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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La source

After Ingres, La Source

After Ingres, La Source

I have been thinking about how important it is to uncover one’s source. My dear friend Jacques has been in town, and his simultaneous lightness and solidity has been energizing. But it is not enough to rely on the buoyancy of others. I think of Ingres’ La Source, and of how she sustains herself: an endless spring, an infinite well needing no support.

Delacroix journal

Delacroix (p. 32) struggles, early in his journals, with a restlessness—‘This restlessness that comes over me almost every evening! Oh sweet contentment of the philosophers, why can I not capture you?’ He concludes, ‘I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now. What I have done cannot be taken from me.’ Knowing that you have invested your energies and your time into something meaningful allows you to sustain yourself—independent of others, independent of circumstances—able to carry yourself, and pick yourself up, and nourish yourself. Delacroix (p. 29) muses, ‘Even one task fulfilled at regular intervals in a man’s life can bring order into his life as a whole; everything else hinges upon it.’

Sculptors

And so, I begin to look for the things that cut through everything else, the things I can return to, the things that I can build on day after day and thus build myself up. While Jacques is employed in a field of theoretical physics that keeps him wholly engaged and focused, thus finding a source in his work, I must fill the crevices left in my days with the things that energize me. Drawing stands out like a beacon. When I’m not drawing, it seems hard and important and worthy of time, too big and significant for snatches of moments. But once it slips into those snatches, it penetrates everything—bad moods, sadness, fatigue. I must depend upon my drawing. Philosophy, too—I remember the consolation it has given me, far deeper than any escapism offered by fiction. My quiet time over coffee, studying German, and practicing grammar, and gaining a mastery over something new and challenging. These things are solitary and unshakeable, and with them I can prop myself up, and build myself up. I must draw, and study, and think deeply, and I will be refreshed and strong enough to face the world.

Sculptors

Delacroix (p. 20) happened upon the same realisation: ‘Poor fellow!’ he chided himself. ‘How can you do great work when you are always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.’

Sculptors

I am amazed that my sketchbook languishes when I know what it gives me! So few tools, and yet they give me the power to invert everything. It is like holding up a pitcher that never runs dry—what sorcery!

Sculptors

Later in life, Delacroix (p. 133) reflects on the source of his strength and peace, probing himself thus: ‘Why was it that I lived so fully on that particular day? Because I had a great many ideas that are miles away from me now. The secret of having no worries—at least where I am concerned—is to have plenty of ideas. Therefore I cannot afford to let slip any means of encouraging them. Good books have this effect, and especially certain books. Health is the first consideration, but even when one is feeling dull and tired these particular books can renew the source from which my imagination flows.’ Endlessly refreshed by Dante, and perpetually inspired by Rubens, Delacroix persevered with his work in spite of feeling ill, or tired, or distracted by companions. He struggled, but he knew himself well enough to bring himself through those struggles and focus on what was most meaningful to him—and, as we all hope to, to produce something enduring, the true offspring of that drive.

Sculptors

My friend and philosopher Mark muses, ‘I begin to suppose that life will never feel more real or more lively than it does right now, and if we ever want to do something great, we must do it feeling like this.’ I think he is correct in concluding that it won’t strike us like a bolt from the heavens, this energy that will propel us to greatness. He is right to feel we must push on through apathy. But if we can nurture that part of ourselves in secret, and find that quiet spring inside us, perhaps we can pull ourselves out of that foggy place by our own bootstraps.

Sculptors

James Dickey, to conclude:

You?    I?    What difference is there?    We can all be saved
By a secret blooming. Now as I walk
The night    and you walk with me    we know simplicity
Is close to the source that sleeping men
Search for in their home-deep beds.
We know that the sun is away    we know that the sun can be conquered
By moths, in blue home-town air.

(James L Dickey, The strength of fields)

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

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Summer show

Nausea (c) Samantha Groenestyn

Nausea (c) Samantha Groenestyn

Another year of endless Summer. We have been busy preparing some paintings for the Atelier Summer Show which is on this Saturday. If you would like to drop by we’ll be at the RQAS gallery on Petrie Terrace in Brisbane, from 6.30pm.

