The Song of the Finch
« L’âme n’est chaude que de son mystère »
16 November 2004
Becoming aware of failure is wrecking me, is wreaking havoc on me.
What am I to do, impregnated as I am by this chaos that I must control, sort out?
I did not choose to be what one calls an artist, I neither can nor want to be one.
But for want of any other human activity I might be capable of, I have been forced, I have forced myself, to assume the mantle of the artist, i.e. to act out the vision of the painter that I am.
No other activity could construct me, unify me, assemble the pieces in ‘me’ and put them in their exact place. Indeed, one needs to be ‘of one piece’ to attempt any activity at all.
For the activity of painting to (re)construct me, it needs to come off, but it cannot do so unless I am ‘one’. And I am stricken by the terror of the man in pieces in front of the blank, immaculate, and yet already unique canvas.
The man in pieces has only one solution, only one obsession: to make himself whole again.
The painter – as I am –achieves this through the unity of image, sign, and canvas. But the start is challenging, as from the outset the canvas demands of its would-be painter a unity of means and rational and emotional forces, and this unity cannot be achieved unless the painter succeeds in painting the canvas, unless he brings it off.
Thus it always fails, sometimes just by a little, but fail it does.
And it is precisely the sometimes just by a little, the ‘sometimes almost’, that impels me to go on with my attempts unremittingly. Is it hope that drives me? I do not believe so. Anxiety, more likely.
In all of us there resides an almost animal anxiety, an anxiety that is bound to the human condition, that helps us survive and therefore drives us to act, to confront the chaos.
This is positive anxiety.
But as everything in man may deviate and lose its shape when it grows so intense as to become pathological and paralyse all further attempts at action, anxiety may go bad. This terrible anxiety eats away at our bodies and minds when we are left with only the dull blue green abyss of the absolute void before us. Mother of all pains.
Bewitching, infernal, it crushes us, gobbles up our strength, and shatters us to pieces.
All I can do is seek to bring off a painting or a drawing in order to pull myself together again.
Often this goes very badly, sometimes quite well, sometimes I may even be successful. In the latter case, at the moment of action, the canvas and I join together and we reach a peak in our union, which relieves me and cures me temporarily, as, by working through the tensions, I contrive to establish order on the canvas. However, after this near success, my self decomposes again and I relapse into anxiety and pain. A single canvas will never suffice.
Any successful attempt at recomposing is but an instant of relief; afterwards, the best paintings and the accomplished drawings turn against me (or is it me turning away from them?) and even thrust me into an almost ferocious indifference towards them.
They no longer belong to me and they keep their distance. They will be consulted by others, they will touch only others. Because doubt, the major pillar of anxiety, has re-established itself in me: will there be a next occasion for me to succeed?
My work helps me only during the process of creating it; subsequently, I disappear into a greater chasm than the one that drove me to create it in the first place.
The anxiety grows as the work develops.
I sometimes gaze intensely at old paintings of mine in an attempt to recover this spirit of unity, this beneficial alliance that yoked me to them as I went beyond, as they took possession of me by making themselves, by letting themselves be made.
But when I do so, little of all that comes back to me. As soon as they have been decided, the paintings withdraw so radically that they leave me with just a vague memory, which makes me turn away in disgust.
This realisation turns into an impression of failure, of shame. Failure for me, not necessarily for the others, who, through their distance and their ignorance of what has passed between the canvas and me, can be available to it and reflect themselves in it.
I might even speak of an avenging spirit that I pass from canvas to canvas. I avenge myself on a canvas that disappoints me and I try to succeed notwithstanding by destroying it.
I take revenge for my failures by trying to surpass them, which only makes the problem worse, as I sink and get increasingly bogged down in the ambition to believe in them, to force myself to believe in them, while continuing the struggle with the absence of unity.
After I have created them, most canvases cease to be of any use to me; the act of destroying them then becomes almost beneficial, comforting. Thus their destruction positions itself on the level of their creation – and even continues it – in a closed circle, directed by and against me.
It apparently follows that in order to keep the intensity of the link between the canvas and myself intact, I have to destroy it before it detaches itself from me and fades into the other world, outside myself, where it is lost to me.
Now the act of painting, of finding the right image, is no longer a need to communicate with the exterior – which I conceive as generosity -, but a memory support for the wrecked me and my exclusive possession of that support without anybody meddling. The work leaves me, I end up in pain.
I may as well destroy it myself, as this will at least soothe the pain of being abandoned by it.
Some works find mercy and survive, I do not know why. There is something in them that prevents me from finishing them off. They are not necessarily the best. The destructive instinct establishes its own norms. Yes, I am mistaken.
I destroy images that I do not see in time. Canvases that do not open my eyes.
Then I am a blind painter, or rather, a blind man who paints.
* * *
The mystery that emanates from the canvas – the enigmatic transformation of a bit of matter into luminosity: I refuse to touch it, I need to cherish it.
I like the canvas to remain at a distance – even if I must touch it –, impregnable, incomprehensible, impenetrable even, impenetrable to any gaze.
A canvas that is understood is a canvas that is lost. The kind of painting that explains itself is whorish painting, ‘peinture-pute‘.
I refuse to understand. The mystery will do for me, as it enlightens me more than any analysis, which immobilizes and disables me. Naturally, not wanting to understand – in another sense – may be mere cowardice, as understanding can strip naked an unbearable cruelty, an unacceptable reality: reality, and consequently the real, are much worse than what we notice.
On the other hand, I can but try to understand certain mechanisms that take me closer to or further way from the canvas. In itself, the incomprehension, or rather the unwillingness to comprehend, amounts to abandoning a try-out of painting, a try-out of attitude, a try-out of life.
(My) fear is of no longer daring to attempt to paint. And could the incomprehension of this fear be madness?
This fear crushes life and everything it may contain. It brings about the waiting, not the waiting that is required to achieve a painting – the waiting for the painting to come and visit the painter -, but a liar’s waiting. At first it serves as a perfect alibi – indeed, the canvas keeps the painter waiting without respect for his nerves – but once it turns into a lie, it engenders anxiety, and anxiety, in turn, engenders pain.
* * *
I do not change paintings, I change scenery.
19 November 2004
Should one, perhaps, write something funny about painting? That, however, proves to be very hard, and even rather bad taste, because it concerns a reality that is, rather than one that one fabricates just to get by.
