Peace and love, and capitalism

Life drawing

I’ve had some acquaintance with the Vienna Academy of Visionary Art through their open life drawing sessions twice a week during term, so I was happy to hop along to their end of year show and celebrate the conclusion of their first year with them. The Academy’s teaching faculty come from all over the world, even as far as Melbourne, and many of them were taught in turn by the Viennese Ernst Fuchs, whom they all hold in very high esteem. The small cohort of seven students are all from the US and Canada.

The school itself, on a workday, is light and airy, rocking new age beats, and generally exuding a peaceful calm. Shoes are often shed, and herbal teas steam alongside palettes. Each painting station is beside a window, a bright little hub without a place for a still life, because the students here admirably work from imagination. There is a strong emphasis on traditional techniques, and many works are done in the so-called ‘Mischtechnik,’ layering oil, egg tempera and varnishes. Paintings are built up from raw umber underpaintings through a series of glazes, and in the life drawing session students are encouraged to work into mid-toned paper with a dark and a white chalk or pencil preparation for such painting.

Life drawing

Principal instructor Laurence Caruana’s speech on the opening night expressed despondency with the commercialism that has crept into and strangled art over the last four centuries. The vision of this Academy is to salvage some human dignity in art, and it seeks to do this through (in Laurence’s words) ‘a return to the sacred in art.’ What this might mean in a modern, largely secular world is perhaps contestable, but a heavy dose of mysticism certainly comes as part of the package. And indiscriminately so: Paleolithic, Neolithic, and tribal goddesses are explored as part of the curriculum, as is Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Minoan art, barging right on through Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. And I’ve perused but one of Laurence’s books sitting by the altar in the teaching room, a novel based on his investigations into the Gnostic Christ.

Now, I know very little about mysticism other than garden-variety Christianity, but it seems you are welcome here to choose your poison, or concoct your own special blend. This desperate grasping after something, anything, spiritual feels strangely backward-looking, a denial of our collective growth and expanding and ever-refined knowledge over the last few centuries. I can’t help but think that a modern ‘sacred’ art ought to shed its gods and evolve into a humanist art, perhaps aligned with philosophy and science. Fractals, anyone? Conformal symmetry is pretty mind-blowing!

Life drawing

I have had some good conversations with students at the Academy about such things as symmetry and composition. When I questioned them about their penchant for symmetry, I was told that it is a calming, grounding compositional strategy: the balance in the image quiets the viewer to a state of steadiness, giving them a clear focal point from which to furtively explore other parts of the canvas. I’m reminded of the strength and simplicity of a radial composition, which may be built of quite complex elements, and wonder if this hypnotic simplification isn’t aiming too low. Then again, perhaps our collective visual literacy is so deplorable that we really do need such obvious cues to find our way around a still image.

Objects from the altar may be used for still lives, which seems to emphasise this somewhat Mischtechnik-mysticism over technical clarity—I try to fathom learning properties of light with the aid of pinecones and crystals instead of the humble spheres and eggs I drew repeatedly until I understood. Students of the Visionary Academy are certainly not in danger of lapsing into lustreless careers as painters of technically proficient but dull still lives and studio nudes, or forgetting that they are learning skills in order to produce art. At every step of the learning process, the Visionary student bears in mind their mystical vision—even the life drawing poses are modelled on famous mystically-oriented paintings or incorporate mythic weaponry props. The ambitiousness of this undertaking shows: the students all exhibited their major piece for the term as ‘works in progress.’ To some extent, I think it is admirable that they keep their vision ever at the forefront, but it also seems to obscure some valuable learning opportunities. I am deeply saddened at the way students are left to languish in the life class, critiqued and yet unassisted by their teacher, until they plead illness and head out in search of herbal teas. And when there is so much to be learned from the figure!

