In spite of my conviction that there is very little to teach in art, I have always been ready to assist those individuals who needed help because they were genuinely struggling to realize their potential as practicing artists. This has led to me having a role as a teacher and mentor.
During the years in which Lisa and I were based in Marstrand (1959-1984) we kept an open studio to receive a large number of different people ranging from committed students to amateurs who painted for pleasure. An educational organization called Medborgarskolan arranged for groups to come and attend weekly classes with us under the auspices of the Swedish Conservative party. I felt obliged to take on this duty because I was the only artist on the island. Several times a year we also received a group of young people, aged between 13 and 14, who were sent to us by the local education authority to experience life in a working studio.
In 1969 we organized an event for 130 people from K.I.F. (Foreningen Sveriges Konsthantverkare och Industriformgevare, the National Design Organization). This was a whole day of being shown around the island, with lectures and discussions, and ending with a dinner, speeches and a dance. We transported them all out to the island by boat from Gothenburg and we welcomed them with a gun salute and then, as a send off, there was a firework display. In the same year we gave lectures and demonstrations to various other organizations, for example, to 110 people from Frederika Bremerforbundet (a Women's Organization), to 50 people from Billstromska Folkhogskolan (a Highschool on the island of Tjorn) and to another group of 50 people from an organization called Kvinnliga Bilkaren.
On top of these events we also had over a dozen students staying with us at different times during that year; some staying for a week or two and some who stayed for several months. In each case we gave our time and materials freely and, although this did not generate any income, we felt that this was a service which we could provide for the community in the interests of art.
I have a list of all the visitors, students and assistants who we had staying with us during 1969 because our business was assessed by the Audit Court of Gothenburg and I was required to provide documentation of our income and expenditure. I was interviewed twice by Olle Moller, a lecturer and consultant in Economics who was assigned to our case (case no. 2429-1975) and the audit report which he submitted (15th October, 1976) is worth quoting because it shows what an absurd position we were in when dealing with the tax authorities. (Lisa was the plaintiff in the case and I was representing her.)
General Opinion. The plaintiff's representative, Cliff Holden, who is the driving force in the business and who has been responsible for the business transactions, gives the impression of being a "typical artist" who is overwhelmingly engaged in his art but almost a complete stranger to figures, keeping accounts and preserving all the papers (bills, receipts, etc.) required by law for taxation purposes. My definite impression is that here we have a business which is quite considerable but which is not at all profitable. In fact, some years were probably running at a loss. Accurate assessment has been clouded by the fact that it is difficult to draw the line between their business and the underlying
accounts which were presented. The plaintiff's position is severely undermined by bookkeeping inadequacy, in certain cases vouchers, receipts, etc., are entirely missing. Since there is not enough documentation upon which to make a real assessment, a rough assessment must be made instead and this will naturally place, and rightly so, the person liable for taxation in an unfavourable position vis-a-vis the taxation authorities. This is obviously what has happened in this case, since one normally assumes that a business is run on economic principles.
A heavy turnover with little profit always appears suspicious and unlikely in a society where there is freedom of choice and where well-paid jobs may appear to be within reach. However, one should not disregard personal qualifications, education, etc., which in individual cases can limit freedom of choice to a great extent. Quite probably where you have artists engaged in the business of creating art, economics of that business can be pushed greatly into the background, ignored and perhaps even despised. So when an artist meets someone who is familiar with and normally engages in businesses where finance, expenditure-income-profitability naturally dominate, it is quite easy for them to speak two different languages and do not understand each other. This can lead to drawn-out correspondence, lengthy meetings which do not lead anywhere, many people involved and in the end the original status quo. Everything points to the fact that the economic situation of the plaintiff is weak, she is heavily burdened with debt and in no way can be regarded as a "taxable object."
In 1984 we left the island of Marstrand and moved to a house in the village of Hässlås near Falkenberg. Although we were still being chased by the State Bailiffs, thanks to 'The Cliff Holden Foundation,' I was able to buy a house of my own, for the first time in my life. The house had previously been a school building and it now became known as the Hazelridge School of Painting (Hässlås Målar Skola). It has provided us with enough space to continue our studio practice as well as to continue to accommodate students.
What I have always found in my relationships with students, apprentices or assistants, is that they are so involved with their own egos and they want to project that ego onto me. More often than not they are completely lacking in humility. With many of them there is no apparent reason why they should come to me except to add another notch to their belt, learn a few tricks and steal a few half-understood ideas which they will later bastardize. They do not understand that understanding requires that they have the humility to accept what I teach and that what I teach is beyond their knowledge or taste. I try to teach an approach to painting which points the way towards something they do not know and may not even like, for we are not in the business of making pronouncements of what we like and what we dislike. It is nonsense for the student to think in terms of good art being the art that he likes for, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, there is no such thing as good art and bad art - there is only art.
A great deal of time is wasted in fruitless arguments with students. Students always argue. They are sceptical but they never doubt; they are too sure of their opinions which leave no room for doubt. They hold to the doctrine that there is no truth, that everything is a matter of opinion. This means, of course, that they have no value judgment. I always tell them I am not interested in their opinions and they shouldn't be interested in my opinion. We do not deal in opinions in art; we search for truth. Together we should ask: "Is it right or wrong? Is it true or false? Does it function or not? Is it art or not art?"
What I mean is that, in art, we are searching after an idea and we must find out if the idea is approximating to the truth or whether it is false. By contrast, in design and decoration there is no idea other than what it is. Therefore it is not a question of being true or false; it is either right or wrong. It needs to function and if it does not function in the situation it is intended for then it is no use whatever. I have had to constantly point out that opinions and tastes are for the consumer - the big wide public - the public that knows what they like, and like what they know. I also implore the student not to get bored. They should work with passion.
In an attempt to clarify the relationship and smooth the path in the activity and relationship between master and student, I formulated a few rules which went something like this: "You are free to do as you like as long as you do as I say. You live and work as we do. There will be no arguments and no expression of opinions unless specifically asked for. I require absolute honesty with me and especially with yourself. If any problems arise please discuss. Do not argue. I am not interested in arguments; arguments solve nothing. The problem to be solved should take place on the canvas. The sole purpose of you being here is to learn from me. When the point is reached when you no longer learn but seek to indoctrinate me with your opinions, then it is time to part. If we understand each other, that point will never be reached; you will continue the work that I have not had time enough to accomplish in my lifetime."
Many years ago, I was contacted by the son of a very dear friend who was studying to be an architect, and he came to me as a student but he only lasted two days. We quarreled constantly and, when I talked about this question of not being interested in his opinions, he was absolutely furious. Of course, I was very sad and I thought that perhaps my attitude had been too negative. But some twenty-five years later he came back to me and thanked me for this most traumatic experience of his life. He said it was the best lesson that he had had, which apparently had helped him enormously in his later studies.
In order to dissuade students from having too many illusions about what lies ahead if they choose a career in art, I have often quoted the following passage from The Werewolf by the Danish-born writer, Axel Sandemose:
I can well understand parents who get worked up when a son or daughter wants to take up art. For almost one hundred per cent of those who do go to hell, and so parents keep urging the youth to realize that painting and such things can be pleasant to fool around with in the evening. Only vaguely do parents understand what is so terrible, namely that one who goes in for art places all on one card, and has only one. They see the son or the daughter as having chosen a road that rarely leads to anything but ruin, and they feel the youth should choose another road, without understanding that there is no other road and no choice.
And so I have only one reply to every youth who asks if I think he ought to continue, it is not a question of what one thinks, if you actually can stop, then you only amount to something less than third class, and you must stop immediately. But even if you cannot stop, this is no guarantee of your success.
A few years ago I came across a book by a German philosopher Eugene Herrigel, who was teaching philosophy in Japan. His book was called Zen in the Art of Archery and I was astonished to find that the Zen master taught in an almost identical way to myself. What all this amounts to, in fact, is that there is nothing to teach except to point a direction, to activise the student, and to cultivate their critical faculty.
In order to capture some part of what happens in the course of a working relationship with a student, during the summer of 1993, I recorded daily sessions with one particular student called Steven Haigh. He had studied Illustration and Graphic Design at Norwich Art School and then Fine Art at the Royal Academy. With a background of this kind, he was well versed in doing art in a way which I have never considered to be art at all and he had been nurtured by an academic training which I have always hated. By way of reviewing many of the arguments which I have presented in this book I include a transcript of some of our sessions together.
