‘We can learn nothing from the Old Masters’

Coming to the end of a five day course it’s a good time to reflect on what I’ve achieved.

Was it five days well spent helping people to realise their dream to become better painters, or five days I’ll never get back?

Ask the same question in most art tutors and you’ll get a quixotic answer, ‘Art cannot be taught’ . Leaving aside the obvious point that the whole aim of any college is to teach, does that mean I’m wasting my time?

Hardly.

What one can’t impart is that spark of original genius which animated the brushes of painters like Velasquez or the imagination of Picasso, but it’s all to easy to throw one’s hands in the air and say that these things cannot be taught, and therefore the whole thing shouldn’t be taught.

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Aesop by Velasquez, technical skill is a solid basis for creative innovation, but there’s precious little of that here; this is bravura technical skill but not, I think, vision.

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Watching me watching you. Las Meninas is a work of originality, insight and genius underpinned by years of unglamorous craft.

But where did artists of that calibre start? With the basics of course, for while ephemeral genius might come unbidden, its visualisation and realisation must be built on the  concrete skills of Painting (note the capital P), and it’s precisely these skills which art colleges need to turn their hands and energies to, rather than shooting straight for some kind of conceptual end game.

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The style that launched a thousand representational ateliers. Too much craft is a bad thing. because flawless technique isn’t the point of Art if it doesn’t flower into visionary genius. Sorry John.

True, one can hardly expect every competent painter to turn those craft skills into a means of expressing some personal creative genius, but that equation doesn’t reverse. Even geniuses need the craft to express their ideas in a way we can all benefit from.

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Creative vision will always trump technical skill, but you’ll always need a sound grasp of the latter. Bacon’s screaming pope might be visionary but its technically competent too.

I wonder  – I really do – if that’s not the central omission in our state Art education.

It’s commonplace to bemoan the fact that Art isn’t being taught because those who teach it were not themselves taught to paint, and certainly the growth of practical teaching studios such as mine do nothing if not bear witness to that sad fact.

Worse still, those who are taught to paint, often lack the plurality to embrace contemporary practice. Ateliers always teach great skills, but I wonder if the world really needs more classically trained painters? It’s not useful to impose a style upon creative minds by insisting this Art is valid and that type as not.

So I’m for a middle ground, although I understand compromise is so very unfashionable these days. Enough craft to enable creativity, but not a diktat on how those skills should be used; that attitude should have ended after 1874 and Impressionism.

How wonderful it would be if we could prepare young – would be – artists with the practical and technical skills they need to express themselves before they took on the very necessary and useful conceptual training on offer at university.

All that’s necessary are the basics:

  • The use and creation of grounds, boles and gesso
  • Ditto that of mediums
  • The central role of Value in creating the illusion of Form
  • The key processes of painting (direct, ebauche, indirect)
  • Understanding how to read and use a triadic colour wheel
  • How to use brushes, rags and knives
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Learning the craft of painting so they can become artists. The trick is not to confuse the input with the output. The craft of painting is not an end in itself but an enabler.

Once one has the things inspiration if it comes can be expressed, and it can be done in just a week with a few willing minds. Over five years of high school and two of college it doesn’t seem much to ask, yet every week I work with people whose creative spark has been inhibited by their inability to put thoughts on canvas.

So not a week wasted, but a week seeding the ground in case originality and genius arrives to enable it to root and flower.

‘Nothing To Do with the Genius of Turner’

A slow news day has netted in Mr Gove’s latest contribution to British public life; his confident assertion that the Turner Prize has ‘nothing to do with the genius of Turner.’

Now, I’m no fan of what Mr Gove has previously termed Art which ‘celebrates ugliness, nihilism and narcissism’, but only because it’s easier to knock up a powerful negative image than create a positive uplifting one. As much as I admire the terrible vision Bacon, I infinitely prefer the utopian images which Bonnard conjured up from nostalgia and memory. Suburban, bourgeois, comfortable – but there you are, my taste is as valid as yours.

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Hurst’s macabre vision. Not for me, but only because it’s easier to shock than delight. A lesson I learned in my career in advertising, and that personal, subjective judgement has nothing to do with the merit of his work. 

But personal taste is no measure of merit, and it seems nonsensical to me to dismiss an established and respected Art competition with what amounts to a half baked comparison between Marten , Turner, Holman Hunt and – of  all people – Ruskin.

One can’t really compare Picasso with Titian, they both painted wonderfully, innovated and used paint but that’s about it, and in the same vein is it reasonable or desirable to compare Turner prize winners with the great artists of the past?

