Summer 2001

On Chance in Artistic Creation


August Strindberg

This article was written in French in 1894 and published in Revue des Revues on November 15 of the same year.

I’ve been told that the Malays drill holes in the bamboo stalks that grow in their forests. When the wind blows, they lie on the ground to listen to the symphonies produced by these gigantic Aeolian harps. The strange thing is that each listener hears a unique tune and a unique harmony, all according to the whim of the wind.

It is a fact that weavers use a kaleidoscope to discover new patterns, leaving it to chance to arrange the bits of colored glass.

At Marlotte, the well-known artist’s colony, the first thing I do is go to the dining room to look at the famous panels. Actually, what I see there are portraits of women; a) young b) old, etc. Three crows on a branch. Very well executed. You can tell right away what it is.

Moonlight. A rather bright moon; six trees; quiet, reflecting water. Moonlight—certainly!

But what is it? It is this initial question that provides the first thrill. You are forced to search, to conquer; and nothing is more pleasant than having your imagination set in motion.

What is it? Painters call it “palette scrapings”; in other words, when his work is finished, the artist scrapes together the colors that are left and, if he feels so inclined, makes some sort of sketch. I stopped in delight in front of this panel at Marlotte. The colors have a harmony, a harmony that is easily explained since they have all been part of the same painting. Once freed from the problem of composing the colors, the soul of the artist is inclined to concentrate all its energy on the outline. Since his hand keeps moving the palette knife at random, never losing sight of the model provided by nature, the whole reveals itself as a wonderful mixture of the conscious and unconscious. This is natural art, where the artist works in the same capricious way as nature, without a set goal.

I have sometimes passed these panels of scrapings after some time has passed, and have always found something new there; all according to my frame of mind.

I was looking for a melody for a one-act play called Samoum, which is set in Arabia. I therefore tuned my guitar at random, loosening the screws haphazardly, until I found a chord that conveyed the impression of something extremely singular without surpassing the boundaries of beauty.

The actor playing the part accepted my melody. But the director, every inch the realist, demanded an authentic melody when he learned that mine was not genuine. So I found a collection of Arabian tunes and showed them to the director—but he rejected them all and, in the end, found my little tune more “Arabian” than the genuine ones.

The song was performed and brought me a certain measure of success. The composer then in vogue came to ask my permission to write the music for my little play, all based on my “Arabian” tune, which had made an impression on him.

Here is my tune, as created by chance: G. C sharp. G sharp. B flat. E.

I knew a musician (Przybyszewski) who amused himself by tuning his piano every which way, without rhyme or reason. He then played Beethoven’s Patétique from memory. It was an incredible delight to hear an old piece come to life again. For twenty years I had heard this sonata played, always without hope of ever seeing it develop: fixed, unable to get anywhere. This is the way I have treated its worn melodies on my guitar ever since. Guitarists envy me and ask me where I found this music; I tell them I don’t know. They think I am a composer.

Here is an idea for the manufacturers of the barrel organs now so much in vogue! Have some holes drilled at random in the round melody disc, in any old way, and you will have a musical kaleidoscope.

Brehm maintains in The Life of the Animals that a starling imitates all the sounds he has ever heard: the noise of a door closing, the wheel of the knifegrinder, a millstone, a weather vane, etc. Not true. I have heard starlings in most European countries, and they all sing the same mishmash of remembered impressions of the nuthatch, thrush, swallows, and other relatives—and in such a way that every listener can interpret it as he will. The starling actually has the musical kaleidoscope.  

The same thing is true of parrots. Why do we call the gray parrots with the scarlet tails “Jacob”? Because it is their natural sound; their mating call is “Jaco.” And their owners are convinced that they have taught their parrot how to talk and to start by saying its own name.

And the cockatoos! And the macaws! It is amusing to listen to an old lady teach her parrot, as she will insist that that is what she is doing. The bird babbles his disjointed screeching sounds; the lady translates, in that she compares the sound to what they most closely resemble. Or rather, she supplies the words for this infernal music. It is thus not possible for a stranger to understand what the parrot is “saying” until he has been told the words by the owner.  

I once had the notion to make a clay model of a supplicant, patterned on a model from antiquity. There he stood, arms raised, but I became dissatisfied with him, and, in a fit of pique, I brought my hand down on the poor wretch’s head. And lo! A metamorphosis that Ovid could not have envisioned. His Greek looks were flattened by the blow, made into a kind of Scottish tam-o’-shanter covering his face; his head and neck were pushed down between his shoulders; his arms fell until his hands were level with his eyes under the beret; his legs gave way; his knees were brought together; and the whole thing was transformed into a weeping nine-year-old boy, hiding his tears behind his hands. Just a few additional touches, and the statue was perfect—that is to say, the viewer was given the intended impression.