Life drawing

Perhaps most sadly of all, this spiritual quest does not seem to wrench art back from the clutches of Mammon. For unlike shows at large private galleries such as Philip Bacon in Brisbane, where money flows in the tens of thousands and the fine champagne flows just as freely—the lubricant of capital—but no one ever talks about the digits, one topic overshadowed all others on the Visionary Academy’s opening night: money. A student gave a public plea (not her first) in the opening speeches that left me squeamish, drawing our attention to all the money-giving opportunities available that night: that many paintings were for sale, that her own work was especially for sale in a silent auction format, that many small works were available at a ‘pay what you want’ table. After the formalities, we slipped to the bar for a little refreshment and were charged more than we would be at a restaurant per glass, a policy I’d never yet seen in place at an art show. Now that the term is over, the Academy is doggedly cross-posting in all the Vienna life drawing groups, trying to rent out studio space and accommodation over the summer. And all the while, it’s hard to silence that little thought at the back of one’s mind that a year at this Academy will set you back a not-so-trivial €9900. Peace and love, and capitalism, brothers and sisters. It’s the modern world, whatever mysticism you drape it in.

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The graduate exhibition runs until June 28th 2014 at the Palais Palffy on Josefsplatz, Wien.

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The perfectionist

The time traveller propositions his past self © Samantha Groenestyn

The time traveller propositions his past self © Samantha Groenestyn

The apologetic cry, ‘I’m a perfectionist!’ is repulsive to me: a virtuous-sounding excuse for failing to complete a work, or failing even to start because one cannot put something aside and move on to newer projects. I want to contend that perfectionism can be disastrous because it begins at the end, and unjustly weights the final product as more valuable than the process of getting there. This is not to say that the outcome of a work is irrelevant, for ultimately we are hoping to contribute lasting and pleasing things to the world, to the utmost of our abilities. But the artist must keep both the end and the means in mind. Secondly, I want to contend that perfectionism, if it is to have any merit, ought to be a private quest, locked safely in the mind of the artist. She ought to be able to evaluate her own work, to engage in ruthless self-reflection, in order to improve her work rather than stall it in the paralysis of self-doubt. I see no place for this self-critique out in the open, begging for the validation of others.

Flayed Mikes © Samantha Groenestyn

Flayed Mikes

I read a nice little story about students making pottery, where half the class was graded on quantity and the other half on quality. As it transpired, the half that had churned through a large volume of work, evaluated it, reconsidered their approach, discarded previous efforts and tried again, ended up producing the more consistently higher quality work. This isn’t a bald argument for quantity as a guarantee for randomly producing a masterpiece; it illustrates, rather, that time, dedication, risk-taking and self-reflection are necessary to improve. This may happen over the course of many works or in the fearless refinement of one. Perhaps working over many works has only this advantage: One learns to let go, and to not let everything rest on the success or failure of a single piece.

life drawing

An enlightening book by David W Galenson, Old masters and young geniuses, describes the heartless method of the sculptor Giacometti: his unrelenting revision of his sculptures usually took the form of ‘completely destroying and recreating them. He did not feel it necessary to preserve most of his efforts because he considered them failures’ (2006: 119). Jean-Paul Sartre, a friend of Giacometti’s, recalled, ‘I like what he said to me one day about some statues he had just destroyed: “I was satisfied with them but they were made to last only a few hours”. … Never was a matter less eternal, more fragile, nearer to being human’ (p. 119). Despite his harsh self-criticism, Giacometti was not incapable of getting out of bed in the morning and setting to work. This is because despite not achieving his end, he saw the importance of each step toward that end. The creation of each smashed-up sculpture was indelibly imprinted in his brain: the sculpture itself need not continue, for its real value lay in the knowledge gained during the making of it.

life drawing

And so it is with studies of any kind. Drawings that search out anatomy, or rhythms through the body, or that simply train the hand into a steadier hatching technique: these drawings might be pleasant enough to look at, but their real value lies in the marks hatched into the mind of the draughtsperson. Learning art is physical; it is bound up in the making of art, not in the theorising about it. And an outlook that every piece must be finished, polished, perfect, can inhibit the exploration, the risk taking, and perhaps stall the regular habit of simply drawing. It is worthwhile to take pieces as far as you possibly can. It is also invaluable to practice starting, to practice seeing the whole, to rehearse difficult fragments again and again.

