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Degas was the ultimate master.

He used his own original systems of composition, not old sets of rules and strictures. In fact, he appears to delight in breaking the rules, as in having people walk out or the picture. This is because he was the first and maybe the only master to see that the frame is not a panel, but a window, and that the artist’s universe continues beyond the frame, in brushstrokes and painterly textures.

In “Absinthe”, the two characters are placed well back into the picture plane, and trimmed by the right edge of the frame. A series of table tops lead into the pictorial space

Absinthe, by Edgar Degas

Degas. Absinthe. 1876

The table tops are bare and devoid of cutlery. There are no chairs. The tabletops levitate, float in air, with no legs and nor are they are cantilevered from the wall.
This is composition. This is genius.

In “Jockeys”, the viewer is standing in the middle of the restless horses, turning and stomping around us.
This is composition. This is genius.

In “Snowstorm at sea”, Turner paints from the depths of the storm as if he were a seagull, or lightning itself.
This is composition. This is genius.

In “the Maids of Honour”, Velasquez observes the scene from outside his own body, through the eyes of the King of Spain who we see in the mirror on the far wall.
This is composition. This is genius.

These kinds of compositions are not calculations, nor are they accurate observations. These are visions, artistvision.

It is good to remember Mozart’s remark on genius, “Love, love, love alone, is genius.”

As artists, this is our mission. To see with the eyes of God.

 

 

Charles Bargue is widely known as the founder of the academic approach to drawing. His approach, as set out in his book, Cours de Dessin, (available here) is used most of the academies in Europe and America. The approach is dry and lifeless, even sterile, but hugely efficient.

Naturally gifted artists should avoid this kind of academic training as it will hamper their natural exuberance but in an environment where so much art is a talentless mess, all serious artists should at the very least pay serious consideration to it.

What came as a surprise to me is that in his painting, Bargue was a master of composition, colour, texture, atmosphere and detail.

Bargue. Flute player

Charles Bargue.
The flute player.

Usually we see atmosphere as the contrary of detail, and it takes a master such as Vermeer, Degas, and yes, Bargue, to bring the two opposites together into perfect harmony.

The study for his Chess Players is as loose as an impressionist painting, and the finished painting a tour de force of observation and technical mastery.

The Flute Player displays unbelievable virtuosity and great self discipline. One button on the musician’s coat is a still life in the small, and the music sheet looks as if it can be played from.

How is this done? I know from his drawings that he did a finished study in outline, but where do the subtleties of colour, value and texture come from? There is only one place, the subconscious.

Great artists can see what is unseen. They can visualise a world of the imagination, and they can live in it. Writers, musicians and artists have this gift of visualisation and if we want to encourage it we have to return to real painting.

When I ask my students who they regard as the world’s leading artist, they often have no idea. And most of them have never heard of Brad Holland.

Rhodesia was under sanctions in 1972, not that it bothered anybody.I first encountered the art of Brad Holland in a Playboy magazine, sold from under his counter by a Greek café owner.

As a young artist fresh from conservative South Africa, no TV, movies like Clockwork Orange and the Last Tango in Paris banned, Playboy was an Alladin’s cave of creativity and kinky fun!

Brad Holland. 3rd eye.

Brad Holland. 3rd eye.


I found an interview with Michael Crichton in which he undertook to kill himself at age 30 “because that is when we lose our creative mojo”, and then I came across a monthly feature called the “Ribald Classic”.

These pieces featured erotic stories and poems from centuries back, but it was the illustration that riveted me. Black ink drawing with what seemed to be a broken pen on bad cardboard, nervous, clumsy lines, and passages of tight pattern, often checkerboard. But the drawing..!

It was like seeing my first Klimt, long erotic contours, faces like a more virile Beardsley, and expressive but anatomically logical figure work. These were not illustrations, these visions spring directly from a tortured, delighted imagination. It was art of the highest level. That was what I thought at 27, and it is what I think now.

