Ruskin, visual collector

Ruskin

I’ll be upfront: I’ve yet to really read any John Ruskin. A British art critic in the nineteenth century, a well-travelled Oxford scholar, a prolific writer and a collector of observations—I was curious as to why a man who drew unceasingly his entire life would be branded an ‘amateur,’ and that even so he might be presented as ‘an outstanding artist in his own right,’ as the National Galleries of Scotland recently presented him in a dedicated exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

While the gallery notes proclaim, ‘Drawing for Ruskin was an analytical process and represented an opportunity to mediate on many aspects of the physical world,’ sentiments I that resonate strongly with me and my own predilection for drawing, his preoccupations seem to be more with the surface detail of things—column tops, archway ornaments and the correct shape of leaves. Very rarely do his drawings and watercolours come together as images. It became apparent very quickly during my visit to this show that Ruskin worked not as an artist, but solely to document intellectual curiosities. This is a fine task in itself, and it is laudable that Ruskin found a notation in drawing that enabled him to gather data from the physical world for further reflection, study and publication. What is discomfiting, then, is that a state gallery might conflate this visual collection with art. And that the members of the public shuffling around me might attribute awe-inspiring skills to the originator of a spread of drawings which I found largely fussy, weak and lacking either insight or confidence.

Literary and Philosophy Library, Newcastle upon Tyne

Literary and Philosophy Library, Newcastle upon Tyne

On revisiting Newcastle upon Tyne and discovering the glorious little haven of the Literary and Philosophy Society Library, I stumbled across a little volume by Marcel Proust, an introduction to his own translation of one of Ruskin’s written works, and was very curious to learn of Proust’s adoration of Ruskin. Proust’s gentle, meandering words ushered me more firmly down the pathway of my own reflections. ‘To what extent this wonderful soul faithfully reflected the universe,’ gushes Proust (1987: 49), ‘and under what touching and tempting forms falsehood may have crept, in spite of everything, into the heart of his intellectual sincerity, is something we will perhaps never know.’ Proust (1987: 32) describes how Ruskin’s many guises led to many conflicting things being said about him, and how these contradictions made Ruskin himself appear contradictory and dubious. Yet in Proust’s eyes, Ruskin pursued only beauty, and caused his art and his science to submit to the dictates of beauty. Accused of letting imagination run wild in science, and of binding up art in scientific tethers, Ruskin saw the task of both as akin to the high calling of the poet: ‘a sort of scribe writing at nature’s dictation a more or less important part of its secret, the artist’s first duty is to add nothing of his own to the sublime message’ (Proust, 1987: 31; 34).

Lit-and-Phil2

His best works on display in Edinburgh were without a doubt Mountain landscape, Macugnage (1845) and Crossmount, Perthshire; Study of crag, tree and thistle (1847), both sepia studies which blaze like beacons for their sheer strength as pictures. The former is my first encounter with a Ruskin landscape that dissolves atmospherically into the distance, and to great effect; the latter bulges from the centre in a rare expression of depth. At times one is delighted with his feeling for colour, and his ability to weave a peaceful colour harmony. Rocks and ferns in a wood at Crossmount, Perthshire (1847), which graces much of the promotional material, translates well into print, largely because of the soothing purple-green-blue amalgam of foliage. There is even something startlingly delightful about the dramatic twist of the trees from his viewpoint, something dreamily unsettling like a rolling William Robinson painting. But even here, one pleads with Ruskin; he is still so shy to lay down his marks. Botanical precision wins out as he carefully colours around pointed ferns, cautious to leave white paper for the paler fronds to be filled later. One does not frown upon precision; but his meticulous marks exhibit a fear of error rather than a certainty in what he has seen and a conviction in what he aims to record.

Mountain landscape, Macugnage, by John Ruskin (1845)

Mountain landscape, Macugnage, by John Ruskin (1845)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I read with horror but not surprise a passage of Ruskin’s writing selected and abridged by Proust (1987: pp. 30-31):

‘Every class of rock, every kind of earth, every form of cloud, must be studied and rendered with equal precision. … Every geological formation has features entirely peculiar to itself; definite lines of fracture, giving rise to fixed resultant forms of rocks and earth; peculiar vegetable products, among which still farther distinctions are wrought out by climate and elevation. In the plant, the painter observes every character of colour and form, … seizes on its lines of rigidity or repose, … observes its local habits, its love or fear of peculiar places, its nourishment or destruction by particular influences; he associates it … with all the features of the situation it inhabits …’ {Modern Painters, CW 3: 34-48} … ‘The greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas.’ {Ibid., CW 3: 92}

What ghastly sort of aesthetic utilitarianism demands the maximum communication of messages visually? Perhaps one who had so much to say had not the luxury of meditating on a single idea, and offering it elegantly and succinctly to his audience. Ruskin’s visual verbosity matches his literary manner, and his task differs dramatically from ours as artists. But as artists, we have far more to bring to our canvases than precise transcription.

Study of a Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas, by John Ruskin (1853-4)

Study of a Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas, by John Ruskin (1853-4)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Study of a Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas (1853-4), painted in Scotland, more successfully merges Ruskin’s penchant for scientific details and an artistic sentiment. The details of the foliage at the top add to, rather than detract from, the greater image: the picture is solid. But what can we say of this oddity? Is it nothing more than a fluke? Having achieved this synergy between his desire to record fact and the production of a solid picture, one hopes against hope that Ruskin will surge onwards, equipped with this new skill, and at last emerge as more than an amateur. But alas, this work seems an anomaly in his tireless output.

