George Weissbort was a noted commentator and essayist on art. Four of his articles are reprinted in full below.
Essays (1968) "Thus the “simple”, basic, archaic activity of looking, holds me endlessly enthralled and constitutes my aim, my god, my justification and my reward."
Art Criticism "...what I gradually realized was, how unhelpful is art criticism as practiced in our time."
On Lucien Freud "I found Freud’s passages of uncontrolled plaster-like impasto (thick applications of paint), repellent."
The Hidden Vermeer or the intellectualisation of Art "Surely everything that can be known about Vermeer and his art has been explored? That may be so: however, I believe .... the essentials of his faultless art lie untouched."
You will have gathered that I myself have no great admiration for our age. Why then should I strive to express it? On the contrary my painting is a determined and utterly conscious rejection of its main tenets.
One of the few advances which I believe to be true progress is in psychology; and psychology in its deepest probing teaches above all else the irrelevance of ‘progress’ to the most profound levels of our consciousness.
The other compulsion, besides that of “truth to nature”, under which I paint is an obscure longing for perfect order, perfect mathematical or geometrical order. This passionate desire may be caused by inner conflicts, the pain of which the external perfection would endlessly assuage, or it may possibly represent a projection on to the outside world of my own ideal self. I cannot say: every school of psychology would answer the problem diffently.
The growing science of perception, though more superficial, also interests me: and it gives the lie to those exponents of a “new”, more “modern” way of seeing, which stems from a mistaken interpretation of multiple viewpoints used by Cézanne and by the Cubists, and culminates in our contemporary painters of splintering naturalism.
The main argument of this group is that since each “look” that we take can convey to us only a single image clear at the centre, our painted image can be true only if disjointed. A little knowledge……….!
While the premise to this argument is true, its conclusion is not. Though we do see the world in disjointed and only centrally focussed images, yet the miracle of our perception lies precisely in the fact that by these images we apprehend a stable world. If therefore in our paintings we figure a vacillating and disjointed world, our “vaunted truth is but a great untruth.”
Moreover, in looking at a continuous single image such as, say, Vermeer, presents, we, in perceiving it, take it to pieces again and rebuild it for ourselves. How many times has it happened to me that in contemplating and studying an intimately known and loved painting, I have suddenly noticed a tone, an inflexion of edge, a sequence of shapes, of accents or of colours, that strikes on my consciousness with the wild splendour of an entirely unexpected sensation?
Thus the “simple”, basic, archaic activity of looking, holds me endlessly enthralled and constitutes my aim, my god, my justification and my reward.
Now, how should we look at a picture? Most critical writing on art is vitiated by the assumption that we look at a picture to stimulate our feelings. This attitude encourages unlimited subjectivity.
I can, if so minded, look around this room where I am writing and experience a jungle of strong feelings from anything I look at. This however is mere projection of inner mental processes and though fruitful in psychoanalysis, leads to excessive subjectivism in art-appreciation.
How then should I like you to look at my pictures? To answer this I must digress a little, and briefly summarize my artistic development in which I was guided mainly by Arthur Segal, Bernard Meninsky and Sir William Coldstream...
Having experimented in colour, composition, line and tone, I gradually discovered which combination of means satisfied me most deeply. I am a tonal rather than a colourist painter; the realisation of vision into a delicately ordered system of tonal relations which simultaneously establishes space and pattern, is more thrilling to me than the lyrical evocation of colour sensations as in Renoir, or space creating colour as with Cézanne.
Thus, the artists whom I love above all others are the great geometrical tone-painters, Vermeer, and Chardin. Besides these I worship Piero della Francesca, who veers more to mathematics, and Corot, who simplifies and delicately relates his tonal areas.
Intimately related to these beauties of tone is quality of edges. I have found that the quickest way to enjoy Velasquez, Vermeer or Chardin, is to concentrate one’s attention on the edges, to linger and perceive their relative sharpness or softness, their melodious transitions from hardness to softness.
