Return to Left Curve no. 21 Table of Contents
When I say the first line of the Lord's Prayer: Our father who art in heaven..." I imagine this heaven as invisible, unenterable but intimately close. There is nothing baroque about it, no swirling infinite space or stunning foreshortening. To find it -- if one had the grace -- it would only be necessary to lift up something as small and at hand as a pebble or a salt-cellar on the table. Perhaps Cellini knew this.
"Thy kingdom come..." the difference is infinite between heaven and earth, yet the distance is minimal. Simone Weil wrote concerning this sentence: "Here our desire pierces through time to find eternity behind it and this happens when we know how to turn whatever happens, no matter what it is, into an object of desire."
Her words might also be a prescription for the art of painting.
Today images abound everywhere. Never has so much been depicted and watched. We have glimpses at any moment of what things look like on the other side of the planet, or the other side of the moon. Appearances registered, and transmitted with lightning speed.
Yet with this something has innocently changed. They used to be called physical appearances because they belonged to solid bodies. Now appearances are volatile. Technological innovation has made it easy to separate the apparent from the existant. And this is precisely what the present system's mythology continually needs to exploit. It turns appearances into refractions, like mirages: refractions not of light but of appetite, in fact a single appetite, the appetite for more.
Consequently -- and oddly, considering the physical implications of the notion of appetite -- the existant, the body, disappears. We live within a spectacle of empty clothes and unworn masks.
Consider any news-reader on any television channel in any country. These speakers are the mechanical epitome of the disembodied. It took the system many years to invent them and to teach them to talk as they do.
No bodies and no Necessity -- for Necessity is the condition of the existant. It is what makes reality real. And the system's mythology requires only the not-yet-real, the virtual, the next purchase. This produces in the spectator, not, as claimed, a sense of freedom (the so-called freedom of choice) but a profound isolation.
Until recently, history, all the accounts people gave of their lives, all proverbs, fables, parables, confronted the same thing: the everlasting, fearsome, and occasionally beautiful, struggle of living with Necessity, which is the enigma of existence -- that which followed from the Creation, and which subsequently has always continued to sharpen the human spirit. Necessity produces both tragedy and comedy. It is what you kiss or bang your head against.
Today, in the system's spectacle, it exists no more. Consequently no experience is communicated. All that is left to share is the spectacle, the game that nobody plays and everybody can watch. As has never happened before, people have to try to place their own existence and their own pains single-handedly in the vast area of time and the universe.
I had a dream in which I was a strange dealer: a dealer in looks or appearances. I collected and distributed them. In the dream I had just discovered a secret! I discovered it on my own, without help or advise.
The secret was to get inside whatever I was looking at -- a bucket of water, a cow, a city (like Toledo) seen from above, an oak tree; and once inside, to arrange its appearances for the better. Better did not mean making the thing seem more beautiful or more harmonious; nor did it mean making it more typical, so that the oak tree might represent all oak trees; it simply meant [DEMO] it more itself so that the cow or the city or the bucket of water became more evidently unique!
The doing of this gave me pleasure and I had the impression that the small changes I made from the inside, gave pleasure to others.
The secret of how to get inside the object so as to rearrange how it looked was as simple as opening the door of a wardrobe. Perhaps it was merely a question of being there when the door swung open on its own. Yet when I woke up, I couldn't remember how it was done and I no longer knew how to get inside things.
The history of painting is often presented as a history of succeeding styles. In our time art dealers and promoters have used this battle of styles to make brand-names for the market. Many collectors -- and museums -- buy names rather than works.
Maybe it's time to ask a naive question: what has all painting from the paleolithic period until our century have in common? Every painted image announces: I have seen this, or, when the making of the image was incorporated into a tribal ritual: we have seen this. The this refers to the sight represented. Non-figurative art is no exception. A late canvas by Rothko represents an illumination or a coloured glow which derived from the painter's experience of the visible. When he was working, he judged his canvas according to something else which he saw.
