Unreal Nature

December 18, 2014

Unsolved

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… You can almost define a film by the problem it poses, that it can’t answer itself, that it then asks the audience to solve.

This is from The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (2002):

[ … ]

Murch: The [sound] mix is still the final stage at which any last opportunity can be seized or any last insoluble problem solved. If you’re lucky, and if you have the right approach, a certain blend of music and sound can sometimes solve problems that could not be solved in any other way. That’s part of the filmmaking process. Every stage leaves a residue of unsolved problems for the next stage — partly because the particular dilemma you’re facing cannot be solved in terms of the medium that you’re working in right then. For instance, at the script stage there may be issues that have to be left undecided, so the actors can have a fruitful ambiguity to work with. It would be deadly if you did solve all the problems in the script — you do not want to be asking for the gods’ help at every stage — because then everything subsequent would be a mechanical working out of an already established form.

[ … ]

Ondaatje: It’s an odd thing: I’ve heard you talk before about the importance of ambiguity in film, and the need to save that ambiguous quality which exists in a book or painting, and which you think a film does not often have. And at the same time in a mix you are trying to “perfect” that ambiguity.

M: I know. It’s a paradox. And one of the most fruitful paradoxes, I think, is that even when the film is finished there should be unsolved problems. Because there’s another stage, beyond the finished film: when the audience views it. You want the audience to be co-conspirators in the creation of this work, just as much as the editor or the mixers or the cameramen or the actors are. If by some chemistry you actually did remove all ambiguity in the final mix — even though it had been ambiguous up to that point — I think you would do the film a disservice. But the paradox is that you have to approach every problem as if it’s desperately important to solve it. You can’t say, I don’t want to solve this because it’s going to be ambiguous. If you do that, then there’s a sort of hemorrhaging of the organism.

O: And more of a confusion.

M: Yes. I keep thinking about it, and its a wonderful dilemma: you have to acknowledge that there must be unsolved problems at each stage. As hard as you work, you must have this secret, unspoken hope that one very significant problem will remain unsolved. But you never know what that is until the film is done. You can almost define a film by the problem it poses, that it can’t answer itself, that it then asks the audience to solve.

My most recent previous post from Ondaatje’s book is here.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

December 17, 2014

Two Kinds of Longing

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:07 am

… Imagine a history of photography as an insistent practice, inserted into the very heart of the modern social order …

This is from The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories by John Tagg (1993):

… Photographs are not ideas. They are material items produced by a certain elaborate mode of production and distributed, circulated and consumed within a given set of social relations; images made meaningful and understood within the very relations of their production and sited within a wider ideological complex which must, in turn, be related to the practical and social problems which sustain and shape it.

What I am trying to stress here is the absolute continuity of the photograph’s ideological existence — its coalescence and codification of value-fulled meanings — with its existence as a material object whose ‘currency’ and ‘value’ arise in certain distinct and historically specific social practices. When we deal with photography as ideology, we are not dealing with something ‘outside’ reality — a looking-glass world related to the real world by laws of reflection and reversal.

[ … ]

… I look at an image and it is flooded with a half-forgotten dream, bulking out its figures with the forms of desire, opening up its vistas to a physically sensed space and presence. Now it can emerge, exciting my interest, inciting my curiosity for this very difficult object.

[ … ]

… Imagine a history of photography as an insistent practice, inserted into the very heart of the modern social order and characterized by a double momentum: an ever more intimate and exacting attention to bodies, dividing them, apportioning them, observing them, supervising them and in the same movement, exerting a control over them; and a diverse constitution of space as itself a realm of phantasy and control, submission and consent, a space of the Imaginary and the Ideological. On one side, time and motion studies, criminal records, sociological dossiers, humanist documentaries, medical photography, ethnographic records, reportage, sports pictures, pornography, identikit faces, all kinds of portraiture, and photographs in official documents, papers and files. On the other, the landscape tradition, aerial surveys, astronomical photography, micro-photography, topographical records, certain kinds of advertising images, and so on. Two kinds of longing. Two kinds of subjection. (The gaze has both passion and perspective.)

