Art is the most wonderful passport to making friends around the world. Sharing, learning, agreeing, disagreeing - friendships flourish and deepen over time. Many a time, art has been the bridge to making that friendship, just as it has down the ages for so many people.Read More
Leonardo da Vinci
I have been reading about the Middle Ages to remind myself about aspects of this key transitional era in our Western history. One of the delights is to have small illustrations of contemporary illuminated manuscripts by artists such as Loyset Liédet of Bruges, who did many of the illustrations for Jean Froissart's Chronicles in the text prepared for Luis de Gruthuuse, a wealthy Flemish nobleman. In these miniatures, people are the most important part of the image, and the landscape behind is purely secondary and very idealised. For instance, the painting of the Battle of Poitiers 1356, shows an idyllic backdrop of blue mountains and peaceful scenery which contrasts sharply with the battle depicted in the foreground.
The same treatment was meted out to landscapes in medieval wall paintings and tapestries; they were merely the background to human activity. Battles, religious events, societal changes were worth recording. Nature was not of much importance,
This state of affairs continued for many years, with artists paying some attention to landscapes and nature - think of Leonardo da Vinci's studies of dogs, horses, water flowing or landscapes in Tuscany... or Albrecht Dürer's studies of flowers, rabbits, countrysides. But in France, the landscape did not become an independent and valid subject for artists to paint and draw until the 1620s, when it became more of a specialised subject. Claude Lorrain was one of the pioneers in landscape painting, but his works were idealised and romantic to say the least. Interest in landscapes increased gradually until artists such as Jean-Baptiste Corot became a skilled interpreter of the landscape, even if he did do many "pot-boilers" to earn his living. By his time, landscape painting was being taught in the art academies in France, although it was a genre that was ranked pretty low on their "intellectual or moral content" scale. History painting and portraiture were still far more highly esteemed. Landscape painting, which did not require knowledge of anatomy, still had to be idealised really to win respect and admiration from connoisseurs and other artists.
Then came the radical change in France. Pierre Henri de Valenciennes worked hard within the Academy to establish a Prix de Rome for "historical landscapes", advocating that artists paint a "portrait" of a landscape. His publication, Eléments de perspective pratique à l'usage des artistes, (Elements of Practical Perspective for Artists, 1799-1800), was a key influence for artists painting landscapes for decades. By the 1830s, Charles-François Daubigny was painting outdoors in the Fontainbleau region, soon joined by others, like Millet, in the Barbizon School, while another group was forming on the coast near Le Hâvre, led by Eugène Boudin. Monet joined him as a student, and the rest, as they say, is history. Pisarro, Sisley, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne and even Degas on occasions - they all worked outdoors. Edouard Manet tried his hand too at plein air when he painted a small work, "Effect of Snow at Petit-Montrouge", in 1870, when he was on guard during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War.
These artists had all completely altered the concept and quest for beautiful painted landscapes. No longer was anything idealised. Instead the 19th century French artists, and especially those who became known as the Impressionists, turned their energies and their passion towards portraying the landscape as real, as they saw it, experienced it firsthand and interpreted it. They showed not only nature's beauties but also its intricacies and vagaries. Nature had been transformed and placed centre stage, no longer subservient to any human presence in the work of art. A huge change from the careful, tiny depictions of background idealised landscapes of medieval times....
I am back to drawing in silverpoint, tackling a large study of lily seed pods which have been "talking" to me for some time since I rescued them from the winter struck garden last year.
Since silverpoint, a medium that makes marks with a silver stylus on a prepared ground, precludes any erasures and thus requires a little thought and planning, I found this quote resonated : "Drawings were always ways for artists to think out loud on paper...". This was said about an exhibition of Old Master drawings in the Scholz Family Works on Paper Gallery at the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame (www.nd.edu/sniteart/collection/printdrawing/index.html), where it was also pointed out that drawings were called "studi, schizzi, pensieri" in Italian.
