J’existe

Rodin, Gates of hell

Confronting Rodin feels like confronting humanity itself. His modelled works, pulsing with the imprints of his fingertips, acceptingly and comfortingly caress the human condition. One senses the impulse to perfection only in the mode of working–in the repetition, the reworking, in the constant search–for the people thus formed are wholeheartedly embraced as they are. They writhe and struggle with life, they sigh and ache and reflect. They stand before us in all their sorry existence, and though melancholy may tug at us, we are not repulsed by their abortive attempts at living. Rodin coaxes them out of the clay with a peaceful acceptance. He observes them tenderly, he heals their wounds by simply permitting them to be as they are.

Rodin, John the Baptist (preaching to the Americans)

They are naked in every sense: utterly vulnerable, entirely exposed to us. But we merge our disarmed selves with them, we suffer with them, and see our sufferings solidified and externalised outside our private reveries. These rooms are peopled with souls acting out every facet of being human; the living bodies that wander among them are temporarily connected by silent and heavy rock.

Rodin, Balzac (in the wild, Paris)

There is a solemn and honest affirmation of personhood here: there are childish faces, gnarled toes and bulging bellies; there are crooked, pursed lips and untamable hair; skin sometimes sags and is sometimes elastic and firm. Legs bow out and take decisive strides–too wide to be elegantly decorative, too full of purpose. Women–devoured by the eyes of silent, captivated men–are sometimes small and hesitant and girlish rather than voluptuous and consciously seductive. We confront ourselves, in all our variety, we find we are desired, nurtured, spurned and ultimately alone–but visible. I exist, and I am a person.

Rodin, Call to arms

How often we seek something from each other, and search each other out wordlessly, grasping after one another with our hands, with our longing eyes, with the full force of our frail bodies, but though tangled up in one another, we glide past each other. The muse clambers over the sculptor, swaying him with the force of her desperation, melting into a single swirling form with him, but he, lost in his private world, dares not touch her, dares not dissolve the vision, dares not seize what he cannot hold.

Claudel, Vertumne & Pomone

Claudel’s sculptures agree: her women are swept along in waltzes, hanging helplessly from their stony partners whose hands avoid fast contact, limply and reluctantly brushing them. One wonders how many of her thumbprints indent the surface of a Rodin, which fingertips are hers and which are his, how fluidly they merged into one hand. Alone, her sculptures begin to fracture. Waves engulf her figures, bitterness pocks their faces. She sees humanity in all its revoltingness; her hands treat it coarsely, contemptuously. It is vile to be human, her aggressive hand assures us, and I may be a woman but I am not delicate. Perhaps the suffering of women is so acute and carefully masked that it is vicious when it seethes out.

Rodin feels, but does not spit on our weaknesses. He exposes them to turn them over gently in his hands, to comfort us, to reassure us. No body is too disgusting, no act too shameful, no thought too secret–we are all made of the same humble dirt.

Rodin, Walking man, Meudon

And that dirt transcends us. We emerge from rock, we gasp helplessly from inside the rock for a heartbeat, and we sink back into it, and so must it be. A woman crouches with an ornamental vase upon her back in a restful piece, but beside her is the more honest version: she carries, in place of the vase, a jagged piece of rock. We carry our rocks or we merge with them–as Eve buries her face in her tree of knowledge all coiled about by her snake in a single rock of inevitability. We face each other as silent half-carved rocks, each on our own private trajectory of decay. Existence is hard, strange and stubborn: let us look at it and take it as it is, and love it anyway.

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Ever searching

louvre

A pilgrimage to Paris, to encounter Delacroix and Manet in the flesh, reaffirmed that we need not be committed to one way of working. A true artist does not bind herself to a ‘style,’ but searches endlessly after some elusive thing—let us call it truth, in an indulgently romantic fashion. Truth may be uncovered and approximated and represented in many ways, and despite the way we put our artists into categories, their work is rarely so easily defined, so one-dimensional.