My most recent previous post from Tagg’s book is here.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

December 16, 2014

Confession

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… To unburden the heart is to use confession as a weapon, as personality insurance …

This is from ‘Steig’s Gallery: Review of The Lonely Ones by William Steig‘ (1943) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

We are all lonely. Marx predicted us almost one hundred years ago: alienating society with its alienated members. But we still have some sort of culture in common, and with attitudes popularized by reading and elevated conversation each dramatizes and justifies his loneliness. The titles of Steig’s drawings — Who Are All Those Others?, I Can’t Express It, I Recreated Myself, I Do Not Believe in Misleading People, Why Pick On Me? — are not, as Wolcott Gibbs claims in the foreword, simply chichés expressing the private obsessions by which odd types set themselves off from everybody else. They are the means of self-defense and self-assertion that we all resort to in the various times of our various humors. For just who are the other boys and girls whose humors, according to Mr. Gibbs, are not quite like these? If the “rest of the world” really exists and is not just a class distinction, then Steig’s drawings do not mean so much as they seem to. But I think Steig has got us all down, the whole well-informed class of us who read the liberal magazines, the New Yorker, and Modern Library books, whose hearts are in the right things.

Steig_LonelyOnes

Never in all history has there been so lonely a mass of people. The peculiar social form this loneliness takes is the convention of unburdening the heart. Tell all, disarm others, and assert yourself. It must be realized that before the eighteenth century there was hardly such a thing. Confession was the furthest one could do. To unburden the heart is to use confession as a weapon, as personality insurance, and not for relief. The gift-bearing Greeks in Steig’s gallery are self-assertive even when in postures of surrender.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

December 15, 2014

All Things Have (at Least) Two Faces

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… Painters chose as they did because of certain attitudes of mind, stated or unstated, often unconsciously assimilated as though breathed in with the air of the times.

This is from Realism by Linda Nochlin (1971):

… A basic cause of the confusion bedevilling the notion or Realism is its ambiguous relationship to the highly problematical concept of reality. A recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Tate Gallery in London, for example, was entitled ‘The Art of the Real’ and consisted not — as the uninitiated might have expected — of recognizable views of people, things or places, but of large striped or stained canvases and mammoth constructions of plywood, plastic or metal. The title chosen by the organizer was neither wilfully mystifying nor capricious. It was a contemporary manifestation of a long philosophical tradition, part of the mainstream of Western thought since the time of Plato, which opposed ‘true reality’ to ‘mere appearance.’ ‘All things have two faces,’ declared the sixteenth-century theologian, Sebastian Franck, ‘because God decided to oppose himself to the world, to leave appearances to the latter and take the truth and the essence of things for himself.’ This is an extreme statement of a notion which echoes down through the aesthetic theory of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] ‘True reality lies beyond immediate sensation and the objects we see every day,’ said Hegel. ‘Only what exists in itself is real. … Art digs an abyss between the appearance and illusion of this bad and perishable world, on the one hand, and the true content of events on the other, to reclothe these events and phenomena with a higher reality, born of the mind. … Far from being simple appearances and illusions of ordinary reality, the manifestations of art possess a higher reality and a truer existence.’ Later in the century Baudelaire maintained, in his sketch for a critique of Realism, that, in contradistinction to Realist doctrine, poetry itself was more real and was ‘only completely true in another world’ since the things of this world were merely a ‘hieroglyphic dictionary.’ Many of the most vociferous opponents of Realism based their attacks on these grounds: that it sacrificed a higher and more permanent for a lower, more mundane reality.

The commonplace notion that Realism is a ‘styleless’ or transparent style, a mere simulacrum or mirror image of visual reality, is another barrier to its understanding as a historical and stylistic phenomenon. This is a gross simplification, for Realism was no more a mere mirror of reality than any other style and its relation qua style to phenomenal data — the donnée — is as complex and difficult as that of Romanticism, the Baroque or Mannerism. So far as Realism is concerned, however, the issue is greatly confused by the assertions of both its supporters and opponents, that Realists were doing no more than mirroring everyday reality. These statements derived from the belief that perception could be ‘pure’ and unconditioned by time or place.

… The very aspirations of realism, in its old naive sense, are denied by the contemporary outlook which asserts and demands the absolute independence of the world of art from the world of reality and, indeed, disputes the existence of any simple, unequivocal reality at all. We no longer accept any fixed correspondence between the syntax of language, or the notational system of art, and an ideally structured universe.

In the mid nineteenth century, however, scientists and historians seemed to be revealing, at breakneck speed, more and more about reality past and present.

… As Realism evolved [in the mid nineteenth century], the demand for — and conception of — contemporaneity became more rigorous. The ‘instantaneity’ of the Impressionists is ‘contemporaneity’ taken to its ultimate limits. ‘Now,’ today,’ ‘the present,’ had become ‘this very moment,’ ‘this instant.’ No doubt photography helped to create this identification of the contemporary with the instantaneous. But, in a deeper sense, the image of the random, the changing, the impermanent and unstable seemed closer to the experienced qualities of present-day reality than the images of the stable, the balanced, the harmonious. As Baudelaire said: ‘modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent.’

