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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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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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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Curiosity

Copy after Caravaggio, David with the head of Goliath

Copy after Caravaggio, David with the head of Goliath, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

Spending time with people who are not artists is always a reminder that what I do completely evades some people. While my private battles with representing different light sources is not going to fascinate everyone, there is a sense in which people who are not themselves painters want to engage with art, and some people who express such a desire also express being overwhelmed at how to go about this. As painters, we are aware of what Gombrich (in Kandel p. 189)* refers to as ‘the beholder’s share’—the impression that the viewer takes away from our work, the assumptions and education and experiences they bring to it. There comes a point where the work we have created leaves our hands and enters the minds and hearts of those inspecting it. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether we, as painters, ought not give a little thought to those people—try to give them a way in.

In the hills, Wien

In the hills, Wien

Painting is a visual art, and this fact leaves the modern Mensch at something of a loss when confronted with a flat, motionless piece of information. We are educated to digest all manner of written material, can swallow difficult philosophies through literary narratives, we can grasp emotional experiences through music. Painting asks something completely different of us, however, as I think Scott Breton very neatly sums up when he says, ‘In contrast to dance, one of the beautiful aspects of paintings is their immediacy as a whole, they exist all at once, as opposed to the temporal nature of writing, music or acted arts, allowing the viewer to wander and investigate the image in their own way.’

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Our literary-based education seems to cut short of giving us any tools with which to engage with the visual. A smattering of magazine advertisement clippings and a few group discussions on symbolism is about all that some of us have been taught. I remember checking a huge illustrated volume of Carl Jung’s from the library at an early age. Others follow a stock-standard art history course through the modern epochs and are introduced to an assortment of historical and social contexts. And yet, there is far more to standing in front of a painting and systematically interpreting symbols as they pertain to a particular place and time, as though written in some logical code ready to be ‘read’ as any other text.

What goes unnoticed is that there is something important about demonstration and imitation in visual learning. We must teach each other curiosity, where our formal education has failed to. Things are not so much explained in art as simply presented, and we must learn to search them ourselves, and we must learn how to search them. We must learn to use our eyes not simply to register alphabets that give us prepared information, but to explore. And we must forget about even trying to express what we thus find in words.

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How does one teach curiosity? It is certainly not mastered like any ordinary skill. By definition, you can’t pass a multiple-choice test with it, and you’d struggle to write a well-argued essay based on it because you would overturn more than you would resolve. Curiosity is not about getting the right answers, but about coming up with your own questions. For the painter, this can be much easier, because the questions can be of a very practical nature—why is this tone used here against this one? Why does this edge fade and not that one? How has that effect of distance been conveyed? How neutral does the skin pale in the shadows? And the act of drawing is a wordless questioning—a visual inquiry in response to visual information. Approaching a painting with a sketchbook and pencil and testing out the feel of the lines for oneself, imitating the flow and design of the image, tasting the contrast of light and shadow—in imitation one traces the very thoughts of the painter and gains insights that elude slippery eyes that skim the painting frantically in search of meaning.

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There are several very simple experiences I will never forget that gave me such an insight into the type of visual curiosity that painting demands. The first was when Scott came to inspect a drawing I had just begun of a five-week long pose, after I had just got the guts of it on paper. ‘What is this drawing about?’ he asked me. I was at a loss, because I thought I would have to come up with some profound philosophical basis for my drawing, a rational epistemology, a grand unified theory. But Scott threw out some examples and demonstrated: it could be about the way the legs crossed over, or about the strength of the muscles in the back, or about the profile of the face, or about the twist in the torso. I felt such a sense of relief, because these were things I had considered, but hadn’t thought them ‘deep’ enough—because they were visual rather than intellectual things. And I was making a drawing after all, so it could be about purely visual things!

The second experience is really a series of experiences of poring over art books with Ryan. We would quietly sit and leaf through Sorolla, Degas, Lopez, Fechin. I wondered if I was seeing the ‘right’ thing. Ryan didn’t say anything, but sometimes he would trace his finger along the reproductions. I followed the slow arcs and tried not to overthink it, but just to sit before the painting and let my eyes slowly move over it. This is not something I was taught in art classes at school, when I read critical essays and searched for symbolism. No, now I was learning to see the painting itself. Soon, I could point to things too, and silent conversations arose between us. A combination of taking a rest from analytical thinking and of slowing down meant that I could respond to the visual aspects of the paintings. Actually, there is something in the crossing of limbs or the fall of drapery, just as there is something in the historical context and the feminist critique. If we could just stop feeling that our responses are too ‘simple,’ and if we could just give the painting room to breathe, we might see it.

The last was demonstrated to me by David Paulson in his life class. Paulson often teaches by doing, and will snatch up your pencil and usher you out of your seat so he can lay down some serious lines. And, most memorably, he doesn’t need to explain what he is doing. Rather, your eyes follow the movements of the pencil, and he bubbles with excitement at the best bits, saying repeatedly, ‘wow!’ It’s enough for those pencil sweeps to be seen and felt as wow moments, without needing to articulate why. The very mark articulates it. The mark describes the glorious thing that the eyes are enchanted by, and words can’t come close. And often that thing is the simple elegance of a form, of the bulge of a muscle, of the curve of a clavicle.

