Approaching Painting

“My aim is always to get hold of the magic of reality and to transfer this reality into painting – to make the invisible visible  through reality. It may sound paradoxical, but it is, in fact, reality which forms the mystery of our existence.” – Max Beckmann, On My Painting

Max Beckmann spoke about the artist as someone dealing with the fundamental nature of their existence, as one who inquires about the meaning (and non-meaning) of their own being. To Beckmann it was about inventing and transforming objects “by a transcendental arithmetic progression of the inner being.” [On My Painting] The aim of the artist is thus to realize being in the world and do so through the conduit of making.

“Painting is a very difficult thing. It absorbs the whole man, body and soul.” There is a certain kind of approach to creating a painting that is full of hardship and fear – the best kind of painting. As there is no set plan laid out ahead of time, the painting begins making itself and going in directions that the painter otherwise did not anticipate, and in this kind of situation every mark becomes a hard one to make.This kind of painting is at one with larger forces of immanence, or of a kind of becoming-earth of painting. (The hard-edged, thought-out painting laid out by the artist-as-engineer, circumscribed to his Plan, is not relevant here – it is the easiest kind of painting). Each mark that goes down absorbs the painter, as fear wraps around him. This is a kind of fear in the face of the thing that makes itself, or in the face of that thing that has began to have its own agenda. Painting is alive, it has its own agency. Each mark becomes a commitment and each move or gesture is a battleground. To the painter himself, it is a basic struggle of self-preservation and of a fundamental critique of that law (I am reminded of Adorno here) .

“Art is creative for the sake of realization, not for amusement.”

A kabbalist once said, “if you wish to get hold of the invisible you must penetrate as deeply as possible into the visible.” This is what Beckmann did with his work. It is through the direct use of material reality that the artist gets a hold of the magic of reality. The painting that makes itself seizes hold of that truth of matter: the immanence of matter. In the context of an abstract geology, it is not relevant any longer to make images like Beckmann made – full of the unconscious in men spilling over into the visible – but his approach to material is what is of moment. It is this direct use of the plasticity of the paint that speaks volumes about what kind of painter one is, about the attitude towards existence and where the chips fall. Even if others are amused and the painter is himself a bit amused, he has more at stake in his work than entertaining himself.

“And then I awoke and yet continued to dream…painting constantly appeared to me as the one and only possible achievement. I thought of my grand old friend Henri Rousseau, that Homer in the porter’s lodge whose prehistoric dreams have sometimes brought me near the gods. I saluted him in my dream. Near him I saw William Blake, noble emanation of English genius. He waved friendly greetings to me like a super-terrestrial patriarch. ‘Have confidence in objects’, he said, ‘do not let yourself be intimidated by the horror of the world. Everything must fulfill its destiny. Seek this path and you will attain from your own self ever deeper perception of the eternal beauty of creation; you will attain increasing release from all that which now seems to you sad or terrible.’ I awoke and found myself in Holland in the midst of a boundless world of turmoil. But my belief in the final release and absolution of all things, whether they please or torment, was newly strengthened. Peacefully I laid my head among the pillows…to sleep, and dream, again.”

 

 

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All quotes from Max Beckmann On My Painting,
lecture given at the New Burlington Galleries, London, in 1938. Originally published in 1941 by Curt Valentin in New York, and again in the small book Modern Artists on Art.

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