Delacroix

Delacroix

I saw Delacroix work of a very fine quality with well-defined contours and smoothly-modelled forms, and work of a more thick and fast quality, all the way up to very course, feverish and rough work, near incomprehensible smears of paint dancing upon the canvas. It brought me a devilish pleasure to see his most violent and spattered work hanging on the same wall as Ingres, classed together as ‘academic art,’ though as far removed from each other as imaginable. Ingres, with his linear emphasis; though his meticulously designed (and redesigned) lines are expertly integrated with his finely-modelled paint into eggshell-smooth rolling forms. The edges are airy, working in a magical unity with the forceful and clear lines. An unobservant viewer might be inclined to write off Ingres as formulaic and predictable, but finally encountering him face to face I am amazed at how his work breathes with such variety from within his preferred parameters. Crisp and deeply modelled spherical forms in rich ruby and emerald colours cloak his Joan of Arc in a convincingly medieval air, while a Venus basking in golden southern rays is treated in such a diffuse, hazy way that counters the severe artifice of the arc of her shoulders. Paint is put to such different use as the picture demands, and though he holds fast to his draughtsmanship, even this does not dictate the application of paint. Baudelaire (1972: 51) is quick to point out to the oversimplifying critic that colour and line are not alien to each other: ‘You do not know in what proportions nature has combined in every mind the taste for line and the taste for colour, nor by what mysterious alchemy she produces the fusion between them, the result of which is a picture.’

(Copy after Ingres)

(Copy after Ingres)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is sheer madness to think that there is one way to apply paint, one method that defines us. The French are ever searching. They are testing the limits of paint, not out of ennui, not in a distracted pursuit of novelty, nor out of despair that everything has already been done. They are searching for the manner of expressing what they want to express. They are pushing paint to the very limits of its expressiveness. And perhaps they don’t succeed every time, but they certainly make many surprising breakthroughs.

delacroixs

Delacroix

Delacroix positively shimmers, in every way. His lines vibrate with urgency and vitality. The drawing alone is joyously bursting with life, exploding with energy. I take out my sketchbook and copy two women, crouched and one clasping the other, hair hanging tossed heavily over the head like an extra limb, extending the arch of the body. A perfectly designed foot curves with a lively flourish. My chunky drawing has found the Rubens in these draped figures, in their interlocking arms and their thick wrists and meaty bodies. Without a doubt, Rubens is flowing through these paintings, however loose Delacroix’s paint becomes—in the drawing and in the colours alike. For Delacroix’s colours vibrate as much as his lines. Hanging among Géricault in this huge hall, Delacroix’s colour is punchy, judiciously applied, not overdone, but strong and resonant. Gold gleams and beads twinkle, hair shimmers like falling water and satin shines in its dampened way. A trembling wrist persuades me that Delacroix is able ‘to express simply by contour man’s gesture, however violent;’ while his glinting fabrics and glowing skin demonstrate his ability ‘to evoke with colour alone what might be called the atmosphere of the human drama, or the spiritual mood of the creator’ (Baudelaire 1972: 361).

Delacroix

Delacroix

Perhaps only a painter could find pictures so unrelentingly brutal to be so abundant with life, because she cares more for the paint than for the subject matter. I reflect that it is almost a paradox to speak of Delacroix’s paintings being alive when his themes are almost exclusively death—though Baudelaire (1972: 359) shares my conviction that ‘he succeeded in translating the spoken word into plastic images, more full of life and more appropriate than those of any other creator of the same profession.’ Perhaps this pulsating energy comes from the realisation that life is but a vicious and frenzied struggle against death, which we are destined to lose.

Manet

Manet

In Manet I find the same ambitious range. His Olympia consists in such lovely drawing; all the lines lead you irresistibly to her crotch, where the most delicious drawing is concentrated in the expertly foreshortened hand, foreshortened by means of line, tone and colour, so meaningfully and powerfully conveyed in such a short stretch of painting. I think of the controversies Manet sparked, and I can imagine them as unintentional, unwanted controversies, the inescapable consequence of his search after truth. Olympia is certainly striking, but it is no provocative statement that makes her so compelling to a painter. The challenges to the male gaze and other art historical renderings of this picture seem remote and improbable when one stands before the canvas as a humble artist. Baudelaire (1972: 397) would remind us that ‘with two or three exceptions…the majority of artists are, let us face it, very skilled brutes, mere manual labourers, village pub-talkers with the minds of country bumpkins.’ A mere painter would see her task in much simpler terms than the intellectualising public might expect: she would simply be obliged to use all means available to make the image as cohesive and strong as possible. How could it be otherwise than that Manet reserve his best drawing, his soundest use of tone and colour, ‘all the means his craft gives him’ (Baudelaire 1972: 51), for this most fertile region of this modern nude? Formally, she is a strong, arresting, complete unity. Conceptually, she is shocking, because of what strong painting does when it mixes with the present. Can the present abide strong painting? Manet has not let me down.

