Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Italian Renaissance Drawings at the British Museum

If ever I’ve seen an informative and theoretical exhibition, here was it. Following Change to Come? and the foundation show it dialogues, here is a show and a blog marking the change to come in my art education: from almost wholly practise to incessant study; from an environment of the very contemporary in art, to a varied environment of sources and a traditional approach to the study of art’s history. My Art & Design Foundation diploma is complete, and I embark on a History of Art degree in the Autumn term that is destined in its final year for the origin of many of the drawings in this exhibition, in a study trip to Venice. I found it uncannily considerate how the colour scheme chosen by the British Museum, a rich berry red and naturalistic Christmas tree green; and the demography of visitors couldn’t point more literally to the topic of tradition itself. The Renaissance, I’ve always felt, is where the traditions of Western Art began, and as the exhibition very clearly explains, the tradition of drawing.

Renaissance Man (author, artist, architect, poet, philosopher etc.), Leon Battista Alberti, warned, ‘Never take the stylus or brush in your hand if you have not first constituted in your mind all that you have to do.’ I think most contemporary tutors and artists would advise this also for a brush, but for a pencil, we see how the tradition of drawing and its purpose has changed. To make a drawing could have two very different approaches: to plan and to sell. To plan may be with brisk rousing marks as in Da Vinci’s fluid Virgin and Child with a Cat c.1475-81, as he explains: ‘The sketching out of a narrative should be rapid, and the arrangement of limbs not too defined.’ This becomes the visual brainstorm of the artist as he considers a range of compositions (mostly). Or to plan, as in elder works - from model books of old paintings - the composition of a scene through the careful cohesion of many parts. Or, as never seen quite so importantly as before this time: to sell oneself. Artists could advertise their skills in finished books of drawings and prints (to which could be reproduced) to the wealthy bankers that kept town states such as Florence and Venice afloat and thriving.

From an exhibition that includes the works of powerhouse High Renaissance artists: Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, I was challenged by the sight of a Da Vinci charcoal mess. I found myself resting in front of some other favourable Italians, whose drawings reflect a core of craftsmanship, and an intuitive talent. One was Andrea Mantegna, and his dramatic Man Lying on a Stone Slab, c.1475-85 (pictured), that for anyone who knew it already, would reignite imagery of his stunning tempera masterpiece The Lamentation over Dead Christ, c.1480, and both pieces’ highly desirable foreshortening. This is the growing talent of the Renaissance that can be spotted over the retrospect of the exhibition, and the course of 150 years from the late Gothic traits, to the borderline Baroque.

Another notable piece would be Fra Filippo Lippi’s radiant Virgin and Child with Two Angels (recto) c.1460-5, where exquisite yet bold touches of white over an ochre preparation are so commanding that the drawing exudes the physical and metaphorical light and purity intended from these four characters. Quite on the other end would be the stainless steal appeal of Fra Bartolommeo’s Christ in Judgement c. 1500, whose very finished and crisply delivered drawing, found at the end of the exhibition, enunciates drawings, (though never excepted on the same plane as a painting,) as being a considered art form themselves. My feelings on it couldn’t be arranged better than Giorgio Vasari wrote in Lives of the Artists, 1568, ‘Drawing: the father of our three arts, architecture, sculpture and painting.’ For me, drawing is a key skill that underlines all great artists, and for me, the practise of it births undeniable masterpieces.

Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings is at the British Museum until 25 July.

Change to Come? 2

Images to illustrate the previous blog: work by fellow students

Change to Come?

Sitting in my gallery space at the University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury, vigilant to the possibility of art falling from the walls, and ready to tour any eager visitors, I think I could be at any art school in well…England, surveying the primal days of the artists of the future. There are always fads and phases to inevitably grip a collection of young people all working under one tutor, in one environment – are these the trends of the future? Can I predict where the focus of art may be in half a decade’s time based upon the unique and eclectic concerns of the students’ final major projects of the foundation (, fine art especially,) show?

In conversation with my sister in law - an ambitious academic - I revealed that I think at some point a fundamental shift will occur from emphasis put on ideas back onto emphasis on craftsmanship, like a new Aesthetic Movement. It seems logical to me that the end is nigh on the highly conceptual – there appears to be little a concept left to explore. On the other end, there are always a few whose academic approach to art and conscientiousness, motivates them to achieve a widely agreed level of craftsmanship quality which distinguishes it art. However at this stage, in this exhibition, these few are greatly outnumbered; so I don’t perceive this coming soon!