Oxford

Oxford

 

A pair of his notebooks which are on display in a cramped corner might have served as a better focus for an exhibition on such a complex character as Ruskin. The notebooks quietly plead, ‘Let’s remember him as a collector, curious and interested, and not try to cloak his endeavours in ‘artistic impulse.’ I sense, rather than being compelled by any true artistic impulse, that Ruskin would have preferred to record all he saw with absolute truth and precision, had he the ability. He simply had no interest in imposing design on the natural world or in introducing visual lies for a pleasing quality of linework. More than anything, one senses his fear at failing to record nature with the utmost, unartistic truth in his timid pencil strokes and panicked application of watercolour. The pencil—a glorious medium in its own right—is abused as a crutch by Ruskin, who scratches an uncertain scene in graphite before tentatively filling the shapes with a wash of colour. Nowhere does he seem to use it as a guide for more assured brushwork; almost nowhere does he trust himself to simply apply paint. Everywhere, the skeleton of pencil is showing through—except in two notable, tiny feather paintings: Study of a peacock’s breast feather (1873) and Three feathers (1875). At last he stops scratching and picking, plucks up the courage to abandon his pencil, applies his infinitely fine brush with precision, and forces himself to draw well. I wish only that he had the courage to work this way more often.

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

Now, it may be true that Ruskin did not promote himself as an artist, but rather as an intellectual. His efforts in drawing were solely for his own improvement, his own engagement with and meditation on the external world. Nonetheless, seeing a show like this is extremely disheartening, for Ruskin was tutored in drawing from an early age, having demonstrated reputed precocious ability; he evidently devoted countless hours to the activity, toting not merely a small sketchbook for opportunistic scribbles but large and unwieldy sheets of paper in a determined effort to go out drawing. And let’s not gloss over the fact that he sat as the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University in 1869, going on to found his own school, The Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing, also at Oxford, shortly after in 1871. What is troubling about Ruskin, this jack-of-all-trades, dabbling in everything, is that evidence points to him more than simply dabbling in drawing, and yet never attaining a level of true accomplishment. Is hard work and undying curiosity not enough? Or is the lesson of Ruskin not to spread yourself too thinly?

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

The reception of the public was equally worrying, with the near-exclusively grey-haired visitors full of clever things to spout admiringly in Ruskin’s direction. Even with the marked contrast of John Everett Millais’s dignified and pictorially lovely 1854 portrait of the man, also painted at Glenfinlas in Scotland. One can’t help but think that celebrating an amateur is a relief and a comfort to the unaspiring layman, whose weak efforts might just as easily be described as ‘exquisitely detailed’ and ‘the result of an intense and passionate artistic impulse’ by gallery pamphlets. And that would be a real shame, for in celebrating art that is less than awe-inspiring, we set lower standards for the artists of our own time, who then need to do so little to bewitch an undiscerning public—which, arguably, is the great artistic malaise of our day.

Oxford

Oxford

 

Proust, Marcel. 1987. On reading Ruskin: Prefaces to La Bible d’Amiens and Sésame et les Lys with selections from the notes to the translated texts. Trans. Jean Autret, William Burford and Phillip J. Wolfe. Yale: New Haven.

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Keine Grenzen

Heather © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on linen

Heather © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on linen

For two months I’ve adopted Scotland, once more, as my home, learning the rugged streets of Glasgow, adopting the frank and fearless tongue of the Scots. Having studied at the University of Edinburgh several years ago I feel intellectually cocooned by this place, a small weave in the strong intellectual fabric of this proud nation, whose independence I near witnessed. The Scottish intellectual heritage is a formidable one, and I’ve lately been enthralled by some research into the specifically Scottish flavour of much Enlightenment thinking and, just as importantly, action.

Aye ready

I’ve been reading of the vibrant, open and liberal mental environment of Scotland in the eighteenth century in Alexander Broadie’s neat little history The Scottish Enlightenment. Certain fortuitous developments, argues Broadie, made Scotland fertile intellectual ground in the wake of the darker middle ages. One was certainly that Scottish thinkers had the impertinence to question things and to think for themselves rather than bowing to authorities like state and church (or Kirk). This mental independence exhibits something of a disrespect for authority. But such openness went both ways, with these authorities in turn being open-minded and tolerant enough to permit such boldness. ‘Intellectual progress appears not to be possible except in an intellectual climate in which people are not overly respectful of authorities,’ Broadie (2001: 18) suggests. Wilful Scotland, impassioned and staunchly maintaining an identity apart from England, has this quality in spades.

Irreverent

Importantly, this independent thought was not the response of individuals working in isolation in reaction to established authorities and entrenched modes of thought. Broadie (2001: 78) lays great stress on the ‘communal thinking, thinking with and through others’ of the ‘social phenomenon’ of the Enlightenment. I’m reminded of the reported lively exchange of the Viennese Salons much later, the merging of scientific and artistic minds, the concurrent burgeoning ideas of psychology. In the salons of Vienna, as in the clubs of Scotland, significant developments in philosophy, science, art and politics were birthed through the sweet communion of minds—minds very different, perhaps, in their private obsessions, but formed of the same stuff, the same inquisitiveness and drive. The Scottish Dugald Stewart (in Broadie, 2001: 110) noted that ‘In many cases … the sciences reflect light on each other; and the general acquisitions which we have made in other pursuits, may furnish us with useful helps for the farther prosecution of our own.’ And in the many and vibrantly diverse ‘Enlightenment clubs and societies,’ Broadie informs us, ‘men of disparate and wide-ranging accomplishment set off intellectual sparks in each other, and exemplified the Enlightenment ideal that people should think for themselves but not by themselves.’