You are making rhythms and movements. You are picking up suggestions from the landscape and clouds but, when it comes to this silhouette of the trees, you are falling back on your idea of illustration. It is an illustrative rendering of the form which is contradicting the movements which have already been suggested, but from this point it flows out here. You see it flows over the trees. It doesn't integrate with the trees. There is a little bit of it here, you see. There is a bit of movement there, but it is another kind of logic. These lines are arbitrary. These are kind of perspective lines. You see there is not anything in nature with those kind of parallel lines. It is quite impossible. Then these lines are not parallel, but they are like railway tracks going away and you never find that in nature either. So what I want is much more; a greater variety of line which, in its variety, will not contradict the horizon. This, again, is very generalized. The forms must have a more unique character. You must search for the form. Just as you found a form for the clouds, there must be a form here, through here, instead of that generalized block recognizable only by the anecdote of descriptive detail imposed upon it.
What I mean is, you have got three distinct blocks and three distinct attitudes. You have got a ploughed attitude, you have got a tree attitude and you have got your field attitude. In your field you have these kind of lines. In the trees you have got a different kind of organization. You have got a very interesting movement up through there and you have another movement running up through here, but the three different systems are isolated. They are not completely integrated because they are just systems. You don't just let the form carry on. You make the form. You find a movement here for this form which could continue the movement in the sky. I mean you are looking at the sky, you are looking at the trees, you are looking at the fields and they are related. They are not parted up in the way you have parted them up. They are not like that and that like that and the sky like that. They are completely integrated because space is space. What we are dealing with are different space relations and we can not do this by splitting up three objects and three types of space into fields, trees and sky.
Do you know what a happening is? That is when a painter goes to the public and makes an event, a kind of circus act, which later on led to auto-destructive painting. This was led by one of my early colleagues called Gustaf Metzger and he made an event which became a work of art. It was self-destructive in that it wasn't aimed to last. An off-shoot of that is the environmentalists, people like Long, who make a circle of paving stones or make a path through the woods or that lunatic Christo. Do you know Christo? Well, Christo, for example, took over some large areas of land in California and put up thousands of umbrellas. He also wraps buildings and makes a package of them. Well, that is another off-shoot of this kind of
happening. I think there is no point in it at all. I mean it is just that something happens. It has a certain logic and a certain decorative value, but I think all those things should have some kind of function and the function should be in relation to the environment and to the architecture. There should be some kind of ploy and some extension of the space relations of the architecture.
During the 1950's there emerged big movements from America such as Tachism and Action Painting and Expressionism. Tachism was exemplified by Sam Francis. Tache means mark, which meant the emphasis was placed on the mark to such an extent that it became decorative and divorced from any direct references to the outside world. I use the Tache but I prefer to call it mark making. That is what drawing is; the making of marks in a certain order, in a certain logical sequence.
When Sam Francis went to Japan they put out the red carpet. He was greeted like a film star. What they didn't seem to realize was that he had taken this idea of the mark from Japanese and Chinese paintings; very simple expressive marks. Then the Japanese started imitating Sam Francis and it went round in a circle. We use that sort of thing in our decorations because it lends itself to that. It is very fundamental and this is why we think we got such an early success with our textile designs. We started right from scratch, from the beginning, in a very fundamental way working directly on the screens so that the forms grew out of the activity. You see, I am against all these damned 'isms' because I think they just treat a small portion, a small sector of the problem. We try to combine all these strategies. Making an event through activity - that I believe in, but it should lead to the creation of a unique image. The early Sam Francis paintings had a vitality and a movement and a rhythm. But the later works could just as well have been carpet designs.
Parallel with Tachism came Action Painting. The innovator was Jackson Pollock. The interesting thing for us in The Borough group was that, like us, they began to consider the canvas as an area in which to act rather than a space in which to reproduce, design, analyze or express an actual or imagined object. Thus the canvas was no longer the medium for a picture so much as an event, so that out of the activity the image was born.
Jackson Pollock wasn't interested so much in the Tache. He was more interested in action. He took cans of paint, put his canvas on the floor and threw out the paint - just a throwing action. That is why he called it 'action painting' or, rather, he didn't name it; the critics did that. Critics love to name things. The problem is that the name obscures the real nature of the activity and becomes more important than the thing itself. Pollock was under the illusion that he worked from the gut, rather than from the eye. He was trying to be spontaneous and not have any analytical control through hand and eye. In this way he hoped to create a unique image through that kind of activity. But he failed. Of course, he might have produced something later. He died at the age of 46 in a car crash and so he was rather cut off early.
An interesting thing about Pollock is that what emerged was a highly decorative surface. To me it was a kind of glorified wallpaper; beautiful marks, beautiful surface but, although he tried to break away from the rendering of an image that had associations with an outside object, he nevertheless remained, in spite of all his spontaneous struggle, rooted within the western tradition. His compositions remained renaissance compositions. That is to say they have a focal point. It seems to have been done in an almost premeditated way, even to the extent that, when he had finished throwing his paint around, there are some paintings where he has put his hands on and concluded the composition by making some paint marks with his fingers. You can see the finger marks. So that was a very conscious act after the event.
I don't think Pollock fully understood what he was doing and the point was, with all the activity, he was still in the old academic tradition in terms of composition. He was able to put his hands on and complete the composition because he was then fully aware of the point that he had reached. I mean he was fooling himself with this gut activity. It was too controlled. But then, you see, it also had to do with his attitude to time, where he thought there should be endless repetition. This led to Andy Warhol whose ideas were anti-art. I mean he didn't believe in the created image. He used photographs and silk-screen with commercial techniques. He was proud that he didn't use his hands. He had a factory for producing art.
What Warhol and Pollock had in common was that they both believed in, and used, the repetitive act. Pollock's act was physical but Warhol's was mechanical. With Warhol you got endless Campbell soup cans. To me, the only relationship they had to art was that, once you have seen a Warhol Campbell soup can, you will always see soup cans as Warhol soup cans. Then you are looking at life through art.
This is the whole point - we take everything for granted. I mean, when you asked that question this morning about getting away from the mundane everyday way of looking at objects, that is the whole point. We see them and we accept them but we don't really look. We don't look with any understanding and without any understanding you cannot make an image that is meaningful. When you look at a tree you should not say to yourself: "Ah, tree, ah leaves, and beyond is sky." You must look as though you had never seen the tree before and then you proceed to set down various lines and dots of colour which correspond in some way to what you think is out there. There is a story told about Courbet. A man observed Courbet painting a tree. He said to Courbet: "Are you painting that tree?" Courbet was surprised by the question and said: "What?" He said this several times and then finally he asked: "What do you mean, what tree?" The man indicated the tree and Courbet said "Oh, is that what it is?"
When you look at the tree you also see thousands of leaves. They all have the same character and yet each one is different. I mean, you could draw a leaf (a birch leaf or an oak leaf) but the point is that on the tree they are different sizes. They relate to each other in bunches. They move, the light moves and you move. So there are endless thousands of permutations and that is really what we should be interested in because that is life. That is how life goes on; in movement, in time, not static. But, you see, yesterday we were looking at this view with the trees and I said to you: "Look, you have got a bunch of leaves there and a bunch of leaves there, but what is interesting is the space." Then you isolated those two bunches of leaves so they became so important. But they had no importance unless they were related to the whole movement of light that moves through them.
What we were talking about was drawing the spaces in order to find the form. If we reverse the process of looking, that is not looking at a thing but rather looking at the space relations, then we arrive at the form. But the form doesn't have a precise edge. The edge is in continual flux because of the changes in the light and because of the other movements which we have talked about. So we must recognize that there are no lines and no edges in nature. That is why Cezanne made all those tiny little marks because he was unable, or reluctant, to find any final edge to a form.
To get back to this question of looking at things and divesting everything of the trappings of everyday activity - this is explains why, although you have been painting all day, you still end up with a banal image. It is because you are standing on the earth, with your sense of gravity, looking at things which you accept every day without question. The result is that you have a banal image. This is why the Cubists would often turn a painting upside down and change it into another subject. They recognized that there was lots of activity on the canvas and
that there were a lot of related lines and colours, but, when viewed in an everyday way, this gave a banality of vision. However, when divested of the subject, the lines and colours themselves were of interest. So by turning it upside down and taking away the subject, you have then begun to re-organize the vitality which came out of the activity and you are able turn it into another subject.