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This is how the perfectionist really works: smoothing out those rough patches, actively seeking out gaps in her knowledge, testing herself and starting again. Because privately, she knows her limitations, and confronts them day after day. But publicly, she can be proud of her efforts, and confidently lay out her failures without a hint of self-deprecation: These works are the best she can offer as a result of her dedication and discipline, and her mind is already fixed on new challenges, building on what was gained through these humble but infinitely valuable failures.

life drawing

 

Galensen, David W. 2006. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

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Waylaid

Copy after Lotte Laserstein, Im Gasthaus

Copy after Lotte Laserstein, Im Gasthaus

I was on my way to Berlin, buzzing with ambition, when I was seduced by Vienna. This proud city, with its somewhat faded opulence, in all shades of cream and flecked with gold, is not the ever-reinvented hive that is Berlin. While Berlin constantly recreates itself in the wake of the catastrophic pummelling it took in the twentieth century, Vienna lingers in its early twentieth century grandeur, reflecting nostalgically on its lavish achievements, and unhurriedly meanders into this century like its curling, well-tended garden paths. An exhibition at the Lower Belvedere currently reflects on the contrast between these two German-speaking cities, and on the flow of artists between them during the early part of last century. Wien – Berlin: Kunst zweier Metropolen (The art of two cities) traces the cross-pollination and divergences of the art of these two cities at a time of impressive growth and change.

In both Vienna and Berlin, artists broke away from the established Künstlerhaus system of annual central exhibitions and established their own Secessions in the late 1800s. Rather than bowing to the narrower demands of the traditional methods of exhibiting, artists banded together to create a more liberal environment that welcomed extremely varied art. Quality was prized over a strict aesthetic.

Even so, each city infused its Secession with its own flavour. Vienna, steeped in its tradition of the salon in which artists, writers, scientists, musicians and other intellectuals regularly came together and let their ideas be fertilised by other disciplines, moved a little slower than Berlin. Vienna persisted in its holistic outlook, cemented in these salons and in integrated design workshops like the Wiener Werkstätte which married luxurious and individualised ornamentalism with function. Life was infused with art, and art blossomed in sympathy with science, and Vienna sought greater and greater refinement in this cyclical motion, eternal as the leafy ring road that circles the Innere Stadt.

From the Weaver cycle by Käthe Kollwitz

From the Weaver cycle by Käthe Kollwitz

Berlin, meanwhile, marched onwards to the beat of industrialisation. Speed and progress birthed a buzzing metropolis, and this in turn transmuted into the dissonant, angular and aggressive art of German Expressionism. The Belvedere exhibition begins with the bustling optimism of the turn of the century—train stations flooded with people, glistening streets full of nightlife despite rain, charming dancers, an explosion of colour. Yet Vienna is already somewhat more sedate, with refined ladies elegantly poised as in the portraits by the Viennese Gustav Klimt (Johanna Staude, 1917/18) and Otto Friedrich (Elsa Galfrés, 1908; Gabrielle Gallia, undated). And the strains of industrialisation are already passionately depicted by the German Käthe Kollwitz in her Weavers (1897) series, with trauma etched into the extremely individual faces marching in protest, eyes crazed. German Hans Baluschek’s Montagmorgen (Monday morning) (1898) is a blue haze of Berliner debauchery, with independent modern girls stripped down to their stockings and undergarments languidly welcoming the dawn with their beer bottles and cigarettes. The ‘cultivated refinement’ of Vienna is contrasted with the ‘uncompromising progress’—and the ensuing stresses—of Berlin. Vienna’s ‘unhurried contentment’—Gemütlichkeit—was paraded as a singularly Viennese virtue, but was beginning to stand for the city’s inability to keep up.

Copy after Hans Baluschek, Montag Morgen

Copy after Hans Baluschek, Montag Morgen

As an intellectual locus, however, Vienna produced its own Expressionists to match the newer, more forceful art burgeoning in Berlin. As Eric R Kandel describes in his book The age of insight, the Austrian Expressionists were influenced by the inward-looking ideas of the emerging field of psychology, in which the Viennese Sigmund Freud was making bold strides. Austrian painters such as Max Oppenheimer, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele were connected with, if not living in, Berlin, but producing a particularly Viennese brand of Expressionism. The ornamental heritage championed by Klimt found its way in to their compositions, which often place the figure on a flat, pearlescent ground; a sort of emotional reductivism. But the gallery notes also refer to ‘the psychologically precise observation of gesture and posture’ characteristic of the Viennese Expressionists, as well as their sculptural construction of volumes in the figure.

