Royal Academy

The Intensity of Size - Big or Small in Art by Jeannine Cook


When I went to see the Richard Diebenkorn survey at the Royal Academy in London recently, I found it interesting but was surprised at my lack of excitement at seeing most of the work. The Ocean Park series on display were, of course, the most lyrical, but again, I was reminded of an internal conversation I frequently have with myself. Does a really big canvas manage to convey the intensity of the artist's passion? Or does the sheer size become, in many cases, a path to dilution of that excitement and energy? If you have to go on labouring day after day to paint huge surfaces, do you run out of steam? Of course, it is not always the case by any means — think of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when Michelangelo laboured day after day in the most difficult of physical positions and conditions, and yet he achieved a power and impact of work that reverberates for every viewer.

Nonetheless, not every artist is a Michelangelo. And in the case of Richard Diebenkorn, I personally found that all his large canvases began to lack intensity. My reaction to these works was unexpectedly reinforced by three small paintings hung amongst the Ocean Park canvases.

They were three equally abstract works, painted on small cigar box covers. He used the cigar box cover paintings as gifts to friends, apparently, and my feeling was that these were the true gems in the exhibition. They were the perfect epitome of "small is beautiful". AsSarah C. Bancroft, curator of one Diebenkorn museum exhibition observes in the catalogue essay, they “capture one’s attention from across the room and command an expanse of wall space disproportionate to their actual size.”

Richard Diebenkorn, Cigar Box Lid #4, 1976. Oil on wood, 8-3⁄8 x 7-1⁄8". The Grant Family Collection. © The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn.

Richard Diebenkorn, Cigar Box Lid #4, 1976. Oil on wood, 8-3⁄8 x 7-1⁄8". The Grant Family Collection. © The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn.

Lyrical, free, certainly intense, but utterly lovely - they just sang. The more one explores the work Diebenkorn did in this small format, on cigar box lids, the more delightful and intimate the body of work becomes. Perhaps Diebenkorn felt liberated in this small format - he was not constrained by acres of canvas, nor the demands of gallery settings and collectors demanding impressive pieces. He could just create small delights that are intimate in scale, where his true sense of colour and the fitness of abstraction could be married to an acute sense of human celebration of life.

Cigar Box Lid #5

Cigar Box Lid #5

Richard Diebenkorn, Cigar Box Lid #6, oil on wood, 1979

Richard Diebenkorn, Cigar Box Lid #6, oil on wood, 1979

As Diebenkorn himself observed, "The idea is to get everything right — it’s not just color or form or space or line — it’s everything all at once."  He certainly achieved that for me in the cigar box lid paintings.

The three large rooms of the Royal Academy's Diebenkorn exhibition were distilled down to these three small pieces, for me. In a funny way, they helped me feel more reassured about my own art - my frequent choice of small format in metalpoint drawings was strangely validated. I was grateful to Diebenkorn for that, but most of all, for three paintings that still sing to me weeks after seeing them.

Making Others See by Jeannine Cook

Every artist knows the excitement of seeing something, discovering something or thinking of something that can then be translated into a work of art. The greater the excitement, the more impassioned the work and frequently, the better the results. Yet those results are then out in the wide world for each viewer to interpret and understand. And the path to achieving memorable art for viewers can be long and arduous.

Edgar Degas remarked, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see." This wise and oh so experienced artist knew that that transformative alchemy needs somehow to come into play amidst the excitement of creation. His skill and innovative methods in choice of composition - often daring indeed for the time with their nod to Japanese woodcuts - allowed him to direct the viewer's gaze in almost unconscious fashion. He also commented, "No art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and of the study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament I know nothing." As he grew older, he would work and rework compositions, trying out parts and juxtaposing them in different fashion, seeking to express movement, psychological impact, social distinctions, but always mindful of what he wished the viewer to appreciate. Chance was not in his methodology of art making.

Woman Bathing , 1886 pastel, E. Degas (image courtesy of the Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT).

Woman Bathing, 1886 pastel, E. Degas (image courtesy of the Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT).

Dancers at the Barre , c. 1888 oil painting, E. Degas, (Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.)

Dancers at the Barre, c. 1888 oil painting, E. Degas, (Image courtesy of the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.)

Look at these two works with their bold, unusual compositions. In each case, Degas is playing with the viewer, directing the eye like an orchestra director conducts the musicians. If you pull the works apart and analyse each one, there are all sorts of odd shapes of limbs, strange angles of bodies, tipped lines. He is using almost hieroglyphic forms to convey what he wants us to see.