Interestingly , a friend passed on a catalogue of Turner prize winners to me last week, and just through the lens of a decade of so it’s amazing how quickly what was once avant grade has become  – almost – establishment.  It’s harder now to see Hurst, Doig, Kapor and Offili as the cutting edge, but they were, and as Greyson Perry memorably observed, ‘everything was contemporary once’.

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Art moves on, what was once new very quickly becomes routine. How can we spot what will be regarded as great art in 500 years time? I don’t know, but replicating what was new isn’t the answer… 

The difficulty here I suspect for Mr Gove – and most of us – is how to identify what will become the ‘good’ art of the future. One of his heroes Ruskin, famously got it wrong when he railed against the (then revolutionary) works of Whistler.

Now I don’t always get it, and I for the record I can’t love anything quite so devoid as aesthetic beauty as Marten’s assemblages, but I can understand why they are good and compartmentalise my taste from their merit.

The answer of course  is to rely on the judgement of people who have totally immersed themselves in the world of contemporary art to the point where they can make sound, comparative judgements about the merit of various nominees. There must be a word for them , let’s call them for the purposes of this blog ‘experts’.

Hang on , we don’t do experts any more, because the ‘experts’ were THE PROBLEM which we’ve all so democratically and wisely marginalised with our Brexit vote and maybe a hatred of experts telling us what to do and think is Mr Gove’s issue.

‘Who are expert judges to tell us what’s good and what we should like?’, seems to be the strident cry from Mr Gove? If so this reading of the prize is facile, the Turner prize simply informs us which artists – in the opinions of experts – have the most merit; whether we like what they produce on an aesthetic level  or admire their intellectual rigour lies within our remit, as my feelings about the British Art Exhibition bear witness.

It seems to me – as no expert – that great Art is not some simple clever one liner – to paraphrase Will Gompertz, but about universal truths, enduring ideas and us. Marten’s works are thoughtful and full of depth and intellectual rigour, and they might endure if they speak forcefully about human truths half a millennium from now.

Time will tell us if our current art experts were right, but if we position Turner as an ambitious, driven, visionary artist willing to steal ruthlessly from the past to reimagine the future then it seems to me that the Turner Prize and its winners have everything to do with the great man.

sun setting over a lake, Tate

It’s about innovation, not respect for  tradition. What’s not to get Mr Gove? New ideas have to be taken on trust, but their enduring value is a longer game. 

 

 

“The ultimate biscuit tin image”

So it’s crunch time for Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, or “the ultimate biscuit tin image” of Scotland: a bulky stag set against the violet hills and watery skies of an isolated wilderness,” according to The Sunday Herald.

I can’t imagine anybody in the contemporary art world shedding a tear for its’ loss after nearly two decades on loan to The National Gallery of Scotland, mind you. Because if any picture ever summed up the cliched irrelevance of Victorian art then surely this is it, and it’s not the one I would rescue from the fire should the building ever take.

But – and this is a big but – did you ever get the feeling you were missing something? Just before we metaphorically chuck it on the bonfire, isn’t it worth reflecting on what it’s worth?

This, after all, might have been the image that sold a million shortbread fingers, but does that alone make it bad Art? And if it does, then why do so many people like – no let’s admit this, love it?

The nub of this it seems to me is that this isn’t so much a painting – as an idea, a concept, a way of life, a vision. It’s the Victorian vision of Romantic Highland Scotland distilled into a striking image.

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Imagine painting one image which will encapsulate an idea of the Romantic Highlands, this is heather, weather, whisky, wilderness and wildlife all in one. We might be bored of the image but such economy of means should be admired

Landseer was good at this. He did visual expressions of BIG ideas; as his Lions in Trafalgar square nobly attest to an idea of Empire. It’s just a pity he also stooped to expressing smaller, incidental, almost trivial things; the royal’s favourite hounds and horses for instance, maudlin expressions of grief and cutsie pictures of anthropomorphic pets. Popular taste it seems quickly loses it savour, while big ideas transcend .

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Landseer did big ideas and that’s not a common skill, as the efforts on the fourth column in Trafalgar square regularly attest.

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He also did popular taste, The Old Shepherds chief Mourner is harder to see today as great Art.

So it might have graced a million biscuit jars, but I’d argue that its’ enduring, inexplicable popularity, far from putting The Monarch Of The Glen beyond the pale with the contemporary artist should make us interested in why it’s so enduringly popular.

Buy ‘us’ I mean visual artists,  and the ‘why’ it seems to me, is easy to explain. Yes, it’s popularist, cliched even, and yes it reflects its’ time, but, and this is important, it’s the distillation and communication of a complex web of ideas into a simple, strong , striking and memorable visual image.

