Self-Portrait

 [Available in PDF format here.]

For the past few months, a large canvas has been sitting on my easel unfinished. It portrays an elegant woman wearing an olive green dress that comes to just above her knees. When last I worked on her, I spent days trying to capture the fabric of that dress. It’s still not right, but I have had more important things to do.

Friends who come by to chat occasionally want to know why I have stopped working on that painting. They tell me that it’s good. And even with allowances made for them being kind, I think they are being sincere. They like the painting. Something about it catches their eye. I also think I know what that is, namely the way I have painted the woman’s knees. They look like really real knees. Getting them right took me a while because the woman is walking toward the viewer. Her legs are in motion, and I had to render her knees so as to reflect that fact in paint. That meant blurring edges without obscuring lines and definition. I was rather pleased with myself when I brought off that feat.

But looking at my painting with a cold eye, I know that the woman’s knees are simply a technical achievement. My friends like the knees, I suppose, because they are pleasantly surprised by the fact that I had such achievements in me. They probably think that if I can do things like that, God knows what I might be able to do if I put my mind to it. But I myself don’t see a good painting or a particularly promising one. I just see competently painted knees.

If I got the texture of that dress right, which means successfully capturing the light signature of the fabric, that, too, would be a technical achievement. And so on for the rest of it. The woman’s tousled hair is a challenge, again because she is in motion with her head slightly thrown back. Capturing the expression on her face is a challenge, too. She is at ease in her skin and that shows on her face. But supposing that I brought all that off, met all those challenges, I still would only have a competent realistic painting, not a good one. Its attractiveness, if any, would reflect that of the original woman, such that if one knew the woman, one wouldn’t need the painting.

That painting remains unfinished in part because I have been wrestling with that issue, asking myself wherein lies the difference between a beautiful painting and and a realistic painting of a beautiful object, person, body, landscape, etc.? I worry that in choosing to paint a beautiful woman, I have made it too easy for myself, believing without fully acknowledging in my mind that my painting might get by on the strength of her reflected glory. It has made me question what I am doing. Does the world really need more paintings of beautiful women to be reminded of the beauty of women? One may reasonably wonder whether whatever needs the world may be supposed to have in those regards are best served by copying beauty that already exists and that no one has any trouble recognizing when they see it in the flesh. Perhaps those needs might be better served by making new beautiful objects and by showing how things that ordinarily look plain may be seen as beautiful.

I am not quite as obtuse as I sound. I know perfectly well that I could finish painting the figure of the woman so that, from a technical point of view, she looked competently rendered. And I could then play with the background (the rest of the canvas) so as to bring out her colors, the glow of her skin, or the softness of her bare upper arms. I could make her look more beautiful than she is in fact. I could strive to achieve a tense harmony across the painting as a whole and hope to create in that achievement not just a painting of a beautiful woman, but a beautiful painting. In fact, something like that was what I originally had in mind.

But then it struck me one day that doing all that accomplished nothing worth accomplishing. Supposing generously that I brought off the envisaged feat, all I would end up with would be a painting that its viewers would see as depicting an exceptionally attractive woman. It would convey that I notice and love beautiful women, but who doesn’t? Were there people who don’t know that beautiful women are beautiful, that sort of thing might be worth conveying. But there aren’t any.

I am trying to say something here about art that strikes me as important to know, but I seem to be falling down in my efforts to articulate my thought. Cézanne understood it. How do you prevent a realistic painting of a landscape from being every bit as uninteresting as the landscape itself? Cézanne’s answer was that you paint it interestingly, which differs from distorting it. In his case that meant that you capture, emphasize, or reveal its visual structure.

Suppose you are a painter of landscapes. You look at an ordinary landscape and see its possibilities. People walk or drive by it every day and are not moved by the sight. Perhaps they have seen it too often or all their lives. Or perhaps they have other things on their minds, such as their jobs, their crops, or their children. If you paint that landscape competently and realistically, there is a very good chance that no one looking at your painting will see any more in it than they do in the landscape itself. If you are an unknown painter to boot, the viewers of your painting may not even accord it the courtesy of suspecting that your singling out this landscape by replicating it on a canvas means that there must be something in it worth a second look, possibly even a third. Of course those looks will come its way by the time you are Cézanne, the great painter. But you never get to be Cézanne unless you solve that problem.

According to his own account of what he thought he was doing, Cézanne was a representational painter. But had he painted the landscape of Provence as it actually looks, his paintings would now be forgotten. That fact usually strikes people who, driving down a stretch of highway near Aix-en-Provence, come across a road sign that reads “Les paysages de Cézanne” (the landscapes of Cézanne). They slow down, perhaps pull over to the side of the road, get out of the car, and look around, only to see nothing that looks anything like what they recall Cézanne to have painted. In the bright southern sunlight, the landscape does not look dreary, but it does not look especially interesting either. In order to see it as interesting or beautiful, you have to look at it with a painter’s eye, and not just any painter’s. It has to be Cézanne’s eye, animated, so to speak, by your acquaintance with (what he called) his “means of expression”. You have to read the beauty of Cézanne’s paintings back into the landscape that served as his model.

