Monthly Archives: July 2017

Naomi Shihab Nye on writing things down


Naomi Shihab Nye on writing things down:

Sit down with a notebook for about seven minutes a day, or if you prefer, for about three lines a day that belong to you, three lines that come out of your experience. Three questions you’re asking, or three details you’re wondering about. It’s good to have a regular time period when you do this. So sneak it in on a regular basis and your mind will feel very rich, and suddenly all these things will be recognized that have been gathering in your mind. This way you’ll become more flexible with language and at the end of a month you’ll have 90 lines that belong to you. Any one of them has the possibility of growing into a story, into a poem, into an essay or into some research you do at school. You have no idea where the little things you write down in your notebook can go. I don’t mean a diary where what you eat for breakfast, what the weather was like etc., although you could include that if you want to.

If you write things down you can grow into them later, believe them later, and sometimes something will come out of your pen and paper and you won’t be sure you understand it. But if you go back to it, it can perhaps mysteriously continue to guide you for years to come. So, by simply focussing and calming down to write a few words that may come from ‘somewhere else’ rather than from yourself, you may later discover that they can guide you.

So Much Happiness by Naomi Shihab Nye


So Much Happiness

by Naomi Shihab Nye

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records . . .

Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

Karl Ove Knausgaard: poem written after the death of his grandmother


Poem by Karl Ove Knausgaard written after the death of his grandmother

I found this in part five of  his six-part autobiography


Growing Wild


Your eyes are gone from the day

you’re gently faded out

My thoughts like mirrors

I lose control

Feel you within

Soft nights fall over me

My eyes are plunged in darkness

I want to fly

Want to believe in miracles

Feel you within

I shy from light and darkness

Who knows what you see

Who knows what will happen

Silence, silence

growing wild

The days crumble, disappear

Leaving no trace

I am always awake, waiting

Feel you within

feel you within

I shy from light and darkness

Who knows what you see

Who knows what will happen

Silence, silence

growing wild


Karl Ove Knausgaard: Some Rain Must Fall, pp. 289-90

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett


‘An Old Man’s Frenzy’: A Last Tribute by John Berger


Here is ‘A Last Tribute’, Chapter 3 of John Berger’s ‘The Success and Failure of Picasso’, which first appeared under the title ‘An Old Man’s Frenzy’ in Art International, issue no. 3, Summer 1988, pp. 21–30.

‘A Last Tribute’ by John Berger

The paintings which Picasso made as an old man, between the ages of seventy and ninety, were for the most part only shown in public after his death, and after this book was written. The majority of them show women or couples observed or imagined as sexual beings. I have already pointed out a parallel with the late poems of W. B. Yeats:

You think it horrible that lust and rage

Should dance attention upon my old age;

They were not such a plague when I was young;

What else have I to spur me into song?

Why does such an obsession so suit the medium of painting? Why does painting make it so eloquent?

Once more, Picasso forces us to question the nature of art and, for this, one must again be grateful to the ferocious, untameable, and unflinching old man.

Before attempting an answer to the question, let us clear the ground a little. Freudian analysis, whatever else it may offer in other circumstances, is of no great help here, because it is concerned primarily with symbolism and the unconscious. Whereas the question I’m asking addresses the immediately physical and the evidently conscious.

Nor, I think, do philosophers of the obscene – like the eminent Bataille – help a great deal because again, but in a different way, they tend to be too literary and psychological for the question. We have to think quite simply, about pigment and the look of bodies.

The first image ever painted displayed the bodies of animals. Since then, most paintings in the world have shown bodies of one kind or another. This is not to belittle landscape or other later genres, nor is it to establish a hierarchy. Yet if one remembers that the first, the basic, purpose of painting is to conjure up the presence of something which is not there, it is not surprising that what is usually conjured up are bodies. It is their presence which we need in our collective or individual solitude to console, strengthen, encourage, or inspire us. Paintings keep our eyes company. And company usually involves bodies.

