A rich inheritance

The enabler (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The enabler (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

It is, of course, extremely unpopular to paint the way that I do—representational pictures, ‘stuff that looks like stuff,’ images thoroughly stripped of their purpose by the speed and apparent accuracy of photography. Though I’m finding pockets of representational painters around the world, we are undeniably on the periphery, and perhaps rightfully so. Different demands are made of art now, and art must adapt accordingly. I cling to what I do because it is the most satisfying thing I know to do, and because the roots of it run deep and strong all the way back through our Greek heritage, a heritage of which I’m proud and a willing inheritor. I see this akin to a respect for our philosophical tradition and its Platonic genesis. This is where we have come from; this Greek impulse is part of our cultural and intellectual makeup.

Enabler (composition study)

Enabler (composition study)

And the Greeks, as Gombrich points out in a chapter on ‘Reflections on the Greek revolution,’ may be credited with a truly remarkable deviation. ‘There are few more exciting spectacles in the whole history of art than the great awakening of Greek sculpture and painting between the sixth century and the time of Plato’s youth toward the end of the fifth century B.C,’ he (1959: 99) writes with palpable enthusiasm. It is no coincidence that at the very time Plato was penning his timeless philosophical observations, Greek artists were asking new questions of the physical world and expressing wholly new observations of it in their work. Plato himself challenged this frighteningly unbridled power art was summoning, famously equating illusion with delusion, for this revolution unfolded during his own lifetime.

Aktzeichnen

For until the Greeks invented mimesis—the attempt to ‘match’ the visible world, which Gombrich (1959: 99) contrasts with the more widespread and primitive impulse simply to ‘make’—equally impressive civilisations were demanding something wholly different from art. The Egyptians, the Mesopotamians and the Minoans were concerned with a fixed, eternal art. Uninterested in particulars, their art rather ‘held out a promise that its power to arrest and to preserve in lucid images might be used to conquer’ the ‘irretrievable evanescence of human life’ (Gombrich 1959: 107-8). Keats expresses the deliciousness of such a timeless power in his ‘Ode on a Grecian urn’:

‘Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.’

And, indeed, such ritualistic art never lost its attraction. ‘In the time of Augustus,’ Gombrich (1959: 124) notes, ‘there are already signs of a reversal of taste toward earlier modes of art and an admiration of the mysterious shapes of the Egyptian tradition.’ The middle ages, rather than a period of decadence and darkness, might be seen as a time of reaffirmation of this powerful mode of art. Clear, schematised, generalised, symbolic motifs executed with primitive clarity work a sort of magic that is difficult to resist. Gombrich (1959: 124) argues that it is misleading to describe art’s history in terms of progress or decline, and considers the Greek ‘revolution’ a true innovation, a notable break in the story, but he argues that the reclamation of schematic art ought not ‘be interpreted as a fresh revolution in favour of new ideals. What happened here looks much more like another process of natural selection, not a directed effort by a band of pioneers, but the survival of the fittest; in other words, the adaptation of the formulas to the new demands of imperial ceremony and divine revelation. In the course of this adaptation, the achievements of Greek illusionism were gradually discarded.’ Artists overwhelmingly produced what they were required to.

Aktzeichnen

The appeal of such ‘conceptual art,’ as Gombrich classifies it—and this arguably applies equally to the reductive abstract art of our own time and more recent history—is not difficult to account for. ‘What is normal to man and child all over the globe is the reliance on schemata, on what is called ‘conceptual art’ (1959: 101). The art which today holds sway appeals to universals, to the general, to broad human experiences in an amusingly primitive way. ‘With the beholder’s questioning of the image, the artist’s questioning of nature stopped’ (1959: 124). It is the Greeks alone who have demanded something altogether different of the image: ‘[Egyptologist Heinrich] Schäfer stressed that the ‘corrections’ introduced by the Greek artist in order to ‘match’ appearances are quite unique in the history of art. Far from being a natural procedure, they are the great exception’ (Gombrich 1959: 101).

