Tag Archives: Dürer

Imitation and Imagination 3. Disclosure of Dutch Golden Age art theory

Imitation and Imagination 3. Disclosure of Dutch Golden Age art theory

Dürer-imitate-figures

Dürer, A Draftsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Woman

 

Before

In May 2018 I gave a lecture, Imitation and Imagination, at TRAC2018 (The Representational Art Conference) in The Netherlands. The lecture was on naturalistic realism, the area of tension between imitation and imagination. Naturalism has a very high degree of imitation. See for example a comment with regard to a pretty realistic painting, on Facebook (28-10-2014):

Huysman. Street in Utrecht i

Gerard Huysman. Utrecht, street in backlight, oil on panel, 2013

“I can’t understand why an artist would work so hard to make a painting like this that is so much like a photo. That’s what cameras are for. I can see the artist’s skill, but not the soul.”

Because really: isn’t imitation getting in the way of imagination? It is a widespread idea: naturalism lacks imagination. But, I will contest that opinion.
Part 1 of the lecture: earlier blog (archive, August 2017)
Part 2 in blog, August 2018
Part 3 is following now (elaborated)

Forgotten Dutch Golden Age art theories disclosed

Let us jump to the year 2000. Rembrandt. The Painter at Work is published. It’s a real art treasure from the Dutch Golden Age, expertly and fascinatingly revealed by Ernst van de Wetering. It is nothing less than the forgotten art theories about realism. These had been overlooked for about three centuries. The artists of those days proved to be theoretically very well grounded. This had sharpened their skills and insights. Their world fame was’t for nothing!
This was especially true for Rembrandt, who pondered, investigated and experimented a lot and developed new insights himself.

Rembrandt. The Painter at Work & Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking. Art theory Dutch Golden Age

Rembrandt. The Painter at Work & Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking.

That was an awareness that came to me when I read the book with increasing amazement. How could it be that those ideas weren’t known to us? I wrote to Ernst van de Wetering that I would very much like to learn more about those theories, but didn’t have the time to read the original texts in Old Dutch. I didn’t have to: he sent me more unpublished texts until he published Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking in 2016. Again, I was stunned: what a rich source for the visual arts, so many intelligent ideas in treatises on art theory were brought to light!
Professor Van de Wetering said to me that many people came to tell him that his books were a revelation to them, even if they believed themselves to be well versed in Rembrandt and seventeenth century art. Just like me!
Now let us jump back to that age, the seventeenth century.

Art treasure of the Dutch Golden Age

A new realism originated in Dutch painting, already in the sixteenth century, but especially in the seventeenth century, known as the Dutch Golden Age.
The artists of that age stressed the importance of imitation and observation. Of course they included classical elements such as perspective or anatomy.

Karel-van-Mander-Het-Schilder-Boeck

Karel van Mander, Het Schilder-Boeck, 1604

Painter-author Karel van Mander described a great many natural phenomena in Het Schilder-boeck. 3)

Samuel van Hoogstraeten: Art History Dutch Golgen Age

Samuel van Hoogstraeten: Art History Dutch Golgen Age

Rembrandt’s former pupil Samuel van Hoogstraeten also wrote an important manual, Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst: anders de zichtbaere werelt. 4) These books belonged to the cultural baggage of every self-respecting painter.
It makes for fascinating reading, certainly also for contemporary realists. It stimulates awareness of many aspects of observation and representation. You can read all about it in Rembrandt. The Painter at Work, and Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking, and other publications by Ernst van de Wetering.

Essential was to create space in order to get the illusion of reality.

Rembrandt, details Nightwatch

Rembrandt, details Nightwatch

Besides perspective, an important element was the ‘perceptibility’. It was found that putting a piece of sky-blue paper against a sky of the same color, you would still notice that the piece of paper is close to you, and the blue sky infinitely distant because of the relative roughness of the paper. The application of the discovery of perceptibility would contribute to three-dimensionality. 5) Imagine painters pondering that! The idea that air has substance, that it forms a body over a short distance, and that its presence should be suggested around every object to create spatiality is wonderful.

