Reverie

Baden oil sketch © Samantha Groenestyn

Baden (oil sketch) © Samantha Groenestyn

Going to the gallery without headphones is a sure way to subject yourself to the painful sound of people trying to demonstrate their cleverness about art history to their miserable companions. Wrenched from your dreamy pictorial-musical reverie, you will very quickly become aware that people seem to spend very little time contemplating paintings and much more time reciting history. What, then, is one to do at a gallery, if not to recall historical facts? How does one make sense of paintings—those vast, still frames; flat surfaces invoking every conceivable illusion in order to masquerade as three-dimensional, as some slice of reality? On our way to answering these questions, we might find some kinship between painting and poetry.

Poetry: that mysterious web of words. It takes our ordinary language and heightens it; it snatches away our very means of communication and taunts us to work harder to understand. How does one edge closer to poetry? A thick anthology full of lofty words is every bit as daunting as a day ticket to a high-ceilinged Gemäldegalerie. These are slow arts, meditative arts, not like going to the cinema. By repeated and unhurried acquaintance, we grow to love paintings as we grow to love poems.

Conrad

Conrad

Perhaps, then, there is something to be learned from poetry lovers about the nature of loving paintings. The ever discerning Conrad recently loaned me a book by Edward Hirsch, How to read a poem and fall in love with poetry. Hirsch makes the interesting assertion that poem and reader operate in a sort of circuit: ‘Reading poetry is for me an act of the most immense intimacy, of intimate immensity. I am shocked by what I see in the poem but also by what the poem finds in me’ (1999: 8). This strongly echoes my experience of gazing at paintings. A painting evokes many thoughts and moods, many of them irrelevantly personal, but connected nonetheless to our experience of looking at that particular painting. Having our thoughts gently guided by a visual cue, we are not simply trying to understand a picture, but are in turn probed by it.

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The looking, like the reading, is not passive. Our active immersion unearths little treasures in the painting or the poem, and perhaps in ourselves. There is more in a painting than we can actively take in all at once, and so our eyes wander along investigative trails. Hirsch (1999: 8) talks of being coaxed and quieted by the steady stream of words: ‘The words move ahead of the thought in poetry. The imagination loves reverie, the daydreaming capacity of the mind set in motion by words, by images.’ In this light, it makes little sense to speak of understanding a painting. Its elements run ahead of us, being present all at once, all vying for our attention. The whole makes one impression, the parts make others, the rhythms that connect them urge our eyes onwards. As we begin chasing brushstrokes through the picture, we begin to infuse them with our own runaway thoughts.

Baden3

The painting, a silent and motionless panel on the wall, begs to be inhabited: ‘The work of art … is mute and plaintive in its calling out its need for renewal. It needs a reader to possess it, to be possessed by it. Its very life depends on it’ (1999: 8). The painter, like the poet, ‘issues a concealed invitation through metaphor which the listener makes a special effort to accept and interpret’ (1999: 15), though our imagery, perhaps to our advantage, is visible. Indeed, our visual medium is so powerful that ‘unlike the poet, [Leonardo da Vinci] writes, the painter can so subdue the minds of men that they will fall in love with a painting that does not represent a real woman’ (Gombrich, 1959: 82). (True story, insists da Vinci.)

Conrad

Conrad

The spell is not weakened for being more literal. Imagery drawn from life is nonetheless different from life, and deliberately composed by the painter. Each representation is infused with the vision and the emotions of the painter. Colours and forms are manipulated and compelled to create a mood. What seems literal for being so easily read by the eye is a carefully contrived artifice, and herein lies the enchantment. Representational painting seductively augments reality without straying too far from it—it is this delicately balanced illusion which stirs our imagination. Painting borrows from life, but reworks life into dreamy other worlds. Poetry is a fine example, made of nothing but words, but infusing them with new power: ‘Poetry charts the changes in language, but it never merely reproduces or recapitulates what it finds. The lyric poem defamiliarises words, it wrenches them from familiar or habitual contexts, it puts a spell on them’ (Hirsch, 1999: 12).