What I have just said is that the subject is meaningless but, at the same time, the subject is vital. This is one of the big contradictions we have to face. If you look through history at all the crucifixions and if you look through the history of art at all the nudes, then what is the difference between them? After all a nude is a nude and a crucifixion is a crucifixion. The difference lies in the composition and in the content but the content is not the subject.
You should never be too conscious of what you actually do in front of the canvas because what you are really doing, through activity, is bringing an idea into consciousness through paint and experience. This relates to Tachism, Action Paintings and Happenings. For me, all of these should be combined in the activity. Why should I restrict myself to one narrow "ism" when I was using these processes years before they appeared in London? The whole process of painting is a question of selection and making decisions and, as you say, you have to start somewhere. So you put a mark down. But the kind of mark you put down needn't be strictly related to an actual edge or contour of an actual form. It might merely be a scaffold or a direction line or a space indicator.
About forty years ago I invented this phrase, 'the planned accident.' I meant that planning alone would never create a work of art. Neither can you create a work of art by sheer accident, for example, by flinging paint around in the manner of Jackson Pollock. But if you have a planned activity and take care of the accident, then a work of art happens. That is my way of making a 'happening'; quite unlike the happenings that pass for art today. So the work of art happens. It is an event. It is an event which takes place on the canvas.
Then one is selecting and making marks. But the mark that you put down on the canvas need not - and, in fact, mostly should not - correspond to an actual mark out there in nature. It can be a rhythmic mark. It can be a virtual mark. It can be a mark which indicates space rather than the edge of anything. It can be a rhythm. I mean the result is you make a scaffold on which you build. But the final image might contain some of the scaffolding marks and then they are necessary because if they were taken away the image would collapse. Constructivism is the Russian development. In Sweden it was called Clear-Form and in America it was called Hard-Edge. In Sweden its biggest exponent was Olle Baertling. Sadly when he was shown in America some fifteen years (after I had made the suggestion to curators and critics in London and Stockholm) it was that much too late. He was then regarded by the critics as having imitated American Hard Edge, which was completely false because his roots were in Paris with August Herbin around 1920.
Talent by itself is nothing because it does not concern itself with ideas. If the person who was most talented could be the greatest artist then all the forgers in the world would be the greatest painters. But the fact is that a forger cannot make a work of art. When you first came here I told you that technique and talent were of little value and that you can have thousands of techniques but you should just use the technique that you need at the time. It was Einstein who said that he doesn't bother his head with simple mathematics when he can just reach for a book to see how it functions. Fill your head with techniques and you can spend your whole lifetime with techniques, but it doesn't help you to create.
The fact is we cannot see distance. Consider a baby who has no concept of space and will reach for the moon thinking he can take it. We can only know distance. That is, we know it through mathematics and through measure. We have measured it and so we know from experience that this is bigger and that is smaller and that when it is going away it becomes smaller. But if you had nothing to relate it to it wouldn't be smaller. We have no idea of 'near to' as against 'far away.' In this sense you could say that we have no idea of smallness as against bigness.
Now for years I told this to Torsten Renquist, the artist who brought me to Sweden, and he laughed at me because at that time, up until the middle 60's, he was a painter before he turned over to sculpture. Then, years later (after he had continued to laugh at me on the question of perspective and distance and not being able to see distance), he was with a friend when he was taken over to Spitzbergen and dropped by a boat - while they were there they both painted - and two months later they were picked up and if they had not been picked up they would have died because of the cold. There were no houses, no trees, no people, but one day they met a hunter - I mean, they had been going there for several years - but, anyway, the hunter told them a story that proved my point that you can't see distance. The hunter saw what he thought was a large animal far away and he took aim and fired. It turned out to be a small bird not so far away. The illusion happened because he had nothing to compare it with. When the moon comes over the horizon it looks big and when it gets high in the sky it gets smaller. The reason for that I think is twofold. On the hand when the moon is just over the horizon there are atmospherics and humidity which produce an enlargement, but the main reason is that you relate it to houses, trees and everything else, whereas when it is up there you cannot relate it to anything.
One of the biggest problems while you paint is to know when to stop; to know when the image is finalized. Mostly you stop before completion but if you go over the point then you are already starting to create another image which conflicts with the first image. Now while you paint (if you are painting very well, that is to say, very engaged) you will be aware of sensations which are part of the creative act. I mean it is really what Cezanne termed his 'little sensation.' What I mean there, Steve, is that you have no way of telling whether you are working well or badly, that is to say, whether you are creating or merely going through the motions. So that if I say to you, "this is an interesting image," you must immediately think back over what you have been doing to arrive at that point, and try to remember the kind of feelings you had during that activity. If you go through this process for several years you begin to recognize that kind of feeling. It is rather like the feeling of falling in love which you cannot describe in words but you know what it is when you meet it. But like love, it is not a sort of happiness-creating event; it is also full of agony. Very often, as Collingwood once has said, the point where you stop at a painting is perhaps where you go for a cup of tea because, at that point, either you have to come to an end or you are too tired (or too bored) to proceed. When you come back to the painting it is often dangerous to start again because then you have another kind of energy, another mood and another approach, so that if, by any chance, what you have done previously is of value, then you will proceed to destroy it and turn it into another image. So, at that point, it is always best to take up another canvas.
When you first laid in this painting and I came along and said it is marvelous, why did I say it is marvelous? It is marvelous because it has a logic. It has a meaning through that logic. But when we come down to the legs in this full length portrait, then you are painting without logic. You have made a straight up and down form which contradicts the rest of the picture.
It has no logical sequence. So the exercise is to bring it into direct relation with the logic of the upper part of the body. Now, the curious thing here is that, with my relationship to you as a student, we are now collaborating on creating the form and that collaboration can go on even as a group activity, but in the end one person is responsible for the final idea. The reason why this is good is because, as you said, you were just laying it in. You laid it in without thought and without a critical attitude. You thought to come back to it and re-organize it, but the point is that your sense of design was operating and there is a rightness about it. But because you don't recognize the image, whereas I recognize it, then really it becomes my idea simply because you would not have recognized that idea and, having given birth to it, allowed it to live. You would proceed as you have done and destroy the image in favour of a banal combination of forms which are more recognizable and therefore more acceptable. You like what you know.
This is why Picasso, when he took up a child's drawing, or a drawing by the milkman, he signed it and then said that this was his own. Because he stood for it, he was responsible for it. He recognized an idea which the person who created it didn't. So that in this limited sense, Picasso performed a creative act by signing the picture because the signature stood for the idea and he was responsible for the idea.
What I am saying is that painting by itself is a ridiculous activity. You are just laying down colours and those colours are abstract in relation one to the other so that you have to deal with that abstraction and bring the abstraction into a reality. That is only done by the logic of the related forms. What I mean when I say that painting is a ridiculous activity is that it is absurd. It has to do with mystery. One is dealing with lines, colours and forms. One is performing on the canvas; it is an event. The activity activises subconsciously your design sense which operates with a certain logic and brings the idea into consciousness. When I say that this area is good that is to say it has a logical consequence. In recognizing this, it becomes my idea. The problem is for you to believe me and continue the lower part of the picture (which, at the moment, is a banality in contradiction to the logic of the upper part) and your job is to bring it to a finality. A line is abstract. A colour is abstract. A form made by those lines and colours is abstract. The problem is to bring it into reality through the logical sequence - through the inter-relation of colours and lines - creating a logical space relation which gives meaning; a meaning which cannot be spoken about. As Bomberg said about his relationships with students: "What is revealed is not what the master has shown, but rather what he feels but cannot speak about." Also Bomberg once wrote that: "The modern artist, to be modern, must be very unmodern and must go completely unconsciously and not know what or why or where he is going."
If, as you were doing yesterday, you created a symphony of blue, blue and blue, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is one form of discipline; the discipline being that you keep within the blue range and the freedom it gives you is that you are freed from the worry of introducing other colours. You know the whole business in painting is this swing from the discipline to a freedom and you cannot have the freedom without the discipline and vice versa.