Sweet frame

I picked up my freshly framed paintings today, from local framer Chapman & Bailey. This is some exquisite handiwork; beautiful timbers, simple and beautiful stains, and all handmade. We are loving these shadow box frames that line the canvas with a deep, dark drop.

Varnishing

The rest of the morning involved varnishing these little guys to make them as shiny as wet paint!

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Shadow

Three (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

Three (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

I’m thinking a little more, as I’m painting, back in Brisbane, of shadows and the way they cradle and nudge the light. Not just as blank shapes, jagged voids piercing a picture, but as quiet and thoughtful terrain in their own right, and as the unshakeable support for the regions washed in light.

Nelson (p. 159) questions the modernist preference for light. ‘Things which stand out are privileged over conditions which recede,’ he writes, ‘but upon which the outstanding paradoxically depends. Shadow is relegated to the background, as though it were not integral to the image.’ He calls this modernist bias ‘photocentricity’ (p. 159), considering it the symbol of our current artistic malaise; a retina-burning dependence on flood-lit, full-chroma colours ignoring the gentle nuances of recesses folding away from the gaze, the hushed down-planes and the subdued forms shying away from the light. The quiet mystery of the dark side of the moon. Our pictures are flatter, brighter, and possibly rely more often on crisp linework to divide form from form, with shadows seeming heavy and mood-killing; overly dramatic. Modern comics, drawn on digital tablets and coloured boldly. Modern illustrations, wispy and watercoloured. The modern aesthetic is as light-obsessed as a moth.

The great eighteenth-century Western project wears the title baldly and proudly: the enlightenment extolls ‘light as intelligence and shadow as ignorance,’ (Nelson, p. 161). Shadows are dubious, guileful and deceptive. We want back-lit, fluorescent, LED brilliance, lighting our paths and shining the way forward.

In physics, one can create light by constructing electric currents and attaching filaments and such, and, in a more abstract sense, one can fill a space with light. But it is nonsensical to talk of filling a space with dark—shadow is the natural default which science allows us to manipulate. Painting equalises this bias—the painter creates shadows in just the same way as she creates light. This is the sort of super power you want to make good use of.

Campagna di Roma. Grabmal der Caecilia Metella, 1894. (c) Rudolf Bacher; Belvedere Wien.

Campagna di Roma. Grabmal der Caecilia Metella, 1894. (c) Rudolf Bacher; Belvedere Wien.

In the Lower Belvedere I found myself mesmerised by the subdued, neutral colours of Rudolf Bacher’s Campagna di Roma – Grabmal der Caecilia Metella. The girl is described with delicate modelling, her skin soft and pink, her blue dress airy in the breeze, but she rests completely in shade. Her understated colours are set starkly against the bright void of sky, the light, for once, supporting the shadow. Again, Bacher’s Redeemed, seemingly softly lit, but defiantly in shadow as evinced by the brilliant shape on the wall cast by light pouring through the window. I’ve wanted to toy with these ideas, accepting that though light is ever present, it might not reveal the truth, and it certainly doesn’t hold the secrets.

 

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

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Die Ausstellung, und danach—

Am Fenster © Samantha Groenestyn

Am Fenster © Samantha Groenestyn

Relations between art and the public are shifting now as they have always shifted. The way an artist produces and presents her work is contained within certain parameters, but these parameters are always shrinking and bulging, transforming with or without her assent. There is no strictly defined career path for the artist, nor has there been a single path consistently over the centuries. Saturated by the possibilities of the internet, it is easy to forget that the gallery system of producing one-man shows was a dramatic shift to adapt to the overwhelming thrust of the market that engulfed art with the collapse of the Künstlerhaus and Salon monopolies on the careers of artists. It is easy to forget that the Salons enabled arguably more democratic production of work than the courts and the church did. We are certainly having the ground pulled out from under us again, but rather than being swept along by the unrelenting and ever intensifying tide of the market, we must sit up and, like the Viennese Secession, ‘address the problem head on’ (Huemer 2006: 146).

internetisnotdead

The most profound question concerning an artist’s career at the time of the Wiener Secession, which was founded in 1897, was understood to be the competing pull of art on the one side and money on the other. It takes money to make art, to live in such a way as to be able to devote oneself entirely to one’s work. Where royal careers no longer exist and ambitious public projects like the construction and adornment of the grand public buildings of the Vienna Ringstrasse are exhausted, artists must find other means to make their careers.

