by Eleanor C. Munro
published: April 1956
Once in the course of each of Janice Biala’s paintings occurs that sudden change of process which, in Romantic art, signifies the emergence of insight through layers of reason. “Only in death,” she says, “do you find life” — rephrasing the Romantic gesture of Nietzsche, Wagner and others whose esthetic turns on inspiration. At some point she must “risk the loss of the picture in order to rediscover it,” in its decisive form. This moment took place midway in the evolution of Biala’s latest work, The Bull.
Biala’s creative life, like that of many other artists, swings between polar attitudes. Not unexpectedly, these contrasting moods engender contrasting methods of work, styles and subjects of concentration.
In one world, comparatively serene, Biala paints interiors, still-lifes and beaches. Here compositional balance is of first importance. Long brush strokes, unbroken and graceful, are combined into clearly distinguished and placid areas of dark and light. Behind this style is the commonly accepted tradition of Matisse and Braque.
In the other world, and the one from which The Bull emerges, the key symbol is the bullfight. This is a Romantic world: brush strokes here are broken, coursing, jagged, disconnected, rapid. Colors clash and vibrate: black, red, chalk white, smoky blue. Balance is thrown off; forms lie oblique; the motif itself is swollen with importance, fills the whole canvas.
But even standing in the midst of this world, Biala expressed her discontent with it, and with the Expressionistic, subjective viewpoint in general, with the artist who “sees the world from his own point of view.” Surrounded with the sketches, trials, early stages of this turbulent work-in-progress, she expressed a nostalgia for Classicism and for the style epitomizing for her synthesis of worlds: Chinese painting, where the expressive brush stroke rests in perfect equilibrium. At the same time that Biala was working out her dramatic image in a handwriting completely of the contemporary moment, she made a faint rationalization for this contemporary by quoting Delacroix: “The artist must speak the language of his time… but woe unto him if his time be vulgar.”
In our time, more than one artist of Romantic impulse has found in the bullfight a ritual with suggestive emotional overtones. Hemingway has of course given the bull ring its most famous modern interpretation. Biala, who saw the sport for the first time twenty-odd years ago with her first husband, the author-critic Ford Madox Ford, has returned to it repeatedly since as a subject. She sees in the duel a self-renewing symbol for many conflicts of conscience.
Whatever emotional wellsprings the image taps, it is certain that in this representation of it, many familiar Romantic manners — the spontaneous gesture, the impulsive search for idea, the accidental progress through stages to a revelatory inspiration — were called into play. This canvas was not thought out before it was begun on canvas; it was not approached through a reasoned process of preliminary drawings and transpositions to the canvas. It progressed by apparently disconnected insights.
During the past two years, suggestions of the motif had been several times brought to Biala’s attention. She visited the caves of Lascaux, where the huge prehistoric wall paintings of bulls and other animals made a strong impression. Something of the scale and imposing profile posture of The Bull may stem from those images. Last year in Spain, Biala carried her notebook to the bullfights and made rapid pencil sketches. These were quick and imprecise renderings of shadow and mood; none of them was used directly in this painting, but the spirit they conveyed and the visual memories they called up bolstered the imagination during the course of painting.
When she had selected the motif for this painting, Biala first made a large, quick outline in paint on the canvas, with one of the Chinese brushes she uses for such fast, calligraphic strokes. This outline fixed firmly in her eye the scale and position of the animal; both elements remained unchanged throughout the subsequent four months’ work. They were the architectural piers underneath waves of color and broken forms which swept the canvas surface until resolution was achieved.
Biala next made several rapid and heavy strokes with a wide brush and pure color: strokes which were initial statements of the disposition of masses and accents on the canvas. Like many painters — and their fellow artists before the typewriter — Biala recoils from the empty canvas waiting blank-eyed for the perfectly modulated statement. These first, speedy accents laid the ghost of that fear.