What I would suggest with this - as you have got such a conglomeration of brush strokes which are rather equal in tone, lacking in design and weak in composition which is the basic element of drawing - I would suggest that you wash it off. From the point where you started with a symphony of blue, during the whole day's work, various images have been built up, so that you ended with this banal image. But, if you wash off you will uncover the earlier workings and the residue of the earlier images will be revealed. Even if there is no finality to the image that is revealed, it will nevertheless be a stimulus, because the image will invariably have more vitality, and will therefore be a jumping off point to re-start the activity. Bomberg
always advocated that it was just as important to wash off as it was to put on. It is the same activity revealing the form, but in reverse. He was, of course, dismissed from his job as teacher at Dagenham School of Art for advocating this blasphemy and the use of rags instead of brushes.
You see what you have on this canvas is a lot similar paint strokes which, in the end, look like a lot of soap-suds. There is no contrast. There is no drawing. There is no design. But the head is more concentrated and obviously worked much longer. There is an interesting image about to emerge, but what I want to stress is that you should draw, draw and draw, design and design, which means that you compose and in composing you find an image and that image will say something. It will communicate and then it will be meaningful. But what I want you to do in the drawing is to lose yourself. Become unaware of your paint strokes because you must be completely unconscious and blind to what you are actually doing so that, in the end, the result will surprise you.
A created image is unique in itself and in making a portrait one shouldn't be concentrating on making a likeness. It is like what Coleridge said once about poetry - that you make a likeness in the unlikeness. I mean you make a unique image but that unique image cannot be compared with the everyday way of looking or experiencing reality, which is mostly banal. When I say the likeness doesn't matter, what matters is the kind of form, the kind of image made and the content of that image - what it is actually saying to you. But, at the same time, the subject is all important because that is the catalyst, the driving force, the starting point and the point which starts your interest. The contradiction is that, although you say, "ah, there's something to paint," what you first experience is not what you actually paint, because you cannot paint an experience. It starts off the activity and then you experience while you paint through the activity. So by the time you have finished painting, your experience of the subject or the object has totally changed. You have found something out.
We were talking yesterday about moral values in art with reference to that line through history which was taken up by the Academies and, especially in England, provided a talking point for teachers; beginning with Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and continuing though Ingres, David, and Messonier. A more rewarding route started with Giotto, Massacio, Michelangelo, Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Van Eyke, Goya, Rembrandt, Velasquez, and (most significant of all) the stream from Turner to Delacroix, Van Gogh, Monet, and the Father of the so-called Modern Art, Cezanne.
As far as I know, no other critic or art historian except John Berger has correctly assessed the relationship in the history of oil painting between what he termed its 'tradition' and its 'masters.' To quote Berger: "Certain exceptional artists in exceptional circumstances broke free of the norms of tradition and produced work that was diametrically opposed to its values. Yet these artists are acclaimed as the tradition's supreme representatives; a claim which is made easier by the fact that after their death, the tradition closed around their work, incorporating minor technical innovations, and continuing as though nothing of principle had been disturbed." Opposition in England to the academic during the sixties came about through people like Victor Pasmore who lifted his ideas from the Bauhaus. This resulted in yet another academic approach, plus an equality of endeavour, an equality of intention and an equality of purpose. It was a mixture of architecture, furniture design, textile, decoration and what have you, which resulted in an attitude to a total environment which, although exciting at the time, was in my view no base to proceed from. This approach didn't take into account spiritual values or belief,
or any thought of art as idea giving meaning and communicating. They worked through ideas of time and space, or rather concepts of time and space, instead of the experience of time and space. Their compositions were in two dimensions which appealed only to a sense of pattern. They neglected the cube, the third dimension, and worked only with the surface and the anecdote. In my view every mark should break the surface, so that space begins to operate in the way Bernhard Berenson has termed "space-composition." To quote Berenson (Italian Painters of the Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1938, pp.198-199).
Space-composition differs from ordinary composition in the first place most obviously in that it is not an arrangement to be judged as extending only laterally, or up and down on a flat surface, but as extending inwards in depth as well. It is composition in three dimensions, and not in two, in the cube, not merely on the surface. And, though less obviously, space-composition differs even more widely from ordinary composition in its effect. The latter, reduced to its elements, plays only on our feeling for pattern - itself a compound of direct optical sensations and their mental consequences, of faint impressions of balance, and fainter ideated movements. Space-composition is much more potent. Producing as it does immediate effects ... on the vaso-motor system, with every change of space we suffer on the instant a change in our circulation and our breathing - a change which we become aware of as a feeling of heightened or lowered vitality. The direct effect, then, of space-composition is not only almost as powerful as that of music, but is brought about in much the same way ...
A painting that represents architecture is intrinsically no more a space-composition than any other picture. This art comes into existence only when we get a sense of space not as a void, as something merely negative, such as we customarily have, but, on the contrary, as something very positive and definite, able to confirm our consciousness of being, to heighten our feeling of vitality. Space-composition is the art which humanizes the void, making of it an enclosed Eden, a domed mansion wherein our higher selves find at last an abode, not only as comforting, as measured to our every-day needs, as homes of the happier among us, but as transporting, as exalting as are those things only which build up the ideal life. Near as it is to music in the form of great architecture, space-composition is even more musical in painting; for here there is less of the tyranny of mere masses of material, and their inexorable suggestions of weight and support ...
Space-composition in painting, then, is not the upstart rival of architecture, but its lovelier sister ... And it produces its effects by totally different means. Architecture closes in and imprisons space, is largely an affair of interiors. Painted space-composition opens out the space it frames in, puts boundaries only ideal to the roof of heaven.
But, Steve, you should never strive for beauty and harmony. There is a small element of beauty in all art, but beauty is not the meaning or the purpose. Painting comes about through a fight, through a struggle and through a lot of phases of activity and movement. The act and the actual movement in reality becomes virtual movement in a painting. In the completion of the painting there is suddenly a stillness. The image exists in one moment of time, but the movements are still there, essential to the structure. After the battle, in the stillness, there is beauty.
I am reminded of when Dubuffet first came to London after the war and everybody got so excited. They thought here was something brutal, in contrast to the charming confectionery of French painting and to the tonal renderings of impressionism which were emanating from the Camden Town School and the Euston Road group at that time. Dubuffet worked with very thick paint. This was made thicker by adding sand which also gave texture. He then scratched into it, imitating the graffiti from lavatory walls and children's idioms, and everybody reveled in the brutality of the paint and the subject matter. It was called 'L'Art Brut' but I couldn't find any brutality in it. All I could see was a beautiful surface scratched into.
Have you heard of an artist called Montecelli? You see when I showed in Stockholm there was one critic who said that the way I painted reminded him of Montecelli - or rather, it was the whole group, which included myself, Creffield, Richmond and Mead. I had never heard of Montecelli at that time. It was some twenty-five years later when I understood who he was and I was surprised to discover that Van Gogh had rated him so highly. In The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (Fontana Library, London, 1963, p.277) edited by Mark Roskill, we have a quote from Van Gogh: "What a mistake that Parisiennes have not acquired a palate for crude things, for Montecelli's, for earthenware ... It is only that what I learnt in Paris is leaving me and that I am returning to the ideas I had in the country before I knew the Impressionists."
You see, he was painting with other ideas before he met the Impressionists and he was only influenced by them for a while. Then he turned away, just exactly as Monet himself did after 1890. But to continue the quote: "And I should not be surprised if the Impressionists soon found fault with my way of working, for it has been fertilized by the ideas of Delacroix rather than by theirs. Because, instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly." Now here is that quote from Cezanne which we referred to (as recorded by J. Gasquet).
You see, a motif is this ...(he put his hands together ... drew them apart, the ten fingers open, then slowly, very slowly brought them together again, clasped them, squeezed them tightly, meshing them) ... that's what one should try to achieve ... If one hand is held too high or too low, it won't work. Not a single link should be too slack, leaving a hole through which the emotion, the light, the truth can escape. You must understand that I work on the whole canvas, on everything at once. With one impulse, with undivided faith, I approach all the bits and pieces ...
