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Madonna with the blue diadem – Raphael

Several years ago I visited the prints and drawings room at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh and was treated to my own little exhibition starring a lovely Raphael drawing. While it’s nice to get close to such pictures, to take one’s time with them, to meet them as individuals, it is also extremely rewarding to get positively drunk on a rich and steady stream of Raphaels. An undeniable advantage of living in Vienna is that our galleries treat us to exhibitions that are far from modest; our ample imperial collections are embellished but hardly outshone by guest appearances from the Louvre and the National Gallery in London. Such frenzied visual gluttony leaves one with very different impressions of the overall trajectory of Raphael’s work than calm meditation on a single piece.

Allegorical figure of poetry – Raphael

For one thing, it struck me how important tone is to his compositional strategy. Right from the early preparatory stages (and from his early years), his torsos and legs are offset simply and elegantly by plain slabs of tone. The effect is remarkably spatial: tone really does work, it is by no means a filler. One watches him carve an arched back deep into the picture by means of crude but deliberately-placed tonal contrast. In more complex drawings with many figures, this same simple strategy becomes meaningfully elaborate. Tone relates each figure to every other, especially in terms of depth. Plain, round heads and simple arcs of arms are woven in and out, set back at different distances, and curled gently towards us by rolling rhythms established largely tonally. Gently undulating movements ripple through tranquil and otherwise crisp, idealised figures. The masterful, airy sense of space informs us that we are emerging from the stilted Dark Ages into the spacious, glistening pastures of the Renaissance; it invites us to suck in a deep breath of that heady air.

Raphael

The force of this tonal organisation carries over into his painting, which is luminous. The brightness of his figures still gleam against the bright jewel-blue landscapes. Rather than dull them to grey, Raphael neutralises them with white, keeping their contrast limited but their colour otherwise pure. Without invoking da Vinci’s atmospheric haze, Raphael offers us sharply-drawn cities that recede by fading to an icy blue; they retreat into the distance but glow as lavishly as the radiant figures.

It is a sheer delight to observe his methodical approach. Seemingly uninterested in the peculiarities of individuals, he treats them with egalitarian lines that harmonise their quirks into balanced lines and forms. Thus subdued, each ideal human becomes a conduit for graceful forces, and Raphael can make them dance, can animate these soft puppets with a living movement that courses through them with the steady and mesmerising will of flowing water. One observes again and again that he often draws whole scenes of nudes: thoroughly inappropriate nudes in solemn religious settings. Drawing is a tool of understanding, and Raphael acquaints himself with every aspect of his figures as he works variations of the picture.

Raphael

Alongside these careful nudes are painstaking drapery studies. A cloth hangs over a chair, as though it might be wrapped around a waist, and is reproduced faithful to life. Then it is redrawn, less stiff, with more emphasis given to the imagined meaty masses beneath. One sees immediately that he combines these two separate studies, these two firm foundations, into a meaningful amalgam of fabric and flesh–that each enhances the other, describes the other, that they move together. And his draperies are incomparably airy, infused with a lightness that only such sure knowledge of both figure and folds of cloth can achieve. The truly inspired pictures augment his understanding. Air blows up under garments and lifts them lightly, it teasingly curls their hems. The billowing, swelling folds extend the figures into otherworldly forms with a magical presence about them. What Raphael draws is too perfect to be real, and yet so natural as to seduce us into believing it anyway.

Raphael (print of a fresco)

Raphael’s drawing is perhaps most mesmerising for its delicacy. That simple chalk marks can produce such textural differences between skin and fabric is astounding. A supple arm or face can be as fine and smooth as porcelain, nestled into a rustling bed of hatching that describes those carefully-observed folds. There are some exquisite passages of hatching that run counter to the folds of the fabric, opening it out in a radiating fashion. Such control shows us where his attention lay, and while it might be far from the throbbing muscles of Michelangelo, or from the frenzied swirls of Leonardo, we appreciate that his own emphasis is equally compelling and equally distinct. Raphael delights us with a clarity that rings like crystal, with an enveloping vision of humanity that softens and perfects his figures into more noble and gracious manifestations thereof.

Raphael

Artists are often called upon to produce endless novelty, to demonstrate their ‘creativity’ by producing something entirely unexpected. Raphael’s tendency toward ideals or universals in his figures suggests a rather an urge to perfect each previous attempt, to take up the idea again and refine it. His inventiveness is the truly inquisitive kind that attends very carefully to its subject, seeking to extract the most pleasing and elegant and finally effortless solution that comes out of deep familiarity with that subject. This genuine inquisitiveness uncovers endless variety on a single theme, as is evident in his Marys. His parameters are tight–circular rhythms, pinks and blues, babies cradled in crescents of arms–but each new iteration probes the possibilities in a breathlessly fresh manner, the glowing and trembling air positively wet with dew.