Some of the influence in later works is also photography, a medium that Degas embraced from the 1870s onwards. The camera's eye allows even more radical cropping and organisation of space than did the Japanese woodcut tradition, and Degas used these possibilities to full advantage, often in multi-layered compositions.

Part of his way of creating art, especially as he grew older, was to rely on his memory or on the small working sculptures he created of ballerinas, refining and refining the marks and gestures, in the same way that ballet dancers practise and practise movements. I read that he once said that were he to set up an art school, he would house it all under one roof, a building with six floors. On the top floor, he would put the novices to start drawing from the model. As the students progressed, he would move them downstairs, floor by floor. When they were at their most proficient, they would be on the ground floor, and that meant that in order to see the original model, they would actually have to clamber back up the stairs to the sixth floor. By this, he implied that memory is critical to an artist. Until you have practised, practised and re-practised until your art-making has become indelibly part of your inner being, you cannot then devote your attention to organising your artwork in seeming spontaneity but in very purposeful fashion for the maximum effect on viewers.

There are, coincidentally, a number of interesting exhibitions currently on display about Edgar Degas and different aspects of his artistic endeavours. Perhaps the most unusual sounds to be that of Degas and the Nude, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. At the Phillips Collection, there is Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint, while at the Royal Academy, London, Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement. Lucky viewers can savour of being skilfully "made to see" what Degas wanted them to see.

Connecting the Dots - again! by Jeannine Cook

A few months ago, I read the dense and absolutely fascinating book, "The Discovery of France" (with the additional title in the States of "A Historical Geography") by Professor Graham Robb of Oxford University. It is the most amazing work - the result of many years of research and some 14,000 miles cycled through France on his voyages of discovery. Graham Robb shows how the cohesive nation of today, "la belle France", was far from being either cohesive or civilised until very recently, really until the 19th century. Paris was an island of learning, culture and enterprise in a sea of very primitive, divided groups of people who had little concept of belonging to a nation and who, for the most part, did not even speak French until well after the French Revolution.

One of these groups, the Savoyards from Savoie, a beautiful area to the east of France, in the Alps region of Lake Geneva, had such trouble surviving in their inhospitable and highly taxed lands, that they would send their very young children to Paris for survival, of sorts. This had been going on for centuries, and these young children, virtually in servitude in many cases, would walk to Paris and there, they organised themselves into groups. They were especially famed as chimney sweeps because, being skinny small children, they could clamber up the narrow Parisian chimneys to clean them out.

Graham Robb tells a lot about these impoverished Savoyards, with their sense of solidarity, and their importance to their families back in Savoie to whom they would send money every year. Balzac and Victor Hugo wrote about the Savoyards, with their heroic attempts to survive, turning their hand to any job deemed unfit for others.

Standing Savoyarde with a Marmot Box, Antoine Watteau

Standing Savoyarde with a Marmot Box, Antoine Watteau

Eventually, some 150 years ago, they progressed from chimney sweeping to another tightly knit category, the "collets rouges", the official porters at Hôtel Drouot, the most famous and oldest auction house in Paris. 110 porters, all Savoyards, have the right to transport, sort, store and carry all the auction items in the Drouot precincts. Recently, there have been some "irregularities" discovered and porters have been investigated for serious wrong-doing, something the French do not seem surprised about!

But the wonderful connecting of dots that happened again for me was when I was reading about the clearly fabulous exhibition currently on at the Royal Academy, London, of Jean Antoine Watteau's drawings. I had known that Watteau drew all sorts of contemporary scenes in Paris, not just the "fêtes galantes" of the Royal Court and 18th century French society. But I had forgotten about his drawings of the Savoyards. The Royal Academy exhibition apparently has eighty-eight drawings, divided into five themes, of which one deals with the Savoyards.

The Old Savoyard, red and black chalk with stumping, 1715, Antoine Watteau, (image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

The Old Savoyard, red and black chalk with stumping, 1715, Antoine Watteau, (image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

The Old Savoyarde,, 1715, Antoine Watteau, red and black chalk (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum).

The Old Savoyarde,, 1715, Antoine Watteau, red and black chalk (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum).

These two drawings of elderly Savoyards, impoverished and marked by hardship, date from 1715. The old lady carries a marmot box, for the Savoyards would train marmots and use them for street entertainment in their quest for survival. Watteau apparently executed about a dozen drawings of the Savoyards in total.

Only such a master draughtsman as Watteau could so vividly illustrate the dire straits of the Savoyards that Graham Robb describes.