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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It’s taking over everything

It's taking over everything © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

It’s taking over everything © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Based purely on observation and my own experiences and without recourse to hard research, I’ve come to hold the wholly unfeminist view that men are, generally speaking, better at things than women. I certainly don’t want to make any normative claims that things ought to be this way, but since these observations have troubled me my entire life, and have sometimes made me feel without hope due to some seemingly inbuilt inferiority, I simply want to speculate about why this might be.

Christ Church, Oxford

Christ Church, Oxford

And I wouldn’t be the first. Virginia Woolf meanders through a very persuasive line of reasoning, narrated through her wanderings as a guest through the ‘courts and quadrangles of Oxbridge on a fine October morning,’ much as I found myself this past October. ‘Intellectual freedom depends upon material things,’ she argues (1928: 106).

‘Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.’

And while I certainly do not disagree with her thesis, I want to build on it and offer an idea of my own. This being that, perhaps due to greater material liberties, perhaps due to the way they are encouraged to explore and not taught to everywhere be cautious, afraid and compliant, boys learn in a fundamentally different way to girls. And they learn more thoroughly, more single-mindedly, and more carried by their own wilful curiosity even if it drives them beyond the accepted bounds of education.

Oxford

Oxford

It is no secret that girls, only recently permitted an education, are performing better in schools than boys. But our education system does not, if I might make so bold a claim, encourage greatness. Instead it asks for compliance, adherence to curricula, and measurable aptitude through examinations. I was an excellent student in both school and university, often triumphing over the very boys I looked up to. I was willing to accept the terms of the game, and perform the requisite tasks to receive the desired praise. A boy I particularly admired—Billy—gave approximately zero fucks. We had a beautiful symbiosis: I sat next to him in physics, listened attentively to the teacher while Billy drew or made jokes, and then I brought all my questions to Billy. And he furnished me with every answer, with insightful explanations, demonstrations and a depth of understanding that absolutely dazzled me.

Bodleian Library, Oxford

Bodleian Library, Oxford

School was a magical place to me, where there was a library and people who set aside time to impart their knowledge to me, knowledge I was hungry for but did not know how to access. School was, I’ve no doubt, infinitely boring for Billy, except for getting to sit next to girls like me, because all of his learning took place outside of school. When I realised this, it blew my mind. School seemed a holy sanctuary of knowledge; Billy taught me (among wave theory, additive and subtractive colour and how to calculate trajectories, Simpsons jokes interspersed) that school barely skimmed the tip of the iceberg and that our teachers were cruelly holding out on us. He had university textbooks at home, and did all the calculations during the summer holidays, and learned a great deal from the mistress of experience, thanks to his mother allowing him to blow things up in the backyard.

Girls have adapted to the education system because we are extremely good at being submissive and we care how people measure us. We are well-trained since birth, since the dawn of time, to obey instructions and meet requirements. We excel in this for we are ever conscious of how others perceive us—our hair, our gestures, our conversation. School is merely another form of etiquette, and we fit its rigid confines comfortably. Yet despite the academic success of girls, it’s also no secret that men remain at the top of just about every imaginable field. Women can demonstrate understanding of taught concepts, but we are stunted as innovators.

Copies after Sir Alfred Gilbert, Icarus, and the Roman Clio, muse of history, The Ashmolean, Oxford

Copies after Sir Alfred Gilbert, Icarus, and the Roman Clio, muse of history, The Ashmolean, Oxford

True genius depends on making leaps, taking risks, and working doggedly at a single problem in the face of sustained criticism. It requires a degree of madness: obsession, single-mindedness, anti-social tendencies that compel one to stay home of a Friday night solving a problem that matters to no one else. These traits are—I don’t pretend to know why, or to claim that this is necessarily genetic—characteristically masculine. It’s unladylike to grow your armpit hair or to express left-of-field ideas. Our mental states are as groomed as our hairless skin. I want to suggest we ought to let them grow wild as our brothers do: assuming nothing, open to new concepts, and fearlessly tackling them with reason. Let us remain so madly fixated upon our tasks that we, too, become impervious to attacks on ourselves, and engage only with those relevant to our work.

