I have a favorite painting at the National Gallery of Art, a dear old favorite friend of a painting. Me and this painting go back years! It’s Vermeer’s Girl with a Flute. The tapestry in the background, in particular, amazes me. The background alone contains some of the most astonishing bits of painting that I’ve ever seen. In the softly articulated, indistinct shapes of the fabric behind the girl, you find much of the painting’s music. Its flute notes are all piped in blending, meandering riverlets of color and tone. They are so out-of-focus as to be completely unrecognizable, yet they are persuasively, pervasively “real.” Whenever I see the painting I’m reminded that all of life is like this one scene. The world is luminous and mysterious, indefinite and mutable, meaningful and inscrutable.
And in something like this spirit of inscrutability I enter my garden of crepe myrtles. I don’t of course own the garden. I own the scribbles that establish the garden of my pencil. Though I have to follow the park rules about when I can visit my trees, with my pencil they transform into personal, imaginative property. I wander through them like the lady of the manor. And I abstract them with all the freedom that Vermeer taught me to feel before nature.
My pencil lines are thoughts about form. I say that the tree boughs shall grow to such height! I will that the greens be bright! I indulge all my whim for foliage and fond. If I want significant swaths of bright white paper peeking through, so be it! It’s my dream, my vague and transcendent fabric!
Want your hamsters to be mellow for their photo op? Just play some of this. Have no idea what she’s saying (any speakers of Portuguese out there?) but it sure is wonderful — for hamsters and humans both!
Bene drew some clouds and said something about them. And I’ve decided maybe I ought to go draw some clouds too. But while I’m rounding up some clouds, I thought I’d let these guys draw clouds. And I’ll just comment on theirs.
We just returned from my kid’s orchestra rehearsal. While she plays, I draw. Well, I draw when I can concentrate to draw. The conductor is mesmerizing. Sometimes I just watch the rehearsal in a wonderful trance.
But today I drew. Indeed, I made the drawing above. It has an interesting origin. It’s a copy of a portion of a drawing that I’m using as a study for a painting in progress. Got that? And the source drawing is itself the result of a composite image made from lots of separate pieces put together and reworked into a new format. Hmm. Maybe you had to be there.
Anyway, listening to the rehearsal played a role in my decision to make this drawing. I realized that I could do with my images what these young musicians are doing at orchestra practice. I could take my image apart — measure by measure — and practice it again and again in order to understand the music of it more completely. Also that by drawing and redrawing the same figures, I could gain a fluency and naturalness. Perhaps something of a musicians phrasing could play a role in my picture.
Will I become eventually a fish virtuoso? Who can say?
My kid is a member of the tech crew for the school play Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. She’s been going around humming this tune by Anthony Newley all afternoon. Here’s a fine version by Troubleclef. A lovely creamy musical thing to fill ones thoughts with — and not so many calories as real chocolate. Though actual chocolate’s pretty wonderful too.
All this talk of fish is making Alice hungry. She has a violin lesson right now, but after that … she said she’s getting some fish!
In the imagery of Classical antiquity, the Muses dance together. All the arts share a common foundation, and thus an artist in any discipline can learn a lot from the other arts. Painters can learn much from musicians. In this quote by Yehudi Menuhin, the distinction between effort that is exclusively technical and a highly structured artistic freedom is well delineated:
“If I felt I couldn’t accept Ysaye’s advice, nor his offer to teach me, the fault lay in my stars perhaps, or at any rate in the temperament I was born with. He might have added method to my working day (among much else besides, no doubt) and thereby shortened the long search for understanding I ultimately had to make, but learning an imposed method seemed not in my nature. In dealing with people I was, as I am, very trusting; in dealing with ideas, opinions, traditions, techniques, I never took anything ready-made, but reserved judgment until I had personally tested the matter. Music was something very alive to me, an essential means of expression, and I suspect that unending hours of work on dull material might well have blunted rather than polished my interpretation of it. Nor am I alone in this, I think. I have since seen how very rigid teaching of music, such as has been systematized in Russia can steam roller individual expressiveness into anonymous brillance, so that only the most irrepressible survive the course with personality and musicality intact. Of course I don’t wish to imply Ysaye would have ridden roughshod over my finer feelings; only that what he might have given, I was not able to take. If it was unorthodox, my development as a violinist was nevertheless valid. Mine was an inspired way, shown me by inspired teachers, not mastery of scales and arpeggios; it was recognition of greatness and response to it.”
–Yehudi Menuhin Unfinished Journey p. 66- 67 Alfred Knopf publisher, 1976
[Top of the post: Andrea Mantegna, detail, Mars and Venus or Parnassus, 1497, Paris, Musee du Louvre]
While just a youth, when I first began studying art early in college, I learned about Jean Fouquet — not from an art history class but by pure happenstance. I was dating a musician and was visiting the university’s music room with him at the main library. There was nothing for me to do, so I wandered into the adjacent stacks. Back then they were positively medieval. The stacks consisted of acres of books on metal shelves on dark mezzanine floors, wedged between regular floors. They were tall enough but still dungeon-like. In one of these dark corridors, a title on “medieval” something or other caught my notice. I had accidentally found the shelf on illuminated manuscripts, one of which was The Hours of Etienne Chevalier by Jean Fouquet.
I checked out the book and found I loved it so much that I contacted the publisher, New York Graphic Society, and arranged to purchase a copy — this in the era long before Amazon.com! Forever afterward, I counted myself a “real” artist because I knew who Jean Fouquet was. And I knew, not because my art history professor had told me so, but because curiosity, serendipity and fate had led me there. This would not be the last cold finger of a dead old master tapping me on the shoulder — there would be many more — and the fingers didn’t really feel cold at all — but warm and living and encouraging.
What does an artist need to know? What is the difference between a broad awareness of an artistic past — one perhaps reaching 30,000 years back in time (painting has been around a while) — verses a casual sense of art appreciation or a bit of cocktail party banter about art names?
Hor d’oeuvres or the meal? Funny, I used to think knowing about important but less famous artists would mark me as a “wow.” It hasn’t had exactly that effect. One comes across as bookish, pedantic or odd. Sigh! [Top of the post: my drawing after the Ionian Flute Player]