The boundaries between process and meaning.
Before I left for the season of fresh green leaves in Japan I fell under the spell of this white blossom branch on a late spring rainy day and started a new painting in “The bookbinder’s world” series.
It was the week of Zurich’s Spring festival, and I had no idea that in my upcoming trip, early summer festivals too would become a frequent chance encounter. I left a barely inked cardboard at the center of my desk in the early hours of the morning of my departing flight. Waiting. Waiting until my return. Until my composition idea developed more clearly.
Last week, after working through some of the images brought back from Japan (more about that still to come), I felt ready to work again on this piece. To bring those spring rain fresh leaves to life. To close this year’s circle of various deep greens and water. And a fifer.
Follow the process
The figure of mystery in this late spring scene would be a young woman fifer. There was no sophisticated meaning behind it. I was simply looking for an element to balance out the composition. A human figure would be better suited in the sequence of paintings in this series. A large treecreeper was at the center of the previous painting, also with a branch, and it would be boring to follow with a similar form.
All of my paintings refer to the essence of specific moments and I was looking for the element that would bring out the atmosphere running through the city that festival week. So, a fifer.
The fifer(s) that caught my eye among the group that walked beneath my window one morning. The women fifers, particularly. No meaning, really.
Set yourself a process challenge (or two)
There was another challenge(s) behind the challenge:
1. Is a tasteful “Sechseläuten” (Zurich’s spring festival) painting without an overly “dated” feeling possible?
2. Can I work the layers of color in my mind, in the reverse order I usually work with? Typically I paint dominant foreground elements – white blossoms – first. But as the white color layer is to be worked with pastel, I visualized the entire color scheme in my mind only as I proceeded, layer by layer.
Still all process. When will we get to meaning in this post?
Actually, that is the point I will be making here. Meaning played very little, if any role in the making of the painting. I simply followed the pleasure and the challenge of quietly adding one layer of color after another, one media after the next, from ink to watercolor washes, to pastel and a few fine detail black lines. Taking the drying times as reflection pauses to consider how to best execute the layer ahead.
Ponder on meaning as you wish.
Meaning is something I only pondered once I found myself observing the finished piece.
Why did the women catch my eye? Why a single woman? Why facing away from the viewer? Why a fifer? Why did I make these choices unconsciously? So many “why” questions. The place where the exploration (dissection?) of meaning begins. Let’s tackle the questions one by one.
Zurich’s traditional guilds, the hosts of the city’s spring festival are predominantly male. In 2023 for the first time a guild allowed women to join their ranks for the main parade and all other activities, making news headlines (German only). Yes, you read that right. Not the last one holding out, the very first. Hence, perhaps, maybe, that was where the search for women roles among the week’s activities in the neighborhood started.
Honestly, I love simplicity and focus in everything (I paint). I was perhaps looking for a feeling of serene dignity in the individual, undiluted by a group. But really, I really like “quiet” images.
As for turning away from the viewer, I cannot claim it to be a random choice. The third choice was conscious, and it deals in “projection” and “imagination”.
A non-visible face allows viewers to “project” themselves onto the composition and bring their own emotional considerations to play. This is one of the aspects that keeps Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings appealing to this day. They require the viewer’s participation and interpretation. The viewer is mostly accountable for meaning.
The musician also brings a sensory layer of sound to the painting. Finally, the fifer as a character brings a broad set of references, from visual arts to literature, with ambivalent interpretation across cultures. The choice lies, again, with your imagination.
So, how do you see our woman fifer?
Is she a “pleasant” accidental character or the main subject in a story about to begin? A stand-in for gender equality ambitions? Or is she luring cold winter away under the rainy blossoms?
The decision is yours to make. Now I have explored some preliminary boundaries I will just go back to focusing on process. Another painting is already waiting for me in the wings.