Life drawing

Klimt made his name by securing work on several of Vienna’s significant new public projects, namely the Burgtheater and the entrance stairway of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. He and his colleagues were employed for a task that required great skill and a unified vision. I am embarrassed to call the reader’s attention to the type of public projects that are funded now—the murals intended to brighten up the soul-destroying underpasses of Brisbane’s train station nether regions are regularly conceived by amateurs who submit simple photographs, completely undesigned, of native flora, which artists, paid as labourers, are induced to transfer by projector onto the concrete and colour in, skill and artistic vision be damned a thousand times to the depths of hell. In consolation, however, Vienna also seems to have run out of meaningful public projects, and Klimt and his colleagues found themselves at the mercy of the mysterious institution that was the Künstlerhaus, akin to the Paris Salon.

Life drawing

The Künstlerhaus was an exhibition hall, and it all sounds very obvious now to exhibit artwork. However, bear with me through a few interesting logical twists. In public projects, art importantly had a function: whether to cheer unfortunate public transport alleys populated by junkies or to magnify the glorious warm feelings democracy stirs in us via soul-stirring symbolic fountains in the driveway to the Wiener Parlament, these projects are conceived for a specific and defined purpose. In earlier times, the exhibition was really an event, a rare occasion which lifted the work of art out of its public function and set it before us on simply its own terms. The exhibition transformed the artwork into an end in itself. Painters could probably hardly believe their luck that their work could flourish on its own terms and not bend to utility.

Life drawing

What would seem to be a promotion in the value of art, however, was coupled with the crippling phenomenon of the market. Gottfried Semper (who was to go on to design the Kunsthistorisches Museum with Karl von Hasenauer) recognised this shift in 1851 when he wrote, ‘The path that our industry, and with it the entire artistic world, is following unrelentingly is obvious: everything is calculated and adjusted to the market’ (in Huemer, p. 146). No longer responding to a brief, each work of art must stand on its own, and rise above all others to compete in the ruthless marketplace. The exhibition hall, then, which started out elevating the work of art beyond utility, reached its logical conclusion in metamorphosing into ‘the central exchange medium for the defunctionalised work of art’ (Huemer p. 146).

Life drawing

The Künstlerhaus, rather than respecting this newly elevated art, became ‘a market hall, a bazaar, where dealers flaunted all kinds of wares’ (Huemer, p. 147). Huemer (p. 147) goes on to describe ‘the barely administrable flood of submitted works, which the commissioners hung, after selection by jury, like mosaics on the exhibition walls. Thousands of paintings were displayed, hung in several rows, frame to frame, to make the greatest possible use of the space available for display.’ The Wiener Secession arose in direct response to this unsavoury development, setting out to defend the artist in the inescapable market environment on his own terms, openly rejecting this hideous meat market of paintings.

Secession, Wien

Secession, Wien: ‘The time of our art; the art of our freedom.’

We have entered the world at a time when the market is already a fact. We do not have the luxury of debating the question of ‘business or art,’ as artists of earlier times did—art is business, and we, like artists of every time, must work within the constraints of our own time. Our options seem ever more dramatically diverged: the market forces us to fend for ourselves, to defend our own product, define our unique selling point, and target our own niche client base in the slow decay of the gallery system. The government denies us real work, awarding us petty projects that involve amateurs of the community or inept children, and doling out pitiable sums for work bound by restrictively specific selection criteria. The outlook is not good. But even Klimt dramatically turned his back on the state, proclaiming, as one equally passionately might now, that ‘official organisations would support only the ‘weak’ and ‘false’ (Huemer, p. 145).

In Klimt’s (Huemer, p. 145) own words:

I would never—particularly under this Ministry—take part in an official exhibition, unless absolutely forced to do so by my friends. Forget the censorship. I am going to take matters into my own hands. I want to liberate myself. I want to break away from all these unpleasant, ridiculous aspects that restrict my work, and return to freedom. I refuse all official support, I will do without everything.

