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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Heightened vitality

Museumsinsel, Berlin

Museumsinsel, Berlin

I was so smiled upon by fortune that I lived, for the month of November, in Berlin, with someone very dear to me. Our life was a flurry of activity, of love and painting, chilled grey days and toasty croissant breakfasts, U-Bahn trips populated by the most curious characters, endless halls of incredible paintings, evenings of Aktzeichnen and steaming blueberry wine and hot cherry beer out of terracotta mugs. We were quickly absorbed into this energetic city.

Liebe

We gladly sought out labyrinthine artist studio complexes during open studio and exhibition evenings. These were odd experiences, as I generally found myself at a loss when trying to speak with other artists. While physicists might be expected to find some common language with other physicists, artists seem to lack much overlap in either practice or ideas: each is trying to do something in an entirely unconventional way, and each is an artist and -. An artist and a faux-physicist. An artist and a nutritionist. An artist and a geographer. Being an artist who works with paint, not with stale cheese, torn up posters, or contour maps, and lacking a sound understanding of quantum physics (though I suspect, so too was my new artist acquaintance), I was able to have neither intellectual nor practice-based conversation with my apparent colleagues. We are a confused constellation of makers with no true common field. ‘Art’ truly has no meaning; it is not a discipline.

Milchhof, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Milchhof, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The ever-thoughtful Gombrich (1972: 4) once wrote, ‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’ And a similar impulse drives me to investigate just what makes one an artist, for perhaps by coming at it this way we can better appreciate what good art consists in. Since in these volatile times anything may be branded art, it becomes harder and harder to engage with art, much less appreciate it or gain anything by it. I want to contend that artists need to take a long, hard look at what their job is. My own intuition is that the artist is not an activist, contrary to common opinion. Yet I am certain that artists could strip back all the pseudo-philosophy, tenuous threads with string-theory and shameless narcissism and establish just what makes art a distinct discipline rather than an embarrassing parasite in the bowels of society. I would like to propose a place to start.

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Distinct from musicians, distinct from writers, visual artists are presumably offering something visual to the world. Before we can produce something to be gazed upon, we must ourselves partake in a vast amount of looking. We live in a highly literate society, yet nonetheless one that increasingly relies on visual cues and shortcuts. The artist, in my view, is a person with a distinct ability with the visual: they notice sights that slip under the very noses of those who have important reports to contend with or a head constantly interpreting the world through calculations. Rather than being inward-looking, the artist turns her eyes upon the physical world, appreciating fortuitous arrangements of shape, of space, of colour. Appreciating individuality in appearance, noting cloud formations, watching shadows fade and flicker. Being amazed by the contrast in hue from one plane of a building to another; being absorbed in the mood a hushed evening light casts over a park. Artists are physical creatures, living thoroughly in their bodies, alive to every spark of sensation. This somewhat eccentric revelling in the sheer delight of having a body, of physically intersecting with the world, is what gives artists insights that others often miss. The same sensations are available to all of us, but some of us need more help to notice them. This is where the attentive artist finds herself needed.

Fernsehturm, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Fernsehturm, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The artist is, as John Dewey would phrase it, grounded in experience. The artist’s engagement with the world is not, he argues, qualitatively different from that of the scientist’s; rather, ‘the difference between the esthetic and the intellectual is … one of the place where emphasis falls in the constant rhythm that marks the interaction of the live creature with his surroundings’ (1934: 15). Dewey considers the artistic and scientific modes of thought to differ merely in tempo: the scientist does not have a monopoly on thought, and the artist does not hold exclusive rights to meaning and elusive poetic insights. ‘The artist has his problems and thinks as he works. But his thought is more immediately embodied in the object. Because of the comparative remoteness of his end, the scientific worker operates with symbols, words and mathematical signs’ (1934: 16).

kunstlerbedarf

Rainbow of thoughts

 

Not only are artists equipped with a particular penchant for observation, for a certain ability to be drenched in the present, but their very thoughts are often visual rather than linguistic or even symbolic. The language of an artist is composed of forms, colours, volumes, shapes, tones, textures. The language itself is very physical, can be moulded with one’s hands in a way that other languages cannot. ‘The artist,’ as Dewey (1934: 16) describes it, ‘does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in.’