… The artist striving for truth or sincerity had to guard his spontaneous vision against distortion or alteration by aesthetic conventions or preconceptions. Naiveté of vision — what Castagnary called a mind ‘free from the prejudice of education’ — came in this way to be considered a necessary concomitant of sincerity and truthfulness. ‘He knows neither how to sing, nor how to philosophize,’ wrote Zola in praise of Manet. ‘He knows how to paint, and that is all.’ Some critics and artists went so far as to assert that sheer ignorance or lack of formal training were positive assets for the artist. Laforgue proposed that the academies should be shut; Courbet refused to set himself up as a professor, declaring that art could not be taught; Pissaro, in an unguarded moment, even suggested that they burn down the Louvre. Yet what the Realists generally meant by ‘naiveté’ — a term used with greater frequency than precision — was not merely, or not always, a childlike innocence of perception, which might also be valued, of course, but the intuitive grasp of [the] truth of Rousseau’s uncorrupted man combined with the ruthless and disciplined quest for objective reality characteristic of the new man of science. Sincerity (which for the Realist, was more like the modern existentialist concept of ‘authenticity’ than its looser, present-day meaning) and truth required of the artist a ceaseless effort to divest himself of the impedimenta of traditional training and poncif, a lifetime’s self-purgation of received ideas.

… in a certain sense, critics of Realism were quite correct to equate the objective, detached, scientific mode of photography, and its emphasis on the descriptive rather than the imaginative or evaluative, with the basic qualities of Realism itself. As Paul Valéry pointed out in an important though little know article: ‘the moment that photography appeared, the descriptive genre began to invade Letters. In verse as in prose, the décor and the exterior aspects of life took an almost excessive place. … With photography … realism pronounces itself in our Literature’ and he might have said, in our art as well.

… The problem of why the Realists chose to paint what they did and rejected other possibilities, and why they chose to paint what they did the way they did, is crucial. It was not merely because street scenes, or peasants or everyday subjects were available — the papal kitchen had, after all, been available as subject matter to Raphael. Nor was it because the older, more traditional subjects were ‘outworn’ or ‘no longer relevant’ — that is simply an easy way of saying that they were no longer being painted. Painters chose as they did because of certain attitudes of mind, stated or unstated, often unconsciously assimilated as though breathed in with the air of the times.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

December 14, 2014

Every Skillful Translator

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:05 am

… involves us in restoring to them in silence all that the passage from one language to another has made them lose, and all that no language would ever have allowed them to express.

This is from the essay ‘Translated From … ‘ found in The Work of Fire by Maurice Blanchot (1949):

In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan, discovering the importance of the instant he is in the process of living, repeats to himself the word “now” in many languages: now, maintenant, ahora, now, heute. But he is a little disappointed by the mediocrity of this vocabulary. “Now,” he says, “it has a funny sound to be a whole world and your life.” And he seeks other terms: Esta noche, ce soire, tonight, heute Abend. He tried to find in these words what they signify for him, his meeting with Maria, one that is also the meeting of his last hour, a meeting with death. He then pronounces the words dead, mort, muerto, and todt, then the words war, guerre, guerra, and Krieg. the word todt seems to him the deadest of all; the word Krieg, what is most similar to war. “Or was it only that he knew German the least well?”

… That literary works want to keep their distances, that they seek to distance themselves from the whole interval that always makes translation the best and a foreign work the best written, that is what explains (in part) the taste of symbolism for rare words, the search for exoticism, the success of “stories of the extraordinary,” the vitality of all mannerist literature and a good number of theories aiming to find recipes or formulas to move away from us a language that seems sometimes so close to us that we no longer understand it.

[ … ]

… Why are translated monologues more likely to seem to us silent and turned within? For many reasons, but first, because they are translated. Translation, if it is good, brings with it, without recourse to an artificial incoherence, the feeling of a light space between the words and what they aim at, of a possibility for them to slip outside of this form they have been given to return to the starting point, that is here the original language but that also symbolizes the original background on which words are imposed to be born from a language that scarcely separates itself from emptiness. Monologue in [Blanchot’s native] French novels is generally not translated enough. It does not send us back to another language and, too sure of its stutterings, it succeeds only in drawing attention to the words it finds, not to the words it replaces, and for which its only role should be to make their silent, ungraspable presence felt.

