Habit and curiosity

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

There is an inherent tension between a painter’s sensory encounters with the world and her own habits. As I push myself to paint and draw with increasing intensity, I am driven by conflicting impulses to improve and to investigate. Improvement requires repetition and practice, but investigation tends to tear down all this dedicated work. My understanding and my repertoire broaden and deepen with investigation, but my improvement stagnates, or worse, everything I was so anxiously holding together comes completely undone.

Steffi drawing

In moments of doubt, I return to trusty Robert Nelson (2010: 121), who reassures me, ‘We all have habits.’ In his judicious way, he writes that habits have their advantages and disadvantages. Hard-earned habits through which we have assimilated knowledge ‘are at the root of our fluency, our readiness, our comfort in tackling the lofty task of representation by the senses and the hand’ (2010: 121). Without such dependable tools, we would face each new picture completely disarmed, unprepared and overwhelmed at the formidable task before us. And these tools, once acquired, need maintenance, and permit refinement, and generally positively benefit from regular and sustained attention.

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

My attention has turned rather feverishly toward copying: with religious zeal I am flooding pages and pages of my sketchbook with wholly unoriginal drawings; copies of old master paintings, copies of anatomy drawings. It can be a very passive way to draw: the burden of having an original idea or making an original investigation is gently taken away from me. It could yet be investigative—with due concentration, I could, through such copies, begin to unpack the decisions of the artists who produced the originals. And sometimes I do. But sometimes I just copy, pleasantly pulling my pencil across the page, enjoying the motion, and daydreaming a bit. This pleasure drawing has its advantages: the habit of going to the gallery, of plunging into the anatomy book, means I give time to some form of drawing with dedicated regularity. And each time I start, there is the possibility that my brain will actively engage. The act itself, begun unthinkingly, can trigger thought.

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

But as I practice and practice, investing in my favoured media, becoming more accustomed to their limitations (and my own), I fall into patterns of working, and the patterns lead to ruts and their accompanying frustration. What looks like fluency and adeptness and confidence to outsiders actually feels like being stuck. Showmanship can get in the way of honest engagement with the physical world, and instead of turning afresh to sensory experience we rely on mechanistic motions. ‘By and large,’ writes Nelson (2010: 130), ‘a mechanical application of directional gestures is about superficially looking flash or stylistically sophisticated, or emotionally confident, or artistically full of panache and bravura rather than serving exploration and curiosity.’

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

And so despite the benefits and even necessity of forming (hopefully good) habits, Nelson cautions the painter against a ‘mechanistic’ approach, a mindless, formula-driven mode of working that crowds out the possibility of active picture-making. ‘Making art from habit,’ he writes (2010: 121), ‘has questionable consequences.’ For we are not simply producing polished products, little one-man factories. We are constructing pictures by means of a certain kind of logic: an organic, integrative logic that brings together all of the knowledge we have collected about tone and colour and gesture and space and texture and so on (2010: 117; 124). Though we can separate out each element and map out distinct stages of a painting through time, the most thoughtful pictures are those that weave everything together, and this unity, argues Nelson, has its origin in the sensory experience, and not in well-oiled mechanistic habits. ‘All of the painting is about building, constructing forms, constructing spatial relationships and constructing rapports in colour; and these are integral to looking, seeing, remembering and imagining’ (2010: 124).

‘The painting conceived in this way replicates, on a somewhat clumsy and grandiose scale, the process of perception itself, constantly gauging relationships and skipping all over the field in order to assess the spatial calibre of what is observed.’ (2010: 122-3)

Such alertness means we have to sacrifice some of our hard-won ability. Confronted with a real subject, with differing light conditions, with the air shimmering at the horizons of the forms, with compositionally compelling shapes that compete with descriptive and meaty forms, we find our assortment of tools to be lacking. What served us well in countless previous situations is not up to the task at hand. The world is ever lavishing new sensory experiences upon us, and the genuinely curious painter responds to the experience, indulges his senses, rather than repeating his well-rehearsed performance.

American girl

And this is the tightrope we walk: trying to furnish ourselves with tuned and ready instruments that are fit for the sensory experiences we are constantly greeted by, but remaining open to those experiences, adaptive, and seriously investigating them. It’s no good to throw away what we’ve learned and start from zero every time, but we must also open our eyes and engage our brains. Nelson (2010: 129), ever eloquent, describes the clash of habits entrenched in the body and the inquisitive encounter with the world thus:

‘The brush is constantly invoking the seen: it requires a certain nerve, a zeal for finding out what is perceived or imaginatively solicited and then for correcting what is conjectured. Unless somehow designed with a Platonic conceptual remove, it is all chop and change at a sensory and intellectual level. Add to that the co-ordination of the hand by impulses, the way that the process draws upon the muscles and uses the body: it demands a stance before the canvas and a rhythm of subliminal choreographic vibrations.’