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

The significance of the physicality of art, of its grounding in perception and experience, is extremely non-trivial. This is an understanding that undermines much contemporary art and its preoccupation with self-expression, shameless self-adoration and cults of personality. For the ‘heightened vitality’ of experience is anything but autobiographical: ‘Instead of signifying being shut up within one’s own private feelings and sensations, [experience] signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events’ (1934: 19).

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

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

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

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Keine Grenzen

Heather © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on linen

Heather © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on linen

For two months I’ve adopted Scotland, once more, as my home, learning the rugged streets of Glasgow, adopting the frank and fearless tongue of the Scots. Having studied at the University of Edinburgh several years ago I feel intellectually cocooned by this place, a small weave in the strong intellectual fabric of this proud nation, whose independence I near witnessed. The Scottish intellectual heritage is a formidable one, and I’ve lately been enthralled by some research into the specifically Scottish flavour of much Enlightenment thinking and, just as importantly, action.

Aye ready

I’ve been reading of the vibrant, open and liberal mental environment of Scotland in the eighteenth century in Alexander Broadie’s neat little history The Scottish Enlightenment. Certain fortuitous developments, argues Broadie, made Scotland fertile intellectual ground in the wake of the darker middle ages. One was certainly that Scottish thinkers had the impertinence to question things and to think for themselves rather than bowing to authorities like state and church (or Kirk). This mental independence exhibits something of a disrespect for authority. But such openness went both ways, with these authorities in turn being open-minded and tolerant enough to permit such boldness. ‘Intellectual progress appears not to be possible except in an intellectual climate in which people are not overly respectful of authorities,’ Broadie (2001: 18) suggests. Wilful Scotland, impassioned and staunchly maintaining an identity apart from England, has this quality in spades.

Irreverent

Importantly, this independent thought was not the response of individuals working in isolation in reaction to established authorities and entrenched modes of thought. Broadie (2001: 78) lays great stress on the ‘communal thinking, thinking with and through others’ of the ‘social phenomenon’ of the Enlightenment. I’m reminded of the reported lively exchange of the Viennese Salons much later, the merging of scientific and artistic minds, the concurrent burgeoning ideas of psychology. In the salons of Vienna, as in the clubs of Scotland, significant developments in philosophy, science, art and politics were birthed through the sweet communion of minds—minds very different, perhaps, in their private obsessions, but formed of the same stuff, the same inquisitiveness and drive. The Scottish Dugald Stewart (in Broadie, 2001: 110) noted that ‘In many cases … the sciences reflect light on each other; and the general acquisitions which we have made in other pursuits, may furnish us with useful helps for the farther prosecution of our own.’ And in the many and vibrantly diverse ‘Enlightenment clubs and societies,’ Broadie informs us, ‘men of disparate and wide-ranging accomplishment set off intellectual sparks in each other, and exemplified the Enlightenment ideal that people should think for themselves but not by themselves.’

Glasgow

Freed from the shackles of dogmatic thinking, and drawn to each other for the flint of inspiration, Enlightenment thinkers came together in ‘an international Republic of Letters,’ a written exchange of ideas that transcended borders and nationalities in a true cosmopolitan spirit (Broadie, 2001: 78). And as I shift from city to city, exchanging ideas with my compatriots of all nationalities, absorbing new sensations and nesting in new pockets of this vast earth, if only for a week, a month, or two, borders dissolve and I feel myself a citizen of a broader nation. I proudly state with David Hume, ‘I am a Citizen of the World’ (in Broadie, 2001: 95). And are our minds not freer than flesh? Our ideas travel even to places we may not, and we must send them there, and welcome back the responses.