Not altogether a paradox, currently many students are deeply influenced by the ways of the past – not in style or method, like the afore mentioned traditionalists, but by the facts and objects of a society of the past, and the appeal these have as ‘old’ objects – as rotting, decaying, time capsules which are unmoved, found, remnants; passageways to people from before; to explore the concept of memory. This often involves ‘leaving’ objects in a suitcase; framing new works in vintage frames; or scattering objects across a worn down table. Looking for quaint objects, usually wooden, and dated floral prints or photographs with an antique fade, will help you identity this fad, which is usually in the form of instillations. I can see why it’s become an attractive concept – it’s nostalgic, invites elements of mystery, and has the potential to involve a strong narrative. It is intriguing because it is about absence. Absence of that time itself, of the person alluded to within it, but also – and here is where the last two styles differ – of the artist. The anonymous artist appears again. The opposition between these styles is that these students don’t want to appear to have made ‘their’ things. And so a return to craftsmanship focus in art really would be radical.

The third shares this lack of artist identity, but appears from the outside quite different. It is very unmade, and it prides itself on this openness and unsubtly. It takes its space, and demands attention. Comprising of found objects - often furniture - that form instillations, or sculptures. It lacks the quaintness of the genre before and is generally more robust, less detailed, and more matter of fact. It is even less crafted. Sometimes barely touched by the artist, often only composed by him/her in order to create a new meaning out of these pieces. The artists create ideas, not things – truly modern. It was unkindly graffitied on our wall, ‘Fine Art is for people who can’t paint’…or as it could [optimistically] rebutted: ‘Fine Art is for people who choose not to paint, so this cannot be proven.’

Out of the odd few who do in fact use their hands to mark on a flat material (paper, card, newspaper, canvas, panel etc) with some kind of rectangular implement (pencil, pen, chalk, pastel, paint, graphite etc); their style could be broadly categorised within Abstraction or Expressionism. Pieces are usually not recognisable within a genre (: landscape, portrait, still life, religious/historic and genre painting) and often multi-media. Modern again in purpose – the significance is put in the concept or emotion.

Art school education is a lot more DIY in the way it is learnt: you teach yourself; you learn [consciously, or directly] nothing; and less DIY in the work that is produced. The question is perhaps does this provide more, or less freedom for artists to develop and work within their unique style…?

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

On My Travels

I’ve been working… as a waitress. A new venture for summer 2010 to gain, not in this case careers experience, but money. I offered up one and a half solid months as a sacrifice to my consciousness, expecting it would be a loss to my freedom of the holidays and thus art activities. But here’s the interesting bit – I’m not working at one restaurant, but rather a company that staffs for catered events in venues around London. In May I worked at Christie’s Auction house on Kings Street, and in June, so far, phase one of the opening of the new Ceramics Gallery at the very top of the Victoria and Albert museum.

Quite literally on my work travels, eyes poised and expectant for interesting looking exhibitions, I pause in front of posters for galleries on the underground platform; or let my pupils dash from side to side, as we pass one on a train in motion. I’ve never quite understood the objective of the Art on the Underground project. I like the idea, if it is this: to turn more of our public spaces into galleries; to decorate ugly walls with beautiful art; to expose thousands of people to exciting aesthetic experiences – to educate all evenly and inclusively in art. But, it’s never quite felt like this. Not helped probably by a lack of real name dropping (comparable to a mediocre musician ‘Feat.-ing’ Paul McCartney) by TFL. You need big name artists to be involved for people to realise it is art, and not just advertising. But then probably these, unless we count Banksy, would find the often dirty and sweaty setting, especially in summertime, of the underground a bit demeaning a place for high quality art – It just isn’t practical for safe, or fully appreciated viewing.

Is it just then, as it has seemed over the past, trendily designed instruction to London underground etiquette: especially useful for the tourists to which pictures communicate more efficiently and clearly than words. The first piece I’ve really appreciated is Linear: 60 portraits, pencil on paper by Dryden Goodwin. It is high quality art on the theme of the underground – the sixty subjects are underground staff for the Jubilee Line – so it seems highly appropriate for its intentions.

