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On Painting from Nature

Ofer Lellouche 

On Painting from Nature

"There are no lost landscapes. None. Already according to the technique of a mirage, there are none. There are other methods. There are still 'things in the sky'. There exists the world of the world, in which the places and sights that are not forgotten are gathered. The world expresses the poet, and not vice versa; and when he is gathered up, he is gathered to the world of the world. 

I left my father's city one morning, the people were still sleepy in their local, everyday garb, while I myself was all innovation, like a person going towards. They opposed my leaving home, as my leaving the partnership. But I depressed them. In my very leaving of them I saw them as a decline. 

I came to eretz-israel and I saw camels, and I saw them as a decline. Not because there was no iron to shoe them, and not because their feet only slightly, only modestly, only hesitantly, touched the earth of this land, but because I saw them as a decline - so too they, here, are in decline." 

Avot Yeshurun, "Two Landscapes", Collected Poems II, 126 

There is an increasing tendency to identify paining from nature with photographic realism. As for me, the more I progress with work from nature, the more I feel that the photographic regard is a disturbance, and that work by the eye misleads. The as-it-were objective gaze at times actually makes it impossible to identify the object. 

I sense more sharply that the gaze is always double: the gaze of the eye and the gaze of memory. There is a well-known story about Delacroix, who used to bring a live model to his students, but did not allow them to paint her until after she had gone. A landscape is on the one hand what one sees, a house, a tree, a particular light at a particular time. You have to measure the height of the tree in relation to the width of the house, to understand the structure and architecture of the landscape and things like that. But a landscape painting is principally the impression that remains in us from that landscape as it appears to our eyes after we have forgotten all the details, or as we might dream about it. In dreams a most precise image comes into being, without our being able to accord it an actual for. A kind of revelation. In most cases, the purely optic gaze disturbs or prevents the revelation from happening. The eye alone is powerless to convery the depth, even if everything begins with the eye. With prolonged contemplation things are seen undergoing metamorphoses. That take on a more intimate character, like something that seems familiar though we don't know why. A sense of dejavu. Certain details vanish from sight, while others take on a powerful meaning. These things become and charged with a kind of presence that suddenly captures the field of vision. 

I remember that in the early eighties I went to paint in the outskirts of jerusalem. At first I painted the landscape in purples, in pinks, in all the colors I saw in the natural setting. But when I saw the results in the studio in the evening, I was disappointed. This landscape could have been painted in the south of france, and it didn't convey the incredible density of the light as I remembered it. Then I tried using white while painting the landscape. On my return to the studio it looked like bits of plaster. One day, by chance, I left a copper plate for an etching in the acid. The result was almost black. I was surprised to see how this black landscape brought back to me the memory of the brightness. 

Between the purely optic gaze and its transmission on the paper something happens, something has to happen. The gordon Sea pool in Tel aviv - I practically live there. It isn't just an object for a painting, it's almost a home. It was natural for me to start painting it. I worked in three stages. In the first I painted directly on the plate, in the patio of the pool, After the printer had etched and printed it, I didn't recognize the pool with its reflection inside me. A landscape from the third world revealed itself to me: water, palms, hotels. This kind of pool could also have been in Nairobi or Sao Paulo. I asked myself, perhaps we really are living in the Third World. a perhaps my memory was mistaken, and it is the eye that sees correctly? 

In the second state I concentrated on twilight, dawn and dusk. Here I already felt that I was coming closer to my sense of the pool. In the third stage, when I did a zoom-in onto the few swimmers in the water, suddenly the reflections became similar to Judean desert landscapes, and the painting became both a Lellouche and a most definite Gordon Pool. Strange, I thought, when I'm most personal and closest to myself, I come closer to everyone. 

The temptation to paint from observation alone is a strong one. One should always remember the time-span in which the gaze has been moved away from the object that is about to be painted and has not yet been placed on the white paper. An abyss separates these two bits of time. If during that moment the gaze is not charged with a kind of presence, the result is zero.