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Bildnis des Verlegers Eduard Kosmack, by Egon Schiele

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The angular Bildnis des Verlegers Eduard Kosmack (1910) (Portrait of the publisher Eduard Kosmack) by Schiele, although stripped to a soft, bare ground, and although emotively distorted with monstrous joints and hands and heavy, dark-ringed eyes, pays careful attention to anatomical landmarks and three-dimensional representation. The distortions deviate from this certain frame, and the image shimmers with fury and intensity, as though Kosmack’s head might explode at any moment, a burning book cast to his side. Likewise, Oppenheimer’s Geißelung (1913) (Scourging), while expressively abstracted, clings to solid and fluid drawing, with pleasing graphic arcs of ribs showing through thinly painted flesh. The elongated Christ-like figure, whose innards are being torn to shreds, is surrounded by angular, universalised figures whose converging faces border on religious ecstasy. The pain is thoroughly depicted in the drawing, with the colours soft and subdued—the blood-stained drapery is a gentle, rosy shade of pink. This is in notable contrast with the German Expressionist use of colour to carry emotion, and the often flattened shards of shapes, heavy as woodcuts.

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Geißelung, by Max Oppenheimer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the 1920s, a sober disillusionment seemed to overtake both cities. The heavy-handed heart-rending of Expressionism gave way to the distanced, dreamlike mood of New Objectivist painting. The portraits of the German Christian Schad are overly sharp and precise: egg-smooth, with deep creases, carefully outlined and overlarge eyes, empty and lifeless. As in Lola, the colours are strong and the light is bright but a deep melancholy pervades these seemingly bold personalities. The accompanying still lives are firmly delineated arrangements of perfectly ordinary objects that turn surreal in these impersonal representations. Hans Baluschek’s Sommerabend (1928) (Summer evening) is again drenched in an unsettling blue light, the shadows comprising the fleshier pink colours of the tired out tenants of a windowless apartment block in their dusty garden. The paint is lively and brushy, even on flat surfaces. The scene is framed by two lights: on the left, the blazing lights of a train forging ahead, and on the right, a full, low-slung golden moon. The people recline in awkward love-triangles, clutching desperately at simple pleasures, balanced between these two lights.

And then, tucked away in the last room, amongst sporting images and caricatures, are two incredible paintings by the German Lotte Laserstein. Her women are modern, sporting, beer drinking, and plain: their gazes are not empty, but heavy with understanding, a knowing and accepting melancholy. Tennisspielerin (1929) (Tennis player) is awash with watery shadows, the whole painting laid down over a rough, brushy layer that shows a thick texture through the image. The lighter tones look wiped away, leaving a dreamy, hazy finish despite the deep reddish colour of the skin. With her face turned away, it is her body that says everything. Im Gasthaus (1927) (In the tavern) is stunning in its own way: much smaller, and painted on wood, the paint layers build up like watercolour though they are oil, leaving an agitated, blotchy surface. The lady’s blue button eyes near fall out of her head; her fingers press deeply into her glove. The modern world is upon us.

Copy after Lotte Laserstein, Tennisspielerin

Copy after Lotte Laserstein, Tennisspielerin

Our pictorial history comes to a halt here, but life goes on quietly in Vienna; the former imperial capital overshadowed by Germany’s vibrant young capital. But while young people lust after a nightlife like Berlin’s, and know this is not the place to come to make a name for themselves, the comment of a young scientist resonates deeply: ‘In Berlin you are always having a good time. In Vienna, you get some peace at last, and can really get some serious work done.’ And so, perhaps another intellectual milieu is simmering under the surface of our elegant city, as undistracted artists and scientists continue to exchange philosophies in velvet-upholstered and wood-panelled coffee houses. Only, not before lunch, please.

Im Gasthaus, by Lotte Laserstein

Im Gasthaus, by Lotte Laserstein

 

 

The Wien – Berlin exhibition runs just a little longer, until 15 June 2014, at the Lower Belvedere in Vienna.

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