Painting is, first, an affirmation of the visible which surrounds us and which continually appears and disappears. Without the disappearing, there would perhaps be no impulse to paint, for then the visible itself would possess the surety (the permanence) which painting strives to find. More directly than any other art, painting is an affirmation of the existant, of the physical world into which mankind has been thrown.
Animals were the first subject in painting. And right from the beginning and then continuing through Sumerian, Assyrian, Egyptian and early Greek art, the depiction of these animals was extraordinarily true. Many millenia had to pass before an equivalent "life-likeness" was achieved in the depiction of the human body. At the beginning, the existant was what confronted man.
The first painters were hunters whose lives, like everybody else's in the tribe, depended upon their close knowledge of animals. Yet the act of painting was not the same as the act of hunting; the relation between the two was magical.
In a number of early cave paintings there are stencil representations of the human hand beside the animals. We do not know what precise ritual this served. We do know that painting was used to [DEMO]m a magical "companionship" between prey and hunter, or, to put it more abstractly, between the existant and human ingenuity. Painting was the means of making this companionship explicit and therefore (hopefully) permanent.
This may still be worth thinking about, long after painting has lost its herds of animals and its ritual function. I believe it tells us something about the nature of the art.
The impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul (which is probably blind) but from an encounter: the encounter between painter and model -- even if the model is a mountain or a shelf of empty medicine bottles. Mont. St. Victoire as seen from Aix (seen from elsewhere it has a very different shape) was Cézanne's companion.
When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. He stays at a copying distance. Or, as in [DEMO]ist periods like today, he stays at an art-historical distance, playing stylistic tricks which the model knows nothing about.
To go in close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self. It also means risking incoherence, even madness. For it can happen that one gets too close and then the collaboration breaks down and the painter dissolves into the model. Or the animal devours or tramples the painter into the ground.
Every authentic painting demonstrates a collaboration. Look at Petrus Christus' portrait of a young girl in the Staatliche Museum of Berlin, or the stormy seascape in the Louvre by Courbet, or the mouse with an aubergine painted by Tchou-Ta in the 17th century, and it is impossible to deny the participation of the model. Indeed, the paintings are not first and foremost about a young woman, a rough sea or a mouse with a vegetable; they are about this participation. "The brush," wrote Shitao, the great 17th century Chinese landscape painter, "is for saving things from chaos."
It is a strange area into which we are wandering and I'm using words strangely. A rough sea on the northern coast of France, one autumn day in 1870, participating in being seen by a man with a beard who, the following year, will be put in prison! Yet there is no other way of getting close to the actual practice of this silent art, which stops everything moving.
The raison d'etre of the visible is the eye; the eye evolved and developed where there was enough light for the visible forms of life to become more and more complex and varied. Wild flowers, for example, are the colours they are in order to be seen. That an empty sky appears blue is due to the structure of our eyes and the nature of the solar system. There is a certain ontological basis for the collaboration between model and painter. Silesius, a 17th century doctor of medicine in Vrocklau, wrote about the inter-dependence of the seen and the seeing in a mystical way:
"La rose qui contemple ton oeil de chair
A fleuri de la sorte en Dieu dans l'éternel"
How did you become what you visibly are? asks the painter.
I am as I am. I'm waiting, replies the mountain or the
mouse or the child.
For you, if you abandon everything else.
For how long?
For as long as it takes.
There are other things in life.
Find them and be more normal.
And if I don't
I'll give you what I've given nobody else, but it's
worthless, it's simply the answer to your useless question.
I am as I am.
No promise more than that?
None. I can wait for ever.
I'd like a normal life.
Live it and don't count on me.
And if I do count on you?
Forget everything and in me you'll find -- me!
The collaboration which sometimes follows is seldom based on good will: more usually on desire, rage, fear, pity or longing. The modern illusion concerning painting (which post-modernism has done nothing to correct) is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.