Let us now – at the risk of colossal simplification – consider the different arts. Narrative stories involve action: they have a beginning and an end in time. Poetry addresses the heart, the wound, the dead – everything which has its being within the realm of our inter-subjectivities. Music is about what is behind the given: the wordless, the invisible, the unconstrained. Theatre re-enacts the past. Painting is about the physical, the palpable, and the immediate. (The insurmountable problem facing abstract art was to overcome this.) The art closest to painting is dance. Both derive from the body, both evoke the body, both in the first sense of the word are physical. The important difference is that dance, like narration and theatre, has a beginning and an end and so exists in time, whereas painting is instantaneous. (Sculpture is in a category by itself: it is more obviously static than painting, often lacks colour, and is usually without a frame and therefore less intimate – all of which demands another essay.)

Painting, then, offers palpable, instantaneous, unswerving, continuous, physical presence. It is the most immediately sensuous of the arts. Body to body. One of them being the spectator’s. This is not to say that the aim of every painting is sensuous; the aim of many paintings is ascetic. Messages deriving from the sensuous change from century to century, according to ideology. Equally, the role of gender changes. For example, paintings can present women as a passive sex object, as an active sexual partner, as somebody to be feared, as a goddess, as a loved human being. Yet, however the art of painting is used, its use begins with a deep sensuous charge which is then transmitted in one direction or another. Think of a painted skull, a painted lily, a carpet, a red curtain, a corpse – and in every case, whatever the conclusion may be, the beginning (if the painting is alive) is a sensuous shock.

He who says sensuous – where the human body and the human imagination are concerned – is also saying sexual. And it is here that the practice of painting begins to become more mysterious.

The visual plays an important part in the sexual life of many animals and insects. Colour, shape, and visual gesture alert and attract the opposite sex. For human beings the visual role is even more important, because the signals address not only reflexes but also the imagination. (The visual may play a more important role in the sexuality of men than women, but this is difficult to assess because of the extent of sexist traditions in modern image-making.)

The breast, the nipple, the pubis, the belly are natural optical foci of desire, and their natural pigmentation enhances their attractive power. If this is often not said simply enough – if it is left to the domain of spontaneous graffiti on public walls – such is the weight of Puritan moralizing. The truth is, we are all made like that. Other cultures in other times have underlined the magnetism and centrality of these parts with the use of cosmetics. Cosmetics which add more colour to the natural pigmentation of the body.

Given that painting is the appropriate art of the body, and given that the body, to perform its basic function of reproduction, uses visual signals and stimuli of sexual attraction, we begin to see why painting is never very far from the erogenous.

Consider Tintoretto’s Woman with Bare Breasts. This image of a woman baring her breast is equally a representation of the gift, the talent, of painting. At the simplest level, the painting (with all its art) is imitating nature (with all its cunning) in drawing attention to a nipple and its aureole. Two very different kinds of ‘pigmentation’ used for the same purpose.


Tintoretto, Woman with Bare Breasts

Yet just as the nipple is only part of the body, so its disclosure is only part of the painting. The painting is also the woman’s distant expression, the far-from-distant gesture of her hands, her diaphanous clothes, her pearls, her coiffure, her hair undone on the nape of the neck, the flesh-coloured wall or curtain behind her, and, everywhere, the play between greens and pinks so beloved of the Venetians. With all these elements, the painted woman seduces us with the visible means of the living one. The two are accomplices in the same visual coquetry.

Tintoretto was so called because his father was a dyer of cloth. The son, though at one degree removed and hence within the realm of art, was, like every painter, a ‘colourer’ of bodies, of skin, of limbs.

Supposing that beside the Tintoretto, we now put Giorgione’s Old Woman, painted about half a century earlier. The two works together show that the intimate and unique relation existing between pigment and flesh does not necessarily mean sexual provocation. On the contrary, the theme of the Giorgione is the loss of the power to provoke.


Giorgione, Old Woman, c. 1569

I met the Bishop on the road

And much said he and I.

‘Those breasts are flat and fallen now,

Those veins must soon be dry;

Live in a heavenly mansion,

Not in some foul sty.’

‘Fair and foul are near of kin,

And fair needs foul,’ I cried.

Yet no description in words – not even Yeats’s lines – can register as this painting does the sadness of the flesh of the old woman whose right hand makes a similar but so different gesture. Why? Because the pigment has become that flesh? This is almost true but not quite. Rather, because the pigment has become the communication of that flesh, its lament.

