Part 2 of a long look back at the heritage of landscape and plein air art that we artists enjoy today nd from which we can draw encouragement and inspiration, as well as instruction.Read More
It is enough to make one feel guilty!
Spending hours in the bright sunlight in the midst of winter, while practically everyone one knows is suffering extreme cold or torrential rains or both in rapid succession in Northern countries.
Winter in the Mediterranean has definite charms.
One of the most delightful of these charms is a part of the garden fragrant with a carpet of violets blooming. Every time I pick these lovely flowers, I remember the steep banks of Tanzanian mountain terraces bound with violets where I spent hours as a child picking huge perfumed bunches while my mother worked among the flowers in the terrace beds.
So it was natural that when I moved to Paris, I was delighted to find there were still ladies selling bunches of flowers on street corners and especially posies of Parma violets, the most fragrant of all violets, said to be from Toulouse.
And then I discovered the paintings and drawings of flowers that told of other people’s delight with violets down the ages as I spent hour upon hour in the French museums.
The love of violets showed up early, not surprisingly, in the wonderful margin illuminations in medieval manuscripts, where flowers are woven in with birds, insects and glorious arabesques and curliques. Since violets symbolize purity, modesty and pure love and are associated with the Virgin Mary, it was normal to include these spring flowers in Books of Hours and other religious works. Books of Hours were created from the 13th century onwards, often in France, and are still treasured works that remain jewel-like. Nonetheless, violets had come into the Christian lexicon from far earlier: the Greeks hadesteemed them and used them in sleeping draughts, health-giving tisanes, as sweetening for food, as well as loving their beauty. The Romans of course followed suit, and made wine from violets, used them in salads and as conserves. Violet tinctures and elixirs, perfumes and cosmetics helped restore health and well being. Later the Anglo Saxons believed in the curative powers of violets for wounds, and followed ancient practices of using violets to help restore the respiratory tract after colds and bronchitis. So it was not surprising that violets very so frequently illustrated in early holy books.
Individual early artists who celebrated violets, members of the Viola family, are Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci.
Then came a long period when violets, and other flowers for that matter, were mostly painted by Dutch still life artists in the 16th and early 17th century.
It was really not surprising that the Dutch artists should celebrate flowers but they became masters of combining flowers, in one painting, that actually bloomed at entirely different times. Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1583-1621) was one such master, painting on panels or on copper, works that glow.
A little earlier, French writer, traveller and artist, Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues had teamed up with the French Huguenots who unsuccessfully attempted to establish a colony in Florida in 1564, recording much of the flora and fauna he saw there. He also later worked in London and produced some beautiful botanical studies, considered the finest in the 16th century. He included violets in his repertoire.
The French heritage of botanical studies continued into the 18th and 19th century, as is demonstrated by Pierre Jean François Turpin, considered one of the best botanical and floral artists of the Napoleonic era and beyond, as well as another noted German botanical illustrator, Georg Dionysius Ehret. Another Frenchman who painted violets in a less rigourously botanical fashion was Paul de Longpre (1855-1911): he was very much into the Victorian era spirit of depicting flowers. Nonetheless, he know how to paint violets in a way that allows one almost to smell their perfume.
Indeed, the 19th century brought more attention to the humble violet, mainly as a prop in portraits of young ladies, as in Théodore Chasseriau’s and James Tissot’s cases.Edouard Manet obviously got enticed by bouquets of violets, for in the same year, 1872, he painted two pictures, on a study of a bunch of violets, the other a portrait of Berthe Morisot with a bunch of the same flowers.
The Victoria era brought a surge of interest to flower painting and the violet was one of the favoured flowers to paint, with its symbolism, fragrance and, I suspect, availability as Viola odorata varieties grow beautifully in well-watered, moderate to mild climates. The French and British artists seem to have been the most keen on painting violets, but in the United States, in the early 20th century. Lila Cabot Perry used violets in a couple of her paintings. Elbridge Ayer Burbank and Thomas Waterman Wood were other American artists who loved violets, as was the Tiffany artist, Alice Gouvy.