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We are in such a hurry to understand, and falsely think that the slow and ponderous are dull-witted. We read clear and simple language in the hope that one pass will be enough to absorb the maximum information; this is a method of reading that is foreign to the philosopher, who mulls and gestates and chews, and shamelessly re-reads. Dog-eared passages and creased spines attest to the power of certain sections or turns of phrases; repetition cements ideas in the mind and fortifies memory; stacks of books must be returned to in order to cross-reference ideas. The truly curious student barely thinks in terms of ‘revision’ for her learning is a constant revisiting, refreshing, returning to old ideas in the context of the new. Learning is not linear like a course curriculum.

And yet the art gallery is populated by the frantic on a time-limit, armed with map and audio-guide, powering from room to room on a schedule. A sweaty, red-faced woman recently threw herself at me in anguish, thrusting her Kunsthistorisches map at me and wailing, ‘Do you know where the Breugels are? I’m never going to find them!’ The map is as meaningless to me, more a symbol of the incurious and time-poor—surely the curious will take the time to be surprised, to learn the gallery? Surely they will approach it without an agenda, and let their eyes be their only guide, and spend time with the works that sing to them like sirens, even if they don’t understand at first what draws them to them. Follow your eyes and the questions will begin to flow. And slow down enough to let them.

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It’s hard to just look. To let the importance of the visual things really sink in, when we are searching for meanings that we can verbally express. It is a true gift, as a painter, to be permitted to look, purposefully, every day. I get to really be in the sunset every day, and to know it intimately. And it never, ever gets old. I begin to paint it, and the next day it is subtly different, and I see this slight change and appreciate it. Even if I think, ‘why couldn’t it have been this way yesterday when I painted that part?’ I can’t repaint it endlessly. And yet, if I do, there is only gain, as I ask myself endless questions and let curiosity rather than conclusions guide me.

Heuriger Hirt, Wien

Heuriger Hirt, Wien

The painter goes to the gallery and can stare for hours at shapes, lines and colours, seeing the power in the visual and not needing to enslave it in words, or situate it in history, or view it through a political lens. The painter humbly approaches the painting and lets the painting lead, and trusts his eyes, and wanders back and forth across the still terrain with the questions that slowly emerge. The painter isn’t pressured to ‘solve’ the painting, to ‘read’ it, or to ‘get’ it. The painting does indeed belong to a time period and have distinct cultural connotations, employs symbolism and draws on age-old traditions with all their spiritual and mythological foundations. But the painting is also the crafted response of a human being, with their own emotional response to these times and stories, with their own vision that they have tried to pass on to you. Slow down, trust your eyes, and let your eyes lead you. The questions will come; be brave enough to follow the questions rather than looking to authorities for answers.

 

 

* 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.

(p. 189) “The viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture. Riegl called this phenomenon the ‘beholder’s involvement’ (Gombrich later elaborated on it and referred to it as ‘the beholder’s share.’ “

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Painting: the lost virtue

After Caravaggio, Madonna of the rosary

After Caravaggio, Madonna of the rosary

The role of the artist is perhaps less clear than ever, and hence the motives of the artist are also something hazy and questioned. In centuries past, the artist performed practical and useful functions—depicting all manner of things from scholarly medical diagrams to religious narratives for the illiterate to portraits to be passed to posterity. It’s easy to imagine the artist’s role as comfortably integrated into society, a practical trade like any other.

Now that everyone reads, and photography quickly and cheaply records near anything we can imagine, there is no obvious need for someone to labour over manually producing our visual records. And since there is no need, the artist is expected to defend her chosen position, which appears to the modern mind superfluous and something of a luxury. In our pragmatic world, the deep conviction that you simply are a painter, and that above all you are compelled to paint, is unacceptable and as irrelevant as the painstaking work you produce, which, by the way, can I photograph it and tweet it to all my friends? #artistingallery #noway

Sunset painting 1

I think there are (to simplify) two breeds of artist: the kind that sees what has been done before and is inspired by it, and the kind that rejects it. This division seems to rest on how one perceives one’s role as an artist. The contemporary position seems uncannily aligned with—my inner Marxist rears her head—capitalism: and this should hardly be surprising, since capitalism flavours our most prevalent conceptions of value and most other aspects of our lives. The unshaking belief in progress is wed to capitalism, and drives our economies, our businesses, the funding of our scientific programs. A contribution is only made to the world in so far as one has ‘value added,’ which is specifically understood as having improved on what was already there. This mindset views history (art history included, it would seem) as a long, straight line trending ever upwards. I find this concept of historical improvement to be very troubling.

And I am not alone. It seems that, armed with this idea of improvement, many painters see the old masters and abandon this task completely. Why learn to draw if one cannot better Rubens? Why learn how to model form if one can’t hope to surpass Michelangelo? (Which in itself raises the interesting question, did Rubens surpass Michelangelo?) In despair at such a project, it seems sensible to sidestep it and simply do something else. To think of something clever and new, and succeed in novelty rather than skill. The artists who pursue such work must really have internalised this mindset of improvement, and hence see their role as an artist to contribute something value-added to the world. Producing more of the same at a standard of excellence does not fit with this progress-oriented view of value.

