Tuesday, December 3, 2013

All you want to know about painting: a painting language (I)

The next question in "All you want to know about painting" series comes from +Terrill Welch

  • How do we develop a painting language and what is it?

There are two essential qualities implicit in the concept of language, which aren't immediately apparent in painting (but they are there nonetheless, which is why the concept of "painting language" makes sense). 

First, a language works with arbitrary signs: in general, there is nothing intrinsic which would associate the form (sound) of a word with its meaning, that is, the objects it is supposed to "represent" in language; such associations are based solely on arbitrary conventions. Not so in painting: a combination of marks on a flat surface would represent a "real world" object only insofar as the viewer can recognize their visual similarity. This possibility depends on the neural machinery (and trickery) of vision and image recognition, which is "hard-wired" in our brains (hence universal to all humans), not on variable arbitrary conventions. That's why we easily recognize bulls in cave paintings of Lascaux (dated at about 40000 years ago), but we would be at a loss if we were (by some miracle) to hear the word these painters used for "bull". 

Although scientists began to study and understand the intricacies of our internal neural machinery only in the twentieth century, painters had intuited lots of its tricks long before that (some of them, as we see, at least 40 millennia ago), and this knowledge forms the basis for "the language of painting". But does it mean that there is no place for arbitrariness in painting? Certainly not: an eighteenth century art connoisseur, for example, would hardly be able recognize a bust of a woman in Pablo Picasso's painting (on the right), even though their brains were hard-wired (roughly) in the same way as ours. But we are "trained" by all the developments of the last century to recognize highly abstracted objects in paintings readily: it is now a common place, a part of convention, but only because of all the twentieth (and twenty first) century paintings we have already seen. In fact, I feel fairly confident that when the first painters made their marks on cave walls, it took some time and some convincing for other members of the tribe to recognize animals in these marks: it was, for all we know, a more revolutionary shift in thinking and perception than anything Picasso could have possibly done. 

This brings us to the second essential quality of language, which is necessary insofar as there is arbitrariness: a language must be shared; that is, the speaker and the listener must share the same set of conventions for the message to get across. For painting, it means its language should be shared between painters and viewers (including other painters, of course).    

Claude Monet. Impression Sunrise.
We all know the story of this painting by Claude Monet, don't we, which gave the name to the whole Impressionism movement: Impressionists were out to paint the real, immediate reality, but they departed from the shared conventions of the moment dramatically enough to make their language utterly incomprehensible for most viewers, including art critics (who really should have known better). What has happened since then? Why this way to represent reality, which was so incomprehensible, offensive even, just a little more than a century ago, now attracts blockbuster crowds to exhibitions and thousands of painters adopting the same approach? Are the modern art lovers more sophisticated and sensitive than in the nineteenth century France? No -- we just learned the (new) language; and now that the language is shared, the message is easy to get.  

Reportedly, Anna Akhmatova once said that poets have a particularly hard time (among artists), since they've got to work with the very same words people use to invite one another for tea. It might seem that painting is different, since its "language" is not the one used for everyday trivial exchanges. Or maybe we have it even worse, because a painter must inevitably rely on the eye's and brain's visual machinery evolved mostly under completely unrelated pressures (at least, it seems reasonable to assume that one's ability to appreciate cave paintings played a less significant role in survival and gene propagation than the ability to detect and recognize things, distances, and motion in the "real world"). 

What's more, a poet doesn't need to change the language to say something novel and meaningful (although some of them have done so), but for a painter these two actions, making a painting and changing the language of painting, are almost inseparable, precisely because there is less arbitrariness in painting than in language; the language and the message are intrinsically linked to each other. I will return to this topic in the next post...  

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