degashands

Degas

In Degas I discover such variety of mark making, often within the one picture. Degas coaxes a self portrait, a luminous pair of hands, out of the surface, working the delicate transitions by near imperceptible degrees without compromising the overall form. He builds them up with increasing intensity from thin, rubbed-out raw umber, as if extracting them slowly from the mud. The humble raw umber underpainting and its gently undulating quality remains visible in places. Pictures grow out from the earthy and close but precise tones, the chroma gradually increasing with smears of rubbed-out opaque colour, and then a finishing touch of a thick and sure stroke of colour at a yet higher chroma. And likewise, the dark tones are deepened with yet darker blues and blacks and browns. The unity is preserved: the variations stay in their place, ever subordinate to the greater mass.

Degas

Degas

And I enjoy his alternating demands on the paint according to his intentions. The double portrait of himself and the top-hatted gentleman is arresting at a distance; the dark forms of the men come starkly to the fore, but their faces are finely treated, sympathetic to complex and restrained emotions, the creases of the eyes firm and clear but ever so slightly softened. A single, delicious specular highlight adorns one corner of the square end of the gentleman’s nose. His top hat is a perfect, straight extension of his proud head. Paris glimmers behind them, a positive mash of pale pinkish and bluish whites, somewhat abrasive up close, but remarkably effective. The textural contrast should be insulting to the vision, but this brash experiment has succeeded—against all expectations, the discord harmonises: the picture forms a striking unity.

Rodin

Rodin

Rodin’s breadth strikes me just as strongly. Certainly I know of his harried surfaces, the presence of his fingertips in thick smatterings of clay. I know this look of frenzied concentration in his rough man-handling of the surface, this working and reworking that belies his countless reattempts at truth, so poorly imitated by those who equate unthinking sketchiness with ‘expressiveness’ devoid of content. But perhaps more unexpected was that sometimes he can be so slick and precise, that he can introduce the most gentle twist, an understated arc perceptible from all angles, though unbelievably slight. That he can be so anatomically careful, and model so accurately. He can magnify this naturalism to monstrous proportions, and subject the body to fantastic strains and tensions—the compression of a foot firmly planted but screwing into the ground, the push and pull of flexors and extensors in heavily-set legs. Yet he can confine all this physical anguish within a smoothly-modelled exterior. And then he can absolutely let loose and let these taught, herculean, muscular bodies melt into strong but somehow unreal creatures, human but somehow superhuman, more flexible, more arched, more sinewy; deformed by their suffering. In these overbearing figures one feels the lithe energy of the smaller, quickly-sketched maquettes that trickle down the Gate of Hell. They are overgrown mud-men, bent and twisted in the cruel hands of a merciless god.

Rodin

Rodin

‘A good picture,’ opines Baudelaire (1972: 365-6), ‘faithful and worthy of the dreams that gave it birth, must be created like a world. Just as the creation, as we see it, is the result of several creations, the earlier ones always being completed by the later, so a harmonically fashioned picture consists of a series of superimposed pictures, each fresh surface giving added reality to the dream, and raising it by one degree towards perfection.’ And as creators, we must not fall into habit, and thus disengage from our work, but approach each work with fresh eyes. We must bring to it the knowledge that it demands, and ever try to augment that knowledge through our investigations. There is no one way of working, even if we are trying to get at the same truth.

Delacroix

Delacroix

 

Baudelaire, Charles-Pierre. 1972 [1842-1860]. Selected writings on art and artists. Trans. P. E. Charvet. Penguin: Harmondsworth, England.

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Taking over again

It's taking over everything © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

It’s taking over everything © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

In other exciting news, this little guy is still charming people, and has just landed in Melbourne where he is a finalist in the prestigious A.M.E. Bale Art Prize in the medium of oils. I’m very happy to be showing alongside my arch-nemesis/side-kick Ryan Daffurn.

Alice Bale (1875-1955) was herself a brilliant painter, doubly hindered in her artistic education by isolation (in Australia, far from the cultural haven of Europe) and womanhood. She was one of the few but determined Australian women painters who forged a path for those of us to come. Her painting Leisure moments (1902), with its modern and ambitious Künstlerinnen, was a pleasure to visit at the Queensland Art Gallery again and again.

