A Common Seagull

On making art and mourning

Sheila Heti

 

 

Many years ago, I rented a studio, but I quickly found that the room was too empty of feelings and emotions and objects for me to work deeply. The space didn’t belong to me the way my home belonged to me; my home was my insides. 

There is a deep, dark, endless feeling to representing one’s insides. What appears in your writing changes the objects and people around you; they take on the qualities of how you portrayed them. A friend drawn ugly becomes ugly. A life drawn sweet becomes more sweet. To draw your life is to attempt to transform it with your magic. Your life invariably comes to resemble the depiction layered on top of it, because you now look at it through the lens of how you depicted it. This is why some artists run away from their lives; because who among us can live forever in our own dream?

There is something introverted about Pierre Bonnard’s paintings, perhaps because he is deliberately painting not things but his relationship to these things. Bonnard painted his wife, he painted his plates and jugs, he painted the rooms he lived in. He painted from memory and recollection rather than from models or life; he was painting his insides. The colors and angles he chooses are the colors and angles of his relationships. 

The things that interest us most, that we live with, become trapped in our consciousness. Our minds, once we have an object in them, can never let that object be free. The ones we love, no matter how many ways we tell them they are free, live unfree in the jail of our mind. We cannot release into freedom those we love so long as we continue to think about them. 

My father died five months ago, as I write this, and he is still not released from this earth, not as long as I think about him. He can’t ascend; I am keeping him here. And the dead artists we still talk about today—Bonnard, for instance—will also never ascend, as long as they are trapped in our minds. A person who makes art wants to be trapped in the collective mind of humanity. Artists make earthbound things that live among living humans, in order to be thought about—trapped in our minds—precisely so that they won’t ascend; no one is more afraid of leaving the earth than the artist who hopes his or her work will endure for centuries. 

Late last fall when my father died, I stepped into a deep freeze; my freeze saw me gently into the winter, and once winter came I had the quiet feeling that it would always be winter. When spring arrived last week, I was surprised. I had forgotten all about spring.

Walking in the forest with my dog a few weeks after my father died, I noticed the green of the fir trees; the colors were so muted and beautiful. And up above was a flat gray sky, easy to look at, the sun dimmed at midday by a thick layer of clouds. All I could see were the colors in nature and their perfect harmony. I could have stood there staring for much longer if my dog hadn’t been impatient, and if my shoes hadn’t been wet. Everything was dripping, the previous day’s snow already melting. And because I felt in that moment as if I had never really looked at colors before, I stood wondering beneath the shadowless sky whether, when my father died, the spirit that had enlivened him passed into me, for I had held him as he died; as perhaps when his father, a painter, died, his spirit went into my father, so that now I had the spirit of my father and the spirit of my grandfather both inside me. And I wondered whether this influence—the spirit of my painter grandfather inside me—was why I was suddenly noticing colors.

***

Around that time, going through my father’s effects, I discovered three typewritten essays that his father, George Heti, had written—one a personal essay, one a piece about art education, and one an appreciation of a painter he loved: Pierre Bonnard. George lived in Budapest most of his life, he painted portraits and landscapes, illustrated children’s books, and produced Communist propaganda posters and advertising. In 1956 he immigrated to Vancouver, where he learned English and became an art teacher in a high school before dying of brain cancer several years later. My father was a young man of around twenty at the time of George’s death, and he never got over the painful loss of the person he loved most in the world. 

My grandfather begins his essay about Bonnard by invoking John Dewey on the relationship between craft and inspiration: “When patience has done its perfect work, the man is taken possession of by the appropriate muse and speaks and sings as some god dictates.”

My grandfather commented on this, writing,

The greatest problem of achieving in artwork is to find and be able to maintain a balance between spontaneity and consciousness, while working with pigments, stone or words, and casting them in a certain rhythm, order, design, and melting the two functions of transformation into a single operation.

Unfortunately, this being taken possession of by the appropriate muse is not an inevitable side-effect of the act of painting. It is not a self-suggested, consciously achieved state of being. It comes spontaneously, if it comes at all, stays for a while, disappears again. It is a warm personal feeling of certainty that something important is going on the canvas. One does not judge every brushstroke. It comes naturally, giving birth to a unique creation. The problem is that this dreamlike existence seldom lasts long enough to finish the painting while under the spell, so the painter usually faces the painful decision of either leaving the painting unfinished or risking the whole existence of the work by subjecting it to an intellectual procedure.

This seems to me one of the central dilemmas of art making: What is the right way to keep working once the inspiration—the being taken possession of by the appropriate muse—has left you? How do you complete in a way that doesn’t distort or damage, what emerged spontaneously? Do you produce only fragments? Do you try to link the fragments by the thinnest threads that are as unobtrusive as possible? How do you finish what inspiration has left off? How the artist resolves this problem is everything. 

Of Bonnard’s working method the curator Dorita Armory wrote, “Only when he felt a deep familiarity with his subject—be it a human model or a modest household jug—did he feel ready to paint it…. Asked if he might consider adding a specific object to his carefully circumscribed still-life repertoire, he demurred, saying, ‘I haven’t lived with that long enough to paint it.’”