Today, artists still turn to the violet family in delight.
One only has to look on the Net at the many, many images, mostly photographs, of these lovely flowers. But perhaps, in anticipation of 14th February at the end of this week, this should be the last image about one of my most favourite flowers, one of them growing in a garden. One can just imagine their perfume scenting the air.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!
Silverpoint, or metalpoint when one refers to all the metals potentially used to make marks, seems to be a drawing medium which elicits instant interest in everyone to whom one talks about it. It always surprises me how its mysterious attraction remains intact.
I was recently reminded of this attraction when I mentioned to a Spanish friend that I draw in silver, and also gold, copper, etc. What had been interest in what I said became intense attention as I was carefully quizzed about just was this drawing medium.
Telling the story of how the monks started using lead for their lines in handwritten manuscripts and outlines for illumination from possibly the 8th century onwards, as demonstrated by the Lindesfarne Gospels, brings home the antiquity of this medium. The fact that, later, all the great artists whose names everyone knows - Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Lorenzo di Credi, Albrecht Durer - all used metalpoint, especially silverpoint, elicits even more interest.
Graphite's appearance helping to decrease the popularity and use of drawing in metal is another surprise. Most people have never even thought about the origins and history of the "lead pencils" they use so often.
The virtual disappearance of metalpoint after Rembrandt's few silverpoint drawingsand Judith Leyster's botanical studies in silver are the next chapter in the story I find myself frequently telling about this medium.
When Cennino Cennini's manuscript of the Il Libro dell' Arte was re-found in the early 19th century in an Italian archive, and people learned once more about silverpoint from Cennini talking of this medium and how to prepare all the materials to draw in metalpoint, there was a renewal of the medium.
Now, in the early 21st century, after spluttering interest during the 20th century, there seems to be another renaissance in metalpoint, despite its relentless aspects of narrow value range, impossibility to erase marks and slow development of the work. With increased interest in drawing media in general, it is natural that metalpoint be one of the voices in the drawing chorus. There is a wonderful diversity in the work being done, from classical approaches to very experimental work. Realistic (helped by the very fine lines which characterise drawing with a metal stylus) approaches are complemented by strictly abstract work, but share the shimmering, discreetly elegant characteristics of these drawings.
Metalpoint's allure, a medium that to me seems very much of our contemporary often sleek and understated approach to art and design, comes from its lustrous appearance and also, as I keep finding, its mystery of origins and history. I must admit, I thoroughly enjoy telling people about this drawing medium, and I suspect that my hundred or so fellow metalpoint artists also relish their role of ambassador for this special way of drawing.
Picasso - amongst all the other interesting things he said - remarked that, "Painting is just another way of keeping a diary." He was so right.
I have kept many drawing books, usually small so that they can be slipped into a bag as I travel, and I was going through some of them recently. As I leafed through the pages, memories came flooding back. No matter how quickly I did a drawing or painting, it still has the power to evoke. The place, of course, but the sounds, the scents, the other events surrounding my doing the art - all are connected to the art-making. I am not sure that had I only kept a written diary, I would have such vivid memories of all those trips I have made. Yes, I do keep a written journal, but I tend to record other types of things, such as names, people, events.
I think that art-making is always a record of where the artist is in terms of life and experience. Viewers may not always understand the art from the "diary" point of view, but the artist can always remember. Historically, there have been some wonderful diaries left by artists.
Two very famous ones are from Renaissance times. Albrecht Durer's 1521 diary of his trip to the Netherlands was a series of astonishing silverpoint drawings of places, people, sights that he experienced. He had kept other diaries before this one, but executing the drawings in unforgiving silverpoint is stellar work. Paper was still a precious commodity so Dürer used the pages on both sides and crammed things into them.
