To Paint is to Love Again, Part 9: The Struggle in Art

Perre Bonnard, The Boxer (Self-portrait), 1931 | Paris, Musée d’Orsay © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) Michèle Bellot | Image via Fundación MAPFRE (fair use)

I sometimes wonder how many users on Instagram make some kind of art. I guess there must be thousands of them though when I tried googling that all I got in response was articles telling me how to get my first 1000 art Instagram followers, which frankly makes me want to eat my own head. Social media platforms are overflowing with art. Yet I seldom come across a painter whose work I truly admire (and when I do, I get genuinely ecstatic and want to see everything that person has done). The reason for it is because painting is not about producing a picture that pleases. Behind every good painter, there are years of practising, searching, thinking, feeling, living. Yet, the Insta-culture makes it seem that it’s a craft like basket weaving. Every time I go on Facebook and see ads for painting courses with titles such as “Learn to paint in a weekend”, I sigh in despair. Because, while you might indeed learn the basics of the craft and techniques in a relatively short period of time, developing one’s painting language and what you actually want to say, takes a very long time and there’s no way to speed it up.

Which is why I wholeheartedly salute Henry Miller when he objects to “this phoney business of making things easy”, inventing short cuts for every activity that requires patience, skill and understanding.

In the times when we are expected to get quick results, quantifiable successes, painting forces us to slow down and embrace notmuchhappeningness. It teaches us to resist the pressure from social media of producing, achieving and showing (“Hey Malwina, you haven’t posted in a while! Create a new post, photo or a video! Keep your audience engaged!”). Having recently watched Jeff Orlowski’s Social Dilemma documentary, I am feeling particularly critical of social media, and even more committed to sticking my paint-smeared middle finger at the instant gratification culture. It is a culture which, by forcing us to act fast and get quick dopamine hits, kills our ability to truly appreciate things. “The harder you work for something, the more fulfilling the reward”, says Sarah Robb O’Hagan recalling her memories of waiting as a kid for hours in lines at Disneyland to take an unforgettable ride on the Matterhorn roller-coaster, while her own children, when taken through fast passes which eliminated the waiting and enabled them to take many more rides during the day, were merely content with the experience.

Unless you do intuitive, “stream of consciousnesses” kind of painting, the object of which is self-therapy, then painting IS difficult. It often is a struggle. And that’s one of the things I love about it –because the struggle in art is a vital force to resist the tendency to make everything easy, available, and ultimately unappreciated.

Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 9: The struggle in art

Why is it that the thousand and one figures of the Earth — laborer, artisan, actor, dancer, poet, drunkard, courtesan and musician — depicted by the Japanese masters seem near and dear to us, whereas similar themes by our native artists leave us cold? What is lacking in our everyday figures, our native scenes? Why do they inspire dread, ridicule or disgust? Is it because there is no longer any relation between what a man is and what he does, what he believes and how he acts? Gros’s Ecce Homo stands out from all the satirical muck and hogwash of our time by reason of his deliberate, willful ferocity. “This is the condition of man, God help us”, he seems to say. And one cannot deny it. Nor is it simply caricature and satire, but truth, bitter burning truth. I find no equivalent for this kind of honesty in American painting. Among Mexican painters – yes. No need to mention names. Some of their revolutionary painters are already hallowed, sanctified by the very element they despised and pilloried in their work.

But all this is far from the spirit of the watercolor. The watercolor has affinities with the sonnet or the haiku rather than the jeremiad. It captures the flux and essence, the flavor and perfume rather than the substance. Ambiance – that is what the watercolor renders par excellence. The counting house has one kind of ambience, the slaughterhouse another. But whether the ambiance be blood, money or ennui, the effect on canvas can be stimulating, provocative or conducive to dream and reverie. Think of Dufy’s approach to the race course or the gambling casino compared to an American’s. Think what Paul Klee could have done with a Chicago slaughterhouse or Bonnard, for example, with a Madison Avenue bar. Even with his arthritic stumps*, Dufy gave us touches of America, which our native painters instinctively bypass. It is only our commercial artists who have that approach we have come to regard as foreign. These skillful hirelings, technically most proficient, seem capable of imitating any style. Like those amazing hacks who produced the classics for children, they make the works of the masters familiar and palatable. And in so doing, they destroy the lure of the Masters, for the lure of the master lies in the struggle he engenders. How right was Duhamel in regarding America as “the menace of the future”, as he so ably pointed out in the book by that title? The danger which America presents lies in this phoney business of making things easy. For everything which taxes our patience, our skill, our understanding, we have shortcuts. “Drawing made easy in ten lessons”, “Learn to play the piano in your spare time”, and so on. Only the art of love, it would seem, still defies the shortcut.