This search opens for me the hidden riches of these paintings, prepares and quickens my response to other qualities. On and off for years, I studies the geometric ordering of composition as evolved by the Egyptians, the Greeks and later, the Italians of the Renaissance.
I tried to adapt these complex and deeply satisfying systems to the tradition of painting from nature in which I was brought up. I would superimpose a geometrical diagram over a prearranged still-life, for instance, or, on the contrary, fit a still-life into a predetermined pattern. Whatever procedure I tried, I was conscious of strain, of compromise, of contrivance.
I attempted to analyse the compositions of Vermeer according to the proportion of the Golden Mean, but was baffled every time: I remembered Cézanne and his despairing search for “le system”.
A clue was given to me by my study of the science of perception: if three points lie in a line, the eye tends to see them related. From this fact, with pen and ruler one can prospect and discover beautifully logical secret frameworks which give to the compositions of, say, Vermeer and Chardin, their wonderful finality and simultaneous perfection.
Another fruitful visual activity, one stimulated by colour, is the sensing of equivalences, the growing conviction of interrelated and many-layered unity experienced when one can see one shape repeated and varied in many positions. This repetition of one shape, according to Borissavlievitsch, is one of the main pleasures in looking at architecture. Its importance in looking at painting can, I think, hardly be overestimated. Extended into tone and colour it may be the chief source of aesthetic pleasure.
I am certain that towards the end of a strenuous bout of Vermeer-looking, my main conscious activity is the perception of identity, the fact that one blue is another blue in a different part of the picture, slightly cooled and diminished in hue, but palpably the same; that this card in the cherubin’s hand is the shape of that house in the picture on the wall, which again is a condensed version of the shape of the white wall between the woman and the virginals.
When one reaches this stage of aesthetic absorption, one is pervaded by a sense of highly charged meaningful harmony, fed and swollen by the other visual activities I have mentioned. But, you may say, we are very far from our starting point, morally-impelled naturalism.
Indeed we seem to be, ant that is precisely what I intended: all these sources of visual joy, the tonal relations, the edge-qualities, the geometrical ordering, the shape, colour and tone echoes, all these belong both to naturalistic and to “abstract” painting. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun”
Sacha Guitry, in another context, says that the only reasonable attitude to adopt is one of benevolent scepticism. This nearly always applies to Art. It really does not matter which line of the painting business one follows, or which myth possesses one; quality will out, and quality in Art has to be created anew during every painful second of his mad, useless activity, by her moonstruck, twice-blessed and thrice-accursed devotee, the artist.
Art Criticism: What’s the point!
At the turn of the century, in Spring 2000, the RA mounted an exhibition of 60 paintings by Chardin.
I was thrilled: I’d been studying Chardin in the Louvre on and off for the last 40 years. He’s very poorly represented in England, and here at last was a chance to see him without having to cross the channel.
The day of the exhibition came, and I entered the galleries. By that time however, I was in love with Holbein, and Jean de Dinteville’s dagger tassel in the National Gallery ‘The Ambassadors’ was my favourite passage-ground in all European painting.
During two-hour sessions, I would follow those exquisitely curved contrapuntal silk thread melodies.
Therefore, when I entered the RA’s Chardin rooms, where for the first time in my life I could see a paintings I’d known only through reproduction, my mind-soul was filled with Holbein’s exquisite curves and sweeps. The Chardins seemed to me vague, dull and empty.
I left, deeply disillusioned. After a few weeks, I returned again. Same reaction: were these dull, dim, vague and clumsy canvases from the same hand as those exquisite visions that had held me enraptured in the Louvre many years ago? Of course they were, the only change had been in me: I was no longer in tune.
What is the point of this anecdote? You may ask. The point is that our love of Art is directed and controlled from deep in our unconscious, and we have only superficial and weak control over it. During the seven weeks of the Chardin exhibition, I scoured the art criticism pages of all the papers I could lay my hands on, searching for a perception or pregnant phrase, an attitude that could help jog me out of my most inconvenient Holbein love affair.