Sunset painting 2

Now I don’t study Rubens with the aim of becoming Rubens. I admire him endlessly, and hope to learn all I can from him. And he is not the only artist I mine for wisdom. No, when I dig deeper to understand how and why, and when I invest time in learning proportions of the figure and anatomy, it is not to imitate but ultimately to refine my own particular skills which will be expressed in my own way. I have other concerns than Rubens did, and I experience the world in a fundamentally different way than he did. These things are going to be apparent in my own work, and it will belong to its own time and place. Bryson (in Nelson, p. 177) argues that with the technical knowledge gained by the apprentice in the atelier, ‘as the painter takes up position before the canvas and begins to work, there is an encounter between this complex of practical knowledge and the new situation; under the pressure of the novel demands of the encounter the complex itself is modified and the tradition extended.’

Ah, now there is a word we can latch onto! Extended. This is the view that the first kind of artist I mentioned must take. This artist doesn’t go to look at the Van Dycks and think to herself, ‘I can improve on these!’ But she—wholly reasonably—sees them, admires them, and reflects that Van Dyck, that Rubens, that Michelangelo were mere mortals like herself who simply dedicated their whole lives to their perfectly respectable trade, worked hard and hence got very good at it, as can she. The focus is not on what went before and how to differentiate oneself or prove oneself measurably better, but rather on excellence itself. Excellence, rather than being tied to value, is associated with that old concept of virtue. It would be absurd to say, ‘I won’t aspire to honesty or integrity or courage, because they have already been done.’ Rather, the virtuous person cultivates these characteristics in himself in order to be as excellent as possible. The pursuit of excellence in his field echoes this. He refines his craft in order to be the best he can be, irrespective of what others are doing or have done.

Sunset painting 3

On this view, it doesn’t matter how much amazing art is already in the world. It didn’t matter to Veronese that he came to the party years after Titian, just as the chronology doesn’t matter to the art gallery visitor, who is dazzled by them side by side. They both contribute their own visions and in so doing contribute meaningfully to a long tradition of representational painting. This tradition is not exhausted so long as there are artists born in new times, experiencing new things and finding new positions to express with their own capacities and skills.

Is this appeal to excellence and thus virtue a moral imperative to extend the artistic tradition? Perhaps so. Perhaps to focus on value is to risk getting muddied in market-oriented ideas; perhaps thinking too hard about how one compares to others is a distraction from the real question of what you can do with what you have. Focusing on how you can improve yourself matters first; your contribution will be measured by this. If your motive as a painter is to pursue excellence in your field rather than to be better than everyone you ever heard of, you will probably also be more comfortable with your role as a painter, partaking in a long and esteemed tradition, not a fading craft.

 

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

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The analytical romantic

Copy after Bernardo Strozzi, The widow of Sarpeta with the prophet Elias

Copy after Bernardo Strozzi, The widow of Sarpeta with the prophet Elias

I’m suspicious of dichotomies of the likes of Romanticism(s) versus Classicism, and I’ve no intention of defending such categories here, though I’ve been reading much literature on the topic. Where the definitions of Romanticism and Classicism are themselves individually contested, and individual artists are argued to fall under both titles, it seems difficult to gain anything of substance from the division. At best, I can see that broadly, some artists strove for a universalisable, eternal method in art, ‘so simple that their universality could be deemed self-evident,’ (Barzun, p. 24). Other artists broadly reacted against this, often responding to the multiplicity in nature. What follows assumes this very simplistic definition.

Bricked-up door, Bratislava

Bricked-up door, Bratislava

In fact, I want to argue against the hard division, which seems to do more intellectual damage than good. As an artist and art lover, it has always been the so-called ‘romantic’ art—sublime hillsides and vast skies of Caspar David Friedrich, emotive colour and heady composition—that has won my deepest affection. As a philosopher and thinker, reason and analysis must underpin everything. It seems to me that the two need not exclude each other, as is so often simplistically asserted. Profound emotional experiences can direct our systematic thoughts; just as our bodies ache and thrill as guides for our minds, our emotions and passions give our intellect cues. To reject such indicators as invalid is an unhealthy denial of the self; to fail to probe them with the mind is short-sighted and disengaged. We are sensuous creatures, dependent on our senses for basic functions and reliant on them for information; art takes this sensory experience to a higher plane that gives our minds a way in to thoughts of a very different quality.

Bricked-up window, Bratislava

Bricked-up window, Bratislava

It troubles me, then, to read the praises of thoughtless naïveté, passions disconnected from thought, as though thought might actually ruin the sensation rather than amplify it through intention and understanding. Babbit (p. 15) refers to the naiveté of Romantic artists whose ‘spontaneity and unity of feeling had not yet suffered from artificiality, or been disintegrated by analysis.’ Surely only shallow feelings dissolve at the airy touch of thought? Surely it is one-off performances that prove false when gazed at squarely? The fleetingness and transience ascribed to Romantic art attempts to paint it as a wholly ungrounded discipline, mere lucky snatches at inspired impulses, never to be explained, understood, or repeated. Clark (p. 263) worryingly calls such miraculous occurrences, ‘like all romantic arts, … a triumph of the irrational.’

Van Gogh windows, Bratislava

Van Gogh windows, Bratislava

The very accidental nature of such performances makes me question their value. Is the lucky slug of a beach-cricketer who hits it for a six more inspired than the precision of technique of a skilled batsman? Is the feeling of surprise-based elation in that moment more meaningful than the pay-off of solid hard work? And, further, is the magic of the flight of the ball destroyed by a scientific understanding of trajectories and friction? The scientist would vehemently argue that understanding makes the observation more profound. Perhaps the art-viewer would be more moved by having an intellectual grasp as well as an emotive connection to a work of art. And perhaps the artist herself is more invested in and expressive in a work of art in which she has demonstrated some intentionality rather than working mindlessly, purely physically.

