Psycho-painting and what you see in it

Psycho-Painting slideshow

“Look at walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colours. If you have to invent some scene, you can see there resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys and hills, in various ways. Also you can see various battles, and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes and an infinite number of things, which you can reduce to good integrated form” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Still, according to Wollheim, a difference remains between pure imaginative projection into or onto things, and pictorial seeing-in. Thus in order to avoid the impression of arbitrariness, Wollheim is required to introduce a further element: while in standard perception, we may virtually project everything into everything, pictorial seeing-in is only successful, when we see in the image what the artist wanted us to see in it. Or, to put it yet differently, Wollheim speaks of a “standard of correctness”, and this standard, he goes on explaining, is entirely defined by “the maker of the maker of the representation, or ‘the artist’ as he is usually called” (Wollheim 1980, 205). A depictional seeing is only successful if and when we see exactly what the maker or ‘artist’ wanted us to see in it.

From Seeing-as, seeing-in, seeing-with: Looking through pictures (2020)

Emmanuel Alloa – [from a significantly expanded version of a paper first published in the Proceedings of the 33rd International Ludwig Wittgenstein-Symposium in Kirchberg, vol. 2, 2011. New version forthcoming in: Handbook of Image Studies, ed. K. Purgar, Palgrave Macmillan 2021].

I question Wollheim’s assertion that a depictional seeing is only successful if and when we see exactly what the maker or ‘artist’ wanted us to see in it. I also question the parallel assertion that a narrative poem is only successful when we grasp exactly what the poet wanted us to understand from it. Wollheim covers his remark by adding “depictional” – as I add the word “narrative” – but I am not arguing for abstraction. Jackson Pollock pushed figuration beyond the figurative, just as Mondrian had done years before, with his “abstracting” colours, shapes and movement from an apple-tree.

Sponsored largely by the CIA, with the aim of proving to the Soviets that Western artists were free to do whatever they liked (blithely ignoring the fact that there was plenty of abstraction actually being done by both Russian and Serbian artists during the cold war period), husky New Yorkers were cocks of the walk in the art world, back in the day. But the US very largely ignored European innovators, such as Henri Michaux, who were coming from a different angle to that of abstract expressionism – as defined by Clement Greenberg. Whereas in the “action painting”, sometimes called “gestural abstraction”, associated with Pollock, paint may be spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas, rather than being applied with a specific figurative purpose in mind, the resulting work was supposed to emphasize the physical act of painting itself as an essential aspect of the finished work or concern of its creator. Stuart Brisley made very energetic performance art out of painterly action.  The image was mainly of him in the action of his making his painting, while his result was an abstract record of his effort.

This is not the case with Michaux. Inspired by Mescalin, Michaux’s dribbles are oracular. The difference is that the French painter’s work has more in common with Aldous Huxley’s essays – The Gates of Perception and Heaven and Hell – than with Greenberg’s theoretical emphasis on the materiality of the result. Huxley reminds us of the work of Vuillard, of how pattern can materialise into a scenic reality – as with pointillism. We put the image together in our minds.

The river of art that bears Michaux’s work along is one I identify as Caprice in my own essays on creativity – Art and its Dark Side: the eight rivers of Art. I’ll bring up one sentence from the essay on Caprice:

Remember that Friedrich von Schlegel, the brilliant theorist of Jena romanticism wrote an essay On Incomprehensibility.  Schlegel maintained that all art should be incomprehensible when viewed in its own time, and that ensuing generations should be able to discover meanings in the work that were unapparent to its initial audience, for this would extend the duration of its significance. 

What I am arguing here is that Michaux’s version of the incomprehensible is fundamentally opposed to the incomprehensibility we encounter in a Jackson Pollock. Michaux’s hallucinogenic ink marks are suggestive. We see into his paintings, and we see that which we project through our own imaginations – which may not be what the artist “meant us to see” – indeed Michaux is not asserting intention – as Wollheim would have the artist do. There is an aspect here of an artistic game – as in the work of Arcimboldo – where vegetables may become a face. But with Arcimboldo, as with Escher later, the engagement in a visual game is too deliberate to be considered a result generated by mindlessness.

