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.

portrait

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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Suited up

Three framed 2

This little guy is happily framed in his peachy, frosty jacket, all suited up for a big night at the Pine Rivers Gallery on Brisbane’s northside. I’m especially excited to announce that he’s been selected as a finalist in the Moreton Bay Region Art Awards! You can head on down and lend him some moral support next Friday, 16 May, at the Strathpine Community Centre. Doors open at 6pm with formalities taking place an hour later, and you can relax with a drink as your eyes take a wander.

Three framed

The keen observer will note that my Salisbury comrades Ryan Daffurn, Nick Leavey and Anita West are also strongly representing the southside as finalists. I’m very proud to be showing alongside them.

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Zwischen zwei Städte

Wanderlust © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Wanderlust © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Suddenly Rosita comes in with breakfast and brings me a piece of news that throws me into a joyous ecstasy. Tomorrow will be the 19th of July, and that is the date on which Monsieur and Madame arrived from Paris last year. I give an hysterical yell:

‘So I haven’t arrived yet! I haven’t arrived. Not before tomorrow will I come to Port Lligat. This time last year, I hadn’t even started my Christ! And now before I’ve so much as come here, my Assumption is almost on its feet, pointing to heaven!’

I run straight to my studio and work till I am ready to drop, cheating and taking advantage of not being there yet so as to have as much as possible already done at the moment of my arrival. …

In spite of all my stratagems to savour the last moments of my absence with an intoxicating intensity, here I am, finally home in Port Lligat. And so happy!

(Salvador Dali, p. 55)

Life drawing 0

It seems inevitable that I will live between two cities, and the pendulum has swung me back to Wien, sparkling Vienna, where I am taking time to breathe the fresh, cool air, savour the creamy coffee and gorge my hungry eyes on art. Most importantly, I’m setting up here with the primary aim of painting. My little Dachgeschoss studio is set up, my Dutch paints bursting from their tubes, a big, fresh roll of Belgian linen that I rolled home on my bike shivers in anticipation, and I have christened the floor with turpentine that I kicked over in my painterly haste. And I have cheated time, starting a little interior days before my arrival in Vienna! Yes, it’s not until tomorrow that I arrive!

Life drawing

Already I’ve met with my old friends in the galleries—Rubens, Van Dyck, Klimt and Rodin—and already I’ve fallen for many more, my sketchbook always in tow. Sketch clubs are sprouting like tulips all over the city, and I’m managing to satiate my drawing habit with more success than last year. And best of all, the ever-optimistic Jacques is a winning sidekick, ever adept at simplifying life and focusing on the work that really matters. As ever, we are scheming, and bursting with ideas, and trying to merge our art and science worlds that we see as springing from the same impulse, the same curiosity and wonder of the physical world.

Because, in the words of Editors, ‘If something has to give then it always does,’ and when life is crowding out the important things you have to put life firmly in its place, and regroup.

Straße

 

Dali, Salvador. 1966 [1964]. Salvador Dali: Diary of a genius, an autobiography. Trans. Michel Déon. Picador: London.

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Mud

face to face

Having fallen headlong in love with sculpture, I resolved to start studying it upon my return to Brisbane. And so, once a week at the Atelier, Ryan has been teaching me about the literal moulding of form, about the three-dimensional finger-painting that is sculpture. I’ve been amazed at how I can ‘draw’ lines with my hands, lines that undulate as I circle my piece, and how I can work with the shapes of tones much as I would when drawing or painting.

mouth profile

I’ve struggled with the three-dimensional puzzles of lips—how the extremities of the profile must restrain the apparent swellings from the front; how the lips wrap around the teeth deeply into the cheeks; how the nodes at the sides collect everything in little fleshy pockets that leave expressive little indentations at the corners of the lips.

mouth

I’ve physically constructed the riddle of the bony eye socket, not a simple rectangle sloping back under the eyebrows, but simultaneously wrapping back around the head and reaching out to the crucial cheekbone turning point where front sharply becomes side. I’ve agonised over s-curves buried in facial furrows and shaped the thickening and thinning c-curves that spiral deeper than you ever first imagine.

eyes

Every slope you trace, observing its horizontal and vertical axes, moves backwards or forwards at the same time, its trajectory changing drastically as you circle to another viewpoint. The game is to try to conceive the whole, not a slice. The lesson of sculpture is that everything is doing more than two things at once.