I’m reminded of the fearful all-consuming passion of a male character described by the undeniably brilliant Mary Shelley (2008: 29):

‘Even at that time I shuddered at the picture he drew of his passions: he had the imagination of a poet, and when he described the whirlwind that then tore his feelings he gave his words the impress of life so vividly that I believed while I trembled. I wondered how he could ever again have entered into the offices of life after his wild thoughts seemed to have given him affinity with the unearthly; while he spoke so tremendous were the ideas which he conveyed that it appeared as if the human heart were far too bounded for their conception. His feelings seemed better fitted for a spirit whose habitation is the earthquake and the volcano than for one confined to a mortal body and human lineaments.’

Mutter mit Kind über der Schulter (1917) by Käthe Kollwitz

Mutter mit Kind über der Schulter (1917) by Käthe Kollwitz, Berlin

Käthe Kollwitz, an unquestionably brilliant German draughtsman and sculptor, shares some insightful observations in her achingly beautiful diaries on her unlikely artistic development and the falling away of many of her female contemporaries, her own sister Lise included. ‘Actually,’ she writes of Lise (1988: 80),

‘she is more talented artistically. That shows up to this day. But she lacked training. And something else too, perhaps: my guess is that she has lived less intensively. When she was young she cultivated herself and the objects of her love. That was enough for her. I probably had more drive. And it has been this drive alone which has made it possible for me to develop as far as possible my talent, which in itself is inferior to hers.’

Mutter mit totem Sohn (Pietà) by Käthe Kollwitz, Berlin

Mutter mit totem Sohn (Pietà) by Käthe Kollwitz, Berlin

And, more strongly (p. 24-5):

‘Now when I ask myself why Lise, for all her talent, did not become a real artist, but only a highly gifted dilettante, the reason is clear to me. I was keenly ambitious and Lise was not. I wanted to and Lise did not. I had a clear aim and direction. … But she was gentle and unselfish. (‘Lise will always sacrifice herself,’ Father used to say.) And so her talent was not developed. … She lacked total concentration upon it. I wanted my education to be in art alone. If I could, I would have saved all my intellectual powers and turned them exclusively to use in my art, so that this flame alone would burn brightly.’

Mutter mit totem Sohn (Pietà) by Käthe Kollwitz, Berlin

Mutter mit totem Sohn (Pietà) by Käthe Kollwitz, Berlin

I want to suggest, along with Kollwitz (p. 23), that ‘the tinge of masculinity within me helped me in my work’—and that in order to reach these heights of brilliance, with the Mary Shelleys, Virginia Woolfs and Käthe Kollwitzes of the world, we must follow the man inside us and adapt the way that we choose to learn. We must set ourselves tasks, ignore external measures, walk away from outside demands. We must not think of ourselves at all, but solely of the work, and abandon all else that distracts us. We must simplify our lives and allow ourselves to be absorbed and consumed with our occupation. Let us turn away from superficial praise; true respect comes with real accomplishment.

For even Virginia Woolf (1928: 98) breathes a sigh of relief at the substance of men’s work: ‘Indeed, it was delightful to read a man’s writing again. It was so direct, so straightforward after the writing of women. It indicated such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself.’ I in fact don’t think that women need be inferior—and Woolf, Shelley and Kollwitz present dazzling lady counterexamples. I only think that we need to identify where we are causing ourselves to stumble, for these are obstacles that we can remove. Let us not sacrifice ourselves with the sweet-temperamented Lise Stern. Let us not be lost in obscurity with the once-promising Berlin painter Sabine Lepsius, distracted by the care of others, who wrote bitterly, „Schade um meine Gaben.“

Copy after Selbstbildnis (1885) by Sabine Lepsius, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Copy after Selbstbildnis (1885) by Sabine Lepsius, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

 

Kollwitz, Käthe. 1988. The diaries and letters of Käthe Kollwitz. Ed. Hans Kollwitz. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. Northwestern University: Evanston, Illinois.

Shelley, Mary. 2008. Mathilda. Ed. Elizabeth Nitchie. Melville House: Brooklyn, NY.

Woolf, Virginia. [1928] 1963. A room of one’s own. Penguin: Mitcham, Victoria.

