The Speed and Quality of Work

“Si par inspiration on entend l’énergie, l’enthousiasme intellectuel et le pouvoir de tenir ses facultés en éveil.”

—BAUDELAIRE on Edgar Allan Poe

HARD WORK without attention, without intelligence, is as harmful (in a different way, but in equal measure) as idleness, because it can make one mannered, it can falsify the work itself so that one begins to hate it. What matters above all is raising the quality, not the quantity, of work. Quantity can and should be increased, but not at any cost to quality.

The quality of the effort depends on the growth of sensitivity and concentration, the consequence of which is a growth in the precision of eye and hand (but the eye’s precision, not the hand’s, is the first and most essential task). The precision of the eye in capturing a reflection, the enrichment of sensitivity by an increasingly musical response to the interaction of colors, to color values, to warm and cold contrasts, to composition, to the way fields and spots act on each other in the whole—this is work toward a simultaneity of vision, toward a strict subjection of each spot, each line, to that whole.

Everyone faces different difficulties in working, and as we work we must redirect our efforts to engage with the whole range of our characteristic weaknesses. We must remember that sensitivity to the effects of color without sensitivity to the whole of a composition cannot give us a true canvas, just as a sense of composition but not of color cannot give us true painting, for when one of the basic elements is neglected or conceived without feeling there can be no art.

The conflict between a desire to increase the number of work hours and the quality of the work is most visible at the beginning (according to my experience); that is to say, when after a longer interval we return to systematic work in painting. In the first days the ability to tenir ses facultés en éveil (to keep our faculties alert), and, not unrelated, to concentrate, is very weak. After even ten minutes we tire, our alertness fades, and here we shouldn’t be deluded by appearances, we shouldn’t “fudge” our own powerlessness in our own eyes. Instead of working on, hacking on—stop. But stop not in order to do something else or have a chat, but to disconnect completely, rest, without thinking or moving, so that we can return to the canvas with new and fresh attention. In the first days of work, though it sounds crazy, a few minutes of work every hour (a few minutes whose number grows to more than ten, and then increases ever faster), in periods when we’ve been lazing around, will bring us closer to fully productive work much more quickly and cleanly than if we put ourselves in chains and get hung up with the mistakes that come from spotty attention and diminishing stamina and the hypersensitivity that we mistake for heightened attention.

But again this advice is schematic, notional, it has to be used with great delicacy and individuality. You have to have yourself very much in hand and know yourself very well to be in harmony with your palette, in order (a rare good fortune) not to fall into bad work after a break, forcing your way through the terrible chaos of your own mistakes. Though sometimes it’s necessary to flounder: there is no “warming up” your own sensitivity or heightening your focus and temperature without the desperate, often senseless effort that leads you through a disgust for your own work. Once we have gone down that road, we shouldn’t run from it too quickly or easily. It’s good to work on a failed canvas to the final boundaries of possibility, not to abandon it, as long as there is a shadow of a hope that part of the canvas can be saved: only in this way can we survive and surmount our logjams and “brain fogs.” By lightly abandoning a canvas that has led us into error, we don’t overcome the cause of those errors but instead risk their return in a similar or even an altogether different guise in the future. Instead of one overlabored canvas, we’ll have a series of chaotic ones, unfinished and shallow to boot.

Abandoning a canvas at the first difficulty, wasting materials, breaking off work, working on a number of canvases at once—we can permit ourselves these things only much later, when the temperature of our work is really high, when we already have a vision of the whole, a lightning view, though even then we must be wary of wastefulness, of chaos, and apply the brakes at a certain point.

The beginning of work is a constant failure to find the right measure—falling short or overstepping the mark. Sometimes we stop too soon, and after a day of cautious attempts we haven’t falsified anything on the canvas but we have painted so little that we didn’t manage to raise the temperature, and then we dig our heels in, forcing our own inattention, vacuity, inner laziness, our violent aversion to looking with precise attention. How many times have I thought of Brzozowski’s words “Better hang on a hook than think” (Brzozowski quoting Coleridge in his diary) and paraphrased those words as “Better hang on a hook than look”? And again we overstretch the string. After a day of that kind of work we may have a canvas full of errors, but as the temperature has been raised somewhat, the day is not wasted and work the following day will seem easier and truer. Although sometimes, if the overexertion is too extreme, we have to unharness ourselves again and restrict our efforts the next day, and so from day to day, until finally a strong instinct for work grows in us and we know without paying special attention when to work and when not to.