River Kelvin

As I’ve seen some universities grow perplexingly protective of their knowledge, closing their libraries and seminars to outsiders, I’ve seen others welcome me, if curious of my presence; I’ve seen discontented academics ponder the possibility of alternative free academic journals, investigate open access publishingargue for legislators to back public access to research and freely publish their ideas on hugely popular blogs, impatient of the increasingly outmoded notions of copyright and intellectual property. Our scientist colleagues are working openly, collaboratively, discussing their ideas even before publishing, giving us a clear indication that they chase real intellectual progress above success as it is traditionally measured. The international Republic of Letters is revived in this renewed ‘general acknowledgement of our right to put our ideas into the public domain’ (Broadie, 2001: 78).

Golden

So let us seize this task as our right! Let us not feel bordered by our institutions or lack thereof, our fields, or our passports. The world might be tightening its border security, shunting hopeful Australians between the Continent and the British Isles and back again, undermining the stability of our physical existences. Despite our European heritage we are denied the freer movement of the generation or two before us, despite our British head of state we are denied permission to live and work on the civilised side of the world. Despite the significant contributions of our Australian forebears—artists permitted the luxury of extended life and education in Paris, London, Florence—we are expected to lick the crumbs of three-month stints and produce impressive bodies of work on a strict time limit.

Autumn

Nonetheless, our physical circumstances need not dictate our intellectual contribution. Our citizenship in the borderless intellectual republic depends solely on our ‘active participation in discussions and debates conducted in the public arena’ (Broadie, 2001: 95). Adam Ferguson, another celebrated Scottish thinker, urged ordinary citizens to lead an active life, equating a passive existence with being forcefully restrained. Ferguson (in Broadie, 2001: 89) offers a warning somewhat prophetic of present-day Australia, arguing that the smothering of all action in an effort to stamp out undesirable action stifles a nation’s brilliance:

…if a rigorous policy, applied to enslave, not to restrain from crimes, has an actual tendency to corrupt the manners, and to extinguish the spirit of nations; if its severities be applied to terminate the agitations of a free people, not to remedy their corruptions; if forms be often applauded as salutary, because they tend merely to silence the voice of mankind, or be condemned as pernicious, because they allow this voice to be heard; we may expect that many of the boasted improvements of civil society, will be mere devices to lay the political spirit at rest, and will chain up the active virtues more than the restless disorders of men.

And might not this fearful outlook extend to our modern preoccupation with borders, our growing and blinding nationalism? If we are made criminals for seeking to move amongst our intellectual compatriots, for attempting to settle in an existing society that is culturally rich and not an isolated backwater, might not many important achievements be denied our generation? Are we not destroying the intellectual climate necessary for progress other than the commercial?

Highlands

Our ideas might be unsettling and our movements unpredictable, but this very irreverence for the established modes of thought and action is, if eighteenth-century Scotland demonstrates anything, key to dramatic intellectual progress. Such golden ages exploded into being where ‘geniuses and … other immensely creative people … were living in each other’s intellectual pockets (as well, often, as in each other’s houses)’ (Broadie, 2001: 219). And yet our borderless minds need not threaten cultural identities or national stability, for rather than being thought strictly anti-nationalist, we might perhaps more aptly be considered post-nationalist, something broader and more humanist that encompasses but moves beyond our homelands. As Hume was both a rightfully proud Scot and gladly a citizen of the world, our arbitrary home soil can only ‘be strengthened morally by the presence in it of citizens who attach a high value to rationality and civil liberty’ (Broadie, 2001: 96).

Leaf crunching

 

Broadie, Alexander. 2001. The Scottish Enlightenment. Birlinn: Edinburgh.