Glasgow

Freed from the shackles of dogmatic thinking, and drawn to each other for the flint of inspiration, Enlightenment thinkers came together in ‘an international Republic of Letters,’ a written exchange of ideas that transcended borders and nationalities in a true cosmopolitan spirit (Broadie, 2001: 78). And as I shift from city to city, exchanging ideas with my compatriots of all nationalities, absorbing new sensations and nesting in new pockets of this vast earth, if only for a week, a month, or two, borders dissolve and I feel myself a citizen of a broader nation. I proudly state with David Hume, ‘I am a Citizen of the World’ (in Broadie, 2001: 95). And are our minds not freer than flesh? Our ideas travel even to places we may not, and we must send them there, and welcome back the responses.

River Kelvin

As I’ve seen some universities grow perplexingly protective of their knowledge, closing their libraries and seminars to outsiders, I’ve seen others welcome me, if curious of my presence; I’ve seen discontented academics ponder the possibility of alternative free academic journals, investigate open access publishingargue for legislators to back public access to research and freely publish their ideas on hugely popular blogs, impatient of the increasingly outmoded notions of copyright and intellectual property. Our scientist colleagues are working openly, collaboratively, discussing their ideas even before publishing, giving us a clear indication that they chase real intellectual progress above success as it is traditionally measured. The international Republic of Letters is revived in this renewed ‘general acknowledgement of our right to put our ideas into the public domain’ (Broadie, 2001: 78).

Golden

So let us seize this task as our right! Let us not feel bordered by our institutions or lack thereof, our fields, or our passports. The world might be tightening its border security, shunting hopeful Australians between the Continent and the British Isles and back again, undermining the stability of our physical existences. Despite our European heritage we are denied the freer movement of the generation or two before us, despite our British head of state we are denied permission to live and work on the civilised side of the world. Despite the significant contributions of our Australian forebears—artists permitted the luxury of extended life and education in Paris, London, Florence—we are expected to lick the crumbs of three-month stints and produce impressive bodies of work on a strict time limit.

Autumn

Nonetheless, our physical circumstances need not dictate our intellectual contribution. Our citizenship in the borderless intellectual republic depends solely on our ‘active participation in discussions and debates conducted in the public arena’ (Broadie, 2001: 95). Adam Ferguson, another celebrated Scottish thinker, urged ordinary citizens to lead an active life, equating a passive existence with being forcefully restrained. Ferguson (in Broadie, 2001: 89) offers a warning somewhat prophetic of present-day Australia, arguing that the smothering of all action in an effort to stamp out undesirable action stifles a nation’s brilliance:

…if a rigorous policy, applied to enslave, not to restrain from crimes, has an actual tendency to corrupt the manners, and to extinguish the spirit of nations; if its severities be applied to terminate the agitations of a free people, not to remedy their corruptions; if forms be often applauded as salutary, because they tend merely to silence the voice of mankind, or be condemned as pernicious, because they allow this voice to be heard; we may expect that many of the boasted improvements of civil society, will be mere devices to lay the political spirit at rest, and will chain up the active virtues more than the restless disorders of men.

And might not this fearful outlook extend to our modern preoccupation with borders, our growing and blinding nationalism? If we are made criminals for seeking to move amongst our intellectual compatriots, for attempting to settle in an existing society that is culturally rich and not an isolated backwater, might not many important achievements be denied our generation? Are we not destroying the intellectual climate necessary for progress other than the commercial?

Highlands

Our ideas might be unsettling and our movements unpredictable, but this very irreverence for the established modes of thought and action is, if eighteenth-century Scotland demonstrates anything, key to dramatic intellectual progress. Such golden ages exploded into being where ‘geniuses and … other immensely creative people … were living in each other’s intellectual pockets (as well, often, as in each other’s houses)’ (Broadie, 2001: 219). And yet our borderless minds need not threaten cultural identities or national stability, for rather than being thought strictly anti-nationalist, we might perhaps more aptly be considered post-nationalist, something broader and more humanist that encompasses but moves beyond our homelands. As Hume was both a rightfully proud Scot and gladly a citizen of the world, our arbitrary home soil can only ‘be strengthened morally by the presence in it of citizens who attach a high value to rationality and civil liberty’ (Broadie, 2001: 96).

Leaf crunching

 

Broadie, Alexander. 2001. The Scottish Enlightenment. Birlinn: Edinburgh.

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The vortex of style

SONY DSC

I’ve happened upon one of the best sketch clubs I’ve ever had the good fortune to attend in tough and vibrant Glasgow, tucked away behind an inconspicuous back door in a dive bar perched on the outer skirts of the city centre. All the Young Nudes will be pleased to apply deafening and achingly cool music to your ears and drown out all other tedious distractions or heckling of the (three) models, while giving you the choice of shorter or longer poses depending where you station yourself, and of course you have access to beer on tap. Best of all, the models really are nude, something I’m finding a bit of a luxury of late in costume-oriented groups, allowing me to learn about the body once again.

Nude2

Of course, not everyone seems to attend sketch clubs in order to learn about the body. Which makes me wonder why people demand the luxury of a nude in their midst. I’ve found myself unhappily seated beside grown men with greying hair solemnly applying crayons to their paper in a decisive scribble with no correlation to the figure before them, before ceremoniously smearing the pathetic mess in turpentine. Or others who spend as much time invoking magic as they do drawing, waving their hands in spell-casting fashion at the long-suffering model. I pick on the old men because they have no excuse for not being able to draw by now, and worse—they generally feel compelled to offer us younger punters unsolicited instruction.

Nude1

I firmly believe that many of my contemporaries have no inkling of what the life class is. Each new pose, in their eyes, offers the opportunity for a new piece of Art. Another chance for the deity of Inspiration to channel something mind-blowing through their pencil. Each attempt is an end in itself. But the life class is simply about hard work, observation and practice. If anatomy is irrelevant, perhaps you’d do better to draw trees. Trees have limbs, too, and sit really still, and I’m sure would inspire similar profusions of confused chalky expression. It’s much cheaper.