In “psycho-paintings” such as those by Michaux, the artist relinquishes control. Yet street scenes emerge, crowds cross traffic-lights. Imaginary writing suggests unreadable poetry. In other work in this genre, blots become islands, paintings seem like maps. Where Pollock loathed the idea that a viewer might see a cow in one of his action paintings, having pushed as far as he could into abstraction to release himself from the figurative, Michaux employs abstraction to release the suggestions that may be perceived in his fields of stains and squiggles – and that demonstrates a fundamental difference between European modernism and North American modernism in the post-war period.

I think it is this that has enabled artists to perceive visions in the anti-picturesque. Pieter de Hooch could see something wonderful to paint in the corner of some dingy yard. John Ashbery possessed a wonderful painting by Jane Frielicher which was simply the table she used as the ‘arena’ for painting – it looks as if it has a marble top which she uses as a palette, and there are jars filled with brushes and squeezed tubes and a roll of masking tape.

Incarcerated in a hostile country during WW2, and rendered catatonic by circumstance, Vaslav Nijinsky made drawings which are like dances for his hands. They read as if they were sketches for choreography. The automatic methods that certain artists employ enable the viewer to plumb barely considered fields of figuration.

x  x  x

I shake drops of water out of a salt-cellar I keep for this purpose. I take a brush and touch these drops with pigment. Other drops may be added after the initial ones have dried. And when the painting is done I am surprised to be reminded of my mother’s lab. She was a veterinary scientist, and she would let me look through her microscope at the slide below, where some aberrant cell might be infecting another. There was no intentionality involved here. And this brings up another issue: I can’t see what I am getting at while I am doing it!

This brings us back to the visions generated by hashish, mescaline, peyote, lysergic acid or what you will. It is shamanistic art. Visionary painting. As for myself, I tend not to get stoned when I engage in making visual art or poetry. Instead, there is an engagement with the process, the washes, the splatters and bleeds, and sometimes, if working while the paint already on the sheet is still wet, I have no idea what will result when everything dries. It is like “the fog of war” – and the notion that a great general can get an idea of what is going on in the turmoil in a coup d’oeil, at a glance – not when his adjutant brings him the stats. Even his glance is more of an instinctual hunch, which he gets to, whichever way he looks at the battlefield. And similarly, with art done in this way, why should one establish a way up?

And so, I accept the blindness. And I imagine a story by Borges – about a painter who began on a canvas he could never find the way out of. In the essay quoted above, Emmanuel Alloa alludes to something perhaps being got at here: “Some artists may spectacularly fail in offering an artefact that would enable them to realize their intention – most famously, Balzac’s painter Frenhofer in The Unknown Masterpiece who kept covering his canvas to the point of unrecognizability.”

It is possible that the cave people painted in the dark. After all, there is very little soot from torches on the ceilings of the caves. Whether true or not, I like the idea of painting in the dark. And sometimes, I admit, I get stoned in order to look at what I have ended up with, after it is done. I like to be surprised, by my own work as much as by the work of others. So now perhaps you can see why I take issue with Wollheim’s intentionality.

x  x  x

Can a lack of intentionality be applied to writing – streams of consciousness, automatic writing? The trouble, as I see it,  is that words have defined edges. Thus they are easily recruited into sentences and distinct concepts. Streams of consciousness do not necessarily get away from deliberation. Of course there can be word games, so favoured by the fans of Oulipo – but it can all get a bit too neat, while the game-aspect can become predictable, and instead of mindlessness we get artfulness (as with Escher and Arcimboldo). Both music and painting can be more fluid than verbal contiguity, and the fluidity allows for a wealth of accidents, messes, mixtures of this and that.

Well, I have pondered this question for years, and I have engaged in many forms of abstract and experimental writing but I still find the notion of “unintentional poetry” enigmatic. Rhyme introduces chance into verse, for sure, and the repetitions of a sestina may steer the poet towards the unexpected phrase, but it still feels more difficult to evade the conceptual – since the sentence itself is a concept. Concrete poetry fell between two stools – between being a poem and being a picture. Is there any way to do it, to create accidents with language as Michaux can create accidents in ink?

