A full spectrum

Dutch self portrait (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Early Rembrandt: his colours are bold and gleaming, his compositions elaborate and ambitious; the drawing is wobbly in places. But Rembrandt is unmistakably there right from the beginning. His early Historical Scene reminds me of the clumsy vigour of the youthful Velazquez who, in just a few short years, elevated his painting dramatically, adhering to his same vision but finding more and more assured means of expression. Delacroix (2010: 141) exclaims of Rubens: ‘It is very evident that Rubens was no imitator; he was always Rubens.’ One feels seized by the same conviction when one stands before an early Rembrandt, and this is reassuring. Finish and fluency come with time; originality of conviction and sensibility shine through in spite of underdeveloped abilities.

Detail of Rembrandt, Historical scene

The Rembrandthuis is a veritable cavern of treasures, augmented by the practical demonstrations of printing etchings and mixing up paints from pigments. Huddled in Rembrandt’s tight and dim etching studio, privy to etching, drypoint and engraving techniques, peering into pots of ink made of burnt rabbit bones and linseed oil, watching the hasty print come out clouded with too much ink on the clear surface, one emerges with an entirely different understanding of what Rembrandt produced. Encountering prints made by his own hand, and able to compare them with the efforts of others to recreate them from the same plates, or to make copies of them, one is struck by the artistry of the entire process and of the masterful hand and inventive mind behind them.

Rembrandt’s atmospheric prints make use of a full spectrum of techniques, he pushes every method for what it can give him, overlapping and merging and setting them off against each other to maximum effect. Drypoint curves with their fuzzed burrs render hazy leaves blowing in the trees, but crisp, sharp, engraved lines lightly caress figures in blazing light in the foreground. The darks are an absorbing mixture of furious hatching and the controlled rubbing of ink; they transition thickly into light passages, and one appreciates that this transition is supplied deliberately and carefully, it does not take care of itself or lazily blend two unrelated areas.

Rembrandt

That thick hatching is never harried or negligent; it alters course because the image takes it there. Rembrandt is unafraid to search around the surface of the object as if actually feeling his way around it, little clumps of hatches rolling this way and then that way, breaking into each other like rippling waves in a canal. His inventiveness with mark-making is astonishing, lively and ever responsive to the subject.

Rembrandt, Militia Company of District II Under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, known as the Night Watch, 1642

Returning to the Rijksmuseum to see his paintings, after emerging from the intricate world of his etchings, his compositional prowess is instantly striking. It migrates directly from his small and tightly-spun etchings to the grand format, bringing its seething dark patches and soulful transitions into the light and its expert contrasts that make the light flash where it really needs to. We are all painting with the same ground up bits of dirt in linseed oil. But Rembrandt knows how to find an impressive range within the mix, how to play tones and textures off against one another for specific effects of light, how to use lightness of touch to convey brilliance, how to deepen space with quickly engulfing shadows. The Night Watch dazzles less for its individual perfections but rather for its pictorial unity. The pictures that flank it, decked with smooth drawing and inventive rendering, ring with even-handed clarity. Each face in them is well-depicted, each pose carefully arranged and interlocking with the next, each figure grouped with others, yet shown in its individuality. Yet in these pictures, composition is conceived much more as a linear arrangement of given subjects. Rembrandt sacrifices much–he gives us stumpy legs and obscured faces–but he has puzzled over how to present us with a picture, not simply a spread of information. The vast stretch of darkness across the top reads just like his etchings–a thick darkness hangs heavily over the militia, certainly unnecessary for the reproduction of their likenesses, but indispensable for a resonant, night-swamped image.

Amsterdam

Delacroix (2010: 209) laments that ‘The majority of painters who are so scrupulous in their use of the model spend most of their time putting faithful copies into dull and ill-digested compositions. They believe that they have accomplished everything when they reproduce heads, hands and accessories in slavish imitation of nature without any relationship with one another.’ One is left in no doubt that Rembrandt digests his compositions–that his smaller works, many of them hardly more than thumbnails, give him such a sense for the whole, allow him to extract salient passages and subdue others, or weave them more subtly together, in a way that eludes more faithful painters. His compositions do feel chewed–it feels as though he is intimately acquainted with them, as though he has explored every crevice of them and considered their weight and role with respect to the whole. And seeing etchings in their first, second, sixth, seventh states, seeing the gentle alterations, and the sometimes dramatic revisions, one sees that Rembrandt considered and reconsidered, reworked his images, knew them thoroughly and beat them into the shape he wanted. This is a kind of familiarity and deliberateness that one does not meet with often.

Amsterdam

 

Delacroix, Eugène. 2010. The journal of Eugene Delacroix: a selection. Edited by Hubert Wellington. Translated by Lucy Norton. London; New York: Phaidon Press.