Nude3

An aimless girl I met at said group confessed she has no knack for hard work, and would rather not put time and effort into drawing. Better to show up once a week, get drunk, and see what happens. She boasted that she was surprised by her own output, especially since it was so consistent. I had asked for no defence of her work, mind, but she was eager to explain to me why my ‘academic’ studies were no more valid than her half-arsed efforts. Consistency is the key, she forged on, for consistency is what she most values in art. If an artist is consistent, then they have a style, and style takes pre-eminence above all facility. What madness that an image can’t stand on its own merit, but requires a context to support it! I began to wonder if this preoccupation with ‘style’ is what drives the insistence on solo exhibitions.

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My contemporaries find my ‘style’ very easy to categorise as straight-up academic. ‘Oh, you draw in an academic style, I see,’ is the disappointed summation of my studies, which, don’t forget, I execute for my own studious purposes, not as works of Art. Others are more flattering: ‘You draw like a sculptor.’ Or, ‘You draw like an animator.’ Sculptors and animators are people who have an understanding of three-dimensional form and motion, of the construction and machinations of the body, and I feel more at home in such company. Oddly, I’m never told, ‘You draw like an artist.’ For artists can’t really draw, can they?

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Nor are they required to—and this is a significant obstacle. As Gombrich (1972: 13) lucidly explains in his fabulously unpretentious book The story of art, art was always produced toward some end: ‘Most of the paintings and statues which are now strung up along the walls of our museums and galleries were not meant to be displayed as Art. They were made for a definite occasion and a definite purpose which were in the artist’s mind when he set to work.’ Endless fretting about originality and expression never clouded the visage of the artists of the distant past. And yet, argues Gombrich (1972: 119), ‘there remained enough scope for him to show whether he was a master or a bungler.’ The unmasked utility of his work did not necessarily constrain him.

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For to be an artist is to be in the possession of a creative and problem-solving mind, and to have the urge to turn this mind towards tasks and problems and devise wholly new configurations. We are inventive creatures, our mental flights stray from the worn paths; our specialty is to approach things in ways that have not yet been considered. And as painters and sculptors we do this in a very physical, sight-dependent way, merging thought with touch.

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What we demand, then, are tasks! Ritual masks, cathedrals, portraits, book illustrations (Gombrich, 1972: 473)! Gombrich (1972: 472-3) compares these tasks to the grit around which a pearl can form. ‘If the artist’s feelings for forms and colours are to crystallise in a perfect work,’ he argues, ‘he, too, needs such a hard core—a definite task on which he can bring his gifts to bear.’ The cause is, just quietly, of little concern to the artist, whose problem-solving mind whirs over solving the physical task at hand rather than elusive concepts of beauty and expression (1972: 13). And that’s where her abilities come into their own: ‘The pearl completely covers the core. It is the secret of the artist that he does his work so superlatively well that we all but forget to ask what his work was supposed to be, for sheer admiration of the way he did it’ (1972: 473).

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Gombrich’s book fluidly traces a cultural history in which communities set definite tasks for artists, who, endlessly in need of challenge, performed them with great ingenuity and finesse. Yet there came a point when artists were forced to turn inwards for such challenges. Says Gombrich (1972: 473) sombrely: ‘It was a fateful moment in the Story of Art when people’s attention became so riveted on the way in which artists had developed painting or sculpture into a fine art that they forgot to give artists more definite tasks.’ With attention now firmly fixed on what these inventors would invent next, a string of ‘isms’ succeeded the artists’ own attempts to set themselves puzzles about light, form and colour, but also about meaning.

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Celebrated Glaswegian writer and artist Alasdair Gray (2007: 306-7) perfectly captures this claim in an increasingly impassioned dialogue between art student Duncan Thaw and his fellow hospital inmate, a local minister, in his spectacular novel Lanark:

‘There are very few good jobs for handworkers nowadays,’ said Thaw, ‘so most parents and teachers discourage that kind of talent.’

‘Did your parents encourage you?’

‘No. They allowed me paper and pencil when I was an infant, but apart from that they wanted me to do well in life.’

‘Tell me, just to change the subject, why are modern paintings so hard to understand?’

‘As nobody employs us nowadays we’ve to invent our own reasons for painting. I admit art is in a bad way. Never mind, we’ve some good films. So much money has been put into the film industry that a few worthwhile talents have got work there.’

The minister said slyly, ‘I thought artists didn’t work for money.’

Thaw said nothing. The minister said, ‘I thought they toiled in garrets till they starved or went mad, then their work was discovered and sold for thousands of pounds.’

‘There was once a building boom,’ said Thaw, growing excited, ‘In north Italy. The local governments and bankers of three or four towns, towns the size of Paisley, put so much wealth and thought into decorating public buildings that half Europe’s greatest painters were bred there in a single century. These bosses weren’t unselfish men, no, no. They knew they could only win votes and stay popular by giving spare wealth to their neighbours in the form of fine streets, halls, towers and cathedrals. So the towns became beautiful and famous and have been a joy to visit ever since. But today our bosses don’t live among the folk they employ. They invest surplus profits in scientific research. Public buildings have become straight engineering jobs, our cities get uglier and uglier and our best paintings look like screams of pain. No wonder! The few who buy them, buy them like diamonds or rare postage stamps, as a form of non-taxable banking.’

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Thaw’s claims ring as clear as ever in our own time. Inhabited public places comprise almost exclusively places of commerce: retail and dining. They are fashioned as such, and designed to urge consumption and to foster endless want and desire. Many of our cleverest and most innovative problem-solvers are more likely than ever to find their abilities at the disposal of advertising, which must be produced quickly, must be sharp and forceful, and is by nature throw-away. I’m not sure whether to be grateful to those who see value in and reward creative skills, employing us once again as humble handworkers, or whether to despair at the sorry ends to which such hands and minds have become servile. At any rate, a seemingly insurmountable division has grown between ‘commercial artists’ and ‘fine artists,’ with the latter largely unwilling to accept such tasks. Something more is demanded.