And, when you think about it; how many paintings, works of art even, fit that criteria? The Angel of the North by Gormley, Mother and Child Divided by Hurst – these are of the same quality: simple, strong, striking, memorable, visual images.

Bizarrely, that most brand-aware of branded goods companies, Diageo, feels it no longer needs to own the painting as it has (and I quote) ‘no direct link to (their) business or brands’, but then when did they ever sell stags, or Scotland or the Scottish dream and how did the value of understanding how to create a big visual band cease to be important at Diageo?

We might not mourn its’ passing, but we ought to reflect on the reasons behind the popularity of The Monarch Of the Glen.

‘Mere Freaks of Chromomania’

Two days in Margate and two exhilarating visits to Turner: Adventures In Colour – what have I learned?

Turner the man was driven and contradictory, by turns acquiescent to public taste, respectful of tradition and suddenly dismissive of it, revolutionary, almost self destructive. Such change comes slowly of course but can seem to manifest itself quickly in the eyes of collectors and critics.

Incisively curated, this small exhibition is seasoned with wonderful reactions by Turner’s contemporaries to both the works on display and Turner’s himself, ‘In his knowledge of colour he (Turner) is equalled by none,’ noted one reviewer, before wryly observing , ‘and it is this which gains him much admiration and many enemies.’ 

It took a while for these enemies to gather however, and as Turner went from strength to strength the plaudits grew, for here was an artist with his finger firmly on the pulse of popular taste, for this was the period of his greats; the Temeraire, Modern Italy and all of that bright popular Italianate luminescence which transformed industrialised England into another Eden.

Yet as his art matured and vision grew, Turner began to push the boundaries and patience of his clients. A recognised genius, Turner’s clients both wanted his work to be startlingly original and what they expected; that’s a square which is difficult to circle.

When money is tight and reputations are still to be won, we can all bend a bit to popular taste (as my many oils of Holkham Bay silently attest), but eventually smiles become strained, acquiescence fades and compromise seems – well, too much of a compromise.

Starting with little grumbles about the topographical veracity of his scenes, Turner’s clients vocalised how they felt about losing their creative mandate. Their views; genius should be bounded by topography to be valid, and that an artist of his stature should paint in committee.This could never work – and Turner broke decisively with it.

Turner could and no doubt did dismiss the odd disgruntled client, but even so, something was starting to become unhinged, Turner the quintessential demagogue was looking not to safely emulate the masters of the past, but towards building his own artistic legacy, and if that meant moving the odd church spire in the Venetian skyline or making the sun rise in the west, then reality had to bend now, to his vision.

Critics were supportive, but qualified: ‘Turner has struck out a new route by the singular mixture of prismatic colours, with which he represents sky and water. His scrutinising genius seems to tremble on the verge of some new discovery in colour, which may prove of the first importance to art. ‘

It didn’t. The final room neatly contrasts two of Turner’s latest and greatest works with one of the sturdy, almost academic ones which made his reputation with the ones that ruined it ‘Mere freaks of chromomania’ as the Spectator damningly concluded.

Shade and Darkness - the Evening of the Deluge exhibited 1843 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Mere freaks of chromomania , Turners late works were not seen in his time as being ‘of the first importance to art’. They are though.

Yet failures, though they were adjudged to be Turner’s late works, were indeed to prove of the first importance to art.

So Turner made it his business to meet (and exceed) public expectations before sacrificing that approbation on the altar of his creativity.

For me then, the interest here was not in Turner’s technical capability, creativity or dazzling use of colour, but in what people thought about it; for what measures of success do artists today have, but critical approbation?

It’s commonplace and obvious to say Turner was a great technician, an inventive colourist and a self obsessed, self seeking autodidact, and he was all these things, but he was and remains one of us; an artist ‘trembling in the verge’ of creative discovery.

And that, dear readers, is why the gallery was full of artists, there to understand themselves as much as Turner.  The lesson here, was not in the paintings but in how they were and are received.

The most illuminating moment of the exhibition? ‘Well that does nothing for me,’ dismissively remarked a visitor glancing sideways at Turner’s ethereal vision of The Salute, on her way no doubt to the safer ground of the Tate’s excellent coffee shop. Others stood in front of the work, lost in contemplation. Turner would be pleased his work can still provoke and divide opinion, and that might just be the test of great art.

Venice with the Salute c.1840-5 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

‘Well that does nothing for me,’ I was delighted Turner’s work can still induce a healthy dislike for his creative vision. I adore it, for the record.

Topping and tailing the Turner exhibit were two stimulating contemporary rooms, on the ground floor, two selected pieces by the wonderful Yinko Shinobare, the best of which was The British Museum which I’ll let the gallery itself describe.