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The work of art

Der Brief / The letter (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Der Brief / The letter (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Paul Ziff casts a penetrating eye over the term ‘work of art.’ Rather than trying to define it, he considers why we find it so difficult to define, and why we end up having irresolvable disputes over what is and isn’t art (Ziff 1967: 21). He offers two grounds for variation. Probably most significantly, he argues that art itself is not eternal, that it is historically situated, that it is ever changing. Besides this, the term ‘work of art’ is used in many different ways in our actual parlance, and not incorrectly. There is the tricky fact that the term ‘work of art’ encompasses different kinds of art, such as music and literature and poetry, and thus applies in different senses to very different works—across a whole spectrum of objects and non-objects.

Steinl

Ziff (1967: 23), like Wittgenstein, by whom he was influenced, is ever keen to observe and describe how we actually do use words, and finds that ‘there are many uses of the phrase “work of art.”’ However, this does not mean that the word should be used more narrowly, or that we are being indiscriminate to use it so broadly. To illustrate, Ziff sets up a list of characteristics which would establish a painting by Poussin to be a clear-cut, characteristic case of a work of art, in the same way we might be able to present someone with a clear-cut, characteristic case of a table, in order to define the term ‘table.’ These characteristics include ‘it is a painting,’ and ‘it was made … deliberately and self-consciously with obvious skill and care, by Nicolas Poussin.’

Ziff (1967: 27) is at pains to make clear that these characteristics do no more than ‘provide us with a set of sufficient conditions for something’s being a work of art.’ But something that possesses only some of the characteristics might still be a work of art—for this is not a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. For a start, many works of art are not paintings at all. Ziff (1967: 32) suggests that we might establish many such adequate sets of characteristics, and that each ‘is analogous in composition to every other set’—the sets applying to poems, novels, musical compositions and the like. We have to accept that we mean this term in many different senses.

It is possible that there is something common to all works of art—some necessary condition—which is exactly where Richard Wollheim begins his investigations in aesthetics. ‘For are we not overlooking the possibility,’ surmises Wollheim (1996: 2), ‘that the various particular answers to the questions What is a poem?, a painting?, etc., may, when they come, turn out to have something or even a great deal in common, in that the things they define or describe (i.e. works of art in their kinds) have many shared properties?’ But for now, let’s be content with the idea that there are different kinds of works of art, and our term is malleable enough to bridge our manifold use of it, which is one difficulty in drawing up a definition.

Circle hats

More interestingly for painting, and echoing Ernst Gombrich, Ziff points to the changing nature of works of art themselves throughout history. Even those hostile to the seismic shifts of the twentieth century are likely positively disposed towards the idea of innovation, of technical breakthroughs—of discoveries like linear perspective, of contributing something to the body of knowledge of painting. These ‘movements in history,’ as Gombrich (1996: 434-5) refers to them, whether we like to think of them as progress or not, are difficult for the artist to ignore or go back on: even ‘a slight improvement … makes earlier methods look first old-fashioned and soon ridiculous.’ But in a more guarded way, we might say that each time a painter made an influential and lasting discovery, ‘the tradition was … extended,’ and, clarifies Ziff (1967: 36), ‘this is merely another way of saying that there was some shift in the notion of a work of art.’

So the things that artists produce—works of art—vary over time: Ziff categorises these changes as changes of both ends and means. And the ends and means are correlated, he continues, and feed into each other. ‘With the development of new means there will be new ends that can be served, and with the appearance of new ends, new means will have to be developed to serve them’ (Ziff 1967: 45). Our term ‘work of art’ also has to cope with the varying nature of art.

The ends that Ziff brings to our attention are the purposes and aims of art, its functions in society, its role. It is this that, as Gombrich (1972) explicates in the buoyant and lively Story of Art, varies through history. ‘As the character of the society changes, the role of art in the society may also change’ (Ziff 1967: 39). But not only has the role varied: by extension, ‘the social consequences and implications of something’s being a work of art have varied in time, and no doubt they will continue to do so’ (Ziff 1967: 39).

Rubens ladies

And here we arrive at the disagreements over the ‘work of art’ between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ critics. Of course, Ziff grants, the two camps disagreed about the characteristics of a work of art. But Ziff (1967: 40, 42) asserts that the major disagreements between them arose from the role or roles of a work of art—what these roles are or ought to be. And this, as we have considered, is not easy to settle. The ends, purposes, roles, have been shifting since the dawn of art.

But interestingly, the traditional and the modern critics ‘agreed both in their desires and in their expectations with regard to the characteristic social consequences and implications of something’s being considered a work of art’ (Ziff 1967: 40). This mainly involves them being displayed in galleries, discussed, having books written and read about them. What was (and is) contested is rather which works of art should or do fulfill these social consequences.