Painting does not like that. Not that it takes itself seriously, no, not at all, on the contrary: it is serious, and even fierce enough to crush the painter and his little painting paws.
I do not like being a painter. I would have preferred being something similar, but less painful, less bloody annoying, for example being a rag and bone man, a Spanish car mechanic, or a Portuguese slaughterman. I like rag and bone yards (in their chaos there often reigns an order that relieves me and helps me do the same in my painting); the old second-class garages (their scrapings are marvellous, with a crust like the skin of a painting); and then the slaughterhouses where death nonchalantly blends with life, where order reigns also with plenty of blood splashes, and where everything is structure, ritual and precision. Places like that do not force me to look. Quite simply: there I see everything, I am
impregnated by everything and my eyes miss nothing, effortlessly.
But painters’ studios are so tiresome.
One must look, force oneself, get some idea: nine chances out of ten the result will be nil.
Without life, without death, with a fake seriousness that serves as a partitioning screen for an invented, hollow, useless reality.
The canvases themselves are often so full of shame that they turn their backs –stacked up feverishly – pressed against each other, facing the wall. Wet chickens to be fetched by a slaughterer with a knife at the ready.
The painter, if he has an ounce of intelligence left, is also ashamed, but he hides his shame because shame makes a bad impression, it does not look serious. (While often the only thing to do, the only realistic attitude, is to spend time with his shame, to ‘have’ shame.)
This painting is total sadness… It can make those laugh who poke fun at it, some out of stupidity, having found something in which to reflect themselves, the image that goes with them (they dare not go any further themselves), others, the less stupid, out of embarrassment and discomfort, as they are faced with all this misery that is sick and tired of being misery and yet remains misery…
But it is as impossible to make fun of a painting as it is of a slaughterhouse.
(There are very bad slaughterhouses as well!)
Certain painters’ studios are slaughterhouses, or even old garages crusted with oil and grease, or rag and bone yards that are labyrinths built from silent old fridges, soaking wet cookers and blind television sets.
These studios are no fun. In them fun is out of place, one does not make fun in them, one laughs (inwardly?) at the happiness and the well-being generously offered by the seriousness and the severity of the painting that shows itself and that gives itself with so much misery …
* * *
If I paint at all, or at least if I try to paint, it is because ennui makes my life impossible. And painting is the only activity, the only time killer, that diverts ennui. It could be called a consolation, but let us not get carried away, as even in the middle of a painting, ennui may descend on the painter. What is to be done?
Ennui backs off when the canvas is winning. It pulls out of the studio and waits outside for the painter to come out a bit groggy from the unknown paths along which the canvas has taken him, and it clings fast to the dazed artist’s shadow.
Ennui knows the painter, it knows he cannot be in his painting all the time, even though he may continue it outside the canvas. So ennui is patient – it is the messenger of time –, and it waits.
So the painter proceeds with his painting outside the canvas, outside the studio. There, however, he is more vulnerable, more fragile, because that is where everyday life and its banality lie in wait for him, grab him by the scruff of the neck and hand him over to ennui.
The situation becomes very delicate, even dangerous, when one remains a painter without doing any painting, without a canvas within reach of the brush, when one is painting in thought only.
The marvellous ugliness
There is a huge difference between the marvellous ugliness of a canvas and the lying and tiring ugliness of the everyday that surrounds and hems us in.
The marvellous ugliness of the canvas is naked: a countermove to the veiled ugliness of the everyday.
I cannot believe in an imposed beauty, and should it exist, it would hurt me. I am unfit to put up with a beauty that I am forced to see and accept as reality, while everything in me suffers from its lie: it hides the real. Ugliness never hides, not even in its beauty.
Negative ugliness is one that hides in a beauty that is assumed and imposed by some system. That is why I love marvellously ugly canvases: they help me, often simply by coming to mind, to overcome the displeasure that seizes me each time I leave the painting.
Not only do I love them, but they are also the only ones I like to paint. Sometimes I succeed, often I fail.
There are ugly canvases and there are bad canvases. Bad ones devastate me because they reek of the ennui of the everyday and its supposed, let me say, material beauty.
Ugly canvases, which never hesitate to point the finger at the lie of the everyday, can contain a terrible power, perhaps even a mad charm that makes sense of the paranoia of one who paints, or rather tries to paint.
Ugly canvases are the most beautiful, because their ugliness turns into real beauty when it includes the infernal force that can exorcise the pain proper to humankind and deeply buried in us.
The abandonment of the painter by the painting is terrifying. So many questions harass the abandoned painter: what reasons does the painting have to ditch its painter, to dismiss him, to reject him, to refuse to let itself be done by him?
The painting gobbles up a man. If he is sturdy enough, he holds out, if not, the work stops the moment he collapses under the weight (of his obsession) of a search that is increasingly extreme. At that moment, the marvellous ugliness becomes banal beauty. The struggle is over. The painter is no more.
* * *
It is in ugliness that beauty finds its authentic power. Beauty without ugliness looking after and enveloping it, is but a lie; only the pain that resides in marvellous ugliness can make beauty genuinely glow.
Vincent’s Sunflowers possesses an excruciating beauty, as it is carried by an ugliness that touches on madness. Rather than pretty flowers, they are fallen suns with razor blade wings, objects (a subject?) that wound and show us the wounds inside him, the wounds that we can recognize in ourselves.
His sunflowers are damned. They are crucified and cannot even lift their heads towards the light, towards a sun that might relieve them.
It is an ugly painting, radiant with beauty.
One day he was no longer able to paint this reality, to touch the real. It meant his death. He had given his all, he had emptied himself, and painting abandoned him. He knew in time.
Because Vincent, the man, and Vincent, the painter, were one.
If, however, there is a discrepancy between the man and the painter, the latter may die while the former carries on living willy-nilly. Some painters – the lobotomised – are unaware of their decline.
But for those who can feel their end as a painter has come but still want to continue, it is living hell. Because they are left with a beauty that is no longer enveloped in marvellous ugliness but that is tired and empty, and that engenders nothing but disgust.
And ennui again takes full command.
20 November 2004
What escapes me in the everyday cannot escape me in painting or drawing.
The severity of painting is an oasis, a godsend in the chaos of the everyday, of everyday life set against human life.