Three graces – Raphael

The Albertina, swarming with visitors, gives one something else to reflect upon, which is the way people fear the art, and the way they talk about it. Whether a tour group or a pair of friends, two roles tend to emerge: one type stands helpless and intimidated before the Raphaels, the other speaks with authority. While one follows in silence, the other puts on her ‘tour voice,’ a dreadful monotone that indicates she doesn’t quite appreciate her listeners to be humans; or talks with adamant certainty about Raphael’s technical aims and his motivations as if they were solid facts. This last, particularly, strikes me: an appeal to the formal properties, but a very arrogant one that seems to impose more on the picture than it extracts from it. Or one overhears an appeal to formal properties that is infuriatingly empty: a teacher solemnly tells his students to come nearer to the drawings, and finally to ‘schauen Sie die Hände und die Füße an, wie die gezeichnet sind,’ (‘Look at the hands and feet, at how they are drawn,’) with no further comment, no indication of particularly successful or unsuccessful strategies, no disappointment that in these instances the hands are rather weakly drawn and clearly not the emphasis of these more compositionally-oriented drawings that incline rather more towards neglecting the details.

My humble artist companion and I enter the gallery with another attitude altogether. We come, admittedly, with our familiarity with certain Raphael paintings, of that single drawing (now on loan to the Albertina), filled with our predilection for Michelangelo, but with our eyes open, ready to greet the pictures as they are. Our conversation–sparse, because of our private absorption in the pictures–is quietly observational, relishing a confident mark, joying in vivid colours, delighting in the judicious variety of the mark-making, in an unexpected and strong row of square knuckles, but also regretting the careless sections, the limp passages that lack conviction. The longer we stay with the pictures and the more we think about his choices, we start to appreciate what makes Raphael distinctive, why Ingres would later strive after his elegant fastidiousness, how classical it feels, yet at the same time coloured with the jewel-like hues of the Middle Ages. We are always sharing, wondering, noticing. If these humble comments can give you some handle on Raphael, give you some way to think about the formal properties in a concrete way, open your eyes to the simple delight a picture can awaken in you, I sincerely hope they might bring you a step closer to genuine appreciation. For as Aristotle opens his Metaphysics: ‘By nature, all men long to know. An indication is their delight in the senses. For these, quite apart from their utility, are intrinsically delightful, and that through the eyes more than the others.’

Raphael

 

Aristotle. 2004. The Metaphysics. Trans. Hugh Lawson-Tancred. Penguin: London.

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The squirrel

Hyndland house © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on canvas

Hyndland house © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on canvas

 

Sometimes it would be really excellent to have access to an art education, but sometimes you have to find a way to educate yourself. At times like this, the answer might come from Jack White, via a squirrel. ‘Take all your problems and rip ’em apart’: isolate, master, and finally, integrate.

Venus and Adonis ( / Jack White) by Abraham Janssens

Venus and Adonis ( / Jack White) by Abraham Janssens

Taking a class means you have a structure imposed on you, regularity and routine, and are fed ideas in a logical sequence. But in the event that you are not enrolled in a class, you can still find plenty to chew on, and with enough discipline you can create a solid routine. The important things are to be excited, to follow the trail and to be persistent. Travel affords one the perfect opportunity to get outside and work from nature, eyeballs twitching from all the spectacular new stimuli. But nature is hard: full of bugs, dogs, shrieking children, nosy people, trees, changing light and other painterly woes. One works with an urgency that can be shaken in the private peacefulness of the studio, but at the same time one finds the details mounting, crowding out the picture, looking rushed and untended to. I, for one, include too much, and struggle to keep the main design at the fore of my decisions.

Tree 1

George Clausen, whose Stone pickers (1887) I was fortunate enough to encounter in the Laing in Newcastle, expressed similar pains in his lectures to the Royal Academy (published as Six Lectures on Painting; 1904: 45): ‘Everything in nature is moving—not necessarily quickly, but nothing stands still for us; this sense of life and movement must be given in a picture with the measure of detail which may be necessary, and the result reveals the artist’s mind, showing on which qualities, and in what degree, his attention was fixed.’

Tree 2

So I have happened upon an approach that lets me both practice the elements and work at the broader design. Every afternoon I head out into the world with my sketchbook and choose something to devote my attention to. Perhaps a scene will strike me, and I will sit down for an hour, two, as long as it takes, and interrogate this setting from a design perspective. These drawings are fluid, scratchy, built of simplified masses, and usually paying attention to form, reducing trees to bulbous sphere-based monstrosities, and paying careful attention to perspective in the prisms of buildings. In these drawings I’m developing a notation for three-dimensional objects, as well as forcing them into pleasing arrangements. Many of these drawings go nowhere, but some form the basis of paintings. Mostly, they reveal what the smaller problems are, and demonstrate that tackling an entire landscape all at once is too big a bite just now.

Tree 3

Other afternoons I linger in a sunny park or bunker down by a swamp and draw the trunk of a tree. These organic forms produce surprising twists, and let me explore drawing quite fluidly and more freely than when drawing the figure with its predictable anatomy. Plus, they sit still for longer, so you can while away hours investigating in as much detail as you care to, and never run out of variations. As Harold Speed (1913: 106) reminds us, ‘Nature is the great storehouse of variety; even a piece of coal will suggest more interesting rock-forms than you can invent. … And it is never advisable to waste inventive power where it is so unnecessary.’