… in A Farewell to Arms, dialogue does not seek to attain silence by terseness but by an excess of chatter, by a come-and-go of easy conversations beneath which the seriousness of what must be understood is revealed. Thus, in She Came to Stay, the interminable dialogues in which some have seen, wrongly, a badly calculated move, are there to distract us from themselves and to make us aware, behind the brilliant ease of the words, of the obstinately silent voice of one who, even when she speaks, does not speak, a presence that is eager, free, and also absent, because foreign to words.

Let us admit it, these successes are rare. It is dangerous to appeal to the futility of rigor as image and to what is said too easily as a sign of what cannot be said. The greatest danger is not that the words are poor or null, but that this nullity, far from making them invisible, fixates us on them.

… [The advantage of translations is] this impression that the language that is spoken in dialogue is a borrowed language, to which the characters remain foreign, in which consequently there always remains more for them to say than they say, and in which their words are not actually words but a translation, a text for which they are not responsible, and that is only halfway their own. Because of that, they seem more distant to us because they adhere less to their words, they overflow them, they wait behind, and the feeling of imperfect communication that every skillful translator knows how to handle involves us in restoring to them in silence all that the passage from one language to another has made them lose, and all that no language would ever have allowed them to express.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

December 13, 2014

Waiting for the Cue

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:00 am

… if you are asked to achieve an ending somehow, this also means that you are receiving an order to begin anew …

This is from The Poet’s Guide to Life: The Wisdom of Rilke edited and translated by Ulrich Baer (2005):

… One may dream while others are saviors if these dreams are more real to oneself than reality and more necessary than bread. In a word: one ought to turn the most extreme possibility inside oneself into the measure for one’s life, for our life is vast and can accommodate as much future as we are able to carry.

… Something is true only next to something else, and I always think the world has been conceived of with sufficient space to encompass everything: that which has been does not need to be cleared from its spot but only needs to be gradually transformed, just as whatever is yet to occur does not fall from the skies at the last moment but resides always already right next to us, around us and within our heart, waiting for the cue that will summon it to visibility.

[ … ]

… And yet, and yet: how hopeful each individual person is every time again, how real, how well intentioned, how rich. When one then looks at the confused and dreary crowd, it is impossible to grasp that the individual loses himself there in this way as if without a trace.

[ … ]

… It seems to me to result in nothing but disorder when a collective presumes that its efforts (an illusion, incidentally!) may relieve or abolish difficulties schematically. This might impair a person’s freedom much more than suffering itself, which imparts to the individual who confides in it indescribably fitting and almost tender instructions on how to escape it — if not to the outside, then to the inside. The wish to improve another person’s situation presupposes a level of insight into his conditions that even a poet does not possess with regard to a character he himself invented. A person trying to help is even less equipped to do so; his distractedness reaches completion with his gift. The wish to alter and improve another person’s situation means to offer him in lieu of the difficulties in which he has practice and experience other difficulties that might find him even more baffled.

[ … ]

… if you are asked to achieve an ending somehow, this also means that you are receiving an order to begin anew; a new beginning is always possible — who should refuse it?

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

December 12, 2014

Utter Decay, or the Liberation of Age?

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

The pictures have remained within me, a slowly detonating acknowledgment of their scope. Whether they are good or bad is of little consequence. They are courageous. They gamble.

This is from Writings in Art by Per Kirkeby, edited by Asger Schnack (2012):

… The drawings are free thinking. Without language. I’m always drawing, mostly in silly little notebooks whose acidic paper will commit hara-kiri within some none too distant future. I try to make myself believe I have never drawn to produce a drawing but in order to find something out. Either clumsily and laboriously, struggling against the historical context and doubting the value of observation, stricken with the problem of translation. Or else elegantly and with refinement, in which way to discover the other side of the coin.

[ … ]

“I’ve repeated the Hero Painting,” he [Georg Baselitz] said, even before we got there. The Hero Paintings are his most extraordinary works from his early period. Repeats are normally a sign of helplessness, flat routine, lack of inspiration. The well run dry.

What was I to say? all the worst fears ran through me. “It’ll come to you as well,” he said in a tone that was slightly menacing. Recycling, obsessive repetition. Resuscitation, a revision of what had been, what once was done. The handheld spiral of recollection.

What would they look like? “They’re rather frivolous paintings,” he warned. And so they were, painted without reverence for the motif’s melancholy past. Shambling and light-handed. Utter decay and despair, or the liberation of age, the arrogance of age? The impossibility of these pictures, their detachedness transcended the issue.