Naturally, the search for the image is a road littered with mines, strewn with traps, some of which the painter can learn to recognize, and locate where they lie in wait for him, but as, in the best cases, the image (the form?) develops, from one canvas to the next, from one drawing to the next, they move around, they get more complicated, they multiply as the painter is transcending the limits. It is a hard task of attention, lucidity and the (fore)sight of the seer. Sometimes it is possible to avoid these traps, to contain the damage, and to arrive before the deadline. For a canvas, even as it meets its severe demands, has an almost generous flexibility permitting the unforeseen that lets the painter stand a chance. (I have happened to work on a painting for twenty years, to be kept waiting for it before achieving an unexpected result that, however, kept me on hold and opened new perspectives for me.)
Never so with drawing. A drawing is inflexible and offers just a single possibility, a single chance. One does not catch a drawing by the tail: it either is or is not. A drawing is a pure sparkle, a glass splinter that cuts, while a canvas is rather a plot of cultivated soil: we may till it over and over again, leave traces interspersed with our wandering towards uncertain destinations, until the right direction is found and truth attained, expressing what might be the reality of our condition. Still, even if it allows a boundless freedom (everything should be tried), it cannot function without accuracy and rigour. The painter is always at bay.
Without painting my life would have been worse. I believe I would have turned bad, possibly criminal. (Criminality demands disobedience and owes its existence to a disruption of the norm, a continuous exceeding of the limit, something it has in common with art). What straightened me out were the structures that lead to the marvellously ugly image and its demands, rather than the structures of material everyday life, which not only escape me, but leave me indifferent as well.
Although they may seem not to exist, although the artist appears free in his gesture and although there are neither systems nor rules properly speaking, there are structures that direct the painting rigidly, though perpetually developing (always mobile).
Centuries and worlds separate their painters, but Rothko’s canvas is subject to the same initial structures as Rembrandt’s; Memling’s to the same ‘energy’ laws, the same ‘necessary’ tensions as Mondrian’s.
The natural momentum of the man who searches, who searches himself, is restrained by any system that a society creates to protect itself. They are incompatible, as the demands of the one are the prohibitions of the other. The only solution for someone who does not accept the boundaries is to retreat into some sort of exile: criminal, religious, extremist, artistic…
Painting rests on natural laws, or rather, it establishes itself through them. Thus by rendering the everyday and its absurdity secondary, it makes them more bearable for me.
The canvas is my place of exile. It allows me to escape from the dreadful codification of life, indeed to undermine it. Art will always exceed its limits, and follow its own norms; the social system, by contrast, will do anything to obliterate any threat to the limits it has created for itself. The enclosure of the everyday is anti-human and its conflict with art is a dead end.
21 November 2004
The painter’s environment is his canvas. There is nowhere else for him to live but in his painting.
What can he do if the canvas denies itself to him, if it banishes him, while he has already been exiled into it by the systemic everyday?
That is when the real becomes nothingness. A nothingness that is impossible to live with, impossible to die with.
The painter attempts to enter into the painting through a labyrinth; he has to find the way, various passwords, various keys. If he gets lost, he stays where he is; the labyrinth becomes nothingness, devoid of any motion. His days are counted and time is the tyrant.
In the painting time is obliterated.
The painter may be aided by the shining shattered traces (the glass shards?) of the drawings he scatters about as he winds his way through the labyrinth. If he pays attention and conscientiously follows this shining way, he will after a great many detours eventually arrive at the canvas, or rather, at the still bolted door behind which the painting may be waiting for him.
To open the door he has to remember the passwords and pick the right key from his large bunch. This is the greatest feat of strength: going through the door.
There is one question that fills me with terror: what is it that chases the painter from his painting? What is it that drags him from the canvas, even though it contains all he needs? Why leave it? Where does it come from, this mad – or fatigued? – urge to leave his ground? While he is fully aware – as he has been through it so many times – that leaving is a serious mistake with costly consequences. He will have to undergo much suffering, many frustrations, before obtaining the pardon, the authorisation, the right to return to the canvas once more.
Indeed, it is always the painting that decides the painter’s fate. If he cheats on it, he will be punished with a temporary, or sometimes even a definitive, exclusion.
What confounds me is that it is precisely the self-same human condition that obliges the painter to withdraw into the canvas, that forces him to return, to leave the canvas, his place of exile, through very complex and clearly irresistible mechanisms.
The painter only has the strength he draws from his image (his imaginary). But this strength fails to function unless he is in his painting. When he is outside, it is a mere attribute, a label that just lets him put up with his own lies, which are appended to the lies and delusions of the system that maintains the order of the human condition.
A painter who does not paint soon turns into a liar. (I have now been living under the mantle of lies, deferring – I do not know what holds me back – the moment of return to the canvas, thus living in a fast grip of discomfort. Even as I deaden my mind with drugs and sleep, the visions and the dreams take up again the lying of the waking state: a state of emptiness).
25 November 2004
The realisation that there is nothing left to paint constitutes a continuous threat (and menace).
As the painter lives and stays alive only by the grace of the painting, such a realisation means the end of him.
The cause (or the blame?) lies with the painter, as he is no longer available to the painting that urges itself on him. The painting will go on announcing itself for a while, but the painter has stopped being receptive and serving as its tool or begetter.
The painter is no longer fertile.
What to do? Initially, the heedless painter will be waiting, that is, hoping, (as he has always done: waiting for a painting to come); however, how long can this waiting last before he sees through his situation, dares to admit and (has) to accept the definitive dying of the light? And when the waiting has been waited out, what is there left to do, what will be his new attitude?
How does the attitude of the painter no longer painting express itself?
Then, how does he experience the world outside himself while facing the world inside himself? How does he behave when exile is no longer an option?
Waiting for the painting has now been reduced to mere waiting.
The waiting is no longer interrupted by some image. Shall I be strong enough to cope with waiting as my only attitude?
The painting will stop visiting me, but will never stop existing. It will have to announce itself elsewhere. Some other painter will receive it.
This is what I fear, even though I cannot imagine it. Another painting must come, always another, even one that is repulsive to the painter, more marvellous and repulsive than ever before.
I mean: if the painter is no longer capable of receiving, his stagnating attitude is to blame.
Indeed, in order to remain receptive, his attitude should remain mobile as well, mobile like an oil slick on the surface of the rippling sea.
