dinsdag 14 juli 2015

Arboreal Affects -Intensities in Trees in the Paintings of André Derain and Emily Carr

I remember the first time visual art really struck a chord deep within the centre of my being. It's about five years ago, at the not so tender age of 28 years old. With music I've long had that experience, and even quite a number of times (probably from age 14 onwards). It is almost as if you need to learn the how to first, before you can enjoy the sudden strike of lightning more than once, because since that first time I've been moved to passionate tears by paintings a number of times. Although learning how to isn't something you can just pick up from a manual or a guide. I think the time has to be right for you as a person to be able to pick up on those fine and fragile fibres of affects that suddenly somehow seem to be radiating from certain works of art. Perhaps music, with its rather direct quality of vibrating frequencies tapping your eardrums, traveling through your body and gently (or sometimes brutally) wrapping itself around your heart and soul, is a more accessible branch of art in that way.

Back to that first time. It was during an exposition in the Hermitage museum in Amsterdam, entitled 'From Matisse to Malevich', that I encountered a painting that not only stopped my world, but made it slowly spin around, giving me a dizzy feeling. At first I thought it was a pure physical deficiency taking hold of my body, but when I returned to the painting a couple of minutes later almost the same thing happened. After a while, the dizzying feeling gave way to a different sensation -an overwhelming emotion that gave me the chills all over my body. I felt something profound taking a hold over me as I examined the painting more closely. I could not pinpoint any particular aspect of the painting as the source of this strange magnetic influence it had over me. I loved the colours, the greenish grey and greyish green. I realised the colours reverberated deep within me, but could that be the only source of this enormous and inspiring feeling? There were trees in the painting, but until that very moment I had not had any special feelings about trees or anything related to them. In fact, as a Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari enthusiast I had (in all earnest silliness) even come to resent the symbol of trees and the hierarchical structure they seem to represent. "Thought is not arborescent." [A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari]. But this painting, with its strange trees that seemed to be in perpetual motion, as if they were still in the process of becoming... A painting of becoming trees suddenly seemed very Deleuzian after all. But there was more going on and till this day I cannot exactly say what it is. Although I did find the theoretical term for what happened to me: Stendhal Syndrome. According to Wikipedia: "Stendhal syndrome, Stendhal's syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to an experience of great personal significance, particularly viewing art."

I often went back to pictures of the painting, online and in books, but it never gave me the same feeling again. Still, even the pictures stirred something within me and even moved me to tears at times, but on a less profound level, almost as if the experience was an afterimage of the original one. I realised that coming face to face with the original work had had a magical effect on me. It could have been the actual size of the painting, perhaps seeing the paint and canvas from up close. Maybe even it was the actual aura of the work of art. Maybe Walter Benjamin was right, and were the "Unnahbarkeit, Echtheit und Einmaligkeit" [Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit, Benjamin] of both the work of art and my observation of it key elements in the construction of my experience. Of course seeing a original painting up close gives way to an altogether different experience than seeing the same painting mediated and on a smaller scale. When one can see the details of the brushstrokes, the texture of the canvas and almost feel the vibrant intensity of the colours -that is what characterises an encounter with an original painting in its full size. And boy what an encounter this was.

On a side note -I love how Benjamin constructs aura and the loss of aura by mechanical reproduction in a mutually exclusive relationship. Without the reproduction of a work of art (or nature for that matter -Benjamin includes both these worlds as capable of having aura), the original doesn't have as much as an impact as it has when there are reproductions scattered around the world and seeing the original one becomes almost a pilgrimage. I haven't seen the original painting The Grove by André Derain anymore since, unfortunately. Yes, that indeed is the painting that I have been talking about above. I am hesitant to add a picture of the painting here, since it will be so far removed from its original aura, but I think it would help clarify what I will be talking about next, when I move from Derain to an other painter of trees: the Canadian artist Emilly Carr.

André Derain - the Grove (1912)

An academic (whose name I cannot seem to trace) talks about a different painting by Derain (The Pine Tree) in words that in my opinion can very well be applied to The Grove as well: "It hearkens to a pre- or posthuman period in which elemental nature reigns supreme. The use of these simple hues: raw umber, dark greens, deep grays, cool tans, stormy blue, emphasizes the natural element and helps convey a sense of the pure force of nature." [The Aesthetic Roots of The Pine Tree by André Derain, unknown author]. It is this sense of a force of nature that we can also see in the work of Emily Carr, especially in her paintings in which she focuses on forests and trees. I am not quite sure which part this exactly plays in my response to both Derain's The Grove and a number of paintings by Carr, but I think it is one of several elements that together lead up to the intensity I feel when looking at these paintings.