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Of respect and respectability

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

I lately find myself floating untethered across Europe, of unfixed address and relying on the kindness of friends. Determined to do away with distractions, excess possessions, and non-painting-related ambitions, my faithful and scuffed old suitcase and I have somewhat conspicuously fallen off the path of respectability.

wish

Making big wishes, Vienna

Wafting from city to city, from house to house, welcomed warmly into the homes of friends, I’m permitted into the private spheres of young doctors, paramedics, physicists, engineers and environmental charity workers, and granted a sobering insight into the contrasts in our chosen careers. But I’m also freshly awoken to how difficult it is for each of us to forge our way. My friends are well-travelled, well-educated, some are employed, some have suspended employment for the sake of a relationship, some have worked offshore, some are physically overworked, others are mentally under-challenged, some need to secure funding to guarantee their own ongoing employment. Those of us with money are not necessarily respected, because their jobs are too physical or not demanding enough of their time. Those of us who are working for the betterment of the world are anxious at not contributing enough. And I, as capable as they, cling resolutely to my cause in the face of my meagre earning-power.

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This unsettling confrontation with earning ability has been somewhat tempered by some thoughts from philosopher Alain de Botton. I found his book Status anxiety on a bookshelf in a new home and read it hungrily and hopefully. For at heart, we all want to occupy ourselves with something which challenges and satisfies us, and we want others to respect us for our efforts. But are our equations, prescriptions, policies and drawings enough when the measure held against our work is money? De Botton lays out an historical account of our attitude to wealth that can at least reassure the financially-challenged that they are not necessarily worthless. He describes the complete historical about-face of our estimation of wealth, and, most strikingly, its connection with virtue.

Poverty wasn’t always such a psychological burden to bear, argues de Botton (2004: 67-68), particularly in a world where one was born either into nobility or peasantry according to God’s will. One’s moral worth could not be wrapped up in one’s social standing if that immutable standing was allotted by God. Poverty might bring physical discomforts, but not shame. And since the aristocracy acknowledged that their luxuries were only made possible through the untiring efforts of the lower classes, it was only fitting that they demonstrated charity and pity toward these unfortunates. A delicate balance of interdependency between rich and poor reinforced the idea that virtue and moral worth were not reflected in wealth (2004: 70).

But in about the middle of the eighteenth century, argues de Botton (2004: 75-76), some hopeful meritocratic ideas began to take root and to dismantle these beliefs and thus to erode our collective appraisal of poverty. And, more sinisterly, supply and demand were switched. Rather than considering the role of the poor a necessary evil, fatefully bestowed, their position came to be described as dependent on the whims of the rich. Without demand, their labour would be for naught. Thinkers as forceful as David Hume and Adam Smith helped to redefine who depended on whom (2004: 76-78):

Hume loving, Edinburgh

Hume loving, Edinburgh

‘In a nation where there is no demand for superfluities, men sink into indolence, lose all enjoyment of life, and are useless to the public, which cannot maintain or support its fleets and armies.’ (David Hume, 1752).

Portrait gallery

National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

‘In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own convenience, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, the rich divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.’ (Adam Smith, 1776).

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Charity became a burden; the poor became a nuisance (2004: 78). Coupled with progressive ideas that every individual ought to be rewarded according to his or her abilities and achievements, the modern attitude to poverty is one of disdain. For the flipside of meritocracy is that those who do not excel deserve the hardships and stigma that they have thus earned. It seems a regrettable but inevitable price to pay. Since one ought to be able to improve one’s position, failure to do so has come to imply moral failure in a way it did not in the past (2004: 87). De Botton (p. 85) explains, ‘An increasing faith in a reliable connection between merit and worldly position in turn endowed money with a new moral quality.’ And, worse: ‘To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame’ (2004: 91).

De Botton goes on to explore antidotes to this new state of affairs, a string of themes that reads like my biography: Christianity, Politics, Philosophy, Art and Bohemia. Perhaps my attraction to these things has lessened my own regard for money and for the esteem that comes hand in hand with it. At heart, his message is to seek value elsewhere; define worth on your own terms, as many have before. Build, adopt or steal an unshakable moral code so that in dark times you can measure your life and your own worth against this and not money; so that you can respect yourself and stay focused on your life’s work. Perhaps that confidence and determination is enough win the respect of those who doubt you.

