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Posts from the ‘For Years Now’ Category

In the Eye’s Mind: Tess Jaray

Tess Jaray’s art is a commitment to the unknowable, a desire to understand how the patterns of the world and the patterns of the mind reflect each other.  Thankfully for us, she is an unblinking and articulate observer of herself as she goes about looking at art and making art.  Her collection of writings, Painting: Mysteries & Confessions, contains thirty-nine brief essays.  Many of the pieces are about works of art that span some seven hundred years, including a pair of Resurrections by Giotto and Piero della Francesca, a simple drawing of a window by Leonardo da Vinci, Ingres’ The Turkish Bath, and a painting of a red square by Malevich , along with works by a few of her contemporaries, such as Onya McCausland, Andrea McLean, and Martin Creed.  Jaray looks hard, the way artists tend to.  But it isn’t just that she looks harder or more knowingly than the rest of us, her entire mode of apprehension is different from that of most laypersons.

Kasimir Malevich, Red Square, 1915

Jaray is especially attuned to the myriad decisions that come into play as an artist moves from the glimmer of a concept to final product.  Looking a Malevich’s Red Square, painted around 1915, just before the onset of the Russian Revolution, Jaray notices that Malevich clearly changed his mind after painting a perfect square and he painted over a sliver of red so that the red section was no longer exactly square.  “You can tell this  by the way the paint has dried: it may be the same paint, the same colour, but if it was put on after the first coat, and is ‘joined up’, as this is, it can never match exactly.”  Why, she wonders, did Malevich feel compelled to do this?

Would it have been too dull, too predictable, too obvious?  Does it appear to be more of a square through being less of one?  Perhaps a square is just a square, but one that is not quite a square draws attention to its squareness.  It can’t be as simple as that, because what he was doing was so astonishingly radical, so utterly unlike anything that had been done before, that a simple square would have done the job…creating an entirely new aesthetic philosophy for future artists to develop, signifying at least the hope of replacing the brutal system he was living under with the idealism of the new.

Jaray frequently examines both the meaning and the aesthetic impact of the materials that artists use.  Turning to British artist Onya McCausland, who often uses ancient earth pigments in her work, Jaray notes the slow methodology of applying the pigment, “layer after relentless layer, built up, erased, built up, erased, changed, transformed, until what remains seems to reflect the traces of time itself.”   The result is that “it is not space that is represented, but presence, the ‘hereness’ of the surface, its quiddity.”

Tess Jaray, How Strange, 2001

Jaray is uncommonly good in discussing the progress of her own artwork.  The best example is also the longest essay in the book, Red: Diary of a Painting, the work that appears on the cover of For Years Now, her collaboration with W.G. Sebald, which I wrote about recently.

I don’t think it’s possible to paint a canvas a single colour any more; it’s been done so often, and we’ve become so accustomed to seeing wonderful colours everywhere now.  But there’s still the mystery of how the colour at the edge of an area affects the centre.  If the area is handled properly the colour at the centre is released in some way.

She decides the paint she wants must be a cadmium.  But the challenge in selecting a red is that the color carries so much baggage: ketchup, British post boxes, London buses and phone booths, stop signs…  After a discussion of various reds ranging from Renaissance paintings to Bohemian glass to the stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral, Jaray decides the red she wants is vermilion.  This leads to an interesting riff on the history of vermilion and the difficulties in using it (it can turn black under certain conditions).  “Yesterday I stared into a jar of vermilion powder pigment,  It was everything I wanted, the most perfect, complete absorption into the fantasy of that particular red.”  But immediately, the artist must come to terms with disappointment, for the moment that the powder is mixed with something like oil or turpentine it begins to change.  And when it is applied to canvas, it changes again, losing the “fine, soft density” of the powder’s color.   “The canvas standing against the wall is now red.  The red is pretty close to what I have in mind, but it has sunk.  Horrible patches of matter alternate with the soft sheen needed to express the colour.”  A friend explains to her that that’s what this range of extremely expensive cadmiums tend to do, so she decides that trying to fix it with more cadmium would simply be throwing good money after bad.  She decides to abandon that canvas and start over, using acrylic paint this time.  “Finally, finally, after weeks and weeks of mistakes I’m getting my eye in.  That means, I now feel, as opposed to think.”  But the second painting, too, will disappoint.