Tree 6

For reals, this tree exists.

Mornings, I like to start with a drapery study. My kind friend Elizabeth has let me pillage her scarf drawer which means I have an endless variety of fabrics—stiff, wispy, heavy, floaty, wiry and bunched—at my disposal. It’s a nice reminder that there’s not simply drapery, but that all fabrics have their own manner of drape; that they bunch differently, fall differently and fold differently. I started out with ‘drapery sculptures,’ complex creatures to test my accuracy. But I got more excited about the puzzles of fabric, and began to explore its incarnations: table drapery, hanging drapery, folded and twisted drapery; the little pockets and cones that form in it. And besides wrapping my head around the ‘mechanics’ of this mouldable form, I found these exercises to be an invaluable means of practicing modelling. My earlier drawings are harshly seeking out the cross-contours; my later ones, even after only a few weeks, are finding a more elegant way to express the softness of the surface of my subject.

Drape 1

And here comes the exciting bit. Having broken all my problems down and gnawed away at them, varying and repeating the tasks, following my nose and trying to solve the new puzzles that arise out of them, I see just how connected they are. For a tree is a person is a drape is a composition. The ripples of the surface of the drapery find their way into my trees, and the muscularity and counter rhythms of human limbs translate into those of trees. The design-oriented sweeps through boughs—always planted firmly on the ground—resurface in the capturing of a human pose, feet rooted just as surely. And a thin piece of cloth has forms as full as any living thing, and is not simply a web of shapes dovetailing together.

Drape 2

As ever, trusty old Bammes accompanies me on my explorations, and a little such guidance never goes astray. For it’s nice to work independently, but it’s also nice to receive tested wisdom and gentle reminders: ‘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’ (2010: 222).

Drape 3

Clausen empathises further (1904: 54): ‘The student’s greatest difficulty is to find himself; what it is that he really wants to express.’ He observes that we are more inclined to seek our place amongst our contemporaries, to stay attuned to current creative trends and market-driven demands. But Clausen urges the student in her ‘search for general principles:’ ‘He should try and arrive at principles, and to that end study also the work of the old artists, who have travelled the whole road; depending on nature for his inspiration, while referring to them for guidance.’ Clausen suggests a delicate balance between personal encounters and struggles with the natural world, with observation and private deduction—just as a mathematician might privately prove axioms to himself as a sure footing for further creative problem solving—and a devoted study of the masters. In this light it is not simply a dreamlike privilege to be in Europe, with daily access to world-class galleries, but a minimum requirement of the student of art. One does oneself no favours by remaining in a cultural backwater, relying only on reproductions in one’s investigations into the great work of the past. Clausen (1904: 54) argues that such study gives us a belt of tools—of insights, ideas and trains of thought—to bring to our own battles of taming nature to the canvas. ‘For we train ourselves to see and understand, by studying the work of the masters, which help us to form our judgement before nature.’

Drape 4

This idea that we distill the principles for ourselves is, to my mind, paramount. No master of any field simply reads the elementary textbooks and gets on with making bold discoveries. Many a physicist has divulged to me that they have returned again and again to the foundational principles, oiled their minds with them, looked at them from every angle, picked them apart and pieced them back together unaided, and, after a number of years working on highly abstracted concepts, have seen these principles in a new light as their specialised understanding deepens. We need the surest, securest foundation for our endeavours, and however elite and respected and coveted our school, it can never simply feed us such a foundation. We must work through the smallest of problems for ourselves, and make each discovery, have each profound epiphany, at our own hand.

Drapes

And no less than the mighty Leonardo da Vinci will back us up on this. In his notebooks he admits to being no scholar, but to owing all to the mistress of experience. ‘Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy:—on experience, the mistress of their Masters. They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with [the fruits], not of their own labours, but of those of others. And they will not allow me my own. They will scorn me as an inventor; but how much more might they—who are not inventors but vaunters and declaimers of the works of others—be blamed.’ (1888: 16-17).

Gnarly tree

In having the humility to search out general principles for ourselves, and becoming familiar with them inside and out, da Vinci argues that we will face our creative problems with clarity of mind. ‘These rules will enable you to have a free and sound judgment; since good judgment is born of clear understanding, and a clear understanding comes of reasons derived from sound rules, and sound rules are the issue of sound experience—the common mother of all the sciences and arts.’ (1888: 19) And so, artist or scientist, let’s not neglect the small puzzles, or rely on others to hand solutions to us. Let’s tear apart and then rebuild our own enduring foundations, one little acorn at a time.

 

You can snag most of the books cited free online!

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing. Search: Kent.

Clausen, George. 1904. Six lectures on painting. Methuen: London.

Speed, Harold. 1913. The practice and science of drawing. Seeley: London.

da Vinci, Leonardo. 1888. The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Trans. Jean Paul Richter.

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