Some seventeen years ago I was still painting the torso as an image of the human presence, when I stumbled into what I call a blind year – a year in which I had no luck, in which no image emerged. At the end of that year I destroyed forty-three bad paintings. As you can imagine, I was by then in a bad way myself, when my wife Anne Madden – herself a painter – brought me to Paris as to a place of discovery. And there indeed I did discover at the Musée de l’Homme, the Polynesian image of the human head, which like the Celtic image which I discovered the following year, represented for me – as perhaps for these two widely different cultures – the mysterious box which contains the spirit: the outer reality of the invisible interior world of consciousness.
In Dublin, now some sixty years ago, the great physicist, Erwin Schroedinger, astonished me with the thought:
Consciousness is a singular of which the plural is unknown and what appears to be the plurality is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing.
Much later in Provence, faced with the Celto-Ligurian head cult of Entremont and Roquepertuse, I asked myself if it were not perhaps this “singular” which so preoccupied our barbarian ancestors in their oracular use of the severed head.
Such a concept of an autonomous, disseminated consciousness surpassing individual personality would, I imagine, tend to produce an ambiguity involving a dislocation of our individual conception of time (within which coming and going, beginning and end, are normally regarded) and confronting this “normal” view with an alternative, contrary sense of simultaneity or timelessness; switching the linear conception of time to which we are accustomed to a circular concept returning upon itself, as in Finnegans Wake.
Likewise, if indeed the aesthetic image in a painting by Rembrandt is illuminated by Joyce’s radiance or whatness, and if that revelation of whatness is achieved by an ambivalence in the role of the paint (involving a transmogrification of the paint itself into the image and vice versa), then these circumstances also may be said to produce that timeless or paratemporal quality, which we instinctively recognize in such a painting.
It would therefore seem that the realization of the aesthetic image or whatness of things, outside and to one side of the linear progress of time, is an essential characteristic of the art of painting and, I imagine, of art generally.
In the modern world, however, we appear to resist such significant integrating imagery, which was more evident perhaps in past cultures, wherein people seem to have regarded the passage of time rather more ambivalently, as being at once related to their personal predicament and to a larger cosmology.
It would appear that this ambivalent attitude to time was especially linked to the prehistoric Celtic or Gallic world, and there is further evidence that it persists to some extent in the Celtic mind today. It is consistent, I think, with Yeat’s tragic view of life – an essentially cosmologic and aristocratic attitude in opposition to the narrow expediency of the “greasy till”:
We Irish, born into the ancient sect
But thrown upon this filthy modern tide
And by its formless spawning fury wrecked
Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace
The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.
In my own small world of painting I myself have learned from the canvas that emergence and disappearance – twin phenomena of time – are ambivalent, that one implies the other and that the state or matrix within which they co-exist dissolves the normal sense of time, producing a characteristic stillness, characteristic of the art of painting.
After a number of years I recall Beckett’s Watt, regarding from a gate the distant figure of a man or a woman (or could it be a priest or a nun?) which appeared to be advancing by slow degrees from the horizon, only surprisingly “without any interruption of its motions” to disappear over it instead. Here going is confounded – if not identified – with coming, backwards with forwards. The film returns the diver to the divingboard. The procession of present moments is reversed, stilled.
Elsewhere in Finnegans Wake does not the fallen Finegan become “Finn Macool lying beside the Liffey, his head at Howth, his feet at Phoenix Park, his wife beside him, watching the microcosmic ‘fluid succession of presents’ go by like a river of life”?
And is not Yeats’s circular lunar system of re-incarnation – the winding stair of Thoor Ballylee, climbed and descended repeatedly – itself a cosmic arrangement of this fluid succession of presents, of time-consciousness in this profoundly Celtic sense? Is this indeed the underlying ambivalence which we in Ireland tend to stress; the continual presence of the historic past, the indivisibility of birth and funeral, spanning the apparent chasm between past and present, between consciousness and fact?
image: Image of Samuel Beckett, Stirrings Still, 1994, oil on canvas, 116 x 89 cm
In art, progress does not consist in extension, but in the knowledge of limits.
Limitation of means determines style, engenders new form, and gives impulse to creation.