Afterward, in the studios of my friends, I improvised a theory of automatic art:

“Gentlemen, you recall the boy of the fairy tale who wanders into the forest and catches sight of the siren of the woods. She is as beautiful as the day, with emerald green hair, etc. As he draws near she turns her back, which resembles a tree trunk.

Clearly, the boy saw nothing but a tree trunk, and his lively imagination supplied the rest.”

This has often happened to me.

One beautiful morning, as I walked in the woods, I came to a fallow field surrounded by a fence. My thoughts were so far off, but my eyes spotted an unfamiliar, strange object on the ground.

One moment it was a cow; shortly thereafter two farmers embracing; than a tree trunk, then…The changing sensory impressions appeal to me…my will is engaged, and I want to know more…I know that the curtain of consciousness is about to rise…but I don’t want it to…now it is a breakfast party in the open air, they are eating…but the figures are as still as the waxworks…ah…that’s what it is…it is a deserted plough on which the farmer has tossed his coat and hung his lunch packet! That’s all! Nothing more to be seen! The fun is over!

Is this not an anthology to the modernist paintings that the philistines find so difficult to understand? At first you see nothing but a chaos of colors; then it begins to look like something, it resembles—no, it does not look like anything. All of a sudden, a point detaches itself; like the nucleus of a cell, it grows, the colors are clustered around it, heaped; rays develop, shooting forth branches and twigs like ice crystals on the window panes…and the picture reveals itself to the viewer, who has assisted at the birth of the painting. And, what is more: the painting is ever new, it changes with the light, never growing tired, springing to life anew, endowed with the gift of life.

I paint in my spare time. To master my material, I select a medium-sized canvas or preferably a board, so that I am able to complete the picture in two or three hours, while my inspiration lasts.

I am possessed by a vague desire. I imagine a shaded forest interior from which you see the sea at sunset.

So: with the palette knife that I use for this purpose—I do not own any brushes!—I distribute the paints across the panel, mixing them there so as to achieve a rough sketch. The opening in the middle of the canvas represents the horizon of the sea; now the forest`s interior unfolds, the branches, the tree crowns in groups of colors, fourteen, fifteen, helter-skelter—but always in harmony. The canvas is covered. I step back and take a look!

Well, I’ll be darned! There is no sea to be seen. The illuminated opening shows an endless perspective of rose-colored, bluish light in which airy, disembodied and undefined beings float like fairies, trailing clouds behind them. The forest has turned into a dark subterranean cave, obstructed by brambles: and in the foreground—let’s see what it could be—rocks covered with lichens, the likes of which are not to be found—and there, on the right, the knife has glossed over the paint too much, so that it resembles reflections in water—well, look! It’s a pond. Wonderful!

What next? Above the water, there is a white and pink spot whose origin and significance I cannot explain. Wait a moment!—a rose—The knife goes to work for two seconds, and the pond has been framed in roses, roses, what a lot of roses!

A slight touch here and there with my fingers, blending the resisting colors, fusing and banishing any jarring tones, thinning, dissolving, and there’s the painting!

My wife, at the moment my friend, comes up to take a look, falls into ecstasy before the “Tannhäuser cave” from which the large serpent (my hovering fairies) slithers out into the wonderland; and the mallows (my roses!) are mirrored in the sulphurous spring (my pond), etc.

For a whole week she admires my “masterpiece,” values it at thousands of francs, assures me that it belongs in a museum, etc.

Eight days later we are once more in a period of hateful antipathy; she sees my masterpiece as pure garbage!

And there are those who claim that art exists in and of itself!

Have you ever worked with rhyme? I thought so! You have noticed that it is nasty work. Rhymes fetter your spirit, but they also liberate. The sounds become the transmitters of notions, images, and ideas.

That fellow, Maeterlinck, what is he doing? He uses rhyme in the midst of prose. And this miserable stupid critic accused him of feeble-mindedness because of that, referring to his illness by the “scientific” name of echolalia.

Echolaliacs—all true poets since the earth began! With one exception: Max Nordau, who uses rhyme without being a poet.

Hincillae lacrimae!

The art of the future (which will disappear, like everything else!): Imitate nature in an approximate way; imitate in particular nature’s way of creating!

Translated by Kjersti Board

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