Indeed, the painter’s attitude is not definitive, nor can it be. It must change, transform itself, evolve with and following the desires of the canvas.
Why would he deny himself a new life, a detour, sometimes a regression, even if it refutes his previous advances? The evolution of work and that of attitude go together (not necessarily side by side…). One needs to stay mobile, in perpetual motion.
The danger is total regression, a repetition that is not new, that neither adds nor removes anything or even not enough. But besides all that, all means should be tried to find a new thread, a live nerve, an open vein, a more acute exactitude.
The exactitude springs from a concentrated and mobile attitude. It is in perpetual motion itself. It can take any direction. Moreover, it is neither the way, nor the course, but the ground that is concentrated in a single point (the canvas? the drawing?), at the spot where the image is bound to come off.
As for the painter, he is Oedipus on his way.
26 November 2004
On the damned state
As far as I am concerned, being damned is being unable to settle once and for all the question of whether for me painting is a grace or a calamity. And I believe that precisely this doubt is both the motivation and the subject, the subsoil, the foundation of what I am trying to express, to create.
Systemic everyday life contains the following contradiction: doubt cannot constitute the basis for its structure, but in the position I find myself at present (back) painting, I cannot act but under the tension of the clash of ideas, of contradictory emotions, and this tension becomes embedded in each brush or pencil stroke.
I cherish the thought that calamity contains the grace that allays my damned condition. Van Gogh’s canvases contain a moving grace; but I cannot look at them without thinking of the tragedy, without seeing the tragedy that is taking place in the marvel of his painting, the menace they emanate in spite of his apparently innocent motifs and his grave light; for the damned condition loiters in the trails, the cracks, the wounds made in the skin of the painting by the tormented painter’s brush. As he was struggling, devastated by his own obscurity, the damned yielded the splendour of the shining image.
In a reflex, I close my eyes, looking at it inside myself, as if a beacon, a sun, projects everything on it, blinding me.
The painter is not always aware of his damned condition. The painter is against and cannot be otherwise, as it is from his being against that the power, the fury, the courage and, occasionally, the grace emerge.
The damned: when contradiction (and) friction emanate from the work. These two elements intensify all reception of the work and every reflection of itself in itself. This worries me, gnaws at me, and compels me to choose between plunging in and letting go.
Inevitably, this does not please everybody.
* * *
Painting some taboo does not necessarily yield a damned painting. The term taboo refers to the subject (or motif), while the damned manifests itself in the way the subject is (mis)treated: in its making.
Painters such as Schiele or Modigliani wore the damned star not because of the subjects of some of their works, but because of the way they painted them: they transformed a subject that was taboo (or nearly so) into images that the system could not endure.
Their nudes clearly express a raw, even cruel, unacceptable sexuality; this unruliness renders their canvases damned.
Renoir’s nudes – or rather the nudity of his subjects – are totally inoffensive compared to those by Degas, whose almost sadistic pictorial approach to the female body leaves no doubt as to his voyeurism, his perversity towards the social system.
Degas is a painter who violates; Renoir is a painter who caresses.
The damned is created in the painting of the canvas, rather than in its subject. As opposed to a work by Greco in which sanctified and mystical ravings are expressed in bodies that are torn by ecstasy and shredded by pain, Courbet’s Origin of the world – even though it went through a taboo phase – does not have the stamp of a damned making. It is nothing but a female sex organ, painted as nicely as an apple on a plate.
Soutine’s flowers are damned, because that is how they were painted; those by Renoir (again!) are ready to be hung above a nicely laid out sideboard.
Guernica has never been a damned painting, even if it broke quite a number of taboos (of its time): a topical, politically committed subject, a formalist horror in the service of artistic experience, all of which was further amplified by a way of painting that was inconceivable at that time.
What an image of war, in the middle of war!
Yet, throwing this accumulation of taboos into the face of the public has never made it a damned painting. On the contrary. It is an ingenious canvas that has its place in the development of the academic outlook on art.
It is much more bearable, I would even say acceptable, than Vincent’s Night Cafe in Arles.
Vincent paints a trivial subject – a cafe interior, at night, when apparently nothing extraordinary is happening -, but he paints it in such a way that he injects the canvas with a terrifying curse.
A painting is damned by the way it has been painted; ideally its subject, its theme, is taboo, but this only plays a supporting role in the whole damned adventure. There is a world of difference between salivating and spitting.
Bacon’s early canvases were total anathema: taboo subject, damned making. Then his making developed from a hard-boiled coarseness to an ease that bothered nobody, while his subjects remained the same.
In his later work men were still screaming, copulating, shitting, puking, committing suicide…
But it was painted in a nice acceptable way and thus even more admired. The damned side had been lost along the way and the later canvases were nothing more than stylised images of a rather fashionably smart taboo.
Thus the damned may (also) be confined to a period in a painter’s oeuvre. I am thinking of Magritte’s période vache, and above all of Picasso’s later work – sublime, damned! – when he was feeling death’s cold breath on his neck.
* * *
The work dies off unless it develops. The painter’s attitude towards his work, and thus towards (his) life in general, should develop, either in its wake, or beyond.
For rather than developing in parallel with the attitude, the work is either ahead or behind. I often happen to paint canvases that go against the grain of my present attitude. Indeed, there is no definitive, static attitude. Sometimes I am just not ready to accept my canvases, sometimes they are either late or ahead of me, of what is stirring in me on the topical, emotional, formal level.
These situations are painful and frustrating to the point that having regarded a canvas as successful, and therefore real (just ripe), repulses me because of the doubt and the anguish that well up at that moment.
There is a waiting time before, and one after the canvas: waiting for acceptance or rejection.
I believe that one always paints approximately.
Owing to chance, to serendipity, to the crises that mark the travail à l’oeuvre, the result is never the one that was expected.
The disarray elicits a re-assessment of the attitude. Neither the canvas, nor the change of attitude that engenders it or that springs from it, can ever be foreseen.
In general, the attitude follows the canvas; it is but the wasteland where the canvas picks out an ideal spot to (have someone) construct itself.
And the canvas will not hesitate to alter the set-up of the attitude.
27 November 2004
There are those who damn, there are those who are damned.
The genuinely damned do not know they are.
They just are, and therefore they cannot know.