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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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The vortex of style

SONY DSC

I’ve happened upon one of the best sketch clubs I’ve ever had the good fortune to attend in tough and vibrant Glasgow, tucked away behind an inconspicuous back door in a dive bar perched on the outer skirts of the city centre. All the Young Nudes will be pleased to apply deafening and achingly cool music to your ears and drown out all other tedious distractions or heckling of the (three) models, while giving you the choice of shorter or longer poses depending where you station yourself, and of course you have access to beer on tap. Best of all, the models really are nude, something I’m finding a bit of a luxury of late in costume-oriented groups, allowing me to learn about the body once again.

Nude2

Of course, not everyone seems to attend sketch clubs in order to learn about the body. Which makes me wonder why people demand the luxury of a nude in their midst. I’ve found myself unhappily seated beside grown men with greying hair solemnly applying crayons to their paper in a decisive scribble with no correlation to the figure before them, before ceremoniously smearing the pathetic mess in turpentine. Or others who spend as much time invoking magic as they do drawing, waving their hands in spell-casting fashion at the long-suffering model. I pick on the old men because they have no excuse for not being able to draw by now, and worse—they generally feel compelled to offer us younger punters unsolicited instruction.

Nude1

I firmly believe that many of my contemporaries have no inkling of what the life class is. Each new pose, in their eyes, offers the opportunity for a new piece of Art. Another chance for the deity of Inspiration to channel something mind-blowing through their pencil. Each attempt is an end in itself. But the life class is simply about hard work, observation and practice. If anatomy is irrelevant, perhaps you’d do better to draw trees. Trees have limbs, too, and sit really still, and I’m sure would inspire similar profusions of confused chalky expression. It’s much cheaper.

Nude3

An aimless girl I met at said group confessed she has no knack for hard work, and would rather not put time and effort into drawing. Better to show up once a week, get drunk, and see what happens. She boasted that she was surprised by her own output, especially since it was so consistent. I had asked for no defence of her work, mind, but she was eager to explain to me why my ‘academic’ studies were no more valid than her half-arsed efforts. Consistency is the key, she forged on, for consistency is what she most values in art. If an artist is consistent, then they have a style, and style takes pre-eminence above all facility. What madness that an image can’t stand on its own merit, but requires a context to support it! I began to wonder if this preoccupation with ‘style’ is what drives the insistence on solo exhibitions.

Nude4

My contemporaries find my ‘style’ very easy to categorise as straight-up academic. ‘Oh, you draw in an academic style, I see,’ is the disappointed summation of my studies, which, don’t forget, I execute for my own studious purposes, not as works of Art. Others are more flattering: ‘You draw like a sculptor.’ Or, ‘You draw like an animator.’ Sculptors and animators are people who have an understanding of three-dimensional form and motion, of the construction and machinations of the body, and I feel more at home in such company. Oddly, I’m never told, ‘You draw like an artist.’ For artists can’t really draw, can they?

Nude5

Nor are they required to—and this is a significant obstacle. As Gombrich (1972: 13) lucidly explains in his fabulously unpretentious book The story of art, art was always produced toward some end: ‘Most of the paintings and statues which are now strung up along the walls of our museums and galleries were not meant to be displayed as Art. They were made for a definite occasion and a definite purpose which were in the artist’s mind when he set to work.’ Endless fretting about originality and expression never clouded the visage of the artists of the distant past. And yet, argues Gombrich (1972: 119), ‘there remained enough scope for him to show whether he was a master or a bungler.’ The unmasked utility of his work did not necessarily constrain him.

Nude6

For to be an artist is to be in the possession of a creative and problem-solving mind, and to have the urge to turn this mind towards tasks and problems and devise wholly new configurations. We are inventive creatures, our mental flights stray from the worn paths; our specialty is to approach things in ways that have not yet been considered. And as painters and sculptors we do this in a very physical, sight-dependent way, merging thought with touch.

Nude7

What we demand, then, are tasks! Ritual masks, cathedrals, portraits, book illustrations (Gombrich, 1972: 473)! Gombrich (1972: 472-3) compares these tasks to the grit around which a pearl can form. ‘If the artist’s feelings for forms and colours are to crystallise in a perfect work,’ he argues, ‘he, too, needs such a hard core—a definite task on which he can bring his gifts to bear.’ The cause is, just quietly, of little concern to the artist, whose problem-solving mind whirs over solving the physical task at hand rather than elusive concepts of beauty and expression (1972: 13). And that’s where her abilities come into their own: ‘The pearl completely covers the core. It is the secret of the artist that he does his work so superlatively well that we all but forget to ask what his work was supposed to be, for sheer admiration of the way he did it’ (1972: 473).

