Monday, 3 May 2010

STEINBERG'S CLOUDS



The great Saul Steinberg never learned to paint clouds.

Compare Steinberg to English landscape painter John Constable, who became famous for painting clouds using techniques he developed through careful research. Constable's approach was based on his philosophy, "you only see something truly when you understand it."

Perhaps Steinberg smiled in doubt at Constable's notion that we can ever "truly" understand clouds. An artist with boundless curiosity, Steinberg worked in a state of perpetual inquiry and never found a formula for clouds that satisfied him for long:


All images © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY









Most artists refine their techniques over their careers, eventually settling on an approach that satisfies them. For example, Rubens gradually developed his distinctive treatment of human flesh until he settled on his mature style. Winslow Homer slowly mastered his famous approach to painting water. Georgia O'Keefe improved her method of painting flowers, each stage building on the last, until she arrived at the approach for which she is known today. But Steinberg's mind was too restless to linger over polishing his technique. Concepts interested him more than implementation, and he refined his technique just far enough to diagram those concepts.

Look at his wild, anarchistic variety of clouds.  Each picture views clouds with new eyes:

















At an age when other artists worked hard to discipline their perceptions of the physical world, Steinberg's perceptions snuck out the back door to elope with his conceptions. You see the fruits of their marriage all over these pictures.
 


How can we take Steinberg seriously when his pictures all look so playful?

Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz imagined the wild fun at the beginning of the universe when the gods began creating something from nothing. Milosz asks us to envision the hilarity when the celestial "Board of Projects" invented such things as hedgehogs:
Celestials at the Board of Projects burst into laughter,
For one of them has designed a hedgehog,
Another, not to be left behind, a soprano....

It is superb fun in the ocean of seething energy...
Buckets of protocolors gurgle, protobrushes labor,
A mighty whirl of almost galaxies beyond nearly windows
And pure radiance that has never experienced clouds.

They blow conchs, somersault in protospace....
The earth is practically ready...and every single creature
Waits for its name....

To invent length, width, height,
Two times two and force of gravity
Would be quite enough, but on top of it panties
With lace, a hippopotamus, the beak of a toucan,
A chastity belt with its terrible teeth,
A hammerhead shark, a visored helmet,
Plus time, that is, a division into was and will be.

Gloria, gloria sing objects called to being.
Hearing them, Mozart sits down at the pianoforte
And composes music that has been ready
Before he himself was born in Salzburg.
I tell you friends, when Steinberg calls clouds into being it's a goddamn exhilarating thing.