‘Presented alongside this new commission is Shonibare’s The British Library, a colourful work, celebrating and questioning how immigration has contributed to the British culture that we live in today. Shelves of books covered in colourful wax fabric fill the Gallery, their spines bearing the names of first and second generation immigrants who have enriched British society. From T.S. Eliot and Hans Holbein to Zaha Hadid, The British Library reminds us that the displacement of communities by global war has consequences that inform our lives and attitudes today.’

Colourful, powerful, thought provoking but utterly and regrettably unambiguous.

The British Library was a good work that spoke to the mind but sidestepped the imagination. If Turner teaches us anything it’s the power of the incomplete thought; art which provides imaginative space is always so much more compelling. There was imagination here – but no imaginative space for us, the viewers.

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An important message, visually striking and delivered with great clarity; immigration is a force for good. It’s an important message but Turner teaches us that ambiguity will always resonate more than factual delivery. Shonibare’s important work might be colourful but is at odds to the great themes of the Turner show.

The British Library was accompanied by an end of Empire themed sculpture where the two great powers literally engage in the balance of power and diplomacy. Apparently the best way to visualise the balancing act of the two great powers was to err… show them, well… balancing. Really?

I don’t mind being spoon fed and I’m not keen on art which is so aesthetic and remote as to be inaccessible (see my previous posts on the Turner Prize), but if there’s an award somewhere for visualising the blinking obvious then this has to be a contender.

Striking? Yes, memorable – certainly, clear, absolutely but did it evoke deeper feelings in me than the idea that two great powers played a game of diplomacy with the world- no not really and I already knew that.

Art has to do a bit more than be just spectacle – luckily it does upstairs with both Turner’s work and a stunning contemporary piece.

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Look its the balance of diplomacy, represented as the balance of diplomacy…

The upstairs gallery housed a much more relevant and resonant work to the Turner show by John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea. Again, I’ll let the gallery introduce it.

Turner Contemporary is a partner on the UK tour of John Akomfrah’s multi-screen installation Vertigo Sea, premiered at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

A meditation on whaling, the environment and our relationship with the sea, the work is a film essay continuing the ‘recycled aesthetic’ of John Akomfrah’s recent gallery pieces, fusing archive material, original footage and readings from classical sources.

Shot on the Isle of Skye, in the Faroe Isles and in the North of Greenland and Norway, the film is inspired in part by two influential books: Hermand Meville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation (1988). Also referenced is the incident on board the slave ship Zong that led JMW Turner to paint The Slave Ship almost a century later, exhibiting it in 1840 to coincide with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society.’

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Not to be missed; Vertigo Sea encapsulates Turner’s themes of ambiguity, recall and evoking imaginative space.

Ambiguous, evocative, ephemeral, imaginative, Vertigo Sea exemplified Turner’s central themes of the artist as a conjurer of emotional responses to the mundane reality of life. It worked – it really did and I applaud it.

There are bigger galleries and more expansive shows, however the big themes are here. Highly recommended.

‘Memory is the best Filter’

Nothing prepares you for the act of painting as much as memory; forget sketching, forget studies and most of all forget photographs; digital or otherwise.

‘Memory’, as Bonnard observed, ‘is the best filter’, so it’s to memory that I’m committing my first studies in my new project of The Dales. It’s so easy, so seductive, so instant to take that snap – and with my iPhone – snap after snap after snap; as if the act of looking is in any way comparable to that of seeing.

It’s just not, and as I’ve written elsewhere in this occasional blog, devices don’t see things like we do. They record everything of a scene, but nothing about it, they have no bias, nothing they store is filtered through the lens of our experience, and worst of all they simply don’t store  memories as we recall them. Committing an image to your device, in the hope it will be a reference,  is quite possibly the surest way to ruin a painting before one starts.

So here’s the plan; a full scale show based on observation and recall; all about the visual and emotional traces impressed upon me , and not about what was there.

Landscape is a metaphor for so much of our being, standing in – and out in it – roots one in a time and place in a way one can’t experience secondhand. You can’t feel a place and feel part of it through the lens of a device only the lens of actual experience. Time spent outdoors locates us in a place, we experience it physically and recall it viscerally, and no where is this more true for me than the Dales.

For me the Dales is life writ large; beautiful, unexpected, mutable, by turns enchanting and hostile. I was drawn to it as a boy,escaping from the smoky congestion and industry of Pendle, and return this year to look it in the eye on new terms.

Much has to be done, how to visualise it, evoke its moods, express my own and most importantly impress that vision upon the viewers of my work.

I made a start today, a 2M canvas wrought from memory, the sky mutable, the Dale cast into shadow and spotlit, cottages huddled against the scarp. Is it good Art? Not at all – but it’s a good start, and I trust in those more than a thousand oil sketches painstakingly transcribed from photographs.