Baden

As Gombrich (1996: 158) argues, ‘ordinary language’—which ‘develops as a social tool to communicate ordinary experiences … fails notoriously when we want to convey the elusive states of subjective reactions and automatic responses.’ He (1996: 159) cites Plato’s discomfort with the capacity of art to reach us outside the limits of reason, and by deceptive means at that: ‘To him illusion was tantamount to delusion. He saw art in terms of a drug that enslaved the mind by numbing our critical sense.’ Painting, like poetry, is beyond ordinary language, and even beyond ordinary vision. It might mimic life, but remains ever defiant, reworking life into something less enslaved to natural laws.

Baden2

Being static, a painting must find other ways to move and thus to move us. While a poem can be read aloud, can merge with our breath, pulse to our heartbeat, and so become animate by borrowing our own bodies, a painting yet hangs on the wall. It is for this reason that drawing—copying in the gallery, or drawing from life—can be a more alert and engaged way of looking. But even if we only trace it with our eyes, a painting can propel our gaze by a purely visual rhythm. Arcs through limbs and twists of drapery, undulating counter-rhythms down the sinuous length of a figure, the ebbing and flowing of fullness of nebulous masses—these rhythms, like those to be met in poetry, create ‘a pattern of yearning and expectation, of recurrence and difference. … [Rhythm] takes us into ourselves; it takes us out of ourselves’ (Hirsch, 1999: 21).

Baden1

Looking at paintings demands time: quiet, thoughtful time, searching for a way in, being seduced by the rhythms, by the colours. One doesn’t march up to a picture, extract information and walk away. And paintings lure us back, and ‘the repetitions loosen the intellect for reverie’ (1999: 22). Our love grows with familiarity, as though these paintings were poems we could recite, owned deep within our bodies, known by heart. The gallery might become a portal to ‘another plane of time, outside of time;’ it might, as poetry does for Hirsch (1999: 8,9), ‘give me access to my own interior realms.’ A visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum might resemble one to T. S. Eliot’s (1963: 52) Hyacinth garden:

‘—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Öd’ und leer das Meer.’

Baden

 

Eliot, T. S. 1963. Selected poems. Faber: London.

Hirsch, Edward. 1999. How to read a poem: and fall in love with poetry. Harvest: San Diego.

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.

Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The essential Gombrich: Selected writings on art and culture. Ed. Richard Woodfield. Phaidon: London.

 

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The Duchess’s bookshelf of becoming super excellent

bookshelf

I love books, and there is a small cluster of core books that accompany me on my journey to painterly enlightenment which I would heartily recommend to other painters. These are the books I turn to again and again: reference books, philosophical books, history books and diaries which have profoundly shaped my learning and my views on art. If you need to be your own teacher for the moment, there are some wise dudes you can depend on for guidance.

Bammes

Gottfried Bammes: Complete guide to life drawing

This book has consumed me since I first met it, and travels the world with me. Herr Bammes, who taught in Dresden, has a clear way of describing the human body in simplified volumes and muscle groups that help one think structurally about the body. Rather than overwhelming yourself by starting out with hard-core anatomy, working through Bammes’s guide will help you ease into more complex anatomical study by giving you a broader understanding upon which to hang such knowledge. He begins with exercises on proportion and movement, setting a firm foundation of both accuracy and expressive liveliness. From here, he explains the parts of the body in greater detail, with many of his own examples reducing the forms to blocks in perspective. His diagrams on knees and feet in particular are works of teacherly genius. Bammes diagrammatically explains the mechanics of the bones and muscle groups, as well as reducing their construction to simple linear frames. Right from the beginning he gives the student a firm way of indicating a solid foot, which when rehearsed and developed only serves to cement the structural understanding.

Says Bammes (2010: 222), ‘If skull drawing is not practised as if it were architecture, with a perpetual ordering of primary and secondary aspects—if it is not done with awareness—it will degenerate into nothing more than clever copying and will not provide any gain in knowledge or vision.’ Yet he (2010: 10) never loses sight of why we demand so much of ourselves: ‘When we draw people, we are growing towards others and ourselves and we reveal things that were lost before to our fleeting glances and inaccessible to our experience.’

