Painting and time

I’m listening to Jordan Peterson’s lecture series where he approaches the Old Testament as a psychologist and phenomenologist: he reads the work as Jung would have, as an explication of structures that underlie human nature and the psyche. He speaks for nearly three hours in the first of the series and never gets to the first line of Genesis—his brain is like Kafka’s, bursting with a world that just wants out of his head. Peterson is approaching the whole subject as a rationalist, a scientist trying to understand patterns, examining the text for whatever it conveys with his reason, accepting nothing on faith, without ruling out that there may be much of value in the book that reason can’t plumb.

He takes one last question from his audience in the first video, and it has to do with painting. I think the questioner here is suggesting a reproduction of an original painting in some three dimensional form, not a photographic reproduction—some kind of 3D printed version of a work where the paint is duplicated in all its depth. It’s possible to imagine this as an effective way to copy a painting, up to a point. But the surface of even the most organized painting is full of serendipitous chaos, where the substances, the paint and oil, are mixed and applied in the most unpredictable ways, even following the strictest methods. At many levels an artist’s own “copy” of a previous painting wouldn’t be remotely identical to the original, even though the image is mostly the same. I’ve done this myself, painting two versions of a pie tin brimming with blueberries, and they are easily recognized as essentially the same image but are quite visibly different, in multiple ways.

Peterson also talks about historical context, but such an abstract concept seems to veer away from what his friend spoke about: how a painting  is an artifact in which the time required to make it becomes evident in the physical features of the painting. Yet historical context for Peterson means the context of human history itself, and he points out how cognitive function follows physical adaptation to the world, grows out of it, not the other way around—in both evolution and in individual perception—and so maybe they are talking about the same thing, in a way. You can feel the time invested in the painting, by the artist—as Peterson says—in the layering of paint. Subconsciously, you sense ways in which the paint betrays to the viewer how much the artist kept going back, or not going back, to certain areas, with new applications of paint, and you feel both the effort and the mastery of the process in an instant, just by looking at the work. All of which makes the work radiate a quality that actually makes time itself visible—as songs so easily make time audible. Not time as in tempo, but the vast sense of past time, as well as the aura of possibility, the depth of the future—and with some concerts, an immersion in nothing but the immediate present.

In the same way, paintings embody the person of the artist in ways that can’t be controlled by the artist—every painting is an involuntary confession of character and personality and the artist’s entire world.

Question: You were in this one room in a museum in New York looking at this one work, a Renaissance masterpiece, and these are generally accepted as amazing artifacts. Does an original work of art, as opposed to a high fidelity reproduction, contain the spirit of the artist who created it and does this account for the disparity in how much you have to pay for it . . .

Peterson: It does in part. I know a good portrait artist. One of the things he pointed out about a great portrait is that it actually contains time. A photograph is one instant. But a portrait is you layered on you layered on you. It has a thickness. It’s a direct manifestation of that creative act of perception. There’s more to it than that. A painting doesn’t end with the frame. We tend to think of a painting as an object but most objects are densely (infused?) with historical context.

Question:  If you have a reproduction of a painting that is exactly the same at the level of detail, why would you want the painting?

P: It’s exactly the same at the level of detail but not the level of context.

Comments are currently closed.