Rembrandt-Anatomy Lesson

Rembrandt, detail The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

Van de Wetering: “The young Rembrandt had already applied this insight with great subtlety in the ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp”. He argues:

“It is only when one consciously takes notice of these extremely refined modulations of light and tone from one head and collar to the other, from front to back, that it becomes clear that this is one of the main reasons for the strikingly atmospheric effect of Rembrandt’s paintings.” 6)

Rembrandt applied this phenomenon quite often, see the details of his Night Watch. You can see it comparing when you compare his Night Watch with similar paintings nearby it, in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Vermeer-Art-Painting

Vermeer, The Art of Painting

There was also a treatise on the degrees of shadows and what pigments should be used in painting them. Or the theory of the numerical diminution of a light beam falling into a room. 7) Vermeer was probably familiar with it, as is witnessed by the interior light in his paintings. He created a genial combination of spaciousness and intimacy.
These examples show the exceptional level of knowledge among the painters of that age. I don’t mean that we should copy these theories, but we can learn from them, and even improve our art.

Realism, banal, vulgar

Another writer on this period is Boudewijn Bakker. He tells that the extreme realism of the Dutch invited criticism by the Italians: imitation, okay, but what about imagination? After all, art should lift reality to a higher level, creating perfect beauty, idealize. The Dutch subject matter was deemed banal, vulgar.

Hals-Laughing-Boy

Hals, Laughing Boy

How this Dutch realism was seen even in the 18th century is shown in this caricature by the English artist Thomas Rowlandson: A Dutch Academy.

Rowlandson, Dutch Academy

Rowlandson, Dutch Academy

Classical art theory taught that students should draw after antique statues, since these had perfect proportions. Samuel Van Hoogstraten, who later turned to a more classicist style, complained that Rembrandt brought ugly models into his studio.

“Indeed, I bemoan my lot when I look over my old Academy drawings, that we were taught these so sparingly in our youth; since it is no more labor to imitate a graceful posture than an unpleasant and disgusting one.” 8)

Rembrandt really went far… In one of his self-portraits I detected a pimple on his left cheek. He must have had fun painting that ‘truth’.

Rembrandt-Self-Portrait-1659

Rembrandt Self Portrait, 1659, detail

 

I told this to my dear teacher Diederik Kraaijpoel. ‘Without style there is no art’, he had written in one of his books; that makes sense: reality itself has no style. So, such a pimple, such far-reaching realism, I asked, isn’t that going beyond style? Well, he could not believe that Rembrandt had actually painted a pimple on his cheek… And about this far-reaching naturalism he said: it’s never a copy, the artist always makes a selection, it is impossible to paint all.

Answer: a ‘find’

Karel van Mander answered the Italian criticism by stating: “In life one finds all”, there is no better textbook. In the ‘book of nature’ the visible creation is seen as the second or even first ‘book’ of divine revelation, next to the Holy Scriptures.

Intensive-Looking

Intensive Looking

Inventio, Imagination, can also be seen as ‘a find ‘, something that is found in nature after long and sharp observation. Intensive looking is the entrance key to beauty. Beauty is enclosed in reality. Reality is created by God. 9)

 

 

As soon as possible the painter should start to work after nature. And what about style, maniera? His advice: don’t make things up, “go from ornamentation towards truth!”. Fabrications could affect the illusion of reality. The painter should not stylize or idealize, but characterize. 10)

For Rembrandt, ‘truth’ was life, to be captured in its ‘most natural liveliness’.

Rembrandt-Girl-Pictureframe

Rembrandt, Girl in a Pictureframe

Van de Wetering remarks that the painting Young woman in a picture frame gives the impression that the young woman is about to place her right hand on the frame, even the earring seems to be moving, life is caught in the act.11)

Well, the Dutch diverged from current art theory. Imitation was highly appreciated. But invention or imagination was never far away. Beauty in truth, intensely observed by the artist, was transferred into the work of art.
For me, it was like homecoming. I had always felt that way.

