Unreliable systems of knowledge – including self knowledge.
Artist as protagonist in postmodern, digitally networked, ecologically pressured society.
Is my reading Lewis Carrol or Kafka?
Contemporary, “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch… develop notions of dreams and nightmares.
If knowledge is understanding, and understanding can be judged by how well we can predict or control an outcome, I start from the point of view that all knowledge is unreliable… but some knowledge is more unreliable than others.
Scientific knowledge is fairly reliable because we can cure sickness, fly drones on Mars and control our weight with calorie counting apps.
Experts have more knowledge (understanding) than non experts. Manchester City is more likely to be successful if it is managed by Pep Guardiola than by a fan with no professional football experience, and businesses and individuals pay for knowledge by consulting experts on everything from how to sell more product to how to get more clicks on Instagram. Again, some experts are more reliable (have more knowledge and are therefore more effective) than others.
Personal self knowledge is generally highly unreliable and I would argue that very few of us truly know ourselves, though again some will know themselves better than others.
Historical and critical knowledge, although having the patina of scientific fact, is being constantly being re-written and is heavily influenced by politics, so I would would say that it is at best only ever partial. For example Clement Greenberg was the god of art criticism in the mid to late 20th century and his ideas dominated art schools, but now he is just an interesting historical footnote. Similarly, black history and ‘knowledge’ is only now coming into mainstream culture with the emergence of successful films like “Judas and the Black Messiah”… though interestingly in the film’s development what sold it to the financiers was not the black history element but a combination of “Black Panther” (which proved that films with a black lead can make money)… the well known Christian reference of Judas and Messiah (betrayal sells) and the threat of undercover operative (a proven box office hit). When the production team pitched it as a black history project nobody was interested. Yet, even though ‘commercial’ the film has meaning, it asks questions, and manages to be both commercially and artistically successful.
I am going to research the “Garden of Earthly Delights” but am doing so through the frame of knowing that we cannot know what motivated Bosch and see its historical meaning through the prism of contemporary historical understanding.
What is art?
Activist art, where part of the definition of art then becomes that it promotes a particular cause, seems very prevalent at the moment. The cause could be anything from Cubism or Minimalism to a political agenda. A good example of contemporary activist art might be ecological art.
However, I think that art is much more than this. I think art can be about producing beautiful objects that people connect with in a special way, such as Matisse’s paintings… Hockney’s… and many pure abstractionist works.
Digitally networked and ecologically pressured society.
I agree we are a digitally networked society, but we also have ‘human’ connections and much of the world doesn’t have access to digital communication at all.
Also, the pandemic has shown us the limits of our digital connection. People are craving unmediated ‘experiences’ and ‘real’ contact with people and their environment. Also, although most people in the rich developed world connect digitally many people in poor countries have very limited digital connectivity, so this is not necessarily the most common way human beings connect with each other.
I agree with the scientists who warn us about climate change and the ecological threats facing humanity. But not all people, and far from all world leaders agree with this, for example Trump and his followers.
You could react to the environmental threat by painting activist art, or opt for landscape painting promoting a deeper connection with nature… perhaps you could ignore the problem and connect with people on a spiritual level… or you might think it’s your duty as an artist to entertain rather than be politically active.
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Wikipedia: Painted… between 1490 and 1510, when Bosch was between 40 and 60 years old.
As so little is known of Bosch’s life or intentions, interpretations of his intent have ranged from an admonition of worldly fleshy indulgence, to a dire warning on the perils of life’s temptations, to an evocation of ultimate sexual joy. The intricacy of its symbolism, particularly that of the central panel, has led to a wide range of scholarly interpretations over the centuries. Twentieth-century art historians are divided as to whether the triptych’s central panel is a moral warning or a panorama of paradise lost.
Triptychs from this period were generally intended to be read sequentially, the left and right panels often portraying Eden and the Last Judgment respectively, while the main subject was contained in the center piece. It is not known whether The Garden was intended as an alterpiece, but the general view is that the extreme subject matter of the inner center and right panels make it unlikely that it was intended to function in a church or monastery, but was instead commissioned by a laypatron.
