In Pursuit of Persuasion: Burke’s Rhetoric and the Artistic Practices of the Painter Frank Auerbach

Derek Pigrum, University of Bath


Jean-Luc Nancy states “there is an incapacity, an infinity, an impossibility inherent in writing about, to writing in the face of painting, for which every text on painting must account” (341). I began this paper with this in mind and, accordingly, I have chosen to view Frank Auerbach’s painting in terms of his practices and what he terms his “quest” but a quest that I believe has vital links to key notions in Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives that, although it deals primarily with works of literature, has, I will argue, a relation to the painting practices of Auerbach and perhaps other painters too. Thus, this paper is experimental and exploratory in terms of “how far one might systematically extend the term rhetoric” (44) to include the visual arts. In the paper I characterize Auerbach’s endless practice of what Weiss terms “erasure and restitution” (löschung und restitution) (15), as a ’realism of the act” (Burke 44) and as such part and parcel of the artist’s pursuit of “persuasion available in (the) given situation” (Burke 46) of painting and drawing.

My interest in rhetoric originates in the context of my PhD thesis at the University of Bath and subsequently in a book on what I term “Multi-Mode Transitional Practices.” It was while looking at drawing as a means of generating, modifying and developing ideas that I came across the work of Michael Summers who closely relates artistic practices to rhetoric as involving a process of change, constant transformation and the final persuasion that effects closure. Burke states “wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric” (172). Auerbach’s practice of “erasure and restitution,” in which he all but removes the painting of the previous day and then begins to paint the subject all over again is one of change and transformation directed towards the achievement of persuasion that the work is complete.

In the first section of the paper I outline Auerbach’s “topics” or the way he restricts his drawing and painting to the area of Camden Town and to the sitters that come to his studio according to a strict schedule—some of them for over twenty years. I explore the transitional and transformational changes these undergo in Auerbach’s sketching, painting and drawing process. This is followed by a section on “erasure and restitution” in Auerbach’s artistic practices that I relate to Burke’s notion of “standoffishness.’

In the next section the emphasis is on the all-important role of mark- making in Auerbach’s practices as involving what Burke terms “nonverbal conditions or objects (that) can be considered as signs by reason of persuasive ingredients inherent in the meaning they have for the audience to which they are addressed” (161). In terms Auerbach’s of the painting practices of Auerbach this involves a notion of the self -address of internal rhetoric. Burke states that “nothing is more rhetorical in nature than a deliberation as too what is too much or too little, too early or too late” (45). This deliberation is at the root of Auerbach’s painting practices and when “fused with the spirit of the formative moment” (Burke 323) result in a state of closure akin to Burke’s notion of “pure persuasion” (267). However, I suggest that there is a tension between Burke’s notion of art as “construction of the self” and Auerbach’s account of what for him counts as a state of closure, or “pure persuasion” in which he rejects our accustomed way of thinking about painting as self-expression and self-discovery. In my conclusion I go over the main points again and suggest how Burke and his notion of “self-address” could provide a bridging principle between the work of painting and drawing and the realm of rhetoric. I also outline some directions for further research where Burke’s ideas on rhetoric could expand our understanding of the practices of visual artists.

Auerbach’s “Topics”

To begin with let us consider the two main themes in Auerbach’s painting: the area of Camden town where his studio is situated and the sitters that come according to a strict schedule to his studio, some of them for over twenty years. It is these two external entities that have been Auerbach “topics.” Topics that he approaches through charcoal drawings made outside the studio in the city and inside the studio in the presence of a sitter. The drawings as such are a bridging principle between what is seen, drawn and then painted. Auerbach, talking about the cityscape, states,

buses come across and people move and then you do more drawings and all sorts of sensations about pace and speed and the plastic coherence of the material you are dealing with, and people walking across begin to appear in space, and you just make these drawings and take them back to the studio and it gives you an impetus you know, to do something with the painting you’re working on. (Tusa 9).

Thus, the drawings continually inform the act of painting. In Auerbach’s paintings both the sitter and the cityscape are lifted temporarily out of the continuous flow of life. The marks that Auerbach makes in the process of sketching, drawing and painting stand for a relation between observer and observed where something is abstracted from what is seen. Burke states in his comments on poetic observation, there is “no naked relation between an observed object and the observer’s eye” (Burke 219). The to-and-fro between painting and drawing, like that of poetic observation, turn what is perceived into an image that moves at another level from that of empirical perception. This produces work that, in the words of Nancy, is “utterly, infinitely different from the image of reality which is neither its opposite, nor its reversal” (Nancy 162) but open to infinite possibilities.

