Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, Schopenhauer, and Landscape Painting

I undertook a small day trip to Kassel yesterday, to wander around a park there. (Sorry for the lack of pictures – I took drawing supplies with me, intending to have a few sketches to pepper this post with. Utter fail was upon me, though, as i managed to break off my pencil. Without having packed a knife to resharpen it, naturally.) Initially, I had something in mind about how I was inspired to pay this park a visit by Maria blogging about it, and subsequently presenting views I found fascinating, personal gems I stumbled upon, my general impression, etc – accompanied by a few illustrative pictures. Both me not having produced any presentable drawings and a certain strong impression will push this blog post in a different direction: more artsy-thinky with a bit of philosophy. Because all the while I was walking through that park, I kept being vividly reminded of Arthur Schopenhauer (German 19th c. philosopher & patron saint of all irascible grumpy fucks) and Stapleton Kearns (US-American contemporary painter & ridiculously amazing art blogger). I’m quite afraid my preoccupation (plus natural shyness & introversion) made me a an even lousier conversationalist than usual when Maria and her friend stopped by for a short walk. Anyway, that’s the turn this post is going to take. Grab some tea, for this is going to be a somewhat lengthy read, and on we go.

The Bergpark

Maria made a much better write-up than I could do, so just kindly hop over to her blog. There is even a comment by yours truly, foreshadowing the content of this post. If you want a really short intro without having to read another blog, Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe is a pretty damn big park in Kassel, northern Hesse, Germany. It’s sitting on a pretty substantial incline (‘Berg’ is german for ‘hill’ or ‘mountain’) and is what’s called an English landscape garden. English gardens are a form of park aiming for a natural landscape look, as opposed to the geometric French formal gardens. They often feature small decorative buildings to accentuate the landscape. In a way, you could probably classify them as a form of fantasy art.

I went there in late October and spent an afternoon wandering around the park, looking at things, getting lost, finding my way again, seeking out points that looked interesting on my small map, and still not seeing everything. (At the visitors’ centre of the Bergpark, you can get a more-than-serviceable pocket size map for free, or a more elaborate one for very little money – 1.50€ at the time I inquired.) A future revisit is definitely in order, and a welcome chance to experience the park at a different season. A propos seasons: I got the full-on autumn version, with many-hued foliage and strewn leaves everywhere, and a slight mist that just helped accentuate the long distances (and give a definite boost to the feeling of walking through fantasy art).

Schopenhauer’s Aesthetics and the Case of Landscaping

Arthur Schopenhauer was a 19th century German philosopher that influenced a lot of thinkers and artists, while never spawning a school of thinking. He also is highly worth reading, not least for his magnificent style, his demanding strictness of thought, and an eerily accurate ability to observe nuance in a diverse array of matters. His writing is also famously peppered with the most acrid and colourful insults. Whenever he has to spend a few words on Hegel, his hated nemesis, you can expect a mud-slinging fest of unparalleled eloquence and proportions. If you want to level up your trash-talking, Schopenhauer is the grand master.

Schopenhauer’s philosophy roots in what we’d nowadays call a fork of Kant’s epistemology. Now, this blog post would be a large book if I were to explain Kant’s philosophy first, and how Schopenhauer went from there. As interesting as it would be to write about this even just sketchily, it’s not necessary for relating Schopenhauer’s thoughts on aesthetics. One important cornerstone to understanding the general perspective, though, is that ever since Descartes wrote down that no matter how much he may err in the contents of his thinking, his every act of thinking puts the presence of his consciousness so directly in front of his eyes that it is impossible for him not to exist (‘I think, therefore I am’, even if all I think is horse poo), philosophy explored the nature of what we know and how we know it by going to the bottom-most root of every bit of knowledge: The subjective acts of reasoning or perceiving. Every so-called ‘objective’ fact traces back in whole to subjective perception of the objects it is about, subjective reasoning about the truth of our assertions, and so on. That’s why Schopenhauer’s aesthetics are concerned not in the least with the historical sequence of fashions in the arts, or psychological allusions, but only the direct perception of a work of art by a subject.