Klinger

Which is to say: it does no good to say that your rival is not making works of art, in order to achieve the generally desired social consequences of eternal glory and validation of having your own works hung in galleries and discussed and written and read about instead of theirs. Defining the ‘work of art’ once and for all will not put an end to disputes about which works deserve such recognition. For the task of defining a work of art is a devilishly difficult one that must account for two sliding scales: the fact that works of art are both manifold and varying. Ziff’s (1967: 46) best answer is that as ends and means tug at each other, we will have to adapt our definitions on the fly: ‘It may and most likely will be necessary to revise our definition of a work of art.’

Van Dyck

 

Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The Essential Gombrich: Selected Writings on Art and Culture. Edited by Richard Woodfield. London: Phaidon.

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

Wollheim, Richard. 1996. Art and Its Objects: With Six Supplementary Essays. Reprinted 2. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ziff, Paul. 1967. Philosophic Turnings: Essays in Conceptual Appreciation. 2.print. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UnivPress.

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Jahreszeiten

The suburbs (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

The suburbs (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

 

In Australia I attempted, as I always do, to live as fully immersed in where I was as possible. I painted the view from my veranda, partook in barbeques, read books on Australian painting, drove a big, powerful car, spent time contemplating the Lamberts, drank flat whites and talked until a reasonable hour about what it means to be Australian, went to bed on time and got up early for work. Something in this sweltering cocktail of true blue experiences sparked a new awareness in me of an Australian myth. I realised that though I had failed to be taken in by this myth, most of those around me embraced it heartily, and it stirs in them a genuine and deep love for that sizzling, sun-drenched rock.

Copies after George W Lambert, Brisbane

Copies after George W Lambert, Brisbane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bernard Smith’s book Australian painting: 1788-1960 filled many gaps in my patchy understanding of Australian history, by the more engaging route of chronologically tracing the history of painting. Beginning with dry accounts of botanical artists (including, freilich, Austrians much praised by Goethe) and topographical depictions of early settlements, and warming up with the moderate efforts of trained European artists on extended antipodean sojourns, Smith finds the germ of Australian culture in this beginning afresh on a wild frontier. Our painting reveals all: awkwardly transplanted into a hostile terrain, without a folk tradition, without peasantry to romanticise, the Australian attitude and Australian painting grew from similar stony soil. As convicts became stockmen, their brutal, hardworking, authority-shunning attitudes set the tone for the Australia we have built today. The bushman, writes Smith (1962: 28), ‘became the new representative, the new symbol, of a life freed from the restricting conventions of civilized life. His was a life lived close to nature, dangerous, adventurous and often heroic.’ By the time Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Condor came along to forge a homegrown visual homage to this myth, this unpretentious, full-throttle attitude was firmly fixed.

Brisbane

On warm winter afternoons I would sit back and think how remarkable and improbable it is that we managed to build anything at all—so isolated, so set upon by an inhuman climate, so ill-educated and insolent. This is indeed no place for theatres and galleries or any other ostentatious show of good breeding. For well-bred we are not, and embarrassingly proudly so: ‘The rich an’ educated shall be educated down,’ as our highly-regarded poet Henry Lawson wrote in 1893 (Smith, 1962: 131). I suppose it is the worship of physical labour for the sake of physical labour (‘hard yakka,’ in Australian) that has permitted us to achieve what we have, and undoubtedly a healthy dose of vitamin D; but I can’t help but wonder: at what cost?

Brisbane

As my eyes opened to this patriotic pride, the pride that glories in levelling the field, in making us all equals, in pressing a giant ‘reset’ button on the European class system, I began to really listen to my countrymen’s convictions. They would say to me things like, ‘Of course, it’s very beautiful in Europe. But the standard of living there is disgustingly low. I would never stoop so low.’ Or, ‘Sure, the food is nice in Europe, but what about progress? We can’t just maintain a comfortable level; there must be improvement.’ And upon hearing that people my age regularly work a twenty-five-hour week rather than forty, they burst out in disgust, ‘Lazy fuckers!’

