To Paint is to Love Again, Part 7: Ingres’s Violin

E.E. Cummings, Sound, 1919, oil on canvas, 89.2 x 88.9 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York © The Estate of E.E.Cummings | Image via Guardian (free use)

“What kind of art do you do?” must be one of the questions artists are most frequently asked. It makes perfect sense, for “art” encompasses a great number of disciplines. In my case, this used to be: theatre design, art direction, graphic and motion design, animation, and various inter-disciplinary work. These days, my main focus is on painting and to some extent writing, but I’ve also been making music with friends.

It is rare to find an artist dedicated to just one form of expression. In his “To Paint is to Love Again” book, Henry Miller wrote about artist’s penchant for expressing themselves in a variety of ways, calling this phenomenon “Ingres’s Violin”. The phrase, as we can read on the Word Histories blog, “refers to the passion that the French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) had for playing the violin; from the ages of thirteen to sixteen, when he was a student at the Académie Royale de Peinture, Sculpture et Architecture of Toulouse, a city in south-western France, he was second violinist in the Orchestre du Capitole, and he would continue to play this instrument for the rest of his life.”

But working across different disciplines is sometimes treated with suspicion. The detrimental “Jack of all trades, master of none” expression might be appropriate when used to describe a person dabbling in several fields without neither skill nor sufficient experience to become good in any of them but the frequency with which the phrase is used makes it seem that it’s impossible to become proficient in more than one area. Which of course is not true, especially when we’re talking about art where most artists have a certain scope of interest and problems they want to express, albeit in different forms. Unfortunately, for some reason being apt at a number of art forms is often seen as a lack of decisiveness and superficiality.

Wayne White, one of my favourite multi-disciplinary artist, has a response to that:

Everybody’s like, “choose one thing and do it well”, and I say “Fuck that, you know. I wanna try everything I can. I wanna take this painting idea and see if I can do a puppet version of it. I wanna take the cartooning and turn it into a film set. I wanna take the set and turn it back into a painting”.

Henry Miller goes a step further and makes a claim that “every artist worth his salt has his violon d’Ingres [Ingres’s Violin]”, so for him it is in fact a sign of proficiency. And if we look at various famous writers, we will indeed find that many of them were also visual artists. Some of them, like Günter Grass, were in fact visual artists prior to becoming writers. Grass who studied sculpture at Berlin University of the Arts and won a Nobel Prize in Literature (besides dozens of other international awards), once said of himself that “As a visual artist I am a trained artist, as a writer I am an unskilled artist” (“Als bildender Künstler bin ich gelernter, als Schreiber ungelernter Künstler”), which is an ironic commentary on the idea that having formal qualification matters in one’s career development.

For many writer-artists, the two fields were of equal importance. In an article about Jack Kerouac’s Beat Paintings, Michael Valinsky says that writing and painting were merely two ways of expressing language, and that painting was the writer’s sacred refuge, “a medium he could use to mine what his writing couldn’t reach”. For Sylvia Plath, who took up drawing seriously at the age of twenty-four, expressing herself visually was a way to find serenity: “It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,” she wrote in a letter to Ted Hughes.

Sylvia Plath, Triple-face portrait, c. 1950-1951, tempera on paper, courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana © Estate of Sylvia Plath | Image via Vice (fair use)

Richard Feynman started learning to draw much later than Plath, at the age of 44, through something we now call banter: exchanging lessons in art and science on alternate Sundays with his artist friend Jirayr “Jerry” Zorthian. The reason he wanted to draw, which he apparently kept to himself, was that he “wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion”.

While some writers treated painting and drawing as another way of expressing themselves beyond writing, some of them had a very specific interest and field of exploration. Vladimir Nabokov studied, classified, and drew butterflies and even served as unofficial curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, as Maria Popova writes in a fascinating article about the author. She quotes Stephen Jay Gould who “uses Nabokov’s case to make a beautiful and urgently necessary broader case against our culture’s chronic tendency to pit art and science against one another — ‘We have been befogged by a set of stereotypes about conflict and difference between these two great domains of human understanding,’ he laments — and to assume that if a person has talent and passion for both areas, he or she can achieve greatness in only one and is necessarily a mere hobbyist in the other.” And Nabokov was far from the latter, he was a fully qualified professional taxonomist. As was J.R.R. Tolkien, who self-illustrated many of his famous works, and took drawing as seriously as writing.