Notes

1) Roodnat, Joyce. “Met drift geschilderde ‘kleine onderwerpen’ “. NRC, 2018-02-28.
2) Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Artists. Volume 1. Introduction by George Bull. London, 1987. p. 19-20.
3) Mander, Karel van. Het Schilder-Boeck. Haarlem,1604.
4) Hoogstraten, Samuel van. Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst: anders de zichtbaere werelt. Davaco Publishers, s.l., 1969.
5) Wetering, Ernst van de. Rembrandt. The Painter at Work. Amsterdam, 2000. p. 183.
6) Id., p.187.
7) Wetering, Ernst van de. Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking. Amsterdam, 2016. p.157.
8) Emmens,  J.A.. Rembrandt en de regels van de kunst. Amsterdam, 1979. p.220.
9) Bakker, Boudewijn. “Natuur of kunst? Rembrandts esthetica en de Nederlandse traditie.” In: Christiaan Vogelaar e.a., Rembrandts landschappen. Zwolle, 2006. p.163.
10) Id., p.167, 166.
11) Wetering, Ernst van de. Rembrandt. The Painter Thinking. Amsterdam, 2016. p.263.

Translation NL-EN by Jeroen Strengers

Imitation and Imagination 2, TRAC2018. News.

 

Imitation and Imagination 2, TRAC2018

Dürer, how to imitate complex figures

Dürer, A Draftsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Woman.jpg

In May 2018 I gave a lecture, Imitation and Imagination, at TRAC2018 (The Representational Art Conference) in The Netherlands, together with Ernst van de Wetering, the world’s foremost authority on Rembrandt. His contribution was about Rembrandt and assessing quality. He compared works of Rembrandt with works of his pupils. His lecture  was  based  on:

A  CORPUS  OF  REMBRANDT  PAINTINGS  Volume  V  Chapter  IV  with  the  title:  On  quality:  Comparative  remarks  on  the  function  of  Rembrandt’s  pictorial  mind  (pp.  283  –  310).  Freely  accessible  in  The  Rembrandt  Database:

http://rembrandtdatabase.org/literature/corpus?tmpl=pdf&pdf=/images/corpus/CorpusRembrandt_5.pdf

Rembrandt, Abraham's sacrifice and Unknown, Abraham's sacrifice

Rembrandt, Abraham’s sacrifice and
Unknown, Abraham’s sacrifice

My lecture was on naturalistic realism, the area of tension between imitation and imagination in the classical art, including the contemporary variant.
Naturalism is one of many expressions of representational art, one with a very high degree of imitation.
See for example a comment with regard to a pretty realistic painting, on facebook (28-10-2014):

Huysman. Street in Utrecht i

Gerard Huysman. Utrecht, street in backlight, oil on panel, 2013

“I can’t understand why an artist would work so hard to make a painting like this that is so much like a photo. That’s what cameras are for. I can see the artist’s skill, but not the soul.”

 

This prejudice is often heard. Because really: isn’t imitation getting in the way of imagination? Exactly! No soul, no artistic creativity. And that’s what this discussion is all about.
I will contest the opinion that naturalism lacks imagination.

Part 1 of the lecture is in my earlier blog (see archive, august 2017).
Part 2 of Imitation and Imagination is following now.

However, the criticism does fit in with my doubts about my own work. For years I was haunted by questions:
● Is naturalistic realism actually the same as copying?
● Is it a lower form of art? Boring?
● A lot of people enjoy this kind of work, but that doesn’t mean it is relevant art.
● Does it add something? After all, reality, the real world, is already there. You should do something to it, with it.
● Shouldn’t you put your personal feelings into your art?

drawing I don't know any more

I don’t know any more, pencil-eraser-paper

Good art, who judges?

Contemporary realism in the Netherlands has been flourishing for about thirty years now. This is exceptional in Europe. Nevertheless the official art institutions and the media mostly neglect its existence. After thirty years this is strange. The wider public is deprived of a cultural treasure.
Recently a journalist wrote in a prestigious Dutch newspaper that realism can be dangerous, in the context of great skill. Yes, virtuosity is a must, she writes, but the comment ‘It looks like a photo’ is not a compliment. ‘It looks like the real thing’ even less. The artist has to expose himself, otherwise his painting will be only an illustration, not more than a picture. She mentions Henk Helmantel, who said not to be in search for expressing his personal feelings.1 In her interpretation he is doomed to produce mere illustrations, far from high art.

Henk Helmantel. Stillife with Cheese and Eggs

Henk Helmantel. Stillife with Cheese and Eggs, oil on panel, 1987, Collection Museum MORE. Photo Art Revisited.

