I have recently waded through two vast Pelican histories of art in Europe 1780 to 1880 by Novotny and 1880 to 1940 by George Heard Hamilton. They are both written in the sixties. They are fascinating for what they leave out: no Sargent who was very active in Europe, no Zorn, no Joaquín Sorolla. The Novotny book especially has an agenda that is to see past painting in the light of what was to come in the future. I notice they no longer publish it which is no surprise as to me it seemed very flawed. The other is well written and thoughtful and a pleasure to read even though I find the story told a little simplistic.
After finishing them I sat back and tried to take stock of why I felt uncomfortable with them while they were still fairly fresh in my mind. The story they purport to tell is of this great voyage of discovery, artists as explorers or scientific researchers making breakthroughs and discovering new lands for human expression to thrive in. The drive for this is assumed to be the vaunting ambition by the geniuses the era was fortunate to be blessed with and the rejection of the old. The word revolution is often used. Also the shock of the ancient regime when faced with these prodigies of modernity is given great weight. This I feel is overstated as for the most part societies seem to have taken up anything novel with considerable enthusiasm with the “Rock and Roll is the work of the Devil” voices in the minority.
In other walks of life the ideas of the sixties, central town and social planning have been reassessed. We no longer believe men with university degrees, pipes and glasses reorganising the world for the benefit of the lumpen and ignorant masses is a good or a proper idea. Much of the idealised view of science, medicine and advancement to a bright shiny future have also been reconsidered. Art history and art opinion though is much the same today as these books written in the sixties it is as if new thought has been frozen with anything fresh roughly warped to fit into the pattern already laid down.
It is with this overall pattern I take exception. I think the flaw in the whole thing is in the view of what topology art might inhabit. It is perhaps seen by the authors and indeed current artists and historians as a land with boundaries that can be pushed back with terrae incognitae waiting on the other side of a line to be explored by plucky creative souls. The other analogy could be with science, unknowns being researched with bold experiments, analytical thought and inspired perception. The assumption is that there is an endless ocean of artistic thought to be navigated and conquered. Unlike scientists or explorers though the past is discarded by art historians, beyond a certain point its relevance only in that it was a step towards this new and always contemporary fertile ground.
It is I agree a wonderfully romantic vision. It flatters the artists and casts them in a heroic light sailing against the winds of tradition to discover new and uncompromising truths. It gives art historians a context, a larger theme and a style of language to set their writings in. It offers endless opportunities for faux scientific and cod philosophical art speak. It is all in all the most comfortable of rebellions, a risky business with chance excluded, derring do with no actual danger. The problem I feel is that the whole premiss is untrue and misleading. It distorts our ideas as to what culture is, narrows our possible horizons and imprisons any of an up and coming generation to an ever turning, but ever stationary wheel.
For a start, human created content is not really like a land with undiscovered parts. Though if you must have the metaphor you might say that the land is always the same, and only the travellers and the journeys they make within it change. The science part is less easy to recast, there is knowledge theory and method to be learnt, but no breakthroughs only seeing old knowledge with fresh and ever renewed eyes. For each generation of artists there is much the same dressing up box of media, intent and style available, it is what they choose to do with them that counts.
This tiptoes into the realm of philosophy which is another field that contemporary art and art history tends to look at in an envious manner. It is a flattering thought that artists creating objects are deepening the well of human understanding in some manner. Words and ideas however are the tool for this purpose not paintings or sculptures however much they label themselves conceptual. This perhaps explains the increasing need of the visual arts for words to augment and explain or more often confuse.
Both books shuffle uncomfortably over the pivotal moments in the fragmented story of the period they cover. Hardly any mention is made of the great exhibitions of tribal art and the trickle of cultural objects from far away that grew into a flood. Photography is passed over with hardly a mention, even though it was to destroy a large part of the reasons why many cultural objects were made in the first place. The industrial revolution that replaced objects we used to make with our hands and minds with cheap and flawless substitutes gets little attention. The social turmoil that changed a business dependent on a few hugely wealthy clients to one supported by many with more humble means would seem worth a mention too but doesn’t get one. Even the invention of private and later civic art collections in the form of galleries and museums seems not to have been really considered as a possible influence on the nature of what is created in that time period.
