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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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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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.

portrait

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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Suited up

Three framed 2

This little guy is happily framed in his peachy, frosty jacket, all suited up for a big night at the Pine Rivers Gallery on Brisbane’s northside. I’m especially excited to announce that he’s been selected as a finalist in the Moreton Bay Region Art Awards! You can head on down and lend him some moral support next Friday, 16 May, at the Strathpine Community Centre. Doors open at 6pm with formalities taking place an hour later, and you can relax with a drink as your eyes take a wander.

Three framed

The keen observer will note that my Salisbury comrades Ryan Daffurn, Nick Leavey and Anita West are also strongly representing the southside as finalists. I’m very proud to be showing alongside them.

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Mud

face to face

Having fallen headlong in love with sculpture, I resolved to start studying it upon my return to Brisbane. And so, once a week at the Atelier, Ryan has been teaching me about the literal moulding of form, about the three-dimensional finger-painting that is sculpture. I’ve been amazed at how I can ‘draw’ lines with my hands, lines that undulate as I circle my piece, and how I can work with the shapes of tones much as I would when drawing or painting.

mouth profile

I’ve struggled with the three-dimensional puzzles of lips—how the extremities of the profile must restrain the apparent swellings from the front; how the lips wrap around the teeth deeply into the cheeks; how the nodes at the sides collect everything in little fleshy pockets that leave expressive little indentations at the corners of the lips.

mouth

I’ve physically constructed the riddle of the bony eye socket, not a simple rectangle sloping back under the eyebrows, but simultaneously wrapping back around the head and reaching out to the crucial cheekbone turning point where front sharply becomes side. I’ve agonised over s-curves buried in facial furrows and shaped the thickening and thinning c-curves that spiral deeper than you ever first imagine.

eyes

Every slope you trace, observing its horizontal and vertical axes, moves backwards or forwards at the same time, its trajectory changing drastically as you circle to another viewpoint. The game is to try to conceive the whole, not a slice. The lesson of sculpture is that everything is doing more than two things at once.

nicolo mud man

Holding each facial feature in your hands, forming them from sticky lumps of plasticine, is a pretty thorough way to get your mind around them. Rather than reaching for generic shapes, you begin to build up in your mind an actual object, a complex three-dimensional form, that takes on various guises as it moves around. You don’t simply reach into your brain for that eye shape to fill that gap, but rather you grow to an awareness of how an eye socket shapes part of the head and how an eye slots into it, strapped in by thick and very-present eyelids. The face ceases to be an oval waiting to be filled with ‘the interesting bits’ like a china plate ready for its ornamental flowers. It begins to come together in your mind as voluminous bricks that lock into each other—some deep, some protruding, some spiralling, some tucking under.

Nicolo

Having worked and reworked the masses, adjusted the placement of the features, sliced off and reattached an ear, grown the back of the head and massaged the trapezius and sternomastoids into an elegantly twisting neck, the pure delight of modelling the surface brings new challenges in the form of new expressive ideas. Juggling in your mind the knowledge of the softness of the skin of lips, the firmness of cartilage and the immovable frame of bone beneath, finding a way to express these structural differences in the treatment of the surface is mind-bending and infinitely expressive. The touch of your fingers leaves a different trace than that of hatching with wooden tools, and the art is in folding these strokes into each other in meaningful ways. These final caresses breathe unimaginable life into the sticky mass, small refinements seeking out the character of your subject and approaching a likeness by a means surprisingly removed from sheer accuracy.

Nicolo and hand

One would imagine drawing is a practical enough way to approach the world—better than solely reading about anatomy, or cursorily looking at the world around you, for it taxes your motor skills. And yet, once you begin to sculpt, you realise the sheer kindergarten delight of kinaesthetic learning. Drawing, all this time, has been trying to find a shorthand for this grappling with mud. And the new battles of sculpture feed directly back into drawing, cementing spatial concepts and freeing us just a little more from a deep-seated reliance on shapes and outlines.

Nicolo 2

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Branching out

Life drawing Atelier

I am pleased to share that I have started writing regularly for the Atelier blog. This means a lot of happy opportunities to impose myself upon fascinating artists around Brisbane in a totally legitimate, professional capacity, and a lot of freedom to do some investigative journalism. The Atelier is both a school and a community, and its bomb factory walls have brought together many like-minded painters in a part of Australia that is too often considered culturally desolate. There is a richness here, and plenty of passion and gumption, and I can’t express how excited I am to be entrusted with the task of revealing all of this to the world.

Life drawing Atelier

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Summer show

Nausea (c) Samantha Groenestyn

Nausea (c) Samantha Groenestyn

Another year of endless Summer. We have been busy preparing some paintings for the Atelier Summer Show which is on this Saturday. If you would like to drop by we’ll be at the RQAS gallery on Petrie Terrace in Brisbane, from 6.30pm.

Sweet frame

I picked up my freshly framed paintings today, from local framer Chapman & Bailey. This is some exquisite handiwork; beautiful timbers, simple and beautiful stains, and all handmade. We are loving these shadow box frames that line the canvas with a deep, dark drop.

Varnishing

The rest of the morning involved varnishing these little guys to make them as shiny as wet paint!

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