nicolo mud man

Holding each facial feature in your hands, forming them from sticky lumps of plasticine, is a pretty thorough way to get your mind around them. Rather than reaching for generic shapes, you begin to build up in your mind an actual object, a complex three-dimensional form, that takes on various guises as it moves around. You don’t simply reach into your brain for that eye shape to fill that gap, but rather you grow to an awareness of how an eye socket shapes part of the head and how an eye slots into it, strapped in by thick and very-present eyelids. The face ceases to be an oval waiting to be filled with ‘the interesting bits’ like a china plate ready for its ornamental flowers. It begins to come together in your mind as voluminous bricks that lock into each other—some deep, some protruding, some spiralling, some tucking under.

Nicolo

Having worked and reworked the masses, adjusted the placement of the features, sliced off and reattached an ear, grown the back of the head and massaged the trapezius and sternomastoids into an elegantly twisting neck, the pure delight of modelling the surface brings new challenges in the form of new expressive ideas. Juggling in your mind the knowledge of the softness of the skin of lips, the firmness of cartilage and the immovable frame of bone beneath, finding a way to express these structural differences in the treatment of the surface is mind-bending and infinitely expressive. The touch of your fingers leaves a different trace than that of hatching with wooden tools, and the art is in folding these strokes into each other in meaningful ways. These final caresses breathe unimaginable life into the sticky mass, small refinements seeking out the character of your subject and approaching a likeness by a means surprisingly removed from sheer accuracy.

Nicolo and hand

One would imagine drawing is a practical enough way to approach the world—better than solely reading about anatomy, or cursorily looking at the world around you, for it taxes your motor skills. And yet, once you begin to sculpt, you realise the sheer kindergarten delight of kinaesthetic learning. Drawing, all this time, has been trying to find a shorthand for this grappling with mud. And the new battles of sculpture feed directly back into drawing, cementing spatial concepts and freeing us just a little more from a deep-seated reliance on shapes and outlines.

Nicolo 2

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Stick us right in the heart

Avenue (Bulimba) © Samantha Groenestyn -- a little oil sketch from a landscaping adventure in Brisbane

Avenue (Bulimba) © Samantha Groenestyn — a little oil sketch from a landscaping adventure in Brisbane

I recently read Bulgakov’s frenetic tale The Master and Margarita, and was struck most of all by how Bulgakov’s appeal to our integral Western myths proved so powerful in this story. All lightheartedness, frivolity and anti-heroes aside, the story toys with the reader’s clinging to our foundational myths, and, having been raised staunchly Christian, I found it unsettling and amazingly provocative. Bulgakov short-circuits my expectations in the story and because those expectations are built on such deeply-rooted characters and events, the effect is very confronting. The story drops a lot of little hellish jokes, interjections of ‘what the devil!’ in place of any ‘oh my God,’ but more than this, it takes the character of the devil himself and does only what Christianity suggests that he does in making him take the guise of someone appealing offering only things that human beings, easily amused creatures that we are, want. And then it conflates this playful devil with a benevolent, peace-giving power that acts discerningly and justly, not rewarding indiscriminately, not forgiving, but recognising the intentions of all and repaying the most courageous. An anti-Christianity, in a sense, that tests all, but heaps punishment on the weak, and applauds the strong.

Bulgakov

‘It’s the speed I like,’ said Margarita excitedly, ‘the speed and the nakedness. Like a shot from a Mauser—bang!’

Any simple sympathy with Christianity will make one bristle a little at this idea—the injustice of mocking the weak, of anything positive coming from the hand of the devil. And this is just the literary power of this book. Something is ingrained in us, some moral sense that has been taught to us through our stories, through our punishment and reward mechanisms, something about ideas of innocence and meekness. Even if straying from the explicit biblical narratives doesn’t bother us, perhaps because we lack a real familiarity with them, diverting the currents of the underlying themes probably still affects us in a profound way.