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In Sullen Acquiescence to the Night. Oil on canvas 2.5 x 1.75M

There’s nothing new in this of course, as Pollock noted his work was no more – or less than ‘energy and motion made visible’, and what could be more useless in meeting that aspiration than a still image?

I’ve heard it said that a painting, like a conversation, is never definitively finished; I now understand how true is this when one talks not of one work  but a whole project such as my 2016 show The Painted Garden.  So the Dales and my work on the Painted Garden will need to sit side by side on my easel for a year or two, will one mellow the other, or will the garden take on something of the spirit of this new landscape?

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And Such Gardens Are Not Made, Oil on Board 8’x4′. From The Painted Garden Series 2016

These aren’t questions which can be answered quickly, and certainly not by seeing,experiencing and recording life through a lens.

Not Confusing Faith with Religion

An evening lecture on The Sacred and the Secular in Contemporary Art with Charles Saumarez Smith (Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts), left a deep impression upon me.

Before I get ahead of myself, the lecture was billed as’An exploration of some of the relationships between the practice of contemporary art and religion: the search for transcendence; the idea of the sacred; and the use of symbolic meaning.. with examples drawn from the work of, amongst others, Alison Watt, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Edmund de Waal.

Before you juggle with all of that, it boiled down to this:  are people today finding something in galleries which they used to find in Church?

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Interestingly cathedral visits are increasing as church attendance declines. We like the experience of the numinous but may be rejecting the dogma, prefering experiencing evensong to attending regular worship. It was a wonderfully engaging lecture.

Mr Smith certainly felt they were, and statistical attendance of galleries does suggest that in terms of numbers and regular attendance, galleries may indeed be fulfilling a need in people to get away from the rhythms of everyday life and experience – if even for an hour or two – a life less ordinary, if you will.

All of this touches on why the experience of seeing great Art is so uplifting, and it was to this question to which I was drawn – or rather directed to,  by Mr Smith’s excellent lecture.

Not all art is uplifting of course, much less spiritual. You must have experienced this; go to any number of local galleries and plough through wall after wall of those old standards; local landscapes, dog portraits, a sunset or two, maybe a snow scene and a harbour scene… quite.

You might be by turns, informed, impressed or so forth ; but moved? Spiritually in the moment? Not likely.

Now transport yourself in your minds eye to a great show, and place yourself in front of a powerful piece of Art – and it doesn’t matter which one -as long as it works for you. How do you feel? Can’t take your eyes off it? Lose yourself in the moment? Thrill at the use of colour? Of artistic vision? Of value? Of scale?

Great Art takes us somewhere other than where we are, and leaves us with a memory of something which is more than the sum of its parts. It’s experiential. Have enough great art in one space and the whole thing might fairly be described as creating  a transcendental – almost religious experience.

And so to the most interesting part of an interesting evening. Mr Smith discussed in passing the general public’s cogent, coherent and articulate reaction when asked to jot down their thoughts on Rembrandt’s works, before noting (with not a little regret, I’m pleased to say) these ideas were not, felt by the gallery to be qualified, as compared to those of an art historian for instance .

In plain language;  Art should be seen, approached and commented on through the lens of academia, if opinions on it are to be given weight, but is that a sustainable position for publicly funded institutions?

I’ve never had a problem with differentiating religion – as in organised worship, with faith, and understand that its quite possible to have one without partaking of the other, and indeed the two may become incompatible . This it seems to me lies at the heart of Mr Smith’s observation, in a time when people are increasingly being engaged with art , are our institutions increasingly engaging with people?

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Rembrandt, we can all ‘get’ him and be moved by him; but are we qualified to feel that unless we’re academics?

When I look around the contemporary art world, I wonder – I really do – if inclusivity is at the top of many curator’s measures of success. When institutions meet public demand they must bend to that flow or the stream of public enthusiasm will simply find a new course.

Fail to meet demand,ignore expectations, inform people they are wrong and the public will break with you. Schism – as the church would assure you – is a terrible thing.

So to keep with Smith’s religious metaphor, we have in one corner the established Church with all its rituals, dogma, and formality, in the other unqualified expressions of faith, honestly felt and directly expressed. As with the Catholic Church and early Protestantism, so with art historians and art lovers.

Replace the word’Church’ with ‘Gallery’ and we neatly have both Mr Smith’s opportunity and his dilemma.

The opportunity here, it seems to me is to open the Art world to these honestly and directly expressed opinions, and not disqualify people from holding a valid opinion on art merely on the grounds they are not ordained to do so by having passed through some course in Art History on how to think and feel about Art.