Plumbing windows, Bratislava

Plumbing windows, Bratislava

Barzun (p. 26) argues contrary to Clark: ‘It is a fact beyond dispute that the romantic artists worked like scientific researchers. Their notebooks,’ he continues, ‘their critical writings, their letters and treatises on composition are there to testify that technique was to them as important as subject matter.’ Should Turner be offered as a fine specimen of romantic artist, I would question the free, unthinking irrationality attributed to him by the likes of Clark (p. 255; 259), who in the same breath describes Turner’s long-term project of understanding colour as both ‘an unthinking response to sensuous delight’ and a ‘determined effort to master the theory of colour.’ The continuity in Turner’s approach to colour exhibits a methodical application rather than a mindless splattering of paint. If anything, his ‘response to sensuous delight’ is all the more apparent because he has thought through his sensations, and how one might represent them, rather than leaving it to chance. Analysis of the tracts of Italy before his eyes allowed him to produce the colours that he did, just as such analysis by the viewer deepens the experience of viewing these paintings. Nice colours stimulate three-year-olds. Meaningful colours speak volumes to those who have felt the languid Italian sunshine warm their skin and watched it melt into the hills before them.

Colourful windows, Bratislava

Colourful windows, Bratislava

In Barzun’s (p. 26) words, ‘Romantic art, then, is not “romantic” in the vulgar sense, but “realistic” in the sense  of concrete, full of particulars, and thus congenial to the inquiring spirit of history and science.’ Barzun finds thought—philosophy, if you will—the bridge between art and science. An artist, moved by sensations, grounded in the physical world, may apply his analytical mind to very real, chemical and spatial problems and produce, wholly intentionally, a representation that moves the viewer through her sensations. The onus is on the artist once more to do the hard work, rather than the viewer to interpret the obscure accompanying statement. Barzun (p. 27) praises the energy of the Romantic painters, stating that ‘energy was not merely a cult but a fact. … All this means work if it means nothing else.’ And the analytical romantic, compelled to inquiry by the profundity of her physical sensations and the emotional responses they inspire, is not afraid of such work, and not so far removed from the intellectual impulses of the classicist.

Random windows, Bratislava

Random windows, Bratislava

Barzun, Jacques. 1965 [1961] ‘Intrinsic and historic romanticism,’ in Romanticism: Definition, explanation and evaluation. Ed. John B Halsted. D. C. Heath: Lextington, Massachusetts.

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

Babbitt, Irving. 1965 [1919]. ‘The qualities of Rousseauism,’ in Romanticism: Definition, explanation and evaluation. Ed. John B Halsted. D. C. Heath: Lextington, Massachusetts.

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Measuring air

The Duchess © Samantha Groenestyn

The Duchess © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on canvas)

Lately, some thinking about edges. The potency of the edge is a recent revelation to me. As Nelson (p. 133) begins his chapter titled Edge control and atmposhere, ‘Edges do not take care of themselves.’ Having worked a lot in gouache—a far more immediate and less forgiving medium than oils—and often from photographs, I’ve usually thought of an edge as no more than the end of one shape of colour and the beginning of another, and the meeting of these two creates a sharp and distinct boundary. I’ve left them to take care of themselves. In my transition to oils, I’ve found that working in this same way, as though my paint has dried almost as soon as I’ve laid it down, and thinking of discrete objects in my paintings, I’ve achieved an undesirably sharp result that tonal similarity cannot soften. So: the edges must be manipulated, but according to what rationale?

Nelson (p. 134) assuages me with the observation that ‘edges are spooky, a part of the painting that artists revere and dread, a zone of high-density intelligence which seems impossible to comprehend with eye and mind, let alone master with the hand.’ Far from being intuitive, or demanding any formulaic response, edges are indeed as difficult as I’ve discovered them to be, and require thought and intention. Blurring all edges indiscriminately creates an atmospheric mush, but introducing this softness and haze intelligently can coax some of this atmospheric quality into an otherwise firmly handled painting. Appealed to just right (like some fickle Greek god), the edge can give a painting the oxygen it needs to breathe.

This metaphor of breathing seems incredibly apt: my reading has led me to conclude that in considering edges one is constantly making reference to air, and the way it flows around subjects, and the way it carries light, the way it picks up leaves and stray locks of hair and the way it caresses and obscures things in the distance. Nelson (p. 139) plainly asserts that ‘all matters of edges relate to atmosphere.’ The edge, far from being the clear intersection of two separate forms, is a matter of space, stuffed full of air, and itself extended in the physical world. Our eyes witness the fluidity of edges in the physical world, the way they drift and roll and change shape with the slightest movement. The painter must not be satisfied with an ‘accurate’ linear representation of an object’s outline, but always have in her mind the three-dimensional extension of the thing, and how it sits in space, or, better, how space encapsulates it.

