First Impressions


A recent post on Cristian Mihai’s blog (which you really ought look at) pointed out the importance of a good book cover. Of course somebody commented by citing the phrase ‘never judge a book by its cover’. This got me thinking: I do judge books by their cover. Often. Always in fact. The cover and the title. If these are bad or uninteresting I won’t read the book. I think most people are the same in this. This is because of another little phrase: ‘First impressions are the most important’.

If not the most important, first impressions are certainly the strongest.

This is true for mostly everything. If your first impression of a person is that they’re a douche, then it takes a fair amount of convincing to make you think otherwise.

Tadeusz Kantor

First impressions are very important. It’s a very simple, natural thing to go with your gut reaction and make a decision about a thing right away.

Sometimes it’s wrong. The book with the fantastic cover art turns out to be crap. But sometimes the book is just as good as the cover made it out to be. In the end, it’s the first impression that lasts.

I find this especially true with art. If I see a painting and the first thoughts and ideas I have about it lead me to make a certain analysis, take for example Rembrandt’s ‘Girl in the Picture Frame’ or the whole ‘ Women with Mirrors’ thing. No matter how much I read up and learn about the piece, there is still a part of my first impression that lasts.

That’s why, when I write about art on this blog, be it painting, theatre or cartoon, I try to approach them from a relatively first impressionable basis (does that wording work?).

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always read a bit about the author and the work or ideologies behind it, so that I can make educated guesses and search for deeper meanings within my first impression.

I also think that first impressions often come from a more creative part of our brain – the part that makes us want to be painters, writers or actors. The part that made Bruno Schulz see a woman’s shoe as a sinister symbol rather than simple footwear. The part that makes a child believe he is a king when he stands on higher ground than his friend.

So when we see art, we instantly try to decide what it means to us, and in doing so we create a context or form that works for our own understanding of the work. In this way art becomes about a dialogue between artist, art and spectator. Art is not just a picture on a wall. Art is meaning, transferred from the artist into whatever medium s/he works with, and then transformed by the spectator. This process is art – not the picture itself.

So trust your first impressions, because they’re the most important and the longest lasting.

AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION TIME! There are two pictures in this post. Both by very, very important Polish artists, Tadeusz Kantor and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. I’d love to hear your first impressions of these pictures. What do they mean to you? What images do they invoke?


An update on my life.

My show Pages from the Book of… is currently running at the Summerhall venue is Edinburgh as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. If you happen to be around Edinburgh, do come and see us. And let me know, so we can meet. We’re on in the Main Hall at 3pm everyday, until the 24th.

For now though – here is a review of our opening night. I will write about the Fringe and specifically Summerhall in the next few days or so!


3 responses »

  1. First impressions on the image of Kantor, i think these are self-portraits are they? if they are then they give a great insight to what each thought of themselves. if not then what follows is completely wrong. The Kantor picture shows quite a weak image of himself, the thin arms and thin body show that he has destroyed his body infavour of his mind. thats a common idea with artists, due to it being quite a intellectual profession, and i guess a bit soul destroying, so the typical picture of a tortured artist.

    With the witkiewicz picture, im gonna be honest and say i googled it seeing that it wasnt a self portrait, but my first impression was that it was so im gonna stick with that. it again has this idea of the artist not needing a body to do their art, showing a big head. but the new body shows the idea that this person is a parasite, whether on society or art, and this symbol on his forehead suggests something god like perhaps… perhaps god is a parasite…. big leap there but ah well.

    but as you said that art is the dialogue between the artist and the viewer, surely a big part of it is finding out what is behind the art, the reasons why, and as you said you want to read up, but if you don’t does this make the artists vision blurred? but is it the duty of the artist to make their message clear? or would that make people too lazy.

    • Thanks man. I think part of the point I was trying to make was that it’s impossible to be completely wrong.

      Yes, an incredibly important part of art is about finding out what is behind the art, but usually, if not always, this will come after the first impression. The first thing we as spectators do, is try to relate to the art.
      Kantor and Witkiewicz are hard to relate to for me because I didn’t live through the war, nor do I live in a communist/post communist country. Obviously this is where I need to read and learn about the piece, but before I do this, I’ll naturally try to give it some sort of personal context. Also, simply; many people don’t wish to do this next bit, but take art on face value. This is fine of course, but here the whole first impression thing becomes more important for them.

      As for the ‘artist’s vision’. I’m not sure I believe in that. Obviously each artist has a vision and something they wish to communicate, But, I’m of the opinion that once a work of art is made available to the public (or anyone for that matter) it no longer belongs to the artist but to the spectator. As soon as anyone looks at a painting, that artist’s vision is blurred, because it is being viewed through the lens of another persons life, experiences, opinions, etc. I know somebody put their name to this idea at some point, but I’m not sure who it was.

  2. My impressions come just from the pictures as I have little, or no knowledge of the artists’ work.

    I think the Kantor picture is sad and very poignant. At first, the image was almost repellant, with the thin, wasted frame, but, the more I looked at it, the more I liked it. There is a ‘genuine’ quality to the picture. I love his hands, the way they are placed. I think they give the figure a strength and purposefullness which is belied by the puny frame.

    My first impression of the Witkiewicz picture was….Monty Python! I don’t mean to be flippant, but the cartoon-y, surreal aspect of it made me think of their graphics. If it’s a self-portrait, it seems, to me, to convey a self-important quality that I’m not keen on. Although I find it an ‘easier’ picture than the Kantor to look at. I prefer the latter.

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