Bogena and Robert and his brother Vitek came to spend the evening because it was the Russian new year. Sitting at the table whilst they spoke Russian, I tried to draw Bogena. Not for the first time. I always fail because her face is very mobile and I can't forget her beauty. And to draw well you have to forget that. It was long past midnight when they left. As I was doing my last drawing, Robert said: This is your last chance tonight, just draw her, John, draw her and be a man!
When they had gone, I took the least bad drawing and started working on it with colours -- acrylic. Suddenly, like a weather vane swinging round because the wind has changed, the portrait began to look like something. Her "likeness" now was in my head -- and all I had to do was draw it out, not look for it. The paper tore. I rubbed on paint sometimes as thick as ointment. At four in the morning the face began to lend itself to, to smile at, its own representation.
The next day the frail piece of paper, heavy with paint, still looked good. In the daylight there were a few nuances of tone to change. Colours applied at night sometimes tend to be too desperate -- like shoes pulled off without being untied. Now it was finished.
From time to time during the day I went to look at it and I felt elated. Because I had done a small drawing I was pleased with? Scarcely. The elation came from something else. It came from the face's appearing -- as if out of the dark. It came from the fact that Bogena's face had made a present of what it could leave behind of itself.
What is a likeness? When a person dies, they leave behind, for those who knew them, an emptiness, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person's likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly.
Soutine was among the great painters of the 20 th century. It has taken fifty years for this to become clear, because his art was both traditional and uncouth, and this mixture offended all fashionable tastes. It was as if his painting had a heavy broken accent and so was considered inarticulate: at best exotic, and at worst barbarian. Now his devotion to the existant becomes more and more exemplary. No other painter has revealed more graphically than he the collaboration, implicit in the act of painting, between model and painter. The poplars, the carcasses, the children's faces on Soutine's canvases clung to his brush.
Shitao -- to quote him again -- wrote: Painting is the result of the receptivity of ink: the ink is open to the brush: the brush is open to the hand: the hand is open to the heart: all this is the same way as the sky engenders what the earth produces: everything is the result of receptivity.
It is usually said about the late work of Titian or Rembrandt or Turner that their handling of paint became freer. Although, in a sense, true, this may give a false impression of willfulness. In fact these painters in their old age simply became more receptive, more open to the appeal of the "model" and its strange energy. It is as if their own bodies fall away.
When once the principle of collaboration has been understood, it becomes a criterion for judging works of any style, irrespective of their freedom of handling. Or rather (because judgement has little to do with art) it offers us an insight for seeing more clearly why painting moves us.
Rubens painted his beloved Héléne Fourment many times. Sometimes she collaborated, sometimes not. When she didn't, she remains a painted ideal; when she did, we too wait for her. There is a painting of roses in a vase by Morandi (1949) in which the flowers wait like cats to be let into his vision. (This is very rare for most flower paintings remain pure spectacle.) There is a portrait of a man painted on wood two millenia ago, whose participation we still feel. There are dwarfs painted by Velasquez, dogs by Titian, houses by Vermeer in which we recognize, as energy, the will-to-be-seen.
More and more people go to museums to look at paintings and do not come away disappointed. What fascinates them? To answer: Art or the History of art, or art Appreciation, misses, I believe, the essential.
In art museums we come upon the visible of other periods and it offers us company. We feel less alone in the face of what we ourselves see each day appearing and disappearing. So much continues to look the some: teeth, hands, the sun, women's legs, fish... in the realm of the visible all epochs co-exist and are fraternal, whether separated by centuries or millenia. And when the painted image is not a copy but the result of a dialogue, the painted thing speaks if we listen.
In matters of seeing Joseph Beuys was the great prophet of the second half of our century, and his life's work was a demonstration of, and an appeal for, the kind of collaboration I'm talking about. Believing that everybody is potentially an artist, he took objects and arranged them in such a way that they beg the spectator to collaborate with them, not this time by painting, but by listening to what their eyes tell them and remembering.
