IX

RIDDLE AND MYSTERY IN THE ART OF DAVID LYNCH

IX

RIDDLE AND MYSTERY IN THE ART OF DAVID LYNCH

Abstract: This article considers Lynch’s paintings. We will begin with an examination of his use of black, his technique to blur scenes and  his practice of  mounting letters on paintings. This will lead us to discuss the function of the alphabet in Lynch’s work. The question of letters and moods allow us to differentiate between riddle and mystery. In conclusion we will examine the influences of Francis Bacon on Lynch’s paintings and films.

Black against colours and the doubled veil

Although David Lynch had studied art between 1963 and 1967, he “really started in earnest”1 to exhibit his pictures at a much later date, with his first exhibition in 1989. Most of these pictures were created after he had completed Blue Velvet (1986) , but anticipate the TV drama Twin Peaks (1990-1991).

Lynch once remarked that he could not “seem to work in color,”2 and indeed in most paintings black dominates. This corresponds with the fact that he often integrates words such as “shadow” into them. Lynch has his own theory of black:
Colour to me is too real. It’s limiting. It doesn’t allow too much of a dream. The more you throw black into a colour, the more dreamy it gets. I could try one tube of cadmium yellow to 500 tubes of black. That could be one way to use it. […] Black is depth. It’s like a little egress; you can go into it, and because it keeps on continuing to be dark, the mind kicks in, and a lot of things that are going on in there become manifest. And you start seeing what you’re afraid of. You start seeing what you love, and it becomes like a dream.3

If in physics the addition of all colours results in white, black is the absence of colours. While colours represent the real, black allows dreams. And when Lynch is speaking of “depth” in black, he wants to emphasise that colours are a matter of surfaces.

Black has no symbolic meaning at all. But it creates a mysterious mood: “In anything, I think making a mood is very important”.4 For his films, he accentuates, “creating a place is super important”.5 This also applies to his paintings, since Lynch is not an abstract painter. His paintings also show a place. Lynch himself characterises his paintings as sort of figurative. But […] they’re bad paintings. […] They have to be bad because they’re [sic!] so many beautiful paintings. There’s something about paint, if it gets too beautiful, you kind of miss the fantastic thing about just paint.6

While black dominates in his paintings, his chalk drawings are created in grey. But all scenes in them are blurred, as if they are behind a veil. By blurring the scenes art cannot demand to represent the truth.

Fig. 1 Lynch, David: “Dark Shape Behind a Veil”, 1987, in: Lynch, David: Paintings and Drawings. Tokyo: Treville 1991: 106
Fig. 1: David Lynch: “Dark Shape Behind a Veil”, 1987, in: David Lynch: Paintings and Drawings. Tokyo: Treville 1991: 106.

In Dark Shape Behind a Veil (1987; Fig. 1) , he doubles the subject of the drawing with its technique. To be more precise: The dark shape is shown as if we see it through the veil, although the veil reveals the dark shape. We can also say that there is an almost clearly drawn veil on the right side and a dark shape, indicating that there is a second veil in front of the shape, that we cannot see and makes the shape appear dark (if “dark” means “mysterious”). Here we can observe Lynch’s awakening interest in paradoxes. “This man knows what he’s doing”,7 Leo Castelli, America’s famous art dealer, said after he first saw Lynch’s chalk drawings in 1987, although he did not know much about his films.

Lynch seems to transfer the experience, which he makes with his drawings into oil painting, as the colours in his paintings are also blurred. But in contrast to the chalk drawings he doesn’t efface the whole image: he first blurs the background upon which he then draws his figures.

Do the paintings influence the films or vice versa? In 1989 Lynch himself said that “there’s a similarity between the paintings and the films now, which there never was before. […] Now I can see how film ideas feed themselves into painting”.8 But one also can claim the opposite: The black paintings are visually obliged to his black-white-films, and in terms of subject they anticipate Twin Peaks.