I didn’t know what to say. I felt the same kind of ill-tempered annoyance I myself feel when showing my pictures to others who then fail to break out into spontaneous applause, and who instead give off a certain sense of reservation.

The pictures have remained within me, a slowly detonating acknowledgment of their scope. Whether they are good or bad is of little consequence. They are courageous. They gamble. They run a risk and lay the entire work on the line, investigating the mechanism of recollection’s whole obsession with repetition, the cover-ups and justifications. It is precisely their lack of respect, the cheeky light-handedness, an inclusion of the badly painted (in the sense of integrity) that renders them so difficult and places them somewhere between rejection and uncertain wonder. They pull at the entire net of norms and responsibilities, like recollection and the notion of the artist having some kind of personal core. Does the person exist, or is there merely repetition and anecdote?

The extended italics of the above are in the original.
-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

December 11, 2014

Where Best to Put the Chisel

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:56 am

… On a very limited bandwidth, you know certain things about them better than they do, and probably better than anyone else on earth does.

This is from The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje (2002):

Murch: The editor has a unique relationship with the actors. I try never to go on to the set to see the actors out of costume or out of character — and also just not to see the set. I only want to see what there is on the screen. Ultimately, that’s all the audience is ever going to see. Everyone else working on the film at that stage is party to everything going on around the filmed scene: how cold it was when that scene was shot; who was mad at whom; who is in love with whom; how quickly something was done; what was standing just to the left of the frame.

… In the course of editing, you look at all the material for the scene, over and over again. Your decisions about timing, about where to cut a certain shot and what shot to go to next, all those things, are dependent on an intuitive understanding of the actors. On a very limited bandwidth, you know certain things about them better than they do, and probably better than anyone else on earth does. You see them forwards, backwards, at twenty-four frames per second, at forty-eight frames a second, over and over and over again. You are studying them the way a sculptor studies a piece of marble before deciding to chisel it — here. So I have to know all the hidden veins and strengths and weaknesses of the rock that I’m working with, in order to know where best to put the chisel.

It’s disconcerting for me to actually meet an actor in the flesh. For the most part, they have no idea who I am — I’m just a person who worked on the film. There’s a vague kind of distraction that I detect in their gaze. On the other hand, I know them better than anyone! But it’s only a very narrow spectrum; there are whole areas of their personality that I have absolutely no knowledge of. But, nonetheless, when I meet an actor, the current is flowing in one direction only.

My most recent previous post from Ondaatje’s book is here.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

December 10, 2014

Ideological Space

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:51 am

… We seem to experience a loss of our own reality; … we are invited to dream in the ideological space of the photograph.

This is from The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories by John Tagg (1993):

… They can be taken as evidence. They can incriminate. they can be aids to masturbation or trophies of conquest. They can be emblems of a symbolic exchange in kinship rituals or vicarious tokens of a world of potential possessions.Through that democratized form of imperialism known as tourism, they can exert a power to colonise new experiences and capture subjects across a range never envisaged in painting. They are on our tables at breakfast. They are in our wallets and stood on our desks and dressing tables. Photographs and photographic practice appear as essential ingredients in so many social rituals — from customs checks to wedding ceremonies, from the public committal of judicial evidence to the private receipt of sexual pleasure — that it has become difficult to imagine what such rituals were like and how they could be conducted before photographs became widely available. It is difficult precisely because the internal stability of a society is preserved at one level through the naturalisation of beliefs and practices which are, on the contrary, historically produced and historically specific. It is in this light that we must see photographs and the various practices of photography.

… I was not trying to open up a rift in the complex process of constitution of individual images. What I am trying to stress here is the absolute continuity of the photographs’ ideological existence with their existence as material objects whose ‘currency’ and ‘value’ arise in certain distinct and historically specific social practices and are ultimately a function of the state.

Photography is a mode of production consuming raw materials, refining its instruments, reproducing the skills and submissiveness of its labor force, and pouring on to the market a prodigious quantity of commodities. By this mode of production it constitutes images or representations, consuming the world of sight as its raw material.

… The French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault has argued that there is a constant articulation of power on knowledge and knowledge on power. The exercise of power itself creates and causes to emerge new objects of knowledge and accumulates new bodies of information. [ … ] It is not a question of the struggle for ‘truth’ but, rather, of a struggle around the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays. What defines and creates ‘truth’ in any society is a system of more or less ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution and circulation of statements.

