The well-tempered tent

The close association of the title with that of Johann Sebastian Bach's work "The well-tempered clavichord" is obvious. In 1722 Bach presented these 24 preludes and fugues, partly in a major and partly in a minor key. It had been found necessary to divide octaves up into twelve steps of equal length such that in playing the piano harmonic tones were produced in all keys, without a "howling of the wolf" at certain intervals on the scale.

One speaks of the quality or color of a tone in connection with music and of the shade of a color in connection with painting. Despite such parallels and similarities between these two modes of artistic expression, there are clear structural differences between them. Music involves a temporal dimension, as manifested in tones and rhythm, whereas a painting can be viewed on the spot, even if there may be endless gradations in the shades of color it contains. There have been efforts made ever since the Renaissance to gain an understanding of colors in their entirety. Both Goethe and Delacroix attempted this, and the esthetics of the Bauhaus movement (J. Itten) advanced to a very high point, as seen in historical terms, yet the success of all such efforts has been no more than partial.

Hard Edge Painting and Gestures

Helmut Vakily, a German-Persian painter, has been engaged ever since the l970s in producing in a rather systematic way, within the framework of the partially constructive art he pursues, "tent-space pictures" as they can be called. Yet the variations he now presents on the theme of "The well-tempered tent", as he terms it, can be considered a basically new approach to the art of repetition and variation that his work represents.
Helmut Vakily created this series of some 80 tent pictures, acryl on paper, 60 by 60 cm in format, during the period of June to December 2008. His strategy was to create at the start a drawing on transparent paper of the two major geometric forms involved, both of them tents, indicating their position relative to one other and in the picture as a whole. The scheme basic to each of the pictures is thus a static one. However, the tent that is closer does not always overlap with and hide parts of the tent behind it. Sometimes just the opposite is the case, which clearly affects the spatial relationships. In addition, the colors and the surroundings vary and may even be changed completely from one drawing to the next. Accordingly, one can speak of highly varying repetitions. The first 42 pictures consist of separate sets of 7 sheets each, the sets differing in the main color involved, its being red in the first series, and white, green, blue and darker tones (earth tones among them) in the sets that follow. The titles of the separate sheets, such as "Snow in August" and “Transparent City”, may help one interpret the pictures, or may also fail to do so because of their containing narrative elements only partly to be found in the picture itself. A letter sent me by the artist can be seen as relevant here, one in which he asks, “What exactly happens when my work inspires me to create a comprehensive series of pictures? Are the pictures later on in the series simply imitations or repetitions of those before, or does just the opposite occur?”

If one compares the different pictures in the red series with one another, one can note that, although certain elements are exactly alike, the variations from picture to picture are so great that one may scarcely be conscious at the start of the same geometric motifs being presented again and again. A comparison can be made here with Bach's preludes and fuges, in which certain musical motifs occur repeatedly. In "Snow in August", the two multi-sided figures there (tents, or they could also be pyramids) are delineated by heavy lines. The lower of the two tents displays a variety of reds, differentiated from one another, with the background white of the paper showing through at various points. In using a round brush, Helmut Vakily makes no attempt to cover the surface in a homogeneous way. The color thins out at different points, as though wiped on, and isolated dabs of color are evident.

Animated brush strokes

The upper tent in that same picture is far more striking and brash in character, much greater use being made of a flat brush, with the dynamics and the animated brush movements this permits. The brush strokes are clearly visible and serve to clarify the configuration intended. The picture elements here dis play a greater spontaneity. This tent, with the darker elements it contains and the more tempestuous brush strokes employed, represents the antithesis to the lighter colored and more homogeneous tent below it to the left.

In the letter just referred to, Helmut Vakily characterizes the two tents found in the series as a whole. saying, "The two basic and formal motifs, the one a tent in flight (a tilting movement) and the other a tent suspended in space, appear in the same size and position throughout, their form unaffected and persevering, whereas the surroundings change continually."

A comparison of the two tents just described with those in the rest of the series shows this to be the case. In principle, the two tents themselves are always the same in terms of form, its being the surroundings that change. In the work "Snow in August", there are many white surfaces in the surroundings shown in the lower half of the picture, but there is little differentiation there otherwise, creating a sense of calmness and perhaps of openness to change.

The picture "Space and flight tent with a cross" differs markedly from this. There it is primarily the lower part which is differentiated, although what one sees readily gives one the impression of its being unreal. It can be thought to represent sections of the sky, clouds, or suspended objects. Higher up and to the left there is a uniformly colored surface that serves to neutralizes the rest of the composition through the dark red color it possesses.
The work "Transparent City" has a particularly complex and many-sided appearance. Here both tents appear to be divided into many parts and to be connected spatially with the other elements the picture displays. There is a very dense structure with what seem to be many three-dimensional possibilities. There are also specific objects or parts such as drawers and bundles of hay. Dabbed colors and colors boldly applied combine to produce very striking results.

The blue picture series is also fascinating. "In darkness and in light" confronts the viewer two opposite states, immobility and movement. The set of geometrically formed lines on the right side of the picture produces an impression of tranquility, whereas the presence of the two tents, the one suspended and the other caught in flight, gives the picture a more dynamic character. The movement and the forcefulness one experiences are enhanced by the sweeping brush strokes that were made. These are of basically the same type as the animated brush strokes of Zen Masters produced rapidly and with a high degree of spontaneity aimed at capturing the mood and content of the moment. Such principles are followed to a still greater extent in "The sweeping brush", which illustrates the sense of forcefulness and energy that an appropriate painting process can achieve. The qualities the tent structures produced in this way contrast with those of the much quieter surroundings. The respective qualities accentuate each other, the quail ties of the one contributing to an interpretation of the qualities of the other.

Two major characteristics of music, those of the repeating of motifs and of variation, can thus be said to characterize this series of tent pictures. More specifically, it would appear that various principles that apply to "The well-tempered clavichord" of Johann Sebastian Bach can contribute to an understanding of these works of Helmut Vakily, with their crystalline clarity and precision, on the one hand, and their ambiguity, on the other.

Dr. Horst G. Ludwig