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On naturalism

Pantzergasse, Winter (c) 2016 Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Pantzergasse, Winter (c) 2016 Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

When I paint, I am ever torn between two conflicting intentions. I am driven towards what we might call naturalism, the honest representation of things as they appear to me in the natural world, but I am constantly diverted by the lusciousness of paint and by my own systems of manipulating that substance that I have cobbled together from things learned and things discovered. As I stand before my canvas, I anticipate how convincingly naturalistic my finished painting will be, but my brain immediately sets to work in undermining that intention by ordering what I see into a complex system of relationships. In short, I cannot paint what I see, because paint promises the possibility of depicting things in more suggestive ways, and because it also imposes certain physical limits, within which I try to condense my understanding of what I see.

This leads me to survey my work with dismay: my paintings positively glow with an unearthly artificiality. The objects and people that populate them are glaringly constructed, and set under a contrived light, though observed from life. I see a more naturalistic painting and I despair at my own artifice.

Selbstbildnis

But I do not despair for long, because I quickly turn to questioning naturalism itself. And on this point I am persuaded by two claims from Ernst Gombrich. In Art and Illusion, he argues that ‘all representations are grounded on schemata which the artist learns to use’ (Gombrich, 1959: 264). And very quickly thereafter, he points out that the very ‘stimulus … is of infinite ambiguity’ (Gombrich, 1959: 264-5). ‘Naturalism’ is something of a misleading idea because it disguises how variable nature and our own visual experience of it is. At the very least, we might demand that the term be broad enough to admit many types of representation that aim at capturing something honest about the natural world. But one breed of naturalism tends to prevail as the most correct or ‘realistic’ in our modern eyes: the kind that makes us mistake paintings for photographs. We have permitted photography to become the unerring benchmark for ‘reality’ in the visual realm. Photography conditions our experience of sight.

Photography, it must be pointed out (for it is often forgotten), lets us down on many accounts. It fails to match the rich spectrum of colours our eye is able to enjoy, or to exhibit such a fine sensibility towards tonal gradations; it is not binocular, and does not have the luxury of flitting around a scene just as our ever-active eyes devour it, composing a view out of collected fragments. A photograph, an arbitrary slice of time, is often precisely the ‘wrong’ slice that we feel does not represent us, caught blinking or speaking or chewing. Focal lengths distort perspective, bending our physical constitution. As a measure for ‘reality,’ photography makes a fairly poor standard, and probably a worse one for coming so close and deserting us when we least expect it. If we are ignorant of its shortcomings, our conception of ‘reality’ is itself swallowed up by photography.

Selbstbildnis 2

I do not want to attempt to define reality, for this is an immense task I should not like to claim responsibility for. But I want to suggest that our own vision is more remarkable than photography. When we judge the success of any representation, painted or otherwise, we might remark how near to our own complex visual experience it comes. And we might bear in mind that sight is one thing, and representations are quite another, and the camera, let us not forget, offers but another mode of representation.

And as Gombrich argues, every representation is founded on schemata. Painting that orients itself via photography imports the schemata of photography into painting. The schemata of photography are not simply felt in the work of artists who copy photographs. They permeate the work of many who work ‘from life,’ who directly observe the world, but whose strategy in painting is to organise what they see just as a camera would. They crush dark tones together, even ones that are not actually shadows. They blanch and flatten light areas, uninterested in the undulating forms of the voluminous object before them. They impose a high tonal contrast—very dark against very light—to great dramatic effect, but utterly without nuance. Softness and blur takes on the uniform flavour of the lens, unlike the scattered haze that bleary or myopic eyes encounter. But when refining a surface they disguise lack of structural understanding with microscopic precision: paying painful attention to the blemishes and creases and stray hairs that are prized as ‘detail.’ ‘The artist’s starting point will determine the final product,’ cautions Gombrich (1959: 92); ‘The schema on which a representation is based will continue to show through the ultimate elaboration.’

self-portrait-2

Put differently: choose your influences, guide your aesthetic. A painter is constantly growing and adjusting her schemata according to what she pays attention to. It was at this point in my reflections that I realised my paintings are bound to become jubilantly vivid and muscular: I feed on a steady visual diet of Baroque paintings. What I relish are full forms, highly energised compositions, three-dimensional rhythms flowing in and around each other, electrified but systematic application of light in its confrontation with colour. Rubens hands down his schemata which celebrate the writhing, swelling, interlocking qualities of the natural world, basked in vivifying light.

