To Paint is to Love Again, Part 4: To Paint Like a Child

There’s a popular meme on the internet which says ‘Your only two emotions when you’re an artists’, and shows Bart Simpson in two states: 1) screaming ‘I am so great! I am so great!’, 2) lying in bed depressed. I’m not sure if there’s an artist who can’t relate to that. The elation however, as Henry Miller describes in “To Paint is to Love Again”, the book I’ve been sharing on my blog, does not occur often and last for very long, and likewise, self-doubts do come and go. Between the two states, the latter is better (as long as it’s not a state of complete resignation and paralysis), because the goal of a painter is not to produce perfectly executed images that will please himself and the audience, but to grow, develop, explore, experiment. And being euphoric about one’s work makes it impossible to critically evaluate the progress. While self-contentment is a nice feeling, it’s usually not very constructive, because it doesn’t push us to try new things, whereas the feeling of annoyance and anger with one’s work can often lead to bursts of brave and bold moves. And that’s when progress happens.

There are, of course, many painters who seem to have a kind of a production line going on, turning out one painting after another according to a tested formula, but as far as I’m concerned, that is not what painting is about. Of course, formulas are tempting — if it’s a successful one, then there’s always a risk that the new avenue won’t be met with approval, and the audience will keep praising the older works without engaging so much with the new ones. Which is why I have a great respect for artists like Agata Bogacka whose work underwent a massive transformation from catchy figurative linear works from the early 2000s which often featured as illustrations in women’s magazines, to much more demanding abstract pieces she’s been painting in the last decade. Last summer, Bogacka exhibited two works, one from 2003, and a recent painting, at a group exhibition called ‘Paint, also known as Blood’ at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. During a curated tour, she did a Q&A with a large audience, and one of the first questions she was asked was whether she would come back to painting the nude girls she did 20 years ago. I could feel her pain. This is how it must feel when a band is perpetually asked to record and play hits from their debut album. The larger the audience, the harder it is for the artist to stay immune to the outer pressure of pleasing and the inner pressure of wanting to be liked.

The devotion to explore ideas without instant judgement and being conscious of how they might be received is, as Miller observes, typical for children. One of the many challenges a painter faces is to re-learn to paint like a child — reach that state of purity and innocence, and immerse oneself in the work as if the outside world and potential criticism didn’t exist. Be brave. Be bold. Express oneself in a language that is true to one’s feelings and impulses. If you’ve been to an art school and have learned all the rules of perspective, proportions, composition, light and shadow, and so on, then going back to that prime, inner language of self-expression is not easy. And to be able to combine the child’s spontaneity and curiosity with a skillful hand of a trained artist is a rare trait. Miller mentions two people who in his eyes managed to achieve that: Paul Klee and his “twin soul”, Hans Reichel. Unfortunately for the latter, his style was so similar to Klee’s, that he never managed to reach the same recognition. Now, would that be a reason to change style? Because someone else has already established themselves as a pioneer in it? It’s the same dilemma as departing from something we no longer feel expresses us into a new and potentially unsuccessful direction, yet à rebours: why moving away from something we are passionate to explore? If the goal is to get noticed and considered a pioneer (if it’s at all possible to be a pioneer in painting any more but that’s a topic for another debate) then the artist needs to find a niche. But any calculated attempts to stand out will in my opinion result in art that might be striking and interesting at first glance, but lacks depth and real emotion behind it.

The art of a child, as Miller points out, is always honest and sincere, because it is ‘born of the direct, spontaneous approach’ and has pure feelings behind it. All painters should aim for that.


Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 4: To Paint Like a Child

The one thing I never learned from them [the Japanese artists], and it is truly disgraceful to admit, is discipline. For some inexplicable reason, I have never felt that I had the right to give to painting the time that is demanded. I preferred to ease out by saying that I am not a painter. I hardly even dare call myself an amateur. Yet I do paint and now and then I knock out what might be called a picture.