Vienna

I returned to Vienna as autumn gently settled over the city: the air became crisper and the leaves began to fade and fall, spiralling lazily like a steady golden snow in the ancient city streets. I went to the Volkstheater, built on the blood and sweat of the workers who themselves believed in the power of dramatic storytelling, and I drank beers and philosophized in the lavish red velvet upholstered bar glinting with chandeliers, contemplating the seasons and the importance of cycles. And yes—perhaps the key lies in these cycles, wholly natural in Europe, contrasting starkly with the fierce linear progression of single-seasoned Australia. For while Australia provides day after day of blinding sunshine, demanding day after day of (preferably unpleasant manual) labour, urging us on to greater and greater material success, Europe caps the height of summer with a frosty turn and invites a melancholy introspection. Dark times will come, and perhaps there is beauty in this natural regression.

Schoenbrunn

Australia prides itself on a fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, friendly disposition, but this lightness hides a danger I am not willing to overlook. Perhaps hard work alone will not allow us to build ourselves up to where we dream of being. Perhaps progress is an illusory goal. When I return to Europe and I find that people take pleasure in simple things—in locally-grown food, in starting the day later, in bicycling in the fresh air, in putting human well-being ahead of economic gain—I have the sense that I have circled back to an earlier time and picked up afresh something important. And I think we must do this again and again—reawaken, and bask in the frenzy of summer, but allow ourselves to wilt and fade a little, to retreat and reflect, and prepare ourselves to sprout anew. It’s difficult to explain precisely what it is about Australia that feels so foreign to me, but perhaps this begins to illuminate it.

Liechtenstein

And so I join the exodus of Australian painters that began even at the dawn of colonial Australia, and my departure itself signals a ‘challenge [to] the values of Australian society’ (Smith, 1962: 332). Along with many of my fellow Australian painters over the last two hundred years, I must ‘come to terms with it, or else spend [my life] abroad until old age or death.’ Smith’s (1962: 332) summary of Australia is tough, but, I think, accurate: Australia is no place for the artist, because

‘the uneducated Australian is indifferent to art; and the educated Australian, upon whom the role of patronage normally falls, is, as often as not, a second-rate European with such a strong feeling of inferiority that he is embarrassed by the voices of his own countrymen. Lacking a folk-tradition of long standing from one section of society, or a well-informed aristocratic patronage of the arts from the other, Australian artists have constructed what is national and distinctive in their art in the face of the anti-art values of their society. That is why good Australian art is so often tough-minded and sardonic: not because of the desert but because of the people.’

Prater

Smith, Bernard. 1962. Australian painting: 1788-1960. Oxford: Melbourne.

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Eine ästhetische Erziehung

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I have been reflecting on the endless hours I’ve spent acquainting myself with the contents of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Belvedere in Vienna, and feeling grateful for the riches I carry around in my memory as I drive Brisbane’s visually polluted highways. I revisited those galleries like the lines of a familiar poem. I adopted those visits as a daily ritual, as habitual as drinking coffee. I seized those delicacies as daily necessities. Reading Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses that he presented to the Royal Academy in the 1770s and 1780s, I grasp all at once how valuable those seemingly idle hours were, how integral to my learning (Reynolds, 1997: 98):

‘Whoever has so far formed his taste, as to be able to relish and feel the beauties of the great masters, has gone a great way in his study; for, merely from a consciousness of this relish of the right, the mind swells with an inward pride, and is almost as powerfully affected, as if it had itself produced what it admires. Our hearts frequently warmed in this manner by the contact of those whom we wish to resemble, will undoubtedly catch something of their way of thinking; and we shall receive in our own bosoms some radiation at least of their fire and splendour.’

Reynolds’s discourse on imitation (VI) strongly defends the relevance of ‘the antients’ (sic) and the mastery of ‘the old masters.’ Rather than stifling our inventiveness, he considers an ongoing communion with the time-honoured masters the only path to inspired invention—‘however it may mortify our vanity’ (1997: 106). ‘Invention is one of the great marks of genius;’ he (1997: 98) writes, ‘but if we consult experience, we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others, that we learn to invent; as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think.’ The artistic poverty of our time and locality may have less to do with dedicated arts funding and more to do with a disdain for ‘the antients,’ a malaise that even Reynolds lamented in his own time and situation. He ‘venture[d] to prophesy, that when [the ancients] shall cease to be studied, arts will no longer flourish, and we shall again relapse into barbarism’ (1997: 106).

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

It cannot be denied: Brisbane lacks the cultural riches of Vienna, and a native Australian painter is debilitated in her artistic education unless she transplants herself to Europe for the daily nourishment her chosen career demands. Sheer optimism and hard work are not enough: the mind needs substance in order to grow, and it grows toward that which it focuses on. Joshua Reynolds (1997: 98) cautions us, ‘The mind is but a barren soil; a soil which is soon exhausted, and will produce no crop, or only one, unless it be continually fertilized and enriched with foreign matter.’