Love Newcastle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

De Botton, Alain. 2004. Status anxiety. Hamish Hamilton: London.

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Peace and love, and capitalism

Life drawing

I’ve had some acquaintance with the Vienna Academy of Visionary Art through their open life drawing sessions twice a week during term, so I was happy to hop along to their end of year show and celebrate the conclusion of their first year with them. The Academy’s teaching faculty come from all over the world, even as far as Melbourne, and many of them were taught in turn by the Viennese Ernst Fuchs, whom they all hold in very high esteem. The small cohort of seven students are all from the US and Canada.

The school itself, on a workday, is light and airy, rocking new age beats, and generally exuding a peaceful calm. Shoes are often shed, and herbal teas steam alongside palettes. Each painting station is beside a window, a bright little hub without a place for a still life, because the students here admirably work from imagination. There is a strong emphasis on traditional techniques, and many works are done in the so-called ‘Mischtechnik,’ layering oil, egg tempera and varnishes. Paintings are built up from raw umber underpaintings through a series of glazes, and in the life drawing session students are encouraged to work into mid-toned paper with a dark and a white chalk or pencil preparation for such painting.

Life drawing

Principal instructor Laurence Caruana’s speech on the opening night expressed despondency with the commercialism that has crept into and strangled art over the last four centuries. The vision of this Academy is to salvage some human dignity in art, and it seeks to do this through (in Laurence’s words) ‘a return to the sacred in art.’ What this might mean in a modern, largely secular world is perhaps contestable, but a heavy dose of mysticism certainly comes as part of the package. And indiscriminately so: Paleolithic, Neolithic, and tribal goddesses are explored as part of the curriculum, as is Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Minoan art, barging right on through Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. And I’ve perused but one of Laurence’s books sitting by the altar in the teaching room, a novel based on his investigations into the Gnostic Christ.

Now, I know very little about mysticism other than garden-variety Christianity, but it seems you are welcome here to choose your poison, or concoct your own special blend. This desperate grasping after something, anything, spiritual feels strangely backward-looking, a denial of our collective growth and expanding and ever-refined knowledge over the last few centuries. I can’t help but think that a modern ‘sacred’ art ought to shed its gods and evolve into a humanist art, perhaps aligned with philosophy and science. Fractals, anyone? Conformal symmetry is pretty mind-blowing!

Life drawing

I have had some good conversations with students at the Academy about such things as symmetry and composition. When I questioned them about their penchant for symmetry, I was told that it is a calming, grounding compositional strategy: the balance in the image quiets the viewer to a state of steadiness, giving them a clear focal point from which to furtively explore other parts of the canvas. I’m reminded of the strength and simplicity of a radial composition, which may be built of quite complex elements, and wonder if this hypnotic simplification isn’t aiming too low. Then again, perhaps our collective visual literacy is so deplorable that we really do need such obvious cues to find our way around a still image.

Objects from the altar may be used for still lives, which seems to emphasise this somewhat Mischtechnik-mysticism over technical clarity—I try to fathom learning properties of light with the aid of pinecones and crystals instead of the humble spheres and eggs I drew repeatedly until I understood. Students of the Visionary Academy are certainly not in danger of lapsing into lustreless careers as painters of technically proficient but dull still lives and studio nudes, or forgetting that they are learning skills in order to produce art. At every step of the learning process, the Visionary student bears in mind their mystical vision—even the life drawing poses are modelled on famous mystically-oriented paintings or incorporate mythic weaponry props. The ambitiousness of this undertaking shows: the students all exhibited their major piece for the term as ‘works in progress.’ To some extent, I think it is admirable that they keep their vision ever at the forefront, but it also seems to obscure some valuable learning opportunities. I am deeply saddened at the way students are left to languish in the life class, critiqued and yet unassisted by their teacher, until they plead illness and head out in search of herbal teas. And when there is so much to be learned from the figure!

