The rain is hammering on the dark windscreen and it’s getting chilly now. Pull my coat around my shoulders. Reaching out my hand to turn on the radio. The speaker crackles and a faint French voice wanders through the ether. Turning the silver button on the other side the Frenchman wanders off, unperturbed. An English voice is louder, announcing football scores. The voice is soothing yet distinct. He fades as I move the yellow pointer further to the right. Pop songs enter from the darkness outside. The – what’s their name? Short hair and red jackets and guitars. The Thistles? I’m sure that’s their name. I switch it off.
A Piece Of Paper That Has Trust Written On It.
Modern Times: Turning You Into A Commodity?
Now those of you who know me well know that I used to be a decorator and furniture maker. What with the crash of 2007 leading to a dramatic contraction in the economy of the Netherlands I was struggling. Don’t be too cynical here – I saw what was happening and it was not pleasant.
Now thanks to Jasper, I knew help was available for self-employed people in trouble. So I duly asked, it being my right and all. So they duly sent someone around to have a look at my business. Now not only was this Bedrijfs Adviseur – business advisor to you and me – Dutch, she was also dense. I’m not talking thinking dense here, I’m talking wooden headed. Intelligent, sure. But any other brain department had been put out to graze twenty years previously. What’s more the Dutch specialize in producing people like this.
In the lower apple orchard, the tablecloth is spread across the grass in the patterned shade. A slow buzzing bee wanders and our robin twitters high above us. Slightly damp earth beneath my elbow as we recline on the four sides of our banquet. A gingham tablecloth seen through the pale gold of a Cotes de Gascogne. As the glass touches the lips the scent is sharp, and being warmer has a lemony bite. A zephyr causes patterns to dance and a duck is started noisily from the reeds by the river.
Summer is a lovely time, a time to relish the fruits of the blue green orbe we inhabit. It’s a time for sand in the sandwiches, getting stuck in hot traffic and not doing very much. That we take holidays now and not in the winter means we like doing less when given time off. Winter holidays are not taken to enjoy the cold – with the exception of skiing or skating – most choose far away places that are warm and sunny.
Why? Because it’s not nice being cold, is it? Even when skiing, you return to the warmth of your hotel for the night. Spending it outdoors would be a very unpleasant experience. It is also a time when the nights are long and friendly lights burn in the hallway and kitchen.
Now in our day and age, staying indoors all winter is a choice that some people make. Barely five minutes are spent outside the heated interiors of motorcars or the warm fug of offices. There’s not much difference to summer with all the mechanical contrivances that ease the cold and dark. There is annoying ice on the road, headlights on dark mornings and more vigilance. Not much more. Modern Europeans live in what is almost a perpetual summer.
Those of you who braved my now defunct email series “Thinking Big” will know that I don’t switch my heating on in winter. Put better, it stands on the frost setting and the usual temperature lies between ten and fourteen degrees celsius. It’s not that pleasant – it’s more pleasant than the reality outside with the searing cold menacing your coat. By the time I got back in I was truly thankful to find a warm flat!
I wondered to myself how it would be possible to exist in such a gnawing freeze. It was well below minus ten outside. Yet most Europeans would be picnicing in their dining rooms for all the cold they feel. The thermostat registers a chill and a switch is flicked. Darkness falls and more switches are used. And that’s about it. The chilled wine and mushroom sauce is spread and dinner is eaten with little thought beyond the television screen.
The Real Meaning Of Summertime.
So what am I on about? Well, the point is that if it gets cold then humans have to do something to survive. We’re not animals that get a thick winter coat or hibernate. We get the full force of winter, head on. If we do nothing, we would perish, so do something we must. Yet today – today, we have everything done for us. We are nannied by more than just the State!
So what has this to do with summer save for contrast? A very great deal! Alexander Solzhynitisyn in his wonderfully evocatvive “August 1914” describes a time now long past. He tells of how a Russian soldier chances upon a cellar of a modest house in what was then Allenstein in East Prussia. To this Russian, winter means a bitter cold and boring borscht made of roots and cabbage. Not just every day but for every meal. Not just every day, every day that month. How else can you live through such long and terrible winters? It is merely an accepted fact of life.
Which is why his surprise was the greater when he discovers this cellar. Rows and rows of potted meats and jams. Bottles of fruit wine, shelves of glass jars pickled eggs and dried hams hanging from the ceiling. There are apples and potatoes. There is a place for carrots to be stored along with parsnips and scorzonera. A neat riot, a treasury of colour and flavour! Such a wonder that Germans could make winter a fine and pleasant time!