Aktzeichnen

The nude is central to the Greek tradition, and has survived in western art even until our own time. Yet I am not clear on what its role should now be, stripped of its Greek philosophies of embodied ideas, of godlike perfection in supple human form. The role of the nude has changed dramatically since its invention by the Greeks. As Clark (1985: 337) writes, the workshops of the middle ages which trained artisans—manual workers—gradually gave way to academies which urged more intellectual pursuits. ‘When this old discipline of grinding colours, sizing panels and copying approved models was removed … what new discipline took its place? Drawing from the nude, drawing from the Antique and perspective.’ The nude became inextricably linked with cleverness in art, with intellectual abstractions (Clark 1985: 337-8):

‘Instead of the late Gothic naturalism based on experience, [drawing from the nude] offers ideal form and ideal space, two intellectual abstractions. Art is justified, as man is justified, by the faculty of forming ideas; and the nude makes its first appearance in art theory at the very moment when painters begin to claim that their art is an intellectual, not a mechanical activity.’

The Greeks made an unprecedented leap in grasping after mimesis, in matching their observations. But as Gombrich (1959: 121) argues, ‘we mistake the character of this skill if we speak of the imitation of nature. Nature cannot be imitated or ‘transcribed’ without first being taken apart and put together again. This is not the work of observation alone but rather of ceaseless experimentation.’ Here the Italians emerge, smug in their mastery over nature, with their newly intellectualised painting, built around the worship of the nude: ‘there is no doubt that the Florentines valued a demonstration of anatomical knowledge simply because it was knowledge and as such of a higher order than ordinary perception’ (Clark 1985: 340).

Aktzeichnen

The nude persisted throughout the twentieth century, but she was shamefully ravaged. The fact that the nude became almost exclusively female is significant, and Clark (1985: 343) links this change to the Florentine pride in knowledge. ‘No doubt this is connected with a declining interest in anatomy (for the écorché figure is always male) and so is part of that prolonged episode in the history of art in which the intellectual analysis of parts dissolves before a sensuous perception of totalities.’ Art, of course, grew in its intellectual aspirations, forced its way (perhaps unjustifiably) into the universities, and discarded anything tainted by technique, scrambling instead after a pitiable faux-philosophy, loosely held together by sensual feminine curves.

Aktzeichnen

What are we to make of the nude and of mimesis in our own time? Can we turn back to our cultural origins and embrace the Greek intent? This feels false in the wake of Christianity and its accompanying shame for our bodies, our gothic repulsion to the human form, our appetite for punishment and decay. And there is something surprisingly appealing in the ruthlessly grotesque German representations that Greek perfection never touches. The Judeo-Christian tradition is equally a part of our cultural fabric and our western attitudes. Perhaps, then, the nude is a private and academic exercise, and once mastered it serves only as a support to our other representational endeavours. Perhaps the interest in the nude that has resurfaced in the modern ateliers is a propitious start, but is not justified in being considered art. Ryan has spoken warily of the present-day ‘cult of the student:’ the misdirected celebration of studio nudes as ends in themselves. I’m inclined to agree.

Aktzeichnen

Certainly, the Greeks began something wholly European, a complete anomaly in the story of art. Our thoughts, our perception are unavoidably influenced by their invention. I will be so bold as to say there is something worthwhile in this, something worth preserving and carrying forward. Something beyond the schematic, conceptual art that even children are capable of, that every other culture has independently produced. ‘What most of us lack in order to be artists,’ argues Dewey (1934: 75), ‘is not the inceptive emotion, nor yet merely technical skill in execution. It is capacity to work a vague idea and emotion over into terms of some definite medium.’ Far from teaching us how to be human cameras, the Greeks taught us how to override the schematisation and simplification our brains naturally strive for and gave us an intelligent way to think with our hands. And I have no desire to abandon such a rich inheritance.

Aktzeichnen

 

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

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

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

Keats, John. 2006. Selected poems. Ed. Deborah West. Oxford University: Oxford.

