Peter Hacker, philosopher, on ‘Fastnet’ by Stanley William Hayter
GB Tell me why you chose this print.
PH ‘Fastnet’ is one of Bill Hayter’s late prints. It depicts a yacht in a hurricane.
A friend of Hayter’s was a sailor who had sailed in the Fastnet yacht race when a terrible hurricane occurred. Several yachts sank and some people were drowned. Bill’s friend told him about it and this inspired him to produce this striking image of a terrible storm. The five sails that move across the image represent the yacht in successive orientations. The whole picture is tilted in order to destabilize the viewer, as though one is looking at the image from the deck of another ship. There’s an amazing range of red, orange and lowering purple that reach into the black of the storm. I find it a very powerful image. It’s on the boundary line between representation and abstraction.
GB He was creating work through an era of art manifestoes that railed against beauty. Do you think he was more interested in creating something sublime than beautiful?
PH I don’t think he would have been terribly impressed by the art manifestos. He pursued a large number of different styles throughout his life. One of thing that annoyed him most about art dealers was that they expected him to carry on doing the same thing over and over again. He would move on when he felt he’d said everything he had to say in a particular form. So he went through a surrealist period in the 1920s and 30s and then went into an abstract expressionist phase. He went on to create these images of violent motion through space with increasingly dramatic colouring.
He was convinced that intaglio printmaking had degenerated since the days of Marcantonio Raimondi. Its purpose had become largely reproductive in order to circulate images throughout Europe. With some great exceptions, it had by and large ceased to be a creative medium. So Hayter set up Atelier 17 in Paris with the intention of exploiting the creative possibilities of intaglio printmaking.
He utilized the unique qualities of the medium – so you should do on metal things that you can’t do on paper and vice versa. An important consequence of this is that the creative process should occur on the metal plate, not in the form of preparatory drawings on paper. Colour prints presented a problem prior to the discoveries made in Atelier 17. For each colour had to be separately printed. So the image had to be composed on paper in colour, dismantled into different components, transferred to metal plates. This meant that the print had to be passed through the press a number of times, each adding a further colour. But that meant that the intaglio lines, which lie above the relief plane of the print, are squashed flat each time thee print is passed through the press. Hayter and his colleagues invented a series of techniques. utilizing the relative viscosities of microscopically porous inks, by which all the colours can be laid down on the plate at the same time, and are printed with one single passage through the press. Equally important was the accidental discovery of open-bite etching. This occurred when Max Ernst, who often worked at the Atelier, left a plate in the acid-bath overnight and next day found that large areas of the plate had been bitten. This meant that one could ink the open bitten area with a soft-roller that penetrated the open bitten area, while a hard-roller would move across the relief without penetrating the open-bite. This created new colour-printing possibilities.
When Hayter was at the New School in America he did a lot of psychological experiments with visual art and discovered that we naturally see the diagonal from bottom left to top right as rising and the top left to the bottom right as falling. It’s not connected to the way we read. He found that it’s universal. He used these principles in the prints he made to create a multiplicity of rhythms. Most artists can’t create movement to save their lives. He couldn’t not create movement in his prints.
Artists like Miro and Chagall found their style very early on and carried on making images broadly in the same ways for decades. Bill was a tireless experimenter and explorer. His background was in chemistry and he was a very good mathematician. Some of the early prints illustrate various mathematical theorems. His knowledge of science enabled him to do the experiments with inks. He was highly articulate and his two books, New Ways of Gravure and About Prints are among the best books written about printmaking in the Twentieth Century.
GB Do you think that there’s such a thing as universal beauty?
PH The eye needs to be trained in order for somebody to appreciate objects of beauty. It’s not enough just to look and say you like something. That’s a piece of autobiography, not a serious evaluation. A serious evaluation involves saying that an object has certain aesthetic qualities, which requires a lot of experience and knowledge. Then you’re in a better position to judge whether a work is great or beautiful. You have to learn to look. It’s not something natural.
GB So your view of this work wouldn’t change with your mood, for instance?
