On Leaping and Flying

“In order to attain anything it is not enough to walk, one has to fly.”

The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila

I WROTE about the harmfulness of haste and of false, destructive leaps; nevertheless, I don’t see how it’s possible to achieve anything without a leap. “Leap” is the word that expresses most accurately what you feel when the creative moment arrives, the moment of vision, the lightning flash that transforms one’s relation to the work, which is suddenly governed by an entirely different law: from the measured, almost logically calculated approach of slowly warming and widening exertion, from the dog collar of reason and various restraining mechanisms—the artist is suddenly torn away, not because he wants to be, but because he can’t resist a certain force acting in him.

If this leap is not an inner necessity, one should guard against it.

And suddenly all the forms elaborated, not just by me but by a long chain of tradition, cease to be axiomatic; we really do leap into the unknown: what we see, how we see, how we try to realize our vision, is sometimes the complete opposite of the experience accumulated so far and of our technique. “Every artist is a little like Lope de Vega,” writes Théophile Gautier, “who at the moment when he was writing his comedies, locked up the rule book with six keys—con seis claves—and consciously or not forgot about systems and paradoxes in the blaze of work.”

An example from my work: For months I work analytically. To the degree that there is a heightening of the sharpness of vision, the eye’s precision, the analysis becomes very exact, the number of colors and shades grows to the degree that I feel the limitlessness of the numbers of increments, between ocher and burnt sienna, for example, mixed with more or less black and white paint; the limitlessness of related, now warmer, now cooler shades; the distribution of paint in warmer and cooler patches becomes more and more precise, from a small comma I move to a spot, from a spot to a point more and more microscopic. (The smooth gray wall in the small picture by Vermeer in the Louvre, The Lacemaker, seen through a magnifying glass, shows a series of points, each drowned in other warmer and cooler points). And just then, when I’ve turned away from every other task, immersed in that endlessly expanding inner world of shades of color, when after a varying period of work I’ve constantly discovered anew that a few colors on a palette can yield millions of color combinations, then suddenly (the later the better) comes the opposite kind of vision of the surrounding world—a synthetic vision. I begin to operate not with little spots but with large ones, patches, movements not in small, discrete touches connected with a line and a more rational connection to the whole but a combination of color and form so intimately connected that there is no line separate from color and no color separate from line, so that every spot has a form, the form is organically unified by line and color, the form is natural, instinctive, governed by the composition of the whole, and what a moment ago might have seemed the strangest distortion becomes the only true expression of my vision, for the most part departing wholly from a photographic naturalism. (But this is purely personal; with another painter the vision could stand in an entirely different, infinitely closer or more distant relation to naturalism.)

Manet said that he felt with each new painting he was throwing himself into an abyss. That is precisely the leap, the dangerous flight I’m writing about: up to the last minute we don’t know if we have wings to carry us or whether we will crash into the abyss.

We know Cézanne’s academic student drawings from Aix before he went to Paris: a sharp naturalism, a severe and pure line. It’s hard to believe that this was the same man who drew the later drawings, portraits, still lifes, landscapes, the painter of Baigneuses. The difference is that in his youthful work Cézanne was still a humble student, deprived of vision, and in the later works he saw synthetically, with his own unique eye, the reality around him.

Auguste Bréal, the painter and author of the book Cheminement, an academy friend of Matisse (both were students of Gustave Moreau, with Rouault and Marquet), told me that Matisse came to his “lightning” paintings, sometimes done within a few minutes, often after many months of work on naturalistic, polished canvases—which he didn’t show at exhibitions. At his big exhibition in Paris in 1931 I saw two studied copies of Ruysdael and Chardin, student-like in their precision: an enormous canvas—game, fish, a mortar, a cat. It’s hard to think of an approach to painting more in contradiction to his style. I have to say that those canvases of which Bréal spoke with delight struck me as dull (empatées), differing from the originals in their lack of the wonderful discreet vibrancy of color that marks every Ruysdael or Chardin; they also lacked the sonority of Matisse’s best canvases—an uneven but great painter.

Speaking of myself, I was long tormented by a duality of approach—analytical on the one hand, rational, growing from the Dutch tradition and to a certain extent from the pointillists, and on the other hand, the mad, the unpredictable—the true leap into the abyss. In this I saw a lack of unified personality, a kind of psychic dividedness that I tried to overcome artificially, without success. With time I noticed the same phenomenon not only in painters of Matisse’s stature, but even in one of the very greatest, in Goya. It’s enough to look at Goya’s paintings in the Prado. His cold, masterful portraits of great ladies, dignitaries, kings, and cardinals are painted so smoothly, to the degree that we don’t feel the angle of the brush, they are classical in composition and in the miraculous control of every detail, in the materiality of the object, the consideration given to local colors, careful in the advance gradation of the values. Next to these portraits, in a badly lit side room, there were hung in 1930 paintings of Goya so entirely different that it was difficult to believe they were painted by the same person. War scenes, wild scenes with witches, painted by “lightning,” in exaltation, so that we see every movement of the brush, color contrasts so violent they are almost like Soutine, a disdain for local color and the object’s materiality, so that some of the canvases give the impression of almost abstract color arrangements.

With the majority of painters this movement, from canvases marked above all by high painterly skill, to visionary canvases, is not as visible; not only on the canvas but even in the work process there is often an inscrutably slow transformation, without a transformative breaking off.

But let’s take Cézanne’s remark, his cult of the masters: “I feel like a child led by the hand when I look at the Louvre masters,” but at the same time: “In the face of nature we should forget about all masters and approach the impression as if we were the first to see nature.” This is the same breaking off, expressed differently. A breaking off into a unique, personal vision of the world.

One shouldn’t be afraid even to lose oneself in the study of nature, in an apprenticeship to past masters, as if one were an ignoramus or lacked individuality; one should take all of it merely as a point of departure, as a springboard to that further and bolder step into the unknown. The abler the artist is to “absorb” nature and at the same time acquire the objective knowledge of his craft and develop his sensibility and capacity for discrimination, the more power he will command at the moment he leaps.

USSR

1941

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