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Reflections on Art and Life

The following is from Reflections and Shadows, a book drawn from two interviews with Saul Steinberg conducted in 1974 and 1977 by his friend the writer Aldo Buzzi, who edited them.


Drawing from Life

As an architecture student I made an excellent study tour with my school to Ferrara and Rome. It was there that for the first time I did drawings from life. I, who have had no professional artistic training and have learned to draw by drawing, had so far thought mostly of imaginary drawings, things you invent. During that trip, I realized how hard it is to do a drawing from life, and how important to understand the nature, the truth of reality. To understand the truth of the drawing’s subject matter—people, architecture, or landscape—is a complex thing since it isn’t a visible, superficial truth. And it takes a lot of effort, a dedication that sometimes, out of laziness, one strives to avoid (it’s easier to invent). You must manage to establish complicity with whatever you’re drawing, until you gain a deep knowledge of it. You don’t draw well if you’re telling a lie. And conversely, when a drawing from life tells the truth, it automatically turns out to be a good drawing. Another problem in drawing from life is that we’re obliged to find answers to questions that so far haven’t been raised. The work you do in the studio is often an answer to questions that are already familiar.

It’s hard to do a portrait. You must first spend a critical moment in which you quickly—if you’re lucky—discard all the commonplaces about the subject of the drawing. More difficult than inventing is giving up accumulated virtues. The things you discovered yesterday are no longer valid. It’s impossible to find anything new without first giving something up.

There’s a moral in this. It’s stinginess that holds us back, especially when we’re not only enamored of what we’ve discovered but also convinced it’s good. There are those who, in working from life, continually use the baggage they picked up yesterday; they work from life without really looking, without working from life.

Why am I so reluctant to draw from life, and why do I look for any excuse not to? It’s hard to tell the truth about anything, or to portray oneself in terms of something else. What I try to do is to say with painting some-thing more than what the eye sees. My paintings are not so much paintings in themselves as parts of a table, objects of a drawing table, the painter’s work table. The pencils and other things I do are there to say that this is not a painting of mine but a painting by someone else, maybe a painting by “that painter” but not by me. In that case, I’m more an orchestra conductor than a painter doing a painting. My work says something about some-thing else; if it’s painting it says something about painting, not about the fact that this is what it is. If I use a rubber stamp on the painting, I do it to show that this paint is not real paint, it’s a symbol of the thing painted, just as the stamp is a symbol of the man. I’m not sure whether this is a sign of modesty or the reverse.

My development started at the bottom, with cartoons. I learned by working and I managed to get out of a number of culs-de-sac, some of the vulgarities of humorous drawing and the banalities of commercial art, while still preserving a little of that element of mediocrity—I’d almost say vulgarity—that I wouldn’t care to give up, since I consider it something necessary; like a man who, in changing his social class, still wouldn’t want to break up with his wife and old friends.

A drawing from life reveals too much of me. In other drawings—those done from the imagination—I do only what I want and show myself and my world in the way I choose. But in drawing from life, I am no longer the protagonist; I become a kind of servant, a second-class character. I am so propelled by the reality in front of me that I forget myself and work as though in a trance, trying to single out the reality, doing the drawing without realizing I’m doing it. And so I’m afraid that the drawing reveals certain parts of myself, areas of vulgarity where I don’t tell the truth, making use of what I already know, commonplaces, and I see in myself—I mean in the drawing I’ve done—some of my regular faults: stopping without finishing, getting tired at a certain moment and failing to insist on some point that ought instead to be essential; out of timidity or laziness I don’t insist, and so things don’t end the way they should—the result doesn’t live up to the promise. Sometimes there’s a touch of something seductive in what I do, which would be fine if I followed through, if I kept the promise.

Once a drawing from life is done, I can’t help taking it up again later, to check everything in cold blood and add the finishing touches. Only when a lot of time has passed do I look at these drawings again, not with the critical eye I had originally, but rather with a father’s benevolence for his child. But I’m always suspicious of what I’ve done without my own blessing. I’m just the opposite of an Expressionist. And also of an Impressionist, if you like.

In 1950 I did drawings more or less from life of American landscapes, streets in America, things by now vanished. No one at the time took an interest in these things; American painters were looking for places, corners, that looked like “real painting”; even on Main Street they looked for a little bit of English painting or something out of Rembrandt or Vermeer. There were a number of painters in New York—Reginald Marsh, for example—who looked for Hogarths or Rubenses on Fourteenth Street. Art bloomed here in America primarily because of the lack of attention paid to it. When in 1940 the great season of American painting began, one thing that certainly influenced art was poverty, which forced artists to create their own working space. They took cold-water flats and transformed them into studios, and to make them livable they had to scrape and paint the walls, doors and windows, and floors. Gifted painters had to turn into house painters and this led them to work on a large scale, to use industrial paints, such as gold or silver on radiators, new materials. The studio was no longer a place that got northern exposure. You worked, especially in the city, at night or even in the daytime, in the bright illumination of neon lighting.


