Image Studies

Image Studies

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Drawing out (from) Barthes on Twombly: Seminar or Workshop?


In the introduction to Image Studies, I suggest we need to experiment with ways to break out of the dichotomy that persists between thinking about images on one side and their making on the other. The art historian and theorist, James Elkins, has argued that visual studies has generally proved to be too easy. He urges it to become ‘more ambitious about its purview, more demanding in its analyses, and above all more difficult’. Importantly, he stresses the need to bridge between theory and practice:

The making of images, whether it is copying paintings or simply learning the basics of digital video editing, needs to be practiced in the same seminar rooms where historical and interpretive work takes place. Only then will it become apparent just how difficult it is to knit the two kinds of experience together and how tremendously important it is to try; otherwise, entire image-making practices will remain partly or wholly inaccessible to historical understanding. And what is worse, visual theory will be able to consolidate the notion that study is sufficient to the understanding of images, and independent of actual making. – Elkins, Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, 2003, pp.158–159

Elkins draws upon a wealth of experience in teaching drawing and painting to graduate students who ‘had not picked up a charcoal since elementary school’. An underlying interest is to ‘critique certain assumptions that are made about differences between art history and studio practice’. What is revealing, he suggests, is ‘a surprising new kind of visual competence’, and the crucial fact that ‘some of the insights that emerged are not replicable in classrooms where images are not produced’.

A seminar (or workshop?) held at Winchester School of Art, with MA fine art students, aimed to achieve something similar by practicing a ‘reading’ of a critical text in a studio space, with an array of artists’ materials at the ready. The set text was Roland Barthes’ 1979 essay ‘Cy Twombly: Works on Paper’ (from The Responsibility of Forms). Participants were asked to read the text prior to the seminar, but to arrive with the expectation not only to discuss the text, but also to draw. Towards the end of the essay, Barthes offers a somewhat provocative summary of Cy Twombly. Barthes writes:

An extraordinary thing: [Cy Twombly’s] work manifests no aggression (a feature, it has been remarked, which differentiates him from Paul Klee). I believe I know the reason for this effect, so contrary to all art in which the body is engaged: [Twombly] seesm to proceed in the manner of certain Chinese painters who must triumph over the line, the form, the figure, at the first stroke, without being able to correct themselves, by reason of the fragility of the paper, of the silk: this is painting alla prima. [Twombly], too, seems to work alla prima, but while the Chinese touch involves a great danger, that of “spoiling” the figure (by missing the analogy), [Twombly’s] line or trace involves nothing of the kind: it is without goal, without model, without instance; it is without telos, and consequently without risk: why “correct yourself”, since there is no master? From which it follows that any aggression is somehow futile. (p.174)


Reference here to ‘the manner of certain Chinese painters’ is not without its difficulties. Nonetheless, in the 1970s, just prior to writing about Twombly, Barthes had travelled to both Japan and China, and in his writings from this time makes numerous allusions to Eastern philosophies and aesthetics (which continue to echo with his late lecture course on the Neutral). The slim volume, Empire of Signs, includes a beautiful photograph of a brush poised in a calligrapher’s hand, rounding on the final arch of a circle drawn with a single brushstroke in deep, black ink. Barthes draws direct comparison between Twombly’s mark-making and Japanese Zen satori – being a ‘sudden (and sometimes very tenuous) break in our causal logic’. Barthes writes: ‘I regard [Twombly’s] “graphisms” as so many little satoris: starting from writing (a causal field if ever there was one: we write, it is said, to communicate), various futile explosions, which are not even interrupted letters, suspend the active Being of writing…’ – unsurprisingly, Barthes attempts to place Twombly’s work within a post-structural account of ‘writing’. Twombly, it is suggested, ‘has his own way of saying that the essence of writing is neither a form nor a usage but only a gesture, the gesture which produces it by permitting it to linger: a blur, almost a blotch, a negligence’. Gesture, not product, is key to an understanding of Twombly, and allows Barthes to break with the strictures of a semiotic ‘system’; leading us to distinguish ‘the message, which seeks to produce information, and the sign, which seeks to produce an intellection, from the gesture, which produces all the rest (the “surplus”) without necessarily seeking to produce anything’. The idea of ‘painting alla prima’ – as linked to Chinese painting – makes for an obvious connection with the notion of gesture, and as different to message and sign. Nonetheless, it is worth keeping in mind the pictorial ambiguities of Lichtenstein’s Chinese landscape paintings, produced primarily through the artist’s signature use of Ben-Day dots (a mechanism of message and sign if ever there was one!), combined with some explicit gestural brushstrokes. The complexity of physical marks, and the ideas ‘behind’ those marks are inevitably complex and ever changing.

Taking Barthes parenthetical remark on the distinction between Twombly and Klee, we began the seminar by working through the opening examples in Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, which he famously begins by taking a line for walk: ‘An active line on a walk, moving freely. A walk for a walk’s sake’ (see Image Studies, pp. 104-105). The initial exercise of simply drawing a line for a line’s sake prompted vexed faces in the room. ‘What do you mean, take a line for a walk… does that mean we know where we are taking it? Or does the line take us for a walk, and if so, how can it do that?’. Evidently the most rudimentary task of drawing a line raised questions about authorship, control and the quality of the mark-making; we quickly found ourselves talking about the difference (if any) between Klee’s exercise (as an exercise in art) and the activity of doodling (which we might do idly as we talk on the phone etc.). The next step was to repeat our meandering line, but to embellish it with lines that circle around it, so complicating the original, and further prompting questions about our sense of control in the picture we were forming. Klee’s exercise then introduces the idea of an imaginary line, around which you can again introduce supplementary lines. The notion of the imaginary line opens up some interesting connections with the work of Cy Twombly, which Barthes suggests we ‘might call the allusive field of writing’.