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Gombrich expertly laces together a preoccupation with style and the lack of suitable tasks. ‘Ever since artists had become self-conscious about ‘style’ they felt distrustful of conventions and impatient of mere skill,’ he writes (p. 439), continuing, ‘They longed for an art which did not consist of tricks which can be learned, for a style which was no mere style, but something strong and powerful like human passion.’ In not being required to produce anything specific, art itself became the task: the puzzles became more and more esoteric the less they became about applying art to external problems. Style is what remains when other goals are removed from the picture. Of course, that doesn’t defend laziness or ineptitude, as the indomitable draughtsman Pietro Annigoni fiercely wrote:

The truth is that the deformations of contemporary painters very seldom arise from stylistic requirements forced on the artist by his vision. They merely spring from a confused desire to be controversial, a surprising indifference to the human being and, one might add, a lukewarm commitment to life itself. The result is absolute indifference to form, lack of proper preparation and a heavy dose of sheer ineptitude. This last quality has today, it seems, acquired full rights of citizenship in the realm of art.

The less fiery Gombrich (p. 474) leaves us with this rebuke: ‘There are certainly painters and sculptors alive today who would have done honour to any age. If we do not ask them to do anything in particular, what right have we to blame them if their work appears to be obscure and aimless?’ I firmly believe we must forge a new chapter in the ‘story of art’ and that obsession with style over ability, along with the solo show and its narcissistic introspection, ought to be abandoned. Perhaps finding the modern task-giver will be crucial to this project.

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Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art, twelfth edition. Phaidon: Oxford.

Gray, Alasdair. 2007 [1969, 1981] Lanark. Canongate: Edinburgh.

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The squirrel

Hyndland house © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on canvas

Hyndland house © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on canvas

 

Sometimes it would be really excellent to have access to an art education, but sometimes you have to find a way to educate yourself. At times like this, the answer might come from Jack White, via a squirrel. ‘Take all your problems and rip ’em apart’: isolate, master, and finally, integrate.

Venus and Adonis ( / Jack White) by Abraham Janssens

Venus and Adonis ( / Jack White) by Abraham Janssens

Taking a class means you have a structure imposed on you, regularity and routine, and are fed ideas in a logical sequence. But in the event that you are not enrolled in a class, you can still find plenty to chew on, and with enough discipline you can create a solid routine. The important things are to be excited, to follow the trail and to be persistent. Travel affords one the perfect opportunity to get outside and work from nature, eyeballs twitching from all the spectacular new stimuli. But nature is hard: full of bugs, dogs, shrieking children, nosy people, trees, changing light and other painterly woes. One works with an urgency that can be shaken in the private peacefulness of the studio, but at the same time one finds the details mounting, crowding out the picture, looking rushed and untended to. I, for one, include too much, and struggle to keep the main design at the fore of my decisions.

Tree 1

George Clausen, whose Stone pickers (1887) I was fortunate enough to encounter in the Laing in Newcastle, expressed similar pains in his lectures to the Royal Academy (published as Six Lectures on Painting; 1904: 45): ‘Everything in nature is moving—not necessarily quickly, but nothing stands still for us; this sense of life and movement must be given in a picture with the measure of detail which may be necessary, and the result reveals the artist’s mind, showing on which qualities, and in what degree, his attention was fixed.’

Tree 2

So I have happened upon an approach that lets me both practice the elements and work at the broader design. Every afternoon I head out into the world with my sketchbook and choose something to devote my attention to. Perhaps a scene will strike me, and I will sit down for an hour, two, as long as it takes, and interrogate this setting from a design perspective. These drawings are fluid, scratchy, built of simplified masses, and usually paying attention to form, reducing trees to bulbous sphere-based monstrosities, and paying careful attention to perspective in the prisms of buildings. In these drawings I’m developing a notation for three-dimensional objects, as well as forcing them into pleasing arrangements. Many of these drawings go nowhere, but some form the basis of paintings. Mostly, they reveal what the smaller problems are, and demonstrate that tackling an entire landscape all at once is too big a bite just now.

Tree 3

Other afternoons I linger in a sunny park or bunker down by a swamp and draw the trunk of a tree. These organic forms produce surprising twists, and let me explore drawing quite fluidly and more freely than when drawing the figure with its predictable anatomy. Plus, they sit still for longer, so you can while away hours investigating in as much detail as you care to, and never run out of variations. As Harold Speed (1913: 106) reminds us, ‘Nature is the great storehouse of variety; even a piece of coal will suggest more interesting rock-forms than you can invent. … And it is never advisable to waste inventive power where it is so unnecessary.’

Tree 6

For reals, this tree exists.

Mornings, I like to start with a drapery study. My kind friend Elizabeth has let me pillage her scarf drawer which means I have an endless variety of fabrics—stiff, wispy, heavy, floaty, wiry and bunched—at my disposal. It’s a nice reminder that there’s not simply drapery, but that all fabrics have their own manner of drape; that they bunch differently, fall differently and fold differently. I started out with ‘drapery sculptures,’ complex creatures to test my accuracy. But I got more excited about the puzzles of fabric, and began to explore its incarnations: table drapery, hanging drapery, folded and twisted drapery; the little pockets and cones that form in it. And besides wrapping my head around the ‘mechanics’ of this mouldable form, I found these exercises to be an invaluable means of practicing modelling. My earlier drawings are harshly seeking out the cross-contours; my later ones, even after only a few weeks, are finding a more elegant way to express the softness of the surface of my subject.