Nude8

Gombrich’s book fluidly traces a cultural history in which communities set definite tasks for artists, who, endlessly in need of challenge, performed them with great ingenuity and finesse. Yet there came a point when artists were forced to turn inwards for such challenges. Says Gombrich (1972: 473) sombrely: ‘It was a fateful moment in the Story of Art when people’s attention became so riveted on the way in which artists had developed painting or sculpture into a fine art that they forgot to give artists more definite tasks.’ With attention now firmly fixed on what these inventors would invent next, a string of ‘isms’ succeeded the artists’ own attempts to set themselves puzzles about light, form and colour, but also about meaning.

Nude9

Celebrated Glaswegian writer and artist Alasdair Gray (2007: 306-7) perfectly captures this claim in an increasingly impassioned dialogue between art student Duncan Thaw and his fellow hospital inmate, a local minister, in his spectacular novel Lanark:

‘There are very few good jobs for handworkers nowadays,’ said Thaw, ‘so most parents and teachers discourage that kind of talent.’

‘Did your parents encourage you?’

‘No. They allowed me paper and pencil when I was an infant, but apart from that they wanted me to do well in life.’

‘Tell me, just to change the subject, why are modern paintings so hard to understand?’

‘As nobody employs us nowadays we’ve to invent our own reasons for painting. I admit art is in a bad way. Never mind, we’ve some good films. So much money has been put into the film industry that a few worthwhile talents have got work there.’

The minister said slyly, ‘I thought artists didn’t work for money.’

Thaw said nothing. The minister said, ‘I thought they toiled in garrets till they starved or went mad, then their work was discovered and sold for thousands of pounds.’

‘There was once a building boom,’ said Thaw, growing excited, ‘In north Italy. The local governments and bankers of three or four towns, towns the size of Paisley, put so much wealth and thought into decorating public buildings that half Europe’s greatest painters were bred there in a single century. These bosses weren’t unselfish men, no, no. They knew they could only win votes and stay popular by giving spare wealth to their neighbours in the form of fine streets, halls, towers and cathedrals. So the towns became beautiful and famous and have been a joy to visit ever since. But today our bosses don’t live among the folk they employ. They invest surplus profits in scientific research. Public buildings have become straight engineering jobs, our cities get uglier and uglier and our best paintings look like screams of pain. No wonder! The few who buy them, buy them like diamonds or rare postage stamps, as a form of non-taxable banking.’

Nude10

Thaw’s claims ring as clear as ever in our own time. Inhabited public places comprise almost exclusively places of commerce: retail and dining. They are fashioned as such, and designed to urge consumption and to foster endless want and desire. Many of our cleverest and most innovative problem-solvers are more likely than ever to find their abilities at the disposal of advertising, which must be produced quickly, must be sharp and forceful, and is by nature throw-away. I’m not sure whether to be grateful to those who see value in and reward creative skills, employing us once again as humble handworkers, or whether to despair at the sorry ends to which such hands and minds have become servile. At any rate, a seemingly insurmountable division has grown between ‘commercial artists’ and ‘fine artists,’ with the latter largely unwilling to accept such tasks. Something more is demanded.

Nude11

Gombrich expertly laces together a preoccupation with style and the lack of suitable tasks. ‘Ever since artists had become self-conscious about ‘style’ they felt distrustful of conventions and impatient of mere skill,’ he writes (p. 439), continuing, ‘They longed for an art which did not consist of tricks which can be learned, for a style which was no mere style, but something strong and powerful like human passion.’ In not being required to produce anything specific, art itself became the task: the puzzles became more and more esoteric the less they became about applying art to external problems. Style is what remains when other goals are removed from the picture. Of course, that doesn’t defend laziness or ineptitude, as the indomitable draughtsman Pietro Annigoni fiercely wrote:

The truth is that the deformations of contemporary painters very seldom arise from stylistic requirements forced on the artist by his vision. They merely spring from a confused desire to be controversial, a surprising indifference to the human being and, one might add, a lukewarm commitment to life itself. The result is absolute indifference to form, lack of proper preparation and a heavy dose of sheer ineptitude. This last quality has today, it seems, acquired full rights of citizenship in the realm of art.