The practice of any art demands more than mere savoir faire. One must not only be in love with what one does, one must also know how to make love. In love, self is obliterated. Only the beloved counts. Whether the beloved be a bowl of fruit, a pastoral scene, or the interior of a bawdy house makes no difference. One must be in it and have it, wholly. Before a subject can be transmuted aesthetically, it must be devoured and absorbed. If it is a painting, it must perspire with ecstasy. One often hears the watercolor medium referred to as difficult, tricky, treacherous, demanding uncommon skill, the most expert manipulation. True, perhaps, yet I never heard of a good oil painter, speaking of his medium as facile. Nor have I seen children hesitate to use watercolors when watercolors were to hand. They may not use watercolor like a master, but then how many oil painters paint like masters?

* By 1950, his hands were struck with rheumatoid arthritis and his ability to paint diminished, as he had to fasten the brush to his hand.

Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 8: Finding inspiration

  1. E.

    I needed to read this just at this time. Thank you.

    1. Malwina Chabocka

      My pleasure, I’m very glad you found it useful!

  2. Simon

    Hi Malwina
    I agree with the IG statements and how destructive it can be but I would like to take issue with this bold statement:
    ‘Unless you do intuitive, “stream of consciousnesses” kind of painting, the object of which is self-therapy, then painting IS difficult.’

    The implication seems to be that intuitive painting is easy and is only about therapy (as though therapy is not a valid reason for doing anything or is easy). I think all painting is about ‘therapy’ (of course it would be good to define what is meant by therapy) unless it’s a limited application of the same skill over and again.

    I think anyone who has tried painting like Miller says starting with just picking up the paintbrush with no forethought:
    ‘The pleasure of picking up the brush and seeing what happens.. let it decide..’
    wrestles with all kinds of issues.

    1. malwina

      Thank you Simon for your thoughts on this topic! Yes, I agree that any form of painting has therapeutic qualities as it involves a kind of journey inside ourselves and that’s regardless if we’re painting an abstract pattern or a detailed landscape. However, I do see a difference between the kind of painting where we aim to represent something (the outside world, the image we’ve conjured up in our imagination, etc.) and the kind of painting where we completely free ourselves from the notion of getting a particular outcome – such as the kind of intuitive painting art therapists I’ve spoken to use, which is meant to be a free-style self-expression without any form of judgement. In this type of painting the goal is not a particular image that needs to come out, but how we feel and what we discover thanks to this process. Whereas in representational type of painting it’s about both because what comes out, especially if we’re aiming for a realistic depiction of an object, is important and poses extra challenges, both technical (proportions, depiction of light and shadow, texture etc.) and psychological (is this how we wanted to depict an object, did we get the right balance between realism and personal rendering, does our painting elevate the object to something interesting or is it merely illustrating it? do we feel we’ve challenged ourselves? etc.) So while I agree that the term “intuitive painting” potentially encompasses different approaches and expectations, the kind of intuitive painting where we rid ourselves of the necessity to reach a specific visual goal and accept the outcome as a spontaneous expression that is not to be corrected, is in my opinion easier than the kind of painting which has a vision behind it that we aim to capture. 🙂

      1. Simon

        Thanks for your reply Malwina.. After spending a number of days constructing a reply to you I have now realised that the root of my initial objection, to the use of the word easy, came as the result of feeling some criticism in your comments about a way of working that I use. I interpreted the word easy as less rigorous, less important, less worthy, just plain less and only of use within a therapy session and the opposite as difficult – more worthy of attention and pursuit, more intellectually demanding, more important.

        I suppose it all depends what you mean by easier. Doing something with ease could be seen to be being in the flow of the moment travelling with the grain rather than against (a wonderful freeing experience) as effortlessness.
        You presuppose that making art should be difficult and hard work that you should have to (as my father might have said) sweat blood and tears over. The ‘extra challenges’ that you mention seem to me to be conventions and rules that anyone could learn and indeed I and many others have. Applying rules and mastering technique, learning the facts attributed to image production perspective, colour theory etc and arriving at a style is the business of skill and theoretical acquisition. I do my best now to try to put these aside.

        You presuppose that ‘intuitive’ painting has no vision behind it. I guess it also depends what you mean by ‘vision’. It seems you are suggesting a vision is a pre-planned arrangement, a worked out composition that seems to have a readable order with a message, a narrative or feeling that is then arrived at by one’s practised skill and competency. An alternative meaning of the word ‘vision’ comes from trying to let go of preconceived paths to creating, historical tropes and modes of operating; working to find the mysterious energetic forces of the cosmos as the original vision at work in all things.

        I have now given up any feeling of criticism as I realise that whether something is perceived as being easy or difficult is not relevant to value or importance. Thank you.

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