I do not want to upset people by suggesting that the landscape of Provence is not beautiful. But like the sunlight, its beauty, such as it is, is everywhere, and therefore nowhere, virtually invisible, in other words. So how do you capture it? How do you make it visible on a canvas?

Painting obviously and conspicuously beautiful, or visually intriguing, objects is the typical painter’s way of saving himself the trouble of solving that problem. But the expedient comes at a price. The painter is preaching to the choir. He reveals nothing to anyone that they don’t already know. His viewers like what they see, but they are not quite sure why it had to be painted. They see beautiful women every day, for example. They don’t need paintings to remind them of the beauty of women. Nor, for that matter, do they need paintings of naked women (or men) to apprise them of the erotic fascination that nakedness can exert. Why is some benighted painter thinking that they do?

When they hang in galleries and museums, that puzzlement translates into a reaction to such paintings that comes close to visual boredom. The viewer says to himself, “Yes, well done, well executed, but what’s the big deal here? Why did I need to see this? Why would I hang it on my wall?”

Meanwhile, a thoughtful painter may well ask himself what exactly he is doing preaching to the choir? The people he should be addressing are not in the choir. They are not even in the church.

A way of getting a handle on Cézanne’s achievement as a thinker about painting is to imagine him asking himself that question. How do I overcome the visual indifference and obtuseness of viewers in the face of what is not obviously and conspicuously beautiful, but beautiful all the same? How do I make people see it? How do I kindle their interest when depicting the plain visual truth does not suffice?

Seen from that point of view, Cézanne’s quarrel with the Impressionists was that their way of answering that question was to lie. They painted things not there to be seen. It made for visually engaging paintings at the expense of what they were paintings of. They encouraged no one to see the world differently by becoming alive to its usually hidden beauty.

In actual historical reality, beauty was not Cézanne’s primary conceptual quarry. He was mainly interested in the three dimensionality and substantiality of the visual world. Imagine yourself trying to paint that in such a way that your viewers are struck by it as immensely interesting, as he was. If you just paint what you see, using the standard language of representation, your viewers will see no more in your paintings than they do in the world. In order to get the better of that obstacle to visual communication, Cézanne used color harmonies as a representational metaphor for three-dimensionality. Although that was not his intention, he produced beautiful paintings in the process – beautiful by virtue of the color harmonies they exhibited. People love his paintings not because they induce acute awareness of the world’s three-dimensionality, although they may. They love them because they are beautiful compositions.

But the point remains essentially the same. Something in which no one is interested because they don’t see it or don’t care about it, like the striking beauty of a landscape that only reveals itself when you really look at it, is brought to life through the expedient of stimulating the viewer’s visual receptivity by exposing him or her to something palpably captivating. That something is not the attractive landscape. It is the beautiful painting of it. And once that enhanced receptivity sets in, the viewer takes in the landscape with the same warmly perceptive, hospitable eye.

Some Cézanne landscape paintings take one’s breath away. You look at them fascinated by what you see. He now has your attention. So, therefore, does the landscape he depicts. He has given you the theme that reverberates through it. And in your alertness to that theme, you see it reverberating, as you never would have had he not given you the theme.

Had Cézanne been a musician, he could have made even the cacophony of birdsong sound harmonious.

II

Representational painters who write about their enterprise rightly insist that a competent rendering of a landscape, say, differs from a painting of the thing as it actually looks. Painting involves an enormous amount of simplifying. It is impossible faithfully to replicate the myriad of colors, intensities, values, etc. that virtually every non-exotic landscape exhibits in clear light. Painting is not photography. The quality of a realistic painting depends in part on the quality of the discretion exercised in that simplifying. Ideally, it will single out what is essential to viewer recognition and leave out what isn’t.

In that context, what counts as essential is partially determined by the language of representation. The visual comprehensibility of a painting greatly depends on familiarity with that language. So, therefore, does competent realistic painting.

But confronted with the question what room that leaves for creativity, the same writers – Richard Schmid, for instance – typically suggest that every painter speaks the language of representation with what one might call a unique personal accent. While some of those accents may be more interesting than others, each is nonetheless unique. Another way of saying that is that every painter sees differently. In looking at a landscape, for example, and seeing it with a view to effective representation, every painter reads his or her own accent into that seeing. Interesting creativity, and by extension, aesthetic merit, therefore come down to the quality of self-expression. The painter paints the landscape not as it actually looks, but as it looks to him or her in their unique individuality. If that individuality is interesting, then so is the painting.