Perhaps the clue to this ambivalent attitude lies in the fact that I turn to painting when I can no longer write. Painting refreshes and restores me. It enables me to forget that I am temporarily unable to reign. So I paint while the reservoir replenishes itself. This is not always the case, however. Occasionally, I will paint after I have done my stint of writing for the day. That usually means that I am writing well, easily, have energy to spare. Then it’s touch and go, something to be over within a few minutes, an hour at most. Generally, the light is bad, the table cluttered, the dinner about ready to serve, one thing and another. In my haste and anxiety. I may do one or two monstrous looking things, but once I’ve done my food, I may go back to it and knock out a relatively good one or three or four, whether the light be good or bad. I may in fact become so intoxicated with my modest success as to abandon the writing and go on painting for days. Sooner or later, however, the writing drags me back to my desk. Now comes an equally exciting period, one in which I seize any and every opportunity to court my paintings. Stealing away from the typewriter, I sneak up with them and gaze in amazement. Did I really do that? And that? How?

In this mood, which fortunately doesn’t last forever, I’d rather stare at my own poor efforts than a Picasso, Vermeer, or even a Hokusai. The only artists for whom I would make way are children. For me, the paintings of children belong side by side with the works of the Masters. How many, many times I have tried to imitate or copy the work of a child! Again and again, on sitting down to paint, I’ve said to myself: “Now do one like that little Mexican boys, or like that Chinese girl did”, but it never works out that way. True, time and again someone has walked in on me during a painting jamboree and exclaim: “What joyous colors! What freedom! You must be having fun!” But is the joy of a child like man? Never have I noticed a child at work expressing this sort of joy. The child is too intent on what he is doing to absorb, to be aware of any accompanying emotion. Whatever the child does, whether expressive of fear, horror or anguish, the effect on the spectator is one of joy. The work of a child never fails to make appeal to claim us because it is always honest and sincere, always imbued with that magic certitude, born of the direct, spontaneous approach.

What a far cry it is from the felicitous products of the child’s hand to the knowing skilful work of an artist like Paul Klee, who had the ability to return us to the world of the child, as well as to that of the poet, the mathematician, the alchemist, the seer. In the paintings of Paul Klee we are privileged to witness the miracle of the pedagogue slaying the pedagogue. He learned in order to forget, it would seem. He was a spiritual nomad endowed with the most sensitive palps. His eyes from the photographs I have seen were full, round, liquescent, like a guru’s. They had this still alive expression of one gazing into a mirror, even when closed, and they are now, alas, closed forever. They must have looked out on the world and the world beyond this world. All that is active, searching, mind absorbed and transmuted was condensed into a constellated dream of reality. The metaphysical essence of things; precise, value, aesthetic through and through. He almost never failed, and he never, never said too much.

I suppose it was no accident that being enamored of his work, I finally became bosom friends with the painter who could rightfully be called his twin soul. I mean, Hans Reichel, whom I got to know soon after my arrival in Paris. If I were limited to knowing only one artist in a lifetime, one who would enable me to discover the purpose and the meaning of art, I would probably say: “Give me Hans Reichel”. Reichel was of the damned, a true poète maudit. Wedded to his art, he lived it, day by day. Lived for nothing else. It was his misfortune to paint in a manner which reminded one of Paul Klee. “How can I help it?” he once said to me, “If we see the world through the same eyes?”. Prior to his exile in France, he and Klee had been intimate friends. Though different in temperament and character, they were twin souls. Reichel’s world was a limited one. It comprised a few, very few, devoted friends. In truth, he hardly ever left the precincts of the 14th arrondissement where he lived. For him it was sufficient to take a stroll through the Park Montsouris or the Luxembourg Gardens. He had friends there whom we visited regularly: the birds, the plants, the fishes, the squirrels. He talked to them and they answered him. A small world, perhaps, but a full and rewarding one. He had no atelier. His bedroom with its tiny table chair, and window sufficed. To move about in his room was like staring through the Sargasso Sea. Yet there was order amidst the chaos. I once wrote him about it. A private little document inscribed by hand in a printer’s dummy.

Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 3: Through Painter’s Eyes

Cover image: Hans Reichel, Komposition, rotblaue Formen in winterlicher Umarmung, 1952, watercolour and gouache on paper | Image via Invaluable (fair use)
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