Drape 1

And here comes the exciting bit. Having broken all my problems down and gnawed away at them, varying and repeating the tasks, following my nose and trying to solve the new puzzles that arise out of them, I see just how connected they are. For a tree is a person is a drape is a composition. The ripples of the surface of the drapery find their way into my trees, and the muscularity and counter rhythms of human limbs translate into those of trees. The design-oriented sweeps through boughs—always planted firmly on the ground—resurface in the capturing of a human pose, feet rooted just as surely. And a thin piece of cloth has forms as full as any living thing, and is not simply a web of shapes dovetailing together.

Drape 2

As ever, trusty old Bammes accompanies me on my explorations, and a little such guidance never goes astray. For it’s nice to work independently, but it’s also nice to receive tested wisdom and gentle reminders: ‘If skull drawing is not practised as if it were architecture, with a perpetual ordering of primary and secondary aspects—if it is not done with awareness—it will degenerate into nothing more than clever copying and will not provide any gain in knowledge or vision’ (2010: 222).

Drape 3

Clausen empathises further (1904: 54): ‘The student’s greatest difficulty is to find himself; what it is that he really wants to express.’ He observes that we are more inclined to seek our place amongst our contemporaries, to stay attuned to current creative trends and market-driven demands. But Clausen urges the student in her ‘search for general principles:’ ‘He should try and arrive at principles, and to that end study also the work of the old artists, who have travelled the whole road; depending on nature for his inspiration, while referring to them for guidance.’ Clausen suggests a delicate balance between personal encounters and struggles with the natural world, with observation and private deduction—just as a mathematician might privately prove axioms to himself as a sure footing for further creative problem solving—and a devoted study of the masters. In this light it is not simply a dreamlike privilege to be in Europe, with daily access to world-class galleries, but a minimum requirement of the student of art. One does oneself no favours by remaining in a cultural backwater, relying only on reproductions in one’s investigations into the great work of the past. Clausen (1904: 54) argues that such study gives us a belt of tools—of insights, ideas and trains of thought—to bring to our own battles of taming nature to the canvas. ‘For we train ourselves to see and understand, by studying the work of the masters, which help us to form our judgement before nature.’

Drape 4

This idea that we distill the principles for ourselves is, to my mind, paramount. No master of any field simply reads the elementary textbooks and gets on with making bold discoveries. Many a physicist has divulged to me that they have returned again and again to the foundational principles, oiled their minds with them, looked at them from every angle, picked them apart and pieced them back together unaided, and, after a number of years working on highly abstracted concepts, have seen these principles in a new light as their specialised understanding deepens. We need the surest, securest foundation for our endeavours, and however elite and respected and coveted our school, it can never simply feed us such a foundation. We must work through the smallest of problems for ourselves, and make each discovery, have each profound epiphany, at our own hand.

Drapes

And no less than the mighty Leonardo da Vinci will back us up on this. In his notebooks he admits to being no scholar, but to owing all to the mistress of experience. ‘Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy:—on experience, the mistress of their Masters. They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with [the fruits], not of their own labours, but of those of others. And they will not allow me my own. They will scorn me as an inventor; but how much more might they—who are not inventors but vaunters and declaimers of the works of others—be blamed.’ (1888: 16-17).

Gnarly tree

In having the humility to search out general principles for ourselves, and becoming familiar with them inside and out, da Vinci argues that we will face our creative problems with clarity of mind. ‘These rules will enable you to have a free and sound judgment; since good judgment is born of clear understanding, and a clear understanding comes of reasons derived from sound rules, and sound rules are the issue of sound experience—the common mother of all the sciences and arts.’ (1888: 19) And so, artist or scientist, let’s not neglect the small puzzles, or rely on others to hand solutions to us. Let’s tear apart and then rebuild our own enduring foundations, one little acorn at a time.

 

You can snag most of the books cited free online!

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing. Search: Kent.

Clausen, George. 1904. Six lectures on painting. Methuen: London.

Speed, Harold. 1913. The practice and science of drawing. Seeley: London.

da Vinci, Leonardo. 1888. The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Trans. Jean Paul Richter.

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Fabled cities

Princes St GardensMy triumphant return to Edinburgh reduced me to a giddy five-year-old. The city had become part of the fabric of my dreams: otherworldly, symbolic, a mythological city of my own personal folklore. On my first foray into the wide-open world I settled on this place for no solid reason, and I built myself a life in this story-book setting, in the streets that seem to shift and change in their illogical woven arrangement.

Passage

I had little money, an odd assortment of things in a battered suitcase I’d picked up from the side of the road, and an acceptance letter from the University of Edinburgh. It had never before crossed my mind that it was within my reach to travel, for the world is so unimaginably distant when you know nothing but the unending expanse of Australia. But, with infinite cool, I persuaded myself that life abroad would be no different than life at home, and that since one could never be truly prepared it was best to just leap. I would simply study as I usually did, get a job as I always had, live simply and be open. Edinburgh marks the threshold: that attitude has come to define my life.

Black Medicine

Returning to Edinburgh after five years was nothing short of a homecoming, and I hadn’t expected to be so taken with it after all that has happened in between—the cities I’ve fallen in love with, the lives I’ve built. But this first romance is deeply rooted in my being, fondly dwelt upon, sweetly revisited. Those grey drizzled bricks and those winding cobbled passages are like nowhere else. The sheer magic of the geography: dreary laneways that usher you onto the Cowgate; spiralling roads that suddenly bring you to the Grassmarket; wind-whipped streets that back onto the Meadows. It’s nigh impossible to visualise your route, but from any given location you know three portals that connect to three other pockets of the city, and thus you skip from corner to corner until you find yourself where you hoped to be, or somewhere unexpected and worthy of exploration.