Life drawing

Perhaps most sadly of all, this spiritual quest does not seem to wrench art back from the clutches of Mammon. For unlike shows at large private galleries such as Philip Bacon in Brisbane, where money flows in the tens of thousands and the fine champagne flows just as freely—the lubricant of capital—but no one ever talks about the digits, one topic overshadowed all others on the Visionary Academy’s opening night: money. A student gave a public plea (not her first) in the opening speeches that left me squeamish, drawing our attention to all the money-giving opportunities available that night: that many paintings were for sale, that her own work was especially for sale in a silent auction format, that many small works were available at a ‘pay what you want’ table. After the formalities, we slipped to the bar for a little refreshment and were charged more than we would be at a restaurant per glass, a policy I’d never yet seen in place at an art show. Now that the term is over, the Academy is doggedly cross-posting in all the Vienna life drawing groups, trying to rent out studio space and accommodation over the summer. And all the while, it’s hard to silence that little thought at the back of one’s mind that a year at this Academy will set you back a not-so-trivial €9900. Peace and love, and capitalism, brothers and sisters. It’s the modern world, whatever mysticism you drape it in.

visionad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The graduate exhibition runs until June 28th 2014 at the Palais Palffy on Josefsplatz, Wien.

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Intent

© Samantha Groenestyn

(Preparatory thumbnail drawing for current painting) © Samantha Groenestyn

While people readily brand drawings and paintings that look like something (representational, rather than purely abstract, art) as ‘realistic’ or ‘classical’, or, god forbid, ‘photographic,’ a word I seldom hear is ‘naturalistic.’ Where ‘realistic’ makes an appeal to the convincing appearance of things, ‘classical’ seems more a turning away from progressive and modern ideas. ‘Photographic,’ the least inspiring, removes this art another step from reality and our physical experience of things and likens the art to a mechanical process of mortifying a slice of time. None of these sound appealing—to be literal, anachronistic, or technologically redundant.

Naturalism is historically associated with variations on realism, often in reaction against more lofty subject matter or aggrandised themes, and sometimes attempting to align itself with the objectivity of the natural sciences. To baldly generalise, naturalist art historically set out to represent the physical world accurately and convincingly, but the word seems to carry some useful nuances not regularly referred to anymore. There is no weight of reality, of an appeal to existential absolutes, of universal correctness. Reality is a philosophically contested concept, and to describe one’s painting by appealing to reality is a frighteningly bold claim, and most likely metaphysically extravagant. A much more sensible and intellectually guarded claim would be to simply say, ‘I paint as accurately as I can the external world as it appears to me through my senses.’ Whatever may or may not exist or turn out to be real or true or foundational, it seems perfectly reasonable to represent one’s experience of the world within the limits of one’s ability to perceive it. A word like ‘naturalistic’ seems to capture this idea, describing the natural process of photons hitting retinas as well as the image this process imprints on the brain.

Further, this seems an eternal project, as photons continue endlessly to pummel retinas, and people continue to experience the world through their senses and to depict that experience accurately. This isn’t something reserved for a particular time in history, when all the important a priori truths were hammered out and proved by means of classical logic by muscular toga-clad types, but it seems like an ongoing project in which people of all times validly express the experience of their intersection with the physical world at a particular place and time. ‘Looking, seeing and constructing are specific to each generation,’ argues Nelson (p. 25); ‘they are conditioned by factors proper to the times, by inventions in optics and mechanical reproduction, but especially by aesthetic and social expectations about what people want to see.’