While the Greek myths in paintings are less accessible to me just because of my limited acquaintance with them, Western culture owes a huge debt to our ancient Greek heritage, including the philosophies that we continue to draw on. Similarly, the Judeo-Christian tradition has built a lasting foundation for our thought, and its imagery has persisted in Western art for centuries. If our earlier art has anything over modern art, it’s that it returned again and again to the unending font of imagery that the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions have provided us with, meaning the artist had the power to bestow an instant and deeply profound visual impression on the (often illiterate) viewer. The modern artist, if making self-directed, largely autobiographical art, has to work harder to make such a profound impact, and has to provide so much background detail, probably through words, to convey anything so dramatic. My point is this: our myths give us a language, a system of ideas, even a set of symbols that act as shortcuts in our brains, letting us tap into bigger concepts with only subtle nuances. And, further, we can not only take short cuts, but perhaps even, like Bulgakov, short-circuit that existing framework and challenge it in a way that Vatican-employed painters of the past were not at liberty to do.

Nella morte avvinti (In death thrall) © Roberto Ferri

Nella morte avvinti (In death thrall) © Roberto Ferri

Italian painter Roberto Ferri comes to mind—his spectacularly rendered nudes curl their superhuman forms through gorgeous forestscapes, dripping red draperies, and his paintings unmistakably echo old master paintings in form and content. Religious themes and mythological creatures bring a solemn heaviness to his work. But there is no anachronism here: Ferri’s paintings all bear the stamp of the present age in his manipulation of that age-old subject matter. Nudes are not discreet church nudes with modest drapery and strategic foliage; rather they bare their genitalia in all their sexual glory. And the seemingly ideal human forms distort into fleshy mutations, or are gorily impaled, in the visually explicit way we have adjusted ourselves to in other media. Saints and goddesses and hybrid creatures abound, but they are never trite, nor nostalgic, nor antiquated. Our traditional ideas, rather, are subjected to modern thought and to modern eyes in an extremely provocative and powerful way. The violence is palpable.

American painter Jerome Witkin has a series called A Jesus for our time which likewise rehearses a familiar theme; he clothes his well-intentioned but ultimately fragile saint in a white suit and amplifies him and surrounds him with the dazzle and noise of an electric wonderland, before depicting his shattering end. The paintings speak to so much of what we know and what we expect from a Christ character, and there is something strangely appealing in the Jagger-esque prophet Jimmy. This character triggers so many of our hopes for the world, and Witkin reaches right inside us to grab that vein and wire us in to his parable of the modern world. This is not simple symbolism and substitution of modern-day paraphernalia. Witkin really pushes this myth and distorts it in a deeply disturbing and affecting way. Witkin (p. 53-4) himself said of this series that he wanted to appeal to ‘the sense of struggle; a mythic hero who is … beaten down by the world, yet still believing in a guide.’ He comments (p. 54), ‘There’s no real church art in our century; heroes are hard to find.’

A Jesus for our time, panel II - Jimmy's mission to Beirut (late afternoon) © Jerome Witkin

A Jesus for our time, panel II – Jimmy’s mission to Beirut (late afternoon) © Jerome Witkin

American writer Kurt Vonnegut put forward the idea, many decades ago, that the shapes of stories could be plotted as graphs and thereby categorised. He describes simple waves like ‘man in a hole’ and ‘boy meets girl,’ where a character gets into a mess and finds a way out, and where a character gets something they prize, devastatingly loses it, and fights to get it back. ‘People love that story,’ he quips—‘every time that story gets told, someone makes a million dollars.’ The story shape that most fascinated him, though, was the one that incrementally lifts a character out of a miry pit, dashes all their hopes, and at the last minute rewards them, usually by sudden and supernatural means, with off-the-charts improbable happiness—a story shape shared by both Cinderella and the New Testament. Telling, no?

I’m reminded of Alain de Botton’s insight that the news—intentionally factual, though tauntingly drip-feeding us snippets of horror in a steady twenty-four hour stream—brings us to the brink of these complex and important emotions, but gives us no way to resolve them. Our myths are often dark, confronting, and pitching good and evil forces, or blurring those moral delineations, and delving into familiar tragic territory. But as de Botton is careful to distinguish, where horror pierces us and leaves us hanging, tragedy seeks a resolution. Awful things happen to ordinary people, and the only thing that separates us from the antihero is pure chance. Tragedy helps us comprehend the darkness in the world by tracing it back to ordinary creatures, not monsters, and walks us in their ill-fated shoes. Through stories—written or painted—we can confront these deep and difficult emotions and moral questions and perhaps even come out on the other side a little wiser.