I know of a few things more sad (sad not tragic) than an animal who has lost its sight. Unlike humans, the animal has no supporting language left which can describe the world. If on a familiar terrain, the blind animal manages to find its way about with its nose. But it has been deprived of the existant and with the deprivation it begins to diminish until it does little but sleep, therein perhaps hunting for a dream of that which once existed.
The Marquise de Sorcy de Thélusson, painted in 1790 by David, looks at me. Who could have foreseen in her time the solitude in which people today live? A solitude confirmed daily by networks of bodiless and false images concerning the world. Yet their falseness is not an error. If the pursuit of profit is considered as the only means of salvation for mankind, turn-over becomes the absolute priority, and, consequently, the existant has to be disregarded or ignored or suppressed.
To paint now is an act of resistance which answers a widespread need and may instigate hope.
* * *
I began writing to you last February after your January letter but then I was never able to finish it. Or more precisely to the point: I was never able to come back, sit down, overcome my hesitations and continue writing to you. Part of it, because I don't want to impose another burden on you. On the other hand, because once I discontinue or leave a letter the coming back takes longer than I could fight it. Therefore, letters accumulate at a bigger rate than I can ever answer them in relation to my available time for reading and writing. Probably, this is what I reciprocate in my hesitation in my hesitations, the understanding and empathy about the scarcity of time for those who are active, thinking, working, producing, etc.
This is what I began to write to you on February 6th:
"I am writing to you in a hurry in order to take advantage of my energy and to use an interlude provided to me by prison 'illogical' processes.
Last two nights I read your essay (I have to go back to it a few more times) and I find it beautiful, it makes me want to paint, and the energy in your images and words gave me some ideas for a coming exhibition I have around the 100 years since the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico.
The first part of the essay most impressed me. The view of the disembodied subject and the 'element' of necessity as ontology."
Today, I re-read your essay again a few minutes ago and I took some notes in order to make some comments to you and to raise some quesitons on your notion of the model even though the purpose for me asking you was the "dead-subject" (I postponed that essay and ended up writing on the relation of fiction and power in Nietzsche). What interests me more in your essay is this collaboration between painter and model. I think you put into accessible words and images what others cannot but put in hard-to-follow theoretical discourse (I am in part guilty of this, I think). This time when I was on page 5, I told myself: when did I write this essay? I laughed.
Simply put: in general, I agree with your theory of the visible in the relation artist/model -- whatever the model is or could be. One can be "liberal" and expand further the notion of model as the exterior stimuli, what moves one to move others, or all the way to say that one must invent one's model out of one's unique conditions of existence. In my case, for example, I have no "living" human models. Officially, I am not allowed to paint anyone live in here. It is prohibited.
But, of course, I have done it a few (and more than a few) times. But the collaboration has been almost always null. Only as part of larger compositions have I used sketches from prisoners here and there. Recently, clouds are becoming one of my models (potentially speaking) but even clouds refuse to be models in here.
But again, even in the outside (e.g. before my imprisonment in 1980), I hardly used models directly. Maybe this is due to the historical moment when we were formed in the universities' art departments (there were models but that became academic), the crisis of modern art, the kenosis syndrome that Fuller talks about, the making of a work out of "nothing," the dominant aspect of thinking over seeing (that is, of conceptual art over the art object), the process as art, the breaking away of boundaries and categories, etc., etc. All that have something to do with it. Somehow, the direct model made you feel guilty, uncomfortable, out of touch, passé, unless it was used for mere preparations for the real work, the work done mainly from "memory" or the "imagination." I guess I was never in a "party" when it came to art. Instead, I was pulled from all directions at once.
Because of all this (and other things I cannot think about now) and because how theory and ideology have intervened in our lives, my notion of "model" is somehow "diffused," almost an idea of something that was or never was, a convention that at one time was necessary but not anymore, unless... you do a "conventional" portrait or self-portrait. And there is where my art praxis finds its "limit." There is where I began to ask myself the quesitons of the model in relation to your essay. Perhaps that space (the "portrait") is the last remnant we still have as model (as you define it) in the electronic age.
