On the pleasures of getting 'lost in darkness and confusion' with David Lynch

I don't know why it's necessary that we get lost in this darkness and confusion, but part of it is really enjoyable.

- David Lynch (Rodley 2005: 20)

Naming Lynch

The David Lynch Naming exhibition at mima (12 December 2014 – 26 March 2015) curated by Brett Littmann, demonstrated the interconnected though complex relationship between language and visual imagery which has been a central concern of David Lynch throughout his long and productive artistic career. Bringing together 46 artworks from his student film The Alphabet in 1968, up to mixed media works from 2012 such as Spiral (Figure 1), Littmann establishes how Lynch's fascination with the relationship between words and visual imagery continues unabated, and can be seen across his various artistic endeavours.


Figure 1. Image © David Lynch, Spiral, 2012. Mixed media on cardboard. Courtesy of the artist and Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles. Photography: Brian Forrest.

As a teenager, Lynch was introduced to the painter Bushnell Keeler from whom he received a great deal of support, showing him that it was possible to live a productive life as an artist. Prior to this Lynch had thought that drawing and painting were activities you undertook as a child but that as an adult you would have to give them up for something more serious.

As Lynch became aware of the new horizons opened up by art, he read Robert Henri's The Art Spirit which, as a high school student, became his 'Bible' because the book laid out the rules for the 'art life.' Henri (1865-1929) was a highly influential teacher whose life was dedicated to producing art and teaching about it, and his book provides a great deal of advice for the aspiring artist. As Henri proclaims, 'I am not interested in art as a means of making a living, but I am interested in art as a means of living a life' (Henri 1984 [1923]: 158). Lynch appears to have adhered closely to the knowledge gained from Henri's proclamation that 'Art after all is but an extension of language to the expression of sensations too subtle for words' (Henri 1984 [1923: 87).

Lynch, however, found his initial full time art training at the School of the Museum of Fine arts in Boston in 1964 disappointing, and abandoned his studies at the end of the academic year. He then embarked on a proposed three year trip around Europe with his friend Jack Fisk armed with a letter of introduction to the Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. Yet this trip was also cut short after only fifteen days after Europe failed to live up to his expectations. Upon returning to the United States Bushnell Keller and other artists deliberately shunned him in a bid to force him to into action, which lead to Lynch enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in January 1966, where he found a more conducive artistic environment to pursue his love of painting.

The art of telling stories

There are words and there are stories, but there are things that can be said with film that you can't say with words.

- David Lynch (Rodley 2005: 26-7)

It was during his time at the Pennsylvania Academy that Lynch started to make films. His often quoted story about the origins of this development in his practice is worth reminding ourselves of. Working late in the evening in his studio at the art school, Lynch stood back from an 'almost all-black painting' and states that, 'I'm looking at this figure in the painting, and I hear a little wind, and see a little movement. And I had a wish that the painting would really be able to move, you know, some little bit. And that was it' (Rodley 2005: 37).

Yet even here his academic training was curtailed the following year and he did not return for the Fall semester in 1967. Supported by an array of loyal friends, Lynch continued to develop his art work and, following the making of The Alphabet (1968), he was encouraged to make an application to the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles, and moved there in 1970.

While he was a student at the AFI Lynch was taught by Frank Daniel, who was the then Dean of the Czechoslovakian Film School, to construct films by putting down ideas for 70 scenes on three-inch by five-inch cards. As such, each idea or image is semi-autonomous, and the relationship between each is not necessarily linear or straightforward (Figure 2).

Alongside Lynch's artistic output, we should be aware of the importance of Transcendental Meditation (TM). Lynch was introduced to TM by his sister Martha in 1973 and has never missed one of his bi-daily 20 minute meditation sessions. For Lynch, TM allows him to go deeper into the well of ideas, and it is important to him that the artist should be clear in thought. As he puts it, 'Anger and depression and sorrow are beautiful things in a story, but they are like poison to the filmmaker or artist. They are like a vise grip on creativity [...] You must have clarity to create. You have to be able to catch ideas' (Lynch 2006: 8). Some ideas work for paintings, for 'small stories'; others for longer stories, such as feature films and television. The key for Lynch is to remain true to the idea: 'The idea just needs to be enough to get you started, because, for me, whatever follows is a process of action and reaction' (Lynch 2006: 12). This openness to how the work develops is crucial to Lynch's approach, and allows for chance and intuition to become an active, 'organic', part of the creative process. 



Figure 2. Lynch contemplating ideas


Film: Longer stories

With Eraserhead (1976) Lynch demonstrated a singular artistic vision. Five years in the making, and beset by many difficulties, the fact that Lynch's cast and crew stayed true to the story, marks it out as a unique debut. Many of Lynch's signature themes and obsessions can be seen in this abstract response to the dangerous thrills Lynch experienced living in Philadelphia, as a struggling artist and young father. One key element across his artwork is Lynch's refusal to talk about the works' meaning. He has stated that 'When you talk about things – unless you're a poet – a big thing becomes smaller' (Rodley 2005: 27). The poetic elements of the work, his visual and auditory 'abstractions', are something that Lynch wants the audience to feel and to 'understand' in another way, beyond the rational mind. This can be linked to his practice of Transcendental Meditation. For Lynch, all ideas come together via the Unified Field of modern science. So the seemingly disparate and dislocated sections of his more increasingly complex narratives – Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006) – are thereby somehow linked, and these connections can be 'felt' or 'experienced' by the viewer; the connections don't need to be spelled out in rational terms.