While Nabokov drew butterflies, William Faulkner had a penchant for elegant, Beardsley-inspired drawings, which were mocked for their high-brow pretensions by fellow students at the University of Mississippi. Flannery O’Connor, who had established herself as a cartoonist before she became a famous writer, made black and white visual commentaries on student life and the impact of the second world war. Tennessee Williams painted people and his works were an investigation of the loneliness and struggles of a gay man living in America. Kurt Vonnegut was also drawn to portraits, albeit his works were light-hearted and whimsical. Vonnegut’s daughter recalls that for her father, drawing was a much less laborious activity than writing, which made him feel that “he had no arms. He had no idea where to begin, and it was a real labor”.

Some writers had their favourite medium, others experimented with several different ones. Both Zelda Fitzgerald and Herman Hesse were watercolourists. She was fond of fairy tales and developed a very significant whimsical style, while Hesse, who started painting at the age of 40, created a large number of small-format landscapes as well as poem illustrations. Charles Bukowski also combined art painting with literature. He produced over one thousand 6×9 inch paintings on paper in a variety of media (acrylics, oil paint, watercolours, pastels, crayons, pens) which were bound into special hardcover first editions of his books. William S. Burroughs, for whom the word and the image were inseparably linked, was just as subversive and experimental in his visual art as he was in writing. The thousands of visual artworks he created — paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures and photography — were made with such unorthodox tools such as guns, mushrooms, toilet plungers, and a wide array of found objects which also served as stencils and stamps. Henri Michaux’s works were similarly abstract and enigmatic, but in his case, this was largely due to the hallucinations he experienced while using mescaline and LSD.

Perhaps the best commentary on how visual art and writing come hand in hand together is a poem by E.E. Cummings:

Why do you paint?
For exactly the same reason I breathe.
That’s not an answer.
There isn’t any answer.
How long hasn’t there been any answer?
As long as I can remember.
And how long have you written?
As long as I can remember.
I mean poetry.
So do I.
Tell me, doesn’t your painting interfere with your writing?
Quite the contrary: they love each other dearly.
They’re very different.
Very: one is painting and one is writing.
But your poems are rather hard to understand, whereas your paintings are so easy.
Of course — you paint flowers and girls and sunsets; things that everybody understands.
I never met him.
Did you ever hear of nonrepresentational painting?
I am.
Pardon me?
I am a painter, and painting is nonrepresentational.
Not all painting.
No: housepainting is representational.
And what does a housepainter represent?
Ten dollars an hour.
In other words, you don’t want to be serious —
It takes two to be serious.
Well, let me see… oh, yes, one more question: where will you live after this war is over?
In China; as usual.
Of course.
Whereabouts in China?
Where a painter is a poet.

Henry Miller draws another parallel between painting and writing when he talks about expressing the essence in a painting by omitting details and reimagining the subject one is depicting. In a poem, a story, or a novel, we are presented with a selected piece of information about the characters and their surroundings. However general or detailed the descriptions, we automatically construct the world which the book is depicting in our head. Similarly with paintings — we don’t need details to “read” the image. And oftentimes, these details and accuracy are entirely unnecessary. For painting is a visual poem, expressed in a language that is meant to communicate the essence of the topic, and in Henry’s words: to evoke, elicit, and excite us.

Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 7: Ingres’s Violin

As with writing, I find, so with watercolors, the best are those which are never committed to paper. They are the ones you come home with after a walk in the hills or a stroll through some picturesque quarter of a strange city. Or it may be the sea at sunrise with a white ghost-like ship cutting the horizon line and the mountains too drugged with the magic of light, sprawled out like ravishing dew-drenched sluts. One of the reasons why it is so difficult to record such moments, such scenes, is because one is taking in too much at one breath. To make a painting, you will be told, one has to select, never bite off too much. But Rousseau to name but one, often did just that. Did he not? Could there be more of jungle than there is of jungle in a Rousseau jungle? To my mind, some of the most exciting paintings we have are precisely those in which everything has been crowded. Everything stated, if I were able to do this sort of thing, I would. Which explains why I never paint from nature. If I did, I would still be working on the same canvas.

Haven’t you noticed in life classes that there are some who are never able to squeeze in the hand or feet? They are thinking life size, no doubt, and not canvas-wise. On the other hand, there is that wonderful painter, Burliuk, who makes human figures hammered down to a size disproportionate to the room, the animals or the trees that go with them. An astonishing effect. Much more exciting to me than the El Greco obsession of elongating the figure or the Modigliani trick of stretching the neck. All of which is by way of saying that questions of proportion, dynamic symmetry, pink shadows or black ones matter little. What counts is the result. A painting of Chagall’s may oblige you to stand on your head, but it doesn’t destroy your appetite, nor does it ruin your equilibrium.

David Davidovich Burliuk, Family portrait, 1916, oil on canvas, 59.5x68.5 cm | Image via Artchive (fair use)
David Davidovich Burliuk, Family portrait, 1916, oil on canvas, 59.5×68.5 cm | Image via Artchive (fair use)

Here, I must confess that the watercolors I like best are those which fly in the face of the medium, they are at opposite poles to those you will find in books devoted to the subject.

More like poems or musical compositions freighted with tonality, sonority, luminosity, fantasy and precision. They would never be exhibited as demonstrations of the charming possibilities latent in the watercolor medium. In these, the painter made use of the medium only as a man makes use of a raincoat in wet weather or kid gloves and spats when taking a stroll along the Grand Boulevard de Paris, a 19th century promenade. Undoubtedly, the painters I have in mind knew all about this business of technique, but they drowned their knowledge in some happy emulsion of purposeless purpose. You won’t find in their paintings those saturated skies dripping with moisture, those purple splashes of shadow, that explosive springtime foliage associated with the White Mountains or the Green Mountains, or those delicate subtle nuances which are dwelt on so reverently by the maestros who write books on the subject. In the works I speak of only the essence is given: the skyness of a sky, the treeness of a tree, the housingness of a house. It serves. It does more. It evokes, elicits, excites. Because of all that has been so artfully omitted, drowned or forgotten, one is left free to roam, free to invent, free to imagine.

I remember with such pleasure my early days in Paris when I walked the streets with empty belly, stopping every few yards to gaze at the paintings, sketches, books, objets d’art displayed in the shop windows. There were always fresh surprises in store, such as coming upon a gouache by Max Jacob, who was a saint as well as a poet. The Germans, in their zeal to exterminate, overlooked the fact that he was a saint. They knew only that he had Jewish blood in his veins and they gassed him. Yes, at first glimpse of the painter, Max was an event. Perhaps he wrote music too. I used to wonder, turning a corner, if I would meet him one day, arm-in-arm with Eric Satie or the ghost of Apollinaire. So many French writers, I discovered, were also painters, musicians, actors, ambassadors, mathematicians. Whatever they did on the side was of interest to friends and public alike. They were artists, and when one is an artist, all mediums open up.

No one medium is sufficient to express the wealth of feeling which burdens the soul of an artist. One is only to think of those protean figures of the Renaissance to realize how shrivelled and diminished we of today are. It was no surprise to me to find one day in an issue of the UNESCO courier reproductions of the graphic works of such writers as Goethe, Victor Hugo, Strindberg, Herman Hesse. Every artist worth his salt has his “violon d’Ingres” [Ingres’s Violin]. It’s the norm, not the exception. Even here in America, where merely to write is difficult, men like Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, E.E. Cummings have expressed themselves in paint. The poet Kenneth Patchen is another. How many people in this country know or have seen the original and most intriguing covers he painted for special editions of his poems?

Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 6: Living with Paintings

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