Our myths are not obsolete, and not a cheap trick. They stick us right in the heart, but only because they get at the heart of things that matter to us. They give us a way to get instantly intimate with our audience, and after that it’s up to us to try to take our audience across that emotional bridge, rather than to shatter them.

Bulimba cemetery

 

Bulgakov, Mikhail. [1966] 1995. The Master and Margarita. Trans. Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor. Picador: London.

Chayat, Sherry. 1994. Life Lessons: The art of Jerome Witkin. Second edition. Syracuse University: Syracuse, NY.

De Botton, Alain. 2014. The News: A user’s manual. Hamish Hamilton: London.

 

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Intent

© Samantha Groenestyn

(Preparatory thumbnail drawing for current painting) © Samantha Groenestyn

While people readily brand drawings and paintings that look like something (representational, rather than purely abstract, art) as ‘realistic’ or ‘classical’, or, god forbid, ‘photographic,’ a word I seldom hear is ‘naturalistic.’ Where ‘realistic’ makes an appeal to the convincing appearance of things, ‘classical’ seems more a turning away from progressive and modern ideas. ‘Photographic,’ the least inspiring, removes this art another step from reality and our physical experience of things and likens the art to a mechanical process of mortifying a slice of time. None of these sound appealing—to be literal, anachronistic, or technologically redundant.

Naturalism is historically associated with variations on realism, often in reaction against more lofty subject matter or aggrandised themes, and sometimes attempting to align itself with the objectivity of the natural sciences. To baldly generalise, naturalist art historically set out to represent the physical world accurately and convincingly, but the word seems to carry some useful nuances not regularly referred to anymore. There is no weight of reality, of an appeal to existential absolutes, of universal correctness. Reality is a philosophically contested concept, and to describe one’s painting by appealing to reality is a frighteningly bold claim, and most likely metaphysically extravagant. A much more sensible and intellectually guarded claim would be to simply say, ‘I paint as accurately as I can the external world as it appears to me through my senses.’ Whatever may or may not exist or turn out to be real or true or foundational, it seems perfectly reasonable to represent one’s experience of the world within the limits of one’s ability to perceive it. A word like ‘naturalistic’ seems to capture this idea, describing the natural process of photons hitting retinas as well as the image this process imprints on the brain.

Further, this seems an eternal project, as photons continue endlessly to pummel retinas, and people continue to experience the world through their senses and to depict that experience accurately. This isn’t something reserved for a particular time in history, when all the important a priori truths were hammered out and proved by means of classical logic by muscular toga-clad types, but it seems like an ongoing project in which people of all times validly express the experience of their intersection with the physical world at a particular place and time. ‘Looking, seeing and constructing are specific to each generation,’ argues Nelson (p. 25); ‘they are conditioned by factors proper to the times, by inventions in optics and mechanical reproduction, but especially by aesthetic and social expectations about what people want to see.’

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

Perhaps instead of describing our work with words that are rather ill thought out antonyms of whatever is currently the mainstay of art, we should begin with our own intentions. When I look at modern drawings that fall closer on the spectrum to what I do—drawings of people that look like people, of objects that look like objects—there is something undeniably of their time about them. These people look like they belong to our time. Rubens’ people do not look like people that walk the earth today. They take on a magical sort of quality, a dreamlike appearance quite disconnected from my natural experience of the world. Was Rubens not as good as, say, contemporary American draughtspeople? Did he not know as much anatomy, or capture the personality of his subjects?

It stands out quite starkly to me that Rubens had a wildly different intent to people currently exploring naturalistic image-making. In fact, ‘naturalistic’ is not nearly the right word to describe Rubens’ representation of the world. His work, while representational, is highly imaginative, as Delacroix (p. 207) ruminates in his journals:

‘Rubens is a remarkable illustration of the abuse of details. His painting, which is dominated by the imagination, is everywhere superabundant, the accessories are too much worked out. His pictures are like public meetings where everybody talks at once. And yet, if you compare this exuberant manner, not with the dryness and poverty of modern painting, but with really fine pictures where nature has been imitated with restraint and great accuracy, you feel at once that the true painter is one whose imagination speaks before everything else.’

The natural world is not irrelevant to Rubens, but it is not king. It does not bound his work, or dictate what it may be, or determine his success by how accurately he creates an illusion of it. The natural world is a point of departure, a point of reference, an inspiration and in many ways a language or a framework—his painted worlds aren’t so far removed that our minds cannot compute them, and for the most part laws of gravity are obeyed (except by flying babies) and light acts predictably and bodies do not contort more than we would expect they are able.

