How easy to turn the greats, the bona fide geniuses, into gods. How clearly we reveal our own poverty. How little, to use the language of today, do we understand what makes them great. In truth we must bring them down a bit; closer to our much lower level. Geniuses are men and women too. Their talents due not to magical powers, but to the ordinary attributes concentrated to an extraordinary degree.
Now, Poetry, be a Greek sponge with suckers
And let the green succulence drench
You, under the trees on the sodden wood
Of a green-mottled garden bench.
Grow sumptuous flounces and furbelows,
Suck clouds and gullies in hour by hour,
And, Poetry, tonight I’ll squeeze you out
To make the thirsty paper flower.
(Spring, by Boris Pasternak)
The ability to lose oneself entirely in thought is the most important of these attributes; the artist of genius merging with the object of their contemplation to intuit something of its essence.1 This is talent is often misunderstood; Sheila Johnston’s mistake a common one.
Gifted with fantastic powers of observation, he could produce an exact copy of a complex picture after a single glance. (BFI Notes)2
“Hallo Sheila.” “Oh, hallo, how you doing?” I smile and shrug my shoulders. “Can I…” I motion to the neighbouring seat. “Yes yes; of course.” I sit down, and together we watch a teenager water-skiing across a bay; we see rocks, villas, beaches, a moving train sailing past, a brunette removing her t-shirt…
“Lovely to see you.” We kiss each other on the cheek. “Are you…” Sheila nods her head. “Yes. Here for the whole season.” “Goodbye.” “Goodbye.”
As I walk out of the theatre I think up metaphors - wrestling rocks; houses like laundered sheets; the beach nibbled toast - and try to remember the colour of the brunette’s mini-skirt: is it blue? Green? A sort of turquoise? I cannot quite...
So instead I imagine a different kind of scene. A man dives into the sea, and swims slowly around a coral reef; carefully looking into every crevice and cave. Suddenly a shoal of fish darts out and darts around him, twirling him gracefully around and around; like the revolving pole in the centre of a carousel. Around and around he goes and goes, when, flash! An explosion of light on the sea’s ceiling - we smile at our temerity. Through the fading light a woman gradually comes towards him. He rises up to meet her. Mask to mask they gesticulate and laugh, and parody the rudiments of speech. And vanish in a storm of bubbles.
Absorbed in this scene nothing else exists. “Oh, hallo.” Sheila has tapped me on the arm. “I’m waiting for the next performance. There are a few scenes I’m not sure about, and want to see again.” Sheila laughs, and mentions Julian Barnes’ recent tribute to Philip French. We talk a while about his criticism. After repeating our goodbyes…
I walk into the next screening, sit down and watch Drunk on Women and Poetry once more. I wait for the famous scene, and see Ohwon staring at the “complex picture” for an extremely long time. Not satisfied with even this intense gaze he picks up a magnifying glass and studies particular motifs. This is no miraculous “single glance”, but a total immersion in a Chinese classic. The artist is drenching his eyes in this painting’s details.
To the superficial eye - at a glance! so to speak - speed is the essence of genius; the quickness of perception, together with the large number of works created, appears to confirm this view. It is not so. The fast painter is a facile painter; a master of technique only.3 The great artist has the gift of penetration; it is their ability to absorb the nature of what they study that gives their work depth and insight; we think of the numerous seams of thought and meaning that layer a masterpiece.
When the contemplation is complete the execution may be quick; although usually there will be plenty of revision; the artist as much editor as creator. Even when a piece is completed speedily a lot of unconscious work would already have gone into it; the contemplative event having previously diffused through the interstices of the artist’s sensibility. Slowness is the secret of genius.4
Artists are passive beasts. Like lions amongst the savannah grass they wait for their prey to approach them.
