The Impossibility of Painting is Merely a Feeling

Thoughts and reflections on the practice of painting.

Month: May, 2012

“Letters to a Woman Painter” (1948) by Max Beckmann

Max Beckmann, Journey on the Fish, 1934

The important thing is first of all to have a real love of the visible world that lies outside ourselves as well as to know the deep secret of what goes on within ourselves. For the visible world in combination with our inner selves provides the realm where we may seek infinitely for the individuality of our own souls. In the best art this search has always existed. It has been, strictly speaking, a search for something abstract. And today it remains urgently necessary to express even more strongly one’s own individuality. Every form of significant art from Bellini to Henri Rousseau has ultimately been abstract.
Remember that depth in space in a work of art (in sculpture too, although the sculptor must work in a different medium) is always decisive. The essential meaning of space or volume is identical with individuality, or that which mankind calls God. For, in the beginning there was space, that frightening and unthinkable invention of the force of the universe. Time is the invention of mankind; space or volume, the palace of the Gods.
But we must not digress into metaphysics or philosophy. Only do not forget that the appearance of things in space is a gift of God, and if this is disregarded in composing new forms, then there is the danger of your work being damned by weakness or foolishness, or at best it will result in mere ostentation or virtuosity. One must have the deepest respect for what the eye sees and for its representation on the area of the picture in height, width and depth. We must observe what may be called the law of the surface, and this law must never be broken by using the false technique of illusion. Perhaps then we can find ourselves, see ourselves in the work of art. Because ultimately, all seeking and aspiration ends in finding yourself, your real self of which your present self is only a weak reflection. There is no doubt that this is the ultimate, the most difficult exertion we poor men can perform. So, with all this work before you, your beauty, culture and your devotion to the external pleasures of life must suffer. But take consolation in this: you still have ample opportunity to experience agreeable and beautiful things, but these experiences will be more intense and alive if you yourself remain apart from the senseless tumult and bitter laughter of stereotyped mankind …

Max Beckmann, Bird’s Hell, 1938

It is necessary for you, you who now draw near to the motley and tempting realm of art, it is very necessary that you also comprehend how close to danger you are. If you devote yourself to the ascetic life, if you renounce all worldly pleasures, all human things, you may, I suppose attain a certain concentration; but for the same reason you may also dry up. Now on the other hand if you plunge headlong into the arms of passion, you may just as easily burn yourself up! Art, love and passion are very closely related because everything revolves more or less around knowledge and the enjoyment of beauty in one form or another. And intoxication is beautiful, is it not, my friend? …

Max Beckmann, Self Portrait with a Saxaphone, 1930

Nothing is further from my mind than to suggest to you that you thoughtlessly imitate nature. The impression nature makes upon you in its every form must always become an expression of your own joy and grief, and consequently in your formation of it, it must contain that transformation which only then makes art a real abstraction.
But don’t overstep the mark. Just as soon as you fail to be careful and get tired, and though you still want to create, you will slip off  either into thoughtless  imitation of nature, or into sterile abstractions which will hardly reach the level of decent decorative art.
Enough for today, my dear friend. I think much of your work, of from my heart I wish you the power and strength to find and follow a good way. It is very hard with its pitfalls left and right. I know that. We are all tightrope walkers. With them it is the same as with all artists, and so with all mankind. As the Chinese philosopher Laotse says, we have ‘the desire to achieve balance, and to keep it!’ (Max Beckmann, ‘Letters to a Woman Painter’, 1948, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, pp. 180-183)

Max Beckmann, The Actors, 1942


From an Interview with Joan Mitchell, 1986

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1961

Feeling, existing, living. I think it’s all the same, except for the quality. Existing is survival; it does not necessarily mean feeling. You can say good morning, good evening. Feeling is something more: it’s feeling your existence. It’s not just survival. Painting is a means of feeling ‘living’ …

Joan Mitchell, Tilleul, 1978

Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time. Music takes time to listen to and ends, writing takes time and ends, movies end, ideas and even sculpture takes time. Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still. Then I can be very happy. It’s a still place. It’s like one world, one image. (interview with Yves Michaud, 1986, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, p. 32 )