Delacroix (p. 209) argues that ‘the imitation of nature … is the starting point of every school.’ He likewise considers it a matter of intent: does one intend to ‘please the imagination’ or to ‘obey the demands of a strange kind of conscience’? Rubens is faithful to nature to a point, but he doesn’t simply diverge from nature. He begins, rather, with an ideal, and wraps nature around this ideal as he sees fit, fleshing it out with great flourishes and enthusiasm. This act of imagination can never be out-dated or a boring relic of the past. It is reinvented by every living artist who grapples with the human form and its relation to the physical world, and it is this imaginative vision that contributes something new and meaningful to the tide of work that came before her. I am convinced that even naturalism will not get us out of this dirty little bind we’ve found ourselves in, but that idealism is a far stronger starting point.

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

In many ways, what I paint is certainly not natural, for I adapt the feel of the light to my idea of the mood of the piece, I morph the colours into a harmony that suits my purposes. I arrange the objects in improbable and thoroughly contrived ways to achieve pleasing compositional effects. I am not concerned with ‘capturing reality’ or presenting a truth to you. In fact, I openly present lies to you, carefully woven lies to manipulate your thoughts and emotions. Even in an interior, I am striving for an ideal, I am recreating my world through my imagination, and trying to show you the most fascinating bits of it.

And more—thinking this way changes the way that I draw, for my drawing ceases to be a task in accuracy, with nature as my assessor. Drawing becomes a powerful medium for new thoughts and new expressions; rather than functioning as a rather utilitarian exploratory tool it moves into the realm of visual poetry.

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

The ever-eloquent Delacroix (p. 208-9) says it so clearly:

‘The only painters who really benefit by consulting a model are those who can produce their effect without one. …

It is therefore far more important for an artist to come near to the ideal which he carries in his mind, and which is characteristic of him, than to be content with recording, however strongly, any transitory ideal that nature may offer—and she does offer such aspects; but once again, it is only certain men who see them and not the average man, which is proof that the beautiful is created by the artist’s imagination precisely because he follows the bent of his own genius. …

If therefore you can introduce into a composition of this kind a passage that has been carefully painted from the model, and can do this without creating utter discord, you will have accomplished the greatest feat of all, that of harmonising what seems irreconcilable. You will have introduced reality into a dream, and united two different arts.’

Let’s not lazily and belligerently appeal to reality, but let’s call on nature for a purpose, after we have determined our intent.

 

 

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

 

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The punch

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve been chewing over the role of a ‘conceptual rationale’ in art. Firstly, let it be recognised that I am not against concepts in art. Paintings should move us, and when they do they are more than mere decoration. But I am not interested in the types of concepts that only resonate in words, and that are swallowed whole in little capsules of artists’ statements, no chewing required. The real punch, the real power of art, is that it can make us sense something, consider something, meditate on something, and even feel something, just by channelling carefully composed signals through our eyes. I want to argue that while many a painting lacks a punch line, or fails to explain itself in words, it may still be about something, still built on an idea, and it may still speak softly to us, and perhaps even resonate fiercely with us as our history with it deepens. In Delacroix’s (p. 41) words, ‘What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.’

BIA1

A humble painting of an interior sits shyly beside an unlovely outburst of so-called modern conceptual art. Without being punched in the face by unpleasant truths and by the sheer disgustingness of waste in our culture, the modern art viewer can find no meaning to lock on to when confronted with a work of art. Our time certainly is not one for subtlety, and images that demand too much of us are bound to be dismissed. Perhaps we feel an attraction to a still life scene, but sense that it would be too much work to justify this attraction—and, further, perhaps we feel a certain impatience with the painter for not simply being more clever about it so the painting’s relevance was immediately obvious. Whichever way I look at it, we are faced with a paradox: the painter wants to speak in a language that no one wants to learn. And even when he gets through to us, we cast off his whisperings as meaningless.

Yet, ‘If images don’t do anything in this culture, if they haven’t done anything, then why are we sitting here in the twilight of the twentieth century talking about them?’ art critic Dave Hickey (in Poynor, p. 43) asks. Hickey argues that the power of many images can be traced to beauty, ‘to the iconography of desire,’ but I want to return to beauty shortly. It seems to me that while many paintings certainly are beautiful, they appeal to us in another even simpler way. They permit us to look at ourselves.