Erasure, Restitution and “Self-Address”

Robert Hughes describes Auerbach’s drawing and painting process as a pattern of continual erasure and re-appearance carried out in an effort “to stabilize and define the terms of his relations to the real, resistant and experienced world” (Hughes 202). In his book on Auerbach Hughes states that “each days drawing is left over night, taken up the next day when the sitter arrives, and then scrubbed back to a grey blur—usually to the sitter’s disappointment as there seems no end to all this(198).” Hughes tells us that such drawings go through up to thirty states of erasure and that, before Auerbach began to use much heavier paper, he often applied a patch to where the paper had become perforated by “the abrasive action of the charcoal [and] the rubbing of the rag” (ibid). According to Hughes, when asked why he did not begin again on a fresh sheet of paper, Auerbach said that he felt that “the ghosts of erased images “in” the sheet contribute some pressure to the final version, which he is loath to lose” (ibid). My former professor Ralph Lilleford attended the Royal college at the same time as Auerbach and sent me the following recollection of Auerbach at work:

He was a strong, well built man and put emotional power into his thrashings and murderous avenge by holding the board with an inch of paper on it and ravaging it with a fist clenched round a handful of willow charcoal sticks, holding a rubber to devaluate what he had drawn, quite a performance -along with the 10 meter path of trodden in charcoal where he walked back and forth to the easel. He would draw through several sheets in inches, in furrows, flaking paper off in a ragged way. He wore all black, generally industrial clothing, black hair, very serious [and with] no relation to any one else in the studio, expecting complete silence except for his crunching underfoot and groans and yells at the easel. He did painting from four-gallon cans occasionally. I can’t think of any model or other artist he based his actions on. . . .” (email)

For Auerbach, drawing and painting are always on the verge of both losing and finding, or what Burke describes as “a ritual of getting and not getting” (273) that, I would argue, involves, in Burke’s terms, an element of “self-address.” In this self-address erasure is not total obliteration nor restitution or return to what has gone before but its ghost, and this is then subjected to a renewed act of making, a kind of Penelopewerk or work of Penelope where, as Walter Benjamin states, “hier löst der Tag auf, was die Nacht wirkte” (here the day unravels what the night has woven) (in Fleckner 268). Auerbach’s process of “erasure and restitution “ is closely related to what Burkes says concerning amplification that “of all rhetorical devices (is) the most thoroughgoing” (67) because “it increases persuasiveness by sheer accumulation” ibid).

It is interesting to note that the importance Auerbach assigns to the “grey traces of obliteration” (Feaver 19), is echoed by the German writer Matthias Politycki on the process of writing. He states, “The first draft, even if not a word of it remains, is always crucial in every text because its pressure remains in all subsequent versions” (“Die Erstniederschrift, auch wenn davon kein einziges Wort am Ende erhalten bleibt, ist allerdings für jeden Text ausschlaggebend, weil als Druck darin durch alle Fassungen spürbar.’) (Politycki 23). This process of making, erasing, and re-emergence becomes, in Auerbach’s painting, marks, streaks, scratches, trails and traces that are subject to a process of attrition, accretion, upheaval, erasure and restitution.

In a recent BBC radio interview with John Tusa Auerbach describes how he works:

things are going well and I feel it’s almost as though something arose from the canvas of its own accord, you know, the various attempts one has been making come together and an image seems to form out of the paint: when I’m actually in pursuit of this I no longer quite know what I’m doing because all my energies are engaged in this pursuit of the possibility that’s arisen on the canvas. (8)

Tusa goes on to ask why Auerbach, despite what he has just said, will look at the painting at the end of the sitting and then “scrape it off.” Auerbach’s reply is that “at the end of the sitting I’ll put it on the floor and look at it and turn it to the wall” (ibid). He then goes on to describe how his working habits have changed over time so that instead of scraping the paint off at the next sitting he now waits three or four days and then “I blot it off with newspaper so that I have . . . a sort of flattened version of the image which gives me a basis to go on the next time but without the paint on it . . . “ ibid). Later, in the same interview, Auerbach talks more about the necessary role of destruction in his painting process as “the only possible progress” and if he feels a “slight unease, even if the thing seems plausible and presentable and nobody else might notice that it’s no good, one’s got to destroy it” (9).