Taking matters into our own hands, there are two attitudes we might adopt towards the marketplace we find ourselves nestled in. The first is one of acquiescence, embracing the commerciality of art and developing one’s product to fit trends and consumer desires. This might be to take on commissions of people’s indistinguishable blob-babies, or otherwise generally taking briefs from others who are willing to fund small, private projects. It might be create work with the intent of having it made into consumer products: iPhone cases, clothing, notebooks. These ventures have their merits—art becomes accessible to all, fulfils immediate needs and desires, brightens the world. Things of utility may as well be attractive. However, the work seems stunted at its inception, and as Hermann Barr (in Huemer, p. 147) demanded to know of his Wiener Secession, ‘Shall the Viennese painters be damned to remain petty businessmen, or should they attempt to become artists?’ Artists choosing to operate in the market on the consumer’s terms, accepting that ‘paintings are like goods, like trousers or stockings, to be manufactured according to the client’s wishes’ (p. 147) are at the mercy of those who know very little about and demand very little from art.

Secession, Wien

Secession, Wien

The second attitude grasps the last remaining threads of integrity of art as an art form, clinging fast to those old ideas of a higher function of art. Painting as an intellectual pursuit is as profound as any other academicism; a visual philosophy that wrestles simultaneously with physical substances and with emotions, psychologies, experiences of the world and abstract ideas, painting is but another means of thinking through and encapsulating notions that others drape with words, poetically or scientifically or otherwise. Politely declining well-intentioned governmental suggestions, limiting the energy one spends on fun commercial detours, the artist can set her own brief, driven by the highest intellectual considerations, by the most difficult questions she faces as a human being. In this sense, perhaps art is not an end in itself, but simply another medium in the pursuit of knowledge, sitting alongside philosophy papers, physics experiments and the most penetrating literature. It is created not for the exhibition, nor for the unknown future buyer, but for humanity.

Secession, Wien

Secession, Wien

This doesn’t solve where we, as painters and other artists, sit in the modern marketplace. But remembering that other intellectuals forge careers in the same world as us, perhaps we can look around for inspiration as we secede from the currently accepted methods of doing business in art. Tony Abbott might have erased the Science Ministry, but the founder of Blackberry loves theoretical physics so much he set up the world-class Perimeter Institute outside of Toronto. The Queensland Literary Awards might have been scrapped by Campbell Newman, but impassioned supporters have continued to award financial prizes through crowd-funding. Sotheby’s might never look at you in your lifetime, and your humble manner of sticking paint to linen might not be interdisciplinary enough for the meagre governmental grants on offer, but if we hold fast to what we believe art to be, we can construct new modes of integrating our work into the world on our terms.

Huemer, Christian. 2006. ‘Gustav Klimt—The prophet of Viennese Modernism: Marketing and cult at the Secession.’ In Gustav Klimt Landscapes. Ed. Stephan Koja. Prestel: Munich.

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Dimensions

Copy after Van Dyck; Hermann Joseph, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Copy after Van Dyck; Hermann Joseph, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

What is perhaps most fascinating for me in viewing old master paintings, and what seems to be lost on people distracted by clouds of angel babies and voluptuous nudes being fawned upon by the gods of Greek or Christian persuasion, is the representation of the wholly natural third dimension.

Upon first noticing it, one has not words for this, and thinks it must be something in the paint, in the mixing of colours, in the adeptness with tone. Perhaps exotic ancient pigments. But when your eyes at last adjust to the idea of pictorially representing three-dimensional space, the image suddenly alters under your gaze, like the illusions of Gestalt psychology in which a single image may be viewed as either a rabbit or a duck but never at the one time. Of these duck-rabbit switch images, Gombrich (in Kandel p. 208) thought it significant that ‘the visual data on the page do not change. What changes is our interpretation of the data.’ Your eyes flicker, and you suddenly see that Van Dyck thought not only of the harmonious arc of figures and the sloping, hierarchical diagonal through their hands, but that he also saw depth, and, indeed, has depicted this illusion so convincingly on a  completely flat surface. Our modern eyes, however, are actively trained to resist this representation, and conform to flattened compositional devices, colour, symbolism, and—most of all—subject matter. Blinded by our disdain for religion, our modern eyes miss the plane of depth extending back into the picture and fail to recognise just how rare this is in modern painting.