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The Duchess’s bookshelf of becoming super excellent

bookshelf

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

Bammes

Gottfried Bammes: Complete guide to life drawing

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

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

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

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

Goldfinger

Eliot Goldfinger: Human anatomy for the artist

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

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

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

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

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

Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

Dali

Salvador Dali: Diary of a genius, an autobiography

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

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

He smiles stupidly and thinks I am joking. …

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

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

Gombrich

Ernst H. Gombrich: The story of art

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

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

Dewey

John Dewey: Art as experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Galenson

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

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

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

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

Clark

Kenneth Clark: The nude: A study of ideal art

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sketchbook

Sketchbook

Words, words, words. Time to draw.

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Memory

Drawing

The more I work, the more I realise how crucial a tool memory is to the painter. In circles of representational painters, it is a point of pride to paint from life rather than from photographs, and yet this reliance on what is physically before us is of course imaginatively limiting. If our ultimate goal is to so master our super-power that we can uninhibitedly create boundless worlds through our brush, a competence with copying arrangements before our eyes will not be enough. It is simply a step on the way to omnipotence.

Computer time

Our language is visual, and working from life allows us, if you will, to build our visual vocabulary. It forces us to slow down, pay attention, and battle through each problem of light, volume and texture, of colour relationships, of atmosphere, of design. It demands that we are wholly present and alert to the very substances of the physical world: we must pry into the construction of things in a way that word-languages do not. Where our word-brain is content to recognise a chair by ‘some legs and a horizontal bit and sometimes a back,’ our visual-brain needs more information. It notes the turned legs, the crossbars, the torn padding, the ridges, the carvings. But to simply note down these specifics is little more than dictation. Our still lives, if driven by an effort to remember, can serve us more than the image we are currently creating. Draw that chair, paint that chair, and attempt to own it forever.

Sleep time

Much of this remembering is physical, in our bodies, learned through motions and repetition. The artist can achieve astounding facility in drawing by nurturing a muscular memory that is not consciously directed by thought. And so, it is not enough to draw; one must redraw. There is no brilliance in fluking a great image, or in transferring a lucky design and colouring the shapes. Repetition cements what we have seen, both in our minds and in our hands. We do well to draw again with greater understanding, greater confidence, a better feel for the image. Through repetition we fuse part of the physicality of an image into our bodies, we store it in the movement of our arms and wrists.

Tiny hands1

I have started to think of my learning in terms of developing multiple selves, concurrently. This might be as crazy and complicated as it sounds. But it becomes more and more evident that progress in drawing and painting is not strictly linear. Drawing, for example, is not simply the precursor to painting, though solid draughtsmanship is unendingly helpful in painting. For even once we apply our drawing skills to painting, we can continue to improve our drawing. I imagine three selves with three fundamentally different approaches, each supporting and reinforcing the other.

Tiny hands3

The first self is very literal and rooted in the physical world. She first comes at drawing and painting by observation, and makes great progress with the model or the still life before her. She comes to know what to look for and how to notate it. The external world offers her an abundance of information, stimulus, truths and complexities. Rubens himself was one such dedicated student (Clark, 1985: 133):

‘Rubens copied everything which could conceivably add to his already overflowing resources. For the nude his models were, of course, the Antique, Michelangelo and Marcantonio. Titian he copied for his colour, but altered his form… he drew from the Antique and copied from his predecessors till certain ideals of formal completeness were absolutely fixed in his mind.’

If we neglect this observational self, our visual store is weak and our vocabulary shamefully sparse. All the clever ideas in the world will not make up for our appalling inability to express them visually. Yet the element of memory remains crucial. Ideally, we are not only repeating what we see, but repeating it in order to remember it, so that later we can work from our vast store without needing a model, a chair, a light-source before us. Delacroix (p. 208-9) insists, ‘The only painters who really benefit by consulting a model are those who can produce their effect without one.’

Copy after Titian, Girl in a fur

Copy after Titian, Girl in a fur

The second self turns away from the physical world and creates her own, from memory. She is the test of how much we have really internalised. And yet, frustratingly, she starts out almost as frail and helpless as the first did. She draws infuriatingly badly, makes stupid mistakes, forgets seemingly obvious bits of anatomy, and generally lags painfully behind. For this reason it can be easier to smugly rely on our observational self to keep producing lovely pictures. But without abandoning our observational habits, we can also begin to nurture this little self and watch her drawings improve and find to our utter delight that she only strengthens our memory.