The next time I saw Brad Holland’s work was in a collection from the New York Times Op Ed Page. He had reinvented himself. Now he was serious political commentator with a style more reminiscent of Rembrandt’s etchings.

In the movie “Nine and a half weeks”, one sequence featured a slide show of paintings that I was convinced were by Brad Holland, although I had never seen any work by him in oils. Any way, this was, as before when I went scrounging for Playboy Magazines at the Greek in the corner shop, my excuse for seeing the movie about 12 times.

Brad Holland thinks of himself as an illustrator. He is not. All his illustration work was for editorial purposes, independently conceived. And all of it is fine art.

You can read Brad Holland’s blog here:
http://www.drawger.com/holland/?article_id=14174

Vermeer-blogI have long been intrigued by Vermeer’s talent, observation and his secrets.

What is clear to me is that he did not use a camera obscura, first because the camera obscura was in open use at the time, and not a secret; and second because the camera obscura is a toy.

Vermeer’s science is of a different magnitude altogether. It is camera obscura on steroids.. There is a painting by Vermeer in which he shows part of his equipment. In “The Music Lesson” there is a mirror over the virginal, and I have scoured that mirror for evidence. Part of me was hoping to see the artist’s easel and his feet reflected, but part of me expected to find a camera obscura.

This is that mirror, but I am at a loss to identify the reflection.

In the brilliant documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, Tim Jenison recreates the setting and the optics required to produce an image such as Vermeer did.

It is illogical to think that the perfect lettering in the lid of the virginal could have been produced in simple eyeballing observation, or even with such a crude instrument as a camera obscura. Even a modern camera could not define such perfect detail. No, the instruments used would have to be better and more accurate than our cameras, and it would have had to allow matching, not of outlines, but of colour.

Tim Jenison, though as series of brilliant insights, recreated such an instrument.

He constructed and then abandoned a camera obscura; he combined the lens of the camera with a convex focusing mirror, and than he used key device: a standard mirror. But how could such a system be developed in the 17th century, when our advanced science has been incapable of it?

Enter the second Dutch genius. Antonie van Leuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope, was Vermeer’s neighbour, friend, and collaborator. The following is an extract from a letter that Van Leeuwenhoek wrote to the Royal Society in London in 1685:

‘A week later, a needle pricked my finger, and drops of wet blood oozed out. I dabbed the red drops with a cloth, but then placed one droplet before the lens and peered in. Tiny round pomegranate red cells swirled around, their centers concave. I showed Johannes. “God is incredible,” he cried. “Even in the most minute aspects of our lives, there are miracles.” He kept gazing at the blood. “May I move the lens”? He turned and held the tiny glass sphere up to the window, then to the brick buildings on the opposite side of the canal, and then to the canal itself. Off the boats, water dripped. The light vibrated fragily, and cast a tiny spark on the wall behind him.

“I want to buy such a lens, but larger.”

“Why?”

He stared at the reflection on the wall. “I am yet not sure.” I gave him the name of the glass grinder in Leiden.’

Many people think that we are on a pinnacle of civilisation, that our modern age has some genius that other times lacked. I believe the contrary. That our modern value is materialism. That the true genius of all ages belonged to Plato and Pythagoras, and Da Vinci, and Vermeer, and Mozart, and John Ruskin.

It was Mozart who said: ‘Love, love, love alone, is genius.’

 

 

Realism is dead.

During the 1950’s and 60s, the CIA, with massive financial input from the super-rich such as Peggy Guggenheim, worked to destroy any vestige of realism in American and European art.

Courbet. The Stone Breakers

Courbet. The stone breakers.

Even today, Saatchi is promoting the grossest excesses of Damian Hirst and others, even opening the biggest gallery in Venice to push their anti realist, anti-worker, anti-beauty agenda. But they no longer have to worry.

Because realism has been killed off by artists. Realism has been destroyed by the new school of American photo-copyists who call themselves ‘realists’.

Their pretty, effete pictures are the enemy of realism, belonging more to the decorative or romantic schools, except for the fact that their work is also devoid of skill and vision, being copied from photographs projected onto their canvases.