Duck-Rabbit_illusion

While it’s interesting to take a historical viewpoint of painting and note the evolution from deep to flat, it’s startling to realise precisely where one is situated in this history and to realise the implications this has on one’s understanding of paintings made in ages past. This flattening in art was certainly an intentional educational progression. Viennese painter Adolf Hölzel wrote an influential essay Über Formen und Massenvertheilung im Bilde and introduced the ideas contained within as part of the school curriculum from 1906. We have grown up in the wake of this tradition; we have been trained to see this way, to appreciate our flat canvas for the two dimensions it has, and not to manipulate it to contain more, nor to try to read more than two into it. In this respect, something previously integral to painting has not merely been forgotten but intentionally erased. While Nelson (p. 178) alludes to techniques of looking and making being ‘revised and reworked, gained and lost and rediscovered afresh, over centuries,’ it is clear that some things were not simply forgotten but thrust aside, and the implications of this hang heavily in the air of the gallery today.

Belvedere, Wien

Belvedere, Wien

A current exhibition at the Oberes Belvedere, Wien, sheds light on but one aspect of this intentional shift. Die Formalisierung der Landschaft (Shaping of the landscape) exhibition traces the efforts of Hölzel and his contemporaries and followers in the late 1890s to embrace the flatness of the pictorial space, and the general move in the German-speaking countries away from the illusionism that had propelled artists since the Renaissance. Books emphasising negative space in Rubens and the like started to permeate schools—these are the very ideas I recall being plied with, without having the depth-dependent alternative demonstrated to me. To my generation, and perhaps a few before, painting simply is flat, and if one cares to model form one ought to turn to sculpture or installation. Lacking this historical contrast, we have failed to see just how striking this two-dimensional shift was, and, I would venture, have even been cheated out of a fuller understanding of the painting of earlier times. When one can’t see past the plump nudes reclining in courts or the heavy religious topics of Rubens, it probably has a lot to do with lacking the perceptual abilities needed to see the multi-axial compositional genius of his paintings.

Nevertheless, just before 1900, compositional ideas were shifting, and the rise of photography seems to have played no small part in this. Rather than concentrating on illusionistic compositional devices to do with depth or perspective, the fading neutrals of the distance, or the convincing volume of objects, painters and photographers alike were investigating the idea of flat shapes delineating a single-planed composition. The Belvedere exhibition specifically offers the work of the painters Ludwig Dill, Emilie Mediz-Pelikan, Theodore von Hörmann, Rudolf Ribarz, Karl Mediz and Carl Moll as examples, as well as that of the Viennese photographers Heinrich Kühn, Hugo Henneberg and Hans Watzek. The paintings and prints are remarkably alike in their stiff stillness, their solemn but hazy tree silhouettes against the Dachau moors echoing (and intentionally so) the positive and negative ink blots of the Gestalt psychologists.

Taken in this historical context, the paintings are fascinating—just how much were they influenced by psychology, or psychology driven by art? And did photography lend its tone-simplifying characteristics to the thought-process of painters, despite arguments that with the advent of photography painters were forced to diversify, and turn to ornamentation? As Gombrich (in Kandel, p. 109) suggested, ‘The photographer was slowly taking over the functions that had once belonged to the painter. And so the search for alternative niches began. One such alternative lay in the decorative function of painting, the abandoning of naturalisms in favour of formal harmonies.’ Klimt was a prominent Viennese convert to flatness and ornamentation in the face of the possibilities of photography (Kandel p. 115). Nevertheless, the New Dachau artists provide a nice counterpoint of perhaps some of the earliest painting directly influenced by the aesthetics of photography. These aesthetics endure with us today, and not merely through the slavery many a painter has come to have to her camera as a convenient way of freezing her subject, but through the lack of understanding of light and shadow zones and compositional construction when one has done so much of one’s visual learning from the flat, pre-framed and tonally compressed picture plane of the photograph.

