When it’s good to be your own teacher

The presumption is that if you want to learn to draw, you take classes.  And it would be hard to argue that taking classes would be a bad idea.  But a real artist, whether he takes classes or not, is in a certain definite way an autodidact.  The kind of study that leads to great art, or “serious” art, or whatever we want to call it, means being able to teach yourself.  The alternative to teaching yourself would be to have someone else telling you what makes something great or important.  And if you need to be told, how could you possibly create anything great or important yourself?

An innovative artist, or one who does something with exemplary ability, or one who sees things deeply has to learn to find the meanings of things within himself.  Why?  Because the alternative is an artist who needs someone holding his hand, leading him along, guiding the way — and who could this guardian be?  At what juncture would this dependency end?  Great art, the best art, the most thoroughly explorative art has to be something individual.  It’s a syllogism, really.  Insight abides in a logic that we can feel — that we get through a hunch.  Great art has to be innate.  It will arise from earlier traditions.  But it distinquishes itself by a living element that differs from the tradition.  And that something comes from the artist.

The drawing above was made by a great artist.  I once stood in front of it with a friend who’s an art historian who asked aloud how sure we can be that Van Gogh actually made this drawing.  It’s “very crude” — as indeed, it is.  For this particular drawing, much of the evidence rests with the provenance which is quite strong.  I should add that my art historian friend’s expertise lay in other areas, not in 19th century European drawing.

However, her point was an excellent one.  We now regard Vincent Van Gogh as having been one of the greatest artists of the latter 19th century.  What are we to make of a “weak” drawing by a great master?  How do we find the roots of greatness in an image such as this one?  When did Van Gogh change from an awkward draughtsman working in a period style to a great master who creates a radically idiosyncratic, individual style?  And what do the transitions from one to the other mean?

[Top of the post:  The Zandmennik House, by Vincent Van Gogh, c. 1879/1880
charcoal over graphite on wove paper, overall: 22.8 x 29.4 cm (9 x 11 9/16 in.)
The Armand Hammer Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.]