Everything we see falls apart, vanishes, that appears to us, lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence along with her elements, the appearance of all her changes. It must give us a taste of her eternity. What is there underneath? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Everything you understand! So I bring together her wandering hands ... I take something at right, something at left, here, there, everywhere, her tones, her colours, her nuances, I set them down, I bring them together ... They form lines. They become objects, rocks, trees, without my planning. They take on volume, value. If these volumes, these values, correspond on my canvas, in my sensibility, to the planes, to the spots which I have, which are there before our eyes, then my canvas has brought its hands together. It does not waver. The hands have been joined neither too high nor too low. My canvas is true, compact, full ... But if there is the slightest distraction, if I fail just a little bit, above all if I interpret too much one day, if today I am carried away by a theory which runs counter to that of yesterday, if I think while I paint, if I meddle, whoosh! ... everything
goes to pieces ... The artist is no more than a receptacle for sensations, a brain, a recording apparatus ... But if it interferes, if it dares, feeble apparatus that it is, to deliberately intervene in what it should be translating, its own pettiness gets into the picture. The work becomes inferior ...
Art is a harmony parallel to nature. What can one say to the fools who tell us: the artist is always inferior to nature? He is parallel to her. Provided, of course, he does not intervene deliberately. His only aspiration must be to silence. He must stifle within himself the voices of prejudice, he must forget, always forget, establish silence, be a perfect echo. Then the landscape will inscribe itself on his sensitive tablet. In order to record it on the canvas, to externalize it, his craft will have to be appealed to, but a respectful craft which also must be ready only to obey, to translate unconsciously - so well it knows its language - the text it is deciphering, the two parallel texts, nature as seen, nature as felt, the one that is there ... (he points to a green and blue plain), the one that is here ... (he tapped his forehead), both of which must merge in order to endure, to live a life half human, half divine, the life of art, listen to me ... the life of God.
What Cezanne means by this is that one should not let the analytical thoughts intrude. That is, don't be distracted by those signs and symbols of everyday life (the kind of seeing that we use, seeing through action - action here being merely an activity for survival - by which we make sure that we see enough to survive). What Cezanne means is that we lapse into that survival activity which imposes itself on the creative act and cancels it out. We are really talking about the twin evils of knowledge and that kind of seeing which enables us to walk about without bumping into objects (or to recognize that a house has one door and four windows and one chimney pot).
It is a result of our education, the way we were brought up, that we acquire enough ways of seeing in order to operate in our lives. This becomes habit and habit cuts across any research, any new ideas or any new way of looking at the world. And when we say 'look' as opposed to 'seeing,' to look means to care, as well, about what you look at; to understand and to bring understanding into the act of seeing.
You can be sure, in criticism, that if there is anything that sticks out on a painting it must be wrong, whether it is one corner of the painting or a few brush strokes or the kind of brush strokes that you make. If you are only conscious of the brush strokes, instead of brush strokes revealing the form, then it must be wrong. Many people say that a flourish of the brush stroke is indicative of expressiveness in the way that, say, De Kooning works. I cannot see why a flourish of a brush stroke should be more expressive than any other kind of brush stroke. Brush strokes are not expressive or meaningful unless they are related to, and defining, a form. The gesture remains a gesture. This is the weakness of Auerbach's fireworks which are no more than gestures superimposed on his academic portraits. He dances around and makes a lot of fireworks over the portrait. They are purely decorative marks which superficially excite people and, when you look through the marks to the form, you find a very academic form. This is totally different to Lundquist or to Bomberg in his last self-portrait or the portraits that preceded that, where there is a complete integration of the marks and the form - a total idea. You see, that is what I have got against Nolde and Kokoschka. It is not decorative but you are very much aware of the brush strokes and they are stirred up like a porridge. There is a fuzziness; there is no clarity.
A characteristic of Auerbach, when he talks about painting, is that he always talks about honesty (rather like Maggie Thatcher) - honesty with a capital H - and you can be sure that when people talk about honesty they are usually quite the opposite - rather foxy types. No artist is wholly honest, as Collingwood pointed out. I prefer to strive for the authentic. If we analyze the word "good" in terms of "better," so we must analyze the word "true" in terms of "more true, less false or possessing more depth of insight." One can say that the activity of art is a distinctive way in which truth comes into being. Heidigger has said that art contains one of the ways in which truth reveals itself to us - a truth not the truth. Nietzsche was inclined to draw the conclusion that there could be no such thing as the Truth. All perception involves the formation of a judgment. You cannot say categorically in terms of philosophy or in terms of painting that this is true and that is not true.
Roger Fry said something like this, that biologically speaking art is a blasphemy. This is Fry, a beautiful piece which I can quote for you: "The art of painting says the eminent authority ... is the art of imitating solid objects upon a flat surface by means of pigment." We were given our eyes to see things, not to look at them. Life takes care that we all learn the lesson thoroughly so that, at a very early age, we have acquired a very considerable ignorance of visual appearances. We have learnt the meaningful life of appearances so that we understand them, as it were, in shorthand. This is similar to what I said earlier; that we learn to see objects in order to avoid bumping into them . So that, by seeing, we are always dealing with an actual or a real space. But, in art, we are dealing with virtual space. We are asking questions about the object: "What is it? Who am I? Where are we going? What for?"
Wittgenstein talks about facts and he says that facts are located in logical space in the way that material objects are located in physical space. This is what I meant when I talked about different levels of logic and, when I criticize a painting, I look for the logic. It must have a logical sequence. Wittgenstein also said that philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity and that, of course, is similar to the kind of activity that I am advocating. It is not action towards knowledge and not action for survival, but an activity which is a part of the search for truth. You see, it is very difficult to get people out of this rut because the banal way of looking, or rather seeing, is the way people operate in actual space. This banal way of seeing gives them security in the sense that that is what they are used to. They don't want to get out of that way of seeing because then they become very uncomfortable and nervous. This is why art is always dangerous to governments and to people. It is dangerous in the sense that it leaves them feeling insecure. People don't want to make the effort of understanding.
On the question of depression, it is the same with myself as it was with Bomberg. This is an important point (that the critic, Richard Cork, never understood when he referred to the agony in Bomberg's last self-portrait) - that under depression the ego and the will are less operative and it is just at that point that one comes face to face with the basic reality and one makes one's best work. The analytical side of the brain and the ego are not operative because they have been dampened by the depression.
Some of your problems, Steve, are that you are very talented and very clever, but the talent doesn't actually help you. It is a hindrance in many ways. And then, with your previous courses in illustration and graphics at Norwich, your way of seeing was fixed in terms of illustration; that is, with the known symbol instead of with a search for the image that is to be found.
I would like to refer back to our conversation about the beautiful in art. This is really the difference between craft and a work of art. A product of craft must always be beautiful whereas art is concerned with ideas. A work of art may contain an element of beauty, which can generate a feeling of happiness, but this is not the purpose or the function of art. Art, like life, is a mixture and a conglomeration of sensation, whereas a craftsman who produces a pot or a chair is producing an object, which gives satisfaction to the viewer or the user. This kind of satisfaction is a direct sensation which is uncluttered by meaning. A painting arises out of contrasts; contrasts of colour, contrasts of line, contrasts of form, contrasts of rhythm and direction. But in an object made by craft there is no contrast. It doesn't contrast with itself. It can only contrast with other things outside itself. As Roger Fry once said: "There is no excuse for a china pot being ugly, there is every reason why a Rembrandt and a Degas picture should be, from the purely sensual point of view, supremely and magnificently ugly."
In the work of art, contrasts give tension and vitality and it is through the contrasts that the form is revealed. Then it is necessary for the complicated space created by the marks on the canvas to be enclosed by a frame, in order to protect the idea from the environment.
On the other hand, the marks that make up a flat surface design create a simple limited space and it is intended that they should work out into the architectural space. In a decoration we have a more complicated space, but it is not enclosed by a frame and it is not made to hang as a meaningful image on the wall like a painting which is a work of art. And so, the virtual space created by the decoration interacts with the actual architectural space; it is related to and married to its environment. Architecture can be said to be an object enclosing a space and the decoration functions because it interacts with that space. It not only embellishes but also enlarges the architectural space.
There are three ways of doing art, but only one of them can be really called art. There is design and decoration, which are really the by-products of art. Then there is 'art proper' which is when the object made is not of paramount importance but is merely the vehicle or the scaffold for an idea. The object or image communicates something other that itself. It is a means and a form of communication. Therefore, it is concerned with problems and it creates problems. It is also moral because it forces one to make decisions. In fact art is really decision-making and it is in this respect that it is very like religion or philosophy. The problematic and moral character of art is possibly the reason why most people don't like it. The artist can be likened to the respectable housewife. Marriage is a difficult institution, but it is also meaningful. Out of the problems and the difficulties the artist, like the house-wife, makes a very real contribution to our culture.