BIA2

In the words of Jacques Pienaar, ‘If ever art had a job to do, it’s to make humanity look at itself.’ This might be as literal as a portrait of a known individual. It might be a nude—revealing our physical form at its simplest and most honest, unadorned, plump or bony, asymmetric, uniquely proportioned, secret toilet parts included (unlike the false view of ourselves afforded, for example, by much pornography). It might be the warmth of the painter’s home, traces of their life left in the arrangement of their living quarters. It might be a five-hundred-year-old Dutch breakfast, which can fill us with envy as much as the meals at the table next to us in a café today. Whatever else a painter may have intended, when painting from life he or she has done humanity a marvellous service in making a visual record of our temporal intersection with the physical world. Our cumulative knowledge has been recorded by philosophers and scientists; our successive sensory experiences have been recorded by artists—and what a vault of lived human experience remains! And further: no amount of adding to this collection is redundant, for we live in ever changing times and our present experiences are just as valid, as is the recording of them.

Of course, art is not always truthful, but there is also meaning in this. Where a representational painting sweeps some things away and introduces others, or chases a particular light or settles into a particular mood, the painting itself becomes a sort of bridge to the future. We see the world now, but we are also permitted to see a possible future through the vision of the painter. Frank Chimero (p. 68) argues that ‘every time we tell an untruth, we confess that the world is not yet done.’ He cites art historian George Kubler (p. 122): ‘The moment just past is extinguished forever, save for the things made during it,’ adding, ‘All of these creations linger, and they echo across the long line of time and speak to what those people were able to build and what they believed.’

BIA3

Let us return to Dave Hickey and his efforts to direct our attention ‘to the language of visual affect—to the rhetoric of how things look—to the iconography of desire—in a word, to beauty!’ Wendy Steiner (xxi) analyses the twentieth-century discomfort with beauty, the prevailing suspicion that beauty is the villain—‘a siren or a whore.’ Steiner suggests we might be more comfortable with our experience of beauty, remarking that since we all succumb to it, ‘it would be well if we could recognise the meaning of our succumbing as a valuable response, an opportunity for self-revelation rather than a defeat.’ Given our positive response to a meaningful arrangement of temporary objects, let us dwell a little longer on why these things speak to us, even though they are not clever and satirical and politically charged. Perhaps Anna Karenina doesn’t speak to us because of the incisive political claims made by the main characters—perhaps it’s because of the humanity of the people portrayed, the similarity of their hopes to our own, and the impact of their historical situation on those hopes. We long to feel with each other, and in art, we can.

BIA4

Delacroix (p. 66) felt keenly that too many artists were swayed by trends—the market, or popular opinion perhaps, or government demands. ‘A great number of talented artists had never done anything worthwhile because they surrounded themselves with a mass of prejudices, or had them thrust upon them by the fashion of the moment.’ I feel that while much art that is considered ‘classical’ and hence antagonistic to concepts in fact grows up around more slowly-unravelled concepts, perhaps this obsession with concept-above-all-else is the sort of fashion that we must brush aside and simply carry on working. We know that we are not subverting everything that has gone before, but we know that we are building on a meaningful history and connecting with people in inexplicable ways. And Delacroix (p. 43) urges us on:

You who know that there is always something new, show it to others in the things they have hitherto failed to appreciate. Make them feel they have never before heard the song of the nightingale, or been aware of the vastness of the sea—everything that their gross senses can perceive only when someone else takes the trouble to feel it for them. And do not let language trouble you. If you cultivate your soul it will find the means to express itself.

Chimero, Frank. 2012. The Shape of Design. (Self published).

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

Poynor, Rick. 2006 ‘The beauty part.’ In Looking Closer Five: Critical writings on graphic design. Ed. Michael Bierut, William Drentel and Steven Heller. Allworth: New York.

Steiner, Wendy. 2001. Venus in exile: The rejection of beauty in 20th-Century art. University of Chicago: Chicago.

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Flirtation with arts funding

Mikes - beginnings of a meta-drawing of two sculptures of the same model sculpted by two different artists

Mikes – beginnings of a drawing of two sculptures of the same model sculpted by two different sculptors

Despite my suspicion of government arts funding, I recently undertook something of an experiment in applying for a rather large grant involving a residency in Berlin. Unsurprisingly, I was unsuccessful, but I think this very inevitability makes for an interesting discussion.

