Unreal Nature

December 20, 2016

Movements of Another Mind

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… it needs time not merely to unfold its secrets but to begin to mean anything at all.

This is from ‘Dubuffet‘ (1958) in About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948-96 by David Sylvester (1996):

… He is not self-conscious about style because of a love of style but rather because of a hatred of style. His preoccupation with style arises in the first place out of his recognition of the decadence of our culture, his feeling that the styles we accept are all played out, his disgust at an art that feeds on art and feeds again on art fed upon art, and out of his desire to create an art that might rise above it all, above all the fancy nonsense, in spite of everything.

[line break added] There is something heroic in this enterprise of Dubuffet’s, in his readiness not to shrug his shoulders and make an elaborate joke out of all the mess as the Dadaists did, but to return to certain basic essentials and see what he can make of them — the essentials being the simplest kind of schematic drawing, the plainest, earthiest colors, the stuff the work is made of. Let us, he says, take these, and think of what they are, and use them, and see what happens.


Dubuffet does, in spite of everything, draw upon the art of the museums, even if he has to go back to very early art, to paleolithic cave paintings, to neolithic sculptures, and perhaps to Cycladic carvings, to find models that are not too much tainted by association with art for the sake of art, not to say art for the sake of snobbery.

It seems to me that the great merit of Dubuffet’s work, the merit which makes him the finest European painter of his generation, is that it communicates a feeling for life which has something of the warmth and poignancy characteristic of this very early art. Dubuffet’s vision of man combines marvelously — as they are combined in Cycladic figures — a sense of extreme vulnerability with a profound dignity and sense of being indestructible, in spite of everything (a phrase I’ve used three times now: it is constantly coming to mind when I think about Dubuffet). His figures have a pathetic, clownish grandeur, like Rembrandt’s drawing of the elephant.

[line break added] They are oafish and clumsy, and yet, and yet, fragile. They care about things. And on the other hand, they are roaring monsters who don’t give a damn for anyone, they are reincarnations of Père Ubu [from Jarry’s plays]. They are also creatures who might conceivably live in dustbins, as in Fin de Partie. They have connections too with Godot, who dreams, like Lucky, of stones and sky and games of tennis, and discovers, like Pozzo, that birth happens astride of a grave.

This next is from ‘Kandinsky‘ (1960):

… By any normal standards of good painting — any normal standards, German as well as French — Kandinsky makes it difficult for us to take him seriously as a painter. The want of presence and density in his shapes and colors gives them a slightly sickening effect. In the face of an inability to integrate forms into a continuous texture filling the surface of the canvas and of a feebleness of structure which gives no coherence to strident relations of color, we feel queasy.

… Paradoxically, it could be said that Kandinsky is the least abstract of painters. He was by nature an illustrator — as his earliest works make plain — and his abstract pictures are illustrations of the idea of painting an abstract picture. Seen from a distance, the only music they make is a jumbled noise.

But move closer to them, physically and sympathetically, close enough not to be disconcerted by the impression they make. Let their colors break over you like waves (as if you had got out of the rocking boat and decided to swim for it). Allow yourself to explore space with their tendril-like lines. In a word, give yourself to these paintings. You will feel that you are moving in concord with the movements of another mind, that the very movements of another mind and not only its conclusions have become yours.

[line break added] These paintings are not expressions, crystallizations of states of mind, of particular feeling-tones, they are gropings after states of mind, they are traces of the process itself of introspection. The very feeling-tone of these Kandinskys of the Blaue Reiter period is that of groping, of reaching out into the unknown. Some of them may be rather sad or rather gay or rather expressive of conflict, but their dominant feeling is always this uncertain reaching forth — the Sehnsucht, the yearning, that is familiar in German romantic art here related to the elusiveness of the artist’s own feelings.

The incompleteness of these paintings — the way that passages are left unresolved — is something like the incompleteness of an unfinished Cézanne still life. The Cézanne is a record of a groping after the forms of external objects in which honesty compels that what cannot be said with certainty is better left unsaid: a Kandinsky of the Blaue Reiter period is its counterpart in terms of groping after the forms of feelings.

[line break added] The difference is that a Cézanne, incomplete as it is as an investigation, is resolved as a painting; the Kandinsky remains a conglomeration of sensitive gropings in the dark. It is not resolved in the painting as a concrete thing, its resolution only comes about in and through our process of exploration of the painting. In this sense, it is a form of music — in that it needs time not merely to unfold its secrets but to begin to mean anything at all.

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




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