Nothing against personal feelings in art. It is a romantic concept and we have seen great romantic art. But there seems to be a consensus that the personality, the feelings of the artist are primordial, while other approaches are excluded or rejected.
Although it’s not quite the same, this reminds me of Giorgio Vasari who pointed out that besides imitation and invention, good art should possess style and maniera, a personal artistic elegant style.2 True, a style of one’s own will add something to the art.

Well, you could say that my development until now just seems to have taken the wrong direction. Some twenty years ago I made The painter and her model, see the picture on the left. On the right a recent work: Daphne. It went from a loose touch, free colors and free imagination to naturalism.
And naturalism is less focussed on style and handwriting.

Van de Riet, Drawing Model and Daphne

Gezien van de Riet. Left: Drawing her model, acryl/oil on linnen, 1996, and right: Daphne, oil on canvas, 2016

Yes, in my beginner’s years I experimented a lot and I often had a personal spontaneous handwriting. The works of that period will never be dubbed copies or photos. Why on earth did I choose a more naturalistic way of painting? It only complicated things!
The crazy thing was: I couldn’t help myself. More and more I wanted to celebrate the beauty I had seen, to make it my own.

Ancient Greeks

Could it be that the history of art had witnessed earlier discussions about this question? I started on a search.
The Ancient Greeks had a great appreciation of the naturalistic detail. Birds should see painted grapes as real and try to pick them. An anecdote about Apelles clearly illustrates their admiration for imitation. The horse he painted was so life-like, that it is said that the horse of Alexander the Great started whinnying spontaneously on seeing it.

The Greeks had clear views on imagination. The artist should have in mind the Platonic Idea, the perfect form, the supernatural beauty of the object he wanted to portray. This did not come about automatically, because models were only ordinary mortals. Even the most beautiful human body could have fat ankles. Well, in that case you would take somebody else’s ankles!
Idealizing thus, the artist would transcend pure imitation.
So there we have it: Imitation and Imagination…

Aphrodite and Alexander as Hunter.jpg

After Praxiteles. Aphrodite, and After Lysippus. Alexander as hunter, both 4th century BC

But suddenly I jumped up. I read about the sculptor Lysippus, who worked at Alexander’s court. He wanted to convey what he saw in a naturalistic manner! Not following the current rules for perfect beauty, developed by the old masters, but his own observation.
We don’t know much for sure about Lysippus. But the sculpture attributed to him, Alexander the hunter, clearly shows a naturalistic realism. Whoever made it, this artist was capable of far-reaching imitation.
I was happy about this Lysippus.

1) Roodnat, Joyce. “Met drift geschilderde ‘kleine onderwerpen’ “. NRC, 2018-02-28.
2) Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Artists. Volume 1. Introduction by George Bull. London, 1987. p. 19-20.
Imitation and Imagination will continue in the coming blogs.

Galería Artelibre ’20 years, in 20×20’

Galería Artelibre

Galería Artelibre

Galería Artelibre invited me to participate in its virtual gallery, in the category of Grandes Autores. This Spanish gallery has artists on its site like Anders Zorn, Natalie Holland, David Kassan.

Galería Artelibre Artistas del mes

Galería Artelibre Artistas del mes

It is promoting realism internationally, already for twenty years, and that is heart-warming, I think! A special exhibition will celebrate their twenty years anniversary, “20 years, in 20×20” (all works will be 20x20cm). It will travel through Spain, and also visit MEAM, Museo Europeo de Arte Moderno, in Barcelona. My work will be part of it!

Link: http://artelibre.net/autor/27050

Calendar, diary, cards

Art editor Bekking&Blitz has published art diaries and calendars for 2019. A work of mine figures between artists like Sorolla, Sargent, Kenne Grégoire.

Kunst weekalender en aganda's Bekking&Blitz

Kunst weekalender en aganda’s Bekking&Blitz

In Brugues I saw an art card of my work in the Groeningemuseum, but it was forbidden to take a photo of it. I explained that it was a work of mine, but no way. Still, I disobeyed and the officer kindly pretended not to see it.

Groeninge en Drents Museum cards and book Gezien van de Riet

Groeninge en Drents Museum cards and book

In the Drents Museum of Assen there was another art card, and my book. Stimulating! This helps the brand awareness. It’s the small things that count!

Translation NL-ES: Jeroen Strengers