The margins of the book are peppered with a fine selection of master drawings, including those of many lesser-known German draughtsmen, while all examples are drawn by the elegant and controlled hand of Bammes himself. I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m still working slowly through it, using it as a companion to all further anatomy study, and revisiting earlier chapters again and again.

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

Goldfinger

Eliot Goldfinger: Human anatomy for the artist

This book is an investment, but a good anatomy book is a necessary tool in your belt if you’ve any real interest in the figure. The delightfully named Goldfinger turns his Midas touch to one bone, one muscle at a time, displaying many angles and overlaps and cross-sections. The text explains function, origin and insertion and many other enlightening aspects of each part, but clear drawings illustrate most of the information. These drawings are accompanied by some photographs of an extremely ripped model, to help locate things under the often-obfuscatory surface of flesh. And several straight-lined diagrams explain difficult-to-conceptualise mechanics or simplifications to help remember the main features of a part.

Goldfinger (1991:. 64) encourages a deep understanding of the figure, not just a grasping after surface variations:

‘During complex actions, note the sequence of the contraction and relaxation of the numerous muscles that are functioning. Observe the action, visualise the skeleton deep in the body and what changes are taking place at its joints, then determine which muscles are working.’

This book is an artist’s dictionary. It will also make you sound clever at parties because you will learn a lot of scientific words.

Goldfinger, Eliot. 1991. Human anatomy for artists: The elements of form. Oxford University: Oxford.

Nelson

Robert Nelson: The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique

This book has affected me deeply. It made me appreciate how genuinely scholarly painting and drawing could be, while never losing sight of how physical and sensual it is. Nelson’s (2010: 27-28) project is an admirable one of finding a way to unite the studio and academic practice:

‘I would like to see a philosophy of technique which positions technique as the necessary correlate of poetic vision and the basis of visual language, a philosophy which is non-instrumental and anti-mechanistic. I would like to cultivate a discourse which deals with the motivation, the aesthetic benefits, the almost physiological processes of perception, but also the wilful staging, the theatricality of expressing what happens in the mind, the eye and the hand. … The project, if it could be pursued as I hope to demonstrate, would bring studio technique into the heartland of scholarship in the humanities.’

Nelson writes knowledgeably and generously on delightfully mundane topics, validating painterly excitement at painterly preoccupations: on drawing, on composition, on edges, on shadow. Yet he is able to articulate better than most artists what it is that is so thrilling and relevant about these topics: that painting, not merely writing, may be ‘a vehicle for discourse’ (2010: 10); that ‘drawing, in short, is a deliberateness in seeing which declares itself and argues what it wants to define’ (2010: 55), that it ‘manifests your will to possess intellectually’ (2010: 54).

Every time I pick this book up I am filled afresh with new thoughts directly related to the practice of painting, and intellectually energised as well. We can speak clearly, intelligently and unashamedly about the physical and visual aspects of our work, not just about concepts and symbols and statements. For our work does make investigations by means other than words and symbols, and we would do well to argue for the standing of our visual language.

Dali

Salvador Dali: Diary of a genius, an autobiography

The diaries of artists are pure gold. Sometimes they divulge their painting secrets, or elaborate on what, specifically, drives them wild about Rubens, or, as in the case of Dali, bestow an entire philosophy upon you. ‘The uniform is essential in order to conquer,’ Dali (1966: 53) proclaims (Dali only makes proclamations. This is in itself a lesson). ‘Throughout my life, the occasions are very rare when I have abased myself to civilian clothes. I am always dressed in the uniform of Dali.’ And to a young man who is willing to accept the sort of despicable, filthy, poverty-stricken life an artist is expected to lead he admonishes with devilish wisdom (1966: 53-4):

‘If you want to eat beans and bread every day, it will be very expensive. You must earn it by working very hard. On the other hand, if you can get used to living on caviar and champagne, it doesn’t cost a thing.’

He smiles stupidly and thinks I am joking. …

‘Caviar and champagne are things that are offered you free by certain very distinguished ladies, wonderfully perfumed and surrounded by the most beautiful furniture in the world. But to get them, you must be quite different from the you who comes to see Dali with dirty fingernails, while I have received you in uniform.’

