The Generous Space
Wessel Huisman, Dieren, 2011
Through the years it has struck me that in the history of painting there have been moments of a special spatiality or depth in the works of various artists. Unfortunately, this spatiality cannot simply be defined by a single concept. In my view it is a mental space that could be specified as: handy, ingenious, hypnotizing, amazingly convincing, sometimes playful, sometimes austere, but most notably: it is a spatiality -or should we say depth- that always, in a natural way, finds its shape and measure in the process of painting itself. It seems to be the result of compositional considerations, but in effect and intensity it exceeds the meaning of the image. Although these characterizations have a rather literary connotation, I am talking about a quality that often has a mathematical accuracy. It is space that cannot exist without the picture, depth that cannot exist without the conscious intervention of the artist. Remarkably, the occurrence of this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be related to the conventional chronology of the history of art.
This text is the expression of a long process of observing, interpreting, verifying and comparing. Time and again. Sometimes it was ten years before I saw the same picture again, sometimes a few months, sometimes a few minutes.
My observations are somewhat paradoxical. They are not scientific conclusions, since I cannot give hard evidence to prove my assumptions. This is not only because I don’t have the opportunity to do more extensive research into the context of these phenomena, but also because language fails to describe essentially the phenomenon I am discussing. On the other hand, observing is part of my profession in the same way that a lung specialist uses his eyes to study X-rays. In my field of study this implies that I can, to a high degree, eliminate taste. That is to say, my observations are subjective in the sense that it is me who is looking and reflecting.
In my view my observations go beyond the stage of opinions. What I describe is not an opinion but something that presents itself in reality. And, perhaps even more important, my thoughts on this phenomenon are nourished every day by new practical experiences in my studio. As my sources of information are accesible to the reader, what I discuss can be verified. Before getting through to the concept of space, I would like to determine my position in the next few paragraphs.
Painting is an old, rich and meaningful language; in fact it is the oldest language that people have. There is no other medium that -on the plain surface- can open up, imagine or hide so much. It can, more than anything else, determine one’s relationship to ‘matter’. The possibilities of expression by means of paint are almost unlimited. Compare Van Gogh with Mondriaan or Willink, Dali with Pollock or De Chirico; Rothko with Lüpertz or Tuijmans. Paintings bring you face to face with illusions and, at the same time, with the reality of paint itself. Learning to paint is at least as complex as learning to play the violin or training for a medical specialism. It takes many years to master the material aspects, to learn how to observe and to become aware of what you really see when you look at your own works. To me a good insight into the way the language of painting has developed itself is indispensable for a good understanding of what I’m doing myself. I want to know how I relate to other painters, how I value the works of colleagues from the past.
A method of one’s own
Having one’s own method or style is not a goal in itself, but the result of something else. In 1989 I was facing a problem that had been dormant for a long time. In retrospect I realise what this problem came down to: I was at a loss with the surface of the painting. During the preceding years I had done a lot of drawing. When working with paint, I also used a drawing-like manner. I painted large constructions, monumental station halls and bombed cities. Although light-and-dark was an important instrument, the working of space got more and more attention. I had learned to master the laws of perspective, but gradually I found that this was not sufficient to satisfy my need or longing for ‘space’. I didn’t manage to enlarge the spatiality of the surface on which I was painting. On the contrary, I ran up against something impenetrable, almost literally (the shape of) a shield. For some time I even used this fact as a basic assumption for both my two-dimensional and three-dimensional work, but I soon realised that the method I had used since my days at the Academy of Arts wasn’t satisfactory any longer.
I went back to my greatest fascination: light-and-dark, clarity. I set myself a simple task: how do I materialize light? In fact, this question implied: what is the essence of painting to me? What does it mean to put paint on a flat surface?
I still consider it a big miracle that, when I use my brush this way, you recognize this speck as a walking figure or a window or the frame of a roof, whereas the same paint, used differently, produces an ‘abstract’ little square or rectangle. Both specks carry an expression, a meaning. They give space and measure to the surface!
Today it is very much in vogue to say that visual arts are not there to please. That visual arts should go beyond creating an aesthetic experience, suggesting that the ‘traditional’ techniques have failed to do so. But what’s the use of hunting for a self-created demon? The worst thing is the suggestion that the visual arts so far have not been able to do more than just please. I shall come back to this.