I have repeated that phrase in my mind so often since encountering it, twisting it this way and that: I haven’t lived with it long enough to paint it. I haven’t lived with it long enough to write about it. I haven’t lived with it long enough to love it. What does it mean to distrust the novelty of experience? To say instead that what one needs in order to create are not new things—not new grand adventures, not new wives or husbands or cities—but the same thing over and over again until a Platonic form of the thing builds up in the mind and becomes the model for what is written about, or painted? 

If inspiration—the muses, the gods and goddesses—is fleet-footed, so that when it flits away one is left to stumble forward in the dark with no certain compass, Bonnard’s solution may be ideal. The Platonic form, built up across days and months and years, is rooted in a reality that transcends our fluctuations through time: because it was patiently and gradually created in the mind, it lasts and lasts and can be a model that one relies on, unlike inspiration. The Platonic form of a woman or a jug shimmers with all the many layers of life it contains: not the one time he saw his wife bathing, but the three hundred, or three thousand, times he saw her bathing, a form that solidifies naturally and of its own accord into a single balanced shape. 


Pierre Bonnard, Nude Crouching in the Bathtub (Nu accroupi au tub), 1918.

Bonnard often painted his wife, Marthe, in the tub, because she was often in the tub, taking water cures for a lung ailment. His friends blamed her for making him stay at home—she was known to be misanthropic and disliked nearly all of them. But Bonnard preferred being at home with Marthe to being out with his friends, and he used her as an excuse. It seems crucial for his paintings that he spent so much time at home; it is the repetition of being with Marthe and her bathing—the digging-in—that gives his paintings their weight. They contain the banality and the calmness of thinking back on something that was repeated and repeated. They have a certain personal mystery to them.

It is this profound and inward attachment to his own domestic reality, which was repetitive, limited, and simple, that perhaps led my grandfather to praise Bonnard for the complete honesty in his intuitive emotional statements: “His complete independence from artificialities, from theoretical considerations, even from influences in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century is really incredible,” George wrote. “Just think: in 1900, although dead or dying, the influence of Gauguin, van Gogh, Cézanne, Seurat, Monet was at its peak. To keep being honest and spontaneous in an atmosphere such as this required not only the painter’s talent but a perfect conviction of being right, and a great devotion toward his work.” 

The pressure for one’s paintings to demonstrate a certain machismo would have been intense. The critic Christian Zervos wrote in 1947 that in a Bonnard one does not “encounter anything sparkling or hard, there is nothing sharp, nothing that stirs us, no celebration of vigour.” Picasso complained that Bonnard’s paintings lacked the big clash of cymbals created by strong contrasts. 

The independence and inwardness which my grandfather admired in Bonnard seem to be what agitated Picasso and Zervos. Both their comments seem, in veiled ways, to be dismissing Bonnard not only for the surfaces of his canvases, but for painting his domestic life instead of creating an aesthetic born of feelings more external, communal, and political: the mood of twentieth-century Europe in the clashing, sharp, and vigorous tumult of its wars; the mood of the first twelve years of the century, when neoimpressionism, Fauvism, cubism, expressionism, and non-objective art were all born, as my grandfather noted. 

George admiringly wrote,

Bonnard had one conviction, I would not call it a theory, which kept him on the straight road. He felt as compelled to paint his inner images as others feel to eat. 

This inner vision is expressed in each of his paintings, and it is absolutely futile to talk about them, for paintings have their own voice. If I say that my favourite painting is the Boulevard des Battignoles, all those who are artists and know the painting will nod and say, yes. For those who are not painters and do not know the painting, I would try something like this:

It is a very simple composition, divided into three distinguished color areas; a very warm golden shadow, a cool pale creamy orange, and a vibrating area of juxtaposed warm and cool yellows, pinks, blues, ochres, contrasted against the very quiet two-thirds of the picture. In the foreground a horse and a woman are sharply distinguished, nearly silhouette, and in the right lower corner, the segment of a carriage’s wheel.

As simple as that. The only trouble is that this description conveys nothing about the special magic of the painting…

Recollecting the bedroom in which my father died, I also primarily see colors, as George did in recalling that canvas. I do not see the sharp line where the wall becomes ceiling but rather a swirling of the deepest greens and maroons, from my brother’s covering the windows with posters and towels, and the slight flickering yellow of the beeswax candle that my brother and I put on the dresser. And the brighter light that flooded in from the hall. The nurses came and went. My brother and I turned our father’s body over and helped him move his legs. His eyes were generally closed that week. His mouth was very dry. My brother and I sat on opposite sides of the bed, looking at each other across it with wide eyes, staring, often not knowing what to do. My mind needs only to glance back on the week my father was dying to feel a trembling at the terrible magnificence of life and death—it is how I imagine the religious feel when they contemplate the majesty of God. The memory of that week threatens to take over everything: every single memory of my father and every understanding I have of life. 