His honest opinion was why Russians would fight a people who could teach them how to live in such luxury themselves!
Only, this is 1914. There are few food factories, grocers’ shops have peas that have been picked that morning and are already going starchy in the afternoon sun. If you are to have such a cellar you need a great deal of energy. And a store of glass jars to boot. The Germans have that, and it is their gift to humankind – spread from Denver in Colorado to Ekaterinburg in Siberia. The Germans will do what Germans do, and will keep on doing it until they can’t do it any more. What became of the owners of that cellar is never told. How they survived the coming winter without their stored summer is not known. It would have been bitter in its injustice as much as its hunger. Even a return would leave them destitute: not only jars emptied but smashed.
A Summertime Graft.
So what has all this to do with summer? The point is that the family would have been busy all through the summer making and preparing for the next winter. The bounty of my family’s garden in summer was overwhelming. Picking five pounds of beans each day sounds wonderful, except when it comes to the point that you have thirty-five pounds by the end of the week. Sharing this bounty with friends and church saved our bacon – or our shame in putting good food on the compost heap. What it did mean was that as the November frosts came there were sufficient dried beans. Dark evenings opening dead pods to reveal the dried seeds within. They would take us through the winter a flash of summery runner bean flavour in a soup in January.
So summer for us was a time of tremendous effort! Yet all around us people are taking picnics with quiche that comes wrapped in plastic and aluminium. We are sweating over hot stoves in a kitchen that has all the attributes of a small factory! Our onions, tomatoes and courgettes had been chopped and boiled into ratatouille. Pureed into small bags and frozen in margarine tub for form made for delicious winter meals.
Yet the summer is still special: fresh raspberries for one. Peas from the vine that have a crystal sweetness. Tomatoes that melt leaving a cascade of flavours on your tongue and others that are tomatoey yet mild in a simple salad.
If you live in the North of Europe, being busy isn’t just a way of life. It’s how you survive. Being seduced by the wiles of electronic heating controls has made us all fat unimaginative bureaucrats.
A Rant, And My Solution
When I moved into my new flat here in Maarn, the place looked simply dismal. Some Dutch tradesman had come along and filled all the holes in the way only Dutch tradesmen can. That is to say, rock hard filler slopped liberally across pretty wallpaper. Following his skillful work – which to me bordered wanton violence – the place was ruined. But for the clause in the letting contract his time would have been better spent sitting at home.
Thankfully, he wasn’t being paid to paint the doors. Mind you, there was no need because they were already a dirty grey. He’d have had a hard time making them look any worse. If you think I’m being hard on them, you haven’t had to work with them – or put their “work” to rights.
Anyway, I trotted off and bought some primer and some pale cream paint. The result was bright doors that, well, lacked a certain something. They were dull, only I simply didn’t know what would cheer them up. In fact, they were featureless and frankly: bloody boring.
Now it would be around two years ago that a customer asked me to paint her doors. They were panel doors and on agreeing a colour scheme, I got busy. Now not only did I like the job, I loved the colour scheme which picked out the reverse mouldings that you get with traditionally made doors.
Did I want the same?
You bet I did.
Was I jealous?
Only when I get jealous, I start getting clever. Usually it means a lot of hard work, but I’m used to that. And it does mean that in the end I don’t have to be jealous any more! What’s more, it’s usually better because I did it myself in a way that I like – and I get to enjoy doing it. Which in this case, I certainly did.
In this instance, my problem was that I had these flat sided doors. They weren’t the sort where I’d been able to paint the mouldings to emphasize them. Were they there, I’d have done it. These doors were boring in the fullest sense of the word.
My idea coalesced in a form and fell out again as my scribblings didn’t gel. There was only one thing to do: measure a real door with panels. On my next visit to the builder’s merchant I could be seen sketching diagrams in my notepad.
It was taking actual dimensions and not relying simply on my own imagination that was the key. The doors had panels marked out in a way that reflected reality. What’s more it meant that they felt right. Until then, my efforts would have passed muster but not to the expert eye. Which mine is.
With the masking tape in place the fun could begin. Firstly a base-coat and semi-gloss topcoat. This was allowed to dry, and a darker shade was used to emphasize shadowing. Now this took some time: each line of shadowing had to be put on individually and then allowed to dry.