I found none and what I gradually realized was, how unhelpful is art criticism as practiced in our time. Many insights were offered on 18 th century French Art History, on French interior decoration, on the moralistic leaning of French culture of the period, even on food and porcelain that might have been familiar to Chardin as evidenced by his still-lives; but on how to really look at, not through, his paintings, nothing.
I remembered a journey I made to Paris, many years ago, by coach and boat. During the hours of boring travel, I turned over and over in my mind, a piece of advice that had occurred to me; “Half close your eyes!”
When I stood at last, before a Chardin, I tried it, and it worked! With my eyes half closed, the canvas leaped into life. Here, a sharp edge of white porcelain pot, cut into by a cluster of grapes; there as my eye sensed the grape edges against the body of the pot, I could feel how the edge quality varied, from a gentle soft semi-circle, gradually hardening, until another grape curve started out only to be lost in furriness. Everywhere, edges sang in differing degrees of definition; as my eye followed the curves and caressed the delicately modulated edge quality, gradual warmth of sensuous delight suffused my spirit. Had I not followed this strategy and persevered with it, at the same time feeling the carefully differentiated tone values of the colour areas, I should merely have registered: “Yes, a still-life, nice porcelain pot with a bunch of grapes” and moved on.
This brings me to the crux of my title-question. Art criticism- ‘what’s the point?’
But before I come to the point, let me tell you another little story. A few years ago, I made the acquaintance of an interesting somewhat over-intellectual lady. We used to visit exhibitions together. While we were sailing through a show of Millais portraits, I innocently remarked-“Oh, look at that painting, it’s obviously a good likeness but I don’t like it, “She wagged her finger severely at me, “George, I don’t want to know what you like or dislike; the important question is: What can you learn from that painting? What does the pose express? What’s the character of the sitter? What sort of fashion is she dressed in? Why did Millais pose her in that room? What’s the meaning of that painting? And while we’re at it, please don’t lecture me on the paintings- ask me what I think of them- questions- not statements!”
Most critics I read on Chardin, would have met with approval from her on the first count, but definitely not on the second. They explored many interesting byways of curiosity, bringing forth many informative nuggets of information and speculation but they certainly told their readers in conclusion, what to think.
More to the point, however, the essential question of how to look at Millais and Chardin’s paintings was almost entirely ignored by the critics.
So, to ‘ retourner a nos moutons’ (to return to our sheep), what is the point (or purpose) of art criticism? I believe that the Art Critic has a duty – to teach his readers how to look at the works of art he is reviewing, and of course, to do so as entertainingly as possible- or they won’t stay the course. His duty is not to chat superficially about the works or to use them as vehicles for intriguing and impressing his readers. He may impart a few words of Art History, or biographical gossip-but not more than a few. He must most definitely avoid the seductions of philosophising about the works and his reactions to them an activity. An activity that usually accounts for more than three quarters of any “serious” piece of criticism. Rather than writing that Monet was preoccupied with the effects of light and atmosphere (as Hamlet remarked- it needs no ghost to come from Hell or (Heaven!) to tell us that! he should struggle with the actual visual activity of the eye climbing about over a large area of, say, mottled grass. How do you occupy the mind while your eye follows the results of Monet’s, two hours, say, of observation of changing colour modulations, two hours split over several painting sessions?
Do you order your brain; watch out for the green patches, compare them with each other- is one yellowier than its neighbour, is the other one greyer; now look at the pinkish accents, how do they relate? Etc.,etc.
When you train your eyes like this, gradually you begin to see the difference in quality between Monets “music”, and that of say Pisarro or Sisley and having thus begun to sensitize your eyes and brain to tone, colour, line, shape etc., you will yourself gradually become an art critic, able to give reasons for your likes and dislikes: you may then see, if your perception agrees with mine, that Monet, for example, developed his colour-tint discrimination to an unparalleled degree of finesse, at the expense of almost complete neglect of line and shape, whereas Pisarro was to some extent as insensitive to tint refinement, as he was to line and shape. The same applies to Sisley.
