Painting is, in a way, also about not painting, just as writing requires that certain things are left unsaid, outlines that will be completed in the imagination of the reader or in the brain of the viewer examining a painting, instead of the canvas where figures emerge out of loose strokes and a few lines.
— Antonio Muñoz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow
I have long argued that the experience of art is made only in the encounter between spectator and art object. The perceptual experience of art is literally embodied by and in the viewer.
— Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women
Art is always an exchange, like love, whose giving and taking can be a complex and wounding matter.
— Ali Smith, Artful
At what point does the switch from observation to participation and creation occur? In all engagement with art, there is a liminal space where authorial intention meets the emotional and intellectual investment of reader, listener or viewer. We carry within us the stories we have read, the images viewed, the music listened to. They become us, they change us, and, in so doing, they are transformed into something quite different from what was crafted by their original authors. For, now, they are infused and mingled with our own world views, memories and desires. We switch off the television set, close the book, exit the theatre or gallery, and what we have seen, read or heard plays on in our minds, assuming new life and form. The stories drift beyond the constraints of the frame, page and stage.
Awaiting the arrival of two friends with whom he will dine in the Heritage Club, a university professor admires the portrait of a young women on display in a nearby window. Later, after an evening of conversation, food and alcohol, the professor falls asleep while reading. He brings the portrait’s subject to life in his dreams, entangling himself in a nightmare adventure with her. (The Woman in the Window, 1944)
Screen media like film and television depend on this. The fade out is not so much an ending as a new beginning, as the viewer takes over from the coalition of technicians, writers, designers, actors, producers and directors responsible for what they have just experienced. There is an invitation both to complete the process of creation and, especially in the case of the serial, to return and re-engage. The creative act, the need to suspend disbelief, are highlighted through the use of credits at the start and the end of the narrative. This is an artefact, we are told, and you, the audience, are among the uncredited people responsible for its making. We will give you so much, but you can fill in the rest. Like the novel, in its consumption, cinema is one of the most collaborative of art forms. Consider the back stories of minor characters, or the lives of the protagonists beyond the final paragraphs or the closing credits. How much is hinted at in the original? How much have you made up yourself?
Seated below the portrait of a young woman, a detective assigned to investigate the subject’s apparent murder falls asleep, succumbing to the effects of alcohol, work and obsession. When he awakens, the young woman herself stands before him, deepening both the mystery he investigates and the intense feelings her portrait has stirred up in him. (Laura, 1944)
Given the pronounced self-knowledge about its own artifice, it is unsurprising that there are so many feature films about the business of filmmaking itself, including The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), 8½ (1963), Day for Night (1973), The Player (1992) and Hail, Caesar! (2016). The artist – as explorer, sense-maker and creator – is a figure that recurs throughout film history, from the early shorts of Georges Méliès onwards. We luxuriate in original stories and bio pictures about the triumphs and travails of painters, novelists, sculptors, illusionists, poets, playwrights, actors and musicians. We take pleasure, too, in the cinematic reworking of classical mythology. The tale of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld to reclaim Eurydice is a frequent touchstone. So, too, the tale of the sculptor Pygmalion, the recipient of a divine gift from Aphrodite that bestows life on the statue Galatea.
A man traumatised by a tragic death encounters a young woman who bears a strong resemblance to the deceased. He cajoles her to dress differently and to change her hair colour and style, as he gradually moulds her into the image of his lost love. Little does he realise that in seeking to re-create the past, it will be repeated with the same tragic ending. (Vertigo, 1958)
Yet, so often, these secular modernisations explore the dark side of humanity. These are stories of love disfigured by obsessive desire, by the dark arts. The artist-creator gives life only to end up complicit in the destruction either of what they have helped create or of those closely associated with it. Even in more benign examples, such as Professor Higgins’s coaching of Eliza Doolittle, there can be melancholic undertones. For, to the anguish of parents everywhere, the creation of life inevitably carries with it the promise of eventual demise. We are entropic, ephemeral beings and our first breath unavoidably will be echoed by our last.
A flamenco dance company prepares to put on a production of Carmen. The more the dancers and musicians rehearse, the more the choreographer and company lead directs them, the more the boundary between fiction and reality dissolves. Increasingly, the performers assume the identities and characteristics of the roles they play. Carmen – as both character and production – is brought to life with fatal consequences. (Carmen, 1983)
Perhaps because of the fleeting nature of human life in the grander scheme of universal history, art frequently is concerned with time, with pausing and rewinding it, with breaking its chronology and highlighting its kairology. The photograph, the moving image and the portrait all record moments in time, capturing youthful snapshots, enabling us to revisit, at least superficially, our younger selves. But, as Janos observes in John Berger’s novel A Painter of Our Time, ‘Art is not a means of pickling.’ Youth itself is not preserved and, unlike the case of Dorian Gray, there is no transference from canvas or screen to animate being. These images – stripped of context as those who had some relation to the subject pass away or lose their memories – take on new meanings for those who now observe them. Ultimately, the connection between portrait and subject is lost.