‘In representational work,’ Nelson (p. 133) elaborates, ‘the edges are intensely pregnant in their references to space. Especially among motives that curve, the edges designate the most complicated parts of the object.’ Information positively bulges at the edges, as vast tracts of physical substance are contracted when transferred to a two-dimensional representation. Rather than solidly ending, a substance approaches its limit—just as Zeno described Atalanta approaching the end of the race but never finishing by halving the distance at each interval, paradoxically creating infinite information at the cusp. Nelson (p. 134), in a feat of writerly brilliance, calls this ‘the perceptual asymptote.’ And one only has to imagine, as he asks us to, an arm as it curves away from sight, where what we see as an edge is in fact another side of the arm with just as much information as the side facing us. Add to this the way that light glances off this edge that is perpendicular to our vision, and into our eye, rather than bouncing in directly with the full gamut of information, and it’s clearer why the edge is so elusive to us.

Fortunately, we can look to the giants of the past to aid our deliberations. Nelson (p. 135) identifies a reasonably consistent approach in the old masters, who vary the edge according to the curvature at this limit. Put simply, if a fold of fabric turns sharply out of view, the edge is correspondingly crisp; if a meaty thigh folds broadly away from our eyes, its edge will be soft. ‘The edge is harbouring maybe 25 centimetres of skin in a seductive argument of concealment and revelation; the edge, which in spatial terms is like nothing, becomes a kind of mysterious synopsis of a much larger stretch of the anatomy; it embodies a kind of immanence for much skin which, in turn, contributes much to the immanence of the paint’ (p. 135).

Girl in a fur detail

My daily personal studies in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, have turned my mind to this question, as I gaze inquiringly at the likes of Titian. Two works I return to again and again are Girl in a fur and Nymph and shepherd, two of his gloriously atmospheric works that stand in marked contrast to the crisper, less arresting portraits. When one sees the gentle amalgam of skin and fur, one knows that the strange rough, fluffiness of edges is right. The fur-clad lady is serenely wrapped; she is an invitation to contemplate beauty, and there is nothing confronting or inelegant about her. After some time of admiring the beautiful interlocking triangles that her bare skin and fur cloak make, one notices her exposed breast, a beautiful plump, round thing whose edge is treated with such finesse that it melts into her arm. No crude outline could impregnate the edge of this globe with so much information, and at the same time install it as a small treasure to be discovered with time in a broader image with more dramatic things to arrest the eyes.

vienna_nymph_shepherd_t

Similarly, Titian’s edges in the Nymph and shepherd are extravagantly hazy. A solid inch of fuzz seems to mark the division between flesh and background, but not obscuringly so. Even the bone-china pale expanse of leg of the nymph dissolves into the tar-black ground with such deftness! Titian has here used edges in conjunction with extreme tones to manipulate space in an alarmingly descriptive way. I looked on in amazement as I saw the sharp turn of the arm from the hip over her expansive lap, and the way her legs twisted over and away so convincingly, like a doona rolling off the far edge of a bed. There is nothing flat about this painting.

Titian nymph detail

Titian gives us some bold suggestions, and my investigations are by no means complete. Nelson keeps this chapter short; more of an introduction to the elusive art of edge control, not offering any firm ideas on where to begin. But he encourages us not to shy away from the practical and intellectual challenge before us. ‘The edge is intensely physical and, by metaphor, intensely intellectual,’ he (p. 142) argues. ‘It makes good sense that the theme is both technical and conceptual, both material based and atmospheric. The zone between matter and ideas is just the kind of edge that you would expect artists to work on.’

And so, perhaps a little hazier, but fortified with ideas, we begin to delve into that infinite, airy chasm between one form and another.

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

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Reckless solitude

Landscaping

The world we live in is constructed to support the social creature. Above all others it celebrates the confident, outspoken, public person. It trains us all from our youth to operate in this way, forcing us to be ‘socialised’ in the school, teaching us to perform in front of an audience, preparing us to interact confidently with strangers for the daily transactions our work will demand when we are of age. The reserved, meditative soul is shaken out of its reverie and compelled also to work in this way, despite convincing evidence that such a being might produce more work, and qualitatively better work, in secret, in the privacy of their own room.

The wish for an unthinking, reckless solitude. To be face to face only with myself. Perhaps I shall have it in Riva.

(Kafka, p. 222).

I have been thinking about the solitary life of the painter, and how that faceless entity of ‘society’ warns us against the gruelling hours spent alone in a studio, cut off from human contact. The more time I spend drawing and painting, the more I relish this solitude and the more I crave it. To have autonomy in one’s work is not the only appealing thing. To be so completely immersed in one’s work and undistracted by others is a real gift to the quiet creature, who finds the time alone more attuned to her natural state. Having learned to shed her shyness, she finds it infinitely more conducive to her most fulfilling work to shrink back into it. The painter-animal in the painter-cave, not forcibly shut off from society, but willingly retreating from the inanity of it:

I will write again, but how many doubts have I meanwhile had about my writing? At bottom I am an incapable, ignorant person who, if he had not been compelled—without any effort on his own part and scarcely aware of the compulsion—to go to school, would be fit only to crouch in a kennel, to leap out when food is offered him, and to leap back when he has swallowed it.

(Kafka, p. 237).