To my intellectual lady-friend, I could have explained that my dislike of Millais was caused by my judgement that in spite of his apparent faithfulness to nature (or appearances), he had little sensitivity to tonal beauty (his darks are generally unrelated – all being just dark without the delicate grading of darkness in which, say, Vermeer, Velasquez and Corot excelled), his line is prosaic, being merely correct and descriptive, rather than lyrically differentiated as is say, Holbein’s, and his edge-quality is unconsidered and monotonous as with most of his contemporary fellow artists.
With such training, the critic, and, hopefully, his or her public, will become able to discuss painting quality directly and meaningfully. Except for a few writers like Michael Podro and Michael Baxandall,(whose book on “The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany” is a shining exemplar of the highest achievement in the direction I’m defining) such discussion is almost entirely absent in contemporary art-criticism and art-writing in general, from the most ephemeral newspaper criticism to the most weighty and erudite art scholarship.
Why don’t Art-Critic’s do this? The answer may be that they are educated mainly by studying Art History and Art Scholarship which develop their Art “knowledge” and their verbal skills- mainly left-brain activity. They don’t usually learn to draw and paint. That is the huge disadvantage under which they labour: only drawing and painting can teach you to look at drawings and paintings-and only drawing and painting undertaken in a spirit of patient and intelligently questioning precision, the sort of visual exploration and training repeatedly insisted upon by Ruskin and supremely well practised by him.
This statement is so unacceptable today, so politically incorrect, so-oh wicked, wicked word! So “elitist”, that I must, as in ancient biblical Hebrew poetry, repeat it in another form: only if one is actively engaged in learning to draw and paint can one gradually begin to “see” line, form and colour: and again: when one draws and paints, brain connections and pathways are constructed and developed, that did not exist or existed only in rudimentary form before, and that enable one to see and feel in totally new ways and with completely novel and intensified energy.
When I write “the shape between the angel’s head and the tree form to the left is a beautiful shape and one that echoes that between the angels arm and the drapery on its other side,” my statement is meaningless to you unless you yourself have again and again and again, drawn shapes, many different shapes, labouring to render them as accurately as possible.
I well remember a revelation I had many years ago when I was a student in the life-class at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. During the model’s rest time, I began sketching a group of students standing among their easels on the opposite side of the room. I drew the students’ silhouettes and then the easels and, all of a sudden, I saw the “empty” or “negative” shapes between, as positive shapes. Entranced, I continued with the whole group, and realized that I could explore the whole visible world in terms of those shapes. (Just as one could in terms of line, tone, colour, space, etc.) To achieve this, however, one must train oneself to see “holistically”, so that as one defines shape, one can simultaneously perceive all or most of the other shapes surrounding it.
This happened to me after years of sculptural figure drawing, during which I had nonetheless used these negative shapes as an aid to drawing the “positive” shapes of arms, legs, heads etc., without realizing that the shape-perception I was using was capable of infinite development almost into an aesthetic system in itself.
Now how can a critic hope to “see” what an artist is driving at if he has never actually handled and struggled valiantly with the visual language himself?
The critic, being, usually, an intelligent, cultured individual, will use the only language he or she knows-namely the language of words and ideas. The full energy of his study of the painting, will flow into answering questions like “What was the artist trying to ‘say’? What did he mean by painting the book on the table? What does that painting on the wall behind the figure symbolize? Etc. etc. and, on another line of thought: “What were the artists’ influences? How did he or she deal with those influences? What influence did this work or others by this artist have on other painters?” All of these questions may be interesting in themselves, but they don’t help you to look at the painting- rather the opposite: they distract you from looking; they make you think, they activate the left hemisphere rather than, predominantly, the right.
A few days ago, in a bookshop, I picked up a book enthusiastically hailed on the back, as a huge significant breakthrough in the different elaborate disciplines, jostling for supremacy among themselves, of pictorial elucidation, . I opened it and started to read. As my mind grappled with the obscure and subtle abstract argument brilliantly deployed by the writer, I put the book down. No, that’s not the way! The path, though interesting and stimulating, is not going in the right direction; in fact, it’s going in the opposite, the “wrong” direction.
