The vortex of style

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.’

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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.

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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).

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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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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.

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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.

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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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Peace and love, and capitalism

Life drawing

I’ve had some acquaintance with the Vienna Academy of Visionary Art through their open life drawing sessions twice a week during term, so I was happy to hop along to their end of year show and celebrate the conclusion of their first year with them. The Academy’s teaching faculty come from all over the world, even as far as Melbourne, and many of them were taught in turn by the Viennese Ernst Fuchs, whom they all hold in very high esteem. The small cohort of seven students are all from the US and Canada.

The school itself, on a workday, is light and airy, rocking new age beats, and generally exuding a peaceful calm. Shoes are often shed, and herbal teas steam alongside palettes. Each painting station is beside a window, a bright little hub without a place for a still life, because the students here admirably work from imagination. There is a strong emphasis on traditional techniques, and many works are done in the so-called ‘Mischtechnik,’ layering oil, egg tempera and varnishes. Paintings are built up from raw umber underpaintings through a series of glazes, and in the life drawing session students are encouraged to work into mid-toned paper with a dark and a white chalk or pencil preparation for such painting.

Life drawing

Principal instructor Laurence Caruana’s speech on the opening night expressed despondency with the commercialism that has crept into and strangled art over the last four centuries. The vision of this Academy is to salvage some human dignity in art, and it seeks to do this through (in Laurence’s words) ‘a return to the sacred in art.’ What this might mean in a modern, largely secular world is perhaps contestable, but a heavy dose of mysticism certainly comes as part of the package. And indiscriminately so: Paleolithic, Neolithic, and tribal goddesses are explored as part of the curriculum, as is Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Minoan art, barging right on through Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. And I’ve perused but one of Laurence’s books sitting by the altar in the teaching room, a novel based on his investigations into the Gnostic Christ.

Now, I know very little about mysticism other than garden-variety Christianity, but it seems you are welcome here to choose your poison, or concoct your own special blend. This desperate grasping after something, anything, spiritual feels strangely backward-looking, a denial of our collective growth and expanding and ever-refined knowledge over the last few centuries. I can’t help but think that a modern ‘sacred’ art ought to shed its gods and evolve into a humanist art, perhaps aligned with philosophy and science. Fractals, anyone? Conformal symmetry is pretty mind-blowing!

Life drawing

I have had some good conversations with students at the Academy about such things as symmetry and composition. When I questioned them about their penchant for symmetry, I was told that it is a calming, grounding compositional strategy: the balance in the image quiets the viewer to a state of steadiness, giving them a clear focal point from which to furtively explore other parts of the canvas. I’m reminded of the strength and simplicity of a radial composition, which may be built of quite complex elements, and wonder if this hypnotic simplification isn’t aiming too low. Then again, perhaps our collective visual literacy is so deplorable that we really do need such obvious cues to find our way around a still image.

Objects from the altar may be used for still lives, which seems to emphasise this somewhat Mischtechnik-mysticism over technical clarity—I try to fathom learning properties of light with the aid of pinecones and crystals instead of the humble spheres and eggs I drew repeatedly until I understood. Students of the Visionary Academy are certainly not in danger of lapsing into lustreless careers as painters of technically proficient but dull still lives and studio nudes, or forgetting that they are learning skills in order to produce art. At every step of the learning process, the Visionary student bears in mind their mystical vision—even the life drawing poses are modelled on famous mystically-oriented paintings or incorporate mythic weaponry props. The ambitiousness of this undertaking shows: the students all exhibited their major piece for the term as ‘works in progress.’ To some extent, I think it is admirable that they keep their vision ever at the forefront, but it also seems to obscure some valuable learning opportunities. I am deeply saddened at the way students are left to languish in the life class, critiqued and yet unassisted by their teacher, until they plead illness and head out in search of herbal teas. And when there is so much to be learned from the figure!

