Lance Chad, Tjyllyungoo, a Nyoongar Aborigine artist, exhibiting in Perth’s Western Australian Art Gallery, reminds us of our vital spiritual and literal connections to County and Land. We all belong somewhere, and the underpinning natural landscapes that have sustained generations of humans, animals and plants are ever more vital to us all. Lance Chadd’s art is a wonderful tonic and incentive to think and, ideally, celebrate our world.Read More
"Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others". This was an interesting remark, made by Roberto Polo, artist and founder of Citibank's Fine Art Investment Services, and quoted in the 19th November, 2011, edition of The Spectator by Bevis Hillier.
I found the idea thought-provoking, and was reminded of it in an unusual context. Tomorrow morning, at about 7.30 a.m. in Palma de Mallorca's magnificant Gothic cathedral, La Seu, there is a moment of pure magic.
At that time (and again in November) every year, the giant rose window lines up with the rising sun, and a perfect glowing circle is projected across the vast cathedral to the opposite wall, where another rose window joins in the celebration.
This huge rose window, one of the largest in the world, was created in the 14th century, in the Royal Chapel, using a Levantine design for its more than two thousand pieces of stained glass.
Its fleeting echo, twice a year, on the golden Mallorcan stone wall opposite, is an event that is anticipated eagerly for its amazing beauty.
These two images are courtesy of the website, Mallorcaquality.com, with my thanks.
The design and alignment, let alone actual construction, of this huge rose window is, to me, a perfect example of seeing, in one's mind's eye, what is as yet invisible to others. Its concept implied knowledge of the movement of the sun, the necessary geometrical siting in relation to the rising sun on the requisite days of the year, and an ability to calculate all these parameters and ally them with the actual building dimensions and orientation as it was being built. No computers, no cameras, no lasers. Just vision and skill.
Perhaps that ability to envision something that no one else sees and then to create something that renders the invisible visible is the ultimate hallmark of an artist, whatever the discipline. It is certainly an ability to cultivate.
Having grappled for two days with an ever-evolving but beautifully perfumed ginger lily that I was trying to draw, it really resonated when I found a quote by Paul Klee. He said, "Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see."
I am always in amazement at the photo-realist artists who manage - often thanks to photographs - to reproduce in art exactly what seems to have been their subject matter. I find that when I am drawing or painting, I seem constitutionally incapable of reproducing exactly what I am seeing. I always want to alter something, move something elsewhere, eliminate something, exaggerate something else.. in an attempt to render a decent composition as well as an evocative work of art. Perhaps it is also the gardener in me - pruning, transplanting, fertilising; it does translate in a way to art-making!
I think that there is nothing more important for an artist than learning to see, really see – the nuances of light and shade, colour gradations, forms and shapes, how things interlock one to another. Life drawing is a wonderful way of training one's eye and making one's hand coordinate with one's eyes. Once really learning to look becomes second nature, then there is somehow an authenticity in what an artist is doing, even if it is not always realistic.
This painting is a perfect example of the results of his carefully looking at the scene and then transmuting what he saw into art.
Think of how Paul Klee deals with this image of a flower, entitled Flower Myth.
He does know very well how a flower is made and put together, but he is now comfortable with turning it into a work of art, because he has "seen" it properly before.
My sessions with my ginger lily obliged me to do somewhat similar alterations, simply becauseI looked and looked at the flowers, but tried to wend my way through their profusion and short life to produce a decent drawing.
I have read a couple of enthusiastic reviews of an exhibition currently showing at New York's Onassis Cultural Center entitled The Origins of El Greco, the last of which was in February's edition of ARTnews. With a subtitle of Icon Painting in Venetian Crete, the show examined El Greco's early work when he, along with a flourishing school of artists, was a Master of religious icon painting in his native Crete in the 1560s. Young Domenikos Theotokopoulos was most skilled in creating shimmering gilt surrounds and stiffly gesturing figures that were part of the Byzantine heritage of Crete.
It is hard to credit that these early paintings are done by the same artist whom we know as El Greco, the artist whose elongated figures, clothed in strangely coloured garments, twist in religious fervour beneath dramatic skies. Ascetic-looking men with long faces gaze skyward with clasped hands of piety, while impossibly long-limbed men writhe and contort through the paintings. This later El Greco was, as a review of this exhibition by The New York Times' Holland Cotter observed, the result of "an ambitious career on the move" with Venice and later Spain his sources of patronage and success. By the time El Greco died in 1614, his style of painting had evolved radically from a strict medieval icon tradition to an expressionistic approach that embraced light, movement, colour, passion.
This account of the El Greco exhibition made me reflect on the problem-cum-challenge we all face as artists: how to evolve and grow, and yet remain true to ourselves? The examples of artists who have changed their styles over time are innumerable - Picasso is a salient example, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, and so many others. But in our times of emphasis on marketing and branding, when presenting ourselves to the world as artists, how important is it to have consistency?