The less fiery Gombrich (p. 474) leaves us with this rebuke: ‘There are certainly painters and sculptors alive today who would have done honour to any age. If we do not ask them to do anything in particular, what right have we to blame them if their work appears to be obscure and aimless?’ I firmly believe we must forge a new chapter in the ‘story of art’ and that obsession with style over ability, along with the solo show and its narcissistic introspection, ought to be abandoned. Perhaps finding the modern task-giver will be crucial to this project.

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

Gray, Alasdair. 2007 [1969, 1981] Lanark. Canongate: 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.

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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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Zwischen zwei Städte

Wanderlust © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Wanderlust © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Suddenly Rosita comes in with breakfast and brings me a piece of news that throws me into a joyous ecstasy. Tomorrow will be the 19th of July, and that is the date on which Monsieur and Madame arrived from Paris last year. I give an hysterical yell:

‘So I haven’t arrived yet! I haven’t arrived. Not before tomorrow will I come to Port Lligat. This time last year, I hadn’t even started my Christ! And now before I’ve so much as come here, my Assumption is almost on its feet, pointing to heaven!’

I run straight to my studio and work till I am ready to drop, cheating and taking advantage of not being there yet so as to have as much as possible already done at the moment of my arrival. …

In spite of all my stratagems to savour the last moments of my absence with an intoxicating intensity, here I am, finally home in Port Lligat. And so happy!

(Salvador Dali, p. 55)

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It seems inevitable that I will live between two cities, and the pendulum has swung me back to Wien, sparkling Vienna, where I am taking time to breathe the fresh, cool air, savour the creamy coffee and gorge my hungry eyes on art. Most importantly, I’m setting up here with the primary aim of painting. My little Dachgeschoss studio is set up, my Dutch paints bursting from their tubes, a big, fresh roll of Belgian linen that I rolled home on my bike shivers in anticipation, and I have christened the floor with turpentine that I kicked over in my painterly haste. And I have cheated time, starting a little interior days before my arrival in Vienna! Yes, it’s not until tomorrow that I arrive!

Life drawing

Already I’ve met with my old friends in the galleries—Rubens, Van Dyck, Klimt and Rodin—and already I’ve fallen for many more, my sketchbook always in tow. Sketch clubs are sprouting like tulips all over the city, and I’m managing to satiate my drawing habit with more success than last year. And best of all, the ever-optimistic Jacques is a winning sidekick, ever adept at simplifying life and focusing on the work that really matters. As ever, we are scheming, and bursting with ideas, and trying to merge our art and science worlds that we see as springing from the same impulse, the same curiosity and wonder of the physical world.

Because, in the words of Editors, ‘If something has to give then it always does,’ and when life is crowding out the important things you have to put life firmly in its place, and regroup.

Straße

 

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

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The punch

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

Confessions (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

I’ve been chewing over the role of a ‘conceptual rationale’ in art. Firstly, let it be recognised that I am not against concepts in art. Paintings should move us, and when they do they are more than mere decoration. But I am not interested in the types of concepts that only resonate in words, and that are swallowed whole in little capsules of artists’ statements, no chewing required. The real punch, the real power of art, is that it can make us sense something, consider something, meditate on something, and even feel something, just by channelling carefully composed signals through our eyes. I want to argue that while many a painting lacks a punch line, or fails to explain itself in words, it may still be about something, still built on an idea, and it may still speak softly to us, and perhaps even resonate fiercely with us as our history with it deepens. In Delacroix’s (p. 41) words, ‘What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.’

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A humble painting of an interior sits shyly beside an unlovely outburst of so-called modern conceptual art. Without being punched in the face by unpleasant truths and by the sheer disgustingness of waste in our culture, the modern art viewer can find no meaning to lock on to when confronted with a work of art. Our time certainly is not one for subtlety, and images that demand too much of us are bound to be dismissed. Perhaps we feel an attraction to a still life scene, but sense that it would be too much work to justify this attraction—and, further, perhaps we feel a certain impatience with the painter for not simply being more clever about it so the painting’s relevance was immediately obvious. Whichever way I look at it, we are faced with a paradox: the painter wants to speak in a language that no one wants to learn. And even when he gets through to us, we cast off his whisperings as meaningless.

