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A conversation between two painters on Clarice Lispector’s 1973 novel, Agua Viva (2020-2021)
Jenny: Agua Viva is such an intense read, which is why I like it. I’m gripped by it and I feel the text is gripped by me reading it. It doesn’t want me to sleep – I’m reading before bed. It holds on, punctuating with short paragraphs, long paragraphs, sentences and even single words as paragraphs. It hopes I’ll carry on through the darkness.
I’m halfway through and I’m captivated by the psychological meditations contained in this text. Birth and death are folded together, explored simultaneously by the narrator, a painter. When you consider this was Lispector’s penultimate novel, written in the final years of her life, you become aware of the potential for coexisting narrators – the painter, but also Clarice herself, speaking from her soul.
I’m excited about Agua Viva’s relationship to painting, in its narrative and in the shape of the writing. I’ve noticed lovely examples of shape – shifts, repeats, ins and outs, going round the corner and back again – each reminiscent of my own painting process.
Amy: I am also halfway through the book. I like what you’ve said about the text. It is certainly rich in imagery and themes. The more I read, the more sentences I want to highlight, and the more it chimes with ideas inother pieces of writing I’m reading. On pages 42 and 43, Lispector writes:
“I shiver all over when I come into contact with animals or simply see them. Animals fantasticate me. They are time that does not measure itself. I seem to have a certain horror for the living creature that is not human and that has my own instincts though free and indomitable […] Nothing is more difficult than surrendering to the instant. That difficulty is human pain. It is ours. I surrender in words and surrender when I paint.” (Lispector, 1973, pp42-43)
This passage reminds of The Animal Side by Jean-Christophe Bailly, as follows:
“The infinite surprise that there is a being here and that it has this particular form, so small or so large, this form that is also a tension and a warmth, a rhythm, and a grasping: some life has been caught and condensed, has ended up finding a place in a corner of space-time; the reservoir of existence that connects us to creatures also passes through this universal condition of breathing and fever. What is held out to us, given to us, is a fluttering, something ever so infinitesimal and quick, with the slightest pulsations, and bones like twigs, but from one end of the chain to the other something unanimous and stupefied passes to bind us.” (Bailly, 2007, pp41-42)
..and it reminds me of this:
“In all such acts life is struggling on its own behalf, that life is that struggle above itself and beyond itself: just as every photographic instant has taken place in an eternity from which it must be detached in order to be, very instant of every flight (of every swim, every run) takes place a little farther away in an open that is still opening and that is more than time.” (Bailly, 2007, pp45)
I guess what I’m trying to say is the text makes me think of things I’ve read and I think about when I’m painting, that all stem from the same tree. I’m not sure I’m being super clear – I’m struggling to condense my thoughts about the text clearly. I’m a little overwhelmed at times with it – the text is quite powerful in that way.
The style reminds me of speed writing, a technique used by the poet CAConrad who gave a workshop during my MA. Conrad writes poetry using a myriad rituals to undo their ‘normal’ way of thinking, or a pre-conditioned way of thinking in western capitalist societies, in order to write with more freedom. Speed writing is one such way to ‘unplug’, if you like, and Conrad encouraged us to try it.
You sit at a laptop, not looking at the screen or your keyboard and just write/type for a while, uninterrupted and fast, with no regard for spelling, punctuation or ‘the internal editor’. It’s harder to do than it sounds – there is often a conscious editor who comes in, judging and stopping the flow.
Conrad often uses words or sentences that form and emerge from this technique in their poetry – Lispector’s text reminds me of this way of writing. I did speed writing most days for a couple of years as part of my studio practice, in the morning, before I’d start to paint. Some sentences even ended up in my thesis! What’s interesting in pursuing this style of writing, is that patterns start to emerge, themes reoccur, things zoom in and out of ideas about life and the universe. There are also ridiculous bits in there too – humour, mundane observations, large existential questions, anger, hurt, pain, pleasure, love, loss etc., all rolled into an (almost) nonsense piece of writing that clutches at making some sort of sense. I get this vibe from reading Agua Viva. There are lucid moments, serious questions and then it goes blurry, into a frenzy of words again, but they all seem to hang well together in the same basket, woven into the same fabric.