When one thinks of painting as visual communication and wonders what is worth communicating, that view translates into the answer that it is not primarily the visual truth, but the painters personal take on that truth. Which would be fine, were there a connection of some sort between the actual truth and the painter’s take on it. Otherwise, there exists the huge risk that no one except the painter himself or herself cares one whit about his or her personal take on things. If you have a thing about the color orange and see it everywhere, that’s fine. You are entitled to your preferences. But don’t expect me to take you seriously unless you make clear to me, visually or otherwise, that I should share your predilections because they have something to do with the visual truth. Absent that, your purely private truths are not likely to interest me much. Conveying them is akin to your letting me know how much you enjoy shrimp served en belle vue Parisienne.

The modernist elevation of self-expression and self-disclosure into sources of aesthetic value stands in stark contrast to Cézanne’s conception of what he thought he was doing. He did not think that he was expressing himself by painting the world as it looked to him, or believe what he did to be worth doing just because, well, people badly needed to know how the world looked to him in his individuality. He would have considered that attitude a form of self-indulgence he generally viewed with contempt. Cézanne thought that he painted the world as it actually looks, albeit with an added emphasis on its essential features, where the sole purpose of that emphasis was to render visible what excessive familiarity obscured.

At the same time, however, and unfortunately, that emphasis looks like self-expression, or at least comes across as such to anyone who does not understand the problem Cézanne was trying to solve. How do you prevent a painting of a landscape, or of anything else, from being every bit as uninteresting as the thing itself presents itself as being to indifferent eyes? How do you effectively communicate what is eminently worth knowing in a world that is perfectly happy ignoring it?

III

I think of writing of the kind that I do as a representational art. My efforts are verbal renderings of mental landscapes. Words or concepts are materials akin to pigments in tubes of oil paint. Either directly or in the mixtures I produce, their meaning, feeling tone, or resonance do not necessarily fit exactly what I am trying to depict.

I have to make choices, learn to see the landscape with a view to effective representation, simplify its look, pick out what is essential, and then make more choices, such as how to make what strikes me as essential seem that way to the reader and engage his attention. In that effort, over-rendering is a risk to which I often succumb.

I suffer from the philosopher’s instinctive conviction that compelling representations of the truth are that by virtue of being exhaustive. Call it an unfortunate side-effect of training. Like everyone else who goes through it, I emerged from that training believing that if I wanted to convince someone of the truth of some important proposition, all I had to do was marshal arguments that crossed every logical t and dotted every i, and left nothing open to challenge or misinterpretation. Any rational person would see the light. I did not realize that all that meant was that anyone interested in playing the game by the same rules I did would see the light, the unconscious assumption being that no one not thus interested was worth talking to. The practical upshot came close to being that no one except other philosophers were worth talking to. No one except the choir were worth preaching to.

Unfortunately, writing about the things I do, I constantly confront the possibility that most people – the overwhelming majority – may not be interested in hearing about them. For a large number of reasons, they may be as indifferent to the landscapes I depict as the typical bourgeois in Cézanne’s Aix-en-Provence was to the landscapes he chose to paint. In trying to overcome that indifference, my over-educated instinct is to ram the point home with ever more exhaustive renderings – better arguments, more evidence, clearer descriptions, forgetting that someone who is not interested in the first place is unlikely to be swayed by any of that. How do you prevent a depiction of a mental landscape from being every bit as uninteresting as that landscape itself is to eyes accustomed to seeing it only in its customary light? And that is to say nothing of the stake people have in not having their comfort disturbed.

In short, as a philosophical writer, I confront a problem that Cézanne solved in painting, but that I cannot pretend to have solved in writing. Presenting overly rendered mental landscapes doesn’t do it. Tricks like trying to write in an engaging or folksy style don’t quite do it either. Nothing sounds sillier to my ears, nor, I suspect, to anyone else’s, than a philosopher affecting folksiness. By the time philosophy gets done with you, you have no folksy bone left in your body.

How do you get people to love philosophy when it leaves them cold? It has occurred to me that if they knew it for what it is, they would love it as they love music. For music is what philosophy is, a striving for unity in multiplicity and for harmony in the midst of disarray. Philosophy is all heart, all feeling, and it is that long before it is anything else, like logic, argument, counter-example, and so on. It is the ultimate poetry.

If they knew it for what it is? That’s just the problem, isn’t it, how to bring that truth home! Arguing for it does not do it. Palpably felicitous composition might. Had he been a philosopher, that’s what Cézanne would have recommended.

So, I am guessing, would Plato. After all, how did he he manage to get anyone’s attention before he had become Plato, before there was a choir to preach to? By being a good poet! And then by saying “I am not a poet at all. This is much more important, much clearer than any poetry, which only deceives and misleads with its constant appeals to imagination and emotion.” Talk about an appeal to emotion! It was music to many people’s ears.

IV

If I had a chicken coop in need of a partition, that large canvas on my easel would probably come in handy.

© Serge Kappler 2014

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