Tweed

Edinburgh taught me a boldness. It taught me to impose on others, to ask for the pleasure of their company, knowing they held back out of politeness. It taught me how far I could rely on myself, and to push yet further. It taught me that the world was within reach, and it taught me to be dissatisfied and to demand more. When I had made a comfortable enough nest in Edinburgh, I ventured out into Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands. And I began to ask myself why I didn’t impose greater challenges on myself, why I didn’t know any other languages, why Australia seemed inevitable when my grandparents themselves had shipped their lives across the world. Perhaps we belonged wherever we felt we did.

Time travel

A past self, Edinburgh

Coming back felt like time-travel—like meeting my past self face to face, that often-solitary self who was first unleashed on the world, who quietly and unassumingly found her place like water trickling in between the cobblestones, before rushing on yet further, moving ever fluidly through the world. So many in my life don’t know this me, can’t see how profoundly I was moulded by this ancient place that has cocooned countless others before. But some know the bewitching ways of Auld Reekie—Anna concurs: ‘I always have a sense of happy contentment whenever I get off the train at Waverley.’ Either this unbelievable city is real, or I woke up in my dreams.

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Of respect and respectability

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

I lately find myself floating untethered across Europe, of unfixed address and relying on the kindness of friends. Determined to do away with distractions, excess possessions, and non-painting-related ambitions, my faithful and scuffed old suitcase and I have somewhat conspicuously fallen off the path of respectability.

wish

Making big wishes, Vienna

Wafting from city to city, from house to house, welcomed warmly into the homes of friends, I’m permitted into the private spheres of young doctors, paramedics, physicists, engineers and environmental charity workers, and granted a sobering insight into the contrasts in our chosen careers. But I’m also freshly awoken to how difficult it is for each of us to forge our way. My friends are well-travelled, well-educated, some are employed, some have suspended employment for the sake of a relationship, some have worked offshore, some are physically overworked, others are mentally under-challenged, some need to secure funding to guarantee their own ongoing employment. Those of us with money are not necessarily respected, because their jobs are too physical or not demanding enough of their time. Those of us who are working for the betterment of the world are anxious at not contributing enough. And I, as capable as they, cling resolutely to my cause in the face of my meagre earning-power.

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This unsettling confrontation with earning ability has been somewhat tempered by some thoughts from philosopher Alain de Botton. I found his book Status anxiety on a bookshelf in a new home and read it hungrily and hopefully. For at heart, we all want to occupy ourselves with something which challenges and satisfies us, and we want others to respect us for our efforts. But are our equations, prescriptions, policies and drawings enough when the measure held against our work is money? De Botton lays out an historical account of our attitude to wealth that can at least reassure the financially-challenged that they are not necessarily worthless. He describes the complete historical about-face of our estimation of wealth, and, most strikingly, its connection with virtue.

Poverty wasn’t always such a psychological burden to bear, argues de Botton (2004: 67-68), particularly in a world where one was born either into nobility or peasantry according to God’s will. One’s moral worth could not be wrapped up in one’s social standing if that immutable standing was allotted by God. Poverty might bring physical discomforts, but not shame. And since the aristocracy acknowledged that their luxuries were only made possible through the untiring efforts of the lower classes, it was only fitting that they demonstrated charity and pity toward these unfortunates. A delicate balance of interdependency between rich and poor reinforced the idea that virtue and moral worth were not reflected in wealth (2004: 70).

But in about the middle of the eighteenth century, argues de Botton (2004: 75-76), some hopeful meritocratic ideas began to take root and to dismantle these beliefs and thus to erode our collective appraisal of poverty. And, more sinisterly, supply and demand were switched. Rather than considering the role of the poor a necessary evil, fatefully bestowed, their position came to be described as dependent on the whims of the rich. Without demand, their labour would be for naught. Thinkers as forceful as David Hume and Adam Smith helped to redefine who depended on whom (2004: 76-78):

Hume loving, Edinburgh

Hume loving, Edinburgh

‘In a nation where there is no demand for superfluities, men sink into indolence, lose all enjoyment of life, and are useless to the public, which cannot maintain or support its fleets and armies.’ (David Hume, 1752).

Portrait gallery

National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

‘In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own convenience, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, the rich divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.’ (Adam Smith, 1776).

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Charity became a burden; the poor became a nuisance (2004: 78). Coupled with progressive ideas that every individual ought to be rewarded according to his or her abilities and achievements, the modern attitude to poverty is one of disdain. For the flipside of meritocracy is that those who do not excel deserve the hardships and stigma that they have thus earned. It seems a regrettable but inevitable price to pay. Since one ought to be able to improve one’s position, failure to do so has come to imply moral failure in a way it did not in the past (2004: 87). De Botton (p. 85) explains, ‘An increasing faith in a reliable connection between merit and worldly position in turn endowed money with a new moral quality.’ And, worse: ‘To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame’ (2004: 91).

De Botton goes on to explore antidotes to this new state of affairs, a string of themes that reads like my biography: Christianity, Politics, Philosophy, Art and Bohemia. Perhaps my attraction to these things has lessened my own regard for money and for the esteem that comes hand in hand with it. At heart, his message is to seek value elsewhere; define worth on your own terms, as many have before. Build, adopt or steal an unshakable moral code so that in dark times you can measure your life and your own worth against this and not money; so that you can respect yourself and stay focused on your life’s work. Perhaps that confidence and determination is enough win the respect of those who doubt you.

Love Newcastle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

De Botton, Alain. 2004. Status anxiety. Hamish Hamilton: London.

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Art as scholarship: towards an artistic methodology

Picnic for one (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Picnic for one © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The world of art is more than a little unnerving. Something like a manifestation of Alice’s fantasy world, in which ‘everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary-wise; what it is, it wouldn’t be, and what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?’ The Wonderland in which ‘art is anything that you can get away with’ leaves me, at least, whimpering with Alice, ‘it would be so nice if something would make sense for a change.’

