• Angela Woodiwiss

  • The origins of these drawings are located in the visible world. They are a means to detain the transitory moment from the flux. In making visual equivalents of the source, I move towards a recognition, a re-encounter with the formal unities which first took my attention and lodged in my memory. Through drawing, I recall visual experiences, which becomes internalised, distanced from the past and held in memory.

    By putting things aside in memory, they have time to expand. When constructing images through drawing, there is interplay between the recollection of the source and a remembered familiarity of the process of making other drawings. In the prolonged time it takes for the image to evolve I make use of both, to transcribe the past in the present.

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    Memory & Perception

    "We have been able to become familiar with things of our environment precisely because they have constituted themselves for us through forces of perceptual organisation acting prior to and independent of, experience, thereby allowing us to experience them". [1] Gaetano Kanisza.

    Our understanding of our perceptions is located in an a priori sense of visual order, according to Gaetano Kanizsa. We have a predisposition to discern structure. Conversely, the memory of familiar objects can influence what we perceive. There is an element of 'reading in' which is fuelled by memory. As Gombrich remarks, "The greater the biological relevance an object has to us , the more will we be attuned to its recognition - and the more tolerant will therefore be our standards of formal correspondence". [2]

    We are careless with our visual memories. The sense of familiarity we have of our past is crucial to our daily visual habits. If our perception is inattentive, if we merely scan sufficient information to locate a familiar doorway and then look away, we rely on our past understanding, a memory trace, that it is possible to walk through. The relation between the present and past doorway is perceived and recollected; our memory and perception are linked.

    A moment of recognition is instantaneous, particularly if it gratifies an expectation. It makes little demand on visual cues and if schematically coded, like the sequential colours of traffic lights, our recognition seems automatic. If, however, we use our memory to recollect an absent object, there are gaps in the picture. If the object were lost and we were to search for it, we would recognise it immediately we saw it. The way in which our memory is prompted to recognition is not simple but Gombrich isolates three aspects of remembering. Firstly, the subliminal persistence of the stimulus, as with an after-image, secondly, an immediate memory trace, which we can recall clearly for a few seconds until the impression becomes indistinct and fades, and thirdly, the anticipatory gap the memory fills, as when we complete a musical cadence.

    In our memory we are able to retain an accumulation of successive visual cues which build a coherent image. If we scan a panoramic view, we trace the whole, each new perception adding to those previously experienced until we understand the complete image despite that image not being available to us in total. Memory traces are modified by subsequent additions and sometimes form a sequential order. For example, if we watch a performance or listen to a tune, we can remember the progression. Our memory records the temporal extension of action. It is harder to recall the same information if disrupted and delivered at random. An immobile object, such as a picture, unfolds in time. We may randomly scan separate parts but retain the elements in readiness and check them against the picture until it assumes coherence.

    Our capacity to retain and recall reinforces our sense of self in relation to kinesthetic perception. We understand that a bird moves in its cage rather than the cage moving around the bird. There is a 'hierarchic relation of dependence'. [3] Even when motion is slowed down or speeded up in a film, our memory of the familiar remains unchallenged. Remnants of the event survive in relation to what occurred previously and is consistent with, though different from our knowledge of past events. When our memory of spatial and temporal context is challenged we shift into the fanciful or imaginary.

    If memory can be located in space and time, the more distant the stimulus, the less distinct the recollection. Arnheim suggests that memory traces, "..dissolve, become less distinct, and drop their individual characteristics, thus looking more and more like everything and nothing. This amounts to a gradual loss of articulate structure". [4]

    Memory is imbricated in perception, particularly in our ability to recognise. When we use memory to recollect, to rebuild a familiar image, it often fails us. But then, the visual sensation involves more than optics. Memories of touch and movement add to the perception. It would seem that between seeing, mentally registering and remembering, there is a process of sifting, a gestalt ordering from a flux of stimuli.

    We have expectations when we look which are psychologically and culturally determined. We seek confirmation, reinforcement of past perceptions. We see what we choose to see. A conceptual image or schemata, lodged in memory, directs our attention. As Gombrich notes, "It is not the impression we receive at any particular moment in time which determines our experience, but its relation to our memory and our anticipation". [5]

    When Henry Moore walked along the beach he noticed pebbles that replicated the forms he was currently working with in his sculpture. There was a predilection to the forms which took his eye. He was seeing in terms of a memory of his work. Our memory of the schemata of art can inform the way we see the world.

