Jan Isak Saether: Interview
Jan Saether, painter and sculptor, came to Los Angeles from his native Norway fifteen years ago. He is the originator of an approach to teaching that is based on a formulation of a fundamental language of seeing that consists of constellations of elements common to all spatial pictorial images. Co-founder with his wife Liv of an art school, Bruchion, Saether has been teaching his unique method (which he calls an anti-method) for several years.
Poet Charles Cameron conducted the 1986 interview from which the following passages are excerpted.
What exactly is Bruchion School, Jan?
First of all, Bruchion is the fruition of a dream that my wife Liv and I began to nourish six years ago. In practical terms, it's a place where you learn to see. A painter is someone who lives through his or her eyes. Like all of us, he moves through a reality that is essentally spatial. What distinguishes the painter is that he then brings the things that impress him in that essentially spatial or three-dimensional experience onto a flat surface. But he does this consciously, in such a way that he makes that flat surface appear depthful, precicely because of its flatness.
There's a "syllable", or perhaps I should say a language, that governs the way we see in a three dimensional world. And the visionary person, the person who want to make the journey from his visual experience into its expression in flatness, will find it a great help to be conscious of that language. So at Bruchion, we teach people how to see, not just take seeing for granted.
The inexperienced artist tries to draw spatially, and gets very frustrated because he doesn't know the laws that limit him when he deals with the flatness of the canvas. By contrast, the imaginative and experienced painter brings a knowledge of the nature of flatness to bear on his spatial experiences. He gazes, and sees life unfold flowingly. All the details and objects in his vision serve only to weave together colors and presenes. In flatland, the third dimension is an intuition.
We teach people a practical way to experience this language of visual perception, the language of depth within flatness, so that they can bring back their harvest of the visible and imaginative worlds onto the surface of the canvas.
But has this language been lost?
Yes and no. It has always been there, as a visual tradition, but never I think quite verbally formulated. In the Renaissance, for instance, it would have been passed down from master to student by example. But we lost sight of it almost completely in the fifties, when the art world was besieged with an obsession with flatness, with the "integrity of the picture plane" etc. It's not surprising that the depth got lost in all that flatness.
This language of depth in flatness is the language that most closely approximates the way we see, and we can't afford to ignore either side of it -- the spatial or the flat, the objective or the subjective.
How did you come by your discovery of the visual language?
I had the good fortune over the last few years to be working with a class that was willing to experiment with me. I was also painting and doing a lot of dreaming, and it was from this cauldron of dreams, teaching and painting that I came up with an insight into the fundamental syllable of the visual language. You'll find it in the cave paintings of Altamira, in the Renaissance masters, in Rembrandt, in the modern masters, the cubists, etc. It is always present, as long as the paradox of flatness and space is with us. This syllable works on a very basic level. It increases one's ability to image, to imagine. The syllable is nondogmatic. It doesn't tell you that your painting should be PreRaphaelite, abstract or Egyptian: you discover a style in accordance with your own nature. And greater complexities of composition and grammar can be developed intuitively from a grasp of this syllable.
My students find that using this syllable leads to more quiet in painting, which in turn triggers greater vividness of colors in their dreams, which feeds back into their creative process. It may sound almost too good to be true -- but it works.
And you've told me you believe this visual language has something important to teach us about the way we live...
Human beings all seem to go through some pretty deep and unsettling experiences -- such as falling in love -- but they often find they don't know how to bring those experiences into the realm of living. It's one thing to fall in love, and quite another to form a relationship that truly expresses that love. I believe the artist's paradox -- bringing back an experience of imaginative perception onto a flat canvas -- may serve as a transformational model for this great paradox that we all face in living. The visual artist has something to tell us all about how we can handle this living paradox.
by Charles Cameron
Siberia: Journal of the Exiled Imagination. Vol. I, no 1 (1989).