To Paint is to Love Again, Part 3: Through Painter’s Eyes
One of the things which particularly resonate with me in Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again” book is the idea of appreciating the everyday and familiar by viewing the world through painter’s eyes. We marvel at the beauty of places we visit when travelling: ancient ruins, neoclassical palaces, botanic gardens, charming little streets in Tuscany, lovely cafes in Montmartre. We admire these sights, fill our hearts with joy and then upon our return to the shabby flat in a dingy building, the joy immediately evaporates. Furthermore, the ugliness of our surroundings, which we’re normally used to, now contrasted with the views our eyes had been lusting over just moments ago, suddenly feels oppressive. And this is where painting comes in: painter’s eyes have the ability to look at the seemingly unappealing views with the same excitement as at the most breath-taking sights. It’s easy to admire beauty. It’s much harder (yet ultimately much more rewarding) to admire the ugly, the shabby, the ordinary, the familiar. But painting teaches us precisely that: to find beauty in the most unlikely places and sights. To look at the world through the eyes of a painter who saw a beautiful dance of light and shadow on a piece of concrete. With that ability, we can love and appreciate everything around us, from the cracked walls in our flat to the uneven pavement outside our building.
If we look at the history of painting, we’ll see countless examples of artists depicting the beauty of the ordinary, from the well-known Van Gogh who painted his bedroom, house and surrounding landscape to possibly lesser-known Kitchen Sink painters: a group of British artists (including Beaux Arts Quartet, John Bratby, Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith) working in the 1950s who painted ordinary people in scenes of everyday life. Or William Scott, a painter who, quoting Paul Leity, “made the everyday into a masterpiece“.
As for me, my celebration of the everyday focuses on the people. I am fascinated by bodies and faces regardless who they belong to. In fact, I prefer portraying those with irregular features and unusual quirks because I find there’s more mystery and complexity in the non-harmonious. But to me, any body is worth observing and portraying. I enjoy the parts of the body that are often overlooked: lower back, shoulder blades, wrists, knees, toes.
Henry Miller describes how amazed he was when he started looking at objects and people through painter’s eyes. I’m inviting you to take a look at the beaten up mug you’re drinking from and ponder on how it would look painted. (And if you’re interested in the philosophy dedicated to the appreciation of the imperfect, such as wabi-sabi and kintsugi, you might want to read an essay I wrote a few years ago on my other blog).
Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 3: Through Painter’s Eyes
I remember well the transformation which took place in me when first I began to view the world with the eyes of a painter. The most familiar things, objects which I gazed at all my life now became an unending source of wonder, and with the wonder, of course, affection. A teapot, an old hammer, or chipped cup, whatever came to hand, I looked upon as if I had never seen it before. I hadn’t, of course. Do not most of us go through life blind, deaf, insensitive? Now as I studied the object’s physiognomy, its texture, its way of speaking, I entered into its life, its history, its purpose, its association with other objects, all of which only endeared it the more. As with humans, I discovered, some kept good company, others bad. Some were happier, more eloquent when linked with this or that fellow object instead of another. I was never one to worry much about composition, though I knew it was something to be mindful of. Did the objects of my affection look well together? That’s all I asked. In other words, were they happy in the arrangement, willed or accidental, in which I found them?
Have you ever noticed that the stones one gathers at the beach are grateful when we hold them in our hands and caress them? Do they not take on a new expression? An old pot loves to be rubbed with tenderness and appreciation. So with an axe: kept in good condition, it always serves its master lovingly. I have always cherished old things, used things, things marked by the passage of time and human events. I think of my own self this way: as something much handled, much knocked about, as worn and polished with use and abuse. As something serviceable, perhaps I should say. More serviceable for having had so many masters, so many wretched, glorious haphazard experiences and encounters. Which explains, perhaps, why it is that when I start to do a head it always turns into a “self-portrait.” Even when it becomes a woman, even when it bears no resemblance to me at all. I know myself, my changing faces, my ineradicable Stone Age expression. It’s what happened to me that interests me, not resemblances. I am a worn, used creature, an object that loves to be handled, rubbed, caressed, stuffed in a coat pocket, or left to bake in the sun. Something to be used or not used, as you like.
It’s strange that in those years, when I was so eager to lap up everything that had to do with art, when my friend Aimard talked glowingly of men like Robert Henri, George Luks, John Sloan, I knew not one outstanding painter. Wadman Robinson, is true, was a client of my father’s, and he looked very much the artist. But I never had the nerve to even mention the word “art” in his presence. There was also Hank Stegel, a patron of the speakeasy my wife and I ran for a while in the Village, but again I was too shy. Besides, we only knew him a few months when he committed suicide. An exception was Frank Harris, another client of the tailing establishment. But one didn’t talk to Frank Harris, one listened. It was marvelous talk, too, which he indulged in and always on the same three themes: Jesus, Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.
Perhaps it was just as well, but I had no one to confide in. My friends were the Masters. Most of them dead. I lived with them, as Balzac did, with the empty frames which adorn the walls of his passing home in the days when he had nothing but debts and an unlimited imagination. Living with their works, I often wondered what it would be like to have as friends such men as Paul Klee, Mark Chagall, Rouault, Vlaminck. Toward the end of his life I had occasion to visit Vlaminck at his home in Normandy. It was an unforgettable experience, but too late. In Paris, I got to know Marcel Duchamp, the most civilized man I have ever met, Zadkine the sculptor, Kokoschka, Max Ernst, Soutine, Tihanyi, Gregory Michonze, Ephraim Doner, Hilaire Hiler, Abraham Rattner, Hans Reichel; Benno, the wild man from Borneo, and others. On my return to America, I became friends with Man Ray, Beniamino Bufano, Beauford Delaney, Jean Varda, Fernand Léger, Bezalel Schatz, and the adorable celebrated surgeon, Dr. Marion Souchon of New Orleans, who only began to paint when in his 70s. There is another man I should include here who, like Dr. Souchon, took up painting late in life. That is Meyer Hiler, the father of Hilaire. Everything Meyer Hiler did gave me intense pleasure. A knife painter as they say, he went at it directly, simply, lovingly, careful to put it in every break, every window, every leaf, every spoke. To my eyes, everything he turned out was a gem, a little masterpiece, which is more than I can say for many of the great painters.
As for influences, undoubtedly the Japanese exerted the most profound influence of all. They were the first artists whose work I hung on my walls, and they will probably be the last. Perhaps “influence” is too presumptuous a word to use in this connection, for certainly my watercolors reflect nothing of their skill, their devotion, or even of their manner of approach. I ought simply and humbly to say that they were my first and most lasting idols. It is they in my mind who should be called the masters of reality, masters not only of this floating world, but of all the worlds which go to make up our world.
Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 2: What is a Picture?