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

Perhaps instead of describing our work with words that are rather ill thought out antonyms of whatever is currently the mainstay of art, we should begin with our own intentions. When I look at modern drawings that fall closer on the spectrum to what I do—drawings of people that look like people, of objects that look like objects—there is something undeniably of their time about them. These people look like they belong to our time. Rubens’ people do not look like people that walk the earth today. They take on a magical sort of quality, a dreamlike appearance quite disconnected from my natural experience of the world. Was Rubens not as good as, say, contemporary American draughtspeople? Did he not know as much anatomy, or capture the personality of his subjects?

It stands out quite starkly to me that Rubens had a wildly different intent to people currently exploring naturalistic image-making. In fact, ‘naturalistic’ is not nearly the right word to describe Rubens’ representation of the world. His work, while representational, is highly imaginative, as Delacroix (p. 207) ruminates in his journals:

‘Rubens is a remarkable illustration of the abuse of details. His painting, which is dominated by the imagination, is everywhere superabundant, the accessories are too much worked out. His pictures are like public meetings where everybody talks at once. And yet, if you compare this exuberant manner, not with the dryness and poverty of modern painting, but with really fine pictures where nature has been imitated with restraint and great accuracy, you feel at once that the true painter is one whose imagination speaks before everything else.’

The natural world is not irrelevant to Rubens, but it is not king. It does not bound his work, or dictate what it may be, or determine his success by how accurately he creates an illusion of it. The natural world is a point of departure, a point of reference, an inspiration and in many ways a language or a framework—his painted worlds aren’t so far removed that our minds cannot compute them, and for the most part laws of gravity are obeyed (except by flying babies) and light acts predictably and bodies do not contort more than we would expect they are able.

Delacroix (p. 209) argues that ‘the imitation of nature … is the starting point of every school.’ He likewise considers it a matter of intent: does one intend to ‘please the imagination’ or to ‘obey the demands of a strange kind of conscience’? Rubens is faithful to nature to a point, but he doesn’t simply diverge from nature. He begins, rather, with an ideal, and wraps nature around this ideal as he sees fit, fleshing it out with great flourishes and enthusiasm. This act of imagination can never be out-dated or a boring relic of the past. It is reinvented by every living artist who grapples with the human form and its relation to the physical world, and it is this imaginative vision that contributes something new and meaningful to the tide of work that came before her. I am convinced that even naturalism will not get us out of this dirty little bind we’ve found ourselves in, but that idealism is a far stronger starting point.

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

In many ways, what I paint is certainly not natural, for I adapt the feel of the light to my idea of the mood of the piece, I morph the colours into a harmony that suits my purposes. I arrange the objects in improbable and thoroughly contrived ways to achieve pleasing compositional effects. I am not concerned with ‘capturing reality’ or presenting a truth to you. In fact, I openly present lies to you, carefully woven lies to manipulate your thoughts and emotions. Even in an interior, I am striving for an ideal, I am recreating my world through my imagination, and trying to show you the most fascinating bits of it.

And more—thinking this way changes the way that I draw, for my drawing ceases to be a task in accuracy, with nature as my assessor. Drawing becomes a powerful medium for new thoughts and new expressions; rather than functioning as a rather utilitarian exploratory tool it moves into the realm of visual poetry.

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

The ever-eloquent Delacroix (p. 208-9) says it so clearly:

‘The only painters who really benefit by consulting a model are those who can produce their effect without one. …

It is therefore far more important for an artist to come near to the ideal which he carries in his mind, and which is characteristic of him, than to be content with recording, however strongly, any transitory ideal that nature may offer—and she does offer such aspects; but once again, it is only certain men who see them and not the average man, which is proof that the beautiful is created by the artist’s imagination precisely because he follows the bent of his own genius. …

If therefore you can introduce into a composition of this kind a passage that has been carefully painted from the model, and can do this without creating utter discord, you will have accomplished the greatest feat of all, that of harmonising what seems irreconcilable. You will have introduced reality into a dream, and united two different arts.’

