Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Heat of Battle

Last time, we plunged headlong into a complicated discussion of subtle properties of Ingres drawings, and the subtle mechanisms they answer to in the brain.

Since then, I've had a chance to actually see a bunch of these drawings in person. I forgot, I live in New York. It turns out New York is the kind of place where you can drop by the Morgan Library and see a show of a dozen or so of their own Ingres drawings and a second show of drawings from the Louvre, including a bunch of other Ingres drawings, including this one:

It turns out the two figures are wedged together like that because each one was cut out from a larger piece of paper and then they were matted and framed together. By, I suppose, a goddamned idiot.

But I did not come here today to scoff at French curators with you. Non. Rather, I would like to discuss something else which this show brought vividly to mind. I think Stanislavski says it better than I can - in this scene, the drama student narrator of An Actor Prepares finally reaches the point of real acting:

My hand ceased wrapping the string around my fingers and I became inert.

'This is the very depth of the ocean,' explained Tortsov.

I do not know what happened from then on.


Tortsov explained: 'The coming of inspiration was only an accident. You cannot count on it. But you can rely on what actually did occur. The point is, inspiration did not come to you of its own accord. You called for it, by preparing the way for it. ... The satisfying conclusion that we can draw from today's lesson is that you now have the power to create favorable conditions for the birth of inspiration. Therefore put your thought on what arouses your inner motive forces, what makes for your inner creative mood. Think of your super-objective and the through line of action that leads to it. In short, have in your mind everything that can be consciously controlled and that will lead you to the subconscious. That is the best possible preparation for inspiration. But never try for a direct approach to inspiration for its own sake. It will result in physical contortion and the opposite of everything you desire.'

Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, pp. 291-2

Stanislavski is describing a transmogrification I have treated before: that the act of art-making cannot be perceived - the narrator "does not know what happened." It can be prepared for, yet when it arrives, consciousness as we normally think of it zeroes out. Skills deploy of their own accord if they have been acquired in advance. Talent stretches itself to its limit. But the will and the understanding are curiously absent.

What Stanislavski describes relates pretty closely to every single description of pitched battle I have ever encountered. (Let me clear up any confusion: I have acted. I have not been in battle. I am a bad actor. I imagine I would be a fairly bad soldier.)

As I understand it, and I am very open to correction here, there are three fundamental types of battle:

• the seige
• guerilla skirmishes
• the pitched battle

Pitched battles are the ones we generally think of when we think of war: symmetric set-piece encounters where enemy forces meet, on a field if one is available, and try to kill each other. The force left standing wins. Bloodshed is worst when neither side will yield. Both sides will go on butchering one another, from the tribal warfare of ancient Greece to the trenches of World War I (for more on this, see Victor Davis Hanson's marvelous The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece)

Descriptions of pitched battle consistently invoke a condition in which the immediacy and dynamic multipolarity of incoming lethal force produce a constriction of the soldier's universe. Strategy and tactics erode, thinking erodes, all that remains is the exertion of countering force and a terrifying struggle to survive. The condition is similar to that of Stanislavski's actor - he is thrown back on training and character, and if he is to prevail, he had best hope these qualities, and luck, serve him well.

This strikes me as one reason that generals often sit on hills; so that they can think. The shape of pitched battle, and the guidance of its course, are overwhelmed in the midst of the fight.

This model of pitched battle is, oddly, rarely portrayed well in war movies. On the other hand, it is portrayed exceptionally well in virtually every zombie film - Field Marshal Moltke's comment that no plan survives contact with the enemy is faithfully rendered time and again when the walking dead are involved.

the enemy
(not pictured: the plan)

I, and most of you, have never experienced pitched battle, so essentially we don't know what we're talking about. But we have experienced a similarly universe-constricting condition, and that is illness. Do you remember, when you were sick, how your long-term plans, your overriding concerns, and your complex thoughts shimmered and dissolved, and you were reduced to - what is this smell - this heat - this dampness? What can I do to make this pain less?

There is an idea behind illness, but it is not apparent to the sick person. There is an idea behind pitched battle, but it is invisible to the soldier. The idea can be discovered, in the calm of cleanliness and quiet, and light and time, in the laboratory and the strategy tent. In the field, they are lost.

To bring this back around to Ingres, we have been studying him in the laboratory and the strategy tent. We have described his efforts and their effects from the perspective of utter premeditation and calculation. But picture-making, like acting, and battle, and disease, is a state not of thought, but of confrontation with force. It is categorically similar to battle: order emerges out of chaos, as a function of preparation and good fortune.

So what I learned - or, rather, remembered - confronting Ingres face-to-face, was that all these theoretical concerns are apart from the direct act of creation. Looking at Ingres drawings directly, you can see before you the struggle of their making: the curves traced out multiple times, uncertainly, as he gropes toward the shape he seeks; the abrupt dark checkmarks, overlying existing lines, where he decides a note of emphasis is required; the zigs and zags of a changing evaluation of how to confront the problem at hand.