And thus, when I paint, I bring other concerns to my easel than the artist who corrects himself by the standards of photography. Uninterested in a snapshot moment, I wade into the confusing and rich task of melting together a multiplicity of moments. A painting takes time to make, and my eyes take time to wander over my subject, drinking in every shifting property and letting them settle into a sustained, unified impression. I continually consider the whole, the way the elements relate to and influence each other. I use line to investigate visually pleasing trails, and I use drawing to animate nature. I orchestrate the elements into a cohesive composition, uninterested in a ‘found’ image, but determined to take responsibility for the construction of this image from the very first.

hands-ink

I make tonal decisions—how closely to group my dark tones, while preserving a logical gradation; separating shadows from halftones so I can meaningfully describe the way light plays over the surfaces. I consider the gamut of colours available to me in my paint choices—how a cadmium yellow and a pale rose red can stretch it further than a yellow ochre and a deep transparent red. I know that no matter what, paint does not have the reach of light, and it is not possible to match the full range that I see. So I establish my limits, reserving the highest chroma available to me for where I most need it, and correspondingly dulling the rest. I impose a logical system of neutralising colour with the falloff of light, conceptualising the relationships between colours as a three-dimensional space that I can move through with increasing fluency. When I vary yellow, I factor in the way purple neutralises it, and what that would mean in my picture, and I consider the ‘vertical’ shift I want to make in tone and in chroma as I transition from one colour to another.

hands-ryan

I think about the brush in my hand, how stiff or springy its bristles are, how splayed, how neat and flexible, and I invoke textures by the movement of my hand. Those textures hang in relation to one another, I must reserve certain techniques for smooth objects compared to coarse ones. And everything must fit into the system dictated by the quality of the light: whether it is diffuse, grey natural light, or blue unclouded daylight, or orange-yellow artificial light, or something else. ‘Every artist has to know and construct a schema before he can adjust it to the needs of portrayal,’ Gombrich (1959: 99) is right to insist. And my schema, derived from many places, but notably not from photography, is reasonably sophisticated.

hands-ink-2

 

 

Painting the ever-shifting natural world demands visual acuity, but also a mental acuity. For as painters, we do not merely observe and transcribe, but we organise what we see. When we paint, we establish relationships, and the character of those relationships—of light to dark, of vividness to neutrality, of smoothness to coarseness to softness to brittleness—directs the quality of the painting. Painting is not, as Gombrich (1959: 78) argues, ‘a faithful record of a visual experience but the faithful construction of a relational model.’ All painters construct relational models; it is only a question of what the model is based on, and how well the painter understands that model.

self-portrait-7

And the crucial point is whether a painter is passive or active. Because an artist worthy of our attention and respect does not work mindlessly, or randomly, or uncritically. She tests every new observation, and wrestles with it until she finds a way to work it into her system. She pushes her system to do more and more, to cope with greater ambiguity, to suggest more with less, to reflect the shimmering richness of the natural world. To do that, she will probably have to move away from the sufficient but sorely limited laws of the lens, to embrace the sticky willfulness of paint and to try to subdue the chaos in new ways, even if they are unsuccessful at first. ‘[The artist] is the man who has learned to look critically, to probe his perceptions by trying alternative interpretations both in play and in earnest,’ (Gombrich 1969: 265).

My paintings are a head-on struggle between what I see and the beautifully restricted medium in which I work. They document the hard-won schemata that I continue to grow as I bounce between the natural world and the teachings of other artists living and dead. ‘Naturalism’ in painting should never be fettered to the camera, for photography is only another means of representation, with other limits that painting can be blissfully free of. We are mistaken to find a painting more ‘realistic’ the more its relationships match those we are familiar with through photography, because, as Gombrich (1959: 75) puts it, ‘there is no neutral naturalism.’ Paint offers so many subtle and lively possibilities that approach the rich and nuanced experience of sight in ways that photography never will.

Selbstbildnis

 

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion. Phaidon: London.

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Eine ästhetische Erziehung

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I have been reflecting on the endless hours I’ve spent acquainting myself with the contents of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Belvedere in Vienna, and feeling grateful for the riches I carry around in my memory as I drive Brisbane’s visually polluted highways. I revisited those galleries like the lines of a familiar poem. I adopted those visits as a daily ritual, as habitual as drinking coffee. I seized those delicacies as daily necessities. Reading Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses that he presented to the Royal Academy in the 1770s and 1780s, I grasp all at once how valuable those seemingly idle hours were, how integral to my learning (Reynolds, 1997: 98):

‘Whoever has so far formed his taste, as to be able to relish and feel the beauties of the great masters, has gone a great way in his study; for, merely from a consciousness of this relish of the right, the mind swells with an inward pride, and is almost as powerfully affected, as if it had itself produced what it admires. Our hearts frequently warmed in this manner by the contact of those whom we wish to resemble, will undoubtedly catch something of their way of thinking; and we shall receive in our own bosoms some radiation at least of their fire and splendour.’