So, we can’t know Bosch’s intent, don’t know the patron, and scholars have different interpretations of the complex symbolism… most of which would, in any case, be lost to a non-specialist modern viewer.
However, it was a Christian age and I am going to take the general understanding of it being read left to right with the left being the Garden of Eden, the centre the main story and the right the Last Judgment.
What is clear is that the painting is a narrative, with an overarching story and lots of characters and events going on.
Left panel (Garden of Eden):
In this panel there are only two people, Adam and Eve, one god… and lots of animals. There’s a bottom painting with its own vanishing point above the central trees which blends into a top painting. In the middle of the painting there is (closed) structure in pink, the same colour as the god in the bottom picture. And in the far distance there are blue structures which look to my eyes like something out of a science fiction film.
It seems surreal to me, the animals aren’t in pairs and generally don’t have babies. The only the male and female are the humans. It has a feeling of newness and disconnectedness – the only connection is god touching Eve’s hand, what’s he saying?
Centre panel (main story):
Here there is just one painting rather than two stitched together. The weird structures look like they have flowered and the world is now full of people who all appear to be having a great time. They are interacting with but in control of the animals.
There is no god present.
It’s totally surreal with weird animals (some are the wrong size) and some very strange interactions between human and non human life.
Right panel (Last Judgement):
Here all the plants have gone, there is no green and we are in a non living world dominated by darkness, pain, and fire.
The top half of the painting looks like a war zone with the houses black and burning… the magical structures have all gone, and the animals appear to have dominance over humans. Humanity is cut into pieces like meat in a butchers shop, a large humanoid shell-torso-head dominates the middle ground and there’s a pair of ears with a knife.
A beast god is calmly eating up people and ‘pooing’ them into a hole beyond which all is blackness.
And, strangely, there are some giant musical instruments.
How to interpret this?
This must have been so exciting when you didn’t have Marvel films and modern CG to create magical universes and impossible realities.
I don’t know what the religious norm was in the fifteenth century but this looks like a private fantasy world to me… possibly with it’s own backstories and meanings. As with the Marvel universe with its cast of fantastical characters and intricate backstories if you’re not an aficionado it means nothing… but if you are then this could be your whole world brought to life.
Superimposed on this magical world it’s possible to read a bigger story arc. Humanity is given a new toy by god (a beautiful world teeming with life)… humanity has a ball but breaks all the rules and trashes the expensive toy… their toy is taken away from them and they are punished by being killed in a horrible and agonising fashion. Their civilisation, military power and knowledge an illusion that counts for nothing.
In modern terms the planet heats up as we fail to control climate warming, civilisation breaks down and we are all killed in a nightmare world of wars and ecological breakdown.
How can I interpret this in an abstract painting?
You could argue that to give an animal (a human) godlike powers over a finite world was always going to end badly. The question is, can man morally evolve quickly enough to avoid destroying the planet with his greed?
We are animals that are assuming godlike powers… one of which is the ability to destroy ourselves and our world many times over.
I like the idea of innocence, excess, and payback… and the abuse of power and final reckoning are common both in fiction and history, such as the fall of the Egyptians and the sacking of Rome.
Here’s what I ended up with at the end of my first day:
Day 1, Oil on canvas, 76 x 61 cm
And here’s a slide show of my fist day’s painting showing the process:
I mixed the greens which were very complex (much more than the abstract sugar rushes of primary and secondary colours that I’ve been using in my abstract painting). The foreground is quite a yellowy green but unsaturated, washed out with white… almost bleached… however every time I added grey to unsaturate the green it blued it up so I had to add more yellow which increased the saturation.
I liked making the black structure and the gestural brushstrokes feel very expressive.
Building up the green was fun, though the green in the background has red in it, is much sandier than the foreground grass, and is even more unsaturated. Because the original ‘green/black’ structure had been so thin the background blacks went on top of it without picking up the colour. I really like this gestural effect.