When I had a few shadows, came the time for some highlights. This used a paler shade and a hint of cream. Again, each line was done individually and carefully shaped by wiping excess paint off with a cotton duster.
The effect was magical. Now if I say that, it usually means it’s pretty good. When the masking tape was removed, they looked like English doors. They’re stylish in a way that adds real elegance to my living room. That the doors have fake panels doesn’t make the atmosphere they create any less real.
Because my doors are a metaphor for my abilities as a copywriter. I can take words and create stories and scenes that are imaginary. Yet they evoke feelings in your readers that are very real. What’s more, if that’s the feeling that your best customers have, it’ll be a feeling of relief that they’ve finally found a business that they can trust. My real skill is finding out what that feeling is, and telling the story that conveys it best.
Brian has an hour to kill. Being in the centre of Düsseldorf there is only one sensible thing to do, and that is to drink a beer by the banks of the river. Sitting on the terrace beside the Rhein, he’s now wondering why his hands have nothing to do. Well of course, the answer is easy. There is no cigarette. His hands need something to do, and holding a cigarette is what it should be doing. Now he’s given up of course!
Brian had only started smoking because he was lonely, and the idea seemed to him a good one at the time because everyone smoking seemed so contented. That smoking didn’t make him feel any less lonely never occurred to him.
The Supremacy Of Pure Feeling.
The Monochrome Intellectual, Part 3.
In 1913 Kasimir Malevich drew a pencil figure of a square on a white piece of paper. It became Malevich’s central motif: whatever he did it was tightly formed and rigorously geometric. It was his protest against all he saw around him: mere depiction in paint or film. Paintings in embellished frames whose painters sought to catch the shadow of each leaf.
Yet detailing does not make a painting art any more than the lack of it.
Malevich was reacting against an estabishment that had nothing new to offer. That Malevich’s exhibition would raise a storm of reactionary protest from such people means little. Malevich’s ideas were certainly new, certainly fresh and certainly startling. And today we live in a world he would both recognize and recoil from: squares and abstraction are everywhere. Yet these things mean as much to us as one of his paintings.
Malevich said this in respect of the philosophy underpinning his abstract art:
My posts tackle the issues he discusses from a radically different viewpoint. What is more, I do not make broad assumptions about the “primacy of pure feeling”. Much more to the point is whether Malevich actually understood feeling at all, primary or otherwise.
So what did Malevich achieve with his Supremus 1915-16? I posted a photograph of it from the exhibition in Maastricht, asked my Facebook friends what they saw. Few would have seen this painting before, and they presented a wide diversity of reactions. You may read them as they are presented below.
Perhaps the most succinct was “Blast I’ve dropped the Bloody Lot.” to others it evoked scenes from their Christian upbringing. To others, letter forms. Not one reaction was what Malevich intended to convey. Intended them to feel.
Malevich’s Failure To Feel.
If it was the “primacy of feeling” that Malevich wanted to convey to us through his art, it manifestly failed. Not one commenter felt what Malevich was attempting to convey by way of his figurative art.
Circles and squares are still primal geometrical figures. However to understand their true meaning one must look beneath them, as it were. For ‘beneath’ the material is the realm of feeling, it is not and cannot be the thing you are depicting. It is a realm entirely apart, unconnected unless you hold the keys to connect with it. If you are to even make a start with Malevich’s paintings, you must seek the very essence of number, line and form. Malevich did not do this, for had he been able to, his interpretation of feeling would have been very, very different. Merely connecting a “pure feeling” with an arbitrary form is not enough. To be honest, it misses it altogether.
It is simply not possible to convey a feeling with some abstract figure. The very fact that it is abstract is testimony to its very lack of feeling. Call it “pure” if you will, I prefer the term “absent”. That Malevich’s black square is intended to convey the emptiness of the void is of little help here. If there is one thing that can be said about voids, it is that they are formless. There are powerful metaphors for voids, only a black square isn’t one of them. Pure feeling it may have evoked for him, the void is if nothing else, devoid of the very thing he sought.