    The ability to 'read in' anamorphically, to see figures in clouds, faces in tree trunks, is exploited graphically in Walt Disney's "Fantasia". We can order the loosest association of marks in comparison with the memorised schemata and 'see' an image. In talking about Impressionist painting, Gombrich almost implies that it is an imposition "It is without any support from structure that the beholder must mobilise his memory of the visible world and project it into the mosaic of strokes and dabs on the canvas before him". [6]

    Our memory of the real world is kept in mind as we read the alternative visualisations of analytical cubism and the juxtaposition of ideas stimulates a visual tension. Memory can give us a range of hypothetical solutions to test the potential of what we see; these are necessarily subjective and when the visual data is imprecise, memory can be fooled by an ambiguity of signals. Confronted by a visual paradox, where there is a reduction of visual information, such as the figure/ground relation in the familiar duck or rabbit illusion, or the drawings of Escher, we are caught by alternatives held together in the memory but impossible to keep simultaneously in the mind's eye.

    Invaluable as our inclination to visual order is in keeping our memory banks well stocked, a prescriptive way of looking can impair our sight. Memory is involved whilst we look. The artists whom I write about would have received an education based on looking, and for myself the experience of exploring through direct observation and drawing has remained a constant part of my practice. It provides a different way of 'knowing'. But looking for those artists is culturally determined by the depth of their knowledge of painting tradition and of Modernist painting in particular. All of the imperfections of our ability to see and recall that I have described have been positively chosen as part of the working methodologies of the artists I shall refer to as case studies. By 'forgetting' the original, that is, by not working from direct observation, they have chosen the temporal space of memory in which to recollect, to contemplate in absence and to know the source again through painting.

    Memory & Art

    "Memory, ... is perhaps only fresh attention to the traces of a sensuous-emotional experience". [7] R.G.Collingwood

    What part does memory play for the painter? To appropriate a descriptive term used in conjunction with memory, perhaps in both 'long' and 'short term'. In short term memory, memory is part of perception. It enables us to 'get hold' of the real world. In the long term, through reflection, we can find echoes of the familiar. In both ways we become located in time and space. For a painter, whose seeing is a purposeful activity, memory is part of the process of giving form.

    When Jasper Johns searched for a flash light, he had in mind an archetype. He had difficulty in locating the object to match the memory image although many alternatives were available. He was looking for something familiar from a past encounter. J.J. Gibson contends that we think in pictures, "visual field, I think, is simply the pictorial mode of visual perception, and it depends in the last analysis not on conditions of stimulation but on conditions of attitude. The visual field is the product of the chronic habit of civilised men seeing the world as a picture. So far from being the basis, it is a kind of alternative to ordinary perception". [8]

    In the purposeful search for the absent object of the memory image there is a segue. Johns said of his work. " I am concerned with a thing not being what it was, with its becoming something other than what it is, with any moment in which one identifies a thing precisely and with the slipping away of that moment, with at any moment seeing or saying and letting it go at that". [9]

    By putting things aside in memory, they have time to expand with the process of painting; a reciprocal chain develops and memory becomes intertwined with vision. A recurrent element of Johns' painting, commonly described as "crosshatching", derived from the sight of a car travelling in the opposite direction on Long Island. That brief sighting generated one of the repertoire of devices consistently employed by Johns. He speaks of the significance of such occurrences in this way, "Seeing a thing can sometimes trigger the mind to make another thing. In some instances the new work may include, as a sort of subject matter, references to the thing that was seen. And, because works of painting tend to share many aspects, working itself may initiate memories of other works. Naming or painting these ghosts sometimes seems to be a way to stop their nagging". [10] When Alberto Giacometti chose not to work directly from the model, but to concentrate on what his memory had stored, it was a way of not having to deal with too much information. He got lost in "too many complications". It was part of his practice to work from life for a period and then from memory, using both methods to become acquainted with the motif before making a final work. Of memory, Giacometti said, "Memory is short, very short. When you look at reality, it's so much more complex, and when you try to do the same thing again from memory, you realise how little you remember". [11]

    For Monet and Constable, memory traces of past art inhibited the possibility of 'fresh' vision. Constable is reported to have said, "When I sit down to make a sketch from nature the first thing I try to do is forget that I have ever seen a picture". [12]

    This is, of course, impossible if the purposeful seeing of the artist is a conditioned seeing through schemata. In working directly from the subject, the adjustments to the image are made in relation to the motif, each correcting the other. The gaze is divided between the two and in the moments between each redirection of attention, the information is carried in the memory. Martin Jay has elegantly described this procedure when writing about Jacques Derrida's curation of the exhibition, "Memoires d'Aveugle", which was a meditation on the theme of blindness, "For Derrida, the act of drawing itself necessitates a moment of non-seeing in which the artist depicts the ruin of a previous vision". [13]

    Auerbach has countless memories of scrutinising his subject. His portraits are a testament to this. The final painting or drawing from direct observation is made from an accumulation of memories of numerous earlier attempts. In some ways, this making and remaking, is trapped between trying to eliminate the habit of knowledge and being dependent on the depth of that storehouse of remembered information. The following two statements by Auerbach describe his search for the raw immediacy of a visual encounter, "One starts a large painting, one has certain arbitrary habits and ambitions, and simply to make a record of....a decayed memory isn't sufficient". [14]

    "In hoping to make a new thing, that remains in the mind like a new species of living thing...The only way I know how ....to try and do it, is to start with something to cling to beyond aesthetic feeling and my knowledge of other paintings". [15]

    This is reminiscent of the dilemma that Constable cited. With regard to Auerbach's work the statements represent a discrepancy expressed in this way by Robert Hughes, "What counts most in Auerbach's work is that sense it projects of the immediacy of experience - not through the facile rush of most neo-expressionist painting, but in a way that is deeply mediated, impacted with cultural memories and desires which do not condescend to the secondhand discourse of quotation." [16]

    In order to locate Auerbach's use of memory in relation to his work, I shall refer to the drawings he has made at the National Gallery for more than thirty years and to the paintings made of Primrose Hill. Both series of works are closely linked in that they inform each other formally. Auerbach said, "I remember doing a painting of Primrose Hill where the weight of the composition was at the top....I remember walking around the National Gallery trying to find a picture where the main mass was at the top and there are in fact very few. I finished up drawing that painting where the person is tumbling out of the sky (Veronese. The Consecration of Saint Nicholas ): that is, a figure painting in order to help with a landscape." [17]

    In both instances, Auerbach's methodology was to make copious rapid drawings which he used as aide-memoires of, "what it was like to actually draw there that morning...what I see is what I was looking at when I did the drawing and it reminds me of it. That's what it was for. I see the sunlight and the trees and the hill so I paint from these by looking at the drawing...I'm looking at black and white drawings and the lines signal colours to me." [18]

    The drawings are a trigger mechanism for deeper memories formed at the time of drawing. These notations are further developed in the studio. They are a practical way of remembering something which it would be impractical, though not impossible, to work from directly. Robert Hughes suggests that from the '60's, "the habit of working from a remembered motif, promoted by sketches, would become a steady part of Auerbach's routine, providing relief from the obsessive confrontation of the model in the studio." [19]

    Auerbach returns, time and again, to the source to find the missing elements in his work in progress. He trawls the National Gallery on a quest, for as he says, "Without these touchstones we'd be floundering" [20] and even when the subject is there before his eyes, the intimacy of a remembered past encounter enhances the fresh acquaintance, "If one works from someone one knows well, one can take the most violent and reckless liberty because one is sure what they are like, and one recognises the likeness - even though the paint seems for the moment an absolutely crazy set of marks. I think I started with things which were close and familiar to me because they gave me a great freedom - in fact, forced me to it." [21]

    One of the most apparent characteristics of Auerbach's memory is that it is haunted by earlier paintings. This trait was also mentioned by Prunella Clough in conversation with Bryan Robertson, "If you actually look with precision at what you are seeing anywhere, a very drastic selection has to take place ultimately to fit certain preconceived forms. These forms may be left over from other paintings but still demand to be used. They may shape themselves over a long period." [22]

    Howard Hodgkin's much reproduced, early gouache, "Memoirs", painted when he was sixteen, predicted an involvement with depicted memories as a constant factor in his work. In relation to Auerbach and Clough, his painting is, apparently, the least accessible in representational terms. The marks and gestures are less easily pinned to the visual stimulus which Susan Sontag describes as being "seen through the eyes of memory". [23] He is concerned to make paint the equivalent of a memory, but that memory is very distant from verisimilitude; suggestive and evocative rather than explicit. Hodgkin's memories are of intimate moments involving friends, lovers, travels, familiar interiors. Bruce Chatwin recalls being 'memorised' by Hodgkin for the eventual painting, 'Japanese Screen', "...the sitting room contained....an early C17th Japanese screen... One evening the Hodgkins and the Welches came to dinner, and I remember Howard shambling round the room, fixing it in his memory with the stare I came to know so well." [24]

    In more recent times, Hodgkin also employs an accretion of events and encounters to reinforce his memory. In an interview with Timothy Hyman, he described the process, "It's still what its always been, a remembered moment, but now I like to feel I can include more. When the image is very clear in my mind, I feel strongly enough to go back after the paintings started to look at the people again, or invite myself to dinner, or even to re-enact the moment." [25]

    For the painters I have referred to, their work becomes a metanarrative for a personal past, a past seen through painting which attempts to recapture a lost moment or moments, described by Raman Selden, when paraphrasing Paul de Man as a, "lament for the loss of (desired) presence....which is always absent, always in the past or future." [26]

    Memories resurface at a spatio-temporal distance from their source and are subject to the painters' temperament. Because the subject is absent it is at 'arm's length' and during its retrieval it, "suffers a sea change in the mind." [27] The selective ordering of the visual is the artists response to the world's flux, but it is not atrophied, like the freeze frame of the snapshot. The retrieval, making a painting, is transmitted through the history of the means. In writing about Proust's "A la Recherche de Temps Perdu", Walter Benjamin suggests, "the important thing for the remembering author is not what he experienced, but the weaving of his memory." [28]

    In the weaving of the painting, the pattern is not prescribed, it is constantly unpicked and reworked, but the warp and weft are determined by the source and the artists' understanding of painting history. The painting holds the fragments and layers of a network of memories that refer to the source, but that source is particular and private. For the viewer, the source is secret, and we become engaged in a search, "for a discourse that can produce locatable, predictable and controllable metamorphoses." [29] and yet we are referred only to the painting itself. The original source is lost to us; meaning is deferred and we are locked into a different temporality, "If we have intention and postponement, we also have the opening up of diachrony, which is merely a result of drawing out the compact immobile tensor time into the no longer and the not yet, the even yet and the not already in the game of de-presence which is the very game of semiotic nihilism." [30]

    The painter searches for a past which has already escaped and that past source is rejuvenated in the painting. For the viewer, the painting is singular and autonomous, functioning through its materials and its organisation, yet there are resonances that intrigue us because we feel they are in the place of a missing other, the presence of an absence. The painting is a beginning, a trace. Because things remain hidden and unnameable there is a tension in our anticipation. Martin Jay says that Derrida, "attributed the trace to the memory of an ever-receding origin that always remains elusively outside of what it produces in the present. The temporal spacing of the trace never leads to spatial simultaneity and full visibility, but rather interminable delay." [31]

    To my mind, painting from memory balances the image on a dissimulating cusp, retreating into a non specificity, which acknowledges the significance we attach to the past in relation to our selfhood.


    [1]   Gaetano Kanisza, cited in ARNHEIM: Art and Visual Perception p.48
    [2]   Ernst Gombrich, cited in Arnheim, Op Cit p.51
    [3]   RUDOLF ARNHEIM; Art and Visual Perception p. 380
    [4]   RUDOLF ARNHEIM: The Psychology of Perception p.64
    [5]   ERNST GOMBRICH: The Sense of Order p. 288
    [6]   ERNST GOMBRICH: Art and Illusion p.169
    [7]   R.G.COLLINGWOOD: The Principles of Art p.211
    [8]   J.J. Gibson, cited in GOMBRICH: Art and Illusion p.277
    [9]   Jasper Johns, cited in ORTON: Figuring Jasper Johns p.198
    [10]   Jasper Johns, cited in ORTON Op Cit p.77
    [11]   DAVID SYLVESTER: Looking at Giacometti p.225
    [12]   John Constable, cited in GOMBRICH: Art and Illusion p.149
    [13]   Martin Jay: Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought p.522
    [14]   Frank Auerbach, cited in ROBERT HUGHES: Frank Auerbach p.160
    [15]   Frank Auerbach, cited in HUGHES p.12
    [16]   ROBERT HUGHES: Frank Auerbach p. 214
    [17]   Frank Auerbach, cited in WIGGINS:Frank Auerbach at the National Gallery (cat) p.10
    [18]   Frank Auerbach, cited in HUGHES p.166
    [19]   HUGHES: Op Cit p.154
    [20]   AUERBACH: CAT Op Cit p.16
    [21]   Frank Auerbach : "Frank Auerbach talks to John Christopher Battye"Art and Artists, Jan. 1971 p.56
    [22]   PRUNELLA CLOUGH: New Paintings '79-'82
    [23]   SUSAN SONTAG: Howard Hodgkin Paintings (Cat) p.69
    [24]   BRUCE CHATWIN , cited in HOWARD HODGKIN: Indian Leaves p.12
    [25]   Howard Hodgkin: Interview with Timothy Hyman, "Howard Hodgkin", Artscribe
    [26]   RAMAN SELDEN: A Readers Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory p.89
    [27]   CLOUGH: Cat Op. Cit.
    [28]   WALTER BENJAMIN:The Image of Proust in Illuminations p. 204
    [29]   LYOTARD:The Lyotard Reader p.3
    [30]   LYOTARD: Op.Cit.9.4
    [31]   MARTIN JAY: Op.Cit.p.506

    Angela Woodiwiss - extract from thesis entitled 'After Image'

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    Angela Woodiwiss
    Lecturer, Bedford College