TV: Continuing stories

David Lynch and Mark Frost's foray into television with Twin Peaks (1990-1991) marked a highpoint in television drama, and its legacy can be seen in the wide-ranging quality dramas produced since the series' initial broadcasting. The news in October 2014 that Twin Peaks is returning in 2016 with a new 9 episode series, to be shown on the American channel Showtime, has been met with great interest and anticipation by fans (and perhaps a little trepidation from those who hold the memory of the original Twin Peaks dear). What is remarkable is how many younger viewers have been hooked into the magical world of Twin Peaks via DVDs and other viewing opportunities since its initial broadcasting nearly 25 years ago.

Lynch's relationship with television has been fraught over the years. Initially he wasn't drawn to it as a medium. As he puts it:

The power of most movies is the bigness of the image and the sound and the romance. On TV the sound suffers and the impact suffers. With just a flick of the eye or turn of the head, you see the TV stand, you see the rug, you see some little piece of paper with writing on it, or a strange toaster or something. You're out of the picture in a second. In a theatre, when the screen is big and the sound is right, a movie is very powerful, even if it stinks. (Rodley 2005: 175)

Yet Twin Peaks clearly overcame those limitations, providing an intriguing and puzzling world of secrets which captivated audiences world wide. Although cut short in the second series as viewing figures dropped during the period Lynch was filming Wild at Heart (1990), Lynch continued to produce other programmes for TV - On the Air (1991-1992) and Hotel Room (1992)- but both were also cut short. Although discouraged, he proposed Mulholland Drive to ABC, the network which had broadcast Twin Peaks, only for them to demand drastic cuts to the finished version of the pilot. Luckily for Lynch, Studio Canal + who had helped finance The Straight Story (1999) gave further funding for him to shoot new footage and turn it into the critically appraised feature film that it is.

In a sense Twin Peaks potentially always held out a possibility of a return, in Special Agent Dale Cooper's dream in episode 2, where he dreams of a woman who 'looks just like Laura Palmer' in the Red Room, accompanied by the Man From Another Place, both of whom give him clues to Laura's murder and she says, 'I'll see you again in twenty five years'. However, the probability that the series might actually return was remote, to say the least, in the economic conditions of television production, until the news of the return was made by simultaneous tweets by Mark Frost and David Lynch on 3rd and 6th October 2014.

At the end of the second series of Twin Peaks viewers had been left with the disquieting image of Cooper (or, hopefully, his doppelgänger) smashing his head into the bathroom mirror at the Great Northern Hotel, after returning from the Red Room, with the evil face of Bob reflected back in the mirror. As a way of completing the series it was undeniably dramatic and suitably 'Lynchian'. However, for many viewers, it has left us in a traumatic place, and we have waited for a quarter of a century for our anxieties to be answered. How this will be done remains to be seen. But we, like Cooper in his dream, have aged and our hopes, wishes and expectations are closely tied up in a similar waiting room.

On 5th April 2015 David Lynch dropped a bombshell on social media by stating that he had walked away from the new series of Twin Peaks because not enough money was offered by Showtime to do the script in the way he felt it needed to be done. Showtime apparently intend to carry on without Lynch. Since the announcement, a large portion of the original cast have launched a viral video campaign to bring the show's co-creator back (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gge_I7E0jjE). Fans have also set up a petition and other action in a bid to get Lynch back, or for Showtime to let another Network have the show (https://twitter.com/savetwinpeaks). Whether this will turn out to be successful remains to be seen, but with enough momentum behind the campaign there's always a chance.

From here onwards

For many years Lynch was primarily known as a filmmaker and he kept his paintings and other art works hidden as he wanted to avoid the accusation of being a celebrity painter. But now, due to the various exhibitions of his work, and the fact that his last film, INLAND EMPIRE, dates back to 2006, the realignment of our knowledge about his wide-ranging output has meant that due consideration is being given to all those other aspects of a highly creative life.

The range of Lynch's work is outstanding; including painting, printmaking, photography, furniture design, film, television and music. All of his various artistic activities can be seen to be founded upon ideas from which follows an active process of action and reaction. In all of his work, across a wide range of media, Lynch's love of texture and mystery, of the strangeness within the ordinary, allows the viewer to enter into complex worlds of 'darkness and confusion' behind or underneath the pristine surface of 'ordinary life'. In these artistic worlds we too can  explore the darkness and disease just underneath, where the everyday is rendered uncanny, and from where we can all return, hopefully as 'thrilled' as Lynch wants us to be.

blue velvet picket fence

Figure 3. Blue Velvet (1986)


Henri, R. (1984 [1923]) The Art Spirit. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Littmann, B. (2013) David Lynch Naming. Los Angeles: Kayne Griffin Corcoran.

Lynch, D. (2006) Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity. New York: Jeremy  P Tarcher/Penguin.

Rodley, C. (ed.) (2005) Lynch on Lynch. Revised edition. London: Faber and Faber.


Allister Mactaggart is a lecturer and writer. He is the author of The Film Paintings of David Lynch: Challenging Film Theory (Intellect, 2010) [http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/books/view-Book,id=4695/]. 


To download the full document click here