It is true that one does think, possibly out loud when alone, in the midst of drawing. As I started working with these majestic seed pods of a Madonna Lily, I kept thinking of the role of the Madonna Lily in all the Renaissance Annunciations paintings that I have seen over the years. The famous ones, by Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticello, Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) or Fra Filippo Lippi, are joined by many others painted by Italian Renaissance artists on canvas or fresco. The custom that the Angel who announces the amazing news to the Virgin Mary should carry a spray of Madonna or Regale Lilies seems to have pertained from the mid-1400s onwards, for about 50-75 years. Looking at a large selection of images on Wikipedia Commons (http://www.commons,wikipedia.org/wiki/category:Renaissance_paintings_of_Annunciation), it is fascinating to see how "standardised" the lilies were for all those artists.
Beyond the Renaissance memories, I keep thinking that these lily seed pods are metaphors for proud, elegant women who have born children and grown in stature and grace as they watch their progeny disperse. Their bone structures are refined and beautiful, they hold themselves erect, despite advancing years, they epitomise distilled, condensed wisdom and lore.
But as I think these thoughts, and many others, as I draw, I am left wondering if I will convey any of this when I finish this drawing... who knows? I can but hope so, but, in the meanwhile, I still have a lot of drawing, and thinking, to do!
Leonardo da Vinci advised art viewers that the perfect distance from which to view a painting was the length of the human face. To me, that is a fascinating dictum, because it tells a lot about how Leonardo planned his paintings. Firstly, despite his living in Italy where the Mediterranean light is frequently sunny and bright, Leonardo must have factored in the darkness of building interiors and flickering illumination when considering how his paintings were to be viewed. He must also have wanted his paintings to be appreciated fully in all their subtle detail and nuance, only possible from a close examination. That short distance between viewer and art also tells of the intimate dialogue Leonard wanted to set in motion when he created art.
When you see Leonardo's drawings, particularly his silverpoints, this intimacy is even more salient. Most of his silverpoints are perhaps two to three inches by four to five inches, at most. They are tiny. But despite their diminutive size, they are incredibly powerful.
His notebooks and drawing books, too, are very small indeed and it amazed me, when I saw some of them at the Louvre in a wonderful exhibition, that he had such control of his hand on such a restricted surface, especially when all the writing was "backwards". Drawings have always been considered intimate media. Silverpoints, chalks, pen and inks, graphites, charcoals, pastels and even watercolours - they all invite close inspection, a whispered dialogue between art and viewer. Historically, drawings were to be displayed (and protected) in muted light, in the inner sanctum of an art lover's home, in the "cabinet de dessins". Usually of a scale that is in function of the human hand and the marks it makes on paper or vellum, a drawing is ideally viewed by a single person at a time, a very human scale in concept and proportionality.
The scale of art is an endlessly interesting consideration, with a huge effect on the viewer. Every artist gets involved in this issue each time a work of art is conceived, as you have to decide what size the work of art is going to be. At present, we seem to live in a world of extremes - there are diminutive, often gem like creations and then there are the colossal works which often have trouble fitting even into large public spaces. These are works conceived for viewing from a long distance, with the art often dominating the space in dramatic and often vividly coloured fashion, with robust content and form. Perhaps an obvious example of a large canvas is Picasso's passionate antiwar Guernica, measuring 11 x 25.6 feet, now at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid (http://www.museoreinasofia.es/). Viewing gives a visceral jolt, but I always feel I need to back away quite a distance fully to understand its powerful messages.
Another series of large paintings that come to mind are the 14 Mark Rothko paintings in the Rothko Chapel adjacent to the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas (http://www.rothkochapel.org/).
Their size, (11 x 15 feet or larger in the triptychs), the chapel built to house them and the general ambiance created by these vast dark canvases are utterly memorable. This is the artist who declared back in 1942, about his and Adolph Gottleib's work, "We favor the simple expression of the complex thought. We are for the large shape because it has the impact of the unequivocal..." Interestingly, in the next decade, he replied to critics who were claiming that he was working on a large scale to compensate for a lack of substance in his paintings. He wrote, "I realise that historically, the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however ... is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn't something you command!"
And yet, Rothko circles back to what Leonardo said, in terms of the viewer's ideal distance from his paintings. The span of centuries does not change this recommendation: Rothko suggested that eighteen inches are an ideal distance from which to view one of his canvases. Like Leonardo, Rothko knows that at those close quarters, a sense of intimacy leads to a dialogue with the art that can take the viewer far beyond self into the realm of the unknown.