A few days ago I was having a conversation with Stefan about stained glass windows, like those jewels of my and Nelson’s friend Mehoffer in Fribourg or the less readable ones in the Sainte-Chapelle. At one point we were both fumbling for a word – what do you call the space between four columns, several of which a church aisle consists of? Stefan, exceptionally knowledgeable about architecture and the like, claimed to have later been thinking of nothing else, as he thought himself so very much supposed to know this specific term. The next day we saw each other again and the first thing he shouted at me was: “Joch” (“bay”: the compartment enclosed by four columns). I had, meanwhile, completely forgotten about that question.
More often, of course, this sort of interchange occurs between different language. Given the interest and leisure, you might actually search for the word you’re not finding or not finding anymore … often enough, though, you’d just take refuge in the claim that “it’s untranslatable”. Just as often I believe the claim is dubious, especially when I make it! To claim untranslatability is the laziest solution for Erklärungsnot (a German concept that’s completely untranslatable). Occasionally, of course, there are true limits. In that case, the best solution may be to spend a long rant on explaining the term properly and its entire wealth of association and profundity; then take it over into the target language verbatim without any further regard of etymology. Hence, the Spanish “rebañar” made it into the latest edition of the Duden dictionary as “revanieren” (“to revanate” or “to revane” are still pending the Queen’s approval for inclusion into the Oxford dictionary. Rumour has it that the Palace frowns on the practice itself).
In conclusion, the problem of what can be said in one language and what not is a deep and fruitful and also often tiring one that many illustrious people have pondered. But what about other media? There are the novels considered to be unfilmable, there’s jokes that only work in print and so on … right now, I’m wondering how to draw ugliness.
Look at the title picture above. That was a disastrous day’s night (the one preceding even bigger distress) and I can assure you that this expressionist mess was not a conscious stylistic decision, but just a representation of the state of affairs. The small dam the fishers are standing on is a badly placed concrete cuboid, and everything was illuminated by the blinding glare of a single, sickly bright floodlight. Lots of bad vibes around.
And yet I have the impression that basically anything I’m producing in ink looks vaguely pretty. It’s like a filter that makes everything appear as if seen through rose-coloured spectacles, odd enough for something black and white. Of course it’s possible in graphical art to convey atmospheres and subject matter other than bliss and idyll: disquietude – gore – poverty … But for a long time, depictions of even the worst shit still had elegant aesthetics. Compare, for example, two very related works:
I think it’s only through the twisted limbs of the slain that Goya manages to actually include and not just convey ugliness in his depiction of war. Looking from a distance, paying no attention to the details of the print, you might still assume a calm and well-balanced composition. Callot’s etching from the Thirty Years“ War, almost 200 years older than Goya’s, could perhaps even be called “whimsical” (or perhaps it’s just working if you know enough French to read the caption – translation here. I find this thick tone of righteousness dripping from those verses highly amusing. The captions aren’t by Callot himself, I didn’t find information on whether his texter, a certain Michel de Marolles, collaborated with him or texted independently).
And a quick glance at an artist associated with ugliness like few others may confirm the hypothesis: Truly ugly drawings have to feature humans. It’s only the distorted proportions of familiar bodies that have a really uneasy feel to them, while I cannot imagine such a feeling from a depiction of landscape or of architecture. The Uncanny Valley all over again. Is it so, then, that landscapes and buildings cannot really be drawn so as to look ugly? Does the medium of ink drawing just not provide this expression?
I’d really like to see this conjecture refuted. It seems weird and forced to me, but I haven’t succeeded in finding a convincing counter-example. If you know one, please leave some comment below! I’m thankful for any findings and thoughts.
So long, I’ll leave you with my latest experiment. This is another travel memory: The assistance cemetery in København, visited on a cloudy March day that made it look black and white even in natura. It’s noteworthy for being the first time I used the Fabriano paper Stefan gave me, a brand with inner and outer sizing so stable that you can draw thinner lines than ever.