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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