The grant I applied for is known as a ‘Skills and Arts Development General and Residency grant.’ Now, the government may use a lot of words to express itself, but I know from experience that each and every word is agonisingly selected, rejected and reselected to give as precise a meaning as possible. In this case, then, I was sure I was on the right track in emphasising that I intended to use the grant to develop my skills. The grant has but two criteria—the application must:

-       demonstrate a high degree of artistic merit in the applicant’s work to date.
-       demonstrate the potential for the project to contribute to the applicant’s professional development.

Ten images were to be supplied to address the first, and a very slim ‘project description’ to address the second, expressing ‘what you intend to do; explain why you are interested in and passionate about particular issues, materials, media, etc; and how your project contributes to your personal development.’ It seems I misunderstood the thrust of this development when I suggested that I would visit galleries, make copies, draw consistently from the model, train in anatomy and produce a lot of art in the studio. My personalised feedback suggested that ‘whilst your proposal expresses reasons for being in Berlin, a stronger rationale with more tangible and confirmed reasons such as meetings with artists, curators, mentorships, exhibitions or galleries would have further strengthened your application. It’s advised to research in advance of the application and develop networks and professional development opportunities before going abroad.’ I see now that the grant is not at all about art skills development, but purely about professional skills development—networking, forging connections, liaising with specific people. You can draw anywhere—it’s specific people, not resources or characteristics of the city, that make Berlin a necessary stopover in an artist’s career.

I accept that this is not where my interests lie, and that I am more focused on concentrating on my work, improving my abilities, and immersing myself in a place. In this respect, fair call.

Life drawing

However, some interesting points come out later in the response. ‘It is important to continually build on your exhibition history to demonstrate your artistic merit.’ Ah, a numbers game. It certainly is difficult to make those value judgments to determine artistic merit, but it’s easy to count how many shows are on your CV. I understand this to a point, but feel uneasy about it. Surely there are many paths an artist’s career can take, and perhaps some meander a little more slowly through education, and place more demands on themselves to produce quality work rather than rushing to have anything and everything seen. Not so, if you are going to approach government, which abides by the current standard path. Most careers follow a standard path—so why not that of the artist? Attend art school, have fifty shows in the next two years, and you’re rolling. If you’re doing it differently, you’re not doing it at all. It’s easy for an artist to question herself when she sees herself deviate from this clearly defined path.

Nima and Kate deep in thought

Nima and Kate deep in thought

Why, then, being serious about art, haven’t I embarked on that accepted path? Yes, I’ve exhibited, and yes, I’ve studied, but not Fine Art at a university. And while I’ve flirted with design several times for the last decade, I’ve never had the nerve to study ‘real,’ ‘serious’ art, because, well, philosophers do philosophy better and I really just wanted to learn to draw. Underwhelmed by the course descriptions each time I researched study options, and by the work in graduate exhibitions in Queensland, each and every time I came to the conclusion that art is not for me. Art in the modern world has mutated into some ghastly, non-rigorous, ill-researched form of intellectualism in which deliberately obtuse artists’ statements eclipse the visual element. It’s enough to explain an idea to get the concept, and the visual aspect is redundant. This is a complaint for another time. The point is, what attracts me to drawing, and to painting, is the immense power in this visual expression. I am but a humble painter, not an artist.

Life drawing

Sadly for me, however, ‘The Australia Council funds innovative contemporary visual art practice,’ and the most exemplary applications the Australia Council received of said innovative contemporary visual art practice had a strong ‘conceptual basis for a project in both ideas conveyed in the project description and in the support material.’ Alas, I left out the ideas! I saw the bit about enthusiasm for a medium, and harped on a bit about drawing, and about paint, and didn’t contextualise any of this in terms of tensions and dichotomies and gender roles and quantum physics! Concepts are the currency of the day, and if a painter is to dive into the murky world of art she must adapt: ‘Whilst the visual arts panel is highly supportive of classical fine art or heavily skills based practice, I suggest your application will be more competitive when this is supported by a conceptual rationale.’ And so, my skill-hungry application for the ‘Skills and Arts Development General and Residency grant’ was eaten alive by the panel. But they send me their best wishes.

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