In Schopenhauer’s larger system of philosophy, there are several ‘stages’ of things that make up our world, and they all are manifestations of one all-encompassing, blind, behind-the-scenes life force he calls ‘the Will’. (He does so because our one way of experiencing it directly is in our every action – not the pondering whether we’d wish to do something or not, but how, inexplicably, us doing something just happens at one point, without much control on our behalf.) This Will manifests itself in dead matter in a very uncomplex way: by the effect of mass. Stones fall downwards because that’s their nature. (A funny quip is how Schopenhauer recounts Spinoza saying that if one could ask a thrown stone whether it wanted to fly, it’d answer ‘yes’, and Schopenhauer himself adding to the story ‘that the stone would be right, too.’) Simple living things like plants manifest the Will in a more complex behaviour: they grow, drop seeds, move with the sun, and so on. The Will in animals shows with even more complexity: there is a certain character to each species, and each animal acts according to this species-character: cats stalking prey while dogs hunt it down, some animals turtling up defensively while others flee at speed. Humans, as the top-grade animals, are even more complex: not only do we have a species-character, we also each have an individual character – made up of egoism (the physical desire to maximise one’s own well-being) and the two moral forces of malice (the immediate interest in others’ suffering) and compassion (the immediate interest in others’ well-being) – according to which we always act. Yes, he’s deterministic like that. You got a predominantly malicious character, you’ll always end up acting to hurt others, maybe even with no concern for the consequences you’ll have to face when your malice outweighs your egoism. Pretty grim, that.

So, finally arriving at aesthetics and works of art: Schopenhauer thinks that in each work of art, the ideal nature (the plot thickens…) of something is to be expressed. A painting of a dog should be concerned with capturing doggishness as closely as possible. And because the artist has an editorial hand in how everything is arranged, shaped, and staged, the art dog’s doggishness can be displayed much more clearly than any individual real life dog might show it. Schopenhauer took a close look at different art forms and looked at what these media can do by their own virtue. This meaning, for example, that visual art like painting, drawing, and sculpture is confined to the visual, while literature can lay open the inner workings of a character’s mind. Things that express themselves greatly in the inner life, but are only marginally expressed outwards, are just not subjects well suited to drawings or paintings, while grand physical gestures always lose vitality and directness when described in writing as opposed to shown in pictures.

The run-down presented in his magnum opus ‘Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung’ (The World as Will and Representation) is:

  • Architecture is for displaying the properties of dead matter, i.e. gravity by means of showing the relation of load and support.
  • Visual art is for the species-character of living beings, because it manifests outwards and becomes visible.
  • Literature is for the individual character of humans, because its prime stage is in the mind, and the only way we could possibly experience a differently wired human experience than our own is by looking into a different mind.
  • Music is the highest form of art, because it is free from representing things. By being pure succession, pure things happening over time, music is the only art form that can express the Will itself, outside of any of its individual manifestations.

His book ‘Die Metaphysik des Schönen’ (The Metaphysics of the Beautiful) has a few more of these examples, one of them concerning the art of landscaping. (ah, finally!) In landscaping, he says, the nature of landscape is to be expressed – topography, plants, water, things like that. When faced with the alternatives of the geometric French formal garden, and the idealised fantasy landscape of the English landscape garden, his verdict is clear: The English garden displays landscape on a good-hair-day, the way it ‘ought to look’. The French formal garden uses the elements of a natural landscape and bends them to someone’s ideas of orderliness. What it expressed in it is ideas of order. Schopenhauer is as firmly #TeamEnglishGarden as you could possibly be.

So far for the things I could have recounted at the drop of a hat, because I have this shit actually memorised. (Much to the detriment of my grasp of everyday useful things.) What changed is that while I knew this abstractly, visiting the Bergpark and consciously seeing it in effect gave me a whole new appreciation of both the park and Schopenhauer. I’m certainly not too much into the greater system of philosophy he proposes, but the observations he founds it on are top-notch. I frequently found myself awed by the nature before my eyes, before noticing the workmanship behind it, the artificiality behind why some tree lines neatly expose bits of trunk while others are deliberately drawn down to ground level. Things like small tree groups being positioned just so that when you walk by, they picturesquely move against a background arrangement of landscape, or decorative tree clusters being planted just so their trunks aren’t spaced evenly, but in a deliberately dynamic way, with a baba-bamm rhythm instead of a monotonous bam-bam-bam. This was when I became aware that not only was I just getting a hands-on lesson in Schopenhauer (Visual things being more clear when presented visually than when clad in words, if you remember), but that I was in fact nothing so much as walking through a landscape painting. This term made my mind jump to…

Stapleton Kearns on Reality vs. Art

…Stapleton Kearns, art blogger extraordinaire. Or, more specifically, a Schopenhauerly-well-put quip he repeats often on his blog:

YOU CANNOT OBSERVE DESIGN INTO A PAINTING

This line is so crazy good that I linked every word of it to a different blog post that contains it, and these are only a selection. If there is one really good mantra to art, this sure is it. At least in my book. Here are a few choice quotes that explain this mantra in a bit more detail:

Carlson did not carefully copy nature in front of him and end up with all of those lovely and unique shapes. He had to invent them. He would observe, think and then decide what the painting should look like.

I care more about the design than anything that follows. If I get the design right I get a good painting. If I don’t, no matter of detail or finish will make the thing work.

You can look all day and not see this kind of [planar] recession, you may find places where it exists, but this is something you ‘install’ into the landscape. It is an arrangement that is forced onto the actual appearance of the scene to maker a better, clearer design, rather than the more random arrangements presented by a natural location.

The more literal you are, the less poetic your arrangements will be. […] In order to have rhythm and design in your painting it is necessary to push it around so it has those things. They will not mysteriously appear, they have to be consciously installed. A meticulously rendered highly accurate rendition is often arrhythmic.

Q: The phrase ‘key your painting’ troubles me and makes me think that it is similar to making NATURE conform to something she is not.
A: Exactly! I want to make nature conform to something it is not. I wish to make art. Nature is one thing. Art is another. Art’s a lie! The root of the word is artifice.

(Incidentally, I think Schopenhauer would agree to the notion that art is a lie, insofar as it does not accurately reproduce nature. He’d probably say that it is a lie that tells a deeper truth.)

When I felt like walking through a landscape painting, it struck me that this was a piece of world arranged in a way so that if you were to paint it, you could indeed observe design into it, because every part of the landscape was designed for visual impact. And not only static vistas, but progressions that play middle ground layers against background layers as you walk along a path. Heck, I am 95% sure I was standing in front of a hill with a central tree cluster that was arranged just so on the hill slope that one could see a sliver of light on the hill crest behind the shadows underneath the trees, while the framing tree groups were standing exactly on the crest line, darkening it with their shadows.

Not only was this an exercise in Schopenhauer, it also provided a very unique kind of insight into the relation of (representational) art and reality. Reading Kearns, you abstractly get the idea of contrast between a spot of nature and a painting made of it. The crux of the matter is that the piece of art is artificial while nature is natural. Walking through nature that is artificial in exactly that deliberate, artful, and beautiful way really drove home the difference between the reality inside the painting and the reality of … well … reality.

Maybe you once decided to copy a drawing of a master artist for learning purposes (I recommend it!), and felt the slightly jarring effect of forcing your hand to make marks in a way that is absolutely not-you, yet you can see a drawing emerge that works, despite your hand screaming at you that it couldn’t possibly because it lacks detail or needs another curve here and maybe not as harsh an edge there. This disconnect between how you’d handle things and feeling your hand make marks that are much more gutsy than your own can impart a little of that courage at the heart of good draughtmanship: it’s easy to know how to simplify, but it’s hard to dare simplifying this much, without maybe adding a little bit extra here and there, just to be on the safe side.

What I felt at the Bergpark was similar: By giving me a persistent feeling of surreality (a very pleasant feeling, I might add!), it drove home just how large the gulf is between nature’s arbitrary arrangement and art’s deliberate design. Like all really good insight, it’s kind of trivial, and in a way, nothing I didn’t know before. At least implicitly. But my understanding now is, if not better, definitely more vivid.

I also managed to spot a woodpecker at work. :)

What about you? Did you have similar flashes of insight, artistic or otherwise? Do you occasionally blank out (embarrassingly) to process things? Also, how do wordy-thinky posts like this sit with you?

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