Walking through a public gardens we note the clusters of green chairs, the long sodden grass, the devastated flowerbeds. The trees so weary with rain. We remember those three clerks with their heavy briefcases; and smile as we contemplate the paintbrush in our pocket. “Lover of palaces, muse of my heart...” Strange that we never think of rain when we think of Baudelaire. His dingy and desolate beings seem always to have a sunlit feel about them. A young woman walks past on the wet gravel path; flounces and furbelows of mud growing on the bottom of a once grey and delicately embroidered dress. We think of Tsvetaeva poor in Paris. The umbrella wanders away. A lampshade without a lightbulb. Is this clear? Clearer: a pathetic peevish person. Oh dear, these will have to go. Like a cloud that drops its rain this woman leaves her sadness behind. Yes, but shouldn’t we make it a bit more concrete… Spleen has entered through the gates like a group of wretched widows. But then we’ll need a superintendent. In a light grey uniform with red cuffs and a red collar. He must have a peaked cap. With a badge. A cockatoo on the arm of a red maid? Too elaborate. Could such a cap stop a cortege of sad ladies? We notice a queer fellow leaning against the summer house. His mackintosh - its pale yellow blurring into the wet cream - will soon be drowned by those wooden walls. We stop and fumble in our pockets. We are pretending to look for a handkerchief… We’ve found it! It’s that fellow’s cigarette: the rising smoke against the falling rain. We scuttle back to our studio.
Ohwon is interested in the woman; whom he meets further down the gravel path; at the end of the long bend, behind the rhododendron bushes. She is struggling with an umbrella, which is pulling her from side to side. It the master? She the servant? As he ponders this question the umbrella suddenly reaches for the heavens, its black hands grasping the sky. In greed or in desperation? The woman is being picked up… Will she fly? He wants her to! Or will she break? Ohwon watches the young woman twist and stretch; and then the wind drops, and the umbrella tumbles over, dragging her towards the lawn. Her coat is black with rain. Her red scarf looks like a sponge. Ohwon imagines those strands of wet hair, splattered against a face pinched with determination, as fronds of seaweed plastered on a white rock. The rock moves… The woman wrestles the umbrella back into shape. Its will, though, is so strong. Ohwon thinks of a father pulling his child, who snivels and cries and says over and over again, “but I don’t want to go to school; I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.” Suddenly she stops. She stands immobile; lost; helpless. She is a lonely child. The father has no pity. But a father must grow old… The umbrella now, suddenly, seems to cower at her feet. She picks it up and walks along the path, her steps regular and assured. A lampshade on a lamp stand. Ohwon follows her to the park gates; where he turns to look back at the leafless trees - sketch marks on an empty canvas.
It is not the swift glance, or the quick stroke, that sudden dash, which makes Ohwon exceptional. That is merely his mechanical artistry. His extra-ordinary ability is to wait and see. Patience is the quality that defines him.
He has a heaviness too. It is as if he carries the whole world in his person. Though there is a simpler explanation: Ohwon has huge appetites; for women; for drink; and for images. Yes, my dear, this man is obese with art.
(Review: Drunk on Women and Poetry)
1. I quote it often, but I’ll quote it again…
Art…plucks the object of its contemplation from the stream of the world’s course, and holds it isolated before it. This particular thing, which in that stream was an infinitesimal part, becomes for art a representative of the whole, an equivalent of the infinitely many in space and time…. Only through [this] pure contemplation…, which becomes absorbed entirely in the object, are the Ideas comprehended; and the nature of genius consists precisely in the preeminent ability for such contemplation….this demands a complete forgetting of our own person and of its relations and connexions… Accordingly, genius is the capacity to remain in a state of pure perception, to lose oneself in perception, to remove from the service of the will the knowledge which originally existed only for this service. In other words, genius is the ability to leave entirely out of sight our own interest, our willing, and our aims, and consequently to discard entirely our own personality for a time, in order to remain pure knowing subject, the clear eye of the world; and this not merely for moments, but with the necessary continuity and conscious thought to enable us to repeat by deliberate art what has been apprehended, and “what in wavering apparition gleams fix in its place with thoughts that stand for ever!” (Arthur Schopenhauer. The World as Will and Representation Vol I)
2. John Berger is the corrective:
The romantic notion of the artist as creator eclipsed - and today the notion of the artist as star still eclipses - the role of receptivity, of openness in the artist. (Portraits: John Berger on Artists)
3. See Gogol’s brilliant The Portrait. A longer study is Gissing’s classic: New Grub Street.
4. For an interesting discussion on the creative process of great thinkers see Alan Macfarlane’s description about writing a book.