In the black paintings, as Lynch said, “you start seeing what you’re afraid of. You start seeing what you love, and it becomes like a dream.” In other words: In the real you don’t see what you’re afraid of and what you love. For Lynch love seems to be necessarily associated with fear: “Finding love in hell might be a theme in all my movies.”9

Biting beauty

In about 1986 Lynch painted and mounted a text and combined it with numbers. This series with the title Valley of the Shadow always features a letter: Part I is “Featuring The Letter K”, Part II “The Letter F”, and Part III “The Letter X”. In his following paintings the painted numbers disappear. He concentrates on letters, which he mounts on the oil paint surfaces. In modern art history there are several artists who used letters in a comparative way, such as Raoul Hausmann’s and Hannah Höch’s collages. The album cover of God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols stands in this Dadaistic tradition. Both – Dada and Punk – articulate the destruction of language by using different types and sizes of letters. But David Lynch takes a different approach. He always uses identical types and sizes, and places them in an almost correct order. He has a different association: “They just look good all lined up like teeth.”10 This comparison of the cut paper letters with teeth corresponds with a strange comment Lynch made on his paintings:
I wanted to bite my paintings. I was worried about it though, I saw these little skeletons on the paint cans, so I never did bite them. But I wanted to bite them so badly.11

This desire to bite beauty is perhaps a relic of the oral phase. Since Lynch feared to bite the toxic paint he seems to substitute the desire by lining up the letters like (his) teeth. Thus the letters, words and sentences could be read as marks of Lynch’s desire to possess beauty by biting it. But formally it rather produces the impression of a letter written by an anonymous person or an unknown criminal who – in this case – is Lynch himself. A painting as a letter for the observer. In fact, we have to decode the scenes and the words: the scenes, since we only see vague forms, the text, since it is broken up to letters.

The house and the garden

In the black paintings Lynch produced between 1985 and 1990 it is evident that there are three words which always return: “shadow”, “garden” and “house”. Some of these paintings combine these words: “house and shadow”, “garden and shadow” or “house and garden”. It is obvious that Lynch wants to say that mystery isn’t something that comes from outside, but something that also is to be found in a house or a garden. In the beginning of Blue Velvet we can see an idyllic garden. The sun shines, the sky is blue and behind a white fence we see colourful flowers. Suddenly an accident occurs and the owner of this provincial paradise lies on the grass. In the next scene, Lynch shows battling insects in a wide close-up. The film presents two spheres: the light and the dark side of a garden.

In one painting he appears to illustrate the relationship between the house and the garden: Bill was halfway between his house and the sickening garden of letters (1990). Possibly the garden is “sickening” because it consists of letters.

Fig. 2 Lynch, David: “Bill was halfway between his house and the sickening garden of letters” (detail), 1990, in: Lynch, David: Paintings and Drawings. Tokyo: Treville 1991: 92.
Fig. 2: David Lynch: “Bill was halfway between his house and the sickening garden of letters” (detail), 1990, in: David Lynch: Paintings and Drawings. Tokyo: Treville 1991: 92.

It is also interesting that Lynch does not just list the alphabet from A to Z, but that he doubles the first letter A (Fig. 2). It is an alphabet which has one letter too many. Or, in other words, the letters are always placed – with the exception of the first letter A – in the wrong positions: the second A is in the position of B, B in the position of C and so on. Thus the last letter, Z, the end, has no a position in the alphabetical order.

The second picture, simply called House and Garden (1990), also shows that the threat is a matter of the garden. We see a sketchy outline of a house, underneath a rectangle, which the title identifies as a garden.

Fig. 3 Lynch, David: “House and Garden”, 1990, in: Lynch, David: Paintings and Drawings. Tokyo: Treville 1991: 96.
Fig. 3: David Lynch: “House and Garden”, 1990, in: David Lynch: Paintings and Drawings. Tokyo: Treville 1991: 96.