Dali, Salvador. 1966 [1964]. Diary of a genius, an autobiography. Trans. Michel Déon. Picador: London.

Gombrich

Ernst H. Gombrich: The story of art

When you find this ubiquitous book for a couple of quid in a charity shop, buy it immediately. The Viennese-born, Oxford-dwelling, self-professed non-art-historian wrote this book as honestly and clearly as he could, intending it to avoid the hormonal scorn of the teenage audience for whom it was written, and to whom the book intends to introduce art. The premise of this book is that ‘there really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists’ (1972: 4) and that a history of artists thus reveals a saga of cosmically different aims and forces. Gombrich trips lightly and eagerly over his words, ever able to see merit in the visual works of humankind. It’s impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiasm for and appreciation of our varied collective efforts. Everything has its place–and time, rather than linearly measuring our progress, merely greets us with different demands. Learn to truly appreciate art, to discover the joy of paintings and sculpture and architecture, and instantly become ten times smarter.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.

Dewey

John Dewey: Art as experience

This surprising book throws heavy punches. It clearly expresses the things about art that make you angry and explains why they should go away. It could only hurt your foes more if you socked them in the face with it.

First of all, Dewey discusses the mysteriousness of art—its detachment from life, its artificial isolation in museums, its role of showcasing imperial conquests. Rather than being removed from our experience, he argues, art should be in the thick of it: it should be the very substance of our lives. ‘The times when select and distinguished objects are closely connected with the products of usual vocations,’ he argues (1934: 6), ‘are the times when appreciation of the former is most rife and most keen. When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art seem anemic to the mass of people, esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar.’ If we live in a world of cheap thrills and throwaway entertainment, it is because we have been told we can’t have nice things, locking them away as mysterious artefacts of Art.

Dewey also addresses the strange introspective tendencies of contemporary artists. Not only has art been excluded from ordinary experience, but ‘because of changes in industrial conditions the artist has been pushed to one side from the main streams of active interest’ (1934: 9). The non-integrated modern artist is forced to turn to ‘a peculiar esthetic “individualism”’—relying on ever more obscure ‘self-expression’ (1934: 9). Art becomes even more foreign to ordinary experience. Seriously, is anyone reading this book?

And in case you were willing to defend art’s reincarnation as ‘self-expression,’ Dewey has a few sucker-punches lined up for thoughtless paint-spilling, which he considers little more than ‘discharge’ (1934: 62):

‘To discharge is to get rid of, to dismiss; to express is to stay by, to carry forward in development, to work out to completion. A gush of tears may bring relief, a spasm of destruction may give outlet to inward rage. But where there is no administration of objective conditions, no shaping of materials in the interest of embodying the excitement, there is no expression. What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might better be termed one of self-exposure; it discloses character—or lack of character—to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.’

Dewey demands serious and honest thought from artists, and sees their intellectual processes as differing only in emphasis from that of the scientist (1934: 15). The main difference between the intelligent artist and the scientist is her medium: rather than working in abstracted symbols, ‘the artist does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in, and the terms lie so close to the object that he is producing that they merge directly into it’ (1934: 16).

The only question left to ask is, how did art fester into the hideous mess presently molesting our eyes while this book has been kicking around for eighty years?

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Galenson

David Galensen: Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity

If you are discouraged at not yet being famous, this soberly-written book ought to give you a good dose of optimism and dispel a lot of silly ideas about creativity and inspiration. Instead of resorting to wild speculation, Galenson has spent years doing research into the way artists work and describes two broad approaches. He calls them the ‘conceptual’ (or deductive) and the ‘experimental’ (inductive). In identifying whether you are good at quickly synthesising ideas and conceiving entirely new ones out of them, or whether you are consumed by a single idea which drives all your investigations, or rather somewhere along this spectrum, you will free yourself from expectations and judgements that don’t actually apply to you. And that means you can just get down to work instead of taping brazen Picasso quotes to your wall.

‘Aptitude and ambition are more important factors in allowing people to make contributions to a chosen discipline than the ability to think and work in any particular way, either deductively or inductively.’ (2006: 166).