Art as design or decoration is when the so-called art is no longer concerned with ideas but is a by-product performing a specific function. The activity is undertaken for a particular purpose and it must work; that is, it does its job. But it is no more than what it is. It is an object and has no meaning other than as an object placed in a situation. It is meant to be appreciated and it has a direct impact on the senses. We appreciate the decoration in the same way that we appreciate a flower or a young girl, a sunset or a cocktail. So, in this situation, the artist no longer works as a respectable housewife but rather as a prostitute. That is to say the artist works to order to give pleasure for money. On my fiftieth birthday the Swedish art critic Bernt Eklundh wrote about me in this way: "When Cliff does the job well, even a little love creeps in also." At first I was rather shocked by this statement but, on reflection, I had to agree that love is the extra ingredient that one gives, which the client does not ask for and is probably unaware of. It is the spiritual content which makes the work endure.
Now let us consider again the question of the subject in painting (by which I mean the subject as distinct from the content or the idea). I have said before that the subject is not at all important. But, on the other hand, it is important as a starting off point; as a stimulant and as a point of engagement. There is ample proof in the history of art that subject was of no importance, but merely an excuse for painting. We can think of endless crucifixions, depositions, entombments and pietas where all that they have in common is the name of the subject. Then there is the vexed question of 'copying'. The fact is that, if one copies a subject of an old master, one is not imitating or even translating. One is not copying any more than one copies a tree in nature. The activity of copying is not even a paraphrase because to copy authentically one would need to know the state of mind and feelings of the artist. Therefore to copy, as copying, produces only a pale surface imitation.
It is useful at this point to compare Caravaggio's 'The Entombment of Christ' with the copies made by Rubens and with Gericault's version over two hundred years later and, finally, with Cezanne's watercolour of the same subject.
It will help us to deal with this question of copying the subject (and also the question of the difference between illustration and what I call 'painting proper') if we examine Gustave Dore's wood engraving of the Prison Courtyard which was copied by Van Gogh in paint. What we see in the Dore is all the details of bricks and flagstones and faces of the prisoners and their clothes; all the details coming together to make the subject recognizable. Van Gogh copies the subject exactly. That is to say, he doesn't add anything or take away anything. We can count the number of figures, for example. But when it comes to the treatment of the figures in relation to the flagstones and the treatment of the bricks on the walls, he is not at all concerned with detail. Instead, through his design sense, he constructs a picture which incorporates the figures and the flagstone, a movement of light, an organic rhythm and the structure throughout the whole composition.
Van Gogh also made some twenty-eight pictures after Millet whom, of course, he admired greatly. But when we look at an etching of Millet called 'The Reaper' and compare it with Van Gogh's copy of that etching in 1889, we see again that, although Millet's forms are interesting, the interest is only of generalized detail. The composition is split up between the ground and figure, and the figure and the corn, the corn and the sky and a few marks suggesting a flight of birds.
When we look at the Van Gogh, we see a much more generous handling of the drawing, a greater sense of design, a complete integration of the figure with the ground and the corn, the sky and the birds and the most extraordinary display of brush strokes where the heads of corn gradually materialize into bird form. No part is given precedence over any other part. There is a total integration and, of course, the interesting fact is that the quite unformed ideas of insignificant or third-rate paintings can spark off a painter into an activity which creates a master-piece. Van Gogh was not alone. For example, in Toledo one can find in Greco's studio very insignificant paintings that were a major influence on him. Turner copied other artists etchings and sometimes used them as a base. And then there was Picasso with his renderings of other masters.
Even a painter like Keith Vaughan has remarked that good ideas seldom make the best paintings (they are too good as ideas) whereas unformed ideas are best, because they grow up and take shape in the process of painting and are therefore inseparable from it. And even Vaughan realized that it would be more accurate to talk of sensations rather than ideas, because the idea is usually only apparent when the work is finished.
The sensation is what matters and this confirms what I mean about copying. Whether it is copying from an old master subject or from a tree or from a nude, it is not the act of copying that matters; it is the sensation derived from the subject. But the sensation only defines itself through our experience, during the work in front of the subject, and no amount of detailed description of the parts will approximate to the reality. The sum of the parts can never make a whole. Reality does not consist of a set of marks which are signs for objects. As we have seen in the Van Gogh copy of the etching by Millet, his marks were so abstract that the marks indicating ears of corn very quickly turned into birds in flight. One had to read the marks in relation to the whole, which is the opposite way round the way that illustration functions.
On the question of subject as idea in art, I think it was Rene Huyghe who remarked, when discussing Delacroix, that the painters task is not to first conceive an idea and then illustrate it with an image recognizable by its realism - this is the trap into which it is so easy for the painter to fall.
The fact is, Steve, that there is very little that can be taught in art. All the teacher can do is to stimulate and point a direction during the act and develop the student's critique, to help you criticize your own work and to know when you have actually made a creation. The creative potential of people is always far ahead of the development of the critical faculty. All I can do is to help you develop your feelings (to be aware of your little sensation) instead of merely seeing and thinking. To help you to know when to stop. That is the most difficult. And don't be afraid of the word 'genius.' It is a very over-rated word. Genius is really a small amount of talent plus a large amount of hard work applied in a specific direction. I only ask you to trust me and to believe in what I say. If I say a thing is good or bad, you must believe that and then try to find out why I said it. Or, better still, to find out why it is good or bad yourself. I don't like to use the word 'good' or 'bad.' What we should ask is whether it is a created work of art or not. As Bomberg used to say, it usually takes twenty years to develop some kind of critique on your own without help from the master. But, as an artist, you are learning and discovering all your life. You are always the student. You must never stop being curious, never stop doubting. Always ask: "Why?" Always be ready to accept a new idea. Of course, that is the most difficult problem; to recognize a new idea, because how can you recognize something that is new, which you have never seen before and never experienced before?
So we come back to that question of recognizing the kind of sensation (the kind of feeling) you had during the moment of creation. I can't describe that feeling; it would like trying to describe an orgasm. Therefore, we are concerned with cultivating the ability to recognize the kind of sensation that is creative; not to recognize necessarily the object created, but the sensation that produced the object, so that one develops not so much a critique as an awareness of sensation.
Previously I have talked very much about virtual lines and the scaffolding which supports the form and indicates the entities. The entities may not be so important in themselves. That is to say, the colour that fills the entities only serves to hold the directional lines apart. These lines give direction and direction gives tension and the tension gives movement. The movement gives volume and in the volume we find the mass. Painting is a kind of physical passion; it must be a passion because of the unceasing dedication required to become competent in its grammar. It is physical because the mere appearance and the intellectual attributes of things follow only after apprehension by all the other senses; sight merely corroborates the data and the intellect evaluates, classifies and gives it a name.
There is one very interesting thing in that. I don't want to demonstrate it and I don't want you to play about with it, although you can if you like. But if you set up a series of squares and you put in a colour and in the next one you put another colour and then another colour - then what happens is that although you know they are identical in size, the squares begin to look as if they were different sizes. That is one thing and the other thing is that one colour acts on another colour so that even the colour itself changes, because of the relationship and the inter-reaction. So if you think of that in terms of paint strokes you have thousands and thousands of permutations as one stroke lands against another stroke. That is what the Fauves were playing about with in those paintings I showed you by Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck.
You see, Cezanne has said when the colour reaches a richness then the form is complete - something of that sort. I have always said the opposite; that when the drawing is complete, then the colour has a richness. The form is created by the colour but only through the structure. The structure holds the colour. But, you see, what is curious is the fact that the old masters were conditioned, not only by their theories and by one influencing another, but also by the kind of colours that were available. I mean today we have unbelievable chances and opportunities because there are so many colours compared with the kind that the old masters had available. And when you come to more modern times you have whole theories about tone. I mean if you look at Sickert with his tonal range - if you look at the Camden Town School and the Euston Road group - they all had their tonal theories. Then, if we look at the kind of things you have produced in the last days, you also have a tonal range. You can ask yourself why you stick to this tonal range. It isn't based on any particular theory, as far as I know from our talks, and so why work within this limited range?