In the garden Lynch mounted two Band-Aids and cotton (Fig. 3). It appears that Lynch applied the oil colours with his fingers in order to achieve a more plastic effect. During this process he may have had the idea of adding the Band-Aids. Lynch remarks: I use Band-Aids in my paintings because I like their [skinny?] colour, and I like the way they have a connection with sores. Cotton has a similar appeal – it has a sort of medical feeling to it.12

Lynch also emphasises this medical aspect when he compares the glue he used with ointment.13 Thus the cutout letters themselves have the function of Band-Aids. As in the garden scene of Blue Velvet, Lynch associates the garden with a location of sores.

We now approximately understand the meaning of garden. But what does the house stand for? There is a picture which illustrates that the house is not just an object. Here I am as a House (1990) is a picture that can be considered a self-portrait. The artist identifies himself with the house, the subject with the object. But one can also see a vague figure, a white ghost that appears to escape the house. There are several 1970s horror movies of  which deal with haunted houses. Lynch transfers this theme into painting and transforms it to the genre of self-portraits. Here I am as a House: the subject and the author (of the painting) are dead.

Distorted order of the alphabet

Lynch is not only interested in distorted figures (like the baby in Eraserhead or The Elephant Man), but also in distorted orders. We have seen this in the garden of letters.

While in The Alphabet (1968) Lynch deals with its influence on the body, in Mulholland Drive (2001), he connects the distorted order of the alphabet with the complicated structure of the film. The reflects the division of Mulholland Drive into two parts. In the first, Laura Harring plays the role of Rita and Naomi Watts plays Betty. In the second part, Harring is Camilla, Watts is Diane. We recognise that Betty, Camilla and Diane (B, C and D) are a part of the alphabetical order. In contrast to these names “Rita” begins with “R” – but ends with an “A”. Is this just a coincidence? A closer examination of Rita suggests not. She losses her memory, and when Betty asks her what her name is, the viewer sees in a mirror what Rita sees on a wall: a poster of the film Gilda. In order to answer Betty she assumes the identity of the actress Rita Hayworth. But since we see the poster in the mirror the position of “R” is exchanged for “a”.  A further point is that Gilda was first shown in 1946, the year David Lynch was born.

Lynch mixes the mirrors with the alphabet since both can stand for the multiplication of identity. But the mirrors and the alphabet are distorted. We now recognise that the basic structure of Mulholland Drive can be compared to the garden of letters, as both work with a distorted alphabetical order. They both transform the beginning of the alphabet by doubling or mirroring the “A”.

Riddle and Mystery

Lynch mounts the letters on lines he has marked on paintings. On closer inspection we can recognise that Lynch also draws the lines or parallels with his fingers. In Dead Squirrel (1988) he drew five parallel lines (one for each finger one) as if a hand scratched the oil surface. In this way Lynch connects sores and letters.

In Season One of Twin Peaks the bodies of women are found. The autopsy reveals strange signs: the murderer appears to have placed a small letter under the nails of the ring fingers. In a close-up we see the letters being pulled off the nail. In this scene Lynch translates his experiences of painting with his fingers and letters. Perhaps he had this idea while he cleaned the paint from under his fingernails with a letter. The scenes of Twin Peaks present the letters as signs, which might lead us to the murderer. The letters become a part of a riddle. Lynch sets in the letters in order to make the viewer think that they will help to solve the mysterious series of murders. But can a mystery be solved?