I left blank canvas for god, Adam and Eve and the animals… though as yet I have no idea how I am going to make these work.
One of my thoughts about painting the animals are around using glazes, so the glossy finish will stand out from the matt background and signal life/spark. And to use splinters of shapes in different colours… maybe or maybe not with legs, wings neck, head… I think maybe just legs? Which would add a cubist, abstract and surreal twist to the painting.
Next I mixed the sky colours… the ‘grey’ has lots of yellow in it, even though it reads neutral white on the canvas… and I left spaces for the mountains.
Then I mixed the mountain colours based on Phthalo Blue (Red shade) – this is the first painting where I have differentiated my use of blues as much as my yellows and reds. I used unsaturated colours for the mountains… and saturated colours for the blue mount in the centre.
As soon as I put the mountains in the painting became became figurative, but much looser than any landscape I’ve ever done before. I especially like the combination of figurative and abstract in the background. For example where I have cut into the gestural brushstrokes with the ‘sea’. It’s obviously very unreal (almost like a collage?) but somehow works. And even though the perspective shifts in a strange way, as a viewer, I accept it.
I tried to paint the trees in the centre to look like trees but it just looked like dots on black and got grey and messy very quickly, the earlier gestural brushstrokes on black were much more effective. There’s a clear dividing line between gestural painting that allows a figurative reading and smooth finished realistic figurative painting. I think to paint realistic trees would be a whole project on its own.
I scraped the whole area off the canvas and made a dark green area with brushstrokes which, when I add the ‘details’ of god and animals I think will be okay… that is, it will form a natural part of the background and not disrupt the reading of the painting.
I am going to use my new watercolour pens to make shapes and see what is the minimal I can do to indicate an animal.
Could it be a Picasso like squiggle? A square? A gestural stroke? One colour? Two colours? Do legs help? A wing?
And also how I represent god and Adam and Eve. Do I need to differentiate male/female? We sexually reproduce so are animal… so it’s probably important to my intent of animal versus god within humanity.
What about the structure? I can differentiate by using fast drying medium, but how defined should the shape be?
Adding god, Adam and Eve, and animals:
I did some quick sketches in my A2 sketchbook with my new watercolour pens.
First I tried recognisable shapes:
These could work but are a bit cartoony.
So I tried some random shapes:
In a strange way, if I think about these as animals I can make them work. All the animals need to be is differentiated from the plants and they could as well be sparks of life as visual copies.
I wanted to know if the structure could be freehand and still be a structure.
This is rough but works. I haven’t sorted out exactly what the structure is in my head but it seems to be a cross between a totemic symbol, man made structure, crab and plant. I’m assuming it’s connected to god as it’s the same colour and Adam and Eve have just been born so haven’t made anything yet.
I may not follow this but I wanted to see how roughly I could sketch in god and Adam and Eve. Unlike the animals I think these need to be recognisable.
That works for me. The colours are very rough as my set of watercolour pens is limited. They are very sketchy but they still read as god and Adam and Eve.
I think I’ll paint the structure first, then the animals and finally god and Adam and Eve.
2nd day – decided to go for cave painting lines with naive filling in.
Why did I go figurative with the animals?
I’m not sure… that’s just what happened.
It’s an abstract painting, using semi figurative elements as part of its visual language, trying to pose a fundamental question: is man more like an animal ruled by instinct who will consume everything or a ‘god’ ruled by intellect who will preserve life and act for the benefit of all living creatures?
Considering where we are with the pandemic (I think only 0.2 % of the vaccines have gone to the third world) and global warming I think it’s a valid question to ask.
3rd day: Having lots of fun with my animals… going for feeling of animal rather than accuracy.
I’m trying to work out why I like this so much because it’s nothing I would normally paint. I think it’s something to do with the play of meanings between the abstraction, landscape, bemused animals, faceless empty people, god speaking, the original painting, and what I am trying to say (question) about the nature and power of humankind.