Where Kafka considers himself some kind of brute for recognising this trait in himself, I am beginning to believe that this reserve is something to be respected and valued. As one pursues a solitary career and finds oneself submerged in this kennel for days at a time, one achieves a remarkable clarity, a peaceful mental state and a depth of thought not to be found in short snatches of time salvaged here and there around a busy schedule. Creatures like us need time to mull, to ponder, to gestate. Where others intrude, they become a distraction and an imposition:

Everything that is not literature bores me and I hate it, for it disturbs me or delays me, if only because I think it does. I lack all aptitude for family life except, at best, as an observer. I have no family feeling and visitors make me almost feel as though I were maliciously being attacked.

(Kafka, p. 231).

Let me elaborate: I have been out landscape painting. I am currently without the ‘room of one’s own’ of Virginia Woolf’s persuasion, though my suitcase contains a few clothes, many books, and my easel and paints, so I am spending my painterly time out in the world. This has the unexpected consequence of transforming me from the humble painter-animal, a shy and single-minded creature by nature, to the performance artist. It is a harrowing demand on someone living so much in her own head. I am grappling with the selection of convincing tones, attempting to create a harmony in the colours I lay down, searching for the contrasts that work towards the hazy vision in my head. I am battling the wind that rattles my canvas about, intermittent rain, and not a little fatigued by the early afternoon sun. I feel an immense uncertainty in my progress: I am not rehearsing a little routine that I perform swiftly and with ease. I am engaged in a mental struggle, trying to enact that mysterious alchemy of transforming my deep and changing three-dimensional surroundings into a small, flat illusion.

And, worse than bugs, prickly grass and sunburn—I am swarmed by spectators, who, unlike bugs, prickly grass and sunburn, are full of questions, observations and opinions. And carrying cameras.

Here are some suggestions, should you ever encounter a painter at her easel in the wild, open world: Don’t ask her how long the thing will take. Time passes her without fanfare: she doesn’t measure her success by such quantitative units. Time ceases to be calculated in minutes and hours and becomes recorded in brushstrokes and layers of paint. It took me pink and green long to make this. I don’t know what you are talking about. Don’t tell her about your painting relatives. Blood-relations don’t afford you any special painting knowledge. And she is trying to work.

On the whole, spectators are a well-meaning bunch; I truly think this. Only I am so involved in the task to hand, that I am extremely irritated to be taken away from it, and extremely stressed to be aware that I am on a stage, under a spotlight. Because my medium is visual, I am somehow obliged to share it. I envy the writer who can hide behind his laptop, or shrink quietly into his notebook.

Surfacing from our private thoughts and rising to these social demands is perhaps a necessary task, but by no means an easy one, once one has rediscovered the comfort of the painter-cave one has been banished from since childhood. Perhaps we do well to avoid them, recognising the destructive power of these demands. Kafka sounds, to ordinary ears, like he is being melodramatic, but something resonates fiercely with me in his uncompromising words:

My job is unbearable to me because it conflicts with my only desire and my only calling, which is literature. Since I am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else, my job will never take possession of me, it may, however, shatter me completely, and this is by no means a remote possibility.

(Kafka, p. 230).

And his feelings are more poetically, though no less forcefully, expressed by Virginia Woolf:

But what still remains with me as a worse infliction than either [the hardness of the work or the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned] was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks; and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide—a small one but dear to the possessor—perishing and with it my self, my soul—all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart.

(Woolf, p. 39).

All this ‘flattering and fawning,’ this performing for an audience, stands between us and serious work. We painters and writers are not nasty creatures, or unable to empathise, or careless of others. Our shyness might rather belie a more sympathetic and sensitive nature. We are simply concentrated on the task to hand, and only ask for the time and space to attend to it.

The tremendous world I have in my head. But how to free myself and free it without being torn to pieces. And a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here, that is quite clear to me.

(Kafka, p. 222).

Kafka, Franz. 2009 [1959]. Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken.
Woolf, Virginia. [1928] 1963. A room of one’s own. Penguin: Mitcham, Victoria.

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The swamp and the little animals

Swamp © Brian Deagon

Swamp © Brian Deagon

Brian Deagon graciously hosted Ryan and me at his home and studio a few weekends ago, putting on a fabulous spread for lunch, giving us a tour of his sprawling bungalow and extensive shed studio and—most generous of all—a preview of his upcoming show in July. Both house and studio are set amongst gum trees through which the low light slings, projecting dramatic colours in the sky—oranges and lilacs—as the sun goes down. The shed studio is positively stuffed with paintings and flickering with moths and wasps. The maze-like house is lined with paintings like wallpaper. The dining room where we sat down to a huge crisp salad, a fresh baguette and some haloumi and cured meats has walls lined in gold-framed paintings—this is Brian’s personal joke about ‘art,’ and how one can tell whether the piece in question is art. His beautiful Swamp painting, a large piece, hangs outside on the wall by the front door, mostly sheltered from the weather, and apparently impervious to it. An old cane couch stands opposite it, and lounging about in it one can gaze at Swamp infinitely, wondering why it is that anyone spends their time in front of a television.

Brian has had a fascinating career thus far, and there’s something truly admirable in his approach to art, and plenty to be learned from it. He started out as an abstract painter, layering shapes and filling his paint with grit and sticking things to the canvas. One such painting stands on an easel in the shed, in two parts. Brian can’t remember how it goes together, and spends a few minutes rearranging it. He looks at it solemnly and says, ‘One night I stepped back and looked at this painting and said, “Brian, what are you doing? You’re only painting like this because you can’t draw.”’ So he gave up painting. He retired from his teaching job and took his daughter across the country and onwards to the US to pursue her promising ballet career. He stopped painting and he stopped drawing, because he recognised a crucial gap in his knowledge and could find no way to fill it. It was twenty years later when he heard of Lance Bressow that he returned to it, picking up right where he left off. There’s amazing courage in first giving up the thing that drives you, and then in returning to it and getting on with it. Yet Brian describes it as a straightforward enough thing, and one must simply do what one must do.