In Auerbach’s practices this is a to-and-fro of “making, erasing and restituting” that seems to know no rest. In terms of creative practices, the sculptress Louise Bourgeois sheds light on this:

[What] I do is an active state. It’s positive affirmation. I am in control, and move forward, toward a goal or wish or desire. . . . The undo is the unraveling. The torment that things are not right and the anxiety of not knowing what to do. There can be total destruction in the attempt to find an answer, and there can be terrifying violence that descends into depression. . . . The re-do means a solution is found to the problem. It may not be the final answer, but there is an attempt to go forward. You get clearer in your thinking. You are active again. (368)

This doing, undoing, and redoing is closely related to Burke’s view of the formal situation as involving “winding–up and unwinding, finding and losing, loosening and binding” (Burke 11). It is this “loosening and binding” that must be given priority because it is concerned with actively making, responding to and transforming marks together with a specific form of self-address.

The Stimulus of the Mark

The mark belongs to what Peirce termed the “third universe,” that is to say “everything whose being consists in the active power to establish connections” and as such is “essentially a sign” (in Liske.2). There is also a sense in which the mark is the outcome of what Peirce termed “pure play” (ibid) that produces a form of “musement’; once the mark is there it sets in motion a lively give-and-take of possibility produced by accretions that Peirce relates to purposes which have essentially shaped the “springs of action,” or what Burke would term “motivation,” that is purpose accompanied by the “habit of expectation” and of surprise, but also the possibility of temporary failure. Thus the mark can induce an affective state of excitation. Certain marks stop us in our tracks, move us in some way, often without our knowing why, and at the same time move us on or forward, albeit tentatively and provisionally, seizing upon the “material sign” of the mark as an inducement to act.

In terms of the mark and primary linguistic signifiers Seebald, in his novel Austerlitz describes the experience of becoming aware of the perceptual nature of the signifier of the linguistic sign akin to the painters recognition of the mark or the trace when he states, “The sentences are dissolved into many individual words, and the words into letters, and the letters into broken signs and these, here and there, into a lead grey shiny trace . . . “ 180). (“Die Sätze lösten sich auf in laute einzelne Worte, die Worte in eine willkürliche Folge von Buchstaben, die Buchstaben in zerbrochene Zeichen und diese in eine blei-graue, da und dort silbrig glänzende Spur’).

Auerbach says that each painting begins “as an almost nothing, an incoherence worked on, worked at, worked with . . . “ (in Feaver 19). Auerbach comments on this primacy of the mark as a point of departure when, even after long years of practice, he has

totally forgotten how to paint . . . and then a mark may happen at any time that reminds one what it is like to paint, and one tries to do the thing with the energy at one’s disposal before the feeling goes. And what happens on those occasions is that I find myself making certain marks. It’s what happened to me rather than what I mean to do, it’s what’s happened to me in the thrill of the chase, with the quarry in sight. I’ve done my best, I’ve forgotten myself, and this is how it has come out. (Peppiatt 9)

There is an echo here of Bourdieu’s notion of habitus as an “estimation of chances . . . of objective potentialities, immediately inscribed in the present, things to do or not to do, in relation to a forthcoming reality which . . . puts itself forward with an urgency and a claim to existence excluding all deliberation” (Bourdieu 76). The mark is in the order of an inaugural moment, a beginning, something close to what Said, referring to the writer Erich Auerbach, termed an “Ansatzpunkt” or point of departure that has a quality that is intelligible in the same way that Said states that “an X is intelligible in an algebraic function . . . yet its value is also unknown” 68) until , like the mark, it is seen in relation to other marks. At this moment something emerges and is actualized, a coming, or potency that is grasped as an opening, a point of departure that is a tightening or slackening of the mark from which variations flow. Above all the mark is a sign occurrence where the subjective and the objective, the signifier and the signified have not yet been separated.

Elkins comes as close as perhaps anyone has ever done to providing a description of painting. One of the people Elkins contacted in order to verify his findings was Frank Auerbach who stated: “as soon as I become consciously aware of what the paint is doing my involvement with the painting is weakened. Paint is at its most eloquent when it is a by-product of some corporeal, spatial, developing imaginative concept, a creative identification with the subject”(qtd. in Elkins 74). In this sense the making of marks and their erasure are what Burke would term “successive moments in a single process(187) that he likens to a “footfall” that continues to “echo in the memory” because fused with the taking up again of the “formative moments . . . as vague adumbrations of later possibilities” (323).

According to Elkins the mark has “the dual nature of the pictorial trace” (240) and as such is partly semiotic and partly non-semiotic. We might see the mark as sub-semiotic, that is to say meaningless until by accretions it forms into a meaningful sign. But Elkins counters this reduction of the mark to something like the status and role of the morpheme in linguistics, and instead places the mark “beyond the reach of linguistic analogies” (824) on the grounds that the mark can produce a response or incitement that is “un-coded.” Elkins argues that although small changes to marks can alter their syntactic and semantic function “this does not correspond well with the ways that pictures are actually made or viewed” (828).

