A retrospective exhibition at Aix-en-Provence’s Granet Museum of Fabienne Verdier’s monumental paintings and creative explorations left me intrigued and impressed. Her fertile questing mind, allied to inventive technical creativity, is an example of what can be achieved when an artist dedicates him or herself to new ways of expressing often abstract and intellectual concepts - whilst at the same time, creating expansive, harmonious beauty.Read More
Happenstance has just given me a lovely gift of information. I was reading a wonderful biography by the late famed British historian, Hugh Trevor Roper, on the 17th century Huguenot physician, Theodore de Mayerne. Brilliantly intelligent and successful, de Mayerne was first physician to King Henri IV of France, then attended James I of England and his successor, Charles I.
Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, to give him his full name, was bornin Geneva of French parents in 1573 and lived until 1654/55, ending his days in England. This is a portrait thought to be done of him in London by Peter Paul Rubens about 1630.
De Mayerne was a multi-faceted scientist, in essence, for his interests and knowledge stretched far beyond the practise of medicine. Chemist, Hermeticist, experimenter – on one side and on the other, a skilled linguist and writer, high-level diplomat and spy for his Royal employers, as well as deeply knowledgeable expert in art and art materials and practices. In short, a true Renaissance man. In 1620, he began with a flourish a new treatise entitled Pictoria, Sculptoria, et quae subalternarum artium. In the many folios, he records observations, derived from reading in part but more from conversations with artists and craftsmen, about their techniques, technical descriptions of materials used, sources of these materials and their chemical characteristics.
Being a very prominent member of three Royal courts, he had the opportunity to meet a wide selection of artists and craftsmen. He was ever curious and discussed with them different approaches to oil painting, mixing and preparing pigments, the best oils to use, surface preparation, conservation of art, the art of enamelling, watercolour and miniature painting and all manner of other information. His friendships with Rubens, with Van Dyck, Orazio and his daughter, Artemisia Gentileschi, miniaturists Jean Petitot and John Hoskins and others were fruitful in the detailing of art technology in his folio notes.
De Mayerne continued with this art treatise for a number of years with the last entries in the 170 folios in 1646.
After his death, the document ended up eventually in the British Library, under the filing, Sloane MS 2052. From the time of Horace Walpole onwards, it has been considered an indispensable source of information on Dutch and Flemish painting in the Baroque era, allowing later scholars to learn of Northern European diverse art practices. Today, scientists still use De Mayerne's work as a vital source of information for the 17th century, on a par with Cennino Cennini's Il Libro dell' Arte for the early 15th century. Manufacturers of Old Master materials still use De Mayerne's recipes - for amber resin varnish, for example. Countless art restorers, in the Prado Museum, the Getty and elsewhere, apparently refer to De Mayerne's careful records about art materials and contemporary techniques.
The more I read, the more I realise there is so much more to learn about. I started reading Hugh Trevor Roper's wonderful Europe's Physician. The various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne to learn about an early, prominent physician. I ended up learning about a meticulous chronicler of 17th century art and its practice. What a delicious bonus!
I was reading a thought-provoking article in a copy of The Spectator (21st November, 2009) by Matthew Parris today about jigsaw puzzles and religion, a train of thought induced by hearing a talk by Dame Margaret Drabble on her book about her aunt and jigsaw puzzles. This led me in rather a different direction, I suppose because of being an artist.
Dame Margaret advised starting to do a jigsaw puzzle by getting the outline sorted out first, because the one side with a straight line helps. Parris reflected that if one regarded life's experiences as pieces of jigsaw puzzle, there are no helpful edges that can serve as a delineating frame for putting order and coherence to such situations as religion. However, if one thinks about the jigsaw puzzle analogy for matters artistic, it can be of possible help.
First, of course, a delineating frame is always wonderful to use - even by using one's fingers as a frame - to compose a scene if one is trying to decide what to depict. Second, and more intangibly, I suggest that finding the straight-sided pieces first - in art - really is equivalent to sorting out basic technical considerations first before doing any artwork. By that, I mean deciding what medium to use for a work, then what surface - paper, canvas, etc. - what size of image. Composition, the "atmosphere" and, above all, deciding what one wants to convey in the artwork are other aspects of the puzzle frame.
The content of a piece of art, as symbolised by the jigsaw puzzle frame, is really the summum of one's experiences in life, one's skills in matters technical, the impact of what moves one to create that image, realistic or abstract. In essence, within that frame, can be contained one's persona as an artist, for good or for bad. Selecting out the "straight-sided" aspects of oneself as an artist can therefore perhaps help in mapping out what one wants to do and achieve. From that frame, the inside, odder-shaped pieces of life and experience can be better organised to make a powerful piece of art. Even the analogy of coloured pieces of jigsaw puzzle can pertain: the artwork can be made more coherent by the choices we make when beginning to work on the frame of the puzzle first. For a realistic artwork, of course, even the source of inspiration - landscape, still life, person, etc. - can help us assemble the jigsaw puzzle pieces within the frame of the conceived artwork.