Emily Carr - Indian Church (1929)
But let me first talk about how all of a sudden I became so involved in the life and work of Emily Carr. Apparently I must have seen some of her work somewhere, because I wrote down her name in a notebook. With no added notes -just her name. A long time later I was looking for interesting things in that notebook when I came across her name. I had no recollection whatsoever who she was or where I had written her name down. When I think about it now, I believe it must have been sometime in the Summer of 2012, most probably when I was in France. Chances are I have seen a painting by her in a museum in Nantes or Bordeaux, but I am not completely sure about it. Anyway, intrigued by the name with no info I just googled her and quickly found out she was a painter. When I opened a website that showcased a number of her paintings I was struck with the exact same feeling I had when I saw The Grove for the first time. Perhaps 'feeling' isn't the right word, because it seems to be so much more. A profound series of affects that effected me both physically and mentally. A dizzy feeling, a coldness, goosebums and tears that slowly (without me noticing at first) found their way down my face. At the same time the world seemed to come to a halt, time expanded and for a moment it felt as if I could touch the very fabric of my existence.

Overwhelmed, I looked away and started doing some other things. When I returned to the pictures of the paintings a while later, the same affects got a hold of me, albeit in a less intense way, as if the first shock had subsided and I was slowly coming to terms with what I was seeing and experiencing. In a way, it was as Emily Carr herself describes her encounter with the Group of Seven, a group of Canadian painters who focus on landscape paintings. Carr is more than impressed by their collective and creative force: "Oh, God, what have I seen? Where have I been? Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world. Chords way down in my being have been touched. Dumb notes have struck chords of wonderful tone. Something has called out of somewhere. Something in me is trying to answer. It is surging through my whole being, the wonder of it all, like a great river rushing on, dark and turbulent, and rushing and irresistible, carrying me away on its wild swirl like a helpless little bundle of wreckage. Where, where? Oh, these men, this Group of Seven, what have they created?--a world stripped of earthiness, shorn of fretting details, purged, purified; a naked soul, pure and unashamed; lovely space filled with wonderful serenity. What language do they speak, those silent, awe-filled spaces? I do not know. Wait and listen; you shall hear by and by. I long to hear and yet I'm half afraid (...)" [Hundreds and Thousands, Carr] Later on Carr links this experience to a understanding of godliness, but being the atheist I am I will stray away from that direction.

Emily Carr - Metchosin (1935)
Impressed with the works of the Group of Seven, Carr started to focus with her paintings on natural scenes and in particular on the presence of trees. On the website Artchive.com the following description can be found: "To speak of Emily Carr's trees is to seize on the central subject of her work, both as metaphor and form. Like a great axis mundi, the tree centers and grounds most of her paintings." Carr herself wrote a lot a about her life and the way she approached her work and she acknowledges this importance of trees to her: "Trees are so much more sensible than people, steadier and more enduring" and "I ought to stick to nature because I love trees better than people." Her paintings definitely seem to echo these statements, with an almost vibrant force radiating from the trees she portrays (almost as if they possess wild untamed personalities indeed). There are a number of articles (for example on the aforementioned Artchive website) that delve deeper into an analysis of Carr's use of trees (in a more profound way than I could), and I will not try to do the same here. I am more interested in why these works by Carr have this influence on me. It definitely differs per painting though -some I find mildly interesting, others hit me like a high five in the face. I'll show a few of her paintings here so we know what we are talking about:

Emily Carr - Vanquished (1931)

Emily Carr - Old Time Coast Village (1929)

Emily Carr - Mountain Forest (1936)

Emily Carr - Scorned as timber, beloved of the sky (1931)

These trees, both as entities and as groups of entities, have a magical power over me. Not in the way that the Tree of Knowledge has so often been described, nor in the sense of any hierarchical structure. To me, these trees seem to move, seem to overlap with the surroundings they are portrayed in. They seem constantly and continually on the verge of becoming something else. A recurring movement while their place on the canvas obviously doesn't change. Yet every time I look at these paintings (an act of repetition in a sense) something seems to have changed (a difference in perceived affects). Despite the anti-arborealism that Deleuze and Guattari seem to advocate, I experience very Deleuzian elements in my experience of these paintings. Each time, the impact of looking at them seems to me an event (as in Alfred North Whitehead). As Steven Shaviro puts it in his great article 'Deleuze's Encounter With Whitehead': "At every moment, then, the continuing existence of [the work of art, NT] is a new event. (...) At any given instant, my encounter with the [work] is itself an event."

I dropped a few typical terms in this last paragraph. I will try to describe them in relation to my experience of the paintings by Carr and hopefully by doing so elaborate on these ideas. More on that coming soon in a new post.

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