To be damned is the outcome of an attitude that is not for the choosing: not everyone who wishes to be damned, can be. But he who is cannot escape his fate.
The damned condition is at the extreme end of the margin, of marginality
28 November 2004
No longer do anything, no longer want anything, no longer want to do anything.
All the weight, the heaviness within, comes from blindly wanting to do what I cannot do.
The most difficult of tasks is to abandon the wanting and from a distance to let it be without wanting (it). But will the abandonment be undergone – as I neither have the strength nor the need to create anymore – or chosen by an almost rational commitment to stop?
The threat of abandonment has been hounding me ever since I was able to envisage its contingency and the possibility either to undergo it or to accept its choice. As a child I became aware that I was struggling to exist, that I was confined to a world in perpetual motion, while still framed by immense and therefore insurmountable limits. A world that was absolutely uncertain.
Abandonment is an act that demands lots of intelligence, lucidity and courage, at least if it is an intimately deliberate and determined choice.
Because there is a difference between coming to the abandonment as the solution and the logical consequence of a solved, finished problem, of a situation or a past stage in one’s life – for instance, to stop painting because I have already painted all I had to paint and I do not want to repeat myself- and being obliged to give up the fight because I have become unable to further exceed my limits and push the canvas further than ever before.
The doubt as to the why of the abandonment is to be dreaded…
29 November 2004
Most certainties – as far as there are any – are only temporary.
I obviously need temporary certainties in order to believe, as long as it takes, in what I can see myself doing: painting. But I refuse to welcome and accept definitive certainties. They would only nail me down.
Every certainty, like every attitude, is in motion, variable, and refuses to be fabricated. That would be too facile, too cowardly.
And indeed, talking of cowardice and facility, how can one avoid falling in the trap of knocking up some certainties in order to confirm a work that is just a lie?
These are chosen certainties, fabricated dogmas that are laid down haphazardly out of weakness and inefficiency or inability to take on the demands of the canvas: work on a structure, on a temporary foundation, on a shift of limits.
Besides, it is not the painter who decides on the temporary certainties, rather it is the canvas that imposes them.
Therefore, while they may change continuously in function of the demands of the canvas, certainties are always based on the absolute need for reality and for the expression of the real through this reality.
Bosch’s certainties are not those held by Velasquez: they differ from all points of view.
But somewhere they converge in their need for the real in the canvas, in the requirement to give the canvas what it demands when it is being painted.
We know, and we are well acquainted with, Van Gogh’s thoughts on Rembrandt, Matisse, Ucello, but not the reverse. How would Poussin have responded at the sight of Pollock’s canvases? Vermeer when confronted with Jorn?
Certainties change aspects with time and with everything that ensues.
Nevertheless, temporary certainties always retain a core that oscillates in and with them throughout various periods and that, steadily, constitutes the nerve that makes the canvas go.
Present certainties naturally feed on what has preceded and they will shift tomorrow, for they adapt to the evolving needs of the canvas. Each (lapse of) time has its own certainties, which last as long as the painting that is being made needs them.
Being temporary, certainties only change aspects, requirements, dogmas; but also they make, or, by their flexibility, help to make the work timeless.
I like the phrase ‘I am not quite sure of it’, and I would even say: our need for definitive certainty is a fool’s trap.
The certainties – or uncertainties – that the canvas demands from the painter are conceived by him in terms of what is going on in his painting. However, what is going on in the canvas is never the same.
The certainties of the younger Rembrandt are not the same as those one senses when looking at his later self-portraits. In the latter the certainties have completely changed, thanks to a continual questioning that clings like a shadow on the heels of each momentary certainty. They changed throughout his oeuvre, but in each canvas, from his youth to his mature age, he was right.
To succeed in surpassing (by other means?) the certainty of reason, may well be genius, the stroke of genius.
It follows that it is uncertainty and its perpetual questioning that make us act. Uncertainty is the backbone of doubt and it is only by acting – by painting – that I may unburden myself of the weight of doubt. Doubt running on uncertainty.
The certain condition is the opposite of the damned condition.
I do not find, I search.
30 November 2004
A painting is expression. But of what?
Is what it expresses so important that painters devote their whole life to it, endure all sorts of misery and end up letting themselves both be screwed and feted, as often as not at the same time?
What is it that is so important for them to give expression to? And this absolute need to make the canvas glow at all costs, where does it originate?
Expressing (oneself) goes together with communicating. Not only does the painter create his work, he also wants – at all costs – the work to communicate itself to the outside. If not, it does not exist. (Another infernal idea!)
In parenthesis: the commercial aspect of the art market only plays a supporting role in this quest for recognition. The fact that a canvas is sold may – at best – be proof that it is looked at and that in the systemic everyday it is important enough to be paid for to be acquired, i.e. the system acquires it out of need. This might establish the use of the canvas as the need of the system to reflect itself in it; although the system, the same system that rejects certain canvases for fear they disturb its order and limits, reclaims them (often much later) to re-mark the continual shift of these same limits. Hence its use as a mirror for us to reflect ourselves in and to see it it what has changed in us. (The link between art and commerce will always be tainted with a smell of sulphur).
A canvas always expresses its time. Each age wants to see itself, perhaps above all, through the veil of its own lies, past the horror it is producing in order to continue to function.
A painting is often said to be ahead of its time, but this is false, as time is ahead of the system, of society, of man, who tails behind. A real painting, on the contrary, agrees perfectly with its time; it expresses reality accurately, and the best among them will go on doing so, they evolve with time until they let time go and eventually become timeless.
That what the canvas expresses is of such importance that it becomes a timeless substance of our condition, is the real mystery.
And the mystery of the canvas enlightens us.
What is the information that passes through emotion? What is it that makes that Bosch’s apocalyptic visions, Velasquez’ royal paintings, Goya’s horror, Ingres’ carnal bewitching, Paul McCartney’s trance ravages, Beuys’ virtually animal conspiracies, never fail to delight me?
All these expressions of extreme, let me say extremist, attitudes have a common core, a connection that transgresses time: at the heart of these works, which are formally so far apart, I can find an expression of the real as it resides in the soul of man. I do mean: the soul. And this real relieves them, frees them from the reality that they have made for themselves and that has plunged them into the hell of the everyday.
All real works have (the image of) pure existence in common. That is what links them beyond time, which itself determines the evolution of form and presentation of the subject.