Neither an artistic consciousness nor a sensitivity to color are constant human features; they may come and go. A conversation recorded by the Goncourts illustrates how consciousness of the meaning of color in painting, that fundamental element of nineteenth-century art, can be destroyed, and that among people of presumed taste. One of the brothers ran into Ernest Renan, who began to expound to him that Ary Scheffer and Delaroche were undoubtedly the most important painters of the nineteenth century, because they gave elevated expression to beautiful forms of thought and feeling. Goncourt felt painting very acutely, he loved the eighteenth century, discovered Japanese woodcuts, was interested in Manet, and naturally couldn’t stand either of the painters so famous at the time. He asked Renan to tell him what color the wallpaper in his bedroom was. Renan couldn’t answer the question, he didn’t remember. Then Goncourt told him that only those for whom color exists had the right to comment on painting. This story, whether accurately recounted or not, is typical. Delaroche, a contemporary of Delacroix, painted historical scenes that made a profound impression on the young Jan Matejko. He painted portraits of Adam Czartoryski and Zygmunt Krasiński, enjoyed great success and fame. The naturally friendly Delacroix, who didn’t like to speak ill of his colleagues, nevertheless said of Delaroche that he painted with wax and ink. And yet it was Delaroche, the anticolorist and painter of historical subjects, and Ary Scheffer, Krasiński’s friend, who also painted aristocratic and of course sublime faces in gravy—these two were the idols of so many intellectuals and grandees of the nineteenth century.

When we speak of theories of painting, conceptions of painting of one kind or another, that fed the nineteenth-century world of painting from Delacroix’s romanticism through Courbet’s realism, through the naturalists, Manet, the impressionists, and so on, we should remember Corot’s as an entirely distinct stance. When he heard people talking about theories of painting, about how to paint, Corot bridled, not understanding the need for such discussions—“painting is a much simpler thing”—and went on painting. But against the backdrop of the nineteenth century, Corot seems the only exception of this kind; he painted as a bird sings. If we look at his canvases from youth to advanced old age, from the early and seemingly perfect Italian canvases of his youth to the magnificent portraits and landscapes painted in old age, we have the impression that the man always had an absolute painter’s sense. Every year for many decades he spent the summer in the countryside, painting landscapes with a pipe in his mouth, and later, after returning to his studio, he composed his paintings from those little landscapes and said that then all the birds of France sang in his room. No one in the nineteenth century had a better right than Corot to say, with Dürer, “What beauty is, I don’t know. True art resides in nature, and whoever can get it from her possesses it. The more your work is in accordance with life, the better it is. Don’t imagine that you could ever make anything better than God made it. By himself a man can’t execute a good painting, but if he studies an object long and immerses himself in it completely, art sowed in that way will bear fruit and all the heart’s secret treasures will be expressed in the work, in a new creation.”

But in the nineteenth century, whose heirs we are whether we like it or not, there were almost no painters of that type. Lucky men like him didn’t need to analyze so much, didn’t need to achieve a painter’s consciousness with such labor, they had it. But take Degas, Cézanne, Aleksander Gierymski: what stubborn, relentless, conscious work, intelligence, critical work conducted alongside the work of painting. Cézanne before his death will compare himself to Moses seeing the promised land but unable to enter it. Degas, who to the day of his death is torn between the linear tradition of Ingres and Delacroix’s painterly one, exhibits with the impressionists and at the same time would like to shoot them for their compositional shortcomings. Degas, who next to paintings with revolutionary colors has portraits of Dutch precision and fidelity in a narrow, exact color spectrum, is always dissatisfied with himself, and as an old man, looking at his sketches, says humbly, “A few of these sketches will last.” He survives all his contemporaries, and having lost his sight, with the face of a blind Homer, with an unkempt beard, wanders the streets of Paris, half-conscious, abandoned, when his paintings are already being bought by Americans for vast sums. Gierymski similarly, whose naturalism borders on lunacy, paints each brick and almost every grain of sand separately, as in his Sandmen on the Vistula, and cuts his marvelous painting In a Summer House into dozens of pieces, so that today we have of it only the little version in the Zachęta museum (was it burned by the Germans?) and a few strips of the great canvas. Gierymski dies lonely and embittered in a Roman madhouse. These three painters are far better expressions of the spirit of their age than Corot. Why do I mention these masters while writing about the apparently minor technical difficulties of our modest work? Because I’ve seen a superior smile on the face of more than one artist when I touched on the difficulties of painting, when I tried to interest art-loving laymen in a painter’s problems. The painter’s problems, analysis, struggle, conflicts between one movement and another: until quite recently, taking an interest in such things was generally regarded in Poland as proof of unproductiveness and a lack of talent. This disregard for the diverse currents and trends in painting, this frivolous and shallow attitude toward all artistic work, which cast the art of Norwid out of society’s bounds for decades and which still surrounds a painter of Gierymski’s stature with chilly, indifferent respect—it has a fatal influence on the development of art in Poland. The only answer to it is the most penetrating, critical attitude toward one’s own work.

Artists wrestling with difficulties, entangled in them, are legion. As a result, however, whether from a lack of reflection of our of laziness, whether from fear of criticism or because deprived of the sustaining company of other painters, many painters on an uphill climb find themselves sidetracked or break down along the way.

But could genius be free from such problems? What does genius have to do with “easiness”?

Thousands of people with greater or lesser talent perish, executing their trashy simulacra of art, for lack of a sharp, critical eye on their work, for lack of method; not the methods of manipulating a brush, but methods of inner exertion. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the number of these lost, despairing, and mostly unhappy artists is especially great, perhaps precisely because of the loss of the sense of what constitutes the essence of painting, and the lack of schooling in that essential, root meaning, which has been replaced by more and more numerous academies that increasingly falsify our understanding of painting.

On the Road, Jerusalem, 1943

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