Tiny hands4

A wonderfully modest yet accomplished Berlin painter who demonstrates how powerful such training can be is Ruprecht von Kaufmann. There is a lovely video of a talk he gives to some American students, during which he is repeatedly asked about his ability to paint from memory. They incredulously inquire after his reference material, bewildered at a convincing and detailed chair. ‘Oh yeah,’ von Kaufmann explains off-handedly, ‘the couch is really a rip-off, because one of my most favourite artists is Lucien Freud and he has leather couches like that often in his paintings, so … I sort of looked at how he did it and then translated it into my own way of painting.’

Copy after Raphael

Copy after Raphael

The observational self thus never leaves us; never dissolves or transforms into the imaginative self. Rather, she continues to turn her eyes afresh on the physical world, unrelentingly fascinated. And having trained her memory so well, she might not even need a pencil to own new observations, as von Kaufmann further explains:

‘When I see things that I know that interest me and that I want to use in a painting, I look at them very consciously, trying to break them down into the most simple thing that would allow me to memorise how to put that into a painting and how to represent that.’

And not only can we learn to recreate observations from memory, but, as in the case of Rubens, our observations can be ordered by our imaginative intentions, as Clark (1985: 133) describes. ‘The more we study [Rubens’ nudes] the more we discover them to be under control.’ Once the aforementioned ‘ideals of formal completeness were absolutely fixed in his mind,’ when he approached nature he ‘instinctively subordinated the observed facts to the patterns established in his imagination’ (1985: 133).

Tiny hands2

And far off in the distance I begin to detect a future self who, supported by her sisters and their razor-sharp memory, no longer needs to prepare with repetition, with fully-resolved studies either from life or from imagination. This self will have such a fount of sure and reliable knowledge, such a fluency with weaving her visual vocabulary into intelligent images, that she will be able to work directly onto the canvas. Her ideas will be well-formed enough in her head, and the movements of her wrist so well tuned to her thoughts that she will be bold enough to investigate in the final medium. And though I’ve no doubt she will struggle as the first, and begin weakly and uncertainly, she will grow in power as she trains her ability to imagine and realise a work.

My most pressing challenge on the way to painterly enlightenment is thus to develop my memory in terms of these differently-focused selves. My recent projects have involved a great deal of memory-exertion, and I will share these with you soon. To be a fully-abled painter of the calibre of Michelangelo depends on ‘a confluence of mental activities, calculation, idealisation, scientific knowledge and sheer ocular precision’ (Clark 1985: 57-8). The burden, then, is on us to look, to really see, and to remember.

Copy after Franz Hals, Catharina Hooft, Berlin

Copy after Franz Hals, Catharina Hooft, Berlin

 

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

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

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Die Gestalt des Menschen

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

In Vienna, a little romance has blossomed between me and sculpture. It’s hard to say how this happened; it unfolded slowly, and now I am irresistibly drawn to these three-dimensional creatures that transform before my eyes as I circle them. So rich in possibilities! So imaginative in design! Endless drawings grasp after these bronze, marble and terracotta constructions, with each viewpoint a new vision, a new insight.

In one of his more lighthearted moments, Kafka, too, relished the magic of sculpture. Of a trip to the Louvre he writes in his diaries (p. 459-60):

‘Even when you walked around the Venus de Milo as slowly as possible, there was a rapid and surprising alteration in its appearance. … I should need a plastic reproduction to remember them, especially one about the way the bended left knee affected her appearance from every side, though sometimes only very slightly. …

The front view of the Borghese Wrestler isn’t the best one, for it makes the spectator recoil and presents a disjointed appearance. Seen from the rear, however, where for the first time you see his foot touching the ground, your eye is drawn in delight along the rigid leg and flies safely over the irresistible back to the arm and sword raised towards the front.’