What then is the “right direction?”
That depends on your system of values. Do you want to think about Art, to be able to talk about it and to discuss it in absorbingly ingenious and original ways, with far-reaching social, cultural and psychological implications? If so, continue reading the lively, revelatory and varied critical writing that crowds the shelves of every well-stocked bookshop and library today.
Do you perhaps on the other hand, or in addition, want to be able to recognize and pigeonhole the work of art under your eyes, to place it in its correct historical niche in the endless stream of art historical influences and developmental currents? Then read the fascinating works on Art History that abound in the afore-mentioned book-shops and libraries.
These two disciplines will augment your ideas about culture and your knowledge of Art History, and between them they constitute almost the entire matter conveyed by art writers and art critics today.
If however, you believe as I do, that the most important mission of art-criticism should be the teaching, training and encouragement of the intelligent and hopeful art public to look at, say, a painting: to look at it for a long, long time; to look at it repeatedly over the years, again and again and after each hours – long bout of
Freud is a striking artist: that is obvious. His works have “presence”, that is they are vigorous, powerful, highly individual, assertive and challenging. He is obviously in love with the visible world, a rare state among contemporary artists, and thereby belongs unashamedly to the barely extant great Western tradition of painting. Age has not dimmed his eye nor weakened his hand. Fiercely independent he is driven by the ruthless arrogance of the true artists.
He is also hailed as the greatest realist painter of our time, as a titan worthy to stand beside Titian, Rubens, Velasquez, and Rembrandt. It is t his last claim, which I feel to be problematical. As I joined the queue to the recent show of his latest paintings at the Wallace collection, I decided to put this grandiloquent judgement to the test. It so happens, while waiting to enter the exhibition, I could see Velasquez’s “Lady with a Fan”, Rubens’ “Rainbow Landscape and Titian’s “Perseus and Andromeda” hanging on the wall.
I studied Freud’s paintings for a long time, questioning them, trying to tease out their characteristics and their qualities. W hen asked what he requires of a painting, Freud himself replied: “I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce, convince”. If we apply these requirements to his own work, I find that it often does indeed astonish: it also disturbs many people, especially since it ignores sexual taboos. But does it seduce and convince? It did not seduce me. Why? Of course, I speak as an artist myself, much influenced by the “Old Masters”, and what follows is inevitably slightly technical.
For one thing, then, I found Freud’s passages of uncontrolled plaster-like impasto (thick applications of paint), repellent. Evidently, judging from remarks of other visitors to the show, I was not alone. But why should I feel that my observation was perhaps based on more than the familiar negative take on forcefulness and the challenge of a powerful, almost brutal, vision? Impasto was used by Titian and others.
He, (and Rembrandt after him) often glazed some impasto passages; they would under paint a red drapery say, with thick, brushstrokes of light paint and then glaze transparent reds over them; Rubens used thick paint for his lights, transparent paint for his shadow;. Velasquez’s paint was usually thinnish. All these artists, however, used thicker media, usually honey like oils, to prepare their whites. The result was mellow, rounded paint surfaces. This quality certainly “seduces” the viewer.
Freud’s white, on the other hand, is of course our familiar commercial white lead paste, short “instead of “long.” It produces a gritty, plaster-like surface, the very opposite of seductive. Moreover, Freud never seems to rub down the distracting gritty surface when dry, merely over painting it with more plaster-like paint. Is this ugly, or is it, rather, “disturbing”, in short, “modern”?