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

It is of utmost importance, then, to give our minds every opportunity to be enriched. If we permit ourselves mediocre habits, our efforts will soon follow. Reynolds (1997: 98) is very firm on this: ‘It appears, of what great consequence it is that our minds should be habituated to the contemplation of excellence.’ I’m reminded of Delacroix’s (2010: 20) chiding himself on lapsing into trivial distractions, writing in his journals, ‘Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you are always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.’

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind (c. 1390/1400)

Australia’s focus on employment, activity, early rising, physical exertion, and contempt for any who dare to think they are ‘above all that and better than us’ sucks one into a cycle of inconsequentialities and mental tiredness that offers very little nourishment and even less opportunity for tending to one’s thoughts. I realise with greater certainty that being in Europe is no luxury, but an indispensible part of my education. Without this first-hand contact with Titian, with Rubens, with Van Dyck, with Raffael, I would not know what painting could be. I would turn to inferior teachers, and unknowingly trust them with my education. I would observe the work of my peers and take notice of their race to absurdity in their pursuit of novelty. I would bring my questions to walls of badly-applied paint, poor drawing, and punch-line titles instead of to excellence, and my work could only suffer. A familiarity with real excellence is indispensible in one’s aesthetic education.

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

For as original as we strive to be, we are always influenced by our surroundings and by those we associate with—we constantly imitate. Reynolds (1997: 99) suggests it would be better to absorb the thoughts of old masters than what is currently fashionable, or attempting to turn inwards. ‘The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on his own stock: he who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will be soon reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has before often repeated.’ We need a deeper source than ourselves, a more reliable one than our peers.

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

Our individuality comes not from ourselves alone, but is formulated by our own perspective on the work of others as well as what we see in the physical world. Instead of a narcissistic cycle of imitating our own work, we might gain from the successful labours of others. We might accelerate our learning by discovering the physical world through the eyes of the masters. And we might truly challenge ourselves by taking them not as gods but as rivals. Raffael was but a human being, and we have the advantage of being able to learn from him and to push further than him. Reynolds encourages more than unthinking plagiarism, but a ruthless competition, an outstripping, a struggle to steal from the past and improve on it. Having thought their thoughts, we bring our own hand and conceal our theft in our own inventions. Our brush borrows shamelessly, but our thoughts are combined in a way that is entirely our own, and it is from here that our originality stems. Reynolds (1997: 96) leaps to our defense: ‘I am on the contrary persuaded, that by imitation only, variety, and even originality of invention, is produced.’

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

‘We behold all about us with the eyes of those penetrating observers whose works we contemplate; and our minds accustomed to think the thoughts of the noblest and brightest intellects, are prepared for the discovery and selection of all that is great and noble in nature,’ (Reynolds, 1997: 99). So let us not take our situation lightly, for nothing of consequence comes out of isolation and mental starvation.

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

I began the above self-portrait on my arrival in Vienna two years ago. It has suffered many iterations, growing and transforming with my own ideas and observations and abilities. My constant struggle with this painting became somewhat representative of my own aesthetic education, and its thickening layers of paint akin to my deepening understanding. The yellow Reclam book is, natürlich, from Schiller. x

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Composing as emotional construction

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve spent some time lately in the galleries trying to come to an understanding about composition. Not really knowing what I was looking for, I took my sketchbook and pencil and set about collecting some information, reducing it, simplifying it, hoping to see some sort of pattern emerge. In fact, many different patterns emerged from my little thumbnails.

Composition thumbnails 1

In Van Dyck’s Gefangennahme Samsons (1628/30) the heavy weave of the fabric of the painting showed a tightly constructed image, the whole picture electrified with energy and motion, though the frenzy offers no relief for the eye. His Mystische Verlobung des Heiligen Hermann Joseph mit Maria (1630) concentrates the action into a similarly dense knot, with figures and drapery tangling together, but the rhythms run three-dimensionally, not confined to the flat pictorial space. An oval slopes deep into the picture, running through the loop of arms at the centre. Similar retreating ovals swing through Rubens’ Heilige Ambrose und Kaiser Theodosius (1615/16) and Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum (1630/32), intersecting with the two-dimensional arrangement.