The image reproduced was apparently done when Dürer visited Brussels and went to the Coudenberg Place zoological gardens. He also drew lions there and was generally fascinated by the animals. He went to this zoo in 1520 on his way to the Netherlands, and then did these drawings when he returned in 1521, on his way home.
Another very famous diary-keeper was Leonardo da Vinci. He kept notebooks in which he drew out ideas, made notes and calculations, basically evolving as an artist. This image is courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of Leonardo's small, intense diaries, full of genius calculations, thoughts and observations.
This is a page from the Codice Atlantico, a wonderful collection of pages of Leonardo's thoughts and observations, with 1750 drawings on 1119 pages, dating from 1478 to 1518. The Codice belongs to the Ambrosiana Library in Milan and constitutes one of the most amazing diaries an artist has ever kept.
Another artist, much nearer our times, who famously kept a diary was Frida Kahlo. In effect, most of the art she produced was about herself, a form of journaling. Nonetheless she formally kept a dairy too about her Mexican world.
These are pages from her journals. They are eloquent testimony to her spirit and creativity.
Today's artists don't just confiine themselves to diary-keeping on paper - video and photography are other means to record life. Nonetheless, a small spiral or moleskin journal slips easily into a pocket and goes everywhere with you as you navigate life as an artist. Try following Picasso's advice!
It is thought-provoking for every artist to see Albrecht Dürer's statement that "Simplicity is the greatest adornment of art". In some ways, it is a bit ironic for Dürer was perfectly capable of making complex, crowded works of art, especially his woodcuts.
Nonetheless, the image that of course comes first to mind when I read his remark is his super-famous Hands of an Apostle, a grey and white drawing on his favourite blue paper. This drawing was done in preparation for the Frankfurt church altarpiece that Jakob Heller commissioned him to paint in 1508. This is indeed a devastatingly simple drawing in one sense, but look at the rendering of the skin texture, the way Dürer conveys the gentle meeting and touching of the finger tips, as well as the effort of keeping the hands together, despite their weight. The blue paper used, "cartaazzurra", was a new enthusiasm for Dürer; he learned about it when he went in 1507-08 to Venice. Artists in Northern Italy had been using it since 1389, and Venetian artists favoured it because it allowed them to use wonderful chiaroscuro effects.
He was using this paper again for this study of the Twelve-year Old Christ, an extraordinary, sensitive and yet very straightforward drawing.
Dürer continued to use this paper and took a goodly supply of it back home to Northern Europe. I remember reading somewhere that when he ran out of it, he went to great lengths to find alternative blue papers. This drawing of the Arm of Eve was again, a very simple, powerful drawing Dürer did on blue paper in 1507.
I think that it is a real discipline for each of us, as an artist, to try to simplify our work, to distil it to its essence, not to dilute and maybe obscure the message. There is always the temptation to add in more detail, more complexity. When you think of it, however, that a simple study, drawn 503 years ago on a small piece of blue paper, can remain so memorable, so vivid, so powerful is a total confirmation of Dürer's statement about simplicity being the greatest "adornment of art".
While listening to the BBC World Service on the radio today, I heard an interesting interview on The Strand programme with South African composer Kevin Volans. He was discussing the multiple influences on him and sources of inspiration for his compositions.
He made the remark that a musician needs to have his ears open at all times to all the sounds around him, because he is thus "fed" and inspired - I am paraphrasing. I thought it was the perfect reminder to me, as a visual artist, that artists' antennae should be up at all times, our eyes open and registering actively and our senses receptive to the world around. No one ever really knows what will stimulate some new creative idea – that is perhaps what makes being an artist so endlessly interesting and exciting.
Volans was talking of living in South Africa and listening to Zulu being spoken on the street all around him. When he went to Germany and heard German being spoken, it made him very aware of the differences in sound and in fact, drove home to him his links to Africa.