Life drawing

Perhaps most sadly of all, this spiritual quest does not seem to wrench art back from the clutches of Mammon. For unlike shows at large private galleries such as Philip Bacon in Brisbane, where money flows in the tens of thousands and the fine champagne flows just as freely—the lubricant of capital—but no one ever talks about the digits, one topic overshadowed all others on the Visionary Academy’s opening night: money. A student gave a public plea (not her first) in the opening speeches that left me squeamish, drawing our attention to all the money-giving opportunities available that night: that many paintings were for sale, that her own work was especially for sale in a silent auction format, that many small works were available at a ‘pay what you want’ table. After the formalities, we slipped to the bar for a little refreshment and were charged more than we would be at a restaurant per glass, a policy I’d never yet seen in place at an art show. Now that the term is over, the Academy is doggedly cross-posting in all the Vienna life drawing groups, trying to rent out studio space and accommodation over the summer. And all the while, it’s hard to silence that little thought at the back of one’s mind that a year at this Academy will set you back a not-so-trivial €9900. Peace and love, and capitalism, brothers and sisters. It’s the modern world, whatever mysticism you drape it in.

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The graduate exhibition runs until June 28th 2014 at the Palais Palffy on Josefsplatz, Wien.

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The perfectionist

The time traveller propositions his past self © Samantha Groenestyn

The time traveller propositions his past self © Samantha Groenestyn

The apologetic cry, ‘I’m a perfectionist!’ is repulsive to me: a virtuous-sounding excuse for failing to complete a work, or failing even to start because one cannot put something aside and move on to newer projects. I want to contend that perfectionism can be disastrous because it begins at the end, and unjustly weights the final product as more valuable than the process of getting there. This is not to say that the outcome of a work is irrelevant, for ultimately we are hoping to contribute lasting and pleasing things to the world, to the utmost of our abilities. But the artist must keep both the end and the means in mind. Secondly, I want to contend that perfectionism, if it is to have any merit, ought to be a private quest, locked safely in the mind of the artist. She ought to be able to evaluate her own work, to engage in ruthless self-reflection, in order to improve her work rather than stall it in the paralysis of self-doubt. I see no place for this self-critique out in the open, begging for the validation of others.

Flayed Mikes © Samantha Groenestyn

Flayed Mikes

I read a nice little story about students making pottery, where half the class was graded on quantity and the other half on quality. As it transpired, the half that had churned through a large volume of work, evaluated it, reconsidered their approach, discarded previous efforts and tried again, ended up producing the more consistently higher quality work. This isn’t a bald argument for quantity as a guarantee for randomly producing a masterpiece; it illustrates, rather, that time, dedication, risk-taking and self-reflection are necessary to improve. This may happen over the course of many works or in the fearless refinement of one. Perhaps working over many works has only this advantage: One learns to let go, and to not let everything rest on the success or failure of a single piece.

life drawing

An enlightening book by David W Galenson, Old masters and young geniuses, describes the heartless method of the sculptor Giacometti: his unrelenting revision of his sculptures usually took the form of ‘completely destroying and recreating them. He did not feel it necessary to preserve most of his efforts because he considered them failures’ (2006: 119). Jean-Paul Sartre, a friend of Giacometti’s, recalled, ‘I like what he said to me one day about some statues he had just destroyed: “I was satisfied with them but they were made to last only a few hours”. … Never was a matter less eternal, more fragile, nearer to being human’ (p. 119). Despite his harsh self-criticism, Giacometti was not incapable of getting out of bed in the morning and setting to work. This is because despite not achieving his end, he saw the importance of each step toward that end. The creation of each smashed-up sculpture was indelibly imprinted in his brain: the sculpture itself need not continue, for its real value lay in the knowledge gained during the making of it.

life drawing

And so it is with studies of any kind. Drawings that search out anatomy, or rhythms through the body, or that simply train the hand into a steadier hatching technique: these drawings might be pleasant enough to look at, but their real value lies in the marks hatched into the mind of the draughtsperson. Learning art is physical; it is bound up in the making of art, not in the theorising about it. And an outlook that every piece must be finished, polished, perfect, can inhibit the exploration, the risk taking, and perhaps stall the regular habit of simply drawing. It is worthwhile to take pieces as far as you possibly can. It is also invaluable to practice starting, to practice seeing the whole, to rehearse difficult fragments again and again.