Titian’s Diana revealed complex braids of arcs through the dizzyingly busy picture. Actually each curve is a wonderfully simplified statement that seems to keep the picture in motion, a liquid in suspension, not snagged by unnecessary points of elbows or knees. And Degas blares out as the most unselfconsciously shape-loving painter, with his charmingly intimate square pastels, both Nach dem Bad, almost pieced together from strong, insistent shapes rather than representations of interiors. And yet, despite the prominence of these shapes, Degas never relinquishes the fullness of forms.

Composition thumbnails 2

While these investigations turned up some interesting ideas, the jumble of thoughts they produced in my mind left me no clearer of how I ought to approach composition. And despite the importance of concrete examples, I was looking for a more unifying, fundamental way to grasp the concept. It was at this point I returned to Robert Nelson.

The main point to hold in your mind when thinking about composition is that it is, at heart, about construction. You’ll forgive my constant sideways remarks about photography, but our aesthetic vision is currently somewhat obscured by the lens, and in the matter of composition, by the viewfinder. ‘Photography as a process, certainly in its documentary incarnations, might be described as a roving rectangle in search of a motif,’ writes Nelson (2010: 99), continuing sympathetically but firmly, ‘The nomadic and scavenging character of documentary photography makes for an art of great complexity; but it is essentially different from the constructed technologies of the past.’ As a painter, I know my own understanding of composition was clouded by this idea of finding and framing. Yet the painter suffers no such constraints: she is at complete liberty to compose, exactly as the musician may draw notes from his mind and not wait to capture them. Dewey (1934: 75) compares it to the ordering of thoughts of the writer: ‘As the painter places pigment upon the canvas, or imagines it placed there, his ideas and feeling are also ordered. As the writer composes in his medium of words what he wants to say, his idea takes on for himself perceptible form.’

Sankt Marx composition

Nelson (2010: 95-6) argues that, despite the popularity of the idea, there are no ‘design principles,’ no rules to be taught, no natural laws to transform aesthetics into a science. Conventions of the past were simply that—conventions, not eternal ideals. Golden means and overlaid geometry reek of ‘numerological witchcraft’ to him. Yet composition remains vital to painting because of the deliberateness it entails. The painter actively arranges not only elements, but space and even, he (2010: 98) argues, ‘the way that you encounter the motif.’ The whole is a carefully contrived experience, deliberately built up from nothing.

Rather than groping fruitlessly after scientific justifications for the success of compositions, Nelson (2010: 96) suggests turning to the poetic. Composition, far from submitting to rules, is rather a matter of expression, and perhaps even, as Dewey suggests, of emotion. Dewey (1934: 70) writes of the deliberate arrangement of the whole: ‘The determination of the mot juste, of the right incident in the right place, of exquisiteness of proportion, of the precise tone, hue, and shade that helps unify the whole while it defines a part, is accomplished by emotion.’ The painter has complete control over how the stage is to be set, over how the experience is to unfold. The balance or imbalance is completely at her disposal; the weight of the tones may set the mood she desires, the space may be moulded or the shapes emphasised or the rhythms interlaced as best suits her own expressive purpose. Dewey (1934: 62) is quick to clarify, however, that this expression, however emotional, remains calculated and controlled:

‘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.’

In order to express something clearly, to honestly transcribe emotive experiences, the painter must keep the whole before her, and work in a flexible way. Her medium needs to be pliant enough to push around, to adjust, to exaggerate, to search out (Gombrich 1996: 214). Drawing is the most obvious starting place, offering a reductive description, a non-committal, experimental visualisation of the unborn painting. Without labouring details, the painter can think through the unity of the whole and observe the interaction of the ill-defined parts. She can crop and re-crop. She can design, she can grow the image organically. In keeping the whole at the fore, she can keep the emotional experience tight and true. Da Vinci (in Gombrich 1996: 213) confirms this fluid mode of working and the connection between emotion and composition in both his hairy drawings and his writings:

‘Now have you never thought about how poets compose their verse? They do not trouble to trace beautiful letters nor do they mind crossing out several lines so as to make them better. So, painter, rough out the arrangement of the limbs of your figures and first attend to the movements appropriate to the mental state of the creatures that make up your pictures rather than to the beauty and perfection of their parts.’

I expect I’ll continue to collect thumbnails at the gallery, but with renewed purpose: There are no codes to decipher and assimilate, no universal truths to unearth. There is only the deliberate hanging-together of the whole—directed by the emotional impulse of the author—to unravel and to admire. And my own emotional intent to orchestrate in my own paintings, beginning with my ever-pliable pencil.

Sankt Marx

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

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

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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