There is always the temptation for a successful artist, selling well in one type of art or with one approach and subject, to stay in that idiom, and if a gallery is involved, often there is more pressure to stay in the successful lane. Yet we should all be striving to grow as artists, and by definition, that means change and, hopefully, improvement. Sometimes, repetition of one type of art, one subject or medium, allows for a more profound and rewarding exploration. Yet repetition can become boring and a dead end.
There is also another message, I think, in the El Greco or Picasso examples of evolution as artists. That is that we must believe in ourselves as artists and dare to grow and change, even if it means abandoning a successful style and pathway in one's artistic career. Radical change takes courage. Artist Sharon Knettell, writing in the March 2010 issue of The Artist's Magazine, explained that she gets much of her inspiration for paintings while meditating and remarked, "I think meditation makes you fearless. You have to go to the point where your ideas scare and challenge you" (my emphasis).
I believe that point is when you dare to change your style because that inner voice tells you to take the next step in changing and evolving as an artist. What does anyone else think?
I marvel constantly at the wisdom and insights that I stumble across on the Web. Following a thread on my passion, drawing, I found this observation from the artist, Timothy Nero. He said, "Drawing keeps the eye fresh, the mind alive, and intuition nimble."
Every draughtsman knows instantly what he means. As you draw, you find you see things differently, more intimately, with more awareness of space, connectivity and light. Your mind works more alertly, even on a subconscious level, and your senses are honed and more tuned. The act of drawing is a very complex, alive-making affair and things happen in the drawing that you cannot foresee as the artist.
Interestingly, Marc Wilson, Director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum, made a parallel observation about viewing art in an interview reported today by Tyler Green on his Modern Art Notes blog. Mr. Wilson was talking about the galleries in his Bloch Building addition to the Museum and how art is presented there to the public. He said, "I'm not trying to teach you art history. I'm trying to open your eyes, your own senses and your own intelligence to what's in those works of art. That's the first step."
What art involves, whether in the making or the viewing, is basically, I would venture, a good dose of curiosity and having the willingness to open yourself up to new experiences and insights. It is a way of seeing and understanding another person's viewpoint, another version of reality or imagined "reality". In an era when open-mindedness is in short supply in many domains of society, it is to be celebrated that art has still the ability to break down barriers, inhibitions and prejudices. This situation does, however, imply quite a responsibility for each artist somehow to be the provider of keys to unlock doors to different, perhaps new experiences. Perhaps it is lucky that most artists are almost impelled to draw and paint, whether or not their results have this effect. Each of us, as artists, just needs that special feeling of being really alive as we work.
In El Pais of 1st August, there was a long review of two books which had previously appeared in English - Julian Bell's Mirror of the World and 30,000 years of Art by various authors and published by Phaidon. These weighty reviews and compendiums of what, today, is deemed the most important, the best art, started me thinking about art as a general mirror of the world.
What each of us does as an artist is mostly work that comes to us as an expression of individual passion and concern, sometimes steered in one direction or another because the work is commissioned. Generally, however, the work reflects firstly each artist and secondly, the world around that artist. So in a way, each of us mirrors our own world, for good or bad. Artists who are more tuned in to the natural world will tend more to emphasise natural subject matter, urban artists often find their inspiration elsewhere. Today's world, however, becomes much more mixed up as more and more artists tap into the "world's contents, mingled in a vast collective potlach available by Internet, cell phone, TV, satellite and an ever-expanding inventory of connective gadgetry." (Art in America, March 2009) We can all avail ourselves of situations, sights, sounds, whatever, that we have never personally physically experienced. So the art-as-mirror idea potentially gets changed, perhaps distorted, potentially homogenised, worldwide.
Of course, you still have many, many artists quietly continuing to follow a personal vision and passion. Catherine Spaeth, art historian and art critic, in one of her pieces, talked of "the meanings generated by a work of art extend into the larger context of the world at large, and it is here as well that you are becoming art historical" Those meanings of the art generated reverberate out and speak to an audience willing to listen, to look, to ponder and evaluate. I am not sure artists set out always to address meanings/content to this end, but it happens nonetheless. As Emil Cadoo, the photographer working in the Sixties in Paris, once observed, "Only when an artist in any field touches universals can it last through time, can it survive the destruction of things."
Ultimately, it is for us artists simply to go on trying to work seriously, follow one's passion in creating the art that is important to us, as best we can. We will, even today in our ultra-connected world, be mirrors on our worlds, willy-nilly. And it will fall to those, like Julian Bell (artist and critic himself), or those at Phaidon who have selected the best works to represent artists for the last 30,000 years (quite a job!), to tell the next generations who (perhaps) are the best artists mirroring the world in which we all live. One does however have to season the selections a little, mindful of "Chacun à son goût"!