Lynch himself answers in the affirmative: Imagine if you did find a book of riddles, and you could start unravelling them, but they were really complicated. Mysteries would become apparent and thrill you. We all find this book of riddles and it’s just what’s going on. And you can figure them out … The neat thing about film is that it can tell a little bit of a certain side of / that thing that words couldn’t tell. But it won’t tell the whole story, because there are so many clues and feelings in the world that it makes a mystery and a mystery means there’s a puzzle to be solved. Once you start thinking like that you’re hooked on finding a meaning, and there are many avenues in life where we’re given little indications that the mystery can be solved. We get little proofs – not the big proof – but little proofs that keeps us going. That there is a mystery is a HUGE THRILL.”14

Two words in this passage are interesting: riddle and mystery. For Lynch “finding a book of riddles” means that “mysteries would become apparent”. “A mystery means there’s a puzzle to be solved”, by which we can also understand a riddle;  and “the mystery can be solved.” It is obvious that Lynch identifies riddle and mystery. But are they really the same? What could be the difference between a riddle and a mystery, Rätsel and Geheimnis, enigma and arcanum? A riddle can be solved, but a mystery can be either revealed or unveiled. If one solves a riddle, the solution comes from outside. A mystery is also unveiled (enthüllen, entschleiern) from outside. But if one reveals (verraten) a mystery, this occurs from inside. A “book of riddles” already suggests that a riddle deals with letters and words. A mystery rather deals with moods. Lynch’s art mixes and identifies them. This also means that one has the impression that a riddle could be revealed or unveiled and that a “mystery”, in Lynch’s own words, “can be solved.” His films also deal with the crossover of riddles and mysteries, letters and moods. We already saw this in his paintings: by using black he creates a mysterious mood, by using letters the paintings appear as riddles. On his later paintings, in which he writes words and sentences, Lynch remarked:
I like to write things, and I like to have a mood in the painting, and I like the two together … It seems to double up [author’s emphasis] the impact to me.”15

This double impact is precisely created by the association of riddle and mystery.

The influences by Francis Bacon

During the last 25 years David Lynch’s paintings have undergone great change. This concerns the size, the technique, even the use of colours. We saw that he began with black paintings and we will see that he extended his spectrum of colours in about 2008 after completing Inland Empire (2006). But the use of words remained and the mood, which is included in his paintings, is still the same. It can also be said that the influence of Francis Bacon runs through David Lynch’s entire oeuvre.

Francis Bacon is, to me,  the main guy, the number one kinda hero painter. There’s a lot of painters that I like. But just for the thrill of standing in front of a painting… I saw Bacon’s show in the sixties at the Marlborough Gallery and it was really one of the most powerful things I ever saw in my life. […] Everything [excited me]. The subject matter and the style were united, married, perfect. And the space, and the slow and the fast and, you know, the textures, everything. Normally I only like a couple of years of a painter’s work, but I like everything of Bacon’s. The guy, you know, had the stuff.16

This influence isn’t limited to pictures as “the slow and the fast” already indicate. Astonishingly Lynch says that Bernardo Bertoluccis “Last Tango in Paris was very influenced by Bacon.” And he wonders: “If Bacon had made a movie, what would it have been and where would it have gone? And how would the cinema translate those textures and those spaces?”17 His films (also) have to be read as attempts to answer these questions. The baby in Eraserhead (1977) is reminiscent of Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944). It is the only work which survived after Bacon bought back the paintings he had sold in order to destroy all his previous. We see crying monsters with long necks, bodies that are unformed rather deformed. This famous triptych could have been an inspiration (not a model) for Lynch’s figure. The Elephant Man (1980) reminds us of the endless small distorted self-portraits of Bacon. In his famous Self Portrait of 1969 you one recognise similarities when comparing both lips and mouths. I would also suggest that the filmmaker Lynch learned a great deal from Bacon’s use of colours. Paradoxically Lynch seems to avoid direct influences in his pictures. In medium such as film the influence of Bacon can be perceived as a homage. In the same medium influences can reveal a painting as a copy. We can observe that Lynch separates the influences of Bacon in his pictures. In his grey chalk drawings and black paintings he seems to be influenced by Bacon’s early works from between 1948 and 1953.