David Sylvester wrote about Bonnard in 1962, “Normally a picture is held together by the relation of forms to the rectangle of the canvas. But in looking at a Bonnard, I’m not really aware of the edges of the picture.” Perhaps the reason for this is suggested in Peter Doig’s statement that “somehow Bonnard is painting the space behind the eyes…. It is not photographic space at all; it is memory space, but one which is based in reality.”

When I think about the death of my father, there are no edges to my recollection. How could my thoughts of that week, in a way the most profound week of my life, be in relation to a rectangle, to a rectangular frame? That week does not even know what a rectangle is.

***

I had always heard about my grandfather George that he had a greatness of spirit, that he was a charming, fun, witty, cultured man, a great athlete, a loving father and man. I also understood that he never became the painter he wanted to be, and this understanding of him has always haunted me; the grandfather who did not or could not put all of himself into his art as he longed to do. From an early age, an understanding of the sort of single-mindedness and great luck involved in being an artist, and how unlikely it is to become one, was with me like a warning. I began to see that it took all of one’s forces constantly driven in one direction, and the will of the world, and the happiest of circumstances, all working together, to enable one to make a life in art. 

In George’s personal essay, which I did not read until this past fall, he addresses his unhappiness: 

I had not a happy life. There were moments of happiness, but as a whole it was dull, unsatisfying, sad. I did not know exactly why. I think I know now. It isn’t too simple to write down, although I see it very clearly. I was not happy because I didn’t ever do what I would have been able to do. I have not recognized what is the very thing I could have done, and not only do it, but do it eagerly, impatiently and always. No wonder that I couldn’t do it—my circumstances couldn’t have been less favourable. Not too good a spiritual connection with my parents, extreme poverty, not a true friend, being a Jew in pre-war Hungary, early family ties with adequate financial troubles, disturbed university years loaded with money problems, the incessant fluctuation between hope and despair—have I or haven’t I talent—and above all, the spirit-killing, cruel, devastating struggle for life in contemporary Hungary. These are not excuses, only explanations.

This portrait of a woman in a hat, done in 1957, is one of my favorite paintings George made. It originally hung in my grandmother’s house, then in my father’s house, and now it hangs in my uncle’s house. 

George Heti, Portrait of a Woman in a Hat, 1957.

I love the colors most of all. I love the hard strokes of the dress and the hat. I love how he accorded the woman such self-containment. In this painting, I see his longing to be doing nothing but paint. I can feel his focus, the pleasure and rightness he felt being at his easel. You can’t love an artist whom you don’t feel approaches the page or the canvas with the depth of his or her being in the moment of working. I feel George’s concentration in this painting, and I project into it his sorrow that painting was not his entire life, not something he was able to do eagerly, impatiently, and always.

We all know that there is a quality of duration that must be harnessed, which seems to be not only a way of working against the fickle intrusion of inspiration but the only way of living after a certain age: understanding the humdrum repetitions of life to be a kind of balance; refusing to chase the tsunami of inspiration that comes with each new falling in love, each new city; having only the same walls around us, and the same plates, and only one wife, who will always dislike our friends, and spend day after day in the bath. 

When I look at Bonnard’s ingeniously balanced painting of steps in a sunlit garden, I feel the sweet sensation of being in one of the sunny, warm, brightly colored places I have been in my life that seem so delightful in recollection—beachscapes, rooms of white wicker and blowing curtains—of faultless days when I had no argument with any person, and no one had any argument with me. 

This feeling simultaneously causes some sadness in me because I know it is not real. What prevents Bonnard’s painting from being happy or sentimental is that I know I have never been in a room of white wicker; I have never experienced the peace and happiness it suggests, and perhaps neither had he.

My grandfather wrote in his essay about his personal archetype of happiness; it is a first memory—he was three, at a train station with his father, and he remembers clearly,

in the glass window of a small book store, the storybook my father bought me—the very first I got—filled with pictures. I don’t remember the story, I only have a sweet, dreamy, fairy-tale effect in my memory filling me always when I remember it, with a nostalgic desire to possess again the heavenly feeling, and the inexpressible happiness, this little book gave me. The only thing I can recall is the name seagull, and that name meant something more than real to me—that they liked me, that they were my friends. I did not see seagulls until I was twenty-one, in Budapest, on the Danube. It did not mean anything to me then, but when I hear the name seagull it still gives me the same feeling I had thirty-seven years ago. I did not know then that I was happy. I am sure that always in my life I compared every feeling with this first one and never could find the same. I know it can be found again, and I also know that you have to create a life for yourself as balanced and faultless and sweet as it was in this first book.

For George, happiness would always be there when he heard the word seagull, which could not be touched or eroded by the sight of an actual seagull. The idea of the thing is so much more shimmering than the thing itself. To let the repetitions of our life cohere into the Platonic form of our life—to contemplate our life not by looking at it directly but by way of our inward relation to it—might be the best way to feel that one’s life is not just a common seagull, but something balanced and faultless and sweet


Sheila Heti is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood. The essay from this issue was initially delivered at the Tate Modern in London.

Image: Pierre Bonnard, Woman Crouching in a Tub, 1912.