Art as philosophy, or, I am going to marry Bammes

I am rapidly descending into an all-consuming art obsession. Not content to pass my time in simple painting frenzies, I’m taking more drawing classes and beginning to investigate anatomy. Ryan has introduced me to my new love: Gottfried Bammes. Ryan loaned me his German copy of Bammes’ Gestalt des Menschen for a while, and I declared I would never give it back unless he demanded it back, then was overcome by an all-consuming desire to have a Bammes of my own. Yesterday, my shiny new (English) copy of Bammes arrived by post, after a day of struggling with a painting study of an arm and hand that left me exhausted.

The main difference between my artistic method now and my self-taught method of the past is that I don’t simply copy shapes as I used to. This is difficult to explain, and it was initially difficult for me to grasp that it was possible to draw or paint in any other way. I have painted many a painting convincing enough to the untrained eye which skims unsearchingly over an image, taking in only the overall effect. It’s easy enough to do: one merely looks at the subject or the photo to be painted, carefully imitates the flat shapes in the correct colours, and pieces them together like a patchwork quilt. Some shapes are inexplicable—it’s not at all clear from the photo what they are, but if you are true to their two-dimensional outlines and get the colours and tones near enough, the eye fades out this lack of visual information and the picture simply works.

The day it dawned on me that I was copying flat shapes, ignorant of their meaning, was a big day. My first realisation was that I drew and painted shapes more intuitively than lines, and that I merely used lines to divide up shapes, and was not in fact making linear constructions. This knowledge slowly opened up to the realisation that I was still blind to the object (or subject!) in front of me: Ryan encouraged me to draw contour lines wrapping around the body I was drawing, and I found myself stumped until I picked up a useful tin can lying about the studio. ‘I’ll explain it to you,’ my newly enlightened self announced to Ryan, tilting the tin slowly in the air to mimic the torso, arms and legs of the sculpture in front of us. The sculpture’s limbs tilted away from or towards me, and my eyes either looked down on or up at the tilted forms, changing the direction of the contours accordingly. The scales fell from my eyes—I was looking at a form and no longer at a shape. The body has a depth I could never see in any meaningful way before. ‘The job of artistic anatomy is to clarify the nature of details, which has nothing to do with mindless copying,’ argues Bammes (p. 11), as he deftly injects meaning into those forms.

Bammes has some beautiful ways of describing the powerful experience that is drawing the human form: ‘When we draw people,’ he opens his book Complete guide to life drawing*, ‘we are growing towards others and ourselves and we reveal things that were lost before to our fleeting glances and inaccessible to our experience’ (p. 10). I think to my reflections the other day on Hannah Arendt and her idea of performative action, the kind of tasks that exist in process rather than output, that are ends in themselves. I am so careless with my drawings at the atelier that I have laboured over many an hour—I crumple my pages and smudge them and feel no real pain at this. These drawings, for me, exist in the experience. Their true value is in the doing of them, the intersection of pencil and paper and mind at a point in time. The finished drawing is a sort of record of that experience, but it cannot be recaptured by someone simply viewing it as a nice picture. I have accessed something through the experience of drawing that one cannot access by viewing alone. I am satisfying that practical side of me that wants to devour the world by doing. One can study academically with vigour, but to study with one’s eyes and hands is an entirely different way to come to terms with the world.

Bammes has a beautiful way of wording this, too: he writes of ‘thinking visually’ (p. 11). Graphic design places a lot of emphasis on ‘visual communication,’ and the profound power of imagery as a communication tool. But thinking visually is a deeper, more personal thing. It is like philosophy that transcends words. And (to me at least) philosophy is not about impressing people with outlandish concepts, but about making sense of the world and one’s place in it. In art I have found a purer philosophy.

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.

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7 thoughts on “Art as philosophy, or, I am going to marry Bammes

    • Thanks. In fact I don’t know that Bammes writes about shadows and properties of light like that, but he’s an amazing resource for understanding how the body pieces together. x

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