You can approach a painting in many different ways. Here I will mention especially those aspects that are important to what I’ll bring up in the course of this essay. A painting consists of a base on which paint has been applied. The image you see is subject to grammatical rules which determine (a good understanding of) what you perceive. A painting can be figurative or abstract. In the former case you can reduce shapes and images to recognizable things. In the latter this hardly applies, if at all. In the former case the image automatically refers to a three-dimensional reality and possibly to other paintings; in the latter there is no direct image-relation to a visible reality, at the most there is a relation to other abstract paintings. Since nobody is without experiences, a painting may, consciously or unconsciously, refer to other images, to one’s own memories; it may evoke associations. It may activate your memory. At the same time a painting remains a very real thing, with a concrete size and a clearly material expression.
In the course of the years I have noticed that a painting affects you in many more ways than you might expect purely on the basis of the image. Observing, experiencing something implies putting forward your own history. That is why your memories in relation to observing are so crucial, why maintaining your own references is important.
Space in the flat surface, space-illusion versus space-representation
During that period, when I returned to simple ‘painting light’, I discovered a different way of suggesting space, which had been examined bij artists such as Mondriaan and Van der Leck. As opposed to space-illusion, which can be evoked by applying the laws of perspective, I developed a notion, which I call space-representation. Bart van der Leck talks about ‘flat spatiality’. It is space that takes shape in one’s head.
In 1990, in Villa Julia (Rome), I saw for the first time life-size pictures of Etruscan tomb-paintings. A crucial discovery. Their clarity, space and human measure struck me as timeless. It was also the first time that, in a figurative painting, I found myself confronted in a natural way with an abstract spatiality. It was quite a relief to see how meaningful images were easily combined with decorative elements. Or rather, that the distinction between meaningful and ornamental elements - rhythmic colour patterns à la Gerhard Richter or Peter Struyken - was no issue. Splendid examples are the tomba dei Tori, or the tomba dei Baroni. Although the Egyptians also, in a special way, combined surface and representation, often in combination with language characters, particularly the Etruscan paintings between the 6th and the 4th century B.C. show monumental wall paintings, the surface of the wall being the imaginary space in which the scene takes place.
You can see space, e.g. a room or a street, in the form of a painted illusion. In the case of a painting with space-representation you don’t necessarily see an image that refers to a three-dimensional situation. Yet, there is something in the image that makes your eyes register a spatial sensation. Simple as it may seem in these words, this is a fascinating phenomenon. Apparently your eyes can perceive space in a two-dimensional object even if the image as such does not give cause for this by recognition or association. There must be more to it.
As I explicitly stated earlier in this essay, the use of paint in my opinion moves between two poles: either it serves to create a picture, the paint evoking the image of a recognizable shape, or it serves as its own material expression. Of course various combinations are possible, moving between figuration and abstraction. Since the beginning of the nineties I have deliberately been working with these two qualities. That is why in my paintings accents appear which have nothing to do with the image, which derive their meaning from the way the paint is positioned on the flat surface. Here the decisive criterion is whether such an accent stimulates the movement through the image and whether it helps to create space-representation. Besides, I use these little entities, planes and lines to
achieve a balance in the image.
The working of these accents goes even further. Gradually I found that the only way for me to evoke the spatial quality of objects and situations in paint is by using these accents. It has everything to do with the specific reality of painting, with representations in paint. I discovered that the way I put these accents completely depends on the specific painting, the specific space. There is no recipe. I suppose that many people who appeciate my work hardly notice the accents, or take them for granted as a slip of the brush, a kind of poetic licence. When talking about my human figures, people often associate them with impressionist paintings. The soft touch, the casual note. But nothing is further from the truth. On the contrary, I weigh and place these accents with the utmost care. Because the ‘inner’ consistency of the painting depends on it. Ultimately, I don’t consider a painting of my own completed until I have achieved the right balance in its movement and rhythmicality. Sometimes, I even deliberately run counter to the perspective in order to obtain the right spatiality. As a matter of fact, this is of course a great mistery! For how is it possible that spots put on to disturb the space illusion have the opposite effect, i.e. they create space. Again, this goes to show that the working of a painting is subject to its own reality as a painting. What happens within the image is determined by laws and rules different from the ones that you, consciously or unconsciously, associate with three-dimensional reality. Rules that influence the way you perceive.
Space-representation in time perspective
If you describe the history of painting with a view to space-representation,
you arrive at a structure which is different from the now generally accepted chronological one.
Starting from the running buffaloes and horses in pre-historic cave paintings,
I clearly set a first highlight with the Etruscans and their paintings, mainly concentrated around Tarquinia. It’s not until the fifteenth century that painters, especially in the Southern Netherlands and Italy, again observe this clear space and know how to reproduce it. I am referring to the paintings by Jan and Hubert van Eijck, Rogier van der Weiden, Hans Memling, Rafael, Perugino’s altarpieces, Carpaccio’s panels, the paintings by Antonella de Messina, to mention a few examples. Then it lasts until the second half of the nineteenth century before a number of impressionists again trace the space that I’m referring to. Especially (the young) Pissaro and Sisley show their ability to evoke an abstract spatiality in a figurative scene. The same goes for James Ensor. In the beginning of the twentieth century there are a great number of experiments and individually formulated starting points. It’s not the cubists –with their investigation into the relation between two- and three-dimensionality,
the simultaneous occurrence of different aspects of a spatial shape (whether or not under the influence of movement) – but particularly a number of constructivist artists as well as artists connected with de Stijl who succeed in creating that spatiality in their paintings.
