Breathe in

Madonna with the blue diadem – Raphael

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

Allegorical figure of poetry – Raphael

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

Raphael

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

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

Raphael

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

Raphael (print of a fresco)

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

Raphael

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

Three graces – Raphael

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

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

Raphael

 

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

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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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