An artist receives a commission to paint the portrait of a young woman, which will be sent to a prospective husband in Milan. Her subject is an unwilling sitter, and the artist is initially required to spend time with her as a companion, painting from memory. The effect of their affair will inform her art for years to come, long after they have gone their separate ways, she as a female painter making her way in a world dominated by male artists. (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2019)
To paint from memory is, to paraphrase James Sallis, to paint with the eye of the poet rather than with that of the reporter. Memories change over time, they are re-written and over-layered by the recollections of others, which we internalise, blend and alter. In this way, they become both personal and collective, palimpsests more sensory and emotional than factual. The artist who relies on recall, then, is in some way attempting to make memory manifest. The aspirations and desires of the former and current self meet on the canvas, the image re-captured is idealised, shaded by the desire for wish-fulfilment. Such images are both wistful and hopeful, reflecting on what was, what might have been, what yet could be.
A brief visit to the man’s elderly grandmother, and the magical few hours they spend in her company, underscores the love a couple feel for one another, helping them both to understand that they are meant to be together. Months later, in the wake of misfortune and misunderstanding, the man paints from memory his impressions of that afternoon. The canvas becomes a vehicle for reconciliation and the renewal of their relationship. (An Affair to Remember, 1957)
It does not take much, however, for idealised memory to be disfigured. The frustrations of the present magnify, shrink and distort the memories of past pleasures like a fairground house of mirrors. An artist obsessed like Pygmalion succumbs to the impulse to possess, conflating desire with ownership. Their art captures the tension between the expression and repression of their emotional lives. Mark (Carl Boehm), incapable of love, will photograph the women he desires in Peeping Tom (1960) even as he murders them. Orpheus will initiate Eurydice’s rescue from Hades even as he will make it impossible for her to return to the world of the living.
An ageing artist is under pressure to complete a series of new canvases ready for an exhibition of his work that has been organised by his benefactor. Learning that he has lost the love of his assistant, and that she has enjoyed a relationship with another man, he throws himself into his work. His expressionist painting captures his desire, pain, anger, frustration and regret. (‘Life Lessons’ segment of New York Stories, 1989)
There are occasions, however, when there is a need to engage with darkness in order to catalyse creativity. Good can emerge from evil, success from failure. The act of creation becomes a journey; one of fits and starts, peaks and troughs, longueurs and accelerations. The artist takes delight in this journey rather than demonstrating any concern for its destination. They revel in the process, with little consideration for the outcome. Creation becomes life itself, yet carries the danger of becoming a self-reflexive trap. Sometimes it is necessary to break the funfair mirrors like Elsa (Rita Hayworth) in The Lady from Shanghai (1947).
An elderly painter rediscovers his passion for making art when he encounters a new muse. The girlfriend of a young artist reluctantly agrees to pose for him, displacing his wife as the model for a long-discarded project. Friction becomes a source of inspiration as painter and sitter become lost in the work. (La Belle Noiseuse, 1991)
Unlike much musical performance, theatre, film and television, creation for the novelist and painter, especially those working from memory rather than with models, is a relatively solitary undertaking. At some point, however, if the artist can break themselves free from the creative process, the moment arrives when the work has to be shared with others, when an audience has to be found. Monologue then switches to dialogue, and the work can no longer be considered the artist’s alone. It is opened up to comment and interpretation, to multiple points of views, each shaped and informed by a variety of experiences and ideologies.
A woman with severe arthritis becomes housemaid to a local fish seller. As part of the improvements she seeks to make to his home, she begins to paint. Eventually, her work is noticed by a visitor from New York and she begins to receive small commissions. Media exposure raises the artist’s profile to such an extent that she is soon selling paintings from her home, even to the US Vice President. (Maudie, 2016)
While there is invariably intent in the creation of a work of art, the artist’s motives do not often marry up completely and exactly with the meaning the viewer, reader or listener will derive from that work. This is one of the great beauties of art, one of the reasons that a single work can keep on giving in new and numerous ways – not only to a fresh audience but to the same people at different points in time. To pick up a book or to watch a film once read or viewed at the age of twenty and now revisited as a fifty-something is to read or view something entirely new, filtered through three more decades of experiences and memories. It is a reminder that between production and consumption, we are all artists, all participants in the act of creation.
Trust the art, not the artist; trust the tale, not the teller. The art remembers, the artist forgets.
— Julian Barnes, Keeping An Eye Open
Art’s responses are always perturbable by criticism, by questioning, by context, and by reflection.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools
I think I’m in a frame … All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.
— Jeff (Robert Mitchum) in Out of the Past