Only in the faces does perfection annihilate all traces of its evolution. There are no errors in the faces, no dropped lines, no hesitations. Nor are there erasures. In person, you can duck to catch a raking light on the paper and study its texture. Erasure leaves alteration in the texture of the fibers of the paper. There are no erasures in the faces.

Even so, the experienced artist will recognize what he is seeing: a combination of profound talent, immense skill, and the forbearance to think through the placement of the preliminary marks, pencil hovering over the paper like a dowser's rod, before the fatal commitment proceeds. It is nearly superhuman - nearly, but not quite. I've done it. You've probably done it too. It is one of many tools; a tool on which Ingres relies heavily in his faces. The darkest lines in the faces occur near the end of the drawing process, once he is dead certain he's gotten their placement right. He builds up from light to dark, on a tightrope, avoiding error at each step, and finally gets his 100 in the class.

The moral of the story is that much of this blog approaches art from what might be called the wrong angle - we go into analysis quite a lot, teasing out the subtleties, the mechanisms, and the counterintuitive impacts of the mechanisms of picture-making. But this is not how I make work. Work is not made in the laboratory and the strategy tent. It is guided and understood from the hill, but it is made in the mud and the chaos and the heat of battle. This is important to remember.

Friday, November 25, 2011


You will perhaps remember that when we left off talking about Ingres, we were discussing the implication of form and volume in drawings of his like this one:

To continue, a little bit of neuroscience, courtesy of Dr. Margaret Livingstone.

In her marvelous book, Livingstone describes two evolutionarily distinct systems of visual processing in humans, which she calls Where and What. Where is a primitive system, shared with many mammals and tuned to movement and location. The younger What is a sophisticated system shared only with primates. It is responsible for object recognition and detail analysis.

What itself is subdivided into Form and Color (her casual names, it should be noted, do describe anatomically and functionally distinct structures).

Form is a high-resolution part of the system, using color differences and brightness differences to determine the shapes of objects. Color identifies the colors of objects, and it is surprisingly low-resolution.

As a matter of information processing efficiency, our brain basically produces a colorless high-resolution image, then smears some colors onto it, much like a painter proceeding from a well-defined grisaille underpainting to a hastily-completed color painting. This resolution difference has been exploited in video technology with the use of 4:1:1 color space. 4:1:1 is a data-compression system in which the brightness of each pixel of a frame is defined individually, but color is defined in blocks of four pixels:

4:1:1 saves a lot of space in a video signal, and interfaces perfectly satisfactorily with the lopsided resolutions of our Form and Color systems.

This simple general description unfolds, of course, to reveal all kinds of fascinating quirks. When we were talking about Ingres a few weeks ago, I made vague reference to how the heavy dependence on line makes unusually extensive use of "the information-completion procedures of the visual brain." By now, you should know that I don't especially like vague references. So I've been thinking about which exact procedures I'm alluding to, and this led me to re-consider one of the quirks of Form/Color integration in the evolved What system of the human brain.

In chapter 11 of her book, Livingstone gets into the nitty-gritty of how the separate information feeds from Form and Color are re-integrated to produce a coherent image in the mind. One of the topics that arises is color and edges. It turns out that part of the edge-detection machinery we discussed a while back results in our being strongly sensitive to colors at the boundaries between regions of unlike color, and weakly sensitive to colors in homogeneous color fields.

(As an aside, this gives us some insight into the sense of suggestion in Rothko paintings:

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960, oil on canvas, 114 1/2 in. x 105 5/8 in.

By producing nearly, but not quite, homogeneous color fields, he is producing the visual equivalent of a sound one cannot quite make out. He causes us to strain at the limits of our sensitivities, becoming awake to subtleties which we ordinarily fail to perceive. His fields begin to shimmer with suggestion, with the evolving interaction between true presence and phantoms.)

But back to the point - we are sensitive to colors at the edges, not the centers, because of the edge-detection machinery of our visual systems. Our brain compensates for this physiological deficiency with a truly ridiculous trick: Autofill (my own sarcastic term, not Livingtone's). We see, for instance, a red apple as totally colored in part because our brain, receiving a "red edge" signal, fills the interior with red:

You see how you kind of see the interior of the bottom apple as reddish? I don't mean full-on red. But it doesn't look like the same white as the background. And yet, it is. That's "the information-completion procedures of the visual brain" I was talking about last time. Wild, huh?

