Archive for September, 2010

Do you idealise?Venus. Bouguereau

Inside every artist, there is an inner conflict between the ideal and the real. We either paint the ideal woman or this specific woman; the ideal horse or this specific horse; the ideal setting or this specific setting.

Any picture done from imagination is necessarily “ideal”, so it is essentially when we work from life, that the question of realism or idealisation arises. The artist paints a model in Victorian dress, relaxing in a chair. Right next to her, balanced on a box, is an electrical heater. Do you paint the heater, or ignore it?

As an artist, I am concerned, even obsessed with two things, beauty and truth. Also I love working from life, as much as I do working from imagination. The question, as always, is what is truth? In the case of our Victorian model, there are two truths, documentary truth and narrative truth. When we tell a story, nobody is concerned with factual truth, rather, we look for a consistency, an inner and inescapable logic with a set of laws as inviolable as nature’s.

I love to paint a scene such as this both ways. In the one case the painting might be titled “the model”, and in the other, “reverie”. Both are equally valid, equally true.

Something interesting happened in antiquity. Greek art was always ideal. The concept was explored by Plato, who believed that apart from any real horse, there is also an ideal horse. This ideal horse is not the “perfect” horse, rather, it is the concept of horseness, donkeyness, nagness, and this is the way the Greek artist approached his subject, often not a man, but a god (Apollo), not a woman, but a goddess (Venus). By Roman times the world had become materialistic, and we see sculptures, not of gods, but of men, Ceasars, and senators. Ugly, ugly men, venal and power-seeking, much like our present day tycoons.

Realism tends toward photo-realism. Even artists who might not trace and copy photographs, aspire towards the perfect likeness of the material object. It values a shallow, brutal correctness above beauty. On the other hand, ideal art deals with concepts; concepts such as beauty, harmony, rhythm, musicality, luminosity, atmosphere. The danger is that it can turn its back on truth, and stoop to flatter its sitter. This, of course, is not idealist art, it is simple falsehood.

Beauty, Keats said, is truth; truth beauty.

The truth in a painting is in its rendering of light, of colour, of atmosphere; not of objects. This, when painting from life, so the cold photographic style of painting is always false, because it is without feeling, without sympathy; anaesthetised art, from the brutish art of Rome to the vicious flayings of Freud. And sympathetic contemplative work is always clothed in beauty, because founded in truth – nature seen through a temperament.

It is once we move away from copying the still life, or the landscape, or the figure, that all art is ideal, because it all is founded in the mind, in imagination or in memory. Its light is the light of consciousness.

The great artists found a good solution to working from nature: painting with the use of studies, pencil, watercolour, even oil studies. This is the method of Turner, of Sargent, of Degas, even Michelangelo. Beauty and truth are founded in the eye and in the contemplation of the beholder.


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