For more about Joan Mitchell’s life and work click here

Joan Mitchell, Untitled, 1992

Some Thoughts on Painting (1954) by Lucian Freud

Lucian Freud, Head of Frank Auerbach, 1976

My object in painting pictures is to try to move the senses by giving an intensification of reality. Whether this can be achieved depends on how intensely the painter understands and feels for the person or object of his choice. Because of this, painting is the only art in which the intuitive qualities of the artist may be more valuable to him than actual knowledge or intelligence …
The painter’s obsession with his subject is all he needs to drive him to work. People are driven towards making works of art, not by familiarity with the process by which this is done, but by a necessity to communicate their feelings about the object of their choice with such intensity that these feelings become infectious. Yet the painter needs to put himself at a certain emotional distance from the subject in order to allow it to speak. He may smother it if he lets his passion for it overwhelm him while in the act of painting …

Lucian Freud, Bella, 1981

A painter must think of everything he sees as being there entirely for his own use and pleasure. The artist who tries to serve nature is only an executive artist. And, since the model he so faithfully copies is not going to be hung up next to the picture, since the picture is going to be there on its own, it is of no interest whether it is an accuarate copy of the model. Whether it will convince or not, depends entirely what it is in itself, what is there to be seen. The model should only serve the very private function for the painter of providing the starting point for his excitement. The picture is all he feels about it, all he thinks worth preserving of it, all he invests it with. If all the qualities which the painter took from the model were really taken, no person would be painted twice.
The aura given out by a person or object is as much a part of them as their flesh. The effect that they make in space is bound up with them as might might be their colour or smell. The effect in space of two different human individuals can be as different as a candle and an electric light bulb. Therefore the painter must be as concerned with the air surrounding his subject as with the subject itself. It is through observation and perception of atmosphere that he can register the feeling that he wishes his painting to give out.
A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then that the painter realises that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope that the picture might spring to life. Were it not for this, the perfect painting might be painted, on the completion of which the painter could retire. It is this great insufficiency which drives him on. Thus the process of creation becomes necessary to the painter perhaps more than is the picture. The process in fact is quite habit-forming. (Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, pp. 219 – 221)

Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995

Marlene Dumas: Woman and Painting

I found this statement by Marlene Dumas in the book Painting, (p.94-95), edited by Terry R. Myers, published by Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press.

Marlene Dumas, The Visitor. 1995

Woman and Painting


I paint because I am a woman.
(It’s a logical necessity.)
If painting is female and insanity is a female malady, then all women painters are mad and all male painters are women.


I paint because I am an artificial blonde woman.
(Brunettes have no excuse.)
If all good painting is about colour then bad painting is about having the wrong colour. But bad things can be good excuses. As Sharon Stone said: ‘Being blonde is a great excuse. When you’re having a bad day you can say, I can’t help it, I’m just feeling blonde today.’


I paint because I am a country girl.
(Clever, talented big-city girls don’t paint.)
I grew up on a wine farm in southern Africa. When I was a child I drew bikini girls for male guests on the back of their cigarette packs. Now I am a mother and I live in another place that reminds me a lot of a farm – Amsterdam. (It’s a good place for painters.) Come to think about it, I’m still busy with those types of images and imagination.


I paint because I am a religious woman.
(I believe in eternity.)
Painting doesn’t freeze time. It circulates and recycles time like a wheel that turns. Those who were first might be last. Painting is a very slow art. It doesn’t travel with the speed of light.
That’s why dead painters shine so bright.
It’s ok to be the second sex.
It’s ok to be second best.
Painting is not a progressive activity.


I paint because I am an old-fashioned woman.
(I believe in witchcraft.)
I don’t have Freudian hang-ups. A brush does not remind me of a phallic symbol.
If anything, the domestic aspect of a painter’s studio (being ‘locked up’ in a room) reminds me a bit of a housewife with her broom. If you’re a witch you still know how to use it. Otherwise it’s obvious that you’ll prefer the vacuum cleaner.


I paint because I am a dirty woman.
(Painting is messy business.)
It cannot ever be a pure conceptual medium, The more ‘conceptual’ or cleaner the art, the more the head can be separated from the body, and the more labour can be done by others. Painting is the only manual labour I do.


I paint because I like to be bought and sold.
Painting is about the human touch. It is about the skin of a surface. A painting is not a postcard. The content of a painting cannot be separated from the feel of its surface. Therefore, in spite of everything, Cezanne is more than vegetation and Picasso more than an anus and Matisse is not a pimp.

Marlene Dumas, Measuring Your Own Grave, 2003

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