Finally, let us add to the other two paintings Titian’s Vanity of the World, in which a woman has abandoned all her jewelry (except a wedding ring) and all adornment. The ‘fripperies’ which she has discarded as vanity are reflected in the dark mirror she holds up. Yet, even here, in this least suitable of contexts, her painted head and shoulders cry out with desirability. And the pigment is the cry.

Such is the ancient mysterious contract between pigment and flesh. This contract permits the great Madonnas and Children to offer profound sensuous security and delight, just as it confers upon the great Pietàs the full weight of their mourning – the terrible weight of the hopeless desire that the flesh should live again. Paint belongs to the body.


Titian, Vanity of the World, 1515

The stuff of colours possesses a sexual charge. When Manet paints the Déjeuner sur l’herbe (a picture which Picasso copied many times during his last period) the flagrant paleness of the paint does not just imitate but becomes the flagrant nakedness of the women on the grass.

What the painting shows is the body shown.

The intimate relation (the interface) between painting and physical desire, which one has to extricate from the churches and the museums, the academies and the law-courts, has little to do with the special mimetic texture of oil paints, as I discuss in my book Ways of Seeing. The relation begins with the act of painting or watercolour. It is not the illusionist tangibility of the painted bodies which counts, but their visual signals, which have such an astounding complicity with those of real bodies.

Perhaps now we can understand a little better what Picasso did during the last twenty years of his life, what he was driven to do, and what – as one might expect – nobody had quite done before.

He was becoming an old man, he was as proud as ever, he loved women as much as he ever had, and he faced the absurdity of his own relative impotence. One of the oldest jokes in the world became his pain and his obsession – as well as a challenge to his great pride.

At the same time, he was living in an uncommon isolation from the world: an isolation, as I have noted, which he had not altogether chosen himself, but which was the consequence of his monstrous fame. The solitude of this isolation gave him no relief from his obsession; on the contrary, it pushed him further and further away from any alternative interest or concern. He was condemned to a single-mindedness without escape, to a kind of mania, which took the form of a monologue. A monologue addressed to the practice of painting, and to the dead painters of the past whom he admired or loved or was jealous of. The monologue was about sex. Its mood changed from work to work but not its subject.

The last paintings of Rembrandt – particularly the self-portraits – are proverbial for their questioning of everything the artist had done or painted before. Everything is seen in another light. Titian, who lived to be almost as old as Picasso, painted towards the end of his life the Flaying of Marsyas and the Pietà in Venice: two extraordinary last paintings in which the paint as flesh turns cold. For both Rembrandt and Titian the contrast between late and earlier works is very marked. Yet there also is a continuity, the basis of which is difficult to define briefly. A continuity of pictorial language, of cultural reference, of religion, and of the role of art in social life. This continuity qualified and reconciled – to some degree – the despair of the old painters; the desolation they felt became a sad wisdom or an entreaty.

With Picasso this did not happen, perhaps because, for many reasons, there was no such continuity. In art, he himself had done much to destroy it. Not because he was an iconoclast, nor because he was impatient with the past, but because he hated the inherited half-truths of the cultured classes. He broke in the name of truth. But what he broke did not have the time before his death to be reintegrated into tradition. His copying, during the last period, of old masters like Velázquez, Poussin, or Delacroix was an attempt to find company, to re-establish a broken continuity. And they allowed him to join them. But they could not join him.

And so, he was alone – like the old always are. But he was unmitigatedly alone because he was cut off from the contemporary world as a historical person, and from a continuing pictorial tradition as a painter. Nothing spoke back to him, nothing constrained him, and so his obsession became a frenzy: the opposite of wisdom.

An old man’s frenzy about the beauty of what he can no longer do. A farce. A fury. And how does the frenzy express itself? (If he had not been able to draw or paint every day he would have gone mad or died – he needed the painter’s gesture to prove to himself he was still a living man.) The frenzy expresses itself by going directly back to the mysterious link between pigment and flesh and the signs they share.

It is the frenzy of paint as a boundless erogenous zone. Yet the shared signs, instead of indicating mutual desire, now display the sexual mechanism. Crudely. With anger. With blasphemy. This is painting swearing at its own power and at its own mother. Painting insulting what it had once celebrated as sacred. Nobody before imagined how painting could be obscene about its own origin, as distinct from illustrating obscenities. Picasso discovered how it could be.

