Life as Art
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Life as Art

Deleuze, Jung and the Impressionists, Part 3 of 4

A Deleuzian Approach to Impressionist Symbolism

Claude Monet, Waterlilies via Wikimedia Commons

Symbols and signs, for Gilles Deleuze, are a means of communicating where words turn back, where representative language fails us. Relations of immanent signs spark new connections, new thought.

To communicate the ineffable, the innermost realities of the psyche, the outermost realities of the universe, to palpate pure difference, we require symbols and signs, diagrams, that produce, not re-produce.

We require diagrams of immanence that strike a chord with the pre-individual being of the sensible; diagrams that crash into intuition as an event of pure duration.

Such symbols, signs, diagrams, force us to think without a dogmatic image of thought; force us to communicate without relying on representative signifiers:

To create our own maps leading us to our own experience of pure becoming.

Symbols That Flow

Immanent symbols convey intensities. They transcribe the virtual. They vibrate with the resonance of becoming.

Immanent symbols arise when intuition and imagination enchant and conspire to communicate both the virtual and actual of reality. They bring us to the threshold of creative experience and thought.

There is a profound link between signs, events, life and vitalism. (Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy)

The dogmatic image of thought, common sense and good sense, fails us when we seek to venture into pure creative thought. To experience reality, all of reality, both virtual and actual, we require open concepts that flow.

One way to spark participation in that thought flow is to behold and experience art that speaks to us in terms of immanent signs, holds up new symbols that come alive for us in the present:

Where the duration of the past meets the radical freedom of the return of pure difference.

Icons steeped in old, battered, representative meaning cannot help us here. We require art that produces the new and open.

En Plein Air

Artists, profound and remarkable, have been engaged in such endeavors throughout history, and perhaps more freely since the time of the Enlightenment.

The Impressionists of the 19th century made a clean break from the prison of representative art, the rules and regulations of the art that came before them, to deliver unmediated sensory experience to the beholder.

Spurred on by the advent of photography, with full knowledge there was no longer any place for representative painting, they abandoned the studio and immersed themselves literally in the field of experience, en plein air. Only by painting outdoors in the immanent field of experience could they possibly deliver, not a replica, but instead the experience of sensation itself, the being of the sensible.

And in the field they momentarily captured real experience: not a subject and background, but the blending of subject and background: the boundaries between them relaxed, the subject de-centered, sometimes overcome by a whirlwind of color and movement. In the open, they captured and released back into the flow of reality.

They freely brushed short strokes of paint, wet-on-wet, such that the colors naturally bled in to one another, creating the effect of movement and change, the real experience of being alive. They recorded the change in lighting throughout the day, seemingly more interested in the subordination of time to the change in light than in the subject matter of the work.

Movement and time are on full display: not measured out in seconds and minutes, but instead a conveyance of transformation and duration.

Art as Unmediated Intensity

The blending of subject and background, together with time as movement and change, communicates the connectivity of all things in nature.

The subject and object duality of representation has been removed, and replaced with color as vibration, drawing the beholder into the painting, creating a sensed and felt connection with the artist and work of art.

The Impressionists created art as immediacy, a barrage of color and movement that suspends the beholder, and immerses us in the activity behind sensation itself, the affects and percepts of life as becoming.

Claude Monet took this approach to its natural limit, depicting the becoming of sensibility in his series of paintings of St Lazare Station, Charing Cross Bridge and the Waterlilies.

The station, the bridge and the waterlilies as subjects are not the primary aesthetic force of the work of art. The smoke and steam, the mist and rain, seemingly both opaque and translucent, the blending of all life in and surrounding the pond in Giverny, organic and inorganic, are the sensibilities Monet invites us to witness.

All of Monet’s artwork reaches beyond the moment he paints, suggesting the virtual dimension of all sensibility, something purely temporal. Intensities come alive and remind us we can see and feel the world once again for the first time.

The Limits of Reactionary Dogmatic Thought

The Impressionists were attacked by the art establishment in France at the time, and condemned for having violated the accepted rules of academic art. They were ridiculed for creating sketches and unfinished work no better than wallpaper.

And yet, something unfinished in some manner must have been the intention all along: all Impressionist artwork suggests there is something much more to be appreciated than what appears on the canvas. There is much more to reality than we see, even when we observe scenes of everyday life.

There is movement, evolution, life becoming, difference unfolding.

The Creative Psyche

The creative process, insofar as we are able to speak of it at all, consists, at least partly, in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image; and in the elaboration and shaping of this image into the finished work.

By giving shape to psychic energy, the artist translates the archetypal image into the language of the present, and in doing so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.

Therein lies the social significance of profound art: it is constantly at work enlightening the spirit of the time we live in, conjuring up the forms our age is most lacking; forms which will propel us into the next era.

Art as Access to Individuation and Evolution

The Impressionists translated the being of the sensible via images symbolic of a new way of sensing and perceiving, and we pick up on it intuitively.

We behold not old symbols sweeping us away from the here and now, but new ones drawing us in further, signs and maps tuning us in to an immanence unfinished. We can feel this when we leave the gallery: a new way of seeing the world has been transmitted; somehow the world now looks new and open. And we are transformed.

Intuition and symbol interact in a manner that provides access to the experience of a process of becoming: ongoing transformation, individuation as process.

Deleuze adapts a theory of individuation, originally developed by Gilbert Simondon, to his philosophy of difference by viewing individuation as a process never complete.

For Deleuze, the process of individuation always retains a pre-individual component; one foot always in the virtual, as actualizations come and go; a re-iterative process of two moments, differentiation and differenciation.

This is what Deleuze is driving at, this is what it means to be alive:

Uninterrupted creative evolution.

I hope you enjoyed this article. Thanks for reading!


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Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne. Learn more here.



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