I remember introducing myself to a colleague at one of my first events, as an art foundation student, and so she proceeded to tell me how awkward she felt because the entirety of her journey there, she was being watched and drawn. I’m surprised not more of my London friends have complained to me about this, for, numerous tutors have advised me, and no doubt will continue to do for all time (as drawing from life will always be an important and valued skill), to sketch people on our journeys – Piccadilly, Jubilee, Northern Lines of the underground of course being perfect for this. Goodwin’s drawings are a collection of portraits I really appreciate. Simple, tangible, true to the medium, character-oozing and collectively cohesive.

All completed in under one hour, it was a task I tried myself in an art project, and carried out in a similar manner. On the online video you can see this best, that Goodwin chats to his models about themselves, and through the learning of his personality, almost like a less synthetic, more fleshy caricature, he moulds their face of life from this. Additionally clips of their conversation are run through the speeded up version of his drawing. This is the kind of art I want to see on the underground, where it can be heralded as the talent of Britain to guests from a far.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

A Creative Character

Here is what seems like an appropriate thought for the time of my life in which I’m at. That is: is creativity a character trait, rather than a way of doing things? If so, is it opposed by other personality forces for example neuroticism, or conscientiousness? Can creativity be controlled; is it a free and spontaneous spirit? Last week, I watched part two of ‘The Great Personality Test: Child of Our Time,’ in which a theorem of [negative] correlation between creativity and conscientiousness couldn’t have been made more logical.

In a psychological experiment, the children who are being documented and their parents were [unknowingly] arranged into predominant personality traits of ‘openness’ and of ‘consciencousness’ in character, where they sat, in semicircular form as though in a life drawing class, colouring in a Warhol-esque template of Professor Robert Winston. A scene not dislike the Van Gogh colour-by-numbers exercise that Julia Robert’s gives her disciplined History of Art class in ‘Mona Lisa’s Smile’ emerged. The participants were asked to colour by a certain selection of rules applying to neatness of line and realism of colour. Midway through the allotted time, they were then corrected, and the rules demolished, so that the remainder of the drawing could be as ‘creative’ as the artist allowed it to be.

The conscientious couldn’t stray from the originally imposed laws, and in obsession to precision, most didn’t finish. One ‘open’ character on the other hand felt imprisoned for the first part and created an out-of-the-box, out of the lines drawing.

I am the behaved child, who has to consciously stray from the set rules – I may have the skills of a craftsman, but not the spontaneity or ingenuity of an artist. Another comparison would be to learning styles: I am not an activist learner – I don’t try first and improve from mistakes later on. I am considered and planned – a theoretical learner. This is exactly what ‘Decisions’ discussed - an ingenuity in risk-taking. This is why my art teacher referred to me as Desperate Housewives’ perfectionist Bree Van De Kamp – I cogitate my action to the expense of time, and to the lack, sometimes, of freedom into creativity.

It is not stubbornness, or stupidity that has caused me to find little care to warm to ‘open’ contemporary art in the past, it is conscientiousness! An inbuilt preference in my character to the way things are carried out and completed. So you see why perhaps it appears we were born to do a certain profession, and why it is that I have felt the study of History of Art, the subject that it is, and the style of learning it requires, suits my very personality.

In my explorations I came across another psychological experiment – ‘Does the art you enjoy match your personality?’ in which they made two fascinating generations from their results which relate to this discussion: People who like representational paintings may be more conscientious than average, like me. And People who are open to new experiences are less likely to enjoy looking at realistic paintings. They seek something more atypical and challenging.

So OK Contemporary Art Phobes, here is your moment of validation - your opportunity to shed feelings of optimism that you might ever be turned to the Avant Garde side. I’ve found you an excuse! Scientific reason why you (if you fit this description) have the reason to not like the art you detest.

Here is my nugget of thought on creativity and conscientiousness: Openness in character is related to a non-conformity and originality in problem solving, and thus is expressed in creativity. This seems highly logical to me that artists thus are open people – more than craftsman they are willing to, and inspired to experiment – to be practical activists who tuck into their skills relentlessly and without regret. This to me is an insightful thought – it relates to so many things I have considered, such as: Is artistic talent nature or nurture? How can you teach students to be good at art – what is effective art education? How can you identify geniuses of art?

If people with this creative character continue to be born, as they do, then it is certain the art’s inspiration will never run dry, as I suggested could be true in ‘Contemporary art – A Reason to Embrace 4.’ There are people whose openness to art and its power and possibilities, extends beyond the box and outside of the outlines of a paint-by-numbers. Art lives on in people. Thus our faith in the future of art, is in the character of the artists who create.