Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Ratjen Collection IV: Eisegesis

Let's finish up our tour of the National Gallery's exhibition of German drawings from the Ratjen Collection (begun here, here, and here). I only have one more drawing to discuss with you, but I have a fair amount to say about it.

Before we get to that, though, I need to set up the story. Lately, I've been working with Leah. Leah (or, more specifically, her belly), inspired my very third blog post, called On Bellies. Apart from having a snazzy belly, Leah is a wonderful model - dedicated, skilled, beautiful, and fascinating to talk with. If you paint from life, and you talk while you paint, you rapidly discover that "fascinating to talk with" is really, really important in a model. So anyway, I just finished a little portrait of Leah:

Leah, 2010, oil on canvas, 24"x20"

I'm planning a larger painting of Leah. One of the many cheerful things about her is that she is irrationally fond of snails (she might argue that this is not irrational). She is particularly fond of the Common Mystery Snail (yes, there is such a thing, although its exact taxonomy seems to violently divide the snail enthusiast community). Since I like to work the personal quirks of models into their paintings, I've been trying to figure out how to do a painting of Leah with a Common Mystery Snail of extraordinary size. I had just about come up with an idea, here:

This was the last of many sketches of composition ideas, and when I drew it, I thought I was satisfied with it. Then I went to see the Ratjen Collection, and I saw this drawing there:

Johann Evangelist Scheffer von Leonhardshoff, German, 1795 - 1822
Saint Cecilia, 1821
graphite on wove paper
Wolfgang Ratjen Collection, Patrons' Permanent Fund

Like the Ruth and Boas drawing from the previous post, this was a preparatory sketch for a painting that turned out to be much less interesting. Just so you know what's going on in this picture - Saint Cecilia seems to have gotten herself beheaded on account of her strident Christianity, but being a Saint, the beheading didn't take until she'd performed several miracles. Von Leonardshoff elides the icky problem of the botched beheading by placing some hair over the wounds on Cecilia's neck.

When I saw this drawing, I instantly thought, I oughta steal this composition for my Leah painting. The pose and placement are fairly similar; it's not like nobody has ever done a painting of this approximate placement of the human body before. I was planning it, Von Leonardshoff planned it - he just did it better than I did.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I was convinced, not only that Von Leonardshoff's version was better, but that my own version was contrived, even insipid. No doubt, if I'd painted my initial idea, I would have found some authentic emotion or meaning in it; I find that I do that, as I paint. But the idea itself, as it stands, is essentially "hot chick with big snail."

Von Leonardshoff, on the other hand, hints at something more distressing and more profound. His arc of the flesh seems to me to vibrate on the very edge of a dream. St. Cecilia sinks into a troubled dream. She is no longer her body, but on the verge of separating from it. As her corporeality dissolves, a greater and greater proportion of her subsists inside her dream. She is moving toward her dream, but her dream, in turn, speaks backward through the weakening bands of her physicality, to the material world she is leaving behind. The dream transforms her, makes her into a dream-object in the real world. Von Leonardshoff's St. Cecilia exists in two worlds, dream and waking, and Von Leonardshoff interprets the emotional texture of this dual state as being like one of sinking down drowsily into slumber, as if slumber were a thick porridge in which the body is bouyant, but still sinks.

There is another painting of a woman, famously suspended between the two worlds in a similar way:

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781

If you remember her facing the other way, that's because he painted it twice and noodled around with the composition a bit.

This is a powerful, frightening image. But it is different from the idea that appeals to me. In the St. Cecilia, I see a solidity, a presence, to the dreaminess which, just now, strikes me as more essential, as closer to what I am trying to get at. It is unadorned with props and imagery. It is, itself, woven from a material half-sunk in dreaming. It does not require the symbols of dream-language because it is itself a dream.

This points us toward the subtitle of this post - eisegesis. There's a pair of important words for Biblical interpretation, exegesis and eisegesis. Exegesis is a fair word: it means to use various responsible methods of reading to draw out a meaning that inheres in the text. Eisegesis, in contrast, strikes me as a bit of a sarcastic made-up word: it means to read into the text - essentially to impose whatever was going through your head anyway onto the text and claim that you see it there too.

We could open a whole can of literary-critical worms if we decided to try to establish the legitimacy of this distinction, but instead, I'm going to take it as a given that the distinction is real.

Now, I like to think that a lot of what I do when I look at art is exegetical. But if you've been hanging out at this blog for any length of time, you will no doubt have concluded that I am big on eisegesis as well. I understand and accept this; I find it rewarding, the same way that some people, who do not believe in tarot, find it rewarding to read their tarot cards. It helps them to structure and evaluate the topics they contend with - I too find it rewarding to allow an artwork to be more meaningful than, perhaps, it really is.