These cavils may be considered trivial. There are however other characteristics in his work that cause me more concern. Titian et al. painstakingly “considered” their shapes. To see shapes one must be in the habit of drawing them carefully or at least spend much time “feeling” them with the eye. Very few artists nowadays do that. Freud draws and paints shapes and lines repeatedly; his work is full of them. Yet if you train your eyes on Titian, Rubens and Velasquez, you will find his shapes and lines jerky, crudely related if at all. This has nothing to do with his so-called “ugliness”, which on the contrary, I find admirable, interesting, and even attractive. I am referring rather to the abstract qualities of his lines and shapes, those characteristics that become even more obvious if you turn his work upside down, so as not to be distracted by the remorselessness, the decisiveness of his vision. Furthermore, Freud is surprisingly insensitive to edge quality, that modulation of hard to soft, which so preoccupied Titian and Velasquez. Look, for instance, at “Lady with a Fan”: the lady’s cheek, say, or the line of her hair, her chin, her gloves, etc. The edge quality varies exquisitely, seductively – convincingly.
And now for tone values. Titian and other tonal masters of the past play ravishing music with those delicate relationships from light to dark, divided into hardly perceptibly differentiated degrees of change. Freud seems to have, say 5 or 6 steps, when, quite demonstrably, they have something like 50-60. The result, in Freud’s case, is akin to what in photographic jargon may be criticised as”contrasty”.
A s I left the show, I lingered nostalgically before Titian and Velasquez, wondering: “Can it be that Freud is indeed Titian’s equal, but defiantly ‘modern”? Perhaps the vaunted visual richness one associates with the “Old Masters” was simply of its time, no longer “relevant” and in any case unrepeatable. On the other hand, is it not also possible that, in an age of smooth synthetic surfaces, talk of “modernity” cloaks a loss of sensitivity to quality? If so, then we would not even regret the disappearance of what lacking in the serious art of Lucien Freud.
Why “the hidden Vermeer?” Hasn’t he been exhibited, commented on, studied under every possible aspect during, say, the last twenty years? New books on him appear every month, or so it seems, each one more recherché and ingenious than the last.
From Gowing’s famous and elegant study of Vermeer as a relentlessly optical, anti-tactile, psychologically defensive perfectionist, to the latest complex proposals of possible intellectual, historical and symbolic aspects of his art, innumerable approaches to the “Sphinx” as Thore-Burger, his rediscover called him, have been followed.
Philip Steadman, in his recent “Vermeer’s camera”, has, I believe, beyond doubt, established Vermeer’s use of optical arrangements to lay out the delineation that resulted in a degree of veracity, that has never been equalled by hand.
Surely everything that can be known about Vermeer and his art has been explored. That may be so: however, I believe, strange as it may seem, that under this rich comucopia of commentary and supposition, the essentials of his faultless art lie untouched.
How is this possible? We have Vermeer the “Magician”, Vermeer the “Poet of Light”, Vermeer the “Celebrator of the Eternal Feminine”, Vermeer the “Master of Perspective”, and Vermeer the “Recycler of Tradition”, (who metamorphosed the common themes of his contemporaries into their definitive forms). Vermeer the “Subtle Symbolist”, (who by discreet use of paintings, maps, poses, touched on countless hinted meanings), Vermeer the “Musician-painter”, Vermeer the “Psychologist” and so on and on.
Much of this may be true, but I believe it to be of marginal importance: most of it could be equally relevant to a “Master” photographer, and if we can imagine Vermeer painting only pure still-lives, his still-lives could have been of the same magical quality as the genre scenes that he did paint. Besides these semantic studies of Vermeer’s paintings, research into his technique has been published, notably by Arthur Wheelock Jr. However, it may be that even Wheelock mainly misses the point, misses the revolutionary optical and aesthetic discoveries that secretly underlie Vermeer’s apparent naturalism.
In my opinion, the best book on Vermeer was Faber Gallery’s, “Vermeer”, with introduction and notes by Andrew Forge, published in MCMLICV. Andrew Forge was an artist and art-critic. However, even he did not go quite far enough in his analysis of Vermeer’s language, stopping tantalisingly at the threshold. To dive directly “in media res,” let us take the map, in the Kunsthistoriches Museum’s “The Artist in his Studio.”