Some marks might have a significance open to deliberation and as such are what Burke terms the “putting,” the “may” or “must,” “will” or “ought” (153) of deliberation, stating “nothing is more rhetorical than a deliberation as to what is too much or too little” (45).

We might say then, following Burke’s ideas, that Auerbach makes a mark that “sets up demands of its own . . . demands conditioned by what has gone before but not foreseen” (269). This is what Auerbach is seeking, this is the “quest.” There is a sense in which this “quest” is imbued with a “predatory principle” shaped by the principles specific to each kind of cultural activity” (134). But this raises the very difficult philosophical question of the relation between temporality and affect. In other words, what are the qualities in a painting that, at a particular moment, reach a state that persuades Auerbach that he has caught in the paint what he is after.

In Pursuit of “Pure Persuasion’

For Burke “the furthest we can go, in matters of rhetoric, is the question of “pure persuasion” (267). Auerbach’s “self-address,” is intertwined with his repeated “erasures and restitutions” but we have suggested that many of the decisions he makes are unconscious. The question is how does this equate with a notion of Burkian “self-address.” Nienkamp develops a notion of ’internal rhetoric” as affecting the way we act at an intentional conscious level and the unconscious level of what she terms “primary internal rhetoric” that she equates with Burke’s notion of “a wide range of ways whereby the rhetorical motive, through the resources of identification, can operate without conscious direction . . . in varying degrees of deliberativeness and unawareness” (20). An example of this primary rhetoric is provided by Elkins when he describes the turning of the body against itself” (17). What he means here is how in the process of painting the body is countered in its inclination towards a predictable pattern of marks that “stems from a fleeting momentary awareness of what the hand might do next” (18).

But what is it that ultimately persuades Auerbach, in the “formal situation,” that the work is completed? The very fact that Auerbach does not immediately erase a day’s work on the canvas or on paper suggests that the “pure persuasion” that Auerbach seeks lies in “a thing one doesn’t understand and which one suspects may work” (qtd. in Feaver 19) which implies a temporal gap between completion and final persuasion, or what Burke describes as an “element of standoffishness” (269). Auerbach’s painting practices rely on an immersive moment or state. It is of great interest in this context that Fried in his book on Caravaggio, uses the term “immersive moment” to describe that state in which the painter is to be imagined as continuous with the picture on which he is working and a subsequent “specular moment” that we might identify with Burke’s “standoffishness” in which he separates or cuts himself off or detaches himself from the painting to view the possibilities that have emerged.

In Auerbach’s case, this is a day away from the moment when he is persuaded that the painting “stands up for itself, and I no longer see the trace of my will and hopes in it” (in Feaver 19), words that cast a whole new light on the notion of closure and its consequences for the painter, and on some of our accepted notions on the relation between the work of art and the artist.

Auerbach’s account of what constitutes for him closure, as quoted at the end of the previous section, does not include a notion of either identity or Burke’s notion of the way we “construct the self” (45). It is in fact far closer to Adorno’s notion of “the factor in a work of art which enables it to transcend reality . . . found in those features in which discrepancy appears: in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity” (131).

In the case of Auerbach the completed work is by definition implicated in what Burke would term as belonging “in a larger unit of action” (27). I suggest that this “larger unit of action” for Auerbach has two main components: the way his work relates to painters and paintings of the past and the way in which the “pure persuasion” that constitutes closure also anticipates and leads to further action, to further painting.

For Auerbach paintings of the past are fundamentally incomplete, leaving traditions, like the tradition of portrait painting, open to startling revisions. At the same time, the present moment of painting constitutes the indispensable point of reference by means of which past painting achieves its significance for Auerbach. While painting Auerbach will sometimes “pull a book from the shelves, flick it open . . . and dump it on the floor as assurance, or incitement, or aid to reflection” (qtd. in Feaver 5). These books are among his formative influences together with the teachings of David Bomberg and the work of artists such as Francis Bacon, Alberto Giacometti and Chaim Soutine, all of who have had motivational processes similar to those of Auerbach, but none of this subtracts from Auerbach’s autonomy because such influences have been intuitively absorbed and interwoven with the particulars of Auerbach’s practices. Auerbach’s recourse to these books and artists is closely related to what Burke says about the need “ . . . to keep trying anything and everything, improvising, borrowing from others, developing from others . . . schematizing; using the incentive to new wanderings, returning from these excursions to schematize again” (265).