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Mr Smith has an enviable track record of democratising Art  by putting big shows on at the RA and getting people from all walks of life engaged with them – now that’s somebody whose work I can support and follow.

If, as Mr Smith asserts, the common man is finding something in our galleries and museums which he or she no longer finds in church, then it follows that these institutions  should now consider if they are doing enough and if not then how the common man reacted to dogma in times past.

As Machiavelli noted ‘Prudent men are won’t to say – and this not rashly or without good ground – that he who would forsee what has to be should reflect on what has been.’

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Luther overturning centuries of exclusivity; we should all be encouraged to engage with visual arts without the ‘help’ of our academic and cultural betters; starting with an acknowledgement that public taste is a good barometer for progressive curation.

Mr Smith strikes me as a prudent, impressive and thoughtful figure, I eagerly await the time when he nails his equivalent of Luther’s 95 theses to the door of the contemporary art establishment.

But is it Art?

Browsing through the news recently I greatly enjoyed seeing pictures of bales wrapped in colourful plastic decorated to make everything from gigantic cows to castles, all standing rather incongruously in the countryside made by various associations of Young Farmers. All great fun, and probably for good causes, but is it Art?

The BBC certainly thinks so (‘Young Farmers make art from bales’), and if it is, where does this leave sculptures by Michelangelo, Rodin, Moore or the wonderful Anish Kapoor?

Or to put it another way, can anything creative be legitimately labeled Art? And by extension of that is all Art equal?

This isn’t just semantics or some meaningless metaphysical navel gazing; if we accept that all Art isn’t equal then we can say this piece is better than that and why. Which and why are important because that means Art can be taught, and artists can improve.

Not so long ago I read a prospectus for a well known college whose director of painting started a summary of their course with the assertion that – and this is true – ‘painting cannot be taught‘.

We can laugh this off as a classic example of turkeys voting for christmas, but teaching should probably start from visualising some kind of roadmap of success; a direction of travel if you will towards improvement from unskilled to more informed. Buy into progress, then you’ve already bought into good – better – best.

So how did the idea that Art cannot be taught leak into our thinking? The culprit of course is that old chestnut ‘All Art Is Equal’.

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The Fountain 1917. Duchamp described his intent was to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation, and on those grounds I’d say The Fountain is Art, but is it as ‘good’ as a Rodin or Henry Moore?

The thing is, I don’t think All art is equal is, in fact I’m certain it’s not.

As much as I love hay bales made into cows, they just don’t move me in the way a great sculpture does, amusing yes, innovative, great fun, laudable – but not – absolutely not Art in the great and ancient sense of the term.

Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) above is generally identified as a watershed in what qualified as ‘Art’ , and if you find yourself suffering from insomnia I heartily recommend ploughing through some of the guff written about it starting with my current favourite ‘ “it does not take much stretching of the imagination to see in the upside-down urinal’s gently flowing curves the veiled head of a classic Renaissance madonna or a seated Buddha.’ I wonder , I really do, what critics and art experts add.

Duchamp’s proposition was both simple and overdue. Craft wasn’t Art. Art was intellectual, an idea communicated, a feeling shared, an emotion evoked.

By taking a piece of craft and placing it in a new context he made it into Art.  It isn’t great Art – but it deliniated as little else had done before the difference between a beautifully made object and a beautiful idea.

In other words craft is making, Art is thinking – or more accurately, evoking feelings in the viewers of one’s work. Understand this and you can put art, craft, critics and hay bales as cows, in context.

Compared to a hay bale cow or a urinal, a sculpture which evokes feelings of pity, empathy, humanity or so forth is demonstrably a ‘better’ piece of Art, whose artistic value lies in proving Duchamp’s brilliant assertion; Art is intellectual, and great Art evokes an emotional response in the non artist. Here’s to great Art.

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Auguste Rodin, The Old Courtesan, 1855 . A very moving study of human truths: Art.

‘We think too much and feel too little..’

So concluded Waldemar Januszczak in his review of the new Abstract Expressionist show at the RA, which he also felt was ‘no nonsense’,  and ‘superb’.

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Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’ all the way from Australia; the show’s intent is breathtaking.

A great show hoves into view and suddenly everybody seems astonished to find that Abstract Expressionist painting is relevant, exciting and can ‘illuminate the present’.  The fascination here, is not in the sheer range and quality of works on show – which if the reviews are anything to go by – represent a masterclass in arm twisting, persuasion and dogged determination – but the fact that all of this has been dismissed as irrelevant for so long; mostly, it seems, by individuals who don’t paint for a living.

Januszczak puts his finger on it when he says that ‘we think too much and feel too little‘, but where does this particular finger point?