How to judge these late works? It is too soon. Those who pretend that they are the summit of Picasso’s art are as absurd as the hagiographers around him have always been. Those who dismiss them as the repetitive rantings of an old man understand little about either love or the human plight.

Picasso, Nu couché, 1972

Picasso, Nu couché, 1972

Spaniards are proverbially proud of the way they can swear. They admire the ingenuity of their oaths, and they know that swearing can be an attribute, even a proof, of dignity.

Nobody ever swore in paint before.




On choosing a subject matter by John Berger


On choosing a subject matter by John Berger

Here is an extract from John Berger’s The Success and Failure of Picasso:


The painter is now free to paint anything he chooses. There are scarcely any forbidden subjects, and today everybody is prepared to admit that a painting of some fruit can be as important as a painting of a hero dying. The Impressionists did as much as anybody to win this previously unheard-of freedom for the artist.

Yet, by the next generation, painters began to abandon the subject altogether, and paint abstract pictures. Today the majority of pictures painted are abstract.

Is there a connexion between these two developments? Has art gone abstract because the artist is embarrassed by his freedom? Is it that, because he is free to paint anything, he doesn’t know what to paint? Apologists for abstract art often talk of it as the art of maximum freedom. But could this be the freedom of the desert island?

It would take too long to answer these questions properly. I believe there is a connexion. Many things have encouraged the development of abstract art. Among them has been the artists’ wish to avoid the difficulties of finding subjects when all subjects are equally possible.

I raise the matter now because I want to draw attention to the fact that the painter’s choice of a subject is a far more complicated question than it would at first seem. A subject does not start with what is put in front of the easel or with something which the painter happens to remember. A subject starts with the painter deciding he would like to paint such-and-such because for some reason or other he finds it meaningful. A subject begins when the artist selects something for special mention. (What makes it special or meaningful may seem to the artist to be purely visual – its colours or its form.) When the subject has been selected, the function of the painting itself is to communicate and justify the significance of that selection.

It is often said today that subject matter is unimportant. But this is only a reaction against the excessively literary and moralistic interpretation of subject matter in the nineteenth century. In truth the subject is literally the beginning and end of a painting. The painting begins with a selection (I will paint this and not everything else in the world); it is finished when that selection is justified (now you can see all that I saw and felt in this and how it is more than merely itself).

Thus, for a painting to succeed it is essential that the painter and his public can agree about what is significant. The subject may have a personal meaning for the painter or individual spectator; but there must also be the possibility of their agreement on its general meaning. It is at this point that the culture of the society and period in question precedes the artist and his art. Renaissance art would have meant nothing to the Aztecs – and vice versa. (If, to some extent, a few intellectuals can appreciate them both today it is because their culture is an historical one: its inspiration is history and therefore it can include within itself, in principle if not in every particular, all known developments to date.)

When a culture is secure and certain of its values, it presents its artists with subjects. The general agreement about what is significant is so well established that the significance of a particular subject accrues and becomes traditional. This is true, for instance, of reeds and water in China, of the nude body during the Renaissance, of the animal head in Africa. Furthermore, in such cultures the artist is unlikely to be a free agent: he will be employed for the sake of particular subjects, and the problem, as we have just described it, will not occur to him.

When a culture is in a state of disintegration or transition the freedom of the artist increases – but the question of subject matter becomes problematic for him: he, himself, has to choose for society. This was at the basis of all the increasing crises in European art during the nineteenth century. It is too often forgotten how many of the art scandals of that time were provoked by the choice of subject (Géricault, Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Lautrec, Van Gogh, etc.).

By the end of the nineteenth century there were, roughly speaking, two ways in which the painter could meet this challenge of deciding what to paint and so choosing for society. Either he identified himself with the people and so allowed their lives to dictate his subjects to him; or he had to find his subjects within himself as painter. By people I mean everybody except the bourgeoisie. Many painters did of course work for the bourgeoisie according to their copy-book of approved subjects, but all of them, filling the Salon and the Royal Academy year after year, are now forgotten, buried under the hypocrisy of those they served too sincerely.