Escaping from the real is the opposite of art, and the artist remains the ultimate realist.
The protagonist of the canvas, hovering over the subject, is time, probably.
And painting might well be: translating time into space.
1 December 2004
Evolution means continuously overcoming the lack of language, the inability to ‘put into language’. It implies compensating for the deficiency of language.
Evolution starts when the exactitude of the possibilities of communicating through expression fails either to present a new subject or to paint a previous subject in a more accurate, sharp, exact, subtle way (form).
That is why I have been seeking how to further language, pushing back the frontiers of my possibilities, as repetition, when not renewing, is superfluous and stagnating.
Evolution arises from the awareness that the acquired possibilities, the baggage, are no longer capable of ‘moving’ the painting, either in subject or in form.
Evolution is a thought process that is linked to attitude and that moves in line with the motion of reality. Reality is in constant motion and the painter who captures it cannot do so by relying on a definite, motionless baggage of accomplishments.
This thought process is directed and conducted by an intuition that captures the signals from this ever moving reality and the position of the human being who is stuck in it.
The structure of this thought process cannot be determined, because experiment and fortuity play a leading part in it, and not least because the acquired foundations of previous work are processed, brought out of balance, even destroyed by experiment.
Experiment is the engine of evolution. It can go through all the stages, from blind instinctive destruction of the existing oeuvre to a radically rational decision on how to build on it.
To search for the new is utopian; it is the continuous re-newal that determines temporary new foundations, and that processes, complements or destroys language.
The repetition is always new.
A 360° turn is extremely rare and possibly impossible. Especially because the image covers the subject and not vice versa and because, as the view of the content continually changes (points of view?), the content itself seldom does: I mean the human condition, which is in our genes and practically unalterable. Only the form we can give to it should be adapted to the view, to this constantly changing vision that moves with time, perpetually changing time.
Hence a continually shifting view upon a content, which I can only indicate (approach?) vaguely with any means other than the image.
For the painter there are numerous sources, but a source does not move; what does move is the course of what wells up in it and finds a way for itself.
The sea (subject) may function as an image in an endless number of ways, but it still remains the sea, with all that comes with it.
* * *
My road is the road between the source and the sea.
And what if that road is broken up and the sea is inaccessible? What if the source dries up and the road runs dead in a pond that may or may not be bottomless?
That is the possible, expected catastrophe for the painter from the moment he no longer realizes that his view of reality should remain in motion.
For, all in all, how trustworthy is that reality?
2 December 2004
The unquiet gaze
My unquietness has been harassing me since I was a child and it has taken my work to territories unknown to me. An often risky search: without losing the link – however minimal during certain turns, certain changes of attitude – with what has already been acquired, decided, recognized.
What direction to take? Of all the many ways that cross, of all the many possibilities – chance interferes! – there is only one that implies the pressing need to approach and possibly to capture the exactitude demanded by the canvas.
The gaze is the monitor.
It is through the gaze that I work. It is the emissary from the interior, the me in withdrawal, the messenger who gathers and brings me an incredible arsenal of images and
Choosing is an inner work, a laboratory job in which the idea mingles with the emotion and the subject (theme) looks for its form, a form in which to become right.
Although the gaze thinks, it is not a vision; the attitude of the moment influences the direction the gaze takes. In search of what and where? It is what vision runs on.
Vision is inner, and the gaze looks for a form, a theme, or even an anecdote to dress, or rather to disguise it so as to make it invisible, so that it can come out in the canvas.
The work of the unquiet gaze does not stop there; it further scrutinizes the rough outlines and the frolics on the canvas that has become a battle field, deciding whether to intervene or not, to bring something new, from wherever, as long as it helps to exceed the limits.
The gaze never rests. Even at the artificial or the natural moments of absence (of the me), it haunts me: it scrutinizes, gathers, takes stock of a multitude of perpetually changing images, forms that it incessantly pinpoints as soon as they appear. And it presents me with these marvels of the life that teems in the superb night of my closed eyelids.
Yes, my most beautiful canvases are often those whose images, one chasing the other, emerge from that night in a flash: brilliant geometrical, indeed monochrome, labyrinths, with here and there a trembling coloured spot that moves – a little lost vessel – when I press my fingers on my eyelids.
Many a time, when near to sleep or drunkenness, I can see them parading, these dreamt marvels, absolutely immaterial, magnificently immaterial, that I will never be able to paint, for all or almost all of them disappear the very moment they appear. They parade in large numbers, fleeting, mutating and fading into each other.
But the unquiet gaze, which works its way everywhere, and perhaps especially in this unconscious, remembers certain details, scraps of images that, without my knowing, will appear in my subsequent attempts at painting.
The unquiet gaze has a secret memory.
* * *
The word ‘talent’ is a word that classifies, a pigeonholing word. I do not believe in it at all, I mean, it does not inform me. It has been invented to designate an inexplicable attribute, rather than an attitude! This word has bad breath.
The amazing mechanism that allows the artist to go beyond the limits of the perceptible and arrive at the vision: I prefer to call this the ‘unquiet gaze’. Talent does not exist.
The unquiet gaze forms a basis for all my reflections, and their consequences, in my search for and of the canvas that comes to meet me.
I do not want to direct the gaze rationally or systematically. It will let itself be guided by my attitude quite instinctively, and it will hitch itself to the information that will help or direct me.
I cannot start a pre-determined work; to me the adventure is an absolute prerequisite, with everything this implies, a mixture of failure and success. There is nothing to direct in advance.
Choices are made on the spot and on the spur of the moment.
I must wait for the exact image to come along before I can intercept it, capture it, transform it into work.
I can paint nothing but the unknown, and it is on this unknown that the unquiet gaze alights in its perpetual search.
13 December 2004
Nobody will get out of here alive
Anyway, nobody will get out of here alive.
A painting is a disguised attempt at communication; one does not disguise innocent intentions. Anyway, we will not get out of here alive.
This is a positive and real idea indeed, for it motivates me to take up my brushes again after each fall.
Arm wrestling with death? Who knows …. Vanity of some proof of existence? Probably…. But where does it come from, this obsessive urge to express myself, at all costs, this need to communicate – in my case in painting – and thus intervene in the other’s existence? The other, what the hell is it to him?