I’m sad to say it points fairly squarely at art educators, critics and that whole coterie who’ve been urging us to put down our brushes and get with the digital revolution. They it would seem to me are squarely to blame for both our institutional neglect of great painting and ridiculous scrabble for the next ‘new’ digital 4D, 5D or 6D ( I lost the plot after 3D),  thing.

The themes here are not new, Abstract Expressionism is about feeling, human truths, mindfulness – and yes let’s use the forbidden word – beauty. That Art could simply be pleasing, simply be beautiful, be accessible, be evocative , all of that has been an anathema to ‘serious’ artists for decades. Whistler got it, Ruskin didn’t and the courts had the sense to back the artist’s vision.

A couple of years ago I went to the RA to take in A Bigger Picture by Hockney, a show that absolutely did not need a dictionary or MA in Art History to explain itself, to the thousands of people who queued up to experience it.

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A Bigger Picture – The RA does great shows which tell artists how to engage with painting; but who’s listening?

Many critics wrote that show off as lightweight, a bit archaic, a little popularist, not very well made – and all of that; ignoring the fact that it was liked by most of the public and it engaged.

A Bigger Picture did of course, contain many weightier themes such as painting remembered spaces (Woldgate woods re-imagined as a childhood paradise),  questioning the validity, and the potential of seeing through a lens rather than with our own eyes, engaging with digital media ; but – and this is important – it was quite possible to love the show and ‘get’ it on several levels.

Around a year later I recall visiting the Turner Prize, it was needless to say, a very different experience; not least because nobody who wasn’t interested in art really bothered to go, and many of those who were there seemed to spend most of their time concentrating on how they were looking, rather than what they were looking at.

My impression? One of vacuity.

Passionless, self-referential, self -congratulatory, elitist, rarefied; these almost seem to be de rigeur for the curation and presentation of contemporary art shows; it’s as though artists set out to create an intellectual barrier between great ideas and ordinary people.  So Abstract Expressionism might be a bit overblown, dramatic, crude even, but boy you can’t deny that it engages and communicates.

nicolepa

Important work, big ideas even; but does it engage? If it did it would get the wider audience it deserves.

There is good art around – even great art, and certainly some good painting, however I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost the trick of presenting it as though it is IMPORTANT and not just a dry synopsis of an MA thesis.

The ‘Ab Exes’ (as Januszczak would have them), understood that in visual art,the visual matters; and that simple truth in itself has to be worth the price of entry.

Give it to me in Black and White

I’m writing a series for The Artist magazine, but where to begin?

Here’s the trouble with magazines. In a class I have a qualified audience – oil painters or would be oil painters who want to improve their oils, but a magazine, with a readership of thousands,interests ranging from casual sketching to full blown classical oils;  what can you do?

One has to go past mediums and genres to try and find things of utility for readers of all abilities, whatever they choose to work in.

That’s the ideal, and of course as I get into my series I’ll have to get specific about oils, but it’s always nice to start with a BIG IDEA.

Big Idea: 70% of your visual system perceives the world in black and white, and therefore tones – or Values as we painters call them – are the most important part of any painting project.  Or to put it another way , if you get the Values wrong you can only be 30% successful.

Now that’s the kind of concept that can apply to any branch of Art, from simple pencil sketching, to iPad drawing to full blown classical portraiture.

I teach this a lot, and I’m always amazed at both how quickly taking this simple universal concept on improves people’s work, and then, inevitably,  that look on their face – often subsequently vocalised – ‘Why wasn’t I told this at Art School?’

So here are the things I think you must be taught at Art School.

  • The fact that your brain uses Value for it’s first and principal assessment of a visual image
  • That colour is a phenomenon of light, and therefore can be made to appear to glow, be flat etc imply by managing that interaction
  • That Art is seen by the eyes, but processed in the brain- all Art is psychology. The Masters exploited this from the early Renaissance – although they didn’t use the same words as you and I.
  • Visual ambiguity promotes psychological interest
  • The Scientific use of a colour wheel will free you from perception and promote creativity
  • That camera and device lenses do not see things, and certainly can’t record images as we do.
  • That Art is different to craft (applied art, painting, printmaking, filming are crafts).
  • That painting (craft) is a taught skill, not a God given one.
  • That not everything is Art, and by extension of that not all Art is equal.
  • That everything was contemporary once, and by extension of that nothing should be arbitrarily ruled out as ‘invalid’ on chronological grounds

Well, this is beginning to sound like a manifesto for change in Art education…I’ll go for a little lie down before I start to rant about the number of perfectly intelligent, wonderfully able and incredibly enthusiastic Art students who have gone through what passes for Further and Higher Art education in the UK.