This map has been widely commented upon, and art-historians and scholars have gone to town on its back. One worthy painstaking study by Daniel Arasse, 1994, developed the idea that in abandoning the use of line, in blurring contours, (which, by the way, Vermeer did only where they looked blurred in “Nature”) Vermeer shows not the visible but the effect of presence. “Between the seen and the unseen”, writes Arasse, quoting from Vasari. This typifies the degree of intellectualisation ubiquitous today in art writing on Vermeer and other artists. Commentators on Vermeer note that his paintings become increasingly arbitrary patterns created by light, often patterns of dots of light. They interpret this as shorthand optical notations, or even more fancifully as prefiguring pointillism.
Not one seems to have taken the necessary and in retrospect, inevitable next step; they all merely analyse the paradoxical effect of these notations. We automatically strive to make sense of these patterns, to explain and identify them. In the map, we ask, “What is that little dot, that little slab of light tone, that line of shadow?” And each time; we are frustrated: it isn’t anything other than itself, a light dot, etc. With nearly all Vermeer’s contemporaries, the dots and slabs are differentiated enough to represent something else, a jewel high light, a detail of a fold and so on. In Vermeer, we cannot tell. Upon this indeterminacy rests, the vast bulk of theorising and projecting that commentators accumulate.
If however, we relax, we don’t strive to interpret, but quietly, with a combination of loving curiosity and receptivity, contemplate Vermeer’s delicate and precise “details”, another avenue opens itself to our gaze, an avenue to a trancelike Traherneian adoration: “Love is the true means by which the world is enjoyed….”
Since Vermeer sees the world as pattern, let us learn to look at patterns. It is not easy: the ability to do so have almost disappeared. Indeed, from early in the 20 th century it was suppressed almost to extinction. The last flowering of decorative art in William Morris and Art Nouveau was followed by a reaction against decoration itself, when function was valued above form. In our technological “Culture”, pattern has been reduced to the mechanical repetition of mass-produced units. Modern architecture positively repels contemplation: variety in unity has almost no place in its aesthetics.
The degeneration of this ancient instinct has led to the paradoxical result that one of the few fields where it survives, namely abstract, non realistic art, is proof of its decadence. The more one develops one’s ability to “read” pattern, the more acutely one realises that most modern abstract art, no matter how “expressive”, lacks that balance between emotion and reason that is essential for great art. Under long contemplation, the pattern is seen to lack logic: instead of inspiring growing interest and pleasure, it ends contemplation by boredom.
Indeed, so perverted has the decorating instinct become, that even its primary aim of creating a sense of elaborate harmony, unity in variety, has been repudiated, and replaced by the deliberate search for disharmony, discord, shock-easily attained.
Why has the decorating or pattern-making instinct declined almost to extinction, to the point where for instance, Ikea furniture, apparently, is becoming increasingly popular with the younger generation?
Let us concentrate on the formal aspect and ignore considerations of economics and snobbery: people now, in general, cannot contemplate pattern, and prefer bland, uniform, synthetic surfaces: this may be the result of a long and gradual mutation from a craft-culture through mass-production, which eliminated the craftsman, to our own technological age. The effects of this fundamental change have not, I believe, been fully grasped.
When everything was made by hand, close cooperation between hands, eye, brain was habitual. The maker would perform an action, simple or complex, under command from his brain. This action’s result, whether a brush mark, a chisel-cut, a pot-shaping etc, would immediately be assessed by the brain and then developed, modified or suppressed by the next action. Thus all over the world, in every culture, the ability to perceiver, evaluate, “read” pattern, was unconsciously refine; and nourished. Go to any representative museum: wander through the armour, tapestry, pottery, furniture sections. Nearly everywhere, shapeliness subtlety, organic complexity, kinship with natural objects. Move into more modern collections. Can you not feel the fundamental change? A diminution of richness, a growing sterility, harshness, hardness, empty simplification, the smell of the factory? If your taste values objects from both cultures, when you turn your consciousness inwards, can you not feel a change in your reactions? Look at a Windsor chair: then turn your gaze to a factory-made chair, in wood or metal. With the Windsor chair, your eye “feels” each element, running along each curve and surface, to which your whole body responds; with the mass-produced chair, you can only “register” it, “yes, a chair, clean, clear, no variation” – indeed, if there were a dip or an unexpected change in curvature or surface, it would tell not as a sensuous richness, but as a defect.