Twombly’s practice is seemingly suggestive and indirect, but which brings to the fore – or recalls to mind (and body) – a whole set of relationships of both the tangible and intangible; the apparent and the imaginary. We took the emphasis upon gesture as most significant, as if taking us closer to the ‘reality’ of the imaginary line.  As Barthes puts it, Twombly ‘retains the gesture, not the product’, which he elaborates upon as follows:

Even if it is possible to consume aesthetically the result of his work (what is called the oeuvre, the canvas), even if [Twombly’s] productions link up with (they cannot escape) a History and a Theory of Art, what is shown is a gesture. What is a gesture? Something like the surplus of an action. The action is transitive, it seeks only to provoke an object, a result; the gesture is the indeterminate and inexhaustible total of reasons, pulsions, indolences which surround the action with an atmosphere (in the astronomical sense of the word).

Again, the idea of ‘surplus’ comes through in Barthes’ text, which for the purposes of the seminar, led us to consider as all kind of (potential) unmapped directions in one’s own practice. We wanted to suppose Twombly offering a form of ‘research’ on the pictorial plane; a means of entering into an allusive ‘field’ of one’s own work; to test ideas, to formulate possibilities and even perhaps to create critical distance (through surprise, or satori) from our habits of drawing which act as a gestural signature to each mark we make. The seminar participants were all practitioners of fine art, each with their own distinctive engagements; and with ongoing problematics at stake in producing ‘finished’ work. Thus, having ‘warmed-up’, if not indeed having become ensnared with Klee’s exercise in taking a line for a walk, we moved to what we felt would be a freer, if harder to define, task: to surround one’s own visual practice with a ‘atmosphere’ – as Barthes suggests – that comes of gesture, not product. Participants, then, were asked to draw in and around their own practice by imagining their work – by which was meant not drawing ‘it’, only drawing with it and around it. The exercise soon revealed the difficulty and dilemmas of attempting to draw from outside of one’s own ‘body’ of work, but which in the best examples, enabled a whole new set of questions and challenges to one’s practice.

To an outside observer looking in, the seminar would have readily appeared as some kind of self-help group. With around 12 of us sat around a long table, improvised in the middle of the cluttered studio environment, we assumed a community of drawers. Crucially, everyone was very generous in accepting the ‘terms and conditions’ of the practical tasks, and a real sense of trust prevailed allowing us to freely talk about Barthes’ text. Nonetheless, there was an ongoing sense of uncertainty and even frustration at times. Without stating it, the persistent, underlying question was just what could genuinely be achieved by bringing a dense, critical text into the studio in this way. Such speculation was of course the very point of the session. Yet, inevitably, the open-endedness and unstated goals were liable to create anxieties and the aforementioned frustrations – which crept in by the mere fact of provoking of a watching of one’s own act of drawing. With the opening tasks, a general hush fell upon the room, as we all busily tried to ‘implement’ our drawings as best we could, set against the inevitably ambiguous instructions. However, an audible and dramatic changed occurred as we switched to the deliberate use of colour.

In his essay, Barthes refers to color as a ‘kind of bliss’ – by which of course he signals a connection between Twombly and earlier writings on pleasure (and the pleasure of the text); so suggesting a play of signifiers, which quickly undoes any hierarchy of producers and reader of the text. However, the connection here with colour is particularly noteworthy. Barthes writes:

[Twombly] does not paint color; at most, one might say, that he colours in; but this coloring-in is rare, interrupted, and always instantaneous, as if one were trying out the crayon. This dearth of color reveals not an effect (still less a verisimilitude) but a gesture, the pleasure of a gesture: to see engendered at one’s fingertip, at the verge of vision, something which is both expected (I know that this crayon I am holding is blue) and unexpected (not only do I not know which blue is going to come out, but even if I knew, I would still be surprised, because color, like the event, is new each time: it is precisely the stroke which makes the color – as it produces bliss).

For the seminar, we continued with what had proved to be the difficult task of drawing with and around one’s own (imagined) practice (but without drawing ‘it’). This time, however, with the introduction of colour, the task immediately gave rise to a collective sigh of relief. The room was filled with a completely new energy, as we each happily grabbed at the pastels and worked with a new sense of deftness. The sound of the rushes and caresses of the pastels on the paper swirled around the table. It was as if, as a group, we began not only to understand but also experience the significance of the so-called ‘childishness’ of Twombly’s graphisms. The idea, as Barthes puts it, that colour is an event (both expected and unexpected every time we make a mark) is perhaps the strongest ‘finding’ of the whole seminar. Mark-making and the manipulation of forms, colour and rhythms are all things we shared in the room, as tacit knowledge. Yet, arguably, it was by bringing both critical text and practice into the same physical and thoughtful space that a whole new set of reflections opened out…


For more on Cy Twombly and an extract from Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, along with a broader commentary on both painting and drawing, see Chapter 4 of Image Studies: Theory & Practice (Routledge, 2013).

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