Fig. 1 Lynch, David: “Dark Shape Behind a Veil”, 1987, in: Lynch, David: Paintings and Drawings. Tokyo: Treville 1991: 106
Fig. 4 Francis Bacon: “Study from the Human Body”, 1949, in: http://www.unirioja.es/listenerartcriticism/essays/essay-Wyndham-Lewis-and-Francis-Bacon.htm (accessed25/11/2013).
Fig. 4: Francis Bacon: “Study from the Human Body”, 1949, in: http://www.unirioja.es/listenerartcriticism/essays/essay-Wyndham-Lewis-and-Francis-Bacon.htm (accessed 25/11/2013).

The Dark Shape Behind a Veil (Fig. 1) seems to echo Bacon’s Study from the Human Body (1949; Fig. 4). In all the black paintings the dark background is blurred. Lynch achieves this effect by drawing a house paint brush through the oil paint (for example in On a Windy Night a Figure Walked to Jumbo’s Klown Room, 1988). Lynch first applies the black, umber and white oil colour from left to right. In the same process he pulls the brush from the top to the bottom. Bacon achieves this effect by applying oil paint on raw, not primed canvas (for example Two Figures, 1953); this surface absorbs the oil paint. Although the techniques are quite different the effects and the mood are almost identical.

“Bacon could paint a figure but it’s impossible for me to do the whole thing”.18 In fact, his black paintings of the 1980s only show outlines of figures. But by about 2008 this changes. In 2009 Lynch drafted a series of paintings which at least in three aspects are reminiscent of Bacon: they consist of three parts, they are painted on beige surfaces (Lynch uses large cardboard, Bacon linen), and they show torn figures.

Bacon is perhaps the only modern painter who deals with triptychs. In continental art history a triptych typically represented paradise on the left wing, worldly life in the center, and hell on the right. It is striking that Lynch always locates the figure in this series on the right side, suggesting the position of hell. While in a triptych hell marks the end, Lynch’s scenes appear to begin at this point. A triptych is orientated to the direction we read: from the left to the right, from paradise to hell. Lynch does not simply reverse this scheme by locating the figure on the right side.

Fig. 5 Lynch, David: “Boy Lights Fire”, 2011, in: http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/lynch/david-lynch-exhibition-painting-sculpture/ (accessed 25/11/2013).
Fig. 5: David Lynch: “Boy Lights Fire”, 2011, in: http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/lynch/david-lynch-exhibition-painting-sculpture/ (accessed 25/11/2013).

In Boy Lights Fire (Fig. 5) the word “Lights” could mean either  a verb in the third person or a subject plural. In the manner of a triptych we would read “Lights Fire Boy” as an enumeration. But since Lynch locates the figure on the right side we have to read “Boy Lights Fire”: right, left, middle. Like the words the different horizons in the parts also indicate that the continuity of language and space is broken. That applies to the elements Lynch paints or writes, not to the elements he mounts. The distorted arms of the figures certainly mark out this series. On the one hand they connect the broken parts. On the other they reduce the figure (and its volume) to lines. At the same time they give the painting a note of a drawing and a plastic.

Fig. 6 Lynch, David: “Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House”, 2011, in: http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/lynch/david-lynch-exhibition-painting-sculpture/ (accessed 25/11/2013).
Fig. 6: David Lynch: “Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House”, 2011, in: http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/lynch/david-lynch-exhibition-painting-sculpture/ (accessed 25/11/2013).

If one transfers this separation of Boy Lights Fire to Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House (Fig. 6) then firstly one sees the knife, then the house and finally the gun. This mode of dividing scenes Lynch takes over from film. What one sees in the center of the painting, one would see at the end of a film. Lynch does not only combine different techniques of art, but also techniques of different media. In this case two types of montage are combined. In art “montage” signifies a technique, which mounts paper or objects on a surface; thus it is spatial. In film “montage” brings the material in a temporal order. Lynch’s triptychs realise these spatial and temporal aspects of montage.