Though this survey is heavily simplified, it is the essence of what I have observed during many years of looking.
Before discussing the various manifestations of space-representation, I’d like to do justice to a number of exceptional cases. Take e.g. the clear miniatures from the eighth/ninth century (appendix 3,20) or the individual solutions by 13th century and 14th century Italian painters. Or the special, flat spatiality in Giotto’s work, as represented by his frescos in the Francesco-church, Assisi. It was Michelangelo who stated that the main point in painting is solving the problem of space in the flat surface! Furthermore I mention Jan Vermeer’s universe with its hypnotizing abstract compositions. Cannaletto and Bernardo Bellotto are particularly known for their panoramas and townscapes. The space-representation that I’ve been referring to appears most strongly in some of their less spectacular paintings.
In the 19th century it is Weissenbruch who, as it were, announces Mondriaen in some of his paintings. Once you have experienced Weissenbruch’s sense of spatiality, you immediately recognize his paintings. Although Marcel Duchamps’ work mainly gets attention because of his conceptual approach, to me its value lies in the great attention he gives to spatial effects. It is absolutely no coincidence that one of his most important works ‘The great glass’ consists of shapes that are suspended in space. Another ‘must’ on this list is Morandi. Of the contemporary painters I would like to mention Luc Tuijmans.
I am fully aware of the geographic limitations of my orientation. Two examples will suffice to indicate that the phenomenon is not restricted to the western world. I mention some anonymous 16th century Turkish pictures which I saw a couple of years ago; they show great resemblance to Mondriaan’s ‘Victory Boogy Woogie’. I also mention Hokusai, whose 36 views of Fuji Mountain give a fascinating, autonomous space to the paper on which they were printed.
Space-representation, a further explanation
Above I characterized the paintings from the three periods on the basis of their spatiality. Thus I come to distinguish two main groups:
The first group consists of paintings which have a structure that tends to be playful and accidental. They include the Etruscan paintings, such as the ‘tomba dei Tori’, the ‘tomba della Caccia e Pesca’ and the ‘tomba del Barone’, Sisley’s paintings, Pissaro’s early works and countless paintings by Ensor. Besides the works by Mondriaan and van der Leck from the period 1915-1917, Duchamps’ ‘The great glass’ and other flat/spatial glass tableaus. Although, historically speaking, van Doesburg should also belong to this group, I think he is too much an opportunist, he changes his style like someone else changes his coat. To me his work generally comes across as too much contrived and too dogmatic, an early example of an artist who is no longer able to experience reality as such, but only through concepts based on opinions and theories about what reality should be. In fact this also goes, to an even larger extent, for the paintings by Jan Dibbets, who claims to be (by way of Mondriaan) a direct heir to Saenredam...
In the twenties and thirties even Mondriaan doesn’t seem to be void of absolute principles; it is quite a relief to see what happens at the end of his career in paintings such as ‘Broadway Boogy Woogy’ and ‘Victory Boogy Woogy’!
The movement in the paintings is mainly ‘pulsating’, i.e from the front to the back, which strengthens the depth-effect. Besides, the image seems to be part of a larger surface.
The second group consists of paintings which have an express or even strict compositional structure. As a result of this structure the spectator can’t help wandering through the image; the indicated directions make your eyes move automatically through the painting.
The basic compositional lines often trace a circular movement around an imaginary centre. The movement is both from the front to the back and vice versa. This is the result of shapes or image-elements occurring flat, i.e. without any perspective distortion, within the composition. In 15th century paintings such an effect is created by views in the form of doors or windows.
The most important thing, however, is that the value of these paintings is not determined by the figurative image or by the emotion evoked, but by the mental or meditative quality. Harmony carried out to a high degree of perfection,
existing in the reality of the painting as an object, as a surface with organized paint.
In these paintings the two forms of spatiality, space-illusion and space-representation, coincide. I am talking about the works of Memling, Carpaccio, Antonella da Messina, Rafael in his early period, Vermeer. In the 15th century portraits it is the very secure assessment of measure, colour, clarity and the relative position of the surfaces.
