Art of the Individual

All you have to ask yourself is: “What do human beings do?”  What characterizes the human story?  Compare us with the animals, and ask what are we particularly good at?  And here one asks not about the geniuses only, but about each ordinary person.  We are creators of ourselves and discoverers of ourselves too,  and molding this individual personality is the chief business of each person’s existence.  And too, it is a marvel how people project the sense of themselves upon others, how you can walk past a total stranger and merely nod the most summary of greetings and receive in return a distinct impression of this unknown other.  Sometimes quick impressions of this sort turn out to have been very revealing.

We ought to be teaching it in school, using every subject and every endeavor to get the message across, bending every discipline to the task – science, art, history, literature, music, having all these things as tools for creating the self, for becoming a person.


Learning to learn

Reader comments help me greatly to clarify my ideas, and I thank everyone who leaves comments here.  In my previous post about the education of a hypothetical “great artist,” I argue that the most authentic form of art comes from the self.  Moreover, I argued that for this reason, the greatest artists — regardless how much education they had — were, in very important ways, “autodidacts.”

Perhaps I made it sound like an aspiring great artist should avoid schools, books, conversation and study.  So, I want to clarify the idea by saying that, quite the contrary, I’m aware that great artists typically had very thorough and deep educations.  Sometimes they had, like Rubens, a rich formal education.  Rubens’s education in rhetoric, history, language as well as his “internship” with the Carracci brothers in Italy made him a thousand-fold more savvy than the typical, much touted “New York” artist of today.  Monet, to cite a different kind of career, was certainly well acquainted the great paintings of the Louvre and with the main tenets of academic art of his era and had innumerable painter friends of all sorts.

Van Gogh who I had used as a role model of the perfect sort of autodidact did literally isolate himself and set to work learning to draw through sheer hard work and struggle.  But even Van Gogh had a direct “teacher” in the form of a drawing manual, one that was popular in his day by Charles Bargue.  But what distinquishes Van Gogh’s studies from the norm is the keen force of his personality. 

Van Gogh was well acquainted with art prior to his decision to become an artist.  He had worked as an art dealer, following in that a family tradition.  He had been a passionate visitor of museums.  He was deeply influenced by a wide number of artists and traditions.  While it is most unlikely that Van Gogh could have known the particular drawing at the top of this post, by Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom of 17th century Haarlem, Van Gogh was nonetheless probably deeply influenced by the tradition of which Vroom was part.  And for a modern viewer, well acquainted with the masterful graphic vocabulary that Van Gogh uses in his late drawings — all the dots and dashes and wonderfully expressive penlines of every sort — seeing this drawing by Vroom is a little like finding Van Gogh’s 17th century twin.

There are as many paths to art as there are travelers, but upon each path the person taking the journey has to find a spiritual compass within his or her own life.  Yes, an artist should study assiduously!  Certainly, a serious artist is very eager to learn and to see.  But the finding is certified not by outside authorities, but by the quiet, sure judgement of the self.

The Vroom drawing above belongs to the Albertina Museum which is in the process of putting images of its entire collection on line.  Its addition makes another wonderful resource of ideas for today’s artists.

[Top of the post:  Trees behind a Wooden Fence, by Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom  (1591/92 – 1661),  pen and brown ink, brown wash, 28.7 x 30.2 cm, Albertina Museum]

Colored Pencils (Shell fossil)

Colored pencils are something that you love for themselves.  Even before you draw.  They look so great sitting there colorfully arrayed, row upon row, in their neat little box. Traveling has awaked my appreciation of this studio in a box. 

Of course you have to think a little differently when you’re making your picture with these.  Everything becomes a line.  You cannot work the masses of an image with the big dollop of color.  Or, let’s say, you can dollop, but you’ll do it with lines.  You can scribble a mass, you can rub the color into a continuous tone, but you will have massed it particle by particle.

So, of course hatching is what you do.  I love hatching.  You can lay line beside line in a wonderfully monotonous way.  It’s hypnotic — like mowing the lawn or washing the dishes, except more colorful.

This subject lent itself to colored pencils as it seemed to have been composed of lines itself!  Lines of calcium threaded together, in three dimensional contours, that rolling in upon each other formed — poof! — a fossil shell.

The legislators of my state have managed our lovely Maryland so marvelously that they have hardly anything to do now, and so they’ve gone way beyond state flowers and state birds.  We’ve got a state fossil.  And it’s at the top of the post.

[Top of the post:  Maryland’s State Fossil: Ecphora gardnerae gardnerae by Aletha Kuschan]

Life Class

     In life class you have a model sitting there, someone who is alive!  It can be very personal.  You talk to fill in awkward silences.  Then as you draw, rather haltingly at first, strange event: you notice a soul.  In the ineluctable silence that reasserts itself, you watch someone’s self as it registers in the face, the hands, the posture, in a thousand small disguises.  Personality is a powerful thing.  It projects itself quietly but relentlessly.  You begin to notice, also, evidences of your own life passing quietly and slowly before you — like a movie playing in slow motion, this latter motion, this empathy needles and prods you and makes you squirm.  Watching someone, who is not doing anything at all, because you specifically ask her not to do anything at all, is most discomforting.

You feel scruples about the model’s comfort.  Is she getting tired?  Is this session too long?  Do we need a break?  And all this, only moments into the model’s pose.  Such scruples arise from the keen observation that feels like an assault on someone’s privacy.  And maybe it’s your own, the artist’s privacy, for which you fear!

Models are really wonderful people to put up with having you stare at them.   Doing a life class is the opposite of working from imagination, copying history’s motifs, or creating something from a photograph.  Drawing from life, you are allowed the most direct experience of portraying other people, unmediated by anything except your perception and skill, and your quickness at emotionally uncoiling and unsquirming.

But doesn’t the name conjure up other associations as well?  What would be the curriculum in a class on “life”?  What should we learn first?  With what insights will we graduate?  It seems to me that the artist’s occupation brings one very close to the discovery of life’s curriculum.  You can paint any subject.  You strive to discover and to reveal meaning.

What are some of the topics?  In the floral bouquet: botany.  In the nude: anatomy, psychology, passion.  In landscape: geology and topography.  In history painting: human drama and fate.  In the interior — in the scene that takes place in a room: the private life and decor. 

Animal pictures, cabinets of curiosity, insects, inanimate objects of still life, dress, fashion … the list is endless.  We can study the ant at our feet or the stars over our heads.  Or we can study the quiet self that sits placidly before our eyes, that makes an artist uneasy by the fact of her wonderful aliveness!

[Top of the post: Woman in white by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas]