Appreciation of contemporary art doesn’t always come easily. We “know what we like” and often resist the unfamiliar. It has always been thus – to the educated eyes of French art connoisseurs in the 1860s the new paintings of the Impressionists were ugly beyond belief. Yet a mix of curiosity and patience, coupled with a willingness to suspend our preferences, inevitably causes a shift in perception. Physicist David Bohm was a man with a seriously scientific mind; he was tirelessly curious about the dynamics of creativity and thinking.
In the remarkable collection of letters exchanged between Bohm and artist Charles Biederman, The Bohm–Biederman Correspondence, Bohm describes an encounter with one of Rouault’s paintings of a clown. It’s a fascinating and delightfully honest account of the way the painting literally rearranges his perception, revealing a two-way energetic “flow” between the painting and himself. He begins by confessing that he found Rouault’s paintings difficult to like, but that a deeper engagement caused his perception to “give way to a remarkable new steady vision which I can best describe as seen in a new dimension.”
Georges Rouault, Clown ca 1937
I should perhaps [mention] here that my first reactions to modern art were almost entirely negative. However, in some respects, I have changed my mind.
For example, with regard to Rouault, I first felt that his pictures were very discouraging and depressing. Gradually, I began to see them in a new light. In particular, last year in London, I saw a picture of his, The Old Clown …
At first, it seemed to be rather a mixed up set of patches of colour. But gradually, it began to take shape. In particular two patches struck my eye, one in the face of the clown and another outside him, which seemed to complement the first. My eye began to move back and forth from one patch to the other, a pulsation was established, and suddenly it ceased, to give way to a remarkable new steady vision which I can best describe as seen in a new dimension. It was not so much that the clown became visible in three dimensions, this was true but only a minor point.
The major point is that there seemed to be a flow or a current in which the whole being of the clown poured outward to reveal itself, all his feelings, thoughts and emotions etc., and a counter-flow in which the outside (including the viewer) was drawn into him, to emerge again in the outward flow. It was a very striking experience for me, one that I shall always remember. Whether the artist intended the picture to be seen in this way, I don’t know of course, I would be interested in knowing whether it struck anyone else in this way.
– David Bohm
Bohm–Biederman Correspondence, Vol 1: Creativity and Science
Edited by Paavo Pylkkanen
Also see: scientist meets philosopher (David Bohm in dialogue with J Krishnamurti)
David Bohm, Paul Cezanne and Creativity – F David Peat, a close collaborator and friend of David Bohm, shares insights into Bohm’s creative ideas and process.
5 thoughts on “David Bohm and Rouault’s clown”
I saw what Bohm saw – this outpouring of soul – at once. But i don’t find the patch outside of him _?
Nina – It’s impossible to know what Bohm was referring to – perhaps that patch of turquoise in the upper right, which seems to call to the orange-red of the nose…
It may be that he was looking at a different painting altogether; Rouault painted many clowns.
I’m not surprised that you would see the “outpouring of soul” at once. You have innate sensitivity in relation to art; Bohm had to learn it by emptying and inquiring…
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I thought so too, Mark. 🙂
I found that with the help of technology of mirroring the image that I could see the outward-inward flow that Bohm speaks of – then I could see it either way. ~ James