I’ve come a long way in my search for vermilion.  I’ve finished one red painting that is so scarlet as to be almost orange in certain lights, and one using a make of vermilion that’s a lovely colour but certainly not made from any true mercuric sulphide or cinnabar. And now I’ve acquired two smallish tubes of Chinese vermilion which claims to be nearly 99 per cent pigment.  They’ve got a skull and crossbones on the tube, and are expensive beyond belief.

In the end, this pigment is yet another disappointment, even though it turns out to be the painting closest to the one she originally imagined.  It simply doesn’t work.  Only by going through this process of “getting it right” can she free herself of her original idea and see her three canvasses for what they are.  And at that moment she realizes the first two are “remarkable.”  They are “glowing, almost translucent, lustrous, happy-making.”   It’s a startling admission.  For Jaray, the process of art making begins by trying to create in an almost scientific manner what she sees in her mind’s eye.  But the process that she follows is decidedly non-linear and involves an internal battle to move the mind’s eye to the side so that the “eye’s mind” can take over.

Painting: Mysteries & Confessions.  Great Britain: Lenz Books, 2010.  [Quotations and images by Tess Jaray © Tess Jaray.]

The Sebald/Jaray Collaborations

Tess Jaray and W.G. Sebald, How Strange… and I Suppose it is…, two works from the series From the Rings of Saturn and Vertigo
Screenprints, 2001

The images as I worked on them seemed to me to strongly correspond to the images evoked by Sebald’s prose, by his distortion of and evocation of space, and strange ability apparently to focus both on distance and nearness simultaneously: to make space and memory appear to be the same thing, giving a sense of spinning between past and future.

In 2001, the artist Tess Jaray published a series of  monochromatic, geometric screenprints that she paired with quotations from W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo.  These books had appeared in English at a time when Jaray said her life was full of profound changes, and Sebald’s writing “not only expressed in mood the emotional impact of these events, it also shaped them….”  Jaray had met Sebald and had received his approval to use his words in connection with her images.

A clear and absorbing process followed of selecting the various texts both for their relevance to the image and as poetry that stands on its own, and of developing text and image together in such a way as to suggest links between the two, and which would change the way the text is seen.  Taking it out of context constitutes a literal and metaphorical kind of framing. [Quotations from: From The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, Tess Jaray W.G. Sebald, a gallery brochure produced by Purdy Hicks Gallery, London, 2001.]

By “framing” sentences from Sebald’s texts, Jaray removes the context and turns the fragments into something new, almost like freestanding prose poems.  The result are  different from pull quotes, excerpts intended to represent the original text.  This is a personal, transformative response by Jaray.  For Sebald, it must have represented some  risk and, presumably an element of trust.

How strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time.

In the same year, Jaray and Sebald collaborated on a book called For Years Now, which appeared in print just after Sebald’s death on December 14, 2001, the only book by Sebald to have appeared first in English.  Here, twenty-three short poems by Sebald alternate with images of Jaray’s work.  When I wrote about For Years Now in May 2007, the book felt a bit as if it had been orphaned upon Sebald’s death – and it still seems that way today.  It has never been translated and is seems to have never been reviewed.

Sebald Jaray For Years Now

The British publisher Lenz Books has just released Painting: Mysteries & Confessions, a wonderful book of short writings by Jaray.  She writes about her own artwork and on other artists, both contemporary and historical, including Giotto, Ingres, Gustav Klimt, Zoran Music, Malevich, Martin Creed, and others.  I will write about that part of the book in a future post.  But significantly, the piece on which the book’s title is based is about Sebald.  A Mystery and a Confession tells part of the story of the evolution of their collaborative work in For Years Now.  Jaray explains that, encouraged by his cooperation with her screenprints, she dared to mention to him the idea of doing an artist’s book “in relation to his verse, if he had any he would consider letting me have.”  Surprisingly, Sebald reached into a drawer and handed Jaray a long poem written in German.

On the train home the next day I read it.  Several times.  Although I speak German only very badly and would be neither qualified nor able to describe it with justice, I could see that it had the same wonderful voice that his books have – and I was again bewitched by the language.  It had twenty-three stanzas, and told how he, Sebald/the poet, had been in Marienbad: and had there so clearly imagined the Famous Poet who had been there before him.

