Art as Flexibility

By Eli Siegel


I change, but I cannot die.
—Shelley, "The Cloud"

Art shows reality as resisting, bending; asserting, fading—which is how it is. Reality is as it changes, and flexibility in art is a visual likelihood of a thing's changing in space, while remaining what it is. As a stem of a flower sways in the wind, we have a sight of flexibility. Yieldingness as sight is much in pictures; the yieldingness that makes for strength is what we look for in art. There are a weaving and a hammering that go on in pictures; a molding and a glazing.

Pictures show that the meaning of things, the very deepest meaning, can be approached in two ways. In Giotto there is a quiet immobility of rapture, which says meaning is going on; in Piero della Francesca, depth is arrived at, too, by rigidity. However, in Leonardo da Vinci, in Correggio, in Ingres, import is got through the visual as yielding, flexible. Primitive art is less flexible than later art; as variety and subtlety are looked for, a certain insistent entirety is gone from.

Every picture uses flexibility in some manner to make reality clearer, mean more. El Greco is ascetic, severe, but he uses swirls, yielding richnesses of fabric, for religious intensity. His The Pentecost can be seen as fervor in flexibility. A picture here is like prayer: for prayer is a fixity and a bendingness; it is attention and genuflection.

Art looks at all things as resistant and yielding. A mountain can be made to look affable and a cloud stern. There is something in us which wants a straight line to waver, a hard surface to be like water. We should like to see iron as silk. All art has worked to make the unyielding more gracious; and the viscous, firm.

In both Seurat's Bathers and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, through the style of the painters, flexibility is made one with definition. How a painter defines flexibility, makes definition wavering and gracious, is an essential thing in his style. Art in the long run demands that everything look flexible; that is, that it have a motion within it making it change and being at once. Flexibility asks for vicissitude, for pleasant otherness in something which rests.

"I Change, but I Am"

Titian's portraits seem to say: I change, but I am. They are like Shelley's Cloud, which changes but does not die. It is hard to say, when one looks at Titian's A Member of the Contarini Family, where either assertiveness or flexibility begins or ends. Titian was much aware of flexibility and firmness in reality, so in this picture, we have a figure in rich, heavy fabric next to a block. His almost playing left hand touches and grasps a round box. His right hand is bent lightly, even as he looks intently—and yieldingly. Even the beard yields and asserts.

Chardin's Soap Bubbles is a clear study in flexibility and firmness. A big soap bubble—almost ridiculously big—is next to an oblong, hard ledge. There is a vertical line and a slant down the ledge. A young man, while bending, is intent on his bubble. Another boy, with a gay twist to his hat—like coiling bread—looks over the ledge, also intently. The boy has a round face. Flowers are above the young man's head and below the ledge. Certainly, there are other matters in the painting; but it could be called Flexibility as Firmness through a Soap Bubble, a Ledge, a Bending, Looking Young Man, an Intent Boy, and Flowers.

The dry point of Grünewald's Dog Scratching Itself shows the flexibility of a dog while accenting determination. If an object can bend itself into a circle, a height and depth of flexibility has been reached. The dog inclines towards the circle. There is much change in the dog, of the dog. We see motion within a resting thing (the folds of the dog's body) and from a resting thing. Curves are determined in the work. —And Grünewald's Resurrection is a religiously gay study in flexibility and firmness. The Christ is lightsome, assertive as a swift, light lily is assertive. There are folds about his body moving airily. But in the picture, too, are the angular remnants of the tomb, a large, darkish rock, and the soldiers and their armor and their swords. The meaning of Resurrection in itself has much to do with flexibility. Persistence using the utmost change to reveal itself, is in flexibility as art. —Grünewald's Resurrection brings something thistledownish, hilariously airy to religious symbolism.

From Rigidity to Grace

Heinrich Wölfflin has noted in his The Art of the Italian Renaissance that a change took place in the fifteenth century from rigidity and repose in Italian art to "undulations" and "grace":

From the middle of the century a growing desire for delicacy, grace of limb, and elegance is discernible. The figures lose their ruggedness; they are of a more slender type, small of wrist and ankle. The plain blunt stroke is resolved into a smaller, finer movement. The artist begins to take pleasure in exact modelling. The most delicate undulations of surface are noticed. Tension and movement are aimed at rather than repose and reticence; the fingers are spread out with a conscious elegance, there is much turning and bending of the head, much smiling and emotional uplifting of the eyes.

Yet what happened in the fifteenth century concerns every century. Rigidity and flexibility are of history as such, individual psychological history, and art history. These three aspects of history meet on this matter.

At this time, how flexible is matter, how flexible are objects, are questions as alive as ever. Every painter is answering them for himself. A good answer becomes a style.