The works for Brian’s upcoming show at the RQAS are lush rainforest and swamp scenes, and I think to call them landscapes would be to neglect something important about them. These are not lovely false windows to hang on your wall, decorative pieces to remind one of the natural world beyond. One senses that these large paintings—at least a couple of metres across—are real portraits of real places, capturing the spirit of the places and recording the features. He alters things, certainly, for compositional harmony, but the places are recognisable, especially to his Aboriginal friends who know the places intimately. Brian’s work powerfully respects that sense of place, and it comes across so strongly that he has a profound sense of what it is to be in a place.

His paintings got me thinking about the idea of reverence and awe and a sort of secular experience of the sacred. It’s strange to me that the Western response to an expanse of landscape is that it’s a nice chunk of scenery, and that we can only experience the sacred through our own constructs. A forest is just a forest, possibly good for logging and mining, but a cathedral is the holiest of holies, and you’d better not bare your sinful shoulders that the Good Lord gave you. We worship ourselves rather than things bigger than us, and have no time for the so-called primitivism of the Aboriginal sense of sacred places.

Tackle © Brian Deagon

Tackle © Brian Deagon

‘Little animals’ are beginning to make an appearance in Brian’s work, sprouting amongst the lush riots of greenery—tiny unclothed people wrestling. ‘We’re only little animals!’ he explains, chuckling a little. ‘We fight over food, territory or mates. Nothing else.’ When I return to the Kunsthistorisches in Vienna just a few weeks later I’m struck that Brian’s project echoes a beautiful painting by Paolo Veronese and his workshop, Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Paradise. Veronese’s forest is deep and shadowy, his trees falling to the edges of the painting as if they are at the edge of the earth. The canopy feels impenetrable, and hides all the animals—including some little human ones—in its darkness. There is a real wildness to this painting, a sense of having to tame something so untameable. Brian’s paintings tap into this same sort of wildness. Rather than cloaking his little human animals in the shadow of evil, he grows them out of the frenzy of vital colour. There is nothing shameful or sinful in Brian’s paintings, just a matter-of-fact appreciation of life.

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from paradise © Paolo Veronese

Adam and Eve after the expulsion from paradise © Paolo Veronese

Some paintings Brian begins tonally, laying down a grisaille and introducing the electric colour later—phthaelo greens winning the day. One large canvas (and most of them are a couple of metres across) remains a grisaille, a dramatic, near nocturnal variation. Some of the smaller ones are painted without green paint at all, relying on yellow and black, and even red in places. Brian chuckles about the ability of the human eye to see red as green. He is immensely interested in what sort of trickery the painter can achieve.

Besides this, he is thoroughly playful in following his thought progressions. Another painting he has chopped into squares no bigger than a hand and framed each individually (in gold frames of course) to abstract them. He then repainted them, larger, on canvases that can be rearranged infinitely; an ultimate abstraction. He and Ryan discuss this idea of abstraction emerging from something representational, and of being excited by the abstract design inherent in found things.

Waterhole at Kundulomdulom © Brian Deagon

Waterhole at Kundulomdulom © Brian Deagon

The most profound lesson is perhaps in Brian’s character: he is a man of immense humility, who has never stopped learning. He gladly takes classes with people much his junior, because he wants to learn from them. His extensive website—boasting a beautifully written collection of thoughtful essays—describes this best. He writes admiringly of Ryan, teacher at the Atelier Art Classes, after taking a class with him:

We really need to say more about what I see as Daffurn’s idealism. It’s not the kind where everyone has a “Greek” nose and all female breasts defy gravity in their perfect cones. It goes much deeper philosophically in a Kantian or Heideggerian sense. It comes from a reverence for the constructed body, and a profound understanding of its structure in three dimensions, and the fourth dimension being potential movement in time, and all within a space of light and colour, revealing and concealing the body at the same moment.

Nothing really needs to be invented, just deeply understood.

It’s a proud stance, underpinned by humility. Incidentally, the controlled art studio lighting is not mandatory, it’s just a help to the student. This is all based on a reverence for nature and the body we inhabit. More than that, it presupposes a profound belief in the intelligence of artist and audience, and the visual language they use. We intend to edify our viewer, not shock them. This might not be fashionable, but it’s not “dead” as some post-structuralists might claim. To invoke beauty, hope, intelligence, diligence, persistence, structure, design etc may be idealistic and even naïve, but its not wrong. Drawing of this kind is much more than a skill set or an arcane knowledge. It implies a moral relationship between artist and model.

I keep using the word “profound”. Because it is.

One could reflect this sentiment back on Brian, who, though for many years denied the technical education, is bold and audacious, but a humble student. There is a profound lesson in this.

See Brian’s show at the Royal Queensland Art Society, Petrie Terrace, Brisbane, 20 July to 3 August 2013. Don’t miss the ones in gold frames.