Sebald obviously gave Jaray the poem Marienbader Elegie, which had been published in 1999 in an issue of Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and which can now be found  in the posthumously issued collection of his poems Über das Land und das Wasser.  Jaray writes that she quickly found a student to make a straight translation into English.  As she discovered, Sebald had modeled his poem of twenty-three six-line stanzas after Goethe’s Trilogie der Leidenschaft (Trilogy of Passion).  Jaray never tells us how this poem came to be rejected in favor of the twenty-three short poems by Sebald, but it is hard not to notice that the number of poems is the same as the number of stanzas in the long poem Sebald originally suggested.  Perhaps Jaray was paying quiet numerological homage to Sebald’s original idea.

W.G. Sebald in front of Tess Jaray’s work, photograph by Tess Jaray

[All images copyright Tess Jaray.]

Collecting W.G. Sebald’s Unrecounted

In 2003, Sebald’s German publishing house Hanser posthumously released a volume reminiscent of his 2001 book of short poems For Years Now. The new book of poems, Unerzählt: 33 Texte und 33 Radierungen was also a collaboration between Sebald – again writing as a poet – and a visual artist. But here, instead of being paired with the colorful geometric abstractions of Tess Jaray, the poems are paired with photo-realist images by his long-time friend Jan Peter Tripp. Tripp’s images each depict the narrow midsection of a face – a pair of eyes and nothing more. The subjects of his images, the owners of these visionary eyes, are all identified in the book and range from authors (William Burroughs, Truman Capote, Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett) to artists (Jasper Johns, Francis Bacon, Tripp) to friends of the two collaborators, and even Sebald himself, his daughter Anna, and his dog Moritz.

The British reviewer Tim Adams provided a small glimpse into the collaboration between Sebald and Tripp. “Michael Krüger, the German publisher of Sebald, remembers the pair of them coming into his office to propose the idea for their book, two schoolfriends, excitedly explaining a project. ‘Max [Sebald] talked a lot about looking, about the little pieces he would write about looking. Some of the pieces would be old, some new, but they would all be about the way we viewed the world.’ While Sebald was talking, Tripp stood up and started taking photographs of Krüger. ‘We will, of course, have to include your eyes in the book, too,’ he explained. Tripp’s subsequent etching of the publisher’s eyes carries with it a typical fragment of Sebald’s verse, what he called a ‘micropoem’: ‘They say / that Napoleon / was colourblind / & blood for him / as green as / grass’.” (Tim Adams, “The Eyes Have It,” The Observer September 19, 2004)

The Hanser volume is an elegant tall quarto bound in gray cloth with a reproduction of Tripp’s portrait of Sebald pasted onto the front cover. A clear plastic dust jacket is imprinted with authors’ names, book title, and publisher. But once the volume is opened, all of the pages, including the title page, are printed horizontally to give more room to Tripp’s extended horizontal images. In addition to Sebald’s poems and Tripp’s images, the volume contains a poem by Sebald’s frequent German editor Hans Magnus Enzensberger “Ein Abschied von Max Sebald” (A Farewell to Max Sebald) and an essay by Andrea Köhler. Appropriately, the endpapers are black.

In addition to the first trade edition, Hanser released two limited edition versions of Unerzählt: an edition of 333 copies each containing a loose etching by Tripp called “Max” that is titled, signed and numbered in pencil, and an even more limited edition of thirty-three copies each containing all thirty-three of Tripp’s original prints.

Sebald Unerzahlt
In 2004, Hamish Hamilton brought out the British edition, now called Unrecounted: 33 Texts and 33 Etchings by W.G. Sebald and Jan Peter Tripp (although the inside front flap of the dust jacket refers to Tripps works as “lithographs”). Several items are new to the English-language edition: a “Translator’s Note” by Michael Hamburger; a second poem by Hans Magnus Enzensburger called “Tripp’s Cabinet of Prodigies”; and an essay by Sebald “As Day and Night, Chalk and Cheese: On the Pictures of Jan Peter Tripp,” which deals with trompe l’oeil, memory, and other Sebaldian subjects, originally published in Logis in einem Landhaus. Hamish Hamilton continued the practice of using horizontally-printed pages within a vertical book format, but reduced the book’s size considerably from Hanser’s 11 1/2 by 7 inches to a handier size of 8 3/4 by 5 1/2 inches, ending up with a book that is less generous to Tripp’s images and – well – more ordinary. It is bound in textbook blue boards with gold-stamped spine and has a dustjacket that reproduces Tripp’s portrait of Sebald.