Many of my peers are quantum physicists, and it is among such erudite and clear-thinking company that I find myself most at ease and most understood. Science, after centuries of academic rigour, is systematic in its innovation. It builds upon previous knowledge, lets go of what proves false, and only accepts work of a high standard that respects the tradition. I’m thoroughly convinced that artists should look to our scientist friends for methodological guidance as an antidote to our proudly irrational domain. Such an idea is supported by Galenson in his excellent book Old masters and young geniuses, in which he draws attention to certain parallels between the career of the artist and that of the scholar.

UNewcastle

Newcastle University

The shape of the artistic career and that of the scientific career have much in common. Galenson, an economist by training, has taken time to observe the lifecycles of successful artists over the last century and has turned up the following unsurprising but little-discussed commonalities. ‘At the graduate level, most important scholars have worked with a teacher who is himself an important contributor to the discipline. The same is true for artists’ (2006: 18). He continues, ‘Similarly, just as at an early stage of their careers most successful scholars have studied and worked closely with other promising scholars of their own generation, virtually all successful modern artists have initially developed their art in the company of other talented young artists.’

It sounds simple, but it is an observation worth taking note of. Where our scientist peers are working together in small clusters of post-doctoral researchers and PhD candidates, under the guidance of an established and tenured professor and with the resources to make global collaborations and attend international conferences, artists are ejected from scholarly life and instead set up shop alone in a private studio. Perhaps the opportunity to take up a shared studio space encourages nurturing interactions, but the painfully obvious scarcity of resources remains as artists must compete against each other for piecemeal funding in the form of prizes while paying for their own workspace and tools. Nevertheless, knowing that keeping good company is a significant factor in a successful career, the solitary artist might seek the company of other similarly attuned minds of other disciplines. Just as Goethe ‘associated by preference with medical men and attended medical lectures’ (Kollwitz, p. 80), we might find stimulating peers amongst our more structurally grounded scientific contemporaries.

My new garden studio in Newcastle upon Tyne

New garden studio in Newcastle upon Tyne

Such science-art intermingling may turn up more fundamental similarities. Our diverging methods have a common cause: the impulse to grapple with the physical world and to understand it by imposing order. The artist imposes a visual order on the world; the scientist a more abstract and calculable one. Without suggesting that art is a science, for I do not believe it to be, I want to make a case for art being another form of scholarship. Historically, our work shares many common traits, as George Kubler observed in his book The shape of time (1962; in Galenson, 2006: 17)—not least the pattern of ‘invention, change and obsolescence.’ Science and art are at their cores innovative careers, not merely geared towards presenting polished, new solutions to the world at large, but more fundamentally through identifying and posing relevant problems. The physical world is full of mystery, and we multiply our understanding and reverence of it through finding better ways to humbly question it.

So argues Galenson (p. 17), and, further, he argues that our innovative goals are not market driven but aim instead at ‘creat[ing] new methods and results that change the work of other practitioners’ (my emphasis). ‘We understand,’ he writes (p. 18) ‘that in the first instance nearly all important scholarship is produced for an audience of other scholars.’ No quantum physicist works for the ludicrous goal of pleasing the curious but scientifically-challenged public, commodifying the results of their investigations for general consumption. He does not bend to the arbitrary tastes of a cashed-up audience. And this is no high-minded snobbery or elitism. Scientists are simply highly-trained specialists, and, for the most part, regarded as such. We non-scientists accept broader, simpler explanations from them, and rely on their expert judgements within their field.

SONY DSC

The artist might follow this cue and recognise that the most significant art will not be market-driven, gallery-selected, or critically-determined work, for the real experts in this field are none other than our colleagues–other artists. We might accept commissions that pay our bills, or take part in shows that ostensibly raise our credibility, or even intentionally make art that is ‘for the people,’ with accessibility as our main motivator. But I would contend that in so doing, we hazard limiting our artistic potential. Chamfort (in de Botton 2004: 125) acidly observes, ‘Public opinion is the worst of all opinions. … One can be certain that every generally held idea, every received notion will be an idiocy, because it has been able to appeal to a majority.’ Were we to consider ourselves true scholars, we might let these distractions fall away and focus on the more pressing task of contributing something of lasting import to the body of human knowledge. Rather than setting ourselves up as obscurantist elitists, we might simply recognise that we, too, are specialists of a practical variety. Further, we have a duty to the public to be discerning about the quality of art, since those not so well-versed in visual languages are looking to us for guidance.

Art has many purposes—as Gombrich (1972 [1950]: 13) describes, ‘Most of the paintings and statues which are now strung up along the walls of our museums and galleries were not meant to be displayed as Art. They were made for a definite occasion and a definite purpose which were in the artist’s mind when he set to work.’ But while art may be used spiritually, decoratively, financially and communicatively, it is an appealing idea that in the modern scholarly realm art may also be produced as a visual form of research. Robert Nelson (2009: 121) discusses the extent to which art may be considered research ‘because it is concerned with innovation.’ Perhaps our most honest inquisitive efforts will attract fame and fortune, but more soberly, perhaps they will bring order to the chaos, with art functioning as another branch of respectable scholarly investigation.

 

De Botton, Alain. 2004. Status anxiety. Hamish Hamilton: London.

Galenson, David W. 2006. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity. Princeton University: Princeton, NJ.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.

Kollwitz, Käthe. 1988. The diary and letters of Käthe Kollwitz. Northwestern University Press.

Nelson, Robert. 2009. The jealousy of ideas: Research methods in the creative arts. Ellikon: Fitzroy, Victoria.

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