Jenny: I’m interested in you mentioning speed in relation to the way the text is constructed. The text moves through ideas quickly, shifting attention from one subject to the next, with links and without, undoing and repairing. Some of the links are tenuous, and at the start of the text one might mistake the natural chronology of ‘paragraph after paragraph’, ‘page after page’, for the continuity of a ‘story’.
I was at a mid-point when I gave up on Agua Viva’s ‘story’, as such; I realised this wasn’t happening and a story wasn’t the intention. In the introduction, written by biographer and long-time fan of Lispector, Benjamin Moser, the fact the book has “no backbone […] story [or] plot” was apparently troubling for Clarice. I read Moser’s introduction first, so I knew not to expect a story really, but something inside me ached for one in the first half. As the text progressed I became embroiled in Lispector’s persuasion, which hoped for a story like I did, and knew it was never coming.
If, for argument’s sake, we say painting isn’t a story (as such), does a painting manage ‘no story’ better than a book? Or, to put it like this, can we deal with ‘no story’ better in a painting than we can in a book?
I say this because I often think my paintings don’t have backbones. This doesn’t trouble me though. I think I’m aiming for as little backbone as I can get away with, and more ambiguity. I try to undo any kind of story that arises.
The fact that ‘a lack of story’ troubled Lispector makes me think of ‘the work being ahead of the maker’. I often find a painting is ahead of me, ahead of my understanding of it. For Lispector, the text’s various edits – it existed as two complete and different texts before this one – imply something trying to eek itself out, a new language trying to form. Sure, Lispector was the primary facilitator, but the writing itself has so much ‘psychological weight’ I’m inclined to think of ‘it’ as an equal driving force. I relate this to a painting being an equal force in the process of making.
Amy: Weirdly, I found myself getting quite frustrated towards the end of the text. I was annoyed at Lispector’s contradictory desire to ‘categorise’ and ‘compartmentalise’, in juxtaposition to the text’s fluid, free flowing, ambiguous writing and ‘subject matter’. For example, when she wrote about different flowers and what they mean/represent, I didn’t like the way she claimed a gender to each one, labelling things into boxes. It just seemed so different to talking about, and trying to capture, something very intangible as the ‘it’ and ‘now’. Perhaps contradiction and frustration were intentional for her, to keep the reader rocking, unsteady, and away from potential predictability.
I wasn’t expecting a story and enjoyed that there wasn’t one. In this way it did feel ‘closer’ to painting, or closer to a mode of thinking that comes with painting, where things come into focus and make sense but are simultaneously expanding into even bigger, or smaller, thoughts that trail off to something else before a mundanity pulls you back to where you are, and you head off into a sea of thoughts again. I like the way this text reflects a demand the writer places on herself to articulate the ‘it’, the ‘now’ – a slippery concept perhaps better articulated in painting. Maybe this failing is its success – it is an intentional failing – which leads me to your question:
“If, for argument’s sake, we say that painting isn’t a story, as such, does a painting manage ‘no story’ better than a book? Or, to put it like this; can we deal with ‘no story’ better in a painting than we can in a book?”
As painters, I wonder if we deal with ‘no story’ better than when it comes to writing, because ‘no story’ seems more akin to the painting process and perhaps jars with the writing process? ‘No story’ is not easy, as this text proves, but there is something in the immediacy of paint that allows for no story to exist; allows for fluidity of thought as well as the medium. It is expansive. Perhaps this offers an opportunity for the ‘work to go ahead of its maker’, as you put it. This chimes with me too – it can happen when, as some artists put it, the ‘painting paints itself’. I think Agua Viva does this too, and successfully – and it is not ashamed of it. The text seems to roll on ahead of the writer, because what is written is bounding along, pausing, leaping ahead, turning around, going backwards, inwards, outwards before anchoring itself down again for short moments.