Heldenplatz mit Flieder, Carl Moll 1900-1905

Heldenplatz mit Flieder, Carl Moll 1900-1905

Carl Moll stands out in this Belvedere exhibition for his ability to integrate these new ideas without completely sacrificing the old. The gaudy, brightly-coloured and texture-driven paintings of Mediz-Pelikan and Von Hörmann don’t come marginally close to Moll’s delicate representation of lakes and trees and gardens of Vienna. His globes of pruned plants are full and round; their dampened purples vivid in his intelligently considered context, unlike the more crude primaries of his contemporaries. The distance recedes in a harmonious haze of neutralised colours not unlike the true dusty fuzz of a Wiener summer sky. And yet, the shapes dominate and tell the real story, with vast stretches of grass filling broad swathes of the canvas, or expanses of shimmering lake filing the entire foreground. Moll expertly manipulates the modern ideas of flatness without giving up any illusionism. Does he cling to fast to the old? Perhaps, if one only measures success by progress. But I find Moll far more intelligent for his ability to discern between the valuable aspects of all ideas at his disposal to make truly beautiful and engaging paintings. The other paintings may simply be glanced at as examples of their school, but do not stand alone as strong and memorable images.

The march of history need not mean we abandon the powerful techniques left to us by those before. Flatness and ornamentation have been exciting and visually stimulating approaches, and much of the illustration I admire clings fast to these impulses. But to discard other tools simply because they have a longer history is perhaps to deny oneself the tools one needs to truly express something significant.

Heldenplatz, Wien

Heldenplatz, Wien

Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The age of insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present. Random House: New York.

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

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Die Gestalt des Menschen

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

In Vienna, a little romance has blossomed between me and sculpture. It’s hard to say how this happened; it unfolded slowly, and now I am irresistibly drawn to these three-dimensional creatures that transform before my eyes as I circle them. So rich in possibilities! So imaginative in design! Endless drawings grasp after these bronze, marble and terracotta constructions, with each viewpoint a new vision, a new insight.

In one of his more lighthearted moments, Kafka, too, relished the magic of sculpture. Of a trip to the Louvre he writes in his diaries (p. 459-60):

‘Even when you walked around the Venus de Milo as slowly as possible, there was a rapid and surprising alteration in its appearance. … I should need a plastic reproduction to remember them, especially one about the way the bended left knee affected her appearance from every side, though sometimes only very slightly. …

The front view of the Borghese Wrestler isn’t the best one, for it makes the spectator recoil and presents a disjointed appearance. Seen from the rear, however, where for the first time you see his foot touching the ground, your eye is drawn in delight along the rigid leg and flies safely over the irresistible back to the arm and sword raised towards the front.’

The sculptor must be a mannerist, for in sculpture the figure stands alone, no background to compositionally support it. Perhaps a lute or some drapery bend space in the desired way, but these too mustn’t stray too far from the figure, and must be supported somehow. This is the human form at its most expressive! Extended arms in theatrical gestures; cocked hips and crunched abdomens; exaggerated sweeps of legs and improbable stacks of pelvises and rib cages supported by ruthless gravity but given wings by imagination.

Kenneth Clark (p. 357) surprisingly suggests that ‘to use the body as a means of expressing the anguish of the human soul is no longer a possible enterprise.’ He concludes his book The Romantic Rebellion with a chapter on Rodin, whose Eve I have been fawning over in the Upper Belvedere, seeming to situate Rodin at the end of an era in the expressive relevance of the human form. Perhaps he is historically correct in this; as Kandel (p. 215) argues, the emergence of modernism was signalled by the advent of ‘two broad, sometimes overlapping types of experiments, both designed to enlarge the viewer’s experience in ways that photography could not’: specifically, one loose camp of artists proceeded to dissect the physicality of painting, toying with perspective and form and such representational tools to produce something visually challenging. The second broad camp of artists used all available tools to explore the psyche, and the visual representation of emotions. Historically, then, there seems, in the wake of Rodin, no place for the realistic representation of the human figure when abstraction, symbolism and expressive distortions have picked up where he left off.

However, Clark (p. 357) offers an insightful reason for the impossibility of continuing Rodin’s powerful tradition: ‘We do not know how to represent the body and do not believe in the existence of the soul.’ The first contention seems fair, yet surmountable. It’s certainly more difficult now to learn solid draughtsmanship, and to be guided on points of form and anatomy, but schools exist, and individuals persevere. The second point is more difficult to dodge, and seems to resonate with Nietzsche’s fearless observation of the beliefs of his fellow human beings that God is dead. We are crying out for a new metaphor, a new way to describe that restlessness within us, that feeling intellect, that thoughtful sentience. We are wed to this earth by our bodies of dirt, held fast by gravity. But we feel more than mere pain and pleasure, and are propelled by more than instinct.

