On Painting

I do not paint and I probably cannot paint, but I am fascinated by painting. The only quality that a painting needs, to my mind, is that it compels me to look at it, and continues to compel me to look at it even after some considerable time. It is not necessary to be able to say what qualities give it this power, only that it has them. The same is true of music: music only needs to compel you to listen. And writing needs only to compel you to read. Or speech to listen.

But for me at least there is something special about painting. At one level, the level of physics, of paint and of canvas, it is what it is, timelessly. I remember walking innocently into the Groeningemuseum gallery in Bruges, finding myself confronted by Jan Van Eyck’s George van der Paele, and being literally struck dumb by its compelling power. I still cannot look at it without feeling that moment of transcendence again: that here something touches eternity. Yes, it is famously regarded as one of the greatest paintings of the late middle ages (1434-36), and it has been analysed to death in terms of its perspective, use of colour, imagery, proportion, … you name it, it has been said. And then there is the painting, which has the power to strike you dumb as Job was silenced by the final appearance of God.

Of course, not all paintings have such a dramatic effect, and some of the most famous famously disappoint. The trouble is that we are infected by fame in a way that renders us incapable of seeing; it is as if we see only the fame and not the picture. La Jocunde or Mona Lisa is perhaps the best example: it is a wonderful painting, but it is hard to see it anew because our expectations are already well beyond realisation. (The same is true of human beauty: it is often, perhaps always, more difficult to see the true beauty of someone who is also, at least according to contemporary taste and therefore ‘fame’, superficially beautiful.) Not so the Botticelli room in the Uffizi in Florence: there is nowhere else like it in the world, with The Birth of Venus on one wall and Prima Vera on the other (to say nothing of the Ucello on a third). This is not fame: these paintings transcend their fame; to see them is to be inspired and humbled simultaneously and realise that whatever one had been told or seen or heard is nothing in comparison with the real thing.

But there are other experiences that are less dramatic. Tate Modern in London hosted a Mark Rothko exhibition somewhere round about 2006, and it silenced the cynicism in almost everyone who went to see it. No reproduction in a book or on a website could prepare a viewer for the power of these vast canvases, these floating, mesmerising colours, images that demanded and compelled one’s attention.

Once something has been done there will always be plenty of critics and cynics who will say that anyone could have done it. It isn’t true. Consider writing, which is perhaps an easier way to appreciate the same point: these are just words, familiar words, written in a line. Anyone could have written them in the same sequence. The point is that nobody did. And so it is with painting: anyone can buy paint and a canvas; few of us can produce anything that compels attention with them; almost nobody can create timeless images as van Eyck or Botticelli or Rothko created them.

This asymmetry is one of the most mysterious of phenomena: that once someone has done something, once something has been done, suddenly everyone can see that what they have done could have been done by almost anyone; except that it wasn’t, and nobody did, and in most cases nobody even dreamed of doing what they have done.

Here the writer and the artist are joined in their creative struggles: the blank sheet of paper and the empty canvas allow infinite numbers of possibilities; but they must choose one. And neither knows at the start what they will choose to write or paint; only that they must write and paint, almost as if the writing or the picture were a child whose time had come and who was demanding to be brought into the world with all the pain and danger that accompanies any birth. And the writer and the painter endure in some senses a greater pain even than a mother, for their child is lost to them as soon as it is born. There may be a little editing, a little retouching, a few changes of heart, but essentially it is already gone on a life of its own, to be seen and read and used and abused by a public neither author nor painter may ever meet or know.

But painting is not writing and a painting is not a writing. Paintings command because they are before us in their totality; writing must be experienced sequentially and integrated by the reader in a way that differs sharply from the immediacy with which the painting confronts and commands the viewer. To read is to journey; to view is to arrive. Of course, a reader finishes reading and integrates what has been read, and a viewer sees a painting differently with every viewing, but the experiences are different and the sequences not the same.

A painting can compel us to look at it in a way that a writing cannot compel us to read it. The difference is as apparent as that you cannot hang a novel on a wall and expect someone to admire it; with a painting the opposite is true: you can and must hang it on a wall but you cannot experience it sequentially in the way that a writing must be savoured piece by piece. Book “signings” are a poor and often embarrassing substitute for exhibitions just because what the author signs is something that cannot be appreciated in the present, whereas the artist can show everything immediately.

Or so we may think. But the notion of “immediacy” implicit in such a statement equates looking with seeing and seeing with understanding. In fact few great paintings can be taken in at a glance, still less appreciated. They can be looked at, but not seen. And so the viewer must intuit the quality of the painting and feel its compelling power if he or she is to move to buy it or to spend some considerable time admiring it.

It is like falling in love in the true sense of the word, for it is to stand before it and feel oneself made alive by its promise: that however long we are compelled to look at it, we will never tire of it. And so it is however many times we read great writing, or listen to great music, or enjoy great conversation: we are made alive by the promise of the other.

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