Reflections and Shadows

The idea of reflections came to me in reading an observation by Pascal, cited in a book by W.H. Auden, who wrote an unusual kind of autobiography by collecting all the quotations he had annotated in the course of his life, which is a good way of displaying oneself, as a reflection of these quotations. Among them this observation by Pascal, which could have been made only by a mathematician: that the symmetry of the human body, its external symmetry of course, is horizontal. In nature this horizontal symmetry also exists in animals and plants, but in nature at large, which is the scene of life, the nature of the earth and sky, there exists only a vertical symmetry, produced by water, nature’s mirror.

Water was man’s first mirror. It was an inconvenient mirror—man saw himself against the sky and against the light. So, since he couldn’t take the water and hang it on the wall, he had to invent the mirror in order to look at himself.

What you see in reverse in the reflection is almost always better than the original—for color, sharpness, intensity, and intelligibility. Venice, where vertical and horizontal reflections coexist, is a perfect example of art and nature combined, since architecture, which is all horizontal symmetry, becomes vertical symmetry when reflected in water.

There is also an equivalence between landscape and the way it is reflected in clouds: a form of reflection of nature. In the Navajo desert in Arizona, with its gigantic formations of red rocks, the clouds take on equally monumental forms. Lakes also produce their specific clouds. But this would be less a visual phenomenon than a form of symmetry…. It’s easier for me to draw these things than to explain them.

I did a drawing that represents what I might call different degrees of reality. A woman is crossing a bridge, a semi-oval bridge like the kind in Venice, and she’s carrying a jug on her head. Jug and woman are one on top of the other and reversed. Thus either the woman is a reflection of the jug, or the jug is a reflection of the woman. And these two pseudo-reflections are reflected in the water, where the woman’s legs are up and her head down, resting on the jug. If the woman is a real woman, the jug can be considered a woman-once-removed….

The reflection in itself is a second-degree reality, because it is not real but only produced by the real object. What interests me here are the differences between first-, second-, third-, and fourth-degree realities.

These reflections enchant me by the strangeness of their existence (strangeness is a quality of miracles). Andrei Sinyavsky says that verses, rhymes, are very appropriate instruments for speaking of strange things, because of their very strangeness. Thus things can be said that one would be embarrassed to say in a normal fashion. Poetry, if it’s not clothed in the strangeness of verse, looks presumptuous—like certain dances that have to be performed in masks or costume. I, too, have always thought that to express certain things I had to transform them into jokes, puns, or anyway into strangeness: so-called humor. To clothe reality so that it will be “forgiven.” I realize I’m not explaining it very well, but this seems to me the true essence of humor. Forgiven by whom, then? By those who might think you presumptuous if you told them certain things in a direct way. You yourself have to be forgiven and accepted by yourself.

Reflections in water belong to this kind of poetic strangeness. It is a great joy for me to observe them, especially on hot days, when the light is perfect and the strangest symmetries are generated: two swans swim toward each other, with two other reflected swans, perhaps a heraldic insignia. Tropical islands, doubled ships, trains passing upside down over a bridge, the moon. Everything with perfect colors. If you look only at the reflection, and not at the reflecting part, you see a gratuitous reality that exists for you alone. For fun I throw a stone into the upside- down landscape, and seeing that the lower part moves I almost expect the upper part to move too. In the rearview mirror of the automobile I see a whole road, I see a sunset, the last little bit of sun disappearing behind the hills, and at the same time, in front of me, the reflection of this sunset in the eastern clouds, which is often more beautiful than the actual sunset, more elegant, less vulgar. In New York you may happen to see a sunset on the East Side, the sky there acting as a mirror to the sunset. The real sunset, coming from New Jersey, is uglier, as though the fact of coming from New Jersey made it in bad taste. The sky, or buildings, or fragments of architecture are reflected in puddles like scattered pieces of a puzzle. The reflection I see in a puddle continues in a glass of water that I hold in my hand.

In Romania, on moonlit nights, the peasant women used to look down into a well until they saw the reflection of the moon. Then they let down a pail, slowly drew up water with the moon in it and, with a spoon, drank its reflection. Looking down into the well at that moment, they could see the face of their future bridegroom.

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