Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Second Order Dominique Sanda Problem

You know my big painting of Leah's butt, right?

Blue Leah #6, 2011, oil on canvas, 48"x36"

So Leah dropped by my open studio the other evening, near the end of the night. Here's a picture we wound up taking:

looking at it now - jesus, my forehead is like the size of her whole face

The picture we didn't take, because Leah, after striking the pose, was too embarrassed to hold it, was her demonstratively pointing at the big butt painting, and her own butt, to clarify that this big painting of a butt represents, in point of fact, her butt.

This comical gesture on her part brought into sudden clarity an issue which has been brewing for me, which I would call the Dominique Sanda problem. Some of you will recognize the name Dominique Sanda, but almost none of you will remember her first film - Robert Bresson's A Gentle Woman (1969).

Robert Bresson was a minimalist French director who tended to work with non-actors, the better to produce flat affect in the performances of his "models" - his own idiosyncratic term for the people in his films. Apart from directing a few really riveting movies, he wrote a rather philosophical and epigrammatic book, Notes on Cinematography, which I would recommend to any artist.

Having just looked it up, I find that the plot of A Gentle Woman is a series of flashbacks explaining the suicide of the lead, played by Sanda. I saw this movie years ago, and had no recollection at all of the plot. What I do recall is that Bresson got a Bressonian performance out of Sanda: quiet, depressive, and almost completely expressionless.

As he did with all his "models," he photographed her so slowly, and so obsessively, that the microscopic variations and progression of her state of soul emerged. I used to think this cinematographic procedure was akin to the stony beach emerging as the tide recedes, but now I think it is rather more like a salt flat forming as a lake evaporates: something is revealed, but in a condensate form. The procedure concentrates it, amplifies it, until it is unbearably intense. The method is not only a means of observation, but also of aestheticization.

You are unlikely to remember Dominique Sanda in A Gentle Woman for two main reasons. The first is that it is actually a bit of a snooze. Bresson at his best is tough to watch, and this is not his best. The second is that Sanda's performance in this movie is jarringly at odds with virtually everything else she ever did.

If you know Sanda, you most likely remember her famous roles in The Conformist and The Garden of the Finzi Continis.

Here she is in The Conformist:

Here she is in The Garden of the Finzi Continis:

What is partly apparent in these stills, and fully apparent in the films, is that she is most natural playing a smart and vivacious woman, full of life and mischief (and highly sexual); and not playing a limp haddock, as she does in Bresson's movie.

However, Bresson's movie does not lie about her. Although his method involves the aesthetic, it is so microscopic as to make falsehood impossible. Unlike the ordinary photography of acting, Bresson's method is so minute, so stripped-down, that the actor cannot put into the performance anything that does not exist in her as a human being. Only what is present can be shown.

But Bresson does not tell the whole truth either. He photographs a narrow slice of her personality. If she had never made another movie, we would have only this record of her work, and we would think of her as dour and ascetic, like all Bresson's "models." But she happened to have a career, and thus we find that, while Bresson caught one thing about her, he did not catch the thing which was, relative to her as an individual, the most dominant, the most expressive, and the most important.

He caught the truth. For him, it was the great truth. For Dominique Sanda, it was the least truth.

This is a problem. Bresson can only see what he is able to see. He is inflexible and domineering. His region of overlap with his models extends only to the boundary of his unchanged personality. He sees Dominique Sanda as profoundly as anyone will ever see her, but he remains blind to most of her.


I don't know how it is for you, but my studio is in a building of artist studios, and only three or four of us do figurative paintings. In fact, we are all in the same corner of the top floor and suspect that our eccentric art-loving landlord is quietly forming a figurative-painter ghetto up here. My own studio is closest to the main thoroughfare of the bewilderingly mazelike top floor. When there's an open studio, and all the artists invite the public to come in and have a look, my studio is the first figurative studio visitors reach after four floors of the abstract, the crafty, and the poppy. These conditions make me look like a magician, because while many people harbor a secret suspicion that they could make abstract paintings, crafts, and pop art, most everybody agrees that painting the figure is hard as hell.

So I get a lot of compliments, but the compliments are the kinds of compliments that you would expect under those conditions. They are along the lines of, "You're so good at this."

Until this self-same open studio where Leah showed up at the end and pointed comically at her butt. This time, there was a change in the tenor of the remarks. Gone were the "You paint so beautifully" and "It could be a photograph" types of comments. The almost uniform response this time was - "These have so much soul" - "These show a person."