PH No, I don’t think so, but, to be sure, there are some things one doesn’t want to look at when one’s in a certain frame of mind, and other things one would not want to look at very often, such as Goya’s and Otto Dix’s series of prints on the horrors of war. Age plays a role in the development and change of taste. I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the young are very taken with symphonic music and the old with chamber music. I don’t think you should conceive of standards of beauty as something the untutored, natural eye is always going to be able to grasp. My own appreciation of prints was hugely enriched by spending time in a print workshop. In the case of intaglio printmaking it’s important to appreciate the difference between an engraved line and an etched line, and between dry- point and gauffrage, so that you can understand what the artist was trying to do and how he achieved it.
GB So when people choose objects of sentimental value to them, is that just not part of how you would define beauty?
PH Certainly not. Many things are of sentimental value to me and that’s undoubtedly important but it’s not a criterion for aesthetic value.
GB Can neuroscience tell us anything about our experience of beauty?
PH No. There have been attempts to do this but you can’t understand aesthetic value independently of the context in which it’s created and the historical surroundings. There’s a temptation to say that the aesthetic value is one thing and the knowledge one brings with one when one looks at a picture is another, but that’s false. They’re totally integrated.
GB So your response to a visual image isn’t coloured by your memories and associations?
PH That is as may be. But even if it were true, what does it tell you about the beauty of a work of art. But let me go back to your question concerning neuroscience. The most that neuroscience can do is tell us what brain processes are necessary to make it possible for us to achieve aesthetic understanding of an object. But it cannot shed light on the nature of aesthetic understanding
GB What about a sunset? Isn’t that something everyone would find beautiful? Is that a different kind of beauty?
PH It’s certainly a different kind. Natural beauty and works of art are different kinds of beauty. If you’re reasonably well informed, you can compare one Rembrandt to another or to other works from the seventeenth century, if you have a good eye, you can appreciate how he manipulated his paints in impasto to create just those very effects he created. And if you concentrate your mind, you can come to understand the ingenuity and insight that underlies the structure of the painting. That’s not the case with natural beauty, moreover, one should also realise that we have been educated to appreciate natural beauty. We’re the great grandchildren of the Romantics after all. I very much doubt whether medieval peasants, sweating their guts out trying to eek a living out of the soil, had much time for staring at sunsets. Just think how late landscape depiction is in Europe. The emergence of landscape painting after the fall of the Roman empire is very late indeed. There was some landscape in the background of Renaissance paintings but the the first pure landscapes were Durer’s watercolours, painted around 1500. There’s a famous letter by Petrarch who, having climbed Mount Ventoux in 1336, and enjoying the view from the summit, suddenly realizes the sinfulness of his pleasure because it detracts his attention from God. The idea that all human beings in all places and all times enjoy the appearance of landscapes is probably quite wrong.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
PH I doubt that there’s a single answer. In the Renaissance beauty lay in proportions. But that rightly went out of fashion and I don’t think anybody would wish to defend such a doctrine today. There are some fairly general rules of what is aesthetically pleasing, such as the division of the canvas in a painting, but I would hesitate to pick on a single feature that renders an object beautiful. One of the things I like most about Hayter is the movement. But then in Dürer’s prints there is no motion at all. It’s the lucidity of the space that I find so attractive. Originality in art is as difficult as originality in science or any other domain of human thought and creativity. Representational art is never exhausted. Just think of the manifold ways in which water in motion has been depicted, from Leonardo to the seventeenth century Dutch marine painters, to the great English marine painters of the nineteenth century, to Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Human imagination will always come up with new ways to represent things. Art criticism has three dimensions. One is the historical context in which a work is created and what has come prior to it. So this particular work can be seen as the culmination or elaboration of certain fundamental forms of representation of the times. Another dimension is to look at this work in the context of the works of art of the very same artist. You can see his development. The third dimension is critical evaluation that is wholly immanent, that is contained within the work of art. It doesn’t co-relate to anything except what is within the picture, as a musical phrase relates and should be understood in relation to it, or as preparing the way for the one that will succeed it. All three dimensions are important, and enrich our aesthetic experience. It is noteworthy that neuroscience can contribute nothing to these forms of understanding.