When you say painting can be ‘an equal force in the process of making’ it makes me think of the short interview with Charlene Von Heyl during her solo exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 2012. I love how she talks about painting – there’s a ‘no faff’, genuine quality to how she articulates her process:
“I do see the paintings as designed but there’s this one moment of the unknown where it slips through my design possibilities and there’s where it kind of makes itself….A lot of painting comes from frustration. Building it up and building it down, destroying. The next move is going to be counterintuitive and there will be a juxtaposition that I don’t even understand myself. Out of that friction comes charge. Building it up and down again until I have it at a point where I look at it and think, how the fuck did I do that?!” (Tate, 2012)
I love what she says because it makes a lot of sense to me as a painter. Our processes may be very different but I love the words she uses, like ‘charged’, ‘friction’, ‘frustration’. Painting is imbued with the artist’s hand – there is a vitality in it that comes from the very motions and mark-making that go into making a painting. Von Heyl says “what I want to do with the painting is establish this relationship with now”. I think this is the key to what links painting and Agua Viva, and whether Lispector’s text succeeds at that or not is almost irrelevant. I think I might have contradicted what I said earlier, but there we go again, I’m sparked into a kind of confusion by thinking about this text in relation to painting (and about painting itself). I like that confusion. There, perhaps, is evidence of Von Heyl’s ‘charge’.
Jenny: What you’ve said is really great, and reflects some of my recent thinking in relation to painting’s ‘aliveness’. In ‘The Love of Painting’ (2018), Isabelle Graw examines some of the things you mentioned – vitality, the artist’s hand, a painting making itself (or rather, she quotes Bacon and Von Heyl on this). It’s striking that Lispector opens the text with the very same rumination. Here’s a section from the first paragraph of the book:
“I am a little scared: scared of surrendering completely because the next instant is the unknown. The next instant, do I make it? or does it make itself? We make it together with our breath. And with the flair of the bullfighter in the ring.” (Lispector, 1973, pp3)
I am close to Lispector here, or to the ‘painter-narrator’. Are you? I find painting terrifying some of the time. Things are so uncertain and by surrendering, which is what I know I have to do, following a potentially confrontational and performative interaction, I am stepping into a frightful unknown. Yet I need to be in that place.
In terms of painting having lively qualities, contained in the paint matter and in the thing unfolding on the surface, I have the distinct feeling, much of the time, that the painting knows something I don’t. Or that the painting is finding out as much as I am during the process.
Lispector goes on to ask if she makes ‘it’ or if ‘it’ makes itself. It’s when I forget I’m ‘doing painting’ and approach the surface ‘a priori’ that things start to take shape. Experience and knowledge sit inside the activity in a felt capacity and I’m in the timeless, silent space of painting, where I make it and it makes itself (and me).
Like Charlene Von Heyl (and I love that clip), the liveliness is transferred from my hand to the painting, and ideas are projected, as Graw suggests. Unlike Graw, however, I cannot agree to this being a one-way transaction, where the paint and the painting are materially ‘dead’ to begin with. I say this because Graw claims paint is dead matter, and through projection we enable the material to convey vitalistic fantasies. First of all I believe painting is an exchange, a psychological relationship. Secondly, in acknowledging paint matter, the depicted thing and even the stretcher frame itself (the body) as ‘alive’, any notion of lifelessness in the process of painting is ruled out and even absurd.
In a panpsychist view, a philosophical perspective I’m intrigued with at the moment, paint matter would be considered alive too. The panpsychist believes all matter has a ‘mind-like’ consciousness, which fades as complexity of experience reduces from human consciousness through organic matter to inorganic matter (Goff, 2017). In this way, matter could never be referred to as painting’s dead constituent, but as a lively conduit, conscious and connected to other ‘minds’ in a continuum.
Lispector goes on to say “We make it together with our breath. And with the flair of the bullfighter in the ring”.The act of painting is a relationship. The work is made together with another vibrant being, or so I see it.
Lately I can’t stop thinking about a scenario that happens again and again in my process. It highlights a push and pull aspect of my painter-painting relationship, exhausting and yet essential in some paintings:
“The painting and me, we get along. We walk along hand in hand, in parallel, in tandem. But it’s too easy… So, I do something to annoy it. I cause a problem, take a detour, and I watch what the painting does.”
This relates to what you said about painting’s potential for being ‘charged’ – its friction and frustration. I get to the point where I need to ‘act up’, like a child, or like a bullfighter in the ring.
Amy: Yes, I have read Graw’s ‘The Love of Painting’ and I am in agreement with you in being opposed to how she describes paint as ‘dead matter’. I am thinking of two different reasons. One, because my feelings tally with Jane Bennett’s new materialist philosophy on the vibrancy of things, where enmeshment and interconnectivity allow for an opening of ideas of the aliveness in all things (Bennett, 2010).