Distortion, elongation, "atmosphere" arise from reality as flexible. When Memling made women's faces more oval than seemingly they were to others, he saw a flexibility in faces. Modigliani, making girls' faces sweet and long, went further than Memling. We could not use our imagination on objects if we did not see them as justly flexible; as flexible in a way that assisted accuracy. We could neither idealize nor caricature, ennoble nor distort, were not flexibility a property of the object as such.

Making metal bendable, curvable, flowerlike was a noteworthy purpose of surrealism. It is still justified. It is akin, this purpose is, to what Da Vinci was after in softening lines—making them misty, atmospheric mysterious. In both instances, the definite, the unyielding were given yieldingness, mobile gentleness. Always in painting the square has been seen somewhat as a circle—and the circle as angular, straight.

Goya, for example, deeply tries to show the square as circle in his Señora Sabasa García. Roundness, definition, change in the lower part of the picture, to something more like squareness and also more misty, "atmospheric." Through the relation of clarity, outline, curve, straight line, mistiness—definition becomes flexibility. The lady is, without irreverence, a roly-poly line, sweet sternness.

The problem of flexibility as definition is taken up, in another way, by Daumier in his Don Quixote with Sancho Panza Wringing His Hands. Sancho Panza, quite fat, is flexible as he bends back, wringing his hands. The rigidity of his grief accents the flexibility of his appearance. What Sancho is wearing is also flexible. The donkey Sancho is on is an interesting arrangement of settled quietude and dark malleability. The hills, in their curves, seem firm and yielding, too. And as Don Quixote goes charging into space, we have a deep feeling of determination and non-resistance. Space is an opponent, while it is space. In this picture, flexibility and opposition are used for deep comic effects: even the sky seems harsh and yielding.

The Warfare between Space and Matter

The warfare in reality between space and matter is a warfare between utter flexibility and utter resistance. Space as simple emptiness and matter as simple fullness or non-emptiness are the final opponents. In between nothing—not at all resisting—and fullness are many things bringing them together. Light and dark and color are the bridges between emptiness and resistance. Light interferes with the utterness of emptiness and the utterness of matter and makes them both seem more flexible. Dark softens form, and color puts form in some motion—a straight line which is green, even red, seems less of a straight line than when it is without color.

And so, painters have used light and shadows and color to make objects seem more flexible. Rembrandt has used light and dark to lessen the rigidity of warlike faces. Leonardo used dark to lessen the utterness of rocks. Velasquez used light to make resistance more gentle.

The very basis of painting has to do with flexibility. There is nothing more inflexible than surface as surface. If one adds something to a surface—a line—a splotch of color—the surface has become more flexible; is seen as more flexible. A thing seen as capable of change is seen as more yielding. But when a surface is changed to volume, is given perspective, depth, surface is more flexible still. How many things can be done to something with that thing remaining, is a sign of its flexibility. And as the surface undergoes dimensional and color happenings, it is a surface still. To give depth to surface is to show the grand flexibility of surface. How "flexible" the open door in the background is in The Maids of Honor by Velasquez. To have so many things and that door and that space and that person going out, is to show the wondrous changeability of surface as reality.

In The Maids of Honor we see reflection as adding to the flexibility of surface, of existence. The fact that the people in the picture are being painted and that there is a mirror in the painting which we look at, even as we look at people, gives one an idea of the flexibility of being. Consciousness of consciousness is flexibility; and we are conscious of the painter being aware of those he is painting; and we know he can see the mirror-as-painting already in the large room.

Looking for Relation

We can see things in a painting as looking for relation in order to arrive at their full meaning; and that much they're flexible. That, as possibility, which makes a thing better through being in relation to another thing, is in the first thing; and if a thing is seen as having this possibility, there is the going for change in a thing as it is, which, as I have said, is of flexibility. That a horse can carry a man, and that a man can ride a horse, shows they're both flexible.

The quiver within a tomato must be shown as somehow good for the tomato. If the tomato takes on more meaning, by being close to a grey wall, this will be felt as a sign of flexibility in the tomato; its quivers-in-line are a sign of changeability, too.

Reality is now pulsating, quivering, palpitating. Pulsations, quiverings, palpitations do not occur for the dishonor of reality. And so if light quivers, water wavers, heat-as-light seems to palpitate, walls grow soft in dark, bodies yield as they assert, color falters as it proceeds—all this is a sign of reality profoundly, gloriously taking care of itself. Art says that flexibility in reality is part of its meaning, its beauty, its reason for being, its strength.


NOTE. "Art As Flexibility" appeared in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 854, August 16, 1989.