It would be foolish to be dogmatic about either emphasis, for both are crucial. Each destroys the other, but only to rebuild it more firmly, and more enmeshed with the other.

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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Little by little people began to come to the rue de Fleurus

Anfang © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Anfang © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Paintings, as we’ve discussed before, are to be seen. The painting, the work itself, is an object, not merely an image. It has what philosophers might call ‘extension’ in the physical world—stretcher bars, linen, three-dimensional paint caked on the surface—and it arguably exists autonomously, divested of its author. If such an object is worth seeing in person, irrespective of its originator, we should consider how it might be seen. There is no doubt that paintings must be exhibited, but in what manner ought this exhibition happen?

Conrad

Conrad

Conrad, one of my trusted book-recommenders, gifted me Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and I spent the Festtagen indulging in her reminiscences of early twentieth-century Paris. Thinking about how painters are marketing their work now, renting gallery space, paying commission to private galleries, entering competitions, paying for residencies for the opportunity to exhibit under prestigious organisations, and even pushing their wares in the overwhelming monstrosity that is the international art fair, I was especially taken with how Stein’s companions forged their paths, and her instrumental role in their success. The crux of the matter seems to be that Gertrude Stein herself recognised something of value, and acquired that thing for herself, cherished it, and shared it. How different this attitude is from that of considering a painting a product that may or may not float in the marketplace.

Elena

Gertrude Stein and her brother collected paintings. They bought the paintings that really struck them, that they genuinely appreciated. They hung them in their Parisian apartment, as ‘Alice Toklas’ (2001: 10) describes:

‘The home at 27 rue de Fleurus consisted then as it does now of a tiny pavillon of two stories with four small rooms, a kitchen and bath, and a very large atelier adjoining. Now the atelier is attached to the pavillon by a tiny hall passage added in 1914 but at that time the atelier had its own entrance, one rang the bell of the pavillon or knocked at the door of the the atelier, and a great many people did both, but more knocked at the atelier. I was privileged to do both. I had been invited to dine on Saturday evening which was the evening when everybody came, and indeed everybody did come.’

the gang

Gertrude Stein’s collection was eclectic, and she began to make the acquaintance of the painters she collected, who began to come to her apartment for meals. In their mid-twenties, she and Pablo Picasso forged an intimate friendship through these very dinners and the portrait sittings they led to. Matisse became a regular guest and dear friend. Painters from disconnected quarters of Paris began to converge in the social hub of the rue de Fleurus, and in their wake, a string of curious art admirers. Toklas (2001: 14) describes the intimidating collection of paintings, unsettling paintings that existed at the periphery of the established art institutions, which flooded Stein’s atelier:

‘They completely covered the white-washed walls right up to the top of the very high ceiling. … It is very difficult now that everybody is accustomed to everything to give some idea of the kind of uneasiness one felt when one first looked at all these pictures on these walls. In those days there were pictures of all kinds there. … At that time there was a great deal of Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Cézanne but there were also a great many other things. There were two Gaugins, there were Manguins, there was a big nude by Valloton that felt like only it was not like the Odalisque of Manet, there was a Toulouse Lautrec.’

Stein’s collection began with the value she personally saw in these ambitious new works, and extended to friendship with the people behind them. She seems to have recognised both the work as an object of value, and the originator as a fragile conduit for the bringing of such objects into the world: the painter needed to be sustained in order to bring these objects into being. And sustain them she did, with friendship, intellectual discourse, interesting and varied society, food and the purchase of countless paintings.

Brukner group journal club

Brukner group journal club

Despite the worth she personally attached to these paintings, Stein (2001: 17) rather off-handedly comments that ‘at that time these pictures had no value and there was no social privilege attached to knowing anyone there,’ with the result that ‘only those came who really were interested.’ This revealing statement demonstrates an important attitude: that ‘value,’ as we normally speak of it, is all tied up in monetary worth, in the demand for products in a market. Stein’s language betrays this attitude, though her actions demonstrate her ability to find and nurture a different sort of value.