The sculptor must be a mannerist, for in sculpture the figure stands alone, no background to compositionally support it. Perhaps a lute or some drapery bend space in the desired way, but these too mustn’t stray too far from the figure, and must be supported somehow. This is the human form at its most expressive! Extended arms in theatrical gestures; cocked hips and crunched abdomens; exaggerated sweeps of legs and improbable stacks of pelvises and rib cages supported by ruthless gravity but given wings by imagination.

Kenneth Clark (p. 357) surprisingly suggests that ‘to use the body as a means of expressing the anguish of the human soul is no longer a possible enterprise.’ He concludes his book The Romantic Rebellion with a chapter on Rodin, whose Eve I have been fawning over in the Upper Belvedere, seeming to situate Rodin at the end of an era in the expressive relevance of the human form. Perhaps he is historically correct in this; as Kandel (p. 215) argues, the emergence of modernism was signalled by the advent of ‘two broad, sometimes overlapping types of experiments, both designed to enlarge the viewer’s experience in ways that photography could not’: specifically, one loose camp of artists proceeded to dissect the physicality of painting, toying with perspective and form and such representational tools to produce something visually challenging. The second broad camp of artists used all available tools to explore the psyche, and the visual representation of emotions. Historically, then, there seems, in the wake of Rodin, no place for the realistic representation of the human figure when abstraction, symbolism and expressive distortions have picked up where he left off.

However, Clark (p. 357) offers an insightful reason for the impossibility of continuing Rodin’s powerful tradition: ‘We do not know how to represent the body and do not believe in the existence of the soul.’ The first contention seems fair, yet surmountable. It’s certainly more difficult now to learn solid draughtsmanship, and to be guided on points of form and anatomy, but schools exist, and individuals persevere. The second point is more difficult to dodge, and seems to resonate with Nietzsche’s fearless observation of the beliefs of his fellow human beings that God is dead. We are crying out for a new metaphor, a new way to describe that restlessness within us, that feeling intellect, that thoughtful sentience. We are wed to this earth by our bodies of dirt, held fast by gravity. But we feel more than mere pain and pleasure, and are propelled by more than instinct.

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Copy after Rodin, Eve, Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Rodin’s Eve clings to the old metaphor but in a way unlike any other I’ve seen: her belly beginning to bulge, she clutches herself in shame and misery at the wounded world she is to birth. She shields her head, hung low and dark, with a hastily-sculpted hand, shying from the blame she is to wear for all of womankind for her curious and defiant actions. Not a seductive temptress proffering jewel-like fruit to her unsuspecting and guileless male companion, not a sparkling goddess of fertility; Rodin’s Eve probes the devastation of the first act in the tragedy that is our western metaphor and reveals that metaphor for the failure that it is, and the failure that it has forced us to be from the beginning.

Egon Schiele, The Family, Belvedere Wien

Egon Schiele, The Family, Belvedere Wien

Rodin’s truth is ugly, but apt and timely. The man himself says (in Kandel, p. 103), ‘There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say that which offers no outer or inner truth.’ Rodin himself begins to turn inwards in a way that aligns with the Viennese expressionists, including Schiele and Kokoschka, who ‘produced work that boldly challenged the aesthetic focus on beauty and the association of beauty with truth’ (p. 102), and who themselves turned inwards. Interestingly, however, while their paintings distorted the human figure, they relied heavily on gestural symbolism within the figure, returning again and again to the expressiveness of human hands, as well as playing with the meanings implied by awkward angularities and physical relations between figures. I return again and again to Schiele’s The Family in the Belvedere, where Schiele, ape-like, drapes his protective but awkward arms around his wife Edith, who sits serenely between his legs, where she received the fruit of his loins, and her own legs are parted, knees raised high, to introduce their inquisitive child into the world from between her own fruitful thighs. There is a vulgarity in this, but a beautiful honesty relevant to the age. And it is not thoroughly severed from the knowledgeable representation of the human form (Schiele’s anatomical knowledge is always prominent), though it distorts and in some ways caricatures.