… I shall remind you again that we are not concerned with exposing the manipulation of a pristine ‘truth,’ or with unmasking some conspiracy, but rather with the analysis of the specific ‘political economy’ within which the ‘mode of production’ of ‘truth’ is operative: that is, not with something motivated on the personal plane, necessarily, but with relations and forces which are pervasive and diffuse throughout the social structure.

… [In this paragraph, Tagg is talking about FSA photograph(s) that he has used as examples throughout this chapter.] We may live the space of the picture, its ‘reality,’ its ideological field. But as the picture draws us in, we are drawn into its orbit, into the gravitational field of its ‘realism.’ There it holds us by the force of ‘the Past.’ If the majority of photographs raise barriers to their close inspection, making protracted analysis seem ‘excessive,’ then these photographs invite a closer and closer view. The further one penetrates, the more one is rewarded by the minutiae of detail suspended in the seemingly transparent emulsion. We seem to experience a loss of our own reality; a flow of light from the picture to us and from ourselves into the picture. Like Stryker, we are invited to dream in the ideological space of the photograph. It is now that we should remember that ‘dreams really have a meaning and are far from being the expression of a fragmentary activity of the brain, as the authorities have claimed. When the work of interpretation has been completed, we perceive that a dream is a fulfilment of a wish.’

My most recent previous post from Tagg’s book is here.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

December 9, 2014

Expecting Too Much

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… he should have been checked by this refusal of his art to respond to his exorbitant demands upon it as a means of utterly direct expression.

This is from ‘Review of the Exhibition of Van Gogh and the Remarque Collection’ (1943) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 1, edited by John O’Brian (1986):

… The Van Gogh Problem, of which we are reminded from time to time by single pictures, asks again for solution. Exactly how great a painter was he? The problem is made no easier by this exhibition, in which the complete masterpieces are too few and far between.

It is more difficult to judge painters fairly than writers and composers. The difficulty is physical. Color and texture cannot be reproduced in their full values for purposes of circulation. Because a sufficient number of the originals of a painter’s masterpieces are seldom present in any one place at any one time, we fall into the habit of demanding the absolute measure of his talent from every picture, good or bad, as long as it’s an original. We do not ask as much of the lesser works of writers and composers simply because their best is just as accessible. I think it hardly fair to pronounce on Van Gogh without having seen all his masterpieces, but that is part of the inevitable presumption of writing about art.

A roomful of Van Goghs has impact. yet all but some seven or eight of the paintings here lead to the question whether the impact has as much to do with art as with that emotion or quality or strikingness which Kant distinguishes as analogous to the beautiful, but only analogous, in that its presence makes us linger on the object embodying it because it keeps arresting our attention. It is the quality to which primitive art, at its best or worst, owes its inevitable effect upon the cultivated observer, and which is part of the emphatic physical presence of the work of art that exposes to full view its inner workings, its means of effectuation. With Van Gogh there also enters the power of an original temperament frustrated by its rupture with that world of logic, competition, and compromise in which it found itself.

I do not hold with Dr. Alfred M. Frankfurter that in the means of expression Van Gogh chose for himself he was never “other than an amateur with a divine genius.” There is too much good painting in his bad pictures to say that. Van Gogh’s distortion of vision, induced no doubt by his psychopathic state (compare Rousseau Douanier and Eilshemius), arrived at results of the same order as those of Cézanne’s inability to draw with academic correctness. The “rarity with which Van Gogh touched complete mastery” — to quote Dr. Frankfurter again — was due to a faulty command not so much of his medium as of his temperament. Van Gogh became too obsessed by the pattern glimpsed in nature. The frenzied insistence with which he tried to reproduce this pattern in his separate brush strokes and give it the same emphasis over every tiny bit of canvas resulted in pieces of violent decoration the surfaces of which had been ornamented instead of painted into a picture. Similarly, Cézanne’s preoccupation with the justness of color values down to the last millimeter in the delineation of space and volume made him lose sight at times of the whole in view. In his case, though, segments at least of otherwise unsuccessful pictures survive as superb texts in the painter’s art. It was Van Gogh’s misfortune and distinction that, unlike Cézanne, he could not rejoice in the limitations of his medium.

… mistakes of temperament, not of craft, account for most of the disappointments. It can be argued perhaps that the failure of Van Gogh’s art or craft lay precisely in its failure to react upon and discipline his temperament; he should have been checked by this refusal of his art to respond to his exorbitant demands upon it as a means of utterly direct expression. But that would be expecting too much. Van Gogh’s shortcomings as an artist are a translation into language of those that belonged to him as a human being.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

 

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