Bachelard and Braque on metamorphosis


Still Life with Lemons, George Braque

Over the past year, more and more, I’ve been involuntarily daydreaming as I paint, in a way that reminds me of what Gaston Bachelard talks about in The Poetics of Space. It’s an idiosyncratic book, beautifully evocative and almost impossible to classify, though it’s often considered a work of philosophy because of its approach to something that sounds absurdly limited: what happens psychologically and emotionally when a person encounters certain kinds of space. It explores how people experience rooms, forests, shells, corners, closets, drawers—and how different the shapes and volumes of these spaces evoke entirely different kinds of dreams. For him, various environments relate in specific ways to the human body and the way people actually inhabit or employ different spaces comes to take on multiple meanings. For him, space is essentially a state of mind rather than the staging area for travel and physical measurement. As Bachelard says in his introduction, the phenomenological approach of the book requires the reader to simply pay attention to how the experience of space can enlarge an individual’s receptivity to new imagery. He puts aside any inherited philosophical or psychological theories and simply examines what’s happening, in human terms, by paying attention to this own encounters with space and how it opens up a state of reverie, a daydream. Different shapes and sizes of space unlock different kinds of dreaming, a treasury of moods, feelings, and mental images. I think what he’s actually doing is elucidating how poetry and painting evoke a sense of a world.


As you read the book it inspires the kind of daydreaming he refers to with a particular adjective—oneiric. (It just means dreamlike.) The prose of the book itself draws you into the state Shelley referred to as the gently fading cinder in a fireplace, glowing, simmering but not really lit up with rational consciousness. In considering the different dream states evoked by a three-story house rather than a four-story one, Bachelard says, “Dreams of stairs have often been encountered in psychoanalysis. But since it requires an all-inclusive symbolism to determine its interpretations, psychoanalysis has paid little attention to the complexity of mixed reverie and memory.” Paying attention to this “mix of reverie and memory” is what Bachelard tries to do in his book, without trying to fit her insights into some particular kind of system. “The poetic daydream, which creates symbols, confers upon our intimate moments an activity that is poly-symbolic.” By symbols I think he means fertile images, metaphors or visual forms that offer a kind of “poly-symbolic” language whose exact meaning can’t be pinned down. An image of stairs comes laden with suggestions of multiple different memories and experiences. The power of its “meaning” is that it evokes an emotional and mental state rather than a proposition that can be put to use.


This was the long way to go to double back to a notion that got me started. I wanted to describe how, while I paint now, certain forms I’m depicting remind me of more than the object I’m trying to represent. It’s similar to what Bachelard was trying to get at—how one experience can seem to embody other kinds of experience—and Braque refers to it, in his journals, as “metamorphosis”. I have Braque’s journals somewhere, but can’t lay my hand on the book right now, lost no doubt in a particularly non-oneiric corner of a bookshelf somewhere in my studio. So I’ll quote him via John Richardson’s 1961 essay on Braque:


‘The only valid thing in art is that which cannot he explained,” I once wrote. I still feel this very strongly. To explain away the mystery of a great painting — if such a feat were possible — would do irreparable harm . . . whenever you explain or define something you substitute the explanation or the definition for the real thing. There are certain mysteries, certain secrets in my own work which even I do not understand, nor do I try to do so. Why bother? The more one probes, the more one deepens the mystery; it’s always out of reach. Mysteries have to be respected if they are to retain their power. If there is no mystery then there is no poetry, the quality I value above all else in art. What do I mean by poetry? It is to a painting what life is to man. But don’t ask me to define it; it is something that each artist has to discover for himself through his own intuition. For me it is a matter of harmony, of rapports, of rhythm and — most important for my own work — of ‘metamorphosis’. I will try to explain what I mean by ‘metamorphosis”. For me no object can be tied down to any one sort of reality. A stone may be part of a wall, a piece of sculpture, a lethal weapon, a pebble on a beach or anything else you like, just as this file in my hand can be metamorphosed into a shoe-horn or a spoon, according to the way in which I use it. The first time the importance of this phenomenon struck me was in the trenches during the first World War when my batman turned a bucket into a brazier by poking a few holes in it with his bayonet and filling it with coke. For me this commonplace incident had a poetic significance; I began to see things in a new way.


When you ask me whether a particular form in one of my paintings depicts a woman’s head, a fish, a vase, a bird or all four at once, I cannot give you a categorical answer, for this ‘metamorphic” confusion is fundamental to the poetry. It is all the same to me whether a form represents a different thing to different people or many things at the same time or even nothing at all: it might be no more than an accident or a ‘rhyme” — a pictorial ‘rhyme” by the way, can have all sorts of unexpected consequences, can change the whole meaning of a picture – –


You see, I have made a great discovery: I no longer believe in anything. Objects do not exist for me in so far as a rapport exists between them and between them and myself. In other words, it is not the objects that matter to me but what is in between them; it is this ‘in-between’ that is the real subject of my painting. When one reaches this state of harmony between things and oneself, one reaches . . . what I can only describe as a state of perfect freedom and peace — which makes everything possible and right. Life then becomes a perpetual revelation.



I often think about these comments from Braque about his abstractions. More and more, I see different, non-literal forms in the shapes I paint. As I capture the look of something quite ordinary and commonplace, I often find myself in other places and times. A pair of white begonia blossoms could pass for cloud formations I’ve seen at 20,000 feet in the air. As I paint it, a cow skull feels like an enormous rock formation, eroded by wind, with cracked cavern walls, something it would take a day for a tiny man to scale and explore. The pattern of light reflecting from the surface and inside a jelly bean looks like a peach-colored moonlit night—my light source, reflected from the candy’s curved surface is a tiny moon peering between sheets and billows of apricot-colored mist. Things are what they are, and many other things, all at one.


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