Unreal Nature

December 22, 2013

Still There Remains this Wilderness

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:05 am

… We must struggle against the destruction of lived experience which all writing initiates; we must at every moment be ready as much to abandon the work as to create it, and to know that it, too, is a cloud, a mass of ever-contested beauties, of ever-exceeded aspirations, of dizziness, and sometimes of ravages and sudden clarities.

… still there remains this wilderness, which, like a chasm, is all the more fascinating and alluring to a human being subject to spells of vertigo.

This is from the essay ‘Notes on Mondrian’ (1977) in The Lure and the Truth of Painting: Selected Essays on Art by Yves Bonnefoy (1995):

Two expanses, one azure, the other green, separated by a line where, at intervals, another blue and black cling, made iridescent by a trace of white. But near the top — a center that moves, matter suddenly become light — floats the orange-red mass of the large cloud. About this work, which Mondrian painted in 1908 or 1909, at the threshold of his early maturity, it can be said that it only barely seeks to represent or even suggest the things of this world. It does not escape notice either that the mark of the brush is often visible, crushed into the paint here, zigzagging freely there, a trace of blue penetrating the beige-ocher; no one can fail to remark that on this bit of canvas there are only five or six patches of color in all, which have been brushed on quickly; this is already a kind of abstract painting. All the same, a little blue from the top reappears in the lower part mixed with the color of clay. If this is accomplished through the hatching — applied rapidly here in order to intensify and thus ensure the balance of pure colors — elsewhere, closer to the horizon where the white signifies foam and indicates the sea, the blue blends more intimately with the green, which, still moist and malleable, gives the impression of a haze drifting coldly through a few patches of dense grass. Precisely where the representation might seem absent, the object a mere pretext, subtleties are perceived which indicate a practiced awareness of the earth; this painting was also once a gaze in which affections were pondered and through which at one time even dreams passed.

Mondrian_RedCloud
The Red Cloud

the cloud, possessed of an extraordinarily intense and fiery blaze — a light without visible origin — and endowed with remarkable form — a letter of an unknown alphabet, but with something breathing, if not sexual, a red mass that has cast its seed — becomes even more intense, offering itself as a sign, in the sense that the sudden flight of a bird or the strange appearance of a  rock were once constantly interpreted as such by the archaic mind. It portends something augural. Forgetting that a painting is not our life, we tell ourselves that it is here that we must linger, here in this phosphorescence that we must light a fire, here that we must lead the fettered animal to its sacrifice.

… It is nevertheless true that this great sign dominating the bare earth, this cloud shining like another burning bush, does not on second glance offer the vividness of the epiphany that earlier painters liked to suggest. For example, the tongues of fire on the day of the Pentecost came straight down on the Apostles from a point in the sky, and painters in the Middle Ages, followed by El Greco, were able with one profound stroke to represent the rectilinear flashes of light and the amazed look of acquiescence. The image long favored such unequivocal figures, for these worked to offset its fundamental unreality. However, Mondrian’s cloud — an ardor that swells yet divides, a light, yet one that is also a mirror in which another, an invisible, origin might be reflected — has in its radiance the gentleness that speaks of disillusionment and melancholy.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] In this contested majesty, it is a beauty, above all, that finally stands out: beauty and not divinity, the hearth where soon only the embers of a fire will turn red. This event in the sky, is it indeed a sign? But on the condition that we do not forget that the absolute it expresses will last only a moment, will be effaced in the already less surprising figures and iridescence of color, and that these, in their turn, are going to be endlessly transformed or dissipated, an expression of the “exchange” perpetually taking place and not of a seal that might close the world. How many times have I looked at the clouds! And I remember certain ones but only as moments in my relationship to my own being, in the space pierced by the deceptions of life as we live it. So that contemplating this bright fire I know that in a few seconds — and it does not matter much whether the painting is going to last or not — the hieroglyph will have vanished.

… There has been a hint of an epiphany; a painter thinks he has seen the form, the transfiguring flame, that breaks away from the nothingness of the world; but Mondrian is sufficiently of our godless times to see through this illusion, making it acknowledge from the very depths of its furtive form that it is only a distorted reflection of a self-seeking desire. No outside power — no higher voice — issues from our signs. Our land is “a desert country by the sea,” as Shakespeare wrote, at the darkest point in his work, the middle of The Winter’s Tale.

… We must struggle against the destruction of lived experience which all writing initiates; we must at every moment be ready as much to abandon the work as to create it, and to know that it, too, is a cloud, a mass of ever-contested beauties, of ever-exceeded aspirations, of dizziness, and sometimes of ravages and sudden clarities.

But I want to return to Mondrian and, by way of conclusion, say that in reality, like Racine and Mallarmé who were kindred spirits, he persisted in seeing the truth of existence beneath the truth of writing, the murkiness that lies within the crystal. Let us return a moment to The Red Cloud, where the artistic sign had asserted itself with the most arrogant autonomy. Let our eyes follow the movements of the brush in the color, a graphism that tears itself from the world; and we will see that a flat image is created — a banner with two bands stamped in red — but that at the limits of the green and blue, in the narrowness of a bit of white and black vibrating to infinity, it is the reality of depth as it actually is that thus asserts its opposition, proving that it has not been destroyed. This horizon is an other dimension. Not the third dimension of perspectivist space but an unending heterogeneity that erects presence against the image, a fissure that claims what no writing could ever accept: namely, that there is an elsewhere [un ailleurs] in the distance and thus, in turn, a here [un ici] — in sum, a place — which, having meaning only for a life lived in passing time, commits us to the experience of being.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The Red Cloud, even though all divinity has been abandoned, remains as much a tearing apart as the satisfied start of something new. Through the light it sheds, we better understand both the melancholy of Mondrian’s richest period — this “red glow” I have already mentioned, this lyricism, in fact — and the more openly anguished paintings of the interwar years, including his desire at the time to add to his primary work as painter a concern with the decor of the room, of the house, of all that insistent life from which he wanted so much to remove himself. These apparently flat figures, like patterns of tiling, are a desperate effort to keep the dreaded dimension contained behind a grid. For even if the unrestrained practice of writing has deprived the outside world of its positive quality, has caused it to become deserted like this heath beside the sea in 1909, still there remains this wilderness, which, like a chasm, is all the more fascinating and alluring to a human being subject to spells of vertigo.

Mondrian_CompRYB
Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1937-42

-Julie

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