January 28, 2016

"There has to be a mystery...."

"The sun has changed position. 
No going back.
But the canvas remains warm."

A man wanders, as in a dream, through landscapes, towns, cities; he meets a monk, and a man in a roadside diner who needs to speak of his philosophy of life. Finally, he arrives at a building full of paintings, paintings that he describes as though they are real life: of a landscape he says: "If I just enter here, I will never come back". The Russian director Alexander Sokurov's Elegy of a Voyage, 2001, which you can watch online here, is a reverie, as this unknown man, mainly hidden from view, tries to find his place in the world. He finally discovers it within paintings, remembering himself to be at the site of the Pieter Saenredam painting shown above, there when it was painted, where he knew the people, the window, the light. Sokurov, who was the director of the brilliant Russian Ark, has a remarkable approach to paintings; I've never seen any depiction of them which brings them so close to actual life. For him, a painting is the same as a film; they are as real as each other, and as much of an illusion.

In an interview on the dvd containing two short films, Elegy of a Voyage, and Hubert Robert, A Fortunate Life (1996), Sokurov discusses the connection between painting and cinema: they are both flat:
....therefore all the talk of the third dimension in film is a game and a mistake. I think that one must do his utmost to achieve the same results artists manage to obtain while creating a painting.  
A flat image has something. Something that we hold back from the viewer. A reticence. And art is only where this reticence exists. A limitation of what we can actually see and feel.

There has to be a mystery, and the flat image provides this mystery.
I find this analysis of the heart of painting's magical nature fascinating. I've long felt that one of the things that is most compelling to me about doing my own paintings is creating an illusion of tangible reality; that the painting is actually flat makes this an uncanny process. Sokurov very emphatically state that he has no interest at all in 20th century art; for him, the greatest art was made during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. But I think that the idea of reticence also applies to 20th century abstraction, to all painting really. It all holds something back; it all asks us to think, to imagine, to feel. And what about realist sculpture? I wonder what Sokurov would say about that. Does providing a lot of information in a three dimensional work negate reticence, and therefore mystery? I would think it's a different kind of mystery: one that wonders how wood, clay, stone, can be transformed into an object that pulses with life, such as this ancient Egyptian portrait head of Senwosret III:

Is art "only where this reticence exists"? In the sense that artists are not gods, are not creating "reality"––though reality itself is something to argue about––yes. Yes, something is held back, and in that is art's mystery.


  1. Very thoughtful post, Altoon. Makes me question

    1. Yes....the "holding something back" provokes questions: "Does a painter deliberately 'hold-back" the third dimension when he or she has limited the work to two?"
      "Do I have an extra $83 to spend on this DVD?"
      "Can my inter-library-loan system find it for me?"
      "Did Ansel Adams really think people thought the color photograph in a catalog was actually a sweater?"
      So many questions!
      I keep falling back to a minimalistc: "art - telling the truth through lies".

    2. And what about an artwork just being a thing...an object? Must it always be about something else...or anything at all, except itself?

    3. Schimmel eagles, outrageously crudely made three-dimensional birds hacked out of pine, gesso, paint...wait....did that move?

  2. Before I respond to your comments, JBS, I'd like to ask you in future, that you put your comments in the comment box, rather than hitting "reply", unless of course you are actually replying to the previous comment. Not making your comment in a separate thread is confusing.

    So, it's not a matter of the painter deliberately holding back; it's the nature of the medium, just as in film 2 dimensions is the nature of the medium.
    No, you should not buy the dvd. Don't you have Netflix?
    "Ceci n'est pas un pipe", painted Magritte.
    Of course an artwork can be just about itself, meaning its formal qualities. Of course it's an object, but it's not just a shoe.

    1. I have tried to comment in the comment-box, and it is usually non-existent. I don't know whether the source of the problem has been my settings somehow, or the Blogger-template...or just a conflict between the two.
      Something of a Luddite, I do not have Netflix. I don't even know what it is.
      I am afraid that I have over-commented anyway.

    2. The comment box shows up underneath previous comments, under the "reply". But I know that Blogger can be glitchy.
      I can't believe you don't know what Netflix is! Do you know what google is? if so, you can google it.

    3. The "Add Comment" box has been at the bottom these past two times. It was absent when I was commenting under Julie's post.
      I have tried refreshing, signing-out-then-in, the whole shebang, before inappropriately commenting in the reply-box. Please forgive the confusion in the threads.
      I will DuckDuckGo Netflix. I'm Luddite-enough to despise google, along with not-existing on FaceBook; we can be quirky...

    4. Elegy of a Voyage....so wonderful.
      Then interview...https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxOJTnAB-Ks...It seems that Sokurov is revealing in his discussion of space and time, that motion is the defining element...that without it there is no time...and of course this is one big difference between painting and film.
      THANK YOU for bringing this to me!

    5. I'm so glad that you found the film and another interview, JBS. I'll listen to it soon.