Ultimately, fitting together all the pieces of the puzzle that we artists deal with on a daily basis is just as much a fascinating challenge as any box of complex jigsaw puzzle pieces.
Reading an article in this month's Art + Auction about "Artists - Back to the Future" about a recently-noted trend of artists and their collectors returning to simpler, more personally-executed and handcrafted creations, I was struck by the statement: " Just because there is a simplicity in means does not mean the process or results will be simple. It's this question of how do we get back to basics by going a very, very long distance. It's a balance between immediacy and complexity" (Massimiliano Gioni, curator of the New Museum, New York).
I started thinking about how I personally would define basics and the balance between immediacy and complexity. I realised that for me, the answer was very simple - I only have to look at Japanese or Chinese art of past centuries, woodcuts or brush paintings in particular. Perhaps I should initially admit to a predisposition to Japanese art: I grew up with Japanese woodcuts on the walls of my home in East Africa. They were part of one set of a huge series of woodcuts that were commissioned after the 1923 earthquake by foreigners living in Yokohama. They were copied from traditional woodcut images, and the objective of this wide-ranging commission was to help the artists get back on their feet after the devastating earthquake and fire. The set with which I lived was very varied but of great beauty and, of course, of especial meaning for me since my grandfather had been one of the people commissioning the Japanese artists.
That said, I have later learned that the essence of simplicity in art does indeed require enormous skill and sophistication of mind and hand. I find that some of the hand scrolls, paintings and screens of the Momoyama and Edo periods in Japanese art (1573-1615 and 1615-1868 respectively) are the essence of aesthetic simplicity and oh so utterly beautiful. Many years ago, there was a truly wonderful exhibition and Harry Abrams catalogue publication, "Birds, Beasts, Blossoms and Bugs. The Nature of Japan". I frequently dip back into this publication because I find it of enormous inspiration and nurture, reminding me, particularly for silverpoint drawing, that as long as I really, really know the subject matter I am drawing, less is really, definitely more.
An example of such basic mastery is, for instance (and very a-propos with our autumnal migrating flocks of crows streaming noisily past our windows), a series of three ink paintings with wash on paper of crows, "Snow, Moon and Flower". One, " Crow in flight before the Moon", by Maruyama Okyo (1733-1795), is just a deftly detailed crow silhouetted in flight with the moon half delineated in white behind him - so minimalist it is breath-taking. And one has to remember this is a brush painting in ink - no room for hesitations, erasures, or even running out of ink at the wrong moment. Certainly one definition of "immediacy". Another of these paintings is "Crow on a Plum Branch" by Matsumura Goshun (1752-1811): the bird perches on the branch in simple, believable reality, yet he is pared down to only the essential detail. The plum branch is reduced to a shorthand suggestion which, nonetheless, is entirely complete in its depiction.
Another wonderful six-fold lacquer screen in the same show was of crows in flocks and gatherings of raucous intensity, just their silhouettes against the gold leaf on paper. It was executed by an unknown artist in the Edo period of the early 17th century, but done by someone who had studied this emblematic bird intensely, in all its attitudes and stances - at a time when there was no photography to freeze flight or movement. It is yet another wonderful example of back to basics – knowing your subject matter thoroughly, having a mastery of your technique and compositional intentions, and just following the age-old tradition of an artist using hand and eye to create images that convey messages of beauty, angst, joy, whatever.
Today, when the art materials industry and art instruction world have hugely increased in size, everyone can easily turn to art, either to create or to support its creation. The statistics abound to show what a beneficial multiplier factor the arts are to an area's economy, and the arts are viewed very positively.
It is, however, still, a rather solitary occupation to be an artist. No matter what the discipline, it remains a discipline requiring a person ultimately to produce something. In painting or drawing, for instance, it is mostly the artist's passion which will keep the creation going. In that dedication to creating a work, there is a lot that goes on "behind the scenes". When I conceive of a drawing or painting, there are initially decisions as to the medium (silverpoint drawing or graphite, for instance, or watercolours or acrylics), the format (horizontal or vertical, large or small), or is it going to be one piece or one in a series. Once those basic choices are made, there are then the decisions as to how to convey the concept, what to say, how to say it, why is it important?
Studies and exploratory drawings help the preparation. And it is at that stage, often, that the essence of the idea - the essence of a person's character for a portrait, or the spirit of the land in a landscape, for example - becomes paramount. What is "hidden from our sense of sight", as art consultant and author Roger H. Boulet wrote on draughtswoman Ann Kipling of British Columbia, is something that each artist needs to tap into, albeit often unconsciously. Paula Rego (see my blog entry of April 1st) was talking of tapping into this when she talked of the excitement of a voyage into the unknown each time she starts drawing. Intensity of observation, vitality of expression, a willingness to push through to evoke life itself - those are pathways to creation that each artist travels willingly, knowing they are important. And each of us, as artists, recognises that those journeys are lonely but rewarding.