I relate to that statement, because I grew up with melodic Kiswahili being spoken all around me, and somehow those sounds still mingle with brilliant African light and tropical colour in my mind. Antennae, for artists, don't just register visually; rather, we all should be aware of sounds, light, colour, motion or stillness – the world around us in multi-dimensional form. Sharpening one's powers of observation always brings rewards, because whatever the artist is seeking to create comes across more powerfully and authentically when there is knowledge behind the creation.
Thinking about artists' antennae being up and registering actively makes me think of those wonderful examples of Albrecht Durer's work, the watercolour studies of humble aspects of nature that became great art because of Durer's keen attentiveness. Perhaps my favourite example of this is his Great Piece of Turf, done in watercolour and gouache on paper. How many artists, then - in 1503 - or now - would think of painting a small sample of the grasses in a field, let alone be so aware of the exquisite details in the turf? In the same way, Dürer's awareness of the beauty and intricacy of this Muzzle of a Bull is amazing. (Image courtesy of The British Museum.)
Dürer painted this study in watercolour in 1523, many years after he painted the turf, but he was still looking very carefully at nature. In fact, Albrecht Dürer was so noted for his studies of plants and animals that in the years after his death in 1528, those were the aspects of his art that were most admired and emulated by fellow artists and subsequent generations of artists.
Perhaps part of being an artist, in any discipline, is to have one's eyes and ears really working. Certainly all the great artists confirm the need for these well-honed antennae.
I cannot resist reverting to the wonderful book, "The Hare with Amber Eyes" by Edmund deWaal. Not only was it a delight because of the story, the history of the Ephrussi family and the netsuke that now belong to the author, but because of the comments about art in general, and about drawing in particular.
Edmund deWaal's ancestor, Charles Ephrussi, who acquired the netsuke collection in Paris, was himself an author on Albrecht Durer's artwork and a noted art connoisseur.
The image is the famed silverpoint drawing the 13 year old Dürer did of himself in 1484 – silverpoint is fiendishly obdurate in not allowing changes or erasures. This makes the drawing all the more amazing for this young artist to have achieved.
Charles Ephrussi's expertise in drawings led him to write about the intimate dialogue that a viewer has with them. Viewing a drawing allows us to "catch the thought of the art in all its freshness, at the very moment of manifestation, with perhaps even more truth and sincerity than in the works that require arduous hours of labour, with the defiant patience of the genius."
As Edmund deWaal noted, this is a marvellous "manifesto for drawing. It celebrates the moment of apprehension (my emphasis) and the fugitive moment of response - a few traces of ink or a few strokes of the pencil." As a very successful artist (potter) himself, he knows of this almost visceral moment of launching oneself onto the blank page, making marks that are instinctive, questing – without any real knowledge of what the ultimate results will be.
Edmund deWaal continued with a very important observation about Charles Ephrussi's book about Dürer. He talked about this study, written at a time when the Impressionists were launching their bold new way of seeing the world pictorially, as being Charles' way to remind people that art from different times can be mutually enriching. A Dürer drawing could "talk" in a very meaningful fashion to a drawing done by Edgar Degas. How true that is! Artists are constantly in conscious or subconscious dialogue with others' work; we cannot happily operate in a vacuum for too long. That is why art museums, art books, galleries and exhibitions are vital fare for us all, but especially for anyone who is a practising artist.
A final insight Edmund deWaal gives us, courtesy of Charles Ephrussi, is about Gustave Moreau's painting. He cites him as describing Moreau's work as having "the tonalities of an ideal dream" and goes on to describe such a dream as being one where "you are held in a state of weightless reverie and lose the boundaries of your self." That is the magical state that each of us can experience when, for instance, you visit a museum and see works of art that take your breath away. Suddenly the world falls away, you are captured by a multiplicity of emotions and you stand in front of a painting or drawing, oblivious of anyone or anything else. In other words, a state of grace, in my book. These are the moments that feed one as an artist, that allow art to transcend time and place and enrich us all.
In the same way, this book, "The Hare with Amber Eyes" is enriching. It is already on my list of gifts for friends.