Simon Schama

Artists' Insights and Imaginations by Jeannine Cook

While I was wandering through London’s National Portrait Gallery recently, following the meandering trail through the rooms to view the exhibit Simon Schama curated of the sixty portraits in “The Faces of Britain”, I was totally fascinated. Not only because there were so many portraits, in so many media, of icon faces of recent times, but because a quote kept ringing through my head.It was a statement in a National Geographic Magazine article in August 2014 on “Before Stonehenge”: “Art offers a glimpse into the minds and imaginations of the people who create it.” This seemed to be so appropriate of the art I was seeing as I followed the “Faces of Britain” exhibit as it was scattered (cunningly, I decided!) through the galleries. Not only were the faces diverse, interesting and evocative of the people depicted, but the actual art created spoke volumes too about the artists, their perception of the portrait’s subject and the times in which the work was created in each case.

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Creating Art: Staring until your Eyes Pop by Jeannine Cook

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait,  1889, Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Vincent Van Gogh,Self-Portrait, 1889, Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Author Simon Schamaused this wonderful phrase about Vincent Van Gogh, in his book, "The Power of Art".Schama talked of Van Gogh seeking to create art that was imbued with the "visionary radiance" that previous generations of artists had found in Christianity.  To achieve this source of light and inspiration that could reach out to fellow men, Van Gogh's approach was painting with "blood and blisters and staring until your eyes popped" (my emphasis).

Even though Van Gogh did not necessarily follow the time-honoured rules of perspective, colour usage or subject-matter, he sought to give his art a different, more open view of life that embraced nature in all its aspects.  His pulsating interpretations of trees, fields, and flowers show powers of observation that amaze. Catching the clouds, the light, the motion of the wheat, or, in the Olive Grove below, the silvery dance and form of the olive trees - all that requires great, tenacious powers, first of observation, then of organisation and simplification.

Wheat Field with Cypresses, Van Gogh, 1889, Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wheat Field with Cypresses, Van Gogh, 1889, Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Olive Grove, Van Gogh, 1889

Olive Grove, Van Gogh, 1889

Every artist, especially those working with aspects of the world around him or her, knows that observation is key to understanding and thus depicting a subject.  It does not necessarily have to  be a realistic depiction either, just as in Van Gogh's case.  Nonetheless, staring and staring at your subject always brings rewards; you keep noticing fresh aspects, you learn how things interlock, how things work, where the light falls, how shadows shape things. In this month's Artist's Magazine,for instance, in an article on still life artist Eric Wert, he is quoted as spending long hours "trying to get to the reality of a particular element.  'But once all the data are there that makes something look real,' he says, ' I step back and let it become its own creature, develop its own personality.  I'm open to what the subject can start to tell me.' "

Another time one needs to stare, stare and stare some more is during life drawing.  As soon as an artist begins to draw from a live model, the conversation begins between eyes, hand and the model. The subtleties of light on skin, the delicacy of muscles in tension or at rest, the twist of limbs or torso only reinforce the need to look and understand.  Only with that understanding comes the freedom then to simplify, edit and create works that are powerful.  Take but one example - Rembrandt:

Constantijn Daniel van Renesse, , Rembrandt and his Pupils drawing from a Nude Model.  c. 1650, Image courtesy of Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

Constantijn Daniel van Renesse,, Rembrandt and his Pupils drawing from a Nude Model. c. 1650, Image courtesy of Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

Rembrandt,  Study of Female Nude seen from the Back,  1630-34, Image courtesy of the Courtauld Institute, London

Rembrandt, Study of Female Nude seen from the Back, 1630-34, Image courtesy of the Courtauld Institute, London

In other words, as the old English saying goes - "Open your peepers"! Your art will thank you.

Creating Something from Nothing by Jeannine Cook

Listening to NPR, this morning, Rachel Martin interviewed the English songwriter-singer, Emeli Sande, about her music, now that she is launching her first album here in the United States.  She is a highly lucid and engaging young woman, a neuroscience major, who has reverted most successfully to her first love, music, since opportunity came knocking. 

At one point, when asked when she started writing songs, she replied,

"I began writing when I was about 6 or 7. And even at that age, I just thought it was so incredible that you could create something from nothing, and it was all in your mind and imagination," she tells Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin. "The combination of poetry and music I just thought was incredible."

The phrase, "you could create something from nothing, and it was all in your mind and imagination", set me reflecting on how the same thing is true about visual artists, all composers – just about any creative act.  It is all so, so simple, in truth.  From some magical recesses of one's brain, out pops an idea, an inspiration, a "what if you do such and such a thing?  It is like finding a shiny, perfect shell as you walk along the beach.  You pick it up and turn it over, marvelling at it, evaluating it, examining its possibilities.

This remark dovetailed in a way with many of the theses that Simon Schama puts forward in his marvellous book, The Power of Art, in which he had fascinating and stimulating chapters on eight artists down the ages, from Caravaggio to Rothko, who have been revolutionary each in their own way.  The 2006 book accompanied a BBC/PBS series of the same name, which alas, I have not seen, but in any case, the book is - as always with Simon Schama's books - a gem.

Each of the artists examined in this book basically dared to adhere to their own visions, the ideas that emanated from their minds and imaginations. They pursued these ideas even if they were totally at odds with what other artists were doing or even what their patrons wanted them to produce by way of art.  Of course, they evolved over time, but they kept believing in their own inner voices and ideas. 

Blue, orange, red,  Mark Rothko, 1961

Blue, orange, red, Mark Rothko, 1961

Perhaps the last artist written about, Mark Rothko, was the one who had to keep seeking and clarifying his ideas the longest.  He once said that paintings had to be miraculous, Schama wrote.  And indeed, he was fifty years old before the miracle paintings began, his dazzling, amazingly subtle colour stacks. (Above,Blue, orange, red,  and below, Pink and orange.)  

Pink and orange, 1950,  Mark Rothko

Pink and orange, 1950, Mark Rothko

Rothko said that painting was an exercise in continuous clarification, as Schama wrote, but once the artist had clarified the ideas, he had to ensure that this clarity was passed on to the beholder.  Back to the dialogue, the communion, between artist's work and the viewer, for instance.

So simple, so elegant, so difficult - this materialisation, seemingly from nothing or nowhere save the inside of one's head - of something that then becomes interesting, beautiful, inspiring, memorable enough to speak to other humans.  Something from "nothing".