So, can one learn to look at pattern? In my experience, I have found no better way than to encourage and tune in to a directed form of inner dialogue. To return to Vermeer’s map. The ironic aspect of all the ingenious intellectualisation to which it has given rise is that in his oeuvre, this is arguably the most perfect passage of decorative elaboration that he ever attained. Select any point in this “map”, perhaps, literally a point of light. Ask yourself, “why?” let your eye-brain search: “Ah, there’s an echo of this point near it to the right! any other pairs? Yes, another pair of points, a little smaller, but vertical, anything else? Yes, there’s a vertical dark tone (shadow of a fold?) just near, and a lighter vertical just under. Good, another pair?”
This action of grouping elements is one of the fundamental activities in ornament-study and creates a feeling of unity (encouraged by repetition), variety (the variety of frequent differences in tone, shape or size), in the elements of the group. Vermeer’s art employs mainly shape and point, sometimes simultaneously, as when a point is shaped: one triangular spot may echo a squarish shape about the same size. The pairs and groups in Vermeer proliferate and interact. The “View of Delft” which, Sir Kenneth Clarke remarked, was, in the paintings of the Old Masters the nearest approach to colour, photography, is on the contrary, one of the earliest flowerings of Vermeer’s abstract ordering. On closer inspection, the detailed brick-and stone-work resolves itself into fascinating elaborations of double and multiple dot sequences while simultaneously playing the gamut of soft and hard, lost and found.
To appreciate this latter aspect, one needs to half-close one’s eyes. This strategy of looking is rarely mentioned in writing on Art: It is however of inestimable vale. Useless with linear painting it is invaluable with tonal, making possible, as it were, a second, more recondite level than that attained by simply looking with open eyes.
Try it now, lift up your eyes from this page, and look at something. Note your experience; then half-close your eyes and feel the change. I believe you may be astonished at the difference: with open eyes, the eye darts its pin-sharp vision in infinite saccades, over the visual field, building up in the memory an image of widely dispersed clarity: with half-shut eyes, the mind seem quietened, calmer, and more contemplative: one takes in larger areas, the tonal shapes are simplified, one can more easily appreciate their relation to each other, and the modulation of edge softness becomes more “eloquent”.
When one switches from one mode of seeing to the other, the painting seems to acquire endless resources of richness.
Later in his development, Vermeer was able to fuse these two systems, into indissoluble unity, so that the “Lady seated at the virginals” In the National Gallery, must be “read” in terms of shape sequences, each element of which varies in edge quality from hard to soft. Under this “vision”, the blue drapery of the skirt, which previously looked unfinished to me, resolves itself into perfect harmony and richness with very little of the detail that Terborch et. al. would have delighted in, but a far superior achievement in visual music. In his later work, this extraordinary balance, in my opinion, was lost: possibly under the influence of French art as well as his own inner-driven development, his art became drier, more crystalline, losing by its sharp perfection the mystery in clarity of his earlier equipoise.
One could write analytical theses on any complex passage in Vermeer, detailing the elaborate interweaving of shapes and dots that would reveal the richness of his visual thought. Developing the skills to see these relationships, and to slowly to taste the incomparable delicacy with which Vermeer establishes the degrees of the scale from light to dark (we have not even mentioned his colour!), we may gradually become able to bypass the destructive and misleading tendency to intellectualise, a habit that has almost displaced the ability to look and see in our own culture.
Then we may gain an insight into the deep truth of Traherne’s words, “The brightness and magnificence of this world is hidden from men, is Divine and wonderful…we need nothing but open our eyes to be ravished like the Cherubs!”