Up until the open studio, this was my entire goal in figurative painting. I never - or not for long anyway - wanted to paint beautifully. Beautiful painting is a scaffold, a tool. It is the bones and sinews. It is not the purpose of painting; the purpose of painting, for me, is to reach toward soul. And to hear this evaluation of soulfulness, unprompted, from a random sample of strangers, triggered a very gratifying release of endorphins.

Then Leah came by, and comically pointed at her butt.

...and the second order Dominique Sanda problem abruptly clarified, and I realized that I've turned into Robert Bresson.

I have a monastic streak a mile wide. The first light I tend to see things in is the Last Light. And I tend to insist on this with my models as well: however you dress, choose friends, spend time, laugh - we'll get rid of all that - there is a core, a base, there is a forever part of you, a part that is still, and mighty - it was here before you were born, and it will go on after you die - today we are going to search for that part.

But this is not the entire truth. Even if the entire truth is ultimately irretrievable, this is less than the amount of truth it is possible to retrieve.

Leah is a smart, funny young woman leading a life of mayhem and adventure. Blue Leah tells one part of her story: the overlap of one part of her with one part of me.

I don't think my crime is so great as Bresson's, although that is for Leah to say. But it is of the same category. It is no accident that my frame, and Bresson's, look similar:

This is the classic frame of the transcendental filmmaker. It is the meditation-on-the-face frame. In ordinary filmmaking, it is highly unstable, because people in ordinary films move. In transcendental films, they stand still, as they do in paintings. The microscopic tremors of the soul reveal themselves in this frame, which captures the moment that expands to an eternity, just as paintings nest an eternity in the moment of the image.

I do not repudiate the Blue Leah paintings; contrarily, I think they are some of the best work I have done so far. I reached into my guts to paint what was there, and Leah, with the generosity and skill of the utterly committed professional model did the same. But I do see them now as more partial, more slanted, than I did before.

Casting my thoughts back over art history, I see instances of the Dominique Sanda problem everywhere. All of Rembrandt's people are melancholy and reflective; Da Vinci's nearly smile with their illuminated knowledge. Gentilesci's people are furious, and Hals's will all wake up with hangovers. Instances abound.

Whether or not the problem is universal, having recognized it, what kind of a tool would I be if I failed to address it?

Here's what I think - I think that I have developed a strong ability to see, but a certain complacency in what I'm looking for. I think I'm allowing my own character too much say in my work. My boundaries are too hard, my figures too uniform. Certainly there is a place for my character in my work, but I would like to bend more, expand more, I would like to fit the world in me.

Having recognized, not just personally, but through the eye of Vincent, that comedy which is so much a part of Leah, not forever perhaps, but for now - I'm going to see if I can't do something about that in my work. I have ideas already (I always have ideas already).

I am full of excitement and hope.

If I can wish you one thing in your own work, my friends, it is the willingness to be humiliated. Even when you're right, life is so large that you're probably wrong as well. Continuing to be right is the path of decline, of senility. But recognizing that you are wrong - this is the flash of insight, the start of new things.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Daniel, that's not a forehead, that's a fivehead! too.

    Well, if wrong is right, I am infallible!

  3. You! You! Didn't I tell ya to get off my porch, with your flaming dog poop, and your puns...

    Sorry, I'm slightly gesnizzled. I had some scotch, and I never drink.

    Thanks for still reading this stuff, McG. You write longer posts, but I write 'em more frequent.

  4. "but I would like to bend more, expand more, I would like to fit the world in me."
    A noble pursuit. Enjoyed this Daniel, thank you.

  5. Stanka - thank you very much, I really appreciate it.

  6. What a self reflective piece. Much humility for someone who clearly has genius.

  7. Thank you Grace, that's very kind of you to say. Let me share my favorite Darwin anecdote for deflecting any suggestion of genius. When accused of it himself, he is said to have responded, "Nonsense, I just put in a lot of hours." :)

  8. Uh, not to compare myself with Darwin. Crap.

  9. There's a saying "Every artist paints himself" and there's truth to it - what an artist captures of a model is the part of the model that is already in the artist, or that is in the moment of the interaction. I don't think that's a problem. No painting should be expected to contain the whole truth about its subject. But it is a noble aspiration to want to fit the world in yourself, rather than selecting from the world that which easily fits in you.

    I haven't seen the film you mention, but Bresson's "Au Hasard Balthazar" is one of the great masterpieces of cinema. The central character is a donkey - perhaps the ultimate non-actor "model" for Bresson's tragic worldview.

  10. Fred - is this Fred Hatt, by the way? If so, your identity is registering in some weird way I've never seen before. Anyhoo.