Schiele, then, provides an apt example for Nelson’s (p. 179) admonition ‘that we acquire no more technical sophistication than we need,’ or, rather, that we make use of it no more than we need. In this sense, academicism in our drawing is only relevant insofar as we need it to achieve our ends. ‘The purpose is always the nub of the discussion’ he continues; ‘and a focus on technique without a corresponding dedication to the purposes which it might serve strikes me as idle.’ Nelson is right to emphasise the motivation for our learning, though it is difficult to see how a thorough education could be ‘idle’ in any sense. Setting our goals and aiming no higher precludes what we might have gone on to achieve if we’d only allowed ourselves the resources. It seems far less limiting to me to learn all you can, and watch your own purpose emerge out of your unfettered abilities.

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

And as Scott Breton argues, these age-old skills do not confine the artist to endless similitude: ‘Drawing the figure in the classical sense, is not copying.’ Rather than agreeing on a standardised visual notation, artists with such training are each attempting to use the most convincing tools at their disposal to fulfil their individual visions: ‘It is an attempt at integration, a kind of improvisation and simplification in real time, that brings together gesture and body language, anatomy, design, form and character. … From beginning to end, good painting is a process of creative integration of elements such that the alchemy of their mixture makes the gold the artist was grasping for: the gestalt, the intangible story.’

Kandel (p. 103) notes that art, throughout history, has appealed to the same emotions in people, and yet we are never satiated, we continue to be enthralled by art. New art finds new ways to ignite old passions in us, and we don’t feel deceived by this, but rather seek it out. Riegel (in Kandel, p. 104) suggests that it is the task of the artist to teach people to look afresh, to find the truths—age old or relevant to our own age—for themselves.

The figure remains as prominent in art—fine art, commercial art; digital art, photography, painting, sculpture—as ever. The body speaks to us in profound ways, through facial expression and body language, through idealisation and imperfection, through age and gender. Let us hold fast to the expressive figure and our ability to represent it, but let us forge new metaphors and search out new truths. God is dead; man is not.

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloss Schönbrunn, Wien

Clark, Kenneth. 1973. The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus classic art. John Murray: London.

Kafka, Franz. 2009 [1959]. Diaries of Franz Kafka. Schocken.

Kandel, Eric R. 2012. The age of insight: The quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain, from Vienna 1900 to the present. Random House: New York.

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

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The analytical romantic

Copy after Bernardo Strozzi, The widow of Sarpeta with the prophet Elias

Copy after Bernardo Strozzi, The widow of Sarpeta with the prophet Elias

I’m suspicious of dichotomies of the likes of Romanticism(s) versus Classicism, and I’ve no intention of defending such categories here, though I’ve been reading much literature on the topic. Where the definitions of Romanticism and Classicism are themselves individually contested, and individual artists are argued to fall under both titles, it seems difficult to gain anything of substance from the division. At best, I can see that broadly, some artists strove for a universalisable, eternal method in art, ‘so simple that their universality could be deemed self-evident,’ (Barzun, p. 24). Other artists broadly reacted against this, often responding to the multiplicity in nature. What follows assumes this very simplistic definition.

Bricked-up door, Bratislava

Bricked-up door, Bratislava

In fact, I want to argue against the hard division, which seems to do more intellectual damage than good. As an artist and art lover, it has always been the so-called ‘romantic’ art—sublime hillsides and vast skies of Caspar David Friedrich, emotive colour and heady composition—that has won my deepest affection. As a philosopher and thinker, reason and analysis must underpin everything. It seems to me that the two need not exclude each other, as is so often simplistically asserted. Profound emotional experiences can direct our systematic thoughts; just as our bodies ache and thrill as guides for our minds, our emotions and passions give our intellect cues. To reject such indicators as invalid is an unhealthy denial of the self; to fail to probe them with the mind is short-sighted and disengaged. We are sensuous creatures, dependent on our senses for basic functions and reliant on them for information; art takes this sensory experience to a higher plane that gives our minds a way in to thoughts of a very different quality.