So much achieved, Biala turned from the canvas to pencil and paper. There followed a series of more or less careful pencil studies on paper. These broke the realistic form of the bull down to its component forms in traditional Cubist technique: by analyzing its weights, masses, flanks, planes and lines; redisposing these elements to intensify the patterns and isolate key areas. The disposition of spaces and forms metamorphosed during the studies, until both edges of the area were left more or less empty, while the central forms were strongly broken into angular and sharp patterns. It was at this point that the starlike motif at the top of the bull appeared. Actually a cluster of bandilleros, or spears used to goad the animal in the ring, the star remained a focus or nucleus; and the theme of a sharp, brittle intersection of lines is, in the final composition, stated and varied several times.
Several forays were now made onto the canvas itself, redeveloping the broken forms worked out on paper, developing color relationships and, in particular, distilling the various arabesques which sweep the entire work. On the canvas Biala uses her paint fairly thin; impasto effects are of less interest to her than the richly worked surface of subtly modulated tones. She grinds her own colors in linseed oil, thins them with turpentine and lays them out on a glass palette. During these early stages, when the layers of paint over the canvas are still comparatively few, she tests ideas freely, erasing when necessary with a palette knife, razor blade or sandpaper.
Simultaneously with these excursions on the canvas, Biala experimented with the image in collage. “A collage is meant to come apart,” she says; perhaps for this reason she feels exceptionally free to put one together. Something in the informality and almost infantile insubstantiality of the medium liberates her from restraints self-imposed when she is pace to face with the canvas. The clear, patchy colors of snipped-out paper give her special pleasure, juxtaposed in accidental and suggestive combinations. These subsidiary studies seem to give Biala a chance for pure play; many suddenly arrived-at accents find their way from these papers onto the canvas.
At the same time, whenever a formal problem perplexes the artist, she turns back to the small sketch on paper in pursuit of the solution. Throughout weeks of work, as the broken masses of the bull’s body took form, as the progressions of torn, ripped brush strokes assembled across the lower portions of the painting, the area of the head remained unresolved. Turned in a bland, direct stare outwards, it seemed “too peaceful.” Outweighed by the deep gully across the back, the dredged turbulence of the flanks and the ground on which the bull stands, the area of the head seemed out of balance both formally and emotionally.
Suddenly the problem was solved in one of the subsidiary sketches, when Biala obliterated the features with an extension of the dark mass of the haunches. Taking courage to assault the face with a gash of black, she rediscovered the potency of the image. And in the final analysis, it is a peculiarly menacing, eyeless aspect of this bull which gives the painting its impressiveness.
Thus far, Biala’s technique in achieving the broken, gashed image paralleled her responses to the subject itself. She relates the ritualistic bullfight to the anthropological concept of rites de passage: here, the human step into the realm of unknowable hazard and destiny.
But from the moment of its resolution, the canvas was changed never again in form, but only through minor and isolated color transformations to enrich and intensify its surface. And here Biala protected herself against hazard by a special maneuver: a piece of cellophane pinned over the canvas takes trial passages of color, so that the most subtle relationships can be established before they are transferred to the canvas.
Slight transformations continued to be made on the canvas surface until it was shipped to Biala’s Manhattan gallery. According to her, the painting will “never be finished.” As in free musical improvisation, minor fluctuations of tones can endlessly rove over the surface.
It is possible that some of the pendulating spirit which inhabits Biala’s esthetic is carried over from the early wandering years when her family left Bialystok, a small city in Poland. Even today she is restless: moving between Europe and the United States; moving between her sunny, herb-filled kitchen and the cramped, ex-pony stable, now a studio shared with her painter-cartoonist husband, Daniel Brustlein (Alain of The New Yorker); moving between their middle-class New Jersey community and the artistic world of Manhattan where her brother, the painter Jack Tworkov lives; moving between her dedication to the European models of decorative style, and her embroilment with contemporary New York styles. She is a hard worker, spending as much of every day as possible at the easel; but she takes time off to faire la cuisine like a good French bourgeoisie, and her table is renowned. Her home is neat, to the point of austerity: brown grasses and bowls of dry leaves sift the sunlight into corners of her white living room; but her studio and palette are a jumble of old brushes, pin-ups from art magazines, tentative sketches and works in progress.
Perhaps a good symbol is that heap of crusty brushes: ragged Western ones to stir up the paint surface; sleek, clean Chinese ones to skate blue arabesques across the Bull’s flanks.