Livingstone, wise in the ways not only of neurons but of paintings, illustrates her point with this Cezanne painting, The Lime Kiln (1890-94):

Cezanne, it would appear, was the man at exploiting this particular visual system quirk. All artists hack the human visual system at one or more points of weakness. Cezanne enjoyed using Autofill. Consider his apples as well:

Cezanne, Still Life with Apples, 1890-94, oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 21 5/8 in

Observe how he darkens the edges, and makes the colors more rich at the edges. This is not an outcome of the frontal lighting alone. It also answers to visual integration in the brain, producing a startlingly vivid sense of presence by reinforcing the mechanisms of the Form and Color systems.

The presence overwhelms that of more realistic depictions of fruit - Hockney points out the relative lack of vividity of Caravaggio's fruit:

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, 1597

Why? In part because Cezanne has amped up color and contrast. But also, because he is depicting not only what we see, but how we see it. We are observing not the external world, but the partly-garbled outcome of our means of perceiving the external world. The painting, in a sense, is already inside of us: what was inward has been made outward. He speaks to us, mind to mind, soul to soul. These apples are icons not only of matter, but of consciousness. I have discussed this concept with you before - a painting which is not biologically alive, but is in a metaphysical sense at the boundary of being a living thing. It is excavated from the depths of the mind, and shaped as it is by the processes of the brain, correlates with no thing in the physical world.

Now, I'd like to extend Livingstone's claim with a little experiment. Let's look at the same apple comparison with the color removed:

Huh, that worked. I just did this in Photoshop myself - you and I, my friends, are the laboratory for this experiment. You see how the interior of the bottom apple looks faintly darker than the background? Autofill is still working. If it's the same Autofill Livingstone describes, what this means is that the Color system doesn't depend on actual per se color to signal the mind to see a continuation of edge color. It just needs a value difference delineated by a sharp boundary on one side and a soft boundary on the other.

Now let's see what happens when I try this:

Yes! It works! OK, notice how the white region of the right half of the apple looks a little darker than that the of the left half? Almost as if a slice had been taken out of the left half, so that you were still seeing the apple's skin on the right, but the flesh of the apple on the left? Of course, all of that interior is exactly the same shade of white.

What we've done here is evoked a complex response on the part of Autofill. On the left, there is an edge, but no interior gradient shading to instruct the system to autofill the interior of the apple. On the right, the gradient shading does deliver the autofill-interior-of-apple instruction. Overall, we know the apple is one closed form. But our brains are treating it as having two different color regions, resulting in perception of two different interior brightnesses; even if we can't quite tell where the boundary lies, there is a distinction.

Forgive me if you've already deduced where I'm going with this. We are treating a simple example here, but an example with the markers I wanted to explore: a figure depicted on a white field by means of outlines of diverse qualities. Having demonstrated the principles involved in a simple system, we can extend the conclusion back up to the real system of interest:

Like Cezanne, Ingres has hacked Autofill. His variation of line is delivering a series of instructions to the Color system to observe value differences which are, for the most part, not actually depicted in the drawing. These value differences are interpreted by the mind as depictions of form. Ingres is using his mastery of line to trick the brain into seeing imaginary forms.

And that, my friends, is what makes Ingres a master and you and me a couple of shmucks with an art supply store discount card.

Let me add one more thing before signing off: I am not immune, as perhaps you are not immune, to the persistent worry that one can strip the mystery and beauty out of art by looking at some facet of it and finding out what it is and how it works. Reflecting on the matter, I have reached this formulation: that to know what it is and how it works is not the same as to know what it means, or why. We can - indeed, as working artists, to some extent we must - find out how to achieve the effects we intend. But to learn these things, even in the painfully analytic manner of this blog, has never breached, nor can ever breach, the muscular bond between the image in the eye and the sensation in the soul. Ingres, Cezanne, Rothko, and Caravaggio come through this examination intact, because when we look at them, we are not seeing with our analytic understanding alone. Indeed, for me, this additional element of knowing serves only to reinforce the impression - "How miraculous is their work, and how miraculous are we, to see things as we see them."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Claudia Does It Again

I'm working on a typically over-ambitious bit of discussion of Cezanne in relation to the topics raised by Ingres in the last post. In the meantime, here's how Longfellow translates the opening of Dante's Inferno:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

One time, that happened to Claudia. When she got out of the forest, she was an artist's model. As you might imagine, she did not art model with the idle fecklessness of somebody marginally supplementing their income, nor even with the cool professionalism of somebody taking pride in doing a job well. Claudia models with the zeal of somebody who has discovered what they are meant to do. She models like she means it.

Portrait of Claudia, graphite and white pencil on paper, 15"x11", 2010
This doesn't look exactly like her, but to me, it feels like her.

Being linguistically and analytically gifted as well, Claudia has a lot to say about the constellations of artists, models, and art she encounters in her charmed life. She writes the irresistibly charismatic Museworthy blog. Let me refer you there now, because she has done a typically generous and delightful thing: a virtual show of art by readers of her blog, including me. As ever, thank you for everything, Claudia...

Here's the post.

More soon.