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This is how the perfectionist really works: smoothing out those rough patches, actively seeking out gaps in her knowledge, testing herself and starting again. Because privately, she knows her limitations, and confronts them day after day. But publicly, she can be proud of her efforts, and confidently lay out her failures without a hint of self-deprecation: These works are the best she can offer as a result of her dedication and discipline, and her mind is already fixed on new challenges, building on what was gained through these humble but infinitely valuable failures.

life drawing

 

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

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Waylaid

Copy after Lotte Laserstein, Im Gasthaus

Copy after Lotte Laserstein, Im Gasthaus

I was on my way to Berlin, buzzing with ambition, when I was seduced by Vienna. This proud city, with its somewhat faded opulence, in all shades of cream and flecked with gold, is not the ever-reinvented hive that is Berlin. While Berlin constantly recreates itself in the wake of the catastrophic pummelling it took in the twentieth century, Vienna lingers in its early twentieth century grandeur, reflecting nostalgically on its lavish achievements, and unhurriedly meanders into this century like its curling, well-tended garden paths. An exhibition at the Lower Belvedere currently reflects on the contrast between these two German-speaking cities, and on the flow of artists between them during the early part of last century. Wien – Berlin: Kunst zweier Metropolen (The art of two cities) traces the cross-pollination and divergences of the art of these two cities at a time of impressive growth and change.

In both Vienna and Berlin, artists broke away from the established Künstlerhaus system of annual central exhibitions and established their own Secessions in the late 1800s. Rather than bowing to the narrower demands of the traditional methods of exhibiting, artists banded together to create a more liberal environment that welcomed extremely varied art. Quality was prized over a strict aesthetic.

Even so, each city infused its Secession with its own flavour. Vienna, steeped in its tradition of the salon in which artists, writers, scientists, musicians and other intellectuals regularly came together and let their ideas be fertilised by other disciplines, moved a little slower than Berlin. Vienna persisted in its holistic outlook, cemented in these salons and in integrated design workshops like the Wiener Werkstätte which married luxurious and individualised ornamentalism with function. Life was infused with art, and art blossomed in sympathy with science, and Vienna sought greater and greater refinement in this cyclical motion, eternal as the leafy ring road that circles the Innere Stadt.

From the Weaver cycle by Käthe Kollwitz

From the Weaver cycle by Käthe Kollwitz

Berlin, meanwhile, marched onwards to the beat of industrialisation. Speed and progress birthed a buzzing metropolis, and this in turn transmuted into the dissonant, angular and aggressive art of German Expressionism. The Belvedere exhibition begins with the bustling optimism of the turn of the century—train stations flooded with people, glistening streets full of nightlife despite rain, charming dancers, an explosion of colour. Yet Vienna is already somewhat more sedate, with refined ladies elegantly poised as in the portraits by the Viennese Gustav Klimt (Johanna Staude, 1917/18) and Otto Friedrich (Elsa Galfrés, 1908; Gabrielle Gallia, undated). And the strains of industrialisation are already passionately depicted by the German Käthe Kollwitz in her Weavers (1897) series, with trauma etched into the extremely individual faces marching in protest, eyes crazed. German Hans Baluschek’s Montagmorgen (Monday morning) (1898) is a blue haze of Berliner debauchery, with independent modern girls stripped down to their stockings and undergarments languidly welcoming the dawn with their beer bottles and cigarettes. The ‘cultivated refinement’ of Vienna is contrasted with the ‘uncompromising progress’—and the ensuing stresses—of Berlin. Vienna’s ‘unhurried contentment’—Gemütlichkeit—was paraded as a singularly Viennese virtue, but was beginning to stand for the city’s inability to keep up.

Copy after Hans Baluschek, Montag Morgen

Copy after Hans Baluschek, Montag Morgen

As an intellectual locus, however, Vienna produced its own Expressionists to match the newer, more forceful art burgeoning in Berlin. As Eric R Kandel describes in his book The age of insight, the Austrian Expressionists were influenced by the inward-looking ideas of the emerging field of psychology, in which the Viennese Sigmund Freud was making bold strides. Austrian painters such as Max Oppenheimer, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele were connected with, if not living in, Berlin, but producing a particularly Viennese brand of Expressionism. The ornamental heritage championed by Klimt found its way in to their compositions, which often place the figure on a flat, pearlescent ground; a sort of emotional reductivism. But the gallery notes also refer to ‘the psychologically precise observation of gesture and posture’ characteristic of the Viennese Expressionists, as well as their sculptural construction of volumes in the figure.