How can we explain that, generally speaking, only in a few periods artists have been able to represent space in the flat surface in such a way that this mental message - or rather the suggestion that such an open space exists and can be created by an individual artist- goes far beyond the meaning of the figurative image. Can we assume that it tells us something about the mental condition of that period, about its collective awareness, about the attitude of these consciously living individuals towards their own lives? After all you cannot create that space if you have not internalized it; at least you must recognize it whenever it occurs, and decide to leave the painting as it is at that stage.
Remarkably, both in the 15th and in the 19th century we see a renewed orientation towards reality with an emphasis on empirical investigation. Perception is crucial.
The following hypotheses will have to be examined in a more elaborate study, but I can’t help suggesting them to the reader as serious options:
- The development of the art of painting (or rather: making two-dimensional images on a flat surface) is not linear, i.e. from primitive to highly civilized, from zero to a higher number.
- The above-mentioned periods in painting coincide with breakthroughs in the field of (awakening) freedom, with a springtime in thinking (immediately followed by summer/autumn/winter). A comparison between the 16th and the 20th century becomes inevitable.
- Bright periods are followed by a relapse as soon as achievements come to be used in a one-sided way. Or to put it differently: those achievements tend to be rationalized (sometimes to a high degree). The present-day conceptual approach in art -most practitioners not having sufficient intellectual baggage or a solid historical insight- shows how notions that originally were valuable may be corrupted. The current discourse about visual arts is not -or hardly- about reality; it doesnt seem to be founded on experiences of reality. They oppose each other on the level of opinions about reality. Today they say this, tomorrow something else. They know reality only from its theory. Faced with reality they are powerless. It is the conflict I already referred to when I described Van Doesburg’s position.
The generous space
‘ ... this made me think of Mississippi Gene too; and as the river poured down
from mid-America by starlight I knew, I knew like mad that everything I had
ever known and would ever know was One.’
In June 2005 I visited the Memling-exhibition in Brugge. For many years I have had a great admiration and fascination for this 15th century Flemish painter. While I was watching the portraits, I asked myself what constitutes the value of his little panels. Why are these ‘silly little paintings’ so meaningful? I made the following notes:
“Presence/reality. The portraits, the compositions are so real. Does this still have anything to do with painting? On the one hand the act of painting is completely denied/ is completely invisible (‘painters of matter’). At the same time this is sublime painting which is not about itself (as opposed to ‘matter-paintings’, the working of which is based on the material expression of the paint and other added materials). This is all the more striking when you see Memling’s contemporaries and especially his successors who copied his work. There you see the irregularities, the lack of balance. There the makers are clumsily present.
By ‘presence’ I also mean: in the front. Beyond the imaginary forefront the image is strongly present in its modesty. It is the purity of the composition, most clearly in the painting of the woman with the thin veil from the ‘St. Janshospitaal’. In the composition the painter has achieved a delicate point.
I don’t think there is anything more real than what I am observing at this moment ..”
Behold the paradox in its full scope. Reality being revealed to you through the langauage of a painted reality. An illusion that evokes a reality which is more real than real.
Partly as a result of this experience I came to realize that this is essentially what I am looking for in my work. To be reminded of this moment. Instead of longing to go back to the moments when I observed light-situations for the first time, I want to bring everything into the present, the only moment that counts.
This is why I can use very different photographic pictures as a starting point for a painting. The historic specificity of the photographic picture that I use as a starting point is relative. It provides the entourage for organizing the paint. And it doesn’t make any difference whether I take an interior, a skyline or a street scene as a starting point.
The unity in my work, that which links my paintings is the space that develops in the process of painting. The generous space, as I call it. Unselfish, accessible to anyone who is willing to observe. The same effect is brought about by the paintings from the second group (see above). The painting constantly draws your attention to your own reality. The reality of the beholder; to quote Schopenhauer: you observe yourself in what you see. At that moment you are unmistakably reminded of yourself, of your own sensitivity.
The accents in my pictures bring the piece of work to this place (of the painting)
and this moment (of beholding). In contrast to Mondriaan and Van der Leck I am not concerned about the universal or the absolute. What fascinates me is that which develops between the historic, place- and time bound incident (the image) on the one hand, and the movement of the accents saying only ‘now’ on the other hand. I want to emphasize that my generous space does not imply a mystification in the sense of metaphorical, allegorical or other levels of meaning. The value lies in the act of observing. And again- and observing again and seeing the image as a specifically organized image of paint. Instead of sticking to the recognition of what is represented, or looking for hidden meanings or messages by the maker. Removing the continuous conflict between the image and what is intended.
The meaning of what you see lies in the way it affects you while you’re observing, in the way it changes your mental state.
In June 2005 Memling said: you, there, now!