Finally one can see that the small lamps, which illuminate some parts of these paintings, make them even darker. In Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House one sees a black nimbus, illuminated by lamps. Although now Lynch doesn’t cover his paintings with black he has found a way to darken them by light.

  1. Sundell, Margaret; Spears, Dorothy: “David Lynch”, in: Splash, April 1989.
  2. Kutner, Jane: “(David Lynch). His surreal paintings, like his films, are strange and seductive”, in: The Dallas Morning News, Spring 1990.
  3. Rodley, Chris: Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber & Faber, Ltd., 1997: 20.
  4. Sundell; Spears: “David Lynch”.
  5. Schiff, Stephen: “The Weird Dreams of David Lynch”, in: Vanity Fair, March 1987: 86-90, 154-155.
  6. Sundell; Spears: “David Lynch”.
  7. Schiff: “The Weird Dreams of David Lynch”.
  8. Sundell; Spears: “David Lynch”.
  9. McKenna, Kristine: “A Real Multi-Media Kind of Guy”, in: L.A. Times, Aug 20th 1989.
  10. Rodley: Lynch on Lynch: 22.
  11. Lynch here is referring to ingredients such as the toxic cadmium yellow. Sundell; Spears: “David Lynch”.
  12. Rodley: Lynch on Lynch: 10.
  13. Rodley: Lynch on Lynch: cf. 22.
  14. Rodley: Lynch on Lynch: 25-26.
  15. Kutner, Jane: “(David Lynch)”.
  16. Rodley: Lynch on Lynch: 16-17.
  17.  Rodley: Lynch on Lynch: 17.
  18.  Rodley: Lynch on Lynch: 20.

Bibliography:

Lynch, David: Paintings and Drawings. Tokyo: Treville 1991.
McKenna, Kristine: “A Real Multi-Media Kind of Guy”, in: L.A. Times, Aug 20th 1989.
Kutner, Jane: “(David Lynch). His surreal paintings, like his films, are strange and seductive”, in: The Dallas Morning News, Spring 1990.
Rodley, Chris: Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber & Faber, Ltd., 1997.
Schiff, Stephen: “The Weird Dreams of David Lynch”, in: Vanity Fair, March 1987, 86-90, 154-155.
Sundell, Margaret; Spears, Dorothy: “David Lynch”, in: Splash, April 1989.

 

 

Filmography:

Lynch, David: The Alphabet, USA 1968

Lynch, David: Eraserhead, USA 1977

Lynch, David: The Elephant Man, GB 1980

Lynch, David: Blue Velvet, USA 1986

Lynch, David: Twin Peaks, USA 1990-1991

Lynch, David: Mulholland Drive, USA, F 2001

Lynch, David: Inland Empire, F, Poland, USA 2006

 

Figures:

Fig. 1: David Lynch: “Dark Shape Behind a Veil”, 1987, in: David Lynch: Paintings and Drawings. Tokyo: Treville 1991: 106.

Fig. 2: David Lynch: “Bill was halfway between his house and the sickening garden of letters” (detail), 1990, in: David Lynch: Paintings and Drawings. Tokyo: Treville 1991: 92.

Fig. 3: David Lynch: “House and Garden”, 1990, in: David Lynch: Paintings and Drawings. Tokyo: Treville 1991: 96.

Fig. 4: Francis  Bacon: “Study from the Human Body”, 1949, in: http://www.unirioja.es/listenerartcriticism/essays/essay-Wyndham-Lewis-and-Francis-Bacon.htm (accessed 25/11/2013).

Fig. 5: David Lynch: “Boy Lights Fire”, 2011, in: http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/lynch/david-lynch-exhibition-painting-sculpture/ (accessed 25/11/2013).

Fig. 6: David Lynch: “Pete Goes to His Girlfriend’s House”, 2011, in: http://welcometotwinpeaks.com/lynch/david-lynch-exhibition-painting-sculpture/ (accessed 25/11/2013).