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

Clark

Kenneth Clark: The nude: A study of ideal art

I am steadily drawing my way through this book. Not all nudes were created alike, and as you progress through this book you will gain an appreciation for the subtleties of purpose that the bared human form has risen to meet. ‘The English language, with its elaborate generosity,’ Clark (1985: 1) gushes at the outset, ‘distinguishes between the naked and the nude.’ From the outset, he is at pains to emphasise that the nude, rather than being the very essence of art, is ‘an art form invented by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C., just as opera is an art form invented in 17th-century Italy’ (1985: 3).

Our artistic tradition is heavily shaped by the elegant foundation laid by the Greeks, and not just through their mythology. I have been amazed, however, at how the gods and goddesses effortlessly step from one role into another—with lion-skin-wearing Hercules transforming into the honey-eating-from-inside-the-lion Samson, with Apollo and David interchangeable youthful heroes in the mind of Michelangelo. But beneath the stories themselves lies the earthy Greek philosophy which embodies every idea and passion in human form (1985: 20; 21):

‘The Greeks attached great importance to their nakedness. … It implies the conquest of an inhibition which oppresses all but the most backward people; it is like a denial of original sin.’

Of course, the other half of our heritage is the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the nude suffers painfully under the Christian worldview, disrupted though never entirely abandoned (1985: 203): ‘While the Greek nude began with the heroic body proudly displaying itself on the palestra, the Christian nude began with the huddled body cowering in consciousness of sin.’ The awkwardness of our artistic tradition seems to rest on this unhappy marriage of earthy and heavenly philosophies.

Don’t expect a dry historical account of statues, though. Clark winds back and forth, attending in turn to Apollo and Venus, energy and pathos, ecstasy and the grotesque. The book is full of pictures to copy in the absence of life models, and will open your eyes when you return to the gallery to dutifully copy from the antique.

Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.

Sketchbook

Sketchbook

Words, words, words. Time to draw.

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Leipzig calling

Bathurst Rhythms © Ryan Daffurn

Bathurst Rhythms © Ryan Daffurn

I have had the unimaginable pleasure of forming a close bond with an incredible painter of my own generation: Ryan Daffurn. I secretly think he is one of the most skilled and genuine painters alive, his age notwithstanding. His work is formidable: the fluent synthesis of years of dedicated study and obsessive practice; his lines are sure and energetic, brimming with life.

Ryan Berlin

I first made his acquaintance at the school he teaches at and co-founded in Brisbane, Australia, where his humble and attentive and famously slow and thorough mode of teaching quietly won me over. It was a long time before he showed me any of his drawings in aid of teaching, and when he brought out an eloquently hatched pencil drawing of a tree, curling off into space in all directions, I was shaken by the descriptive power of his restrained and firmly-placed lines. As a student, you place yourself trustingly in the hands of another, and I fear that too often this trust can be misplaced. When you see your teacher’s own rendering of the task you are battling, and their hand is decisive and elegant, and they present it to you quietly and humbly as but one method of working, little seeds of respect begin to take root.

Ryan Amsterdam

Ryan is a teacher of great humility, and I am convinced that this is because he sees himself as an eternal student. He would rather listen than instruct. His respect for other painters–living and dead–is unending; his determination to find merit and to learn something from every work he sees is limitless. And when himself without a teacher, he turns to the physical world for instruction, stimulation and challenges. His devotion to his senses energises his work, but his inner world twists it imaginatively. Ryan’s work is idealised, re-envisioned, accentuated—beautiful lies delicately woven together into a seamless fabric. Through his incessant reinterpretation of the natural world—his sketchbook always to hand—I have learned to appreciate that art can be better than life.

Leipzig

If there was a living painter whose powers ought to be recognised, whose path ought to be smoothed, whose labours ought to be supported, Ryan Daffurn is he. The winds of change are calling him to Leipzig, where his hard-won abilities can be inspired afresh and wholly concentrated on his own work.

Ryan has a true reverence for art and its power to move us, describe us and even redefine us. His ambition is somewhat disconnected from popular notions of success: he is intent on doing his utmost to contribute something of real worth and meaning. And in my humble opinion, he is capable of anything.

Conceptual artist

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