Monday, 14 September 2015

The Palaeolithic artist: part 12

detail resampled larger (click to enlarge)

"All conscious psychic processes may well be causally explicable; but the creative act, being rooted in the immensity of the unconscious, will forever elude our attempts at understanding. It describes itself only in its manifestations; it can be guessed at, but never wholly grasped. Psychology and aesthetics will always have to turn to one another for help, and the one will not invalidate the other."

C. G. Jung, On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry Translated from “Über die Beziehungen der analytischen Psychologie zum dichterischen Kunstwerk,” Seelenprobleme der Gegenwart (Zurich: Rascher, 1931).Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 15: Spirit in Man, Art, And Literature: 015 (p. 87). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition. 

The entire painting
It occurred to me that it would be a simple matter to track down the Rembrandt painting where I had noticed a natural-looking drip of paint as a highlight on the nose. Everyone has seen a drip of paint, but to remember a specific drip after fifty years would almost seem impossible to do. There are only two Rembrandt self portrait paintings in the National Gallery. I was also in luck because that image is considered one of the best images on the English language Wikipedia and the full size image is 4,227 pixels high. I took a detail from the photograph, and using a trick I learned about resampling larger while maintaining good resolution brought the size up to where it just started to lose resolution. That point is as ideal as it can get, a balance of size and resolution. The above detail is 947 pixels high if you click on it. While capable of a few tricks, I cannot possibly get better resolution than the original photograph. The detail is still too blurry to see. When I saw it at the age of fifteen and with perfect eyesight (at that time, alas, no longer) I was inches away from the nose. This is no problem, here, however. I just wish I could see it again.

Fortunately, there are details that can be seen which will demonstrate my point: he had dragged an old, tattered hog bristle brush down the tip of the nose in one stroke to achieve the shading. All painters use such brushes for that sort of effect: even a tiny hog bristle blender would be too precise and would lack immediacy. More importantly, he used the same line in single stroke that I  have used, along with Cézanne and with the painter of the boar in the Altamira Cave and a myriad of other artists. That line is on the right side of the nose, and it creates depth for the nose. Without it, the nose would appear flat and unrealistic. This sort of thing is called "painterly".  what does "painterly" mean?  It is what good painters do. Define it further? impossible. It comes from the unconscious and there are no words at the depth of aesthetics.

Rembrandt is restrained by conventions: the triangular composition coming from the Renaissance, perhaps, and the chiaroscuro while used by many artists to different effects was something that Rembrandt had made his own in his later years. It becomes impossible to see at all in da Vinci's finished paintings which are built up, layer by layer and smoothed with the badger-hair blender. Again, a glazing technique.

Technique can be described, and frequently is described. I used to have a two-volume work on the techniques of all of the Masters. Technique is subjective and comes right from the conscious mind. when we go back further into the history of painting and sculpture, technique is not only subservient to religion, but while we thain that the artists were producing a style, that is just our projection. They were just not that good at depicting reality. They were not trying to raise aesthetics to any importance, that would have been blasphemy. they were thus not very good at it.

Jung was wrong when he said that the unconscious (objectivity) in art was only ever reached in modern times. When Picasso saw that cave, it moved him greatly and he said "After Altamira, all is decadence."  This is the resolution of the paradox where, as a  modern artist, we seem to meet ourselves, after aeons of darkness, in those caves.

Tomorrow, the Zen of Rembrandt and what happens when you can only use line, and nothing can be blended away.


  1. hi john,i went to kenwood house hampstead last sunday,we are only 15 mins away by car..i told the kids "what ever you do dont touch the paintings" they have a self portrait by Rembrandt there.what did i do,i touched the painting,getting a ticking off from a member of kids were really having a laugh at my expense on the way home.i couldnt help least i can say i touched a Rembrandt.kenwood house is full of treasures,first time i went there i must have been 8/9 years old and i visit at least 6/7 times a year,if anything just to walk the dog in those magnificent grounds.

    1. Hi Kyri
      I'll see if I can find that one on line. I have never been to Kenwood House, by father was not great on art. I still can't believe he wouldn't stop at Arundel Castle while were driving by it on holiday. That resentment will go with me to the grave. Sometimes I think I was found on their doorstep ;--)

      Whar bothers me most is when they will not let you touch sculptures. Every sculptor wants you to do just that. Otherwise they would have become painters!