You should think out why you do anything before the act of painting and, while you are painting, you shouldn't think at all. Again, as Cezanne said, when the thought comes everything collapses. When you actually paint, let your mind go blank. And as Bomberg said at one point, try to be blind as well and just act. You make the decision to put out certain colours on the palette. Then every time you take a brush stroke you make a decision to mix that colour with that colour, or not to mix at all, and you put it down on the canvas, relating one brush stroke to another. I mean they are all decisions and that is what it is all about. You are a decision maker and that is why painting is so difficult, because every second you have to make decisions which are crucial to the building of the form.
What I am really saying is that the kind of decisions you made in those two paintings don't relate to any specific movement in history and they don't relate to a so-called naturalism. Even though the background there is yellow and you have used yellow tones, it is not the exact tone of the background; it is something else so that it is a kind of halfway stage between what is called reality - what is out there - and what, in fact, you are projecting.
But Steve, we have talked about this kind of mannerism that you have developed and I have said several times: "Draw with colour." You can draw with one colour and then, when you need to make a contrast, you take another colour. Then either you increase the strength of one colour against the other - dark against light, light against dark - or you can take another colour which shows up against that colour. And, every time the form changes, you are forced to change the colour. So we come to that point, as I said, where when the drawing is right the colour is right, but it is all based on drawing.
We speak of colours in the sense of saying 'pure white,' but if we place a piece of white paper against snow, then the paper will appear grey (although, for ordinary purposes, one would call it white and not light grey). And we can speak of 'dark blue' or 'light blue,' 'dark red'
or 'light red,' but when we come to yellow, we never say 'dark yellow.' Why not? In a similar way, of course, we can say 'dark brown' but we would never think of saying 'dark white.' We say 'deep black' but we never say 'deep white.' Why not?
Then, of course, there is the question of similarities of colour and their different use. For example, gold isn't yellow, but yellow in combination can have the appearance of gold. There is such a thing as gold paint, but Rembrandt didn't use it to paint a golden helmet. We can say quite definitely there is no such thing as the pure colour concept.
Let us consider Goethe's theory of colour which I have always hated and as I have hated everything that has come out of it. If one agrees that Goethe correctly recognized the nature of colour then here nature does not mean a song of experiences with respect to colours. It is correct in relation to our concepts of colour. When one speaks of the character of a colour one is always thinking of just one particular way it is used.
In traffic lights, for example, with red, orange and green, the red is 'stop' meaning danger. But why the hell should red represent danger? It is just a convention. I mean, for example, black is said to be a death colour but it depends on where you live - in China white is a death colour. There is no real value for the painter in this conceptual use of colour. It is merely a reading of colour through symbolism or signs. It has nothing to do with forms or with sensation.
It is often said that idea red is aggressive and makes you nervous is and it is also said that, in a picture, red comes forwards and blue goes backwards. Also, because we equate blue with the sky which is in the distance, they say that blue becomes distant when it is a colour used in a painting. But if you stare at the sky it can either go white or it can go black - that is, it can do this without there being a change of light like in a sunset or a sunrise. In fact, by the way you manipulate the colours with the form, you can make a picture so that red goes back and blue comes forward. It is all a question of the relationship and the manipulation and the kind of form you make.
I don't suppose you have heard of the Rudolph Steiner colour theories? Rudolph Steiner was an Austrian who had a lot of dotty theories, but in Sweden, some distance outside Stockholm, there is a whole village built by Steiner according to his theories and, in fact, his interior decoration there was quite wonderful. There the theories begin to work, but in terms of painting it is absolute nonsense. I have had several students whose work was influenced by these theories, both those of Goethe and those of Steiner, and all their paintings turned out exactly the same - the same kind of colours and the same kind of forms - which to me is not art at all, but more like an illustration of dream fantasies.
I think I told you the other day about a friend of mine who is a doctor of mathematics and he used to laugh at me when I talked about colour theory and when I said that very little is really known because there has been very little research into colour. He said colour was of no consequence in the scheme of things and he drew a line about a metre long and then he pointed to a section in the middle of the line which was half an inch in length. He said that this section demonstrated what a small part of the electro-magnetic spectrum was concerned with colour. Therefore it was of no consequence really and nobody was bothered about it.
However there are some colour theories which purport to have an industrial and psychological application. For example, in hospitals they always paint the walls pale green; pale green being meant to be a soothing colour whereas reds, oranges and purples are supposed to over-excite the patient. This I think is absolute nonsense because it depends on the kind of colours you use and the juxtaposition of colours. We have done jobs in hospitals for the
mentally handicapped where we have juxtaposed the most brilliant of colours and, as far as one can tell, there is no evidence that the patients have become more mentally disturbed as a result. At least we made the environment a bit more interesting and - well, interesting is about the only word to use as against boredom. I don't think there has been any convincing scientific analysis of people's reactions to colour. I think it was just an idea put about because green is what you are supposed to see when you look out on the green fields and the green trees. This gives a feeling of security because you feel safe. Because it is something that you know, therefore you have a feeling of tranquillity. That is true, but, if you weigh that as against the benefits of an interesting environment, then I don't think it stands up.
Now let's go back to that point, the quote from Van Gogh where he says "Who will be the painter of the future who will do for the figure what Monet did for the landscape." What is curious about this is that, at first sight, one thinks Van Gogh refers to the later work of Monet but, in fact, he is referring to his impressionist time and he is admiring Monet, not realizing that his own paintings are a thousand times better at that point. But, of course, he was full of self doubt which isn't a bad thing because to doubt is to question and to question is always positive. - it leads to the creative process. (One example of an artist who didn't doubt is Augustus John. He was full of what he knew and how to do it.)
Van Gogh died in 1890 and it was at that point in 1890 that Monet began to change and go against all his earlier beliefs which he had shared with his colleagues, the Impressionists. In fact, Monet's later work (over 25 years) on the theme of the Waterlilies was much closer both in execution and idea to Van Gogh. And the extraordinary thing is that this work went on parallel to the Fauves and the Cubists up to 1926.
What I would like to ask you, Steve, is what do you think criticism consists of? How do you make a critique of a work of art? The fact is I don't really like to talk in terms of good and bad in painting. I have said elsewhere that, like Oscar Wilde, I don't believe in the good and the bad; there is only art ,so to speak, that is ideas of art and either they function or they don't function. In fact you cannot criticize a real work of art because it is beyond criticism in the sense that it is unique. You cannot compare one uniqueness with another uniqueness. To quote W. H. Auden from his book The Dyer's Hand : "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." How do you know when a work is unique? Well, that is the big question; the big problem, part of the mystery of art. A clue is when the image surprises you, or revolts you and is, on first aquaintance, an idea which you find unacceptable. Preserve it and cherish it then, in time, with experience, you will begin to understand and to love what has come about.
You know it is unique because it is surprising. It is new. I don't like the word 'new' because there is nothing really new. Everything comes out of something else and everything is related. All ideas through art history are related but there are some which we regard as positive and others we regard as negative. In so far as all ideas are not the same, each idea is different and unique. But, on the general level of day to day criticism with master and student, what one is faced with most of the time is discussing attitudes to drawing, attitudes to space relations and whether the marks on the canvas begin to function towards that unique image. When you leave off a painting like that, at a point where you say, "I don't feel like painting today," that is a denial of the creative act - because very often with the feeling of not feeling or of not knowing what to do or if you feel sick (any of those attitudes which diminish the ego and the will) you can then allow the sense of design to operate and enter into the creative act.
You make the decision to put an apple on a table so then you begin to draw. But what you have drawn is that there is an apple; the apple is red and the surround is tonal. What we are talking about is drawing. What I have said frequently is that there is no point in painting so-called local colour because, as we said yesterday, the character of the colour depends on its location and environment and what it is used for. So we cannot necessarily say the character of the apple is red. The character of the apple depends on its form and its location in space; on its relation to the table, its relation to everything else, your attitude to it, the play of the light and all those things make up the reality.