Yet, ‘If images don’t do anything in this culture, if they haven’t done anything, then why are we sitting here in the twilight of the twentieth century talking about them?’ art critic Dave Hickey (in Poynor, p. 43) asks. Hickey argues that the power of many images can be traced to beauty, ‘to the iconography of desire,’ but I want to return to beauty shortly. It seems to me that while many paintings certainly are beautiful, they appeal to us in another even simpler way. They permit us to look at ourselves.

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In the words of Jacques Pienaar, ‘If ever art had a job to do, it’s to make humanity look at itself.’ This might be as literal as a portrait of a known individual. It might be a nude—revealing our physical form at its simplest and most honest, unadorned, plump or bony, asymmetric, uniquely proportioned, secret toilet parts included (unlike the false view of ourselves afforded, for example, by much pornography). It might be the warmth of the painter’s home, traces of their life left in the arrangement of their living quarters. It might be a five-hundred-year-old Dutch breakfast, which can fill us with envy as much as the meals at the table next to us in a café today. Whatever else a painter may have intended, when painting from life he or she has done humanity a marvellous service in making a visual record of our temporal intersection with the physical world. Our cumulative knowledge has been recorded by philosophers and scientists; our successive sensory experiences have been recorded by artists—and what a vault of lived human experience remains! And further: no amount of adding to this collection is redundant, for we live in ever changing times and our present experiences are just as valid, as is the recording of them.

Of course, art is not always truthful, but there is also meaning in this. Where a representational painting sweeps some things away and introduces others, or chases a particular light or settles into a particular mood, the painting itself becomes a sort of bridge to the future. We see the world now, but we are also permitted to see a possible future through the vision of the painter. Frank Chimero (p. 68) argues that ‘every time we tell an untruth, we confess that the world is not yet done.’ He cites art historian George Kubler (p. 122): ‘The moment just past is extinguished forever, save for the things made during it,’ adding, ‘All of these creations linger, and they echo across the long line of time and speak to what those people were able to build and what they believed.’

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Let us return to Dave Hickey and his efforts to direct our attention ‘to the language of visual affect—to the rhetoric of how things look—to the iconography of desire—in a word, to beauty!’ Wendy Steiner (xxi) analyses the twentieth-century discomfort with beauty, the prevailing suspicion that beauty is the villain—‘a siren or a whore.’ Steiner suggests we might be more comfortable with our experience of beauty, remarking that since we all succumb to it, ‘it would be well if we could recognise the meaning of our succumbing as a valuable response, an opportunity for self-revelation rather than a defeat.’ Given our positive response to a meaningful arrangement of temporary objects, let us dwell a little longer on why these things speak to us, even though they are not clever and satirical and politically charged. Perhaps Anna Karenina doesn’t speak to us because of the incisive political claims made by the main characters—perhaps it’s because of the humanity of the people portrayed, the similarity of their hopes to our own, and the impact of their historical situation on those hopes. We long to feel with each other, and in art, we can.

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Delacroix (p. 66) felt keenly that too many artists were swayed by trends—the market, or popular opinion perhaps, or government demands. ‘A great number of talented artists had never done anything worthwhile because they surrounded themselves with a mass of prejudices, or had them thrust upon them by the fashion of the moment.’ I feel that while much art that is considered ‘classical’ and hence antagonistic to concepts in fact grows up around more slowly-unravelled concepts, perhaps this obsession with concept-above-all-else is the sort of fashion that we must brush aside and simply carry on working. We know that we are not subverting everything that has gone before, but we know that we are building on a meaningful history and connecting with people in inexplicable ways. And Delacroix (p. 43) urges us on:

You who know that there is always something new, show it to others in the things they have hitherto failed to appreciate. Make them feel they have never before heard the song of the nightingale, or been aware of the vastness of the sea—everything that their gross senses can perceive only when someone else takes the trouble to feel it for them. And do not let language trouble you. If you cultivate your soul it will find the means to express itself.

Chimero, Frank. 2012. The Shape of Design. (Self published).

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

Poynor, Rick. 2006 ‘The beauty part.’ In Looking Closer Five: Critical writings on graphic design. Ed. Michael Bierut, William Drentel and Steven Heller. Allworth: New York.

Steiner, Wendy. 2001. Venus in exile: The rejection of beauty in 20th-Century art. University of Chicago: Chicago.

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