5th day – finish:
This has gone well over my 50 hours but I’ve allowed it as a one off.
I have articulated my research in detail, and the practical development of the piece in this blog, so am going to focus on how it impacts my practice.
Conclusion about the relevance of this theme to my Personal Practice.
This is complicated but I am going to split it into two parts.
Mystery and abstraction
The mystery referred to in this Option is almost exclusively narrative, and how we form our identity (and understand the world) through retelling stories.
Narrative and story are by definition figurative and processed through language while abstraction is none figurative and is processed as a whole, in the moment, visually. So, you cannot transfer the narrative mystery in Garden of Earthly Delights to an abstract painting such as that painted by Rothko or Pollock.
I tried very hard to convert narrative mystery into visual mystery but couldn’t do it.
You can use the aesthetic principle of chiaroscuro (large tonal differences) to add visual drama too abstraction, but it does not add narrative mystery. Similarly, you can introduce visual unknowing in the form of occlusion, mist, limited visibility and confusion (but not shadows as they are thrown by objects which are figurative). This unknowing adds interest and tension but again there is no story. A murderer hidden in mist adds mystery and tension to the narrative whereas a misted line in abstraction has no narrative. Abstraction is a visual experience with a psychological and emotional effect, like hooking straight into the psyche, where a story is process process in time with thought.
Therefore this Project has helped me to understand how abstraction works and what I want to do with it.
I want my abstraction to be a visual experience which connects to the viewer without thought and ‘affects’ them. An image that needs no words.
My problem with abstraction is finding an intent, something other than my love of colour and shape. There is no model to follow, I need to find my own key, a visual container. If someone, even a talented writer, just writes what comes into their head (a stream of consciousness) it is confusing and meaningless – though it may be useful for psychoanalysis or self help.
A fiction writer uses skill and editing, and years of experience, to craft a narrative. I need to find a way to ‘edit’ my abstraction… Hodgkin, Rothko and Pollock for example all had a coherence in their work… and that’s what I need to find.
Painting the Garden of Earthly Delights.
I tried to address this with an abstract painting focussing on the colour palette, but failed. I abandoned this and ‘went figurative’.
However, I really enjoyed the process and produced a painting that I am proud of and has had lots of positive feedback, so I am trying to understand why, and what consequences this has for my practice.
The easy explanation is that I have two creative loves… story and colour. Colour ties in with my art (abstraction) and story with my acting. But this painting allowed me to communicate visually all at once in a similar way to abstraction. The painting needs no explanation, and can be thought about without words… but can also be translated into words and discussed, but then so can an abstraction.
So, it has fused both my creative worlds.
However, it has also done something else very important.
I struggled in Level 1 with copying… be that the world, a photograph or a diagram in a book. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, but that I found it boring and uncreative… more like a skill to earn money than being emotionally and intellectually creative. I want to paint because it’s fun, creative and gives people pleasure.
My problem with copying was you can’t be in the moment if you are constantly referring to something outside yourself such as a photograph. So, primarily, that’s why I gave up figurative painting and went down the abstract route.
But in this painting I was painting animals (which are figurative) but wasn’t copying, I was creating them. I was thinking of their personality and the function they had in the painting, the surface design and composition. Though, when I say thinking, I didn’t actually ‘think’ of that while I was painting, I was just trying to make the painting work… I had pre-programmed all that in when I did my research.
So, how does this relate to my Practice, apart from indicating that there are maybe two avenues I could pursue, and I’m only in the very beginning of finding my voice.
I think it has taught me that it is not figuration that I dislike but making a realistic copy of something outside of me. And that my practice has got to come from inside me, and be based on the two things that I love about art, creation and colour.
For my Personal Practice I will make make two paintings, one figurative and one abstract, but try and make them both work visually in an instant, without the need for thought.
I will research Matisse, and make a figurative painting. I don’t have to write a story, it can be an abstracted reality and use pattern and colour. And I will also paint an abstract based on Richter which is pure colour and form.