Ph.D. (Philosophy), MFA (Painting)
Independent Scholar


What the Painted Figure Says About the Artist

A 1909 female nude by Oskar Kokoschka offers clues to the artist’s state of mind while confronting his model: the stress he depicted in how she grasps an elbow and pulls her arm away from the artist’s gaze suggests that Kokoschka felt stress while attentively scrutinizing her body; the obvious labor he expended in capturing the detached expression on her face—an area of the painting so overworked that it appears rendered by another artist—suggests a separation of mind from body Kokoschka felt owing to conflict he experienced in reconciling his own thoughts with his own body. Paintings such as his lead to conclusions like these. But what grounds support them? Is there ever a robust connection between artists’ experience while painting, and what viewers see in completed art? Indeed, there’s reason to believe that any such connection must be indirect and conjectural: all viewers can do—no matter how sensitive they may be, or how knowledgeable they may be in psychology, art therapy, and related fields—is to look at art, and infer that anyone who paints like that probably experienced something like that. It’s hardly a direct pipeline to artists’ visual consciousness, and to complex psychic issues that may be associated with it. Wouldn’t competent talk therapy provide better access than inspecting surfaces covered with paint?

My intention in this paper is to question the above distance separating viewers from painters’ visual consciousness. I’ll argue that a direct communication of experience can occur, and that it undergirds the authority we give paintings such as Kokoschka’s.

I begin by observing how viewers prefer to be close enough to art to visually transition between seeing what’s depicted, and seeing brush strokes. When viewers understand those transitions as mirroring transitions that painters made between seeing the real model, and seeing the brush strokes now on view, they achieve knowledge of artists’ consciousness. Their connection to artists hinges those brush strokes being the same ones artists saw as paintable properties when they looked at the real subject, and were conscious of it as something to be painted. Artist are able to communicate their experience of the model, because the paintable properties they experience have communication “built in,” so to speak—artists are conscious of brush strokes they’re capable of applying, and will apply, to a publicly accessible canvas.

We should reconsider how any particular artist’s visual experience of the figure, while painting, relates to psychic complications such as Kokoschka’s. This paper builds a case that data supporting such an investigation are thoroughly public. When it comes to painting, consciousness need not be subjective, with properties we can only infer from “outside.”


About William

William Oberst holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Claremont Graduate University and an M.F.A. in painting from Stony Brook University. At Stony Brook he taught painting and drawing courses and directed the University Scholars program. He has been selected as one of Today’s Masters by Fine Art Connoisseur magazine, and his paintings reside in collections in the U.S. and abroad. He was a principal contributor to The Mill Children exhibition (still touring). Recent significant commissions include the Boston-based Massachusetts Laborers’ Benefit Funds (2017). Oberst’s research into the foundations of representational painting has resulted in convention papers at The Representational Art Conference and the Science of Consciousness conference.