Painting poetry philosophy as a way of life

Sometime in the future, the art of Horst Maria Guilhauman will be the subject of critical analyses, be interpreted and critiqued. Those who never met him will try to understand the art, the artist, and the man. Some of his innermost thoughts are eloquently expressed on canvas but very few are privy to the wider range of fascinating thoughts and feelings of this complex man.

Over the years, Horst and I have had many lively discussions about the various facets of art. The topics ranged from the mundane to the esoteric. I always felt that these privileged insights should be preserved. May 3, 2006 marked Horst's 70th birthday and it seemed timely to capture the intricacies of his mind - for the record.

Ly Avelin Munk

In conversation with Horst Maria Guilhauman

Painting, poetry, philosophy as a way of life. Can you summarize your thoughts on this?

For a very long time I have always thought of painting as a way of responding to the world around me. Painting is the way the world intersects with my personal and private life. It is in that intersection that I find the excitement and energy to paint, as a way of making discoveries about my own life, about the world, about my past.

I tend to think of poetry as literary pointillism. Instead of canvas, writing paper becomes the playing field on which words, like dots of paint, are blended and arranged together with strands of meaning and metaphor and other figures, all contributing to a unified whole. Philosophically speaking, my "unified whole" rests on the disposition to think, to paint and to write in the light of things as they are. My universe is what it is, no matter what others think about it. My world is objectively there, and the only thing I can do is to analyse it, to find what it is that makes an impression on me, then open it up and dissect it into cause, matter and purpose. Try to see before my thoughts become clouded that there is something within it that is higher than mere instinct that moves my emotions.

The trick is how to organize coherently the many different visual elements of reality without reducing the uniqueness of each. However, if I have to introduce an element of abstraction, then the abstraction must be made narrative by way of recognizable motives. For if it is my wish to create a two dimensional universe out of an infinitely large number of distinctly recognizable components, then, to be sure, let it not be abstract or vague but rather let it concretely represent that which we recognize as things of the real.

For a painter, poet and philosopher, there are millions of possibilities and that is part of the wonder and freedom of what I do.

Can you elaborate on the physical aspect of that? I mean technique and so on?

I believe that in every work of art there are at least three elements. That is, material, technique and form. My technique includes the ability and skill by which I am able to organize or handle my material, that is, canvas, brushes, paint and palette. The skill involved in the technique may make all the difference between an appealing and a mediocre or poor painting. If my technique is perfect, it will add a sense of the qualitative whole to my work which I think is conditional in aesthetic appreciation of any work of art.

The form, distinct from material and technique, has to do with the arrangement and the order of the different parts of the whole. I consciously regard the forms surrounding me and in their great variety speaking to me in a distinct and exciting language. Rearranging them within the boundaries of any given surface they must nevertheless be recognizable as nature's distinct living and dead symbols. The forms may include unity, order, proportion, balance, symmetry and rhythm. If all these are brought to the greatest perfection, it will guarantee complete aesthetic enjoyment.

Nature's distinct symbols, does it mean that in your subject matters you imitate nature?

To a certain extent, yes, because through imitation I seek to portray the universal, or that which is common to many particular things. The principle of imitation as the meaning of art goes back to the ancient Greeks. Plato, for instance, makes reference to this in nearly all of his dialogues. His idea is that works of art always imitate something although the art object may not turn out to be a perfect copy of what the artist intends to copy. Aristotle also finds imitation a natural tendency and the explanation of art.

In one form or another, this early interpretation of art has persisted down to comparatively recent times. Leonardo said that the eye receives from beauty in painting the same pleasure which it does from natural beauty. This view was also strongly echoed by Kant. However, both the painter and the philosopher insisted on sincerity and truthfulness in the imitation of nature in art.

Sincerity and truthfulness in art. What is your view on this and does it apply to your work?

Leo Tolstoy, the author of War And Peace, also wrote extensively on art. His theory of art as the sincere expression and communication of the artist's moral feelings has been extremely influential and is still being argued by artists today. No argument here for I wholly agree with Tolstoy. In short, he said that the degree of infectiousness of art depends on three conditions - individuality, clearness and sincerity.

If the individual artist who imitates is sincere, he will express the feelings as he experienced it. The more the artist has drawn it from the depths of his nature, the more truthful and sincere it will be. It is this sincerity that will impel the artist to find a clear expression of the feeling he wishes to transmit. Therefore sincerity seems to be the most important condition of the contagiousness in art and it explains why such art always acts so powerfully. It is however, also a condition that is almost entirely absent today from what can be classified as pseudo art. That is, the often desperate search for the "innovative" and "different" in art and the role promoters play in the particular arts, especially the "art world".

Tolstoy speaks of "moral feelings" as a form of expression in art. Are there any moral lessons in works of art?

The question should be whether art is a field in which moral considerations are applicable or not applicable.

On the one hand, the view is that art is to be judged by its moral significance. From ancient to present day, moral philosophers have pointed out the moral values as well as the possible dangers of art. A good example is Michelangelo's Sistine chapel versa the Danish caricature of Mohamed. Art may be elevating and inspiring or degrading or depressing. Good art, that much can be said however, is to be that which elevates our feelings and thoughts.

Tolstoy also argued that art should seek to promote good moral virtues. He strongly condemned "the filthy torrent of depraved and prostituted art" so prevalent in today's society. Art, he felt, should exert an influence in the direction of perfection and unity.

On the other hand, there is the view widely held among artists and art critics that art is an independent and autonomous realm.

"Art for art's sake" is the modern slogan. "Artists have no responsibility for what happens outside the field of art" and "Artists must be free from interference and from any form of social control". I beg to differ, for if art can do so much to enrich and beautify life and the world, artists therefore should be expected to feel a sense of personal pride and social responsibility for their work.

"Art not for art's sake" is my personal slogan. Art may help to create a bond between individuals by spreading understanding and a love for balance and harmony in a largely unbalanced and disharmonious world. Plato, in The Republic, says if human beings are reared amid masterpieces of paintings and other forms of art, "will imbibe a taste for beauty and decency: they will learn to find out what is perfect or what is deficient in nature and art, and this rectitude of judgment will gradually spread over to their souls."

Your image appears in the Ascension scene of your Credo painting (page 89) which is said to describe the spirituality you attained while living your solitary lifestyle on Long Lake. Can you explain what you mean when you speak of the "spiritual"?

Most people believe that spirits hover between minds, souls and vapours, others think of it as a disembodied agent, as an immaterial soul or a nonmaterial intelligent power. In earlier centuries, spirits were thought of as gas-like substances intermediate between matter and mind. The French philosopher Descartes used the idea in his dualism, arguing that mind and matter are two distinct things. When I talk of the "spiritual" I refer to neither of these type of spirits, rather of a spiritual emotion I might have beyond one's material life or towards God. I call it a refined or distilled spirit. I believe it is this kind of spirit that is instrumental in maintaining the right balance within the dimensions of my own dualistic nature.

What role, if any, does religion play in your art and in your life?

My philosophy of religion, an ever present quest, is to discover the truth about religion and its relation to my life and art. The topic of religion however, is not easy to describe or define. Nevertheless I see religion as a growing, dynamic thing that is elemental and personal. It encompasses everything I do in my life and, without fooling myself or others, I believe that my convictions are fundamentally true.

On a more theological level, I understand my religious intellect as a response to the presence of a very real, unseen God which evokes a sense of awe, reverence and a confidence through which my life and art finds meaning and significance.

As man, I have no problem with an unseen God. As philosopher, I do have a problem. As artist however, I can move quite freely between the two.