructive, if he had been forced to share the singularity of his vision with someone, to have someone join him in looking at his motifs before he had made his pictures out of them, these existences that justify him with all their being, that vouch for him, invoke his reality. He did seem to feel sometimes that he needed to do this in letters (although there, too, he’s usually talking of finished work), but no sooner did Gauguin, the comrade he’d longed for, the kindred spirit, arrive than he had to cut off his ear in despair, after they had both determined to hate one another and at the first opportunity get rid of each other for good.”

I said “almost always” just now, because this painting, “Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)”, is, in a sense, an exception: not a single visual experience, but its explicit, conscious merger with the memory of another one. This painting is a response to his attempt to open himself to Paul Gauguin’s influence, during their nine-weeks sojourn in Arles — something that happened within Rilke’s “no sooner”. Here is what van Gogh wrote to his sister about this painting:

 “I do not know if you can understand that it is possible to express poetry by means of a good arrangement of colours and nothing more, just as one can express consolation by means of music. In addition, the bizarre, contrived and repetitive lines that twist through the whole picture are not meant to represent the garden as it normally looks, but to render it as we might see it in a dream, in its true character, yet at the same time stranger than in reality.”

For all we know, this intentional distance from what how things “normally look” is a result of his attempt to follow Gauguin’s concept of painting as an abstraction from nature, simplified and formalised, subordinated to a two-dimensional visual idea designed by the artist (rather than borrowed from visible reality). Living as they were in the midst of an earth-shattering change in painting, they all seem to have been obsessed with finding the one true path for it, and Gauguin had just participated in launching a new movement, called “cloisonnism”. And van Gogh didn’t just (in Rilke’s words) “share the singularity of his vision” with Gauguin, he almost completely opened himself to Gauguin’s influence, trying to absorb this new approach to painting. Almost, but not quite. Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger write in “Vincent van Gogh. The complete paintings”:

“Paul Gauguin, after giving the matter careful thought, had evolved a ethos of making painting independent of the obsessions, spontaneous reactions and passing moods of the artist, and Vincent van Gogh, appropriating the method, used it for his own immature purposes, his own self-admiring ends, his need for intense dedication!”

Incidentally, isn’t it strange that, while writing a book on van Gogh, they seem to identify completely with Gauguin’s point of view? One can almost hear Gauguin’s own frustration in their choice of words: “immature”, “self-admiring” — even though, from what we know, if there was any “self-admiration” in their studio in Arles, it was all Gauguin’s.

Rilke’s concept of art was, it would seem, closer to van Gogh’s:

“So surely we have no choice but to test and try ourselves against the utmost, but probably we are also constrained to keep silence regarding it, to avoid sharing it, parting with it in communication before it has entered the work of art: for the utmost represents nothing other than that singularity in us which no one would or even should understand, and which must enter into the work as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic.”

He pinpoints — with precision which would have been almost unbelievable in anyone but Rilke — the exact point of divergence between van Gogh and Gauguin. One feels that, for Rilke, the very idea of “independence” of a work of art from artist’s mood and obsessions would have sounded as shallowness, falsehood, self-deceit.    

 But that summer in Arles, that wasn’t — I believe — what van Gogh must have felt. His attempt to follow Gauguin’s path, his admiration and reverence were genuine and sincere. And fully opening himself to influences — nearly dissolving himself in other artist’s visions — this was his strength, his way of enriching his sense of vision. This is, after all, what van Gogh’s famous “discovery of colour” in Paris was all about. And it was also, I believe, one of his ways, in Rilke’s words, to put himself in that danger that leads to artistic insight— and he had to go through this “experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further”. “Memory of the Garden at Etten” was such an end to this particular experience: he couldn’t follow Gauguin any further.

Paul Gauguin. Old women of arles. Oil on canvas. 1888.
Paul Gauguin. Old women of arles. Oil on canvas. 1888.

Van Gogh’s painting is arguably much more powerful than Gauguin’s simplified, decorative take on the same motive. Gauguin’s painting is visually impressive, but not much more than that; van Gogh’s is, as he intended, poetry expressed in colour — the poetic unity between human beings and nature, and between seemingly distant moments in time, the present as seen now and the past remembered and contained in the present. All its black contours (a defining feature of cloisonnism) cannot interrupt the unity and fluidity of colour and shapes; their conspicuous presence just stresses their inability to break this unity.

But there is something else here, too: the experience of an end, of a path one felt one had to follow, but couldn’t. There is this sadness, a to be or not to be on the verge of resolving into not to be, an overwhelming self-doubt— this is why, I believe, this painting makes me relive the moment of abandoning painting again and again. Etten is a small village where van Gogh’s father served as a pastor, but I must have misinterpreted this unfamiliar name as a child — and had been convinced, for an embarrassingly long time, that this painting is about the memory of the Garden of Eden. Such childish errors are usually corrected soon enough, but not this one. Is there something in the painting’s dreamlike quality that reinforced this interpretation in my mind, or is it just that painting is, and always was, my “Garden of Eden”, my own lost paradise? I don’t really know…—  but I have always known I would return.

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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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