Sebald Unrecounted British

Perhaps the most striking aspect for the reader of Unrecounted is Michael Hamburger’s “Translator’s Note”, an almost confessional, slightly stunned piece that is full of insights and mysterious revelations about the poems and about Sebald. After Sebald’s death, Hamburger discovered that he didn’t know his friend as well as he had thought. Among other things, Hamburger reveals that Sebald had completely kept him – his current translator – unaware of either of his two book collaborations involving these “micropoems.” And when, posthumously, he began to translate Unerzählt Hamburger discovered that some of the poems for Unrecounted were what he calls “overlapping” but “different” texts that Sebald had used previously in For Years Now. Hamburger speculates that Sebald himself must have made the translations for the earlier book and he discusses his decision to retranslate them anew whenever he encountered a previously published piece.

For example, the first version below is the poem “Blue” from For Years Now (presumably Sebald’s own translation), followed by Hamburger’s translation from Unrecounted:


a wafer
thin layer
of frozen


through a thin
of frozen

A few months later in 2004, New Directions released an American edition: Unrecounted: 33 Poems by W.G. Sebald, 33 Lithographs by Jan Peter Tripp, further confusing the question of whether Tripp’s artwork was created through etching or lithography. (The use of “radierungen” in the original German title clearly indicates that they are etchings, and since Hanser had published a limited edition containing Tripp’s original prints one would assume they knew what kind of printing technique he used.) New Directions included everything from the British edition, but also generously threw in the original German texts for Sebald’s 33 poems. They also returned some of the spatiousness to the book, which is 10 1/4 by 6 1/2 inches in size. It is bound in gray cloth and displays a nice hint of red threads at the top and bottom of the book block. The spine is silver-stamped and New Directions returns to the use of memorial black endpapers. But not all of New Directions production choices seem to be improvements on the Hamish Hamilton version. Both the German and British editions had used slightly yellow matte-surfaced papers and had printed Tripp’s images in a warm brown or sepia ink. New Directions use of glossy paper and a cold black ink sucks the warmth out of Tripp’s images and works against the deliberately antiquarian feel of these images.

W.G. Sebald’s For Years Now

Sebald Jaray For Years Now

The publication of Sebald’s second book of poems, For Years Now, came shortly after his death. Published by Short Books in London in 2001, For Years Now was the only book written by Sebald in which the contents appeared first in English. (As of January 2007, the book still has not been translated into any other language.) The twenty-three poems in the volume are all very short; none are longer than ten lines (plus the title) and most of the lines contain fewer than four words. The haiku-like poems alternate with images by Vienna-born artist Tess Jaray, who now lives in London. Jaray’s images are rigidly geometric and colorful with each image being a single color. They seem to suggest the complex order of the cosmos and I find them stunningly beautiful. The book is described by the publisher’s website as a collaboration between Sebald and Jaray, who first met in 1999.

For Years Now is a delightful object, with fire engine red french wraps for a cover. The pages are of substantial, almost stiff paper and are well-suited to convey the lush, exotic colors of Jaray’s images. Because Sebald died shortly before final book production, there are no copies signed by him. But copies signed by artist Tess Jaray exist (I know, because I have one that is signed by the artist).

The pairing of each Sebald poem with a Jaray image appears to have been a methodology for the two artists’ work to appear together in book form on equal terms. In the same year, London’s Purdy Hicks Gallery published a set of eighteen paired screenprints by Jaray. Most (if not all) of the images in that portfolio were the same images that appear in For Years Now. But in the Purdy Hicks portfolio, they were paired with different texts by Sebald, suggesting that there isn’t a fixed relationship between the poems and images. In the portfolio, one half of each Jaray diptych consisted of a monochromatic geometric image, while the mate (a similarly colored screenprint) consisted of a brief printed quotation from The Rings of Saturn or Vertigo. The gallery also issued a small illustrated folder promoting the set.