Figure painting, still life, landscape and romantic painting are not realist paintings.

Realism is art with a political aspect. The style developed in 19th Century France, founded by artist such as Courbet and Millet and Daumier.

The best known example of realist art is “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo, dealing with the hardships of the poor and working classes in France.

It is exactly this political social aspect of realism that caused the American establishment to fear and to attack it. To achieve their goal they had to persuade the public that art was ‘difficult’, that mere citizens could not make value judgements on art, and that we all had to trust the critics, to shut up and to toe the party line.

As artists our task as simple. We must define our art correctly. Unless we are working for social justice, our work is ‘impressionist’, or ‘figurative’, or ‘naturalistic’, or ‘romantic’. Not realist.

Toulouse Lautrec fell apart quickly and spectacularly, as did his art.

This great and tragic figure was beset with problems that would destroy lesser men but which shaped and tempered him. Such great love and passion meeting with such hardship.

Much of his work is doomed to destruction and decay. Many of his later pieces were painted on raw cardboard where the very oil paints that he used are destroying the surface they are painted on. Can they be saved? No. Should they be saved? No.

Lautrec nude

Toulouse Lautrec – Nude on a divan

Decay, like autumn, has its own aesthetic. The rotting leaves and low grey mists are perfect in their decay, their fertile beauty often heart-rending. Our air-conditioned malls and cities, our networks of highways choke the animal and plantlife and choke our own experience of the cycles of beauty. Toulouse Lautrec is the artist of autumn. Like a little forest animal he forages among the browns and golds and tans and the rich smells of dirt and foliage and he delights in the beauty of decay.

I imagine that this early and technically perfect picture may have been done in a Paris art school. Certainly the pose suggest a studio setup. A model in a simple pose that can be retaken for several sessions (by contrast his later works are spontaneous sketches from life, observed and recreated from memory).

There is a strange and modest perfection about the girl in the picture. Look at the introspective pose, and the delicate colour of her skin. Note the difference between the tan of her face and hands and the milkiness of her body. This is no dancer from the clubs of Paris. This is a young woman who spends her days in the sun. An innocent from  the countryside; a farmgirl stepping into the life of the big city, in her way as courageous as the young man behind the easel.

But is there a second story here? The artist was young when he painted this picture, young enough to spend time with his family on their farm at Toulouse.  Certainly the paintings done at the same time include the portrait of his mother, a farm labourer and friend, and studies of farm animals.

Was this a young love, a moment of perfection in the countryside? Was he painting this young woman in her bedroom on the farm? And then, what became of her?

Modern society is scared of decay and feels itself safe in concrete and glass. What is scary is life. It takes courage, love and passion to embrace it.

Art demands your life.

Historically, Tiepolo lived in Venice, the same Venice we love.

Tiepolo's Madonna from Venice.

He walked the same alleyways, crossed the same bridges, and took the same boats we do. But he was not of this world. Tiepolo lived among the clouds.

Where we see buildings and structures, Tiepolo saw clouds and rainbows and sunbursts and angels. His mind was linked to heaven. His gaze was turned upward, and to see his work, we need to look up as well. The greater part of his work are on the ceilings of the many churches and pallazzi of Venice and of many other great cities.

His paintings are weightless, angels and saints and pagan gods and goddesses mingle with cupids and putti, all living in a world without gravity. As with all artists, this is where he lived.

We do not live in this world, except in the most superficial way. Our lives are the manifestation of our thoughts, of our fears and our dreams, and as we can shape our dreams, so can we shape our lives. All it takes is loving something enough to dwell upon it.

Our lives have been blessed by the works and lives of clear, luminous minds such as Tiepolo. It is not enough to want to be an artist, we must love art, the art of the great minds.

Choose a picture that inspires you and hang it where you will see it daily.

John Ruskin, that great prophet of truth in art, had a broad view of truth, but a strict one:

“If some people see angels where others only see empty space, let them paint angels; only let not anybody else think they can paint an angel too.”

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