Reynolds’s discourse on imitation (VI) strongly defends the relevance of ‘the antients’ (sic) and the mastery of ‘the old masters.’ Rather than stifling our inventiveness, he considers an ongoing communion with the time-honoured masters the only path to inspired invention—‘however it may mortify our vanity’ (1997: 106). ‘Invention is one of the great marks of genius;’ he (1997: 98) writes, ‘but if we consult experience, we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others, that we learn to invent; as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think.’ The artistic poverty of our time and locality may have less to do with dedicated arts funding and more to do with a disdain for ‘the antients,’ a malaise that even Reynolds lamented in his own time and situation. He ‘venture[d] to prophesy, that when [the ancients] shall cease to be studied, arts will no longer flourish, and we shall again relapse into barbarism’ (1997: 106).

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

It cannot be denied: Brisbane lacks the cultural riches of Vienna, and a native Australian painter is debilitated in her artistic education unless she transplants herself to Europe for the daily nourishment her chosen career demands. Sheer optimism and hard work are not enough: the mind needs substance in order to grow, and it grows toward that which it focuses on. Joshua Reynolds (1997: 98) cautions us, ‘The mind is but a barren soil; a soil which is soon exhausted, and will produce no crop, or only one, unless it be continually fertilized and enriched with foreign matter.’

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

It is of utmost importance, then, to give our minds every opportunity to be enriched. If we permit ourselves mediocre habits, our efforts will soon follow. Reynolds (1997: 98) is very firm on this: ‘It appears, of what great consequence it is that our minds should be habituated to the contemplation of excellence.’ I’m reminded of Delacroix’s (2010: 20) chiding himself on lapsing into trivial distractions, writing in his journals, ‘Poor fellow! 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.’

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind (c. 1390/1400)

Australia’s focus on employment, activity, early rising, physical exertion, and contempt for any who dare to think they are ‘above all that and better than us’ sucks one into a cycle of inconsequentialities and mental tiredness that offers very little nourishment and even less opportunity for tending to one’s thoughts. I realise with greater certainty that being in Europe is no luxury, but an indispensible part of my education. Without this first-hand contact with Titian, with Rubens, with Van Dyck, with Raffael, I would not know what painting could be. I would turn to inferior teachers, and unknowingly trust them with my education. I would observe the work of my peers and take notice of their race to absurdity in their pursuit of novelty. I would bring my questions to walls of badly-applied paint, poor drawing, and punch-line titles instead of to excellence, and my work could only suffer. A familiarity with real excellence is indispensible in one’s aesthetic education.

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

For as original as we strive to be, we are always influenced by our surroundings and by those we associate with—we constantly imitate. Reynolds (1997: 99) suggests it would be better to absorb the thoughts of old masters than what is currently fashionable, or attempting to turn inwards. ‘The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on his own stock: he who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will be soon reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has before often repeated.’ We need a deeper source than ourselves, a more reliable one than our peers.

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

Our individuality comes not from ourselves alone, but is formulated by our own perspective on the work of others as well as what we see in the physical world. Instead of a narcissistic cycle of imitating our own work, we might gain from the successful labours of others. We might accelerate our learning by discovering the physical world through the eyes of the masters. And we might truly challenge ourselves by taking them not as gods but as rivals. Raffael was but a human being, and we have the advantage of being able to learn from him and to push further than him. Reynolds encourages more than unthinking plagiarism, but a ruthless competition, an outstripping, a struggle to steal from the past and improve on it. Having thought their thoughts, we bring our own hand and conceal our theft in our own inventions. Our brush borrows shamelessly, but our thoughts are combined in a way that is entirely our own, and it is from here that our originality stems. Reynolds (1997: 96) leaps to our defense: ‘I am on the contrary persuaded, that by imitation only, variety, and even originality of invention, is produced.’

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

‘We behold all about us with the eyes of those penetrating observers whose works we contemplate; and our minds accustomed to think the thoughts of the noblest and brightest intellects, are prepared for the discovery and selection of all that is great and noble in nature,’ (Reynolds, 1997: 99). So let us not take our situation lightly, for nothing of consequence comes out of isolation and mental starvation.

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

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

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

I began the above self-portrait on my arrival in Vienna two years ago. It has suffered many iterations, growing and transforming with my own ideas and observations and abilities. My constant struggle with this painting became somewhat representative of my own aesthetic education, and its thickening layers of paint akin to my deepening understanding. The yellow Reclam book is, natürlich, from Schiller. x

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