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Dangerous liaisons

Les liaisons dangereuses c Samantha Groenestyn

Les liaisons dangereuses © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on canvas)

The winds of change bring not just cooling Autumn rain, but also new adventures: within a month I will be leaving warm, sleepy Australia for sparkling Vienna. I’ll be trading rough and ready Brisbane for a (the?) global cultural capital, whiling away my hours swooning over paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, spending my evenings at the opera, and doing some Very Serious Painting over gold-leaf-flecked cakes and creamy coffee.

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Having recently finished an ambitious book that links together art, neuroscience, psychology and Vienna, I am filled with confidence at a new aspect to my direction in life. Eric R Kandel’s The Age of Insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present talks intelligently to the reader, delving into current brain research and treating Freud’s brazenly novel ideas with honest admiration for what they set in motion. Plus, it is illustrated, with Klimt’s dreamy paintings and Kokoschka’s and Shiele’s charged paintings an optically pleasing counterbalance to brain diagrams and psychology flow-charts in the quest for the unconscious. The most striking thing about the book is that Kandel does not have to draw tenuous threads through these diverse fields: He simply situates them, historically, in one small city of two million people at the turn of the twentieth century, and unfolds a narrative of minds fertilising one another in an intellectually electric environment.

Austrian Parliament

Austrian Parliament

That environment was cultivated in a very specific way. Vienna in 1900, argues Kandel (p. 499), ‘provided a social context—the university, coffeehouses, and salons—in which scientists and artists could readily exchange ideas.’ He cites Berta Zuckerkandl’s salon several times, and the luminaries she drew together, such as Klimt and Rodin. He writes extensively of the influence of Rokitansky in the Vienna Medical School, and the social connections struck up through the university between faculties. Vienna was a small place, something like Brisbane, and one can imagine the intimacy—in Brisbane there is a joke that there are only two degrees of separation between all of its inhabitants. Importantly, Kandel (p. 499) points out, scholars of the sciences and arts alike were united by a common interest: that of ‘unconscious mental processes,’ enabling a true dialogue of benefit to all parties.

Books

The dialogue between art and brain science, Kandel (p. xvi) explains in his opening comments, is of mutual benefit because these two fields ‘represent two distinct perspectives on mind. Through science we know that all of our mental life arises from the activity of our brain. … Art, on the other hand, provides insight into the more fleeting, experiential qualities of mind, what a certain experience feels like.’ Where Freud could envision an idea of the unconscious that appeared to fit with his experience with his patients, and where brain science could seek to explain why these mysterious patterns exist, Kokoschka could, through his expressionist brushwork and symbolism, explain these concepts visually. Klimt’s art in particular drew on his knowledge of emerging science, and symbols of fertility permeate his paintings while visually describing sensuality in a very moving way. Kandel (p. 507) traces right back to da Vinci, who ‘used his newly gained knowledge of the human anatomy to depict the human form in a more compelling and accurate manner.

Bibliothek

Bibliothek

All of this work chips away at the same problem from different angles, giving us different ways in, providing different insights, recording different aspects of our experience of our own minds. In a context where the work of these various fields can influence each other, new questions can arise; the cumulative body of work can grow in ways that each strain could not achieve independently. ‘It is quite likely,’ Kandel (p. 506) argues, ‘that finding new interactions between aspects of art and aspects of the science of perception and emotion will continue to enlighten both fields, and that in time those interactions may well have cumulative effects.’

Wiener Rathaus

Wiener Rathaus

Kandel (p. 501) asserts the need for a ‘third way, a set of explanatory bridges across the chasm between art and science.’ He envisions this third, conciliatory way as enabling discussion between heretofore restricted intellectual fields—a modern salon, centred around the universities (p. 505). It is at this point that I realise the immense value of the position I inhabit. A philosophy graduate, still tied up in the university, romantically partnered with a quantum physicist and able to move freely in these academic circles, I am also a painter, spending much of my time in the company of artists of an especially intellectual breed. While the Atelier exists outside of the university, it seeks to fulfil aspects of artistic study that I would venture that the fine arts in the university context in Australia cannot: pursuing excellence in practice and rigorous analytical thinking wholly tied up in that practice, not in conceptualising about social commentary or confusing the viewer through impenetrable artist statements and other trickery. Bringing these minds together—painters, philosophers and physicists—is about the noblest cause I can think of.

Sculpture

This work is already underway, in the coffee shops of Brisbane, in parties in old Queenslander houses, and in the old bomb factory warehouse that houses the Atelier. Ryan recently instituted a public lecture series at the Atelier, where intellectuals of all fields are invited to talk to artists in the spirit of collaboration. Jacques enthusiastically gave the first talk a couple of weeks ago, introducing current ideas in physics that might meld with ideas in art (you’ll be able to see his talk here soon). Ian Neill followed with a presentation on academicism in art. Rumour has it that Kari Sullivan will be sharing some linguistic observations pertaining to art, and that others have thoughts on the haphazard modern art education contrasted with the rigorous and ordered education of music, and the critical value of the peer review system sorely lacking in the visual arts where any amateur can demand respect. The topics are endless, the speakers willing, and the growing audience is stimulated.

Streets of Vienna

Streets of Vienna

Most of all, I intend to continue to open my home—be it in Brisbane, Vienna, or anywhere else in this intellectually vibrant world—and share tasty food, abundant wine and fierce discussion with passionate thinkers in all fields. Consider this your invitation.

Arches

* 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.

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