The first contradiction here, Steve, is that the apple itself is the only piece of local colour which contradicts its surroundings and its location in space. But the green, the orange - and those greens - they are as important as the apple. And so this is part of the arrangement and part of the composition. But this here contradicts the local colour of the apple and it contradicts the drawing of the apple. Both the sides of your painted apple are equal; there is no variation. But what we are striving for are the things which are not equal which are the variations. Everything is different and everything changes in movement. Two equal curves do not make an apple. You see what you have here, Steve, on the background is an arrangement of colours. It is an arrangement of these circles. It is all going in circles which, in itself, is interesting. Do you see? But it has no relation to the reality of this tablecloth (or to the apple either) in the reality or in your painted image. It has two different systems operating; one, the object, and the other the background in which the object is placed.
I appreciate it is very difficult to forget that that is an apple sitting on a table and just approach it as an arrangement of shapes and colours which have nothing to do with the everyday activity in life. I think it was Bergson who said that activity is worse than knowledge because activity is oriented towards doing something. What he meant was that with the usual way of seeing through activity then the activity enables you to get from A to B; it's useful in the process of living, and I agree with that. But, on the other hand, I can say the opposite which is that it is only through activity (it is only through being active) that you can create an image. Bergson is really referring to activity as a means of survival, but, in art, we are concerned with things of the spirit which have nothing to do with survival.
We come to the question of what is art for? If we are not making pictures in order to sell them for money but, instead, we are making art, what is it that we are doing? Why do we do it? And the answer to that can only be that we need to do it and the need is to explore our own souls, our own spirit, and in doing so we leave a residue which can be recognized by the public out there. The dialogue between the inner self and the outer so-called reality cannot be the same in every activity. There is a difference again between one activity and another and the use that is made of that activity.
I think it is great that you say that you approach this physically, but there is a certain blockage because you don't actually paint physically. You are still stuck with the hand and eye and the eye isn't telling you what is really out there because your knowledge is coming between the real looking. You are seeing but you are not looking - 'looking' requires that you look for meaning. You look to find out.
Hume quoting Bergson says that man's primary need is not knowledge but action. Actually I have always been against knowledge. If you say that you know what it is, you mean that you think you know what it is. This is knowledge breeding knowledge without any attempt on your part to see what is out there or to have any feeling about it. In fact, knowledge
discounts feeling altogether. Bergson says the characteristics of the intellect are concerned with this. The function of the intellect is so to present things not that we may thoroughly understand them but that we may successfully act upon them. Every man is dominated by his necessity of action. I agree with Bergson up to a point, in terms of everyday life and activity, but the contradiction here is that I believe in action in art. I work through action, through activity, and it is only by activity that we can create a work of art. Most painters do without this physical activity. I am not saying that physical activity is just standing there with your brush in your hand and applying paint to canvas. What I am saying is that one acts with all the senses through movement - movement being activity. You project yourself over the landscape. It is like swimming over the landscape. You find a oneness with the landscape - with the reality. You are not only in it, you are it.
We are talking about feelings. We are talking about sensation. We are talking about Cezanne's "little sensation" (or, at least, what I think he meant by that). We are talking about Bomberg's idea of the "spirit in the mass." It doesn't matter what you see but how you see it. What I am saying is that through knowledge you see what you know. It is an intellectualization of the process of seeing and I am discounting - I am taking away - the idea of seeing and I say you shouldn't just see, you should look. To look means caring, commitment and understanding. When you look during everyday life, you do it mostly in order to get from point A to B and there is no understanding involved in that. There is no morality in moving from A to B. There is no caring involved and it isn't a moral action. I am trying to point out the difference between action and activity to do with mundane things of existence (of living and of physical survival) and action and activity in terms of the creative act.
Well, it is not quite the tangible and the intangible. That is not quite what we mean (like talking about the infinite and the finite) because we are really asking the question what is the tangible. If you speak of love as being intangible and the tangible as being whatever is out there which you can see and touch, then that is not quite what we are talking about. Yes, I agree that love is a set of sensations and emotions and feelings which are given a name, 'love.' I quoted somewhere, I think it was Ruskin (no, it was someone else I cannot remember) - we had it as a motto: "Work is Love made Visible."
On the question of likeness in a portrait, what I was objecting to in most of the portraits you made in the last days is the fact that, in striving for a likeness, you concentrated on different parts. You isolated the parts (of say, eyebrows, nose, mouth) and you weren't striving for a total image. You try to get the parts right, as you say, but you paint from the parts to the whole. Instead you should be painting from the whole to the parts. It is two totally different attitudes to painting. Lucien Freud, for example - he paints the parts even to the extent of painting hair which becomes an absurdity. You are still faced with this question of likeness where different photographs give different kinds of likeness and different painters faced with the same subject, as I said just now, come up with different likenesses. Then you ask yourself the question what is a likeness? What am I really doing when I strive for likeness? But out of a structure, when you strive to compose, to design, to draw, to throw up a scaffold and build on it, you inevitably come to create one kind of an idea of a likeness. You notice I didn't just say 'likeness' - I said 'an idea of a likeness.'
The rightness and wrongness of what you have painted is a question of logic - the logic of it. When I see something in your painting which cuts across what I perceive to be the logic, then I say there is a wrongness in it. It is not functioning according to the logic. But nobody can say whether a painting is right or wrong - that doesn't come into it at all. It is a question of
whether it is an interesting image or whether it is a unique image and a unique image is what is always interesting. And, as I said earlier, you cannot judge it, so if it is impossible to judge an image it must be right. If it is new, if it is something created, if you have never seen it before, how can you make a judgment? What do you judge it against? So that brings us back to what I can do for you.
One point for you to understand is that I have more experience than you. Therefore I can say to you that this appears to be something unique. It may be something which you do not recognize and perhaps it even offends you. Or I can say this isn't unique because it is like this and it looks like that and it looks like something you have done before. Therefore go on working until, through the struggle, you produce an image which will surprise you. Because I have had those years of experience I can certainly recognize that here is something unique. Then I will tell you to stop and you must believe me when I can say this is worth preserving. Left to yourself you will go on painting over it until you come up with something you recognize which is bound to be a banal image and either an imitation of yourself or somebody else.
The great battle is to allow the senses to operate and they have to operate against all your upbringing, all your parents, teachers, friends and the whole educational system of the western world. It is not so much the way you are taught art when you are a child (when you break away from those wonderful childish drawings) as the effort you had to make in order to learn how to write. As a child learning to write, you were making precise marks which formed words and this made a connection between actually making those word marks and the meanings of the words, which has to do, then, with your knowledge of the world and your existence. This takes you into that realm of activity which I spoke about earlier and which Bergson said was so totally wrong (in the terms of his aesthetics) because it was the kind of activity which aided your survival or existence. What you learnt was a practical activity; but this kind of activity has nothing to do with the senses. You see the world around you, in reality, by using the senses and not by means of the critical faculty. So when we talk about using the senses we come into the realm of mystery, which is really what art is all about.
As you said yourself earlier when you mentioned love, we know what love feels like and it can be happiness or it can be agony, but we still call it love. But we cannot name its ingredients. Nobody can know how the senses work. I mean they are - something happens. Despite the efforts of all the philosophers and all the psychoanalysts and all the scientists, nobody has come up with any idea of how the senses operate. We have them and we use them. All I am saying is that the analytical part of the brain and the critical faculty suppress the use of the senses so that we always favour a name, a word, a description or something we know in favour of something we might discover with the senses. The result is that we recognize the banal image as against the creative image which is the unique image. You cannot say it in words because painting is a non-verbal activity. If you could say it in words, then you wouldn't paint.
A painting idea is a painting idea and if you can describe it in words there is absolutely no point in painting it. And what you have just said means that ... well, you never know when the idea is expressed. This is the main difficulty and, as I said earlier, this is where I can help you, because I can recognize something that is unique. That is, I can recognize an idea against all the other exercises which are non-ideas and which are merely pastiches or imitations of somebody else or yourself. Painting is very similar to love and sex. With the activity of sex you know when you are coming up to an orgasm and you know what the orgasm is. This is rather
like the idea in painting, but the trouble is that, in painting, you cannot recognize the idea you can only recognize the sensation that produced the idea. If you stop sexual activity before that point of orgasm is reached, it is unsatisfactory. If you go over the point, it is unsatisfactory. And it is exactly the same in painting. If you stop before the completion of the idea then you haven't reached that richness of colour. But if you go over the point you are already moving into the area of another idea which contradicts your first idea. As you go on, the conflict becomes greater so that, in the end, you haven't got an idea at all because the conflict cancels it out. So the whole strategy is to try to know when to stop.
© Cliff Holden
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