Anna

And the contrast is stark: if we begin by considering the painting as a product, we are forced to think how to attribute monetary worth to it, how to convince people that they desire or need such a product; in short, to create demand. If there is one thing to learn from Gertrude Stein about the value of art, it is to turn this idea on its head and start from the other end. Yes, the painting is an object, but not a product, and its value takes a certain insight, a certain understanding, to see. It is an autonomous object left behind in the world, enriching the world in an intangible, difficult to define manner. But it is also a visual stand-in for an idea that has the power to leave its mark on our intellectual landscape. It is the signal of a person who originates such an idea, a person existing in the world and striving to articulate that idea while they yet live. It is a physical sign pointing to a collective of thinkers who cluster around that idea, and in this sense a physical gateway into an intellectual circle. Behind a painting of real worth is an idea that exists in living beings.

In my studio © Sasa

In my studio © Sasablanik

Stein’s atelier burgeoned into a hive of activity. Having seized upon an idea, and gathered about her the people who harboured this idea inside themselves and expressed it in their works, interest in these paintings and in these people grew organically. The atelier would be populated with ‘scattered groups, single and couples all looking and looking.’ Stein would mingle, joining the various discussions. She (2001: 17) would respond to knocks at the door: ‘and the usual formula was, de la part de qui venez-vous, who is your introducer. The idea was that anybody could come but for form’s sake and in Paris you have to have a formula, everybody was supposed to be able to mention the name of somebody who had told them about it. It was a mere form, really everybody could come in and as at that time these pictures had no value and there was no social privilege attached to knowing any one there, only those came who really were interested.’

But soon, more were interested than was really practical. Though things began slowly—‘little by little people began to come to the rue de Fleurus to see the Matisses and the Cézannes,’—the invitees began to come ‘at any time and it began to be a nuisance’ (Stein, 2001: 47). The curiousity of the well-decked atelier of 27 rue de Fleurus naturally demanded its own form, and that form became ‘the Saturday evenings,’ the weekly dinners that Stein would host for artists and intellectuals and passers-through and those newly arrived in Paris.

27 rue de Fleurus emerged as a very particular way in which to see paintings, a truly independent alternative to the official salons of Europe. Matisse gained a following by exhibiting in the more orthodox manner, showing ‘in every autumn salon and every independent. Picasso, on the contrary, never in all his life has shown in any salon. His pictures at that time could really only be seen at 27 rue de Fleurus’ (Stein, 2001: 72). Picasso’s influence extended from the Saturday sessions at Gertrude Stein’s house, and found its way into the salons by way of his followers (Stein, 2001: 73). The salon was not redundant, but it was not the only way to have one’s paintings seen, nor to gain international reknown.

Siberian

A third element remains to this story of artworks making their way into the world and being seen. Stein writes with palpable respect for Parisian ‘picture dealers’ who believed in the idea rather than cautiously making profit-driven transactions. ‘There are many Paris picture dealers who like adventure in their business,’ she writes (Stein, 2001: 261). She continues:

‘In Paris there are picture dealers like Durand-Ruel who went broke twice supporting the impressionists, Vollard for Cézanne, Sagot for Picasso and Kahnweiler for the cubists. They make their money as they can and they keep on buying something for which there is no present sale and they do so persistently until they create its public. And these adventurers are adventurous because that is the way they feel about it. There are others who have not chosen as well and have gone entirely broke. It is the tradition among the more adventurous Paris picture dealers to adventure.’

Stein (2001: 60) describes how all the painters in her circle were very grateful to one Mademoiselle Weil who had a bric-à-brac shop in Montmartre, since ‘practically everybody who later became famous had sold their first little picture to her.’ She relates the story of the German Kahnweiler who had worked in England until he had saved enough money to realise his dream of having a picture shop in Paris. He invested heart and soul in the cubists, establishing his gallery in the rue Vignon. Eventually, Stein (2001: 118-19) relates, ‘they all realised the genuineness of his interest and his faith, and that he could and would market their work. They all made contracts with him and until the war he did everything for them all. … He believed in them and their future greatness.’

The attitude of the dealers mirrors Stein’s own: these art buyers saw more than a product, more than a business opportunity. They were able to estimate value in another way, and supported individual painters because they saw these painters as embodying certain ideas that needed to be upheld and disseminated. Of course, the picture dealers had a very difficult role in having to try to make monetary value match up with this other, more difficult to define value that they saw in the works. Perhaps as businessmen and women they were foolish. But as messengers trying to draw attention to something of worth, they acted admirably, and I wonder if they have a counterpart in our own time.

In my studio Conrad Ohnuki

In my studio © Conrad Ohnuki

‘But to return to the pictures’ (Stein 2001: 13). They are supposed to be seen, and we will find a way for them to be seen. Most importantly, this way will unfurl organically, and with the multifaceted support of those who spot a particular kind of value in works of art, and who can’t help but defend this value and stand behind the ideas they esteem.

 

Stein, Gertrude. 2001 [1933]. The autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Penguin: London.

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