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Rodin’s Eve clings to the old metaphor but in a way unlike any other I’ve seen: her belly beginning to bulge, she clutches herself in shame and misery at the wounded world she is to birth. She shields her head, hung low and dark, with a hastily-sculpted hand, shying from the blame she is to wear for all of womankind for her curious and defiant actions. Not a seductive temptress proffering jewel-like fruit to her unsuspecting and guileless male companion, not a sparkling goddess of fertility; Rodin’s Eve probes the devastation of the first act in the tragedy that is our western metaphor and reveals that metaphor for the failure that it is, and the failure that it has forced us to be from the beginning.

Egon Schiele, The Family, Belvedere Wien

Egon Schiele, The Family, Belvedere Wien

Rodin’s truth is ugly, but apt and timely. The man himself says (in Kandel, p. 103), ‘There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say that which offers no outer or inner truth.’ Rodin himself begins to turn inwards in a way that aligns with the Viennese expressionists, including Schiele and Kokoschka, who ‘produced work that boldly challenged the aesthetic focus on beauty and the association of beauty with truth’ (p. 102), and who themselves turned inwards. Interestingly, however, while their paintings distorted the human figure, they relied heavily on gestural symbolism within the figure, returning again and again to the expressiveness of human hands, as well as playing with the meanings implied by awkward angularities and physical relations between figures. I return again and again to Schiele’s The Family in the Belvedere, where Schiele, ape-like, drapes his protective but awkward arms around his wife Edith, who sits serenely between his legs, where she received the fruit of his loins, and her own legs are parted, knees raised high, to introduce their inquisitive child into the world from between her own fruitful thighs. There is a vulgarity in this, but a beautiful honesty relevant to the age. And it is not thoroughly severed from the knowledgeable representation of the human form (Schiele’s anatomical knowledge is always prominent), though it distorts and in some ways caricatures.

Schiele, then, provides an apt example for Nelson’s (p. 179) admonition ‘that we acquire no more technical sophistication than we need,’ or, rather, that we make use of it no more than we need. In this sense, academicism in our drawing is only relevant insofar as we need it to achieve our ends. ‘The purpose is always the nub of the discussion’ he continues; ‘and a focus on technique without a corresponding dedication to the purposes which it might serve strikes me as idle.’ Nelson is right to emphasise the motivation for our learning, though it is difficult to see how a thorough education could be ‘idle’ in any sense. Setting our goals and aiming no higher precludes what we might have gone on to achieve if we’d only allowed ourselves the resources. It seems far less limiting to me to learn all you can, and watch your own purpose emerge out of your unfettered abilities.

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

And as Scott Breton argues, these age-old skills do not confine the artist to endless similitude: ‘Drawing the figure in the classical sense, is not copying.’ Rather than agreeing on a standardised visual notation, artists with such training are each attempting to use the most convincing tools at their disposal to fulfil their individual visions: ‘It is an attempt at integration, a kind of improvisation and simplification in real time, that brings together gesture and body language, anatomy, design, form and character. … From beginning to end, good painting is a process of creative integration of elements such that the alchemy of their mixture makes the gold the artist was grasping for: the gestalt, the intangible story.’

Kandel (p. 103) notes that art, throughout history, has appealed to the same emotions in people, and yet we are never satiated, we continue to be enthralled by art. New art finds new ways to ignite old passions in us, and we don’t feel deceived by this, but rather seek it out. Riegel (in Kandel, p. 104) suggests that it is the task of the artist to teach people to look afresh, to find the truths—age old or relevant to our own age—for themselves.

The figure remains as prominent in art—fine art, commercial art; digital art, photography, painting, sculpture—as ever. The body speaks to us in profound ways, through facial expression and body language, through idealisation and imperfection, through age and gender. Let us hold fast to the expressive figure and our ability to represent it, but let us forge new metaphors and search out new truths. God is dead; man is not.

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Clark, Kenneth. 1973. The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus classic art. John Murray: London.

Kafka, Franz. 2009 [1959]. Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken.

Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The age of insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present. Random House: New York.

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

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