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Bildnis des Verlegers Eduard Kosmack, by Egon Schiele

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The angular Bildnis des Verlegers Eduard Kosmack (1910) (Portrait of the publisher Eduard Kosmack) by Schiele, although stripped to a soft, bare ground, and although emotively distorted with monstrous joints and hands and heavy, dark-ringed eyes, pays careful attention to anatomical landmarks and three-dimensional representation. The distortions deviate from this certain frame, and the image shimmers with fury and intensity, as though Kosmack’s head might explode at any moment, a burning book cast to his side. Likewise, Oppenheimer’s Geißelung (1913) (Scourging), while expressively abstracted, clings to solid and fluid drawing, with pleasing graphic arcs of ribs showing through thinly painted flesh. The elongated Christ-like figure, whose innards are being torn to shreds, is surrounded by angular, universalised figures whose converging faces border on religious ecstasy. The pain is thoroughly depicted in the drawing, with the colours soft and subdued—the blood-stained drapery is a gentle, rosy shade of pink. This is in notable contrast with the German Expressionist use of colour to carry emotion, and the often flattened shards of shapes, heavy as woodcuts.

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Geißelung, by Max Oppenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the 1920s, a sober disillusionment seemed to overtake both cities. The heavy-handed heart-rending of Expressionism gave way to the distanced, dreamlike mood of New Objectivist painting. The portraits of the German Christian Schad are overly sharp and precise: egg-smooth, with deep creases, carefully outlined and overlarge eyes, empty and lifeless. As in Lola, the colours are strong and the light is bright but a deep melancholy pervades these seemingly bold personalities. The accompanying still lives are firmly delineated arrangements of perfectly ordinary objects that turn surreal in these impersonal representations. Hans Baluschek’s Sommerabend (1928) (Summer evening) is again drenched in an unsettling blue light, the shadows comprising the fleshier pink colours of the tired out tenants of a windowless apartment block in their dusty garden. The paint is lively and brushy, even on flat surfaces. The scene is framed by two lights: on the left, the blazing lights of a train forging ahead, and on the right, a full, low-slung golden moon. The people recline in awkward love-triangles, clutching desperately at simple pleasures, balanced between these two lights.

And then, tucked away in the last room, amongst sporting images and caricatures, are two incredible paintings by the German Lotte Laserstein. Her women are modern, sporting, beer drinking, and plain: their gazes are not empty, but heavy with understanding, a knowing and accepting melancholy. Tennisspielerin (1929) (Tennis player) is awash with watery shadows, the whole painting laid down over a rough, brushy layer that shows a thick texture through the image. The lighter tones look wiped away, leaving a dreamy, hazy finish despite the deep reddish colour of the skin. With her face turned away, it is her body that says everything. Im Gasthaus (1927) (In the tavern) is stunning in its own way: much smaller, and painted on wood, the paint layers build up like watercolour though they are oil, leaving an agitated, blotchy surface. The lady’s blue button eyes near fall out of her head; her fingers press deeply into her glove. The modern world is upon us.

Copy after Lotte Laserstein, Tennisspielerin

Copy after Lotte Laserstein, Tennisspielerin

Our pictorial history comes to a halt here, but life goes on quietly in Vienna; the former imperial capital overshadowed by Germany’s vibrant young capital. But while young people lust after a nightlife like Berlin’s, and know this is not the place to come to make a name for themselves, the comment of a young scientist resonates deeply: ‘In Berlin you are always having a good time. In Vienna, you get some peace at last, and can really get some serious work done.’ And so, perhaps another intellectual milieu is simmering under the surface of our elegant city, as undistracted artists and scientists continue to exchange philosophies in velvet-upholstered and wood-panelled coffee houses. Only, not before lunch, please.

Im Gasthaus, by Lotte Laserstein

Im Gasthaus, by Lotte Laserstein

 

 

The Wien – Berlin exhibition runs just a little longer, until 15 June 2014, at the Lower Belvedere in Vienna.

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