I mean: do I have the right to draw his gaze on and his reflection in a work that (I must admit) needs a viewer to be available to exist at all?
What can my work contribute, offer to others, who, as long as they do not know it, have no need for it whatsoever and do not feel its necessity?
From my own experience I know what a work may provoke in somebody, positive as well as negative: reflection, admiration or disgust, doubt, comfort, well-being even. No work will ever change the world (it is the world’s image, mirror), but a work may change somebody’s life, or at least deeply affect it. There was my life before and there is my life after Van Gogh, my life before and my life after Picasso…
The shock I experienced when discovering certain paintings often radically changed my attitude, my entire life and not just my painter’s life for that matter.
In the best of cases the work can delight,
I mean, enlighten: fulfil, interpret and mirror the viewer. It can comfort by offering him a language in which to express the lack he carries in him.
I cannot deny the therapeutic value of an art in which we rediscover an image that has been lost or has fled too far away from us, and that we need in order to prove our existence to ourselves: art is proof than man exists.
Man needs to know he exists, just like he needs to know that his existence is temporary, and he searches obsessively for the sense of his inevitable death.
The canvas helps to discover a domain that reflects the lack, the gaps, the mysteries that man himself cannot express and that the artist sets out to express for him.
All suffering must be shown: we carry it in us.
If its image elicits disgust, horror or anxiety, this is not inevitably negative. If the canvas is real it will not harm anyone.
Any harm is always the consequence of the lying stupidity, of the mediocrity of the lying canvas. The viewer pauses in front of a work that pretends to be one, rests his eye on it, makes himself totally available and may be unaware of the harm that it is doing to him.
The lie is murder.
Like the painter, the viewer needs to have an informed spirit, an unquiet gaze, in his own particular way.
While a mediocre work can harm and even devastate man, sensibility, intelligence and subtle intuition may warn him that the lie often disguises itself in a canvas, that, though made of beautiful gestures, nevertheless feeds on mediocrity. It lies, it lies to him. It flatters him, puts him at ease, charms him. Sometimes it makes him doubt and he will need the courage to admit that the charm was deceitful. Only his lucidity, his ‘state of alert’, can help to untangle it.
Man is more fragile than the work, whether mediocre or not. Hence the heavy responsibility of the artist. Pierced by doubt, always on the look-out for the real, often unaware of what is going on between himself and the work – which remains unknown until he recognizes it – he must eventually decide to conclude, accept and therefore define the work that he will transmit.
Will it keep its promises? Has it been lying? For it is not always the artist who is lying; the work may play mean tricks on the doubt-filled artist.
What is remarkable is that just as in the damned condition, it is not the subject, the theme that creates the mediocrity, but the making, the way of painting, that makes or breaks the work’s energy.
Marvel or disaster.
14 December 2004
Painting – or the painting – is always different from what can be thought about it. Thought alone cannot enter the painting. The thought of or about a painting is insufficient, because in the painting thought lives in a symbiosis with emotion. Perhaps one might speak of an emotional idea, an idea-carrying emotion.
A painting is always about more, infinitely more. After all, the painting is the beginning of what the viewer adds to it, finds in it, makes of it. Just as for the painter, it is a gate the viewer has to open before entering the unlimited domain of the canvas. Sometimes that gate is the theme, the packaging.
Picasso’s Guernica contains infinitely more than what the theme, the subject narrates: the bombing and massacre of the little town of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe in support of the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Naturally, the work has grown into a brilliant indictment against all wars and against all suffering and destruction caused by aggression, but as I go into the details, I find a wealth of reflections on the ‘bringer of light’, the ‘broken sword’, the ‘weeping woman’, the ‘bull’, etc, all of which de-limit the theme of war to an image that expresses the whole human condition in its misère, its revolt, its vulnerability, its self-destructive drive, its anxiety and helplessness in the face of an overpowering destructive force.
There are so many aspects that incite the viewer to reflect. As the viewer finds himself helpless, foolish and fragile before everything that may delight or destroy him sooner or later.
15 December 2004
On the fear of never being able to paint again.
What if one day painting deserts me?
What to do after the canvas no longer wants to have anything to do with me? For it is the painting that leaves the painter (stops visiting him) and not the other way around.
Human and animal behaviour are analogous: in order to procreate, to create, the females link up with the males they judge to be very strong, fertile, capable of conquering and defending a territory (Lebensraum). Thus the human animal has developed intelligence, lucidity, and, perhaps above all, material strategies for creating a social order, a system in which, if he is strong enough, he can occupy a secure and privileged place.
To me, the painting is the female, the painter the male.
The painter will always have a great problem: how to make the spirit materialize; how, through the matter and the tools of painting, to translate it into light and tension. That is the tragedy the painter has chosen for himself: a struggle to resuscitate lifeless, indifferent matter in the form of energy and marvel.
The painting no longer visits the painter who has become unable to receive it, to give it a form, to renew it continually.
If no longer a painter, what will become of him? How will he react? Provided he has enough lucidity to understand. For he is limited by the limits of his situation, starting with death, which he carries in himself. The painting, however, has eternity before it and an unlimited choice of painters, as new ones are being born all the time.
The painter has no choice: he does not choose the painting, rather it chooses him and furthermore foists itself on him (determines him) as the unique condition of his life, the unique meaning he can give to the time of his existence.
As soon as the painter gets weak or too damaged, the painting has no use of him anymore and deserts him. The painter, however, can only be faithful to the canvas, faithful and waiting.
No use going and looking anywhere else. The painting, however, is unprincipled and anything but sentimental. It will go and look elsewhere.
An oeuvre is always a life. It costs a human life.
It had better succeed.
But what to do if painting deserts me before I die? Merely to acknowledge the possibility is painful already: I will need the courage to admit that the relationship is over, that the repetition is no longer new, that the source is dead, has dried up, while I am still alive and well.
Will I have reached the sea? Will I have completed the full course? Will I have painted everything that has been necessary to paint, no more, no less?
Can I muster enough courage and lucidity to acknowledge that it is all ‘over’ and to tackle the question of what there is left for me to do?
For, by becoming absent, the canvas has liberated time that I controlled in the canvas, that I held on a leash while painting. And I have no other means left to arrest it and lock it up.