I turn the question inside out and consider visual forms which do not allow for plastic fluidity. Mosaics for instance, or, in today’s terms, digital imaging. In both cases, the image is created by discrete ‘bits’. Surely, in the case of working with the tesserae that make up a mosaic, a mindless way of working could be applied? This leads me on to consider the speculum form hit upon by Julia Copus, in which the lines of verse one are simply repeated in reverse in verse two. The speculum is closely related to a form I named a statheron – after the Greek word for balance. In a statheron, there are no remainders. A word must be used twice or an equal number of times. It cannot be used an odd number of times. So you can have fourteen definite articles, but not thirteen. You can use the word ‘smile’ twice, or four times, but not three times. A speculum is obviously a statheron. Taking a hint from pointillism, one might be able to create poems mindlessly by assembling varying amounts of similar words – so we are not talking about statherons, strictly speaking, just making poems out of a variety of heaps of the same word. Seven ‘smiles’, five definite articles, three identical gerunds, a single use of the word “tomato”… and so on. Thus one might assemble a palette of words, even employing some chance method to do so, and generate a poem without intention but with a limited vocabulary. Using exactly the same heaps of words, one might generate a second verse. Perhaps in this way one might end up with a mosaic which generated the meanings the reader projected into it. At least it might circumvent the intentionality Wollheim was eager to establish in visual art; an intentionality insisted on by F. R. Leavis and reiterated so meanly in the field of poetry by Ian Hamilton and his cronies, in the latter half of the last century.  


At a pool where the fall we divine shakes a radius

That supports water-boatmen, butterflies practise their dances.

Kayak-balanced rapids cannot spin a broken

European relationship which a precarious trunk

Bound by briars requires to clear the surface. Dangle this reflection.


Kicking up her shins, she demonstrates the flutter of it.

Days in garlic flavour foetal escargots. Their spines

Prove drunk on one rotating axis. The butterflies jiggle a jungle.

Next, a rodent traces a maze through the trellis above us.

Me, I follow her notch through deeper paths,


While on the Tarn my splashes envelop her paddle.

However much we watch the couple sidestep here,

Come hell or high water, we can’t use this winding back.

The hornet drunk on rotting figs didn’t mean to share my trouser leg.

Strangling a fallen trunk, vines in spirals riddle my bons mots.


Situations such as shooting rapids spin her kayak, winding back

The trick of it in garlic. Now a peeper traces aphids through the jungle.

Water-boatmen share the pool with a creeper. Watching airborne seeds,

I bungle my share of our feet. What rotates this radius? Your torque.

The buoy tethered to a river-bed spins as it floats while


Grounded to a theme sunk in deeper situations winding back

Its chain. Walk to her beat. Share the river’s ground.

We gaze out at a hush. A stationary surface. Escargots ooze

Up a trunk rotting below a clutter of butterflies – drunk splashes

Of white which deeper clumps accentuate here. Her leg 


In spins, her notch in torque, she demonstrates the trick.

Next, our fallen river floats into a European pool

Sharing a botch of kayaks. He capsizes. My kayak grates on a rock.

Spiral bungle mashes this botch into a crisis.

Now a rotting clump accentuates aphids, hornet-hell.


Are we as amazed by it as the rodent is by our dance?

Axis is a balanced air where no burns of the shins occur.

How figs swell perpetuates their hornet relationship.

By our bons mots we reflect our European roots,

These being as precarious as the surface is for water-boatmen.


Anthony Howell

If you got this far you may enjoy the accompanying slideshow


See also CAPRICE

See also Art and its Dark Side: Introduction

See also this interesting article in Frieze – Whoever Wants It.

And I find this photo of cellular life from Harvard University inspiring!

About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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1 Response to Psycho-painting and what you see in it

  1. Pingback: Slideshows | anthonyhowelljournal

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