Those who identified themselves with the people (Van Gogh, or Gauguin in the South Seas) found new subjects and renewed, in the light of the lives of those for whom they saw, old subjects. A landscape by Van Gogh has a totally different meaning (and reason for being selected) from a landscape by Poussin.

Those who found their subjects within themselves as painters (Seurat or Cézanne) strove to make their method of seeing the new subject of their pictures. In so far as they succeeded in doing this, as we saw in the case of Cézanne, they changed the whole relationship between art and nature, and made it possible for every spectator to identify himself with the vision of the painter.

Those who took the first solution were mostly driven on by the terrible pressures of loneliness. Because they wanted to ‘belong’ they became socially conscious. Having become socially conscious, they wanted to change society. It is in this sense only that one can say that they were political, and that they chose their subjects by the standards of a future society.

Those who took the second solution were more reconciled to being isolated. Their devotion was to the logic of their vocation. Their aim was not to submit their imagination to the demands of the lives of others, but on the contrary to use their imagination to gain an ever-increasing control of their art. They chose their recurring subject – which was their method of seeing – to create the standards of a future art.

No artist will fit neatly into either of these categories. I am deliberately being diagrammatic so as to shed some light on a very complex problem. The important artists of this century can also be approximately divided into the same two categories: those whose method of seeing transcends their subjects: Braque, Matisse, Dufy, de Staël, etc., and those whose choice of subject insists upon the existence of another (tragic or glorious) way of life, distinct from that of the bourgeoisie: Rouault, Léger, Chagall, Permeke, etc.

We must now return to the consequences of Picasso’s isolation as they have affected his art. He has not lacked appreciation. Nor has he lacked creativity. What he has lacked are subjects.

“When it comes to it, there are very few subjects. Everybody repeats them. Venus and Cupid becomes the Virgin and Child, then a Mother and Child, but it’s always the same subject. To invent a new subject must be wonderful. Take Van Gogh. His potatoes – such an everyday thing. To have painted that – or his old boots! That was really something.”

In this statement – it was part of a conversation with his old dealer Kahnweiler in 1955 – Picasso unwittingly reveals his difficulty. No other statement tells us so much about the fundamental problem of his art. Only in the crudest sense is a Venus and Cupid the same subject as a Virgin and Child. One might as well say that all landscapes from the early Italians to Monet are the same subject. The meaning of a Venus and Cupid, the significance of all that has been selected to be included in the picture, is totally different from that of a Virgin and Child, even when the latter is secular and has lost its religious conviction. The two subjects depend on an utterly different agreement being imagined between painter and spectator.

Certainly Van Gogh painted new subjects. But they were not ‘inventions’. They were what he naturally found as a result of his self-identification with others. All new subjects have been introduced into painting in the same way. Bellini’s nudes, Breughel’s villages, Hogarth’s prisons, Goya’s tortures, Géricault’s madhouse, Courbet’s labourers – all have been the result of the artist identifying himself with those who had previously been ignored or dismissed. One can even go so far as to say that, in the last analysis, all their subjects are given to artists. Very few, such as he has been able to accept, have been given to Picasso. And this is his complaint.

When Picasso has found his subjects, he has produced a number of masterpieces. When he has not, he has produced paintings which eventually will be seen to be absurd. They are already absurd, but nobody has had the courage to say so for fear of encouraging the philistines for whom all art, because it is not a flattering looking-glass, is absurd.

The experience is Picasso’s experience of his own way of painting. It is like an actor being fascinated by the sound of his own voice or the look of his own actions. Self-consciousness is necessary for all artists, but this is the vanity of self-consciousness. It is a form of narcissism: it is the beginning of Picasso impersonating himself.

It would be petty to draw attention to such a failure if it was incidental. What artist has not sometimes been vain or self-indulgent? But later, after 1945, a great deal of Picasso’s work became mannered. And at the root-cause of this mannerism there is still the same problem: the lack of subjects – so that the artist’s own art becomes his subject.

What is all the drama about? Unhappily, it is about being painted by Picasso. And that is the extremity of mannerism, the extremity of a genius who has nothing to which to apply himself.