Your essay produces in me, especially what you have to say about this collaboration (this ontological relation and what comes as a result: the unique gift to the painter who in turn gives form to the "gift"; again: that which is "left behind invisibly"; the will-to-be-seen, etc.), a feeling of power: when something is worthy in art it has power inspite of which technique or fashion dominates, because collaboration or symbolic exchange goes beyond any mechanical technique or ideological reduction of style. As a result, the work would have, because of its historicity, a historical as well as a supra-historical value. For example, what you say about art museums.
Your essay also produces in me a contrary feeling: a feeling of "outsideness" or "elimination." Since my visual art work does not spring from direct live models, I cannot achieve true collaboration, therefore, no authenticity.
Of course, I am not saying you are saying this. I am just arriving at an extreme inference and somehow see if it convalidates or not your theory of the visible or if it "should" be expanded.
Today we know that the electronic image dominates over all other kinds of images. But even an electronic image could be an image of true collaboration, ergo, images as art of collaboration do not have "nationality." (Somewhere else, I talk about collaboration in terms not of artist/model but in terms of collaboration between artists: influences, intertextuality, originality as regulative, the joy to influence each other vs. the angst of influence, etc.) What happens is that today -- more than ever -- the medium or media itself becomes the message, the "gift", what remains to be seen, felt, understood. There is no real symbolic exchange, dialogue, collaboration, because it is mainly about the performance of separate techniques, a showing off instead of participation in the visible. But there are many happy exceptions in "media-art," "performance," etc.
In my case, I have two main "concrete" models through which I can convey or construct or express, allude to, etc., my experience of living, feeling, seeing, of understanding, of participation. There are: a "dead" model: photographs; and myself as "live" model. I use photographs to paint from them, as collage, to paint on them and alter them through other techniques, etc. But always with the intention of bringing about the invisible visible or to put the visible in a different context (a mask, humor) and to overcome the restrictions, the codes. The feeling of what I have experienced so far and the feeling of what others have given me -- the good and the bad -- I return as "gift", sharing, symbolic exchange, dialogue. As you say, it doesn't matter if the model is a mouse, a mountain, a man or a woman, if there is particiation. But how does a photograph participate? How do I participate simultaneously as model as well as painter?
There are photographers who are artists. There are painters who merely copy or "create" with no concern for collaboration. It's true: if there is no real collaboration between artist and model there is no true power to move others who participate in the act of looking, feeling, thinking. As you say of Rubens and Héléne, sometimes there was collaboration, somethimes there was not. I think, following your arguments, that collaboration is a struggle, a relation of forces, of new and old forces for that matter; therefore it is possible that Héléne didn't cooperate at one time, in the same way that maybe it was Ruben's "fault" at another time, or both of them were to blame.
Now, when a collaboration is mainly through the photographic image or oneself as model it becomes difficult since the former is not considered a "real model" (though even the impressionists used it) and the latter could mean, as you say (in another context), that "one gets too close and then the collaboration breaks down and the painter dissolves into the model." The first one is marked by lackness (too "little" of the model); the second, by abundance (too much of the model).
If we say that the kind of model is not the important thing but what "it" can give the artist, then we are also saying that a vision, an experience or a feeling searching for an image can be always obtained indirectly (photograph) or directly (oneself as model). The model then is the intermediate phenomena which can produce the "search and found" of an image.
Let me see if I can resume my views. Twelve days before I received your letter and your essay, I finshed a small painting on cardboard which I titled, Pintor e Intérprete (Painter and Interpreter). It is part of a triptych. This is the one I am sending you a photocopy of. What a coincidence! I couldn't resist, therefore, the temptation to right away apply your theory to this painting.