I strongly suspect I have done that with regard to Von Leonardshoff's poor St. Cecilia. I have not spent so much time looking at her. Rather, I have spent my time thinking about the relevation I had when I looked at her. The drawing itself is a substrate for the idea, and what I have derived by a small measure of exegesis, and a large measure of eisegesis - all of that is now available for me to pack into the Leah painting, so that the Leah painting can support a legitimate exegesis of a dreamish state.

Or to put it in a less fancy way, I let my mind wander.

That about wraps it up for the Ratjen Collection. I was tired by the time I fled the National Gallery - most of the stuff I've told you about in these last four posts, I thought of in the hour or so that I was there, which made it an idea-dense visit, relative to my ordinary rate of thinking at least. Let me once again express my gratitude to the National Gallery for making the materials from the show available for us to pore over in detail and at a distance. I hope this has been a worthwhile interlude for you.


  1. Worthwhile? Hell yeah. Very interesting thoughts and as always I'm glad you shared them here.

  2. Thanks Ed - I'm glad you think so. I'll put up the painting when it's done, too.

  3. I've noticed in a lot of these sketches in preparation for painting, the artists often have that extra detail study of a hand or foot or other feature. I like seeing those artifacts of the artists' thought process, like experimenting with a different position of the fingers in this most recent post. Maybe another reason to find the prep drawings sometimes more interesting than the finished painting.

  4. Interesting distinction about exegesis and eisegesis.

    I don't know much about the Tarot, but years ago I went through a period of intense study of the I Ching. It started when I compared different translations of the core texts of the bronze age oracle, and noticed that the translators' interpretations could be wildly different from each other. I got fascinated enough to pore through doctoral dissertations on the I Ching and lexicons of bronze age Chinese. What I concluded from all this study is that I believe the original core verses of the I Ching, which are simply odd images described in a few terse characters, were constructed to be deliberately ambiguous. The translators erred, in my opinion, in trying to determine the correct interpretation of the cryptic verses rather than trying to capture their essential blankness. Of course the same is true of three thousand years of philosophical commentators, ever since Confucius named the I Ching as one of China's canonical ancient texts. But from the point of view of the professional diviner, too specific an answer constricts your interpretation of the question the client has asked you to divine upon. You need something evocative enough to serve as a seed for your imagination, but flexible enough to allow you to steer your response with your own sagely wisdom.

    If I am right then, that would make the I Ching a text designed for eisegesis. I don't think this is such a wild thesis. Many kinds of art, especially poetry and painting, make deliberate use of ambiguity. Being evocative can be more powerful than being explicit, because it calls on the imaginative capacity of the reader or viewer.

    Scholars generally hate the idea of eisegesis because if you admit that any subjective interpretation is valid there's nothing to argue about any more, and scholars are out of a job. But I think it's inherent in how we respond to art things, and maybe deserves a little more respect.

  5. Ed - the hand things are definitely cool. I would say suspiciously cool - they happen so much that I think that hundreds of years ago, they probably turned into a stylistic tic, that artists put in on purpose to let people know they *really thought hard* about those hand positions. I mean, I know artists who put in slightly different head positions and alternate hand close-ups in these kinds of drawings, and I'm like, "Really? You couldn't figure out where you wanted the chin and the hand? You just *had* to draw them a few times on the same sheet of paper?"

    Fred - that is really interesting. I hadn't thought about deliberate ambiguity, which I think is a valid quality to try to place in the work. I do think there is a fair distinction to make between legitimate ambiguity, and trying to pack in concepts the work cannot sustain. For instance - I could claim that there is as much profundity in any given shot in a Michael Bay film, as there is in a given shot in a Tarkovsky film. And I could make a pretty good argument for this position. But ultimately, I'm being a jerk, because the Michael Bay film wasn't meant to, and can't sustain, the burden of the conceptual complexity that is so natural to a Tarkovsky film. So in that instance, I would be crossing the line from partaking of the ambiguity inherent in the work, to abusing the idea. Similarly, there's an entire subgenre of maybe-Judas-was-really-the-best-apostle-after-all storytelling, which I think is an abuse of any legitimate reading of the text. Clearly the text is saying that Judas is not the good guy here. You can come up with all kinds of philosophical tangles to reverse that, but at that point, you're well inside the territory of eisegesis.

    On the other hand, we have a continuously evolving version of Mary Magdalene because the text has so little about her, and yet gives her such a fundamental role, that every age is able to concoct the Magdalene it needs - and to me, this partakes of legitimate ambiguity, although Dan Brown is pushing it in my opinion.

    I do think eisegesis is a real flaw once you get down to serious scholarship - or, in other words, that the scholars have a point. Fortunately, as an artist I'm able to say whatever I please about a picture and then add, "P.S. This isn't scholarship. Ha ha ha, scholars!" And that is, in part, the approach I am taking on this blog.

    As usual, your comment has opened a new dimension of analysis of the problem - thank you again for taking the time to share your thoughts here.