That is the moment the monster of stupidity has been waiting for to prompt, with no restraint at all, its horrors, its lies, its smart tricks, in the painter’s ear, as he is driven to panic by the lack of painting capacity to materialize his own lack. There is a panic to painting, to having to paint, but there is worse: the panic of no longer being able to paint and above all, of being aware of this.
The awareness that the capacity to paint has disappeared and the canvas with it, is necessary to prevent stupidity from winning the day.
Stupidity is a store of lies where the deserted painter may go shopping for free but inevitably suicidally.
I am convinced that a painter can reach the end of his painting life. One day he notices that he has been painting his last canvas, that he is not going any further. He has painted what he had to paint, he has given his all.
From that moment on he has to force himself – he had better – to put down his brushes. He should have the courage – the guts -, the simplicity, the purity to put an end to it, and admit: I have painted what painting has demanded from me, I have painted all it has prompted in my head and my heart. I have said everything through it. Anything I might add is no longer painting. On the contrary, it is only matter that furnishes my solitude and aggravates my incapacity. Anything I add is false and degrading, a mere fabrication that pollutes existence, and not just mine alone.
When the painter knows that it is all over, the disaster of continuing to wield his brush and mess around in a material that will not give off any light, any energy, any tension, is much worse than the precise and pure act, however painful and difficult to accept, of ceasing all attempts on the canvas. Above all, one must not try at all costs to catch painting by the tail.
Why wish to continue to fuck when one no longer has a hard-on? It is better to leave the fucking to others and take up some specialist voyeurism.
However, this is poor comfort to the painter who can no longer make the canvas glow and come!
It must be granted that then it is better to stop painting altogether.
Some painters have the luck to be able to continue and improve their work until death puts an end to it all, sometimes in the middle of a canvas.
In others, the impotence (to paint) arrives unnoticed, unexpectedly, either in a lightning flash or in a slowly weakening from canvas to canvas down to total demise, while they themselves are alive and well and their death is still a long way off.
To stop the work, to stop working when there is nothing to add, is a creative act in itself that can be compared to the decision to cut a canvas short when it has reached its climax. One has to stop the work at its zenith because there is no full stop in its mobility.
I admire artists who accept this willingly and clear-sightedly, for I am afraid that it is far easier to continue living the lie. And lying to oneself is worse than lying to others. The painter who lies to himself often drags others into the abyss of a work whose soul has disappeared. There is the villain. There is the dirt that spoils.
There are those, of course, who are unaware of their decline, their burn-out, but even the most conceited, the least perceptive among them must admit sooner or later that they have had their time and that now time has again taken hold of them.
There is pain in painting: the anguish, the doubt, the panic, the pangs, the obsessive fear of being unable to meet the demands of the canvas.
And then, after having painted the canvas, the fear of looking at it: will it hold up or not?
Painting is such a complex and disintegrating activity because, going against the grain of the structures and rules of the everyday, it is bound to be painful.
The painter gets clobbered at each attempt.
But nothing gives him such relaxation, such pleasure, such happiness, however fleeting, as a canvas that holds, a canvas that has come off.
It often fails, but everything the painter has invested in this failure will help him in his next attempt: a new hope to succeed where he has failed before.
Thus I paint from failure to failure, from hope to hope.
There are times when the canvas remains absent. I know only too well these long stretches of time when indefiniteness overcomes me, when indifference paralyses me, when the inability to work or even to think of working, unhinges me, tears me to pieces, again.
This confrontation with nothingness, this impossibility of mastering the void, of finding at least a way to communicate it, grows from mere discomfort to pain. All moorings vanish.
So far, at each extreme moment, at each suicidal moment of the painter in me, the canvas has come to find me. Saved at the very edge of no longer being able to bear its absence.
I cannot get rid of the fear that one day it will abandon me for good. How will I know? The lie disguises itself readily in hope, and hope can be tough; and how shall I then fill my void?
Perhaps I am mistaken, and there is an adequate attitude for stopping painting exactly at the moment when all I will have to paint, to say, will have been accomplished. At that moment, putting down my brushes, finally keeping my distance from my work and perhaps even from painting, would be both a relief for me and a departure towards freedom for my work. So the main point – when being abandoned – is to stop in time and avoid being trapped by a kind of painting that occupies me without my being preoccupied. However, the idea of an abandonment bringing relief to the painter seems unreal to me.
For the painter pursues his happiness in painting.
In spite of the desperate moments of crises, the kind of self-mutilation that comes with the doubt and uncertainty inherent to the act of painting, there is actually a pleasure in waiting, in engaging in a struggle with an uncertain outcome.
Even the worst, the cruellest, the coarsest canvases, the sublime horrors, have been painted with a pleasure that, though hardly recognized by the viewer, is nevertheless a pleasure that thrives on the hope of accomplishing them.
Grünewald took pleasure in painting the most tortured Christ in the history of art. Géricault in his raft peopled with corpses and his portraits of madmen. Goya in his nightmares and his horrors of war…. There is a pleasure in painting every canvas that has been and will ever be painted. A pleasure that has its price, like all pleasures.
The painter hopes that painting will stay with him till he dies. In case of a divorce, he is left with the realistic, creative and right solution of stopping before the disastrous decline sets in.
If the painter is still alive and lucid, when he can see his painting disappear, he will miss the very pleasure of overcoming the difficulty of painting, his reason for existence, a shot in the arm against nothingness.
At that moment, only a radical attitude will save the man who has painted. He will need to make draconic, but still flexible, decisions, in order to continue to live, if he wishes and is able to, with the same struggle against the lie, the same unquiet gaze, but without the immaculate canvas to welcome him.
After all, one tries to paint in order to tame nothingness.
How can one manage to do so without painting? That will be the question once the brushes are down.
I will need to work on the attitude of the non-painter.
Sint Camillus, Ghent – Paris
November, 2004 – February, 2005
“The Song of the Finch.” In Philippe Vandenberg “L’important c’est le kamikaze”: Œuvre 2000-2006, edited by Alain Tourneux, 109-133. Charleville-Mézières: Musée Arthur Rimbaud; Ghent: On-Line, 2006.
Originally published as:
“Le chant du pinçon.” In Philippe Vandenberg “L’important c’est le kamikaze”: Œuvre 2000-2006, edited by Alain Tourneux, 29-49. Charleville-Mézières: Musée Arthur Rimbaud; Ghent: On-Line, 2006.