My other reason is based on a text I have recently finished reading called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Have you read it? I have been interested in indigenous ways of relating to ‘nature’ and the world for many years (initially for a number of quite esoteric and personal reasons but also in relation to painting). Kimmerer’s text beautifully describes this idea of reciprocity between humans and nature and the benefits a two-way relationship can bring about. This is prevalent in all aspects of living but in terms of painting I believe it to make sense with what you were describing about having a relationship with painting that is perhaps in line with a panpsychist view.
I love how you describe this in your wee ‘conversation’ with a painting. I guess using paint is a way to enter into a relationship with a fluid material and one’s own inner dialogue simultaneously, where a visual outcome happens but is not always ‘seen’ by the viewer in the end. There is a reciprocal relationship at work for sure, and that is something that as a painter I totally understand, but weirdly I also don’t necessarily feel the need to question. What I mean is, the two-way relationship between the human hand and the material is innate – or the want to reciprocate with the world through material/matter, in this case paint, is inherent in us. Perhaps Lispector’s declaration “We make it together with our breath” is a way of saying this – ‘it just is’, could be what Lispector is trying to say. But intellect likes to get in the way, (and/or) it helps shape the outcome.
I read Agua Viva with a three-fold set of contradictory and exciting ideas going on at the same time, and I ‘read’ this as what occurs during painting. There is an intuition, an intellect and a relationship with the material of paint, all confabulating together in a noisy mess that is addictive, persuasive and frustrating. I can’t think of another activity I do that embroils, and at the same time marries, all I am interested in. I feel this flurry of confusion, frustration and clarity in Lispector’s painter-narrator.
This pushes me on as a painter. I am never bored by it! I get genuinely excited by blank canvases – by the potentialities they present and the endless possibilities to explore the world within myself through a process and interaction with the material of paint on to the surface.
I don’t like to call my paintings finished, but instead ‘resting’. I wonder if you feel the same? ‘Resting’ allows for an openness for things to change, as everything does, enfolding in on everything else. The one constant is change, and both the act of painting and the material itself reflect this. Agua Viva embodies this constancy too.
List of References
Bailly, J. C. (2007) The Animal Side. New York: Fordham University Press
Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Goff, P. (2017) The Case for Panpsychism. Philosophy Now, Issue 121. Retrieved from https://philosophynow.org/issues/121/The_Case_For_Panpsychism.
Graw, I. (2018) The Love of Painting: Genealogy of a Success Medium. Berlin: Sternberg Press
Kimmerer, R. W. (2013) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.
Lispector, C. (1973) Agua Viva. London: Penguin Classics.
Tate (2012) Charline von Heyl at Tate Liverpool. Retrieved from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/videos/tateshots/charline-von-heyl-tate-liverpool.
[Featured Image] Clarice Lispector (1973) Agua Viva. Reprint, 2014. Penguin Classics: London.
Amy Winstanley, Ceremony (2020) Oil on canvas, 39 x 35cm
Jenny Eden, Space-time mini (2020), Oil on calico, 25 x 17cm
Amy Winstanley is an artist based in Glasgow. She graduated with a Masters in Fine Art from the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam (2017-2019). Born in 1983, Scotland, Amy studied a BA (Hons) in Sculpture at the Edinburgh College of Art from 2001-2005. Amy has lived in Scotland and The Netherlands exhibiting in a number of group and solo shows throughout the UK and Amsterdam.
Amy’s practice is about a direct involvement with paint by using the immediacy of paint, the action of painting itself, as a process to take a hold of one’s own perceptions of the world, be it at a conscious and/or subconscious level. Amy is interested in the continual flux of everything, the potentiality of everything to be something else entirely, that is reflected within painting itself.
She researches different ways of interpreting this world through ideas of ecological, post-human and feminist thinking and through experiences of love and loss whilst looking at these existential and spiritual questions in tandem with the mundane, light-heartedness and a degree of humour.
Jenny is a painter, writer and lecturer based in Salford. Her paintings are driven by an engagement with process and the painting’s emerging characteristics, perceived through the complex exchange between painter and painting and in response to the painting’s communicable potential.
Jenny is currently studying a By Practice PhD in Painting at Manchester School of Art, following an MFA in Fine Art also from Manchester (2017). Jenny has exhibited her work across the UK and in Berlin, and she was part of the Contemporary British Painting Prize in 2018. She also co-runs a contemporary painting gallery in Salford called Oceans Apart, which seeks to champion diversity and discourse within the medium today.