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Peploe understood the value of Value, a wonderful painter whose popularity with people who ‘know nothing about Art‘ is inexplicably strong. When will we start to appreciate that good use of line colour and value are timelessly relevant to visual arts practitioners?

If you’re under 25 and would like a proper education in Art, you may be interested to learn that I offer what may well be the UK’s only full time Apprenticeship in Painting.  If you’re a big older, then you might find one of my courses more to your taste, either way drop a line to jane@norfolkpaintingschool.com and tell us how you think we can help.

Indirectly we go abroad every day…

Sometimes they come out of the blue – thoughts that clarify things quite other than that they were intended to explain. So it was with this elegant explanation about the importance of our international trade by Sir Rupert Pennant-Rea ‘indirectly all Britons go abroad every day‘.

And so we do, even the most xenophobic UKIP supporter, little Englander and ‘draw up the drawbridge’ Brexiteer is affected like it or not by what we import and on which terms.

As with economics, so with Culture.

Art infuses and informs the everyday, from the way we package our groceries, to the colour of our cars, the design of our homes or the clothes we wear.  We might equally say ‘indirectly all Britons go to the gallery every day.’

In the early 20th century artists became keenly aware that easel painting if not exactly dead, needed to do a bit more to avoid appearing comatose. The answer of course was to stop pretending paintings should look ‘real’ and find a real use for them.

cast-drawing

Its a an absolutely accurate drawing of an absolutely accurate sculpture, let’s not pretend it’s anything more than craft. Matisse understood that Art was more than this…

 

Matisse, Picasso, Vuillard, Monet understood that Art had to be applied not just to canvases but to life. Decorative, beautiful and Applied were in, illusions of depth, clever tricks of reality and impeccable sight size measuring all seemed very 19th century.

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Breathtaking technique allied to a breathtaking lack of relevance. Sargent simultaneously at his best and most pointless.

This is the real reason Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla – and all of the ateliers who aped their backward looking illusory style  – were so confidently labelled ‘irrelevant ‘ by new artists and thinkers.  Sargent can impress with his technical virtuosity, be of interest for revealing his time – just as Holbein does – but does his work resonate beyond the studio and lofty world of ebauche painters with a penchant for loose realism? I think not.

The deepest roots and strongest branches of Art are universal. Colour, Value, Design, Aesthetic. Artists teach us not just to look but how to see. They select, they simplify, they elevate and – above all – they democratise.

Wisteria

In 1920, Monet began studies for the decoration of a room on its own in a pavilion that was to be built in the garden of Hôtel Biron, owned by the Duc de Trévise. The planned decoration consisted of friezes with wisteria motifs placed above a panel decoration with the water-lily theme. Painting moved away from the easel back to Applied Art and popular culture – when did we stop getting this?

Build something, design a poster, develop a range of fabric, choose a range of colours for new products and Art creeps in. Monet taught us how to reimagine colour, Matisse that design was Art, Picasso that primitivism and simplicity were direct pathways to understanding.

The true challenge facing today’s artists is to build upon these cultural achievements. The general public know deep in their collective memory that Art was a driving force in how life looked and that contemporary Art has consistently failed to meet this test.

When we like an unlikely combination of colours, the juxtaposition of definite and vague, a bold use of pattern, a neatly asymmetrical design or an inherently pleasing proportion  we ‘indirectly go to the gallery’.

When we feel Art is ‘about nothing’, ‘inexplicable’ ‘baffling’ or ‘pointless’ it’s because it doesn’t meet the high bar set by artists  whose deep cultural significance flows like an underground stream through our everyday life. In the words of a Guardian critic on the recent British Art show , ‘I have seen every British Art Show since its inception in 1979. Except as barometers of the artistic and curatorial weather at the time, most have been forgettable’. 

The trick to not being forgettable, it seems to me, is to evoke and stimulate memory – build on the past, not consign it to history. People know what they like, and while its true that people can only know what’s familiar, Art has proven time and again that popular taste is a good barometer for evolutionary change, and critical taste is conservative and elitist.

Art should challenge, it should inform, but above all it must communicate by adding to what came before in a language we understand and that moves us.

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‘I could do that’, ‘ its not Art’, ‘What’s it all about?’ We have to start taking the wisdom of the masses seriously and stop meeting incomprehension with derision and scorn. If our visual communication isn’t communicating, who’s at fault? Whipp wants ex-employees of the Longbridge car plant to restore this so he can drive it to the last BAS8 venue in Southampton – now that’s a test of public engagement .

Call it the wisdom of the masses, call it what you will; the problem is nobody is listening: Down with the revolution.