Unreal Nature

April 6, 2017

The Painted Idea

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:36 am

… Out of a chain of connective ideas, responding to paint and color, rises the image, the painted idea.

This is from the essay ‘The Biography of a Painting’ found in The Shape of Content by Ben Shahn (1957; 1985):

… During the early French-influenced part of my artistic career, I painted landscapes in a Post-Impressionist vein, pleasantly peopled with bathers, or I painted nudes, or studies of my friends. The work had a nice professional look about it, and it rested, I think, on a fairly solid academic training. It was during those years that the inner critic first began to play hara-kiri with my insides. With such ironic words as, “It has a nice professional look about it,” my inward demon was prone to ridicule or tear down my work in just those terms in which I was wont to admire it.

The questions, “Is that enough? Is that all?” began to plague me. Or, “This may be art, but is it my own art?” And then I began to realize that however professional my work might appear, even however original it might be, it still did not contain the central person which, for good or ill, was myself. The whole stream of events and of thinking and changing thinking; the childhood influences that were still strong in me; my rigorous college years with the strong intention to become a biologist;

[line break added] summers at Woods Hole, the probing of the wonders of marine forms; all my views and notions of life and politics, all this material and much more which must constitute the substance of whatever person I was, lay outside the scope of my own painting. Yes, it was art that I was producing, perfectly competent, but foreign to me, and the inner critic was rising up against it.

… From the moment at which a painter begins to strike figures of color upon a surface he must become acutely sensitive to the feel, the textures, the light, the relationships which arise before him. At one point he will mold the material according to an intention. At another he may yield intention — perhaps his whole concept — to emerging forms, to new implications within the painted surface. Idea itself — ideas, many ideas move back and forth across his mind as a constant traffic, dominated perhaps by larger currents and directions, by what he wants to think. Thus idea rises to the surface, grows, changes as a painting grows and develops.

… I have spoken of the tug of war between idea and image which at an earlier time in my painting had plagued me so greatly. I could not reconcile that conflict by simply abandoning idea, as so many artists had done. Such an approach may indeed simplify painting, but it also removes it from the arena of challenging, adult, fully intellectual and mature practice. For me, there would be little reason for painting if idea were not to emerge from the work. I cannot look upon myself or upon man generally as a merely behaving species. If there is value it rests upon the human ability to have idea, and indeed upon the stature of the idea itself.

Ben Shahn, Allegory, 1948

The painting of the Red Beast, “Allegory,” is an idea painting. It is a highly emotional painting, and I hope that it is still primarily an image, a paint image. I began the painting, as I have said, with no established idea, only the sense of a debt to be paid and with a clamoring of images, many of them. But as to the fire itself, as to fires, I had many ideas, a whole sub-continent of ideas, none of which would be executed to measure, but any one of which might rise to become the dominating force in painting.

… Out of a chain of connective ideas, responding to paint and color, rises the image, the painted idea.

My previous post from Shahn’s book is here.




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