I would argue that Auerbach’s paintings, by means of the to-and-fro between drawing and painting and erasure and restitution, shift from the initial sensory image of the cityscape or sitter to a non-empirical image that is not reducible to either a positive mimetic image or to the dialectical order of ideas but nevertheless achieves what Burke would term a “mythic image” 203). But why mythic? The explanation Burke provides is that such an image embodies or “summarizes successive positions or moments in a single process” (187). Here I would remind the reader of the “ghost” in the painting that is blotted out with newspaper and how Auerbach applies successive drawings on the same sheet of paper, all of which are subsumed in a final act of painting that I suggest is comparable to Burke’s notion of “pure persuasion.”

In Burke’s expanded view of rhetoric “pure persuasion” is a balancing act on the very edge of finding and losing, which, as we have seen, is the way Auerbach describes his painting process. However, Bryan Crable mentions Burke’s insistence on human beings as “symbol using/making/misusing animals (of) the inclination and aptitude to verbal appeal (that) shapes all aspects of our uniquely rhetorical existence” (231). The question here is if we can assign to the moment when Auerbach sees that a painting “stands” to a verbal appeal, albeit one that takes place internally but at the same time is beyond“rational terms of definition” (268–69).

According to Deleuze Aristotle’s view of the transition from potentiality to actuality is that which has left behind all uncertainty. We leave behind all uncertainty of form when we achieve closure. But how do we know when to stop, to call a halt of closure as the end result of a series of events that begin with possibilities and end in the imperative cessation of activity that Burke termed “pure persuasion” (267). However, and most interestingly Burke related “pure persuasion” to a “non-existent limit.” Non-–existent because the limit set by “pure persuasion” opens into “vague adumbrations of . . . higher possibilities” (323). In other words, the work, although subject to the limit of closure, is always arriving. This I believe is of the essence of Burke’s notion of “pure persuasion” and the impetus that continuously fuels Auerbach’s painting.

But there are further grounds for admitting painting to the order of “pure persuasion.” Crable argues that Burke’s “pure persuasion” shatters a “primary unity” that “is a ground, in both agent and scene, beyond the verbal” (324) but which, “contains the potentiality of the verbal” (290) that once actualized “interposes distance” or a “standoffishness” (271) that is the differentiation and distance created by symbolic or other sign use as an incentive for the maintenance of appeal.

But no more profound question exits than that of how and when our capacity to create verbal and written signs began. One thing seems to emerge: that the written sign was preceded by the iconic sign and this would seem to have been prefigured by marks of different sizes and shapes with different spacing that did not produce any recognizable image. I would argue then that one of the first ways human beings created distance or Burke’s “standoffishness” was through mark making. Marks made either by fingers dipped into some pigment and then applied to a cave or rock wall or incised on some such surface. It is interesting to note here that the root of the English word to write is the German word ritzen, to scratch or incise. I would further argue that the writer’s words on blank sheet of paper or a painter’s marks on the blank canvas are acts that initiate the distance required for the maintenance of appeal that is essence of rhetoric.


The reader might think that I am filling in my own blank check in this paper with regard to rhetoric and Burke’s notion of “pure persuasion” in the painting practices of Frank Auerbach in which the verbal does not seem to play a part. However, Burke mentions “sources of mystery beyond rhetoric, found among other things in “the non verbal” where the “unutterable complexities” to which the implications of words themselves, or, in Auerbach’s case, marks, give rise. Finally he talks about the “super-verbal” that “would not be nature minus speech, but nature as the ground of speech, hence nature itself as containing the principle of speech” (180) and here I would add nature itself as containing the principle of the mark and the iconic sign.

Auerbach’s external world is transformed into drawings and paintings that involve an integrated rhythm of painting, drawing, or what Burke’s calls the “formal situation,” where the illusive nature of the mark acts as an incitement and inducement to act. The mark as a point of departure subject to deliberative self-address that involves erasure and restitution in a tireless quest over time for the “pure persuasion” of closure. What for Auerbach constitutes “pure persuasion” is the “surprise” that no one painting can fulfill.

A direction in future research would be to explore in far greater depth than has been possible here, the nature of the stimulation produced by the mark and those practices that develop its use. An additional direction for future research would be to explore Burke’s notion of “primary inner rhetoric.” Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives could act as a way of bringing forward and making connections between the “formal situation” and the work or labor of painting as a liberation form, rather than an expression of the ego. In this connection I would argue that Auerbach’s deep interest in certain artists of the past suggests, contrary to popular belief, that influence is not an obstacle to creativity but rather an enhancement, something we learn from in complex ways. A future research direction would be to examine the importance of influence on visual artists in much the same way that Harold Bloom has done this for writers in his book “The Anxiety of Influence.” Finally, I believe that this essay provides a starting point for utilizing Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives to reassemble and achieve a new and improved understanding of the disparate aspects of individual artistic practices.

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