Limited means often constitute the charm and force of primitive painting. Extension, on the contray, leads the arts to decadence.
New means, new subjects.
The subject is not the object, it is a new unity, a lyricism which grows completely from the means.
The painter thinks in terms of form and color.
The goal is not to be concerned with reconstituting an anecdotal fact, but with constituting a pictorial fact.
Painting is a method of representation.
One must not imitate what one wants to create.
One does not imitate appearances; the appearance is the result.
To be pure imitation, painting must forget appearance.
To work from nature is to improvise.
One must beware of an all-purpose formula that will serve to interpret the other arts as well as reality, and that instead of creating will only produce a style, or rather a stylization…
The senses deform, the mind forms. Work to perfect the mind.
There is no certitude but in what the mind conceives.
The painter who wished to make a circle would only draw a curve. Its appearance might satisfy him, but he would doubt it. The compass would give him certitude. The pasted [papiers collés] in my drawings also gave me a certitude.
Trompe l’oeil, is due to an anecdotal chance which succeeds because of the simplicity of the facts.
The pasted papers, the faux bois— and other elements of a similar kind— which I used in some of my drawings, also succeed through the simplicity of the facts; this has caused them to be confused with trompe l’oeil, of which they are the exact opposite. They are also simple facts, but are created by the mind, and are one of the justifications for a new form in space.
Nobility grows out of contained emotion.
Emotion should not be rendered by an excited trembling; it can neither be added on nor be imitated. It is the seed, the work is the blossom.
I like the rule that corrects the emotion.
from “Pensées et réflexions sur la peinture,” Nord-Sud 10 (December 1917).
Reprinted in Artists on Art, Pantheon, NY, 1958, pp. 422-423
My purpose is to achieve the totally abstract. I want to communicate only to the extent that the painting will serve to induce or intensify the viewer’s natural desire for contemplation without the benefit of a guiding principle.
Due to the fact that I have painted monochromes for fifteen years,
Due to the fact that I have created pictorial immaterial states,
Due to the fact that I have manipulated the forces of the void,
Due to the fact that I have sculpted with fire and with water and have painted with fire and with water,
Due to the fact that I have painted with living brushes — in other words, the nude body of live models covered with paint: these living brushes were under the constant direction of my commands, such as “a little to the right; over to the left now; to the right again, etc.” By maintaining myself at a specific and obligatory distance from the surface to be painted, I am able to resolve the problem of detachment.
Due to the fact that I have invented the architecture and the urbanism of air — of course, this new conception transcends the traditional meaning of the terms “architecture and urbanism” — my goal from the beginning was to reunite with the legend of Paradise Lost. This project was directed toward the habitable surface of the Earth by the climatization of the great geographical expanses through an absolute control over the thermal and atmospheric situation in their relation to our morphological and psychical conditions.
Due to the fact that I have proposed a new conception of music with my “monotone-silence-symphony,”
Due to the fact that I have presented a theater of the void, among countless other adventures…
I would never have believed, fifteen years ago at the time of my earliest efforts, that I would suddenly feel the need to explain myself — to satisfy the desire to know the reason of all that has occurred and the even still more dangerous effect, in other words — the influence my art has had on the young generation of artists throughout the world today.
It dismays me to hear that a certain number of them think that I represent a danger to the future of art — that I am one of those disastrous and noxious results of our time that must be crushed and destroyed before the propagation of my evil completely takes over.
I regret to reveal that this was not my intention; and to happily proclaim to those who evince faith in the multiplicity of new possibilities in the path that I prescribe — Take care! Nothing has crystallized as yet; nor can I say what will happen after this. I can only say that today I am no longer as afraid as I was yesterday in the face of the souvenir of the future.
An artist always feels uneasy when called upon to speak of this own work. It should speak for itself, particularly when it is valid.
What can I do? Stop now?
No, what I call “the indefinable pictorial sensibility” absolutely escapes this very personal solution.
Well that is what I do – I draw. Drawing is a process of making equivalents – of engaging in the world physically and emotionally – of casting your mind out and grasping what you see. To me it’s as natural as walking or talking – I have been doing it since I was 11 – every day – I cannot explain any one drawing as it depends on the one before. I suppose this is the way I see the world – it’s the closest I can get to reality. (read)