Here you have "me"-as-live-altered-model and "she"-as-photographic-based-model together (also his pose comes in part from a De Chirico graphic). It is the "conventional" painting about "artist and model." But, ideologically and politically -- maybe also poetically -- speaking, I couldn't title it "painter and model." To me it was more, it was, as you also say, an encounter between the one who supposedly plays the role of interpreter (the artist) and the one who supposedly plays the role of the interpreted object ("object of desire") but now both are looking at each other, confronting each other, interpreting each other, not necessarily reversing the roles but making the collaboration even more conscious, more problematic or just "forgetting convention... hierarchies and self." Of course, I am merely giving you some "genealogical" background and describing to you what you can see for yourself; the merits it has in the formal aspect is not my business here though it is, of course, decisive as art.
Actually, I don't see my "case" as an exception to your theory. I see it in the sense of how collaboration in art can overcome physical distance, time limitations and codes beyond the example that I just mentioned; and regardless of this immediate accessibility of the model (I see "the model" almost every month and even when I cannot paint here live it helps to complement the photograph.).
I hope you are in the best of health; receive my respect and affection,
October 11, 1996
Elizam Escobar, Pintor e Intérprete (Painter and Interpreter), 113/8" x 113/8"; Oil over acrylic on cardboard, January 30, 1996.
Thank you so much for your long and engaging letter of last month. I have read it several times and it contributes a great deal to the argument I was trying to pursue in my little essay.
Thank you too for the colour photo-copy of your painting. I like it enormously. It speaks so much about solitude and companionship, the infinite and the cruelly confined, about patience and desire. And all these contradictions faced and expressed with an almost Egyptian calm! I can hardly believe that it's so small (necessity, of course) for in my imagination it is life-size.
Now, to try to reply to one important thing in your letter. About how to interpret the word or notion of model. I was trying to twist its meaning or give it a new one. Because I can't find another word to replace it by.
In the academic sense the model is simply an object to be copied and there's no life in anything.
For a portrait, the model is (at least for a moment) sitting before the artist. But my story about Bogina is to show that after a while the "model" is no longer there in space beyond the paper you're drawing on, she has moved, and she is now inside your head. Yet there, inside your head (what you see when you close your eyes) she is no less the model than she was before. By that I mean she is still there to check your drawing against, she is still there in her infinite complexity to judge or correct or change your simplifications by the inevitable simplifications of your drawing on the paper.
I'm not saying that a painter has to use models -- even if one takes the word model very liberally and allows Mont. St. Victoire to be a "model" for Cézanne. The model can be in the head, the model can be in the cell in which you are alone. So why not call it an imagining or an image? Wouldn't this be less confusing? No. Because what I'm talking about is not simply a creature of the artist's imagination, an invention, an oneiric fantasy. If I use the term model it allows two things to be present:
1) A collaboration, or rather, a possible collaboration of the depicted. Somewhere what is being painted has, beyond the depiction, an independent existence, and a collaboration can only take place because of thisindependence (I believe this is true even when what is being painted, as in a Matta or a Wilfredo Lam, cannot be found by searching across the five continents!).
2) The infinite complexity of the "model", because it is part of the existent. "Listening not to me but to the logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one," said Heraclitus. The "model" can -- and has to -- overwhelm the one making the image, because the model contains a mystery which is beyond the image-maker. The mystery of the visible when being looked at. A cloud seen through the window of your cell may, in this sense, be a model. All art that doesn't work (and there's a lot!) shows (through arrogance or ignorance) its complacent practice, whereby the mystery is assumed to be in the painting!
You, alone in your cell, ask the quesiton: "How do I participate simultaneously as model as well as painter?" First I reply like an idiot: you can draw your left-hand (Just to show that it's possible). From then on, further: as soon as you notice (clouds) or remember (with or without photographs, from two hours ago or two decades ago) and you allow what you're seeing all its surprise and complexity, you are acting as model: and if, simultaneously, you paint, you are painter too. I'm being naive on purpose, I know it's not as simple. To remember something in all its surprise and complexity recognizes, I think, training and discipline. Memory too often accommodates: here it has to confront and be confronted. But it's possible! Possible, Elizam. And you've done it.
Forgive me if I'm not clear. You can see better than me. But I was in your cell.
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