Apr 10, 2019

Inside Out – essays by an art journalist. Essay 2: limits.

If you’re an artist you know the suffering that stems from the feeling of not being able to give birth to something you conceived. This essay from a new .ART blog series, written by our confidant in the art world, questions the very origin of artistic limit, and the possible benefits of not actually reaching perfection.

The curse of every artists ever: the everlasting and painful difference between the wills and the possibilities. The truth is not only that the vapid public demands from the master something he is not apt to. The most distressful for the artist is the gap between what he wishes and what he is capable of. 

I happened to see several works of different strength devoted to the floating theme: ”Creation of the Painting”. As a general matter, it is a pencil delineation of the shadow of some pretty girl with a cheek turned to a candle. Here we have no doubt that the painting will be possibly created, but the shadow of the girl will surely come off worse than the original girl and will have no girlish attractions at all. In this simple illustration of Plato’s “shadows on the cave wall” there is a hint that every artist hopes to cocreate with nature or even surpass it. But that’s hardly ever possible. Art is not equal to life, it exists in a parallel way, interpreting and giving an imitation to it. 

When Oscar Wilde said that not art follows life but, on the contrary, life creepily imitates art, it was only one of his paradoxes and a hint that the artist can enlarge the life by creating his own reality. Thus, impressionists once taught us to see the colored world, supremacists showed the passion hidden in geometry, and the conceptualists made us enjoy the descriptive power of the word. But even considering all this, the artist inevitably faces the whole system of restrictions he cannot overcome. And then much depends on whether he feels the limits of the possibilities – not only his personal ones, but of the whole craft. 

In particular, the appreciation of his limitations is the witness of the artist`s maturity. When I asked Helen Darrows, the famous French cook, what she would advice to her workfellows, she said: “Don`t make illusions about what you really are and don`t be afraid to admit that there is something you cannot do”. It`s easy to say for the woman with three Michelin stars in the two of her restaurants (on the Assas Street in Paris and in the Connaught hotel in London Mayfair), but how would you know there is something you cannot do if you haven`t tried it yet? 

Surely, every artist either man or womanhas a commonly male fear of failure. All the artist education is devoted to the fear of failure and the way to overcome it. The learning of craft is aimed at dividing great final failure to the smaller ones. In such a way they do teach in the arts colleges where students are given the series of the infeasible tasks to ascertain that they are not strong in the composition, graphics, nude painting, et cetera. It`s a different matter that by accomplishing such tasks they step by step learn to overcome them. But nevertheless, the moment comes when they understand they have reached their limit. They are lucky if it characterizes the current moment of biography only. But many artists understand that they have arrived at the last station where they should stay for the remainder of their life. It is hard to face up to it, that`s why here often follows the rebel that is rarely succeed.  

But there are people who are absolutely free of fear in art. For example, such fearlessness attracts us in the paintings of children especially if we talk not about our own children. When a child is painting, he or she doesn`t know that something is impossible to do and does it. As a matter of fact, children paintings don`t deny such a disability, moreover, they particularly show that children cannot paint as it is accepted in the mature world. The point is that their objective failure can have some personal valueand sometimes impersonal too. 

Is the result always worse than the idea? Practically always. The paradigmatic case of Pushkin (“My tragedy is finished; I`ve read it over aloud, alone, and clapped my hands, and screamed – what a Pushkin! What a real trooper!”) most likely refers to such literature experience as the Wilde`s paradoxes. But sometimes the value of the work lays in the difference between the idea and the result. The works of mentally sick people and of the primitivists were evaluated in that way at the beginning of the century. 

On display nn the Pushkin Museum (Moscow) there is a famous piece by Henri Rousseau The muse inspiring the poet, made in 1909. Guillaume Apollinaire and his lady friend Marie Laurencin are painted on it. One of its essential values lays in the complete disparity of the majestic conception and miserable but poetic realization. We can ask if Rousseau saw his paintings the way we do, and if he had an avant-garde idea to combine impressive and comic sides of life. It is not likely. He probably wanted a different result, but if he had achieved it, his painting would lose its charm and become pretentious, archaic and totally unbearable. 

Henri Rousseau “The muse inspiring the poet”, 1909

We know matters when the painter bethought his Opus Magnum and worked on it for decades till his death – and the closer was the result the more excellent the painting was becoming but at the same time it was losing something important. The classic examples are “Christ’s Appearance to the People” written by Alexander Ivanov in comparison with his sketches and drafts created over a period of 20 years, or Ilya Repin`s   “Proceedings of the state council” with its best fragments – sketches of portraits of the Russian Empire high officials. Considering it, many painters try to keep some kind of understatement, a point to stop at, so that the viewer himself read the non-completed quotation, caught the unspoken rhyme or saw the color not applied on canvas. 

The older and more skillful the artist becomes, the deeper is his connection with his own manner, the more he is sophisticated and at the same time constrained. He becomes free from inaccuracy in expressions and requests. He doesn`t allot the impossible tasks for himself and knows clearly where he can take a short cut. It’s likely that many artists who consider their success as the self-imposed chains desire to change their approach and their manner. We are aware of the stories when such a result became real, but the stories when the artists suffer a defeat are unfortunately larger in number.