Our Subconscious

Two Portraits.

I presume the person is the upright column of rectangular blocks of colour. Given that this is a beach, it’s entirely possible that this is a lighthouse and the other blocks of colour are the person. With this level of communicativeness, it really is pot luck.
Nicholas de Staël, “Figure On The Beach” 1952.
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen, Düssedorf

I was chatting with a friend on Facebook, which led me to post his earlier than planned.

It was two weeks ago that I visited the Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle, and their exhibition “Zie de Mens, 100 Jaar, 100 Gezichten” – See the man, 100 years, 100 portraits. I hadn’t really intended to go, it is modern art, after all. There were one or two pictures that were worth seeing – Isaac Israël’s portrait of a woman standing in front of van Gogh’s sunflowers most certainly was, and is to be the focus of an upcoming post.

This post deals with the freedom a painter has when it comes to putting a brush onto canvas. I mean, it is possible to paint practically anything and people from Picasso to Jackson Pollock have pushed the boundaries well beyond the sensible, leave alone the intelligible. Thankfully, this is an exhibition focussing on portraiture.

Well that’s the exhibition’s title, and that is what we must believe. The painters obviously believed it too, or they’d not have thought of their paintings as depicting people. The first painting is by Nicholas de Staël, who was born in St. Petersburg in 1914 and died in Antibes in 1955. Someone who grew up during the time when abstract art was really finding its feet. This particular painting, “Figure On The Beach” was painted in 1952.

The first thing one notices in this painting is its robustness, and its redness. The quality of heat forces itself towards you, and it is the colour red that is particularly expressive of this. Mainly because things that are hot tend to become red, if, that is, they become any colour at all. Whether de Staël was aware of this in the way Joseph Turner was is something we can only imagine. Turner’s “Colour Beginnings” (1) was a genuine experiment, and hardly intended for exhibition. De Staël’s piece probably was intended for public display, although as with most abstractionists, they tend to be rather insular when it comes to communicating their ideas. We have to fill in the gaps, as it were; and it’s not as if we’re given many clues here.

The painting is descriptive enough to give the feeling of warmth, but that’s pretty well where it ends. I presume the person is the upright column of rectangular blocks of colour. Given that this is a beach, it’s entirely possible that this is a lighthouse and the other blocks of colour are the person. With this level of communicativeness, it really is pot luck.

To be honest, I hadn’t even intended taking a photo of it. Only I fell into conversation with two people, a married couple. The husband said that he liked the painting, and I asked him why. All he could do was shrug his shoulders and say that he just did. The wife was a little more expressive, but could only tell me that she didn’t know what the fuck it meant either.

Modern Art As The New Wild West.

Well, this is modern art, and the truth is, anything’s fair game. Anybody can imagine anything they like, and they can like or dislike something as they please. Figurative ‘management speak.’ Says anything to anybody and everybody’s happy because they now know that there is at least one person in this world who speaks their language.

This doesn’t really qualify this painting as art, though. Art takes the plays Sophocles produced and brings them to life in our minds today, two and a half millennia later. This was painted in 1952 and it can’t say anything to us beyond the fact that it’s warm. It wasn’t even intended to say that it was warm, it was intended to be a picture of someone on the beach. Standing or otherwise, nobody knows.

The delieations around her form tell us that Buffet wanted a clear boundary between things.
Bernard Buffet, “Seated Woman”
Fonds de Dotation Bernard Buffet, Paris.

The second offering – okay, so it is a painting – is by Bernard Buffet. Again, it didn’t strike me as anything of visual importance, but then, it was ten feet away from the other painting and thus came into discussion between me and the husband.

Stylistically this painting hasn’t much going for it. The figure is all but featureless and is further abstracted by her – well, at least we can tell that much from the expressiveness of this oeuvre – by her being outlined in black. Now this is not something you see in nature. Trees are trees and are not outlined, people do not wear makeup along the meridian line of their faces so that you can tell that they are there when you see them in profile.

Okay, so some people do. It isn’t normal behaviour, though, is it?

In the real world, animals are just there, and need no delineation. You don’t need to delineate a dog that’s going to bite you, do you? You just get out of its way as fast as possible.

So my question to this chap was “why did he put lines there, where in reality there aren’t any?”

Well, I should have been able to guess the response. Because he said that it was the painter’s free will.


Where have I been going wrong all this time? I should have known it was Buffet’s free choice to paint in this way. After all, he’s free to choose his style, and that style is how he paints.

Only there’s a snag.

Francis Bacon was kind enough to add a cage for his portrait. Okay, so it was only sketched in lines, but the metaphor is clear.
Francis Bacon, “Sphinx”
This shows imaginary co-ordinate lines that ‘imprison’ the portrait!
It was taken from this angle because the Dutch had framed it with reflective glass. Stupidity and a lack of self-reflection really do go hand in hand.
Toyota Municipal Museum of Art.

We’re standing in a gallery with a hundred different viewpoints of what freedom actually is. Francis Bacon (2) was kind enough to add a cage for his portrait. Okay, so it was only sketched in lines, but the metaphor is clear. As clear as Buffet’s need to add lines where there are none in reality. The metaphor is clear for all to see, who can see.

Something else is going on here. This freedom that Buffet had was his freedom. It was everything he could see. Only isn’t this the point? That we can’t see everything? Those who have read my blog consistently will see that there are areas I avoid, or take no notice of. Music is one, swimming is another. There are dozens of real and worthwhile things I could blog about which I don’t. That’ll give you an idea of my own limitations – albeit that I am a keen gardener, sailor, traveller, and cook. There have been mentions, but the inspiration simply doesn’t happen. It used to happen for music when I was still with Brian, but that was limited to jazz. There are other areas that are missing.

Buffet was acting out of what he saw as his freedom, and he couldn’t have been more wrong. He was making choices based on his perceptions – who can’t? That’s a fact of life. Only there’s something he’s forgotten, or put better, never knew and never discovered. It was buried in his subconscious long before he knew it existed: and if you do not know that something exists, how can you go about finding it? That is the ultimate riddle. A very real Sphinx for our own age.

The Reality Of The Subconscious.

Please remember – or be informed – that you cannot see, imagine or even sniff your subconscious. There is literally no trace of it whatsoever. Anywhere, anyhow. You have no access to it even through your imagination! Our imagination is based on the things we have seen, and this is true in all cases save a very few.

There is a lot more to life than the things we can see. It is simply not good enough in our day and age to imagine that somebody else sees the world as you do.

I will add that it is the greatest delight for me to meet someone who has a different point of view, and more importantly, can express it. Inspiration, it is said, comes from outside. That ‘outside’ is on occasion from outside one’s own perception, and believe me, it can take a good while to encompass a new concept or viewpoint in one’s life. Most people reject this out of hand, and my occasionally acidic style of engagement is to find that spot where a person rejects the things I suggest to them. Many have rejected me before I even meet their eyes: they assume I am a fifty something frump who should be in the kitchen. Well, if a businessman wants to lose money, that’s up to him.

If a person wants a future, they will accept the viewpoint of everyone they come into conversation with. Even me.


The exhibition “Zie de Mens, 100 Jaar, 100 Gezichten” is to be seen at the Museum de Fundatie until the 15th of January. If I go again, it’ll be because I can’t get to the Rodin exhibition in Groningen. Not that this one’s much better. There ain’t much going on in Holland right now…

(1) My own take on Turner’s “Colour Beginning” can be found here.

(2) There’s an exhibition of his works at the Stuttgarter Staatsgalerie which I am extremely uninterested in going to see. You wanna go? Feel free! Click here for more info: Francis Bacon. (In German).


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