Visit to Galería Artelibre.
Dürer, A Draftsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Woman
This is the last part of the lecture I gave in may 2018, 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 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):
“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 in blog august 2017 (see archive).
Part 2 in blog august 2018 (see archive).
Part 3 in blog october 2018 (see archive).
Part 4, the last part, is following now.
Two centuries after the Dutch Golden Age, in 1855, Courbet’s painting The Stone Breakers was rejected as too vulgar by the Paris Salon. This sounds familiar, denk aan de Hollandse Gouden Eeuw (see Archive October 2018).
Courbet thereupon rented a wooden shed, baptized it with the name Pavillon du Réalisme and there showed his work during the Paris World Exhibition. Courbet then wrote his Realist Manifesto. He minted the term realism, true to nature, by form and by content.
“No myths”, said Courbet, “Angels? I’ve never seen them.” Look at everyday reality, at ordinary people. There’s no need for fabrication.
Courbet was not a dogmatic, he did invent things. But he really did make a breach in the classical tradition where ‘Invention’ still stood for exhalted subject matter and idealization. Where the Dutch still saw the divine in nature, Courbet did away completely with the metaphysical dimension.
At the end of the nineteenth century there were all sorts of realisms; think of Lepage, Bougueraux, Sargent, Waterhouse, Alma Tadema, Zorn, Repin. They were famous in their day, but afterwards disappeared from the official art history. However, realism can be ‘fantastic’ and in no way inferior to the so much appreciated impressionism of that age.
See the American Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900).
Or the Russian Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898), an eminently naturalistic painter. His Winter is overwhelming by its greatness and realness. Extremely refined color and tone nuances in the snow. A wealth of details in the tree bark. That way, Shishkin enhanced the degree of reality in his painting.
Some collegues called him a ‘bookkeeper of leaves’.12) Also nowadays art teachers often shrink away from painting many details, for understandable reasons. But if done rightly, you can compare detailing to music in which every note is clearly played without loosing the melody, where variation in repetition only enriches. Greatness does not exclude attention to detail.
And his ‘own handwriting’? In Van Mander’s words: “no fabrication, no ornamentation”. He lets Nature speak its own language. Do nothing more! For that, great skill is required.
However successful he was, some critics thought his work too naturalistic because it was so much like reality itself. Where was the imagination? Shishkin succeeded in hiding it in his art. More about that later.
He painted in this naturalistic manner to capture the observed qualities, the breathtakingly beautiful. “Just like the real thing”, the public says, while getting a feeling of the artist’s original experience. What is it that makes these paintings so touching? It can’t be just Imitation, can it?
Observing, experiencing and representing
Obviously I wouldn’t dare to put myself at the level of these masters, but I found that the painting process starts in my head the moment that beauty in the outside world hits my eye:… it must be this color... that pattern... this should be in... that should be left out...
Atmosphere and experience imprint themselves in my memory. I see more and more of that what hits me: the architecture of the tree, nuances, gradations, peculiarities. A selection of course, because it’s impossible to paint every tiny branch. That selection stems also from my personