It has been said that in the beginning was the word. I prefer to think that before the word came the dance, painting and music - a fundamental mode of communication - body language, drawing, making images, symbols and certainly a form of expression which we today cannot fully understand.
The painting of a child has no relation to the painting the child will do as an adult. Child's painting is of quite a different order, character and intention of that of an adult. A child's feeling comes before seeing. Most children stop painting when they reach their adolescence. Children draw not by what they see but by what they know through their tactile sensations. The adult draws what he has learned to see. Therefore, as the eye harnessed to knowledge often lies, it is essential for the artist to strive for the child's physical approach to phenomena instead of painting through the conventions current at the time. We see what we know. But what we know is not through direct seeing or feeling but through an accumulation of knowledge.
It was not until I had children of my own, that I fully understood the kind of corruption that takes place with child art. It is not so much the teachers corrupting the children, as I had earlier thought, but a change which happens when the children begin to read and write. The act of making letters, of making and understanding symbols, produced a radical change in the direction of their drawings. With the acquisition of more and more knowledge and all the visual pressures which result from reproduction, printing, photography, films and television the children of the West are directed away from the creative impulse and the making of images.
Vital problems for me arise in the studio or work-shop. These problems have to do with my relations with nature and with God, with history, and the materials I have to work with. I always ask the questions: "Who am I? What am I? What is it? What is out there?" This prompted the troubadour Martin Best to call me "Mr. What-Is-It." The question always remains: "What is out there and what is it, in us, that relates to it?" What is the inner feeling (the inner-light of Quakerism), Cezanne's 'little sensation,' the sense of design that not only motivates the artist but provides the structure for the idea?
The problems which arise in painting have no existence apart from the materials that give them substance but these problems cannot be dismissed as being merely technical ones. Reality, the facts, are the material out of which the artist creates. As the philosopher Karl Britten said: "A fact is essentially abstract but there." The act of creation is always an act of the human will. Material without intention and direction can never be art. A painting has a logical structure. The difficulty arises in the contradiction during working, where the need is to exercise some kind of logical control during the period of gestation of an idea, which comes into existence beyond the ordinary norms of logic. To completely abandon oneself to paint, to texture, or to the sensuality of the brush, is dangerous and cannot result in a meaningful image. Paint as paint has no meaning - form as form has no meaning - colour as colour has no meaning.
I propose to deal once again with Question 2.2: How far have you fulfilled Bomberg's ideas and how have you developed them? Of course, it is impossible to know how far I have fulfilled Bomberg's ideas because, first of all, it was almost impossible to know what
Bomberg's ideas were. At best, one has an interpretation but the interpretation was merely a stimulus to the development of one's own ideas. In any case, the idea itself - that is to say the idea in the head - whether it is that of the master or the student, is never brought to fruition, can never be visualized or translated into a form on canvas. The idea in the head acts only as a stimulus to the innate design sense of the artist.
Both Bomberg and I were figurative painters but I became much more committed to the figures. I have painted several hundred and there are no close connections with other painters other than with my colleagues in the Borough Group. I cannot offer any proof that I have fulfilled any of Bomberg's ideas, but I feel strongly that the development of the Borough Group made a significant contribution in drawing and painting (especially in drawings and paintings of the figure, which I have continued to develop ever since the breakup of the group). One cannot say that it was better or worse, but one can say that it was different and explored new ground, in the way the Cubists did. As I have pointed out in another connection, Bomberg himself in the last four years of his life, changed his drawing significantly towards the way the Borough Group was oriented in their drawing practice. I can only think of three paintings by Bomberg that were painted from the model. By comparison, I have made many compositions with single figures and with two figures. I have also made many paintings with figures sitting on chairs, which at one point I was thought rather ridiculous. The only other work of this sort which I can think of - and I was doing it much earlier - was Henry Moore's 'King and Queen,' but I found a literary justification some years later when I saw the play by Ionesco, 'The Chairs.' And then on a visit to Crete, in the Herakleon Museum, I found small sculptures which were surprisingly similar to figures and forms that I had painted in the forties and early fifties.
If I was asked "what is art?" I would say that art is rather similar to religion or to some aspects of philosophy in that it deals with the spirit. But, in art, form comes into existence through idea and has no separate existence without idea. I think it was Susan Langer who said something like this: "Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling." But to dwell on one's state of mind in front of a work of art does not further one's understanding of the work or its value.
The big difference between so-called 'fine art' and handicraft or design is that the products of the latter can be compared one with another and judged to be better or worse - in their production there is a certain amount of competition and so the product of handicraft or design can be said to be 'good of its kind.' Of course, this attitude has strayed into art criticism where art historians and critics have placed paintings into categories and they say this is 'good of its kind,' or this is 'good in that style.' But as W. H. Auden once said: "A work of art is not good of a certain kind but a unique good so that, strictly speaking, no work of art is comparable to another." Auden goes on to suggest that, in the case of a washing machine, an inferior one is better than no washing machine at all, but a work of art must be either accepted with whatever faults it might contain or it is unacceptable, even if it has merit.
Competition in art is ridiculous because it is impossible to paint an absolute masterpiece. One cannot strive for perfection (whatever that might be or whatever it could mean). I think it was Sylvia Plath who said: "Perfection has no babies." The early Greeks strove for harmony which only resulted in a decadence. This kind of striving is totally unreal; the creative powers cannot relate to it and the result must be total sterility. On the question of originality and uniqueness of image, Auden has this to say: "Originality no longer means slight modification in the style of one's immediate predecessors, it means a capacity to find in any work of any date or place a clue to finding one's authentic voice."
On the question of the finished work of art, Auden had a similar attitude to poetry as I have to painting. To quote Auden: "If, on finishing a poem he is convinced that it is good, the chances are that the poem is a self-imitation. The most hopeful sign that it is not is the feeling of complete uncertainty either this is quite good or it is quite bad I can't tell." At this point I cannot resist quoting Auden once again: "Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about. There is a certain kind of person who is so dominated by the desire to be loved for himself alone that he has constantly to test those around him by his tiresome behaviour, what he says and does must be admired, not because it is intrinsically admirable, but because it is his remark, his act. Does this not explain a good deal of avant-garde art?"
Of course critics lacking any concept of the creative act (or even why a thing is creative) have contributed to this mess with their attitude towards what is 'good of its kind,' or 'good in this style, in this manner.' One is reminded of the characters in 'Waiting for Godot' who cry "moron, vermin, abortion, morpheme, sewer rat, curate, cretin, critic," and with these terms Vladimir and Estragon exchange abuse in a slanging match whilst waiting for Godot. The 'coup de grace' is the accusation of being a critic; it is worse than all that preceded it. And of course, the chief reason why artists suspect critics is that they have arbitrary power which they use irresponsibly. They never ask why and with what justification works of art exist. They only describe how they exist. The revolutionary discoveries in art have been wrenched from their context and turned into novelties of fashion; novelties that serve fashion.
Question 2.6: Have my tastes and preferences in art changed over the years? I hesitate about the word 'taste'; that has to do with fashion and not with art. I always tell my students that I have no taste. We are not in the business of taste. We make taste for other people, for our public, but even with the public it has more to do with design and decoration and not with 'art proper.' A matter of taste is more in line with a matter of opinion and, again, in art we are not dealing with either taste or opinions but with ideas. I have never been able to understand why taste is always connected with the arts, whether it be painting, sculpture, architecture, music, or theatre, but one is never asked about one's taste in religion or science. As Wittgenstein pointed out, "taste doesn't do anything."
When it comes to preferences, of course, that is a different matter, because then we can talk about a preference for one set of ideas against another set of ideas and, for me, this is one of the mysteries. Why do we prefer one idea and not another idea? Why do we think one idea is charged with meaning and another idea is totally irrelevant? Why is one idea exciting and the other boring? I haven't a clue as to what determines this. I have no idea what prompted me to choose one master against all other artists and against all other schools and institutions and why this choice proved to be so absolutely right for me. And, no, my preferences have not changed over the years, only my capacity for understanding has developed and of course this is precisely what Bomberg taught and this is what I try to teach.
One of the reasons why we hated the Futurists was that they denied history. They denied tradition and, while I am on this point, we can say that one of the reasons why we disliked Cubism was because it was so impersonal; and Vorticism, because it was grounded in a literary idea. The artist and the art historian, when looking at the history of art, should regard it in quite another way than as the recording of facts. The artist and the historian should both act as inquirers into the meaning of historical continuity. They should seek not only to record what happens or how it happened, but also they should judge why it happened. The emphasis should always be on judgment and value.
Now let us turn to Question 2.4: What arts apart from painting have given you inspiration? I am a little confused by the word 'inspiration.' According to my dictionary, it means either drawing in of breath or being divinely inspired or divine influence or a sudden happy idea. Well, none of these apply to me but there have been moments when I have been animated or revitalized or prompted to action after being to the theatre or the ballet or looking at a film. But my biggest boost to activity comes not really from the arts but rather from philosophy. This is not only a boost to start activity but is a justification for what one has done. Many ideas run parallel.
A very stimulating period was during the time when I had an association with Noa Eshkol who was the daughter of the Prime Minister of Israel, Levi Eshkol, and was at that time known by her original name, which was Skolnick (Eshkol being the Hebrew version of Skolnick). She and I were working on parallel problems of movement. She was working with dance and I was working with paint. Eventually she wrote a book of dance notation. This had been tried before but her system of notation was the best and it was used by the Americans to find out what the men would do when they landed on the moon. And so, while she was busy doing an apparently useless activity like dance (without decor, costume or music and with only the aid of a metronome) her father despaired for the future of his daughter, but eventually she became a scientific celebrity.
However, although I am not directly inspired or influenced by any other art form, nevertheless I firmly believe that every artist must have an all round experience and understanding of the other arts in order to be able to perform well in his chosen medium. I look at sculpture and architecture, although of course there is very little architecture about. But even a conglomeration - a mess - of buildings over an industrial landscape can be just as exciting as St. Paul's Cathedral or a nude. However it should be remembered that the kind of excitement generated by the first impact or impulse in front of any of the arts or nature only triggers the activity and it is not the same kind of excitement as the inner excitement which is generated during the creative act.
In Question 2.5 it is suggested that I might view nature as a dictionary as it was for Delacroix. No, it is not a dictionary, simply because a dictionary deals with known and fixed values, signs and symbols and so forth, so that one is in the world of translation and interpretation and even imitation. I think it was Picasso who said: "I do not seek, I find." Well, I don't find but I search, and the kind of search has some parallels not only with philosophy but with science also. The Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, claimed that science tells us nothing about the world as it is in itself and can only tell us about the way we interact with the world. In reference to light he explained that some experiments point to light being a wave while others point to it being made of particles. But the concepts of wave and particle do not apply to objects themselves but only to the way we interact with them. Similarly, a fourteenth century archbishop, Gregory Palamas, decided that God is absolutely unknowable in His essence, that is to say, as He is in Himself. Instead He should be regarded as knowable only through His energies so that in both physics and theology, whether we are dealing with God or light or material objects, we can only speak of one's interactions with those objects. We are always asking the question what is it out there and, again, who and what am I?
If the natural world was a dictionary, that would be like interposing a grid before nature. When we work with art we cannot accept any theory of nature in exchange for nature itself. So, far from desiring to isolate it in a formula appealing to the intellect, on the contrary we seek to materialize it in a form that gives joy to the soul through the senses. We want to create something that is parallel with nature and not simply to define nature. The definition should
follow the work; the work should not adapt itself to the definition. It is in our interaction with nature through activity that the idea of nature comes about. The idea being, of course, the work of art.
Question 2.7: The action of painting has a particular meaning for you. What is it? Well, there is action and there is stillness. A painting comes about through action but it is finalized in one moment of time, that is, in stillness. I do not mean here the kind of action that is necessary and facilitates the business of everyday living and I am not speaking of action for the sake of knowledge but, rather, action for the sake of definition. This is the kind of action which uses all the body and all the senses, which is rather similar to the action used and advocated by the masters of Zen and this kind of action or activity is very different to, and almost opposite to, that postulated by Jackson Pollock with his throwing action of paint. I think this gut attitude of throwing by Pollock was an illusion. I think that it stemmed more from the intellect and was a controlled activity. The Tachist paintings of Sam Francis were so divorced from real or virtual space that his compositions degenerated into a pattern; a sort of carpet design. An artist like Richard Long, on the other hand, was concerned more with the actual manipulation of space by placing objects (stones etc.) in a situation. I reject all these attitudes.
Painting is a physical activity - like dance. It is physical because the mere appearance of things (and their intellectual attributes) follow only after apprehension by all the other senses. Sight merely corroborates the data and the intellect evaluates, classifies and gives it a name. Every painting is related. It is either a continuation or a reaction against the point of so-called completion of the last one. There is no such thing as completion. It is like an orgasm. If you stop the activity too soon it is unsatisfying but if you go over the point it is also unsatisfying. If you finish too soon the idea is incomplete but if you go over the point then you are already creating another idea. Therefore one must take another canvas otherwise your original idea is canceled out, resulting in confusion.
Development is the life of painting. That is what it is all about - the search and the development of ideas. One canvas leads to the next; one image leads to another. But I do not mean a sequence or a series as in the Monet Haystacks where the intention was to record a situation of light in one moment of time. We tend to work in the way Monet worked after 1890 when he had rejected Impressionism. We feel in a time sequence, a continuous battle with the elements, which ends in a frozen stillness in one moment of time. One idea can be superimposed on another before the first is finally determined. The difficulty and the main problem, which hinges on the undeveloped critical faculty, is to know when to stop. As I have previously indicated, the critical faculty lags far behind one's creative potential. It is not good to seek simplicity because this can lead to emptiness, just as complexity can lead to obscurity. The problem is to isolate each idea and give it a life of its own. Only the old painters can do this with ease. But there is no finality to any form ultimately.
Painting is a kind of game, like chess. The game takes place within the four sides of a canvas, this being the limitation (as is the flat surface) so that we can treat the canvas (or any other form of support) as an area in which an activity takes place, an area in which an event occurs, and the event comes about through an activity which is physical. We are using all the senses plus movement. When we look at something the act of looking involves judgment - that is to say looking is a form of judgment as against seeing (which does not involve a decision or a judgment) so that, in this sense, action ought to be understood as the constructive expression of judgment. We could say that seeing is what we do as a practical means of moving around without bumping into anything. Seeing does not involve judgment because it merely allows us to designate something as being there, in our immediate vicinity, and this something is given a
name and deemed to possess other qualities, which we attach to it by convention, custom and habit. When we look an object, however, we divest it of its name, its attributes and its function and we are back to the question: "What is it?"
Bomberg once wrote that the artist should be absolutely and completely blind. I think it is a very interesting question, which nobody seems to ask, why it was that Monet, in the last 25 years of his life when he was partially blind, created what was, in my view, his most authentic and original work. This work came about as a reaction against his earlier work and that of his colleagues and against all the original theories of Impressionism. He was no linger interested in an impression in one moment of time. Instead he constructed with marks and colours, working more in a physical way rather than in a visual way. The question remains as to whether he was forced into this direction by the onset of blindness or whether it was his actual decision to reject his previous theories, or whether both ideas ran parallel and were coincidental?
Of course, it must be understood that, when dealing with movement, we are concerned all the time with virtual movement even though we observe real movement and we ourselves move. When it comes to touch, we are dealing with virtual touch. We are not caressing or stroking the model, that is why we can think in terms - and must think in terms - of other objects. Instead of flesh, we think of rocks or buttresses and everything can always be something else, although in the end each form has a special character. The Cubists understood this approach, where everything was open to being treated it as if it were something else. This was one of the reasons why the Cubists used to turn their pictures upside down and continue to paint because they realized that, looking at the form which they had just created, if it appeared banal then that banality might be stemming from their sense of gravity. But they realized, as we do, that it was the forms and the marks themselves which contained the vitality and that they might be divorced altogether from the subject. A painting could be turned upside down so that although the subject disappeared, the vitality and the movement of the forms remained. The marks could then be manipulated into another subject. As that famous quotation from the little girl goes: "How can I know what I think till I see what I say?" This reminds me of something that Francis Bacon once said in connection with illustration painting. He wondered why painting is more poignant than illustration and he supposed it was because it had a life completely of its own.
Touch is all important. Touch starts the moment we are born. We are handled, slapped, caressed, held and protected. Then we seek the breast. First, perhaps, by the sense of smell. Then by touch, through the mouth. Then we begin to move around. Movement is an essential ingredient in our comprehension of reality. We begin to feel space and distance. We do not see distance and we have no concept of space. But we begin to act. We begin to move, touch, and feel. But activity is soon diverted into tactics for survival and, in everyday life, movement degenerates into measure. Measure comes about through movement and by measure we acquire a knowledge of distance.
Before it has begun to move around and to find a space between objects, a baby will reach out to touch the moon, that disk in the sky that changes colour and size. At this early stage in its development, the baby cannot distinguish the moon from the light of a lamp which is only a metre away from it. As the baby develops it will begin to see objects, but without understanding. Bergson has defined the function of the intellect as a means of presenting things not so that we may most thoroughly understand them but so that we may successfully act on them. Everything in man is dominated by the necessity for action. Soon things are given a name and we begin to acquire knowledge. Then the name becomes the thing and as Ernst Cassirer points out: "The conscious experience is not merely wedded to the word, but is consumed by it.
Whatever has been fixed by a name, henceforth is not only real but is Reality." Later he observes that "all symbolism harbors the curse of mediacy; it is bound to obscure what it seeks to reveal." Thus, as T. E. Hume has said: "Most of us never see things as they are, but see only the stock types which are embodied in language."
It is not enough for the artist to try to represent what he sees or to attempt to convey the emotions that he feels. Wittgenstein has said that he can think that he understands a poem in the way that the author would have wished him to, "but what he may have felt in writing it doesn't concern me at all." In any case it is impossible to paint an emotion. An emotion is the by-product of the experience during the act of painting. The artist must be able to emancipate himself from the moulds imposed by language and by ordinary perception. He must not only experience things freshly, but must escape the lie of the eye and allow all the senses to operate in order to find out what it is out there. And, of all the senses, the sense of touch is the most important. But I do not mean that you have to actually handle things any more than Berenson's reference to his tactile sense meant the caressing of the picture surface. We cannot see distance. We know distance. That is to say, we make a willful judgment based on experience, measure and knowledge. The smudge in the distance which we know to be a large object is not the same as the object observed in close proximity. It is a different object we sense even though we know intellectually that it is the same object. The silhouette of the mountain changes constantly as we approach until finally we are confronted with a heap of stones not unlike those observed on the flat land. Note Cezanne's treatment of Mont Saint Victoire and the relationship of vegetation, mountain and clouds. Similarly our concept of a cathedral entails not only viewing from a distance but a close-up which again reduces the cathedral to a collection of stones. The camera eye produces its own peculiar distortions. The painter is confronted with the problem of not only welding together four or five optical perspectives but must also attempt an evaluation through all the many different perspectives, namely, optical, mathematical, geometric, and even the inverted perspectives of Uccello. These devices served their purpose at the time of invention but are inadequate as a measure of reality today.
If you place your hand flat on a piece of white paper (or you can do the same thing with a leaf) and draw around the contours the kind of drawing that you have does not approximate to either the hand or a leaf in reality. It is only a simple sign or symbol of a hand or a leaf because you have not been dealing with the solidity of the object, the space it displaces or the relation of this one object to any other object. Neither, in making a drawing like this, have you dealt with the movement of the object or the light that flies around and over the object. But when we consider all the leaves on a tree, although they are similar in kind, each one has a slightly different character and each leaf moves and the light moves over all the leaves and, furthermore, you, as an artist, are also moving. So every leaf form is different in character and in form and, if we try to deal with these ingredients of reality, there are endless permutations of the form. If one draws a line around the hand or round a leaf it gives no idea of hand or leaf because the outline does not concern itself with movement or volume or light. Theophile Gautier wrote, after a conversation with Delacroix, that the outline defines the form arbitrarily - it undoes the effect of it by destroying the mass. In reality "one draws by means of the middle of things as much as by their edges," and "those painters who are called Colourists have a tendency to bring out the relief of things, and the draughtsmen to produce the silhouette." It is for this reason that Cezanne used so many small brush strokes instead of a line as he was unable, or rather he recognized that it was impossible, to find the edge of things. Delacroix had already recognized that painting must no longer be an addition of parts, but a single whole.
He keeps his eye away from the temptation to analyze, and tries to create a complete spell in which the sensibility, as though hypnotized, will let itself be dominated by a "silent power" that "seizes all the faculties of the soul."
Roy Oxlade has criticized me for talking about the creative act being nurtured by a kind of drunken state. Obviously I do not mean that one can paint while drunk as a result of drinking alcohol, but one strives to allow oneself to achieve a similar state of ecstasy, a poetic frenzy. I am supported in this view by many poets and painters from the past. Baudelaire for example said that "it is essential to be always intoxicated. Everything lies in that. It is the one and only thing", meaning that one must go to the utmost limits of oneself. He also talked about the complete man keeping the gift of childhood which enables him to experience things intensely so that he "sees everything as new ... is always drunk." The complete man remains in touch with the gifts of inspiration and yet he is able to add to these the virtues of maturity. Delacroix wrote in his journals "one has to be beside oneself, out of one's senses, in order to be what one can be!" so that the artist becomes "clear, lucid and penetrates to the depths unknown to others." One must risk everything - "one's entire being" - to go beyond the point of "inventing cautiously and copying slavishly." Bomberg often spoke about working while suffering from a fever and my own experience of working while under acute depression or anger is always positive, not, I think, because one sublimates the anger or the depression, but because these moods, like a fever, deflect the critical faculty which then gives the Muse a chance.
In a given set of forms, for example in the human figure, a change of related directions is the only factor which differentiates one form from another and gives each its peculiar character when divested of descriptive and anecdotal detail. Direction means movement. Movement normally means the volition or locomotion of an object in relation to other objects. In terms of drawing (that is in terms of art) the meaningful image comes about when movement is used in a sense peculiar to static form - this is the movement that lies within and around the object, which is virtual movement. It is at this point that Bomberg's attitude and mine differ from the Cubists who were only interested in the actual movement of man in front of the object. Directional lines were thrown out and at the point of intersection a plane emerged which defined the form but the illusion remained just as optical as if it was discursive form. What interested us was the throwing out of innumerable directional lines, virtual lines, which through movement defined the space and form.
Giving the directional lines precedence over descriptive form resulted in a very vigorous but primitive image, the forms of which had been found as if by accident, and these forms are related to nature only as a set of tensions. That is to say, the entity embraced between the directional lines is not necessarily true to the apparent optical truth in nature. But, as the concern is no longer with the illusionistic rendering of truth, such anomalies can be dismissed and it is found that there are no laws governing the relation of the entities or the selection of a direction, as long as the activity aspires to the vital image. It is also possible that the entities may not be so important in themselves - the colours that fill the entities may only serve to hold the directional lines apart. But then the lines themselves are also of colour. If we think in terms of equal shapes, equal sizes, filled with different colours that give rise to an illusion of different sizes and with every shape changing the character and intensity of the colour, then the permutations and possibilities are endless. That is why we stress drawing and building with colour. Every stroke of paint, every mark, every line gives direction - direction gives tension, and the tension gives movement - the movement gives volume, and in the volume we find mass - and it is in the unique character of mass that we find meaning.
A painting has to have a logical structure. The difficulty arises in the contradictions while working, where the need is to exercise some kind of logical control during the period of gestation of an idea. For many non-figurative painters like Mondrian the use of numbers and geometry seem to offer this control and so they would make measurements of mathematically determined areas of the painted surface. But this is merely the same kind of control that the model offers the representational painter or that the literary anecdote offers the illustrator. Although these approaches seem to offer some kind of logical control, this is the control of known named facts. That is why the work of the Concretists or Hard-edge painters have the appearance of Impressionism or carpentry. It is almost impossible to synthesize the rational and the intuitive.
As Patrick Heron once said, merely to observe is to subscribe to the heresy of realism and merely to project a rhythm is to subscribe to the heresy of non-figuration. I also reject both ideas in favour of regarding painting as a physical passion. It must be a passion because of the unceasing dedication and commitment required. It is physical because the mere appearance of things and their intellectual attributes follow only after apprehension by all the senses. Sight merely corroborates the data and the intellect evaluates, classifies, and gives it a name. The primary illusion of virtual space comes at the first stroke of the brush. This concentrates the mind entirely on the picture plane and neutralizes the actual limits of vision. With increased maturity the artist is faced with a greater complexity of directions, entities, movements and it is by resolving these tensions and contradictions and by aspiring towards a unity and an unattainable harmony that the unique character of the mass is found.
While I have been stressing the importance of structure, I do not mean to suggest that colour does not play an important role. The force of the colour can destroy the form. It can re-route the direction of the lines. But the colour remains which the lines can hold and vice versa. Both the colour and the line hold together only in relation to the whole. The obvious geometric structure of the later work of Mondrian (and the equally obvious naturalism of the overall shape in his earlier work) belies and contradicts and even destroys the volumes. The interiors of the naturalistic shapes contain a volume which, in the later work, appears to be amplified but it is as though only a selection of a few elements had been put under a microscope. Thus his interest lies more in the parts than the whole.
On Colour - What are its characteristics? To a blind man colour does not exist. But he lives in a real world of things, of objects in space and time. The blind man uses all his senses except sight for his sense of reality. He feels objects and space without recognizing them by their colour. It follows that the fundamental activity in painting is not the manipulation of colour but drawing ... the making of marks. Colour changes according to the situation, according to the light or the mood of the viewer or the way it is used.
Apropos of this I am reminded of a book by John Berger written in 1958 called A Painter of Our Time. This book was drawn from Berger's observation of Bomberg and the artists in the Borough Group but mainly it was based on the life of the sculptor Peter Peri. I lent the book to Torsten Bergmark, Torsten Renquist and Olle Carlstrom. When it was returned there were several marked passages, including this one which I will quote: "I see what you are getting at. I was thinking the other day. How a blind man doesn't lack a sense of reality, you know? And that is the kind of reality, if you see what I mean, that I want to get into the paintings." In the margin was the word "Cliff" in Renquist's hand-writing.
Paint, form and colour have to be manipulated if they are to have meaning. We can dismiss Goethe's theory of colour where colour is given an agreed value and becomes a symbol for something else. I am against the pseudo-religious-scientific colour theories of Rudolph
Steiner which are based on the colour theories of Goethe. I have always regarded them not only as being limiting but also as false. Although I will admit that, when the colour theories of Steiner were applied to the interior decoration of the village of Jarne in Sweden, the result was very professional.
It is significant that black and white are not regarded as colours by most people. Drawing is making black marks on a white ground or white marks on a black ground. Painting is drawing with all the other colours. Colours react to each other. Colours change the size of shapes. Through the manipulation of colour, paint can make form and it is through the form that an idea can evolve when it is imbued and fully pregnant with meaning.
Van Gogh has said that colour in itself expresses nothing. Colour is meaningless. Even symbolic colour is dependent on the time, place and situation. White is for mourning in China, but in the West black is for mourning. There is no black in nature and there is no colour black. There are only gradations from light to dark. In order to make an approximation of the colour we call black it is better to mix ultramarine with alizarin-crimson than use a standard colour out of the tube. If you hold a piece of white paper against a blue sky the sky may, under certain conditions, appear lighter than the paper or, according to the light, it may appear black.
Van Gogh once described himself as an arbitrary colourist when, in painting a portrait, he exaggerated the fairness of the hair with orange tones, chromes and pale lemon yellows against a bluest of blue backgrounds instead of the ordinary dull wall surface - and he comments that the nice people will only see the exaggeration as caricature. Colour as caricature! What is important is to draw with colour. The application can be ambiguous, random, working with and exploiting the hazard but, all the time, building and drawing so that the marks build both space and form. Cezanne has said that the more harmonious the colour the more precise is the drawing. I prefer to put it the other way round - the more you draw the richer the colour. That is to say that the colours are right for the form that has been created. The colour fits the form like a glove on the hand.
Then we come to an even more complicating factor because (and I think it was Braque who said something similar to this) every form can always be something else. Of course that is why, in his painting of 'The Sleeping Men,' Bomberg did not work from models but from an arrangement of pillows. This should be borne in mind when we paint an object - if we paint rocks, for example, it is always a good idea to think in terms of a nude model or, if we look at the nude model, we can think in terms of rocks or forests or even the sort of buttresses in a cathedral which build up the structure and support the form like a scaffold. Then, when we have this kind of engagement with our subject, in the drawing, we might throw out a lot of imaginary lines in order to get an estimation of the space between, around and within the forms. It was these kinds of lines which the Cubists threw out, so that where they intersected they formed a cube - hence, the name Cubism. I am inclined to reject their methods as being too limited in scope and prefer a greater variety of virtual lines, some of which are left as a kind of scaffold because without them the form would collapse. Then there is an interchange of lines which could be seen as indicating either space or form. And, of course, on the question of subject and that awkward word 'beauty,' they are both very small ingredients in what gives a painting its meaning. If Cezanne had been concerned with painting an apple because it was a beautiful apple then it would have been of no interest to us (and it would still not have been interesting even if he had painted apples which were ten times more beautiful). It is why he painted the apple and how it was painted that is of interest. That is to say, our interest is in what he found out about himself when he painted the apple. It is not what a man does but what a man is that is important.
Roger Fry was right when he once said that the artist is generally trying very hard to do something which has nothing to do with what he actually accomplishes. The fundamental quality of his work seems to come out unconsciously, as a by-product of his conscious activity. This explains why the Impressionists were able to produce very fine paintings despite having based them on erroneous theories of light and colour. These theories were totally false but, nevertheless, they were a stimulus for the works produced.
Some 35 years ago, I coined the phrase 'the planned accident.' I meant that planning alone will not stimulate or contribute to the creative act or create anything. One must be activised but activity alone will not create either. Sheer activity alone will not make art and too much planning will stifle the creative act. The painter has a curious duality which swings between the speculative man and the man of action. Painting is both emotive and empirical. One cannot think a painting - it is a planned accident. The Tachists and the Action Painters were right in this respect. But action is only a means to an unknown end. The direction might change and, if one cares to think about it, one can see that the direction must change. For if we know where we are going and what we will find when we get there, then there is no point in going there. Thus, the action of painting is similar to the action of walking for the explorer - it is something he must do and, for much of the way he might recognize and enjoy the landscape or he might struggle along paths which he has walked before, but neither the enjoyment nor the struggle nor the reassertion of a known route, constitute the purpose of his journey.
I often make a parallel between the creative act and the sexual act. As an idea in the head, sex is totally different to the reality of sex and the sexual activity itself bears no relation to the end product which is, so to speak, a baby. Before it is born you can never visualize what the baby will look like. So there are three stages; the fantasy of sex which is the imaginative idea in the head, then the activity itself which is a form of expression and communication, and then lastly the possible end product, the baby. Often the first sight of the baby comes as something of a shock. It is not exactly beautiful but, through the process of understanding, one comes to love, and this is exactly the same with the painted image. You cannot recognize the image if it is truly created. It comes as a shock and it is only long afterwards, as your critique has developed through experience, that you can look back and make an assessment. It is only then, through understanding, that you have the possibility of recognizing the authentic image that you have created. Only then is the idea brought to consciousness. This is, of course, why painting is so difficult. If you do recognize the image straight-away, you can be sure that you are imitating yourself or somebody else because you know what it is and it does not come as a surprise or a shock. Therefore it is in the development of critique where the master, with his greater experience, can help the student.
Everything we touch or know could always be something else. That is why symbols have no validity except for direct communication. The appearance of things can never be the reality. The contradictions and a duality between sight and touch results in an intensification of a sense of reality. Sight and knowledge are more general. Through touch we establish distance and movement. In movement we establish space and form. The battle between sight and touch to establish distance and movement results in a different conceptual reality. Here we find mass. However the concern is not with a generalized mass but with a particular character. It takes many years before the particular is assimilated into the stream of life and contributes, along with signs and symbols, to the general well-being in our cultural environment. A concern with mass through movement, design and structure reveals the unique character of mass.
The forms articulate. They are essentially non-discursive. Any anecdote of detail remains detail and destroys mass. In the act of painting there are actual movements in terms of the brush which give rise to virtual movement. Counter movements are necessary and they produce tension. Often the movements and tensions are contrary to the brush or tool. The tool brings them into existence. It establishes fact.
© Cliff Holden
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