Everything in the books is driven by the need to create some narrative. A story line to hang the work of artists of each period on, like washing pegged out in a neat easily comprehendable row. However to my eye the history and nature of created objects is actually arranged in a wildly non linear manner and has the possibility to be categorised in a plethora of different ways. There have been cups made from the dawn of time and drawings too. In each particular era the human souls who created them came to the act of making afresh. They saw some results of what those who came before had done, but each time for them the learning, the doing and the achievement was entirely new.
For example you cannot sensibly put the describing of the human form which has gone on for 30,0000 or so years into a neat progression. At different times the purpose of such objects could swing from the individual to the universal, or from the observational to the symbolic, so there is no progression. We had stick men then and they are still with us today, we had carefully observed recordings of animals and they are also with us still. We have had abstract patterns and arrangements in our lives since the very dawn of culture. They have not got any better or advanced in any meaningful way, the idea of steady advancement is irrelevant to that category of created thing. You can more sensibly place Picasso’s portraits with tribal works done in similar manner many times over the eons. All you can say is that both the 19thC Spaniard and some 10thC African took that particular hat out of the dressing up box and gave it a very pleasing whirl.
The function of art is really I have come to believe very simple. It is simply a thing crafted to engage and enrich our perceptions. The world as it stands does this, art objects are merely those that are made by conscious intent. One occurs the other is made to occur. The rest is merely a matter of where the creation might stand as far as effectiveness and universality goes.
A mixed bag of work this time I am hopping here and there and cannot seem to settle to one thing.
A visit to Kent, this is Ramsgate. Wasn’t really on form and several paintings hit the scrap pile! This one worked better though. 10in by 7.5in oils.
This was done on my return and is Ramsgate again, very interesting town with lots of varied subjects. I spent quite a lot of time just wandering and looking, which in its way is just as rewarding as painting. 16in by 10in Oils.
Yet another Ramsgate one, not sure this is quite done, it is up on the wall at the moment to consider. Some pictures get to a point where they are on the very edge of working well, but some niggling feeling tells you there is more to be done. The hard thing is to establish exactly what that “something” is of course. The green awning is crime suspect no 1 at present! 14in by 10in oils.
Last one from Kent. We went to the Belgian Bar to eat in Ramsgate and I could not resist a quick sketch. Pen and Ink.
Back to Dorset and the light has just been amazing, one of the best Autumn seasons I can recall. Especially as due to building works I missed last years season entirely. I have done this road a few times and it always rewards. Here I did two watercolours at the same time, this one only got to pencil stage but it is a good thing to do as there is always waiting around for the damn stuff to dry so having another picture on the go keeps you occupied. Watercolour.
Here is the other in the pair. This one got a bit further on I got it drawn out and the shadows blocked in. Here the washes went over the shadows rather than working from light to dark. I like they way the overlaying washes slightly dissolve the previous layer. You do have to be vary careful and lay the washes in one pass as stirring it around at all makes mud very quickly. Watercolour
I decided I might make a linocut of the same scene and this is the first stage in reducing it in complexity. I prefer to do this in stages, the next stage I will do on the computer as I can preview the different plates easily. Hopefully with more experience I will be able to leave out that stage eventually. Watercolour.
Another one that has linocut potential. This is Milton Abbas where the lord of the manor moved a whole town so that Capability Brown could improve the view. This is a section of Mr Browns efforts! 9in by 6.5in watercolour.
One that didn’t quite fly, I had done an oil of this which is below and wondered if it would make a print, so this watercolour was just to see if it would. The answer is probably no! 9in by 6.5in watercolour.
Here is the oil, I made a fair few changes to the road and sky after this scan but this is when it was mostly done. 14in by 10in oils.
Thats it for this batch, have a fair bit more to post but the Christmas season is approaching like an express train and I am unprepared!
Here is this year’s Christmas card… a good one to all if any who peruse this daubing and waffling!