Bricked-up window, Bratislava

Bricked-up window, Bratislava

It troubles me, then, to read the praises of thoughtless naïveté, passions disconnected from thought, as though thought might actually ruin the sensation rather than amplify it through intention and understanding. Babbit (p. 15) refers to the naiveté of Romantic artists whose ‘spontaneity and unity of feeling had not yet suffered from artificiality, or been disintegrated by analysis.’ Surely only shallow feelings dissolve at the airy touch of thought? Surely it is one-off performances that prove false when gazed at squarely? The fleetingness and transience ascribed to Romantic art attempts to paint it as a wholly ungrounded discipline, mere lucky snatches at inspired impulses, never to be explained, understood, or repeated. Clark (p. 263) worryingly calls such miraculous occurrences, ‘like all romantic arts, … a triumph of the irrational.’

Van Gogh windows, Bratislava

Van Gogh windows, Bratislava

The very accidental nature of such performances makes me question their value. Is the lucky slug of a beach-cricketer who hits it for a six more inspired than the precision of technique of a skilled batsman? Is the feeling of surprise-based elation in that moment more meaningful than the pay-off of solid hard work? And, further, is the magic of the flight of the ball destroyed by a scientific understanding of trajectories and friction? The scientist would vehemently argue that understanding makes the observation more profound. Perhaps the art-viewer would be more moved by having an intellectual grasp as well as an emotive connection to a work of art. And perhaps the artist herself is more invested in and expressive in a work of art in which she has demonstrated some intentionality rather than working mindlessly, purely physically.

Plumbing windows, Bratislava

Plumbing windows, Bratislava

Barzun (p. 26) argues contrary to Clark: ‘It is a fact beyond dispute that the romantic artists worked like scientific researchers. Their notebooks,’ he continues, ‘their critical writings, their letters and treatises on composition are there to testify that technique was to them as important as subject matter.’ Should Turner be offered as a fine specimen of romantic artist, I would question the free, unthinking irrationality attributed to him by the likes of Clark (p. 255; 259), who in the same breath describes Turner’s long-term project of understanding colour as both ‘an unthinking response to sensuous delight’ and a ‘determined effort to master the theory of colour.’ The continuity in Turner’s approach to colour exhibits a methodical application rather than a mindless splattering of paint. If anything, his ‘response to sensuous delight’ is all the more apparent because he has thought through his sensations, and how one might represent them, rather than leaving it to chance. Analysis of the tracts of Italy before his eyes allowed him to produce the colours that he did, just as such analysis by the viewer deepens the experience of viewing these paintings. Nice colours stimulate three-year-olds. Meaningful colours speak volumes to those who have felt the languid Italian sunshine warm their skin and watched it melt into the hills before them.

Colourful windows, Bratislava

Colourful windows, Bratislava

In Barzun’s (p. 26) words, ‘Romantic art, then, is not “romantic” in the vulgar sense, but “realistic” in the sense  of concrete, full of particulars, and thus congenial to the inquiring spirit of history and science.’ Barzun finds thought—philosophy, if you will—the bridge between art and science. An artist, moved by sensations, grounded in the physical world, may apply his analytical mind to very real, chemical and spatial problems and produce, wholly intentionally, a representation that moves the viewer through her sensations. The onus is on the artist once more to do the hard work, rather than the viewer to interpret the obscure accompanying statement. Barzun (p. 27) praises the energy of the Romantic painters, stating that ‘energy was not merely a cult but a fact. … All this means work if it means nothing else.’ And the analytical romantic, compelled to inquiry by the profundity of her physical sensations and the emotional responses they inspire, is not afraid of such work, and not so far removed from the intellectual impulses of the classicist.

Random windows, Bratislava

Random windows, Bratislava

Barzun, Jacques. 1965 [1961] ‘Intrinsic and historic romanticism,’ in Romanticism: Definition, explanation and evaluation. Ed. John B Halsted. D. C. Heath: Lextington, Massachusetts.

Clark, Kenneth. 1973. The Romantic Rebellion: Romantic versus classic art. John Murray: London.

Babbitt, Irving. 1965 [1919]. ‘The qualities of Rousseauism,’ in Romanticism: Definition, explanation and evaluation. Ed. John B Halsted. D. C. Heath: Lextington, Massachusetts.

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