    I do know the "paints himself" idea, which seems to me like a situations-specific formulation of the general principle that the only perspective you can really see from is, by definition, your own. But that doesn't stop me struggling against it. On the reverse side of the proposition is the idea that to see absolutely would reveal a cold, grey, dead, motionless world. Or that possibly it is hubristic to want to see omnisciently. But I'll still work on it; or at least on expanding my perspective, as you describe, enough to make it broad - this is what Terence was trying to do as well, wasn't it? "Nothing human is alien to me." Although I thought it was Marcus Aurelius who said that until a minute ago...

    I haven't seen Balthazar! I was very taken with "Diary of a Country Priest" and especially "A Man Escaped." I never got around to Balthazar for probably the same reason I never finished "Watership Down" - unreasonable as it is, I couldn't get past blurting out, "But they're just *animals*! Who cares about a bunch of *animals*?" Metaphor, universality of life, etc., etc. Still.

  11. Yes, this is Fred Hatt. I made the mistake of commenting here while logged in to my Google account.

    "Au Hasard Balthazar" has plenty of human characters - it's really a moving film. "Pickpocket" is another very good Bresson film, especially as it has very clear demonstrations of all sorts of beautiful and graceful techniques of sleight-of-hand theft!

    It is not hubristic to aspire, in art, to the impossible. It is essential!

  12. Holy shit, man. This is amazing:

    "I think that I have developed a strong ability to see, but a certain complacency in what I'm looking for."

    By the way I've always felt your genius had a Darwinian quality.

    Seriously, a wonderful and brilliant reflection. You have also, by the way, developed a strong ability to teach others to see.

    And why didn't anyone tell me before that there is a great masterpiece of cinema wherein the main character is a donkey??

  13. Ed, you dope, it's called Shrek. Oh wait...

    Anyway, Dani, Ed suggested I read your blog. He's full of good ideas. Great blog!

    Some random reactions to this post:

    "Wow." I couldn't write such an insightful post in a million years. I'm not even sure I should be calling myself an artist since I don't have these kinds of deep thoughts about my own creative work.

    "That butt painting is friggin' awesome." And it is REAL. What is real is the truth, in art or anywhere else.

    Capturing another person's moment in time, as in the "meditation-on-the-face frame" comparison, makes for powerful work. As a casual observer who tends to form an opinion of a painting based on first impression, your painting of Leah's face is striking. It makes me ask, "What did she just see? What just happened? Is she pissed or worried?" In other words, it gets me thinking about your subject and isn't that goal anyway? Surely you don't want me to look at the work and be impressed by lovely brushwork and use of complementary colors! Drawing me in and getting an emotional response is what it's all about--and boy howdy, your paintings do THAT.

    As artists--at whatever level--we gravitate toward expressing things that resonate with our natural affinities. It's why you paint people and I paint dogs. I think it's okay--and even worthwhile--to be mesmerized by one subject or stuck in a comfort zone for a long time. Those of us who see painting as a sort of adventure will get the itch to explore new creative territory eventually no matter what.

    So yeah...wall of text comment not quite intended but that's what happens when I drink strong coffee at midday.

  14. Fred - I haven't seen "Pickpocket" either! And after all my ruminating on Degas's impossible ambition of fusing color and line, you'd think I'd have remembered the principle in my own case. Thanks for shaking me to my senses.

    Ed - thank you for these really nice comments! And I guess it was an oversight about Balthazar. Even better, from your perspective, is that Kate Beckinsale plays Balthazar.

    Carole - hello, and thanks so much for following Ed's recommendation, I'm glad to meet you. You're right, the responses you're describing are the ones I think any artist would hope for, and I would be dismayed if people thought first and last about my technique. So - I very much appreciate your description of your response to it. I'll try not to forget that, even while I'm struggling to modify my course.

    I checked out your dog paintings, by the way. Those are some nice dog paintings! Damn! That's a lot of personality and soul. You really nailed Winnie.

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I look forward to wall of texting on your future blog posts and maybe a few past ones!

  15. "Beautiful painting is a scaffold, a tool. It is the bones and sinews. It is not the purpose of painting; the purpose of painting, for me, is to reach toward soul."

    That's a great way of putting it. I am impressed with artists who have the skill to draw realism, but what really speaks to me is artwork that goes beyond that and conveys something intangible, whether you call it soul, spirit, energy, or something else.

    BTW, I'm not sure if that is the purpose of all painting, or just figure painting. Does a landscape or a still life have a soul? I imagine someone could make that argument, but I don't think it's the same thing.

  16. I'm glad this description speaks to you, Andrew.

    And I would indeed argue that if you stare long enough, you'll find the soul in things that are not people - an object, a landscape, even a quality of light and color. I'll have some stuff to say about that in the context of Karen Kaapke's current work soon.