Let’s not lazily and belligerently appeal to reality, but let’s call on nature for a purpose, after we have determined our intent.

 

 

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

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

 

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La source

After Ingres, La Source

After Ingres, La Source

I have been thinking about how important it is to uncover one’s source. My dear friend Jacques has been in town, and his simultaneous lightness and solidity has been energizing. But it is not enough to rely on the buoyancy of others. I think of Ingres’ La Source, and of how she sustains herself: an endless spring, an infinite well needing no support.

Delacroix journal

Delacroix (p. 32) struggles, early in his journals, with a restlessness—‘This restlessness that comes over me almost every evening! Oh sweet contentment of the philosophers, why can I not capture you?’ He concludes, ‘I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now. What I have done cannot be taken from me.’ Knowing that you have invested your energies and your time into something meaningful allows you to sustain yourself—independent of others, independent of circumstances—able to carry yourself, and pick yourself up, and nourish yourself. Delacroix (p. 29) muses, ‘Even one task fulfilled at regular intervals in a man’s life can bring order into his life as a whole; everything else hinges upon it.’

Sculptors

And so, I begin to look for the things that cut through everything else, the things I can return to, the things that I can build on day after day and thus build myself up. While Jacques is employed in a field of theoretical physics that keeps him wholly engaged and focused, thus finding a source in his work, I must fill the crevices left in my days with the things that energize me. Drawing stands out like a beacon. When I’m not drawing, it seems hard and important and worthy of time, too big and significant for snatches of moments. But once it slips into those snatches, it penetrates everything—bad moods, sadness, fatigue. I must depend upon my drawing. Philosophy, too—I remember the consolation it has given me, far deeper than any escapism offered by fiction. My quiet time over coffee, studying German, and practicing grammar, and gaining a mastery over something new and challenging. These things are solitary and unshakeable, and with them I can prop myself up, and build myself up. I must draw, and study, and think deeply, and I will be refreshed and strong enough to face the world.

Sculptors

Delacroix (p. 20) happened upon the same realisation: ‘Poor fellow!’ he chided himself. ‘How can you do great work when you are always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.’

Sculptors

I am amazed that my sketchbook languishes when I know what it gives me! So few tools, and yet they give me the power to invert everything. It is like holding up a pitcher that never runs dry—what sorcery!

Sculptors

Later in life, Delacroix (p. 133) reflects on the source of his strength and peace, probing himself thus: ‘Why was it that I lived so fully on that particular day? Because I had a great many ideas that are miles away from me now. The secret of having no worries—at least where I am concerned—is to have plenty of ideas. Therefore I cannot afford to let slip any means of encouraging them. Good books have this effect, and especially certain books. Health is the first consideration, but even when one is feeling dull and tired these particular books can renew the source from which my imagination flows.’ Endlessly refreshed by Dante, and perpetually inspired by Rubens, Delacroix persevered with his work in spite of feeling ill, or tired, or distracted by companions. He struggled, but he knew himself well enough to bring himself through those struggles and focus on what was most meaningful to him—and, as we all hope to, to produce something enduring, the true offspring of that drive.

Sculptors

My friend and philosopher Mark muses, ‘I begin to suppose that life will never feel more real or more lively than it does right now, and if we ever want to do something great, we must do it feeling like this.’ I think he is correct in concluding that it won’t strike us like a bolt from the heavens, this energy that will propel us to greatness. He is right to feel we must push on through apathy. But if we can nurture that part of ourselves in secret, and find that quiet spring inside us, perhaps we can pull ourselves out of that foggy place by our own bootstraps.

Sculptors

James Dickey, to conclude:

You?    I?    What difference is there?    We can all be saved
By a secret blooming. Now as I walk
The night    and you walk with me    we know simplicity
Is close to the source that sleeping men
Search for in their home-deep beds.
We know that the sun is away    we know that the sun can be conquered
By moths, in blue home-town air.

(James L Dickey, The strength of fields)

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

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