So what is this all about? It’s a problem we all face. The intellectual mind can go only so far when it comes to the realm of feelings. As Virginia Woolfe knew you can describe and order words, only that is simply not sufficient. Feelings, like words, do not live by being defined in abstract terms. As she rightly points out, they live in the mind. Communicating what is in your mind needs rather more than a mutual acceptance of jumbled concepts. A concept is truly feeble when compared to the power of myth. For myth holds the power to speak of one thing to all ages and all people. The Greek myths can – and have been – analyzed properly and their individual qualities established. In contrast, a concept can be misinterpreted – just as Malevich’s painting was in my little experiment. A concept needs to be conveyed in a vessel, without one, a concept remains unconnected. You have to travel to it, you have to do as it demands.
Had Malevich understood feeling, he would have understood myth. In understanding myth, he would have chosen to paint things with some real meaning. An obelisk, the sky, a sunrise. An obelisk is upright, the sky is above us. A sunrise is a happening that we all know. All these things can be used as metaphors, and all have been used in one way or another. What is more, they are common to us all and speak of a common happening.
Malevich threw the baby out with the bathwater: in dismissing pictorial work in its entirety, he missed its essential nature as well. The line that divides real art from mere depiction is as invisible as the feelings the former can evoke.
To be fair, Malevich does use colour. There are very real qualities to a red that a blue or yellow cannot possess. Yet his depictions of them are fixed – and that aspect will be dealt with when I consider the work of Mondriaan and the Pointillist school.
Whilst this article is intellectual and lacking in feeling does not mean that expressing feeling is beyond me. This is merely to demonstrate that I know the technical, philosophical side of what I do as much as the practical.
When Art Connects And Why.
Malevich failed. Others have not, the Canadian artist Tom Thomson being one of them. He too faced the scorn of the established authorities and it mattered as little to him as it did Malevich. The difference is that Thomson’s paintings convey the things he felt at the time he painted them. They aren’t the things he painted though, and therin lies the secret.
For feelings cannot be depicted, they can only be implied. Feelings are not the heavy concrete lumps Malevich imagined them. They are not fixed and immovable: they are as fleeting as summer swallows, and as easy to catch. Only when caught, a swallow is no longer happy for it is no longer completely swallow. For a swallow to be a swallow, it must reside in the air. There it can fully express its swallow-like qualities. For feelings cannot retain their quality if they are squeezed by the rigorous needs of intellectual demand.
If you are to understand feelings, you need an understanding that is as mobile and as fickle as they are. You cannot sit and wait for them to arrive, because you will wait a very long time. Feelings can only be sought, yet your very seeking limits you to the things you seek. You need an openness to feeling that leaves you totally undefended. That’s why it’s so scary. That’s why Malevich only declaims the “supremacy of feeling”: it means he didn’t have to expose himself to that terrifingly unfixed world of feeling.
The Facebook Comments:
Simon T: I see crosses and swords/daggers. It seems violent, with the broad red stripe seeming to me to be like a bleeding wound. The objects seem scattered randomly, like they got to where they are by accident. I see it as symbolizing a violent desecration of something holy.
Andrew C: A bombsite. (That is a compliment – it has a lot of force and disrupts perceptions)
Minke: To me, the cross seems to explain the power of religion. The church trying to superimpose on the chaotic real world by means of its broad and long tail influence (symbolized by the long stick).
Andrew C: The crossed yellow lines dominate our responses because we identify the Christian symbol, and perhaps we label it “processional cross – must be from a church”, even though the “arms” of the “cross” are of uneven length.
I wonder if people from a non-Christian background would respond in the same way?
Minke: Oke, here is another explanation. A more positive one: cooperation. It might be wishfull thinking, but what I see here also is the stronger ones supporting and carrying the less powerfull individuals.
Lidwien H: My first response is: I see a crewed people, riding horses, going to the far East, to win the Crusade. After that: I see myself walking throught the mountains, leaning on my walkingstick, a sheepdog next to me. Why? The golden cross dominate the other figures, that is de reasen why I start whith the cross. Black and grey stripes brings me to the top of the mountain, the big A and red is for me the long way I have to go.
Brian H: Blast I´ve dropped the Bloody Lot.
The Monochrome Intellectual. Links To Other Parts In This Series.
Part 1 <h1>Code Is Poetry.</h1>
Part 2 Vincent Van Gogh: Enclosing Reality On Canvas (only published on my private blog)
Part 3 Kazimir Malevich: Supremus 1915-16.
Part 4 Decision Making Without A Net. (Only published on my private blog)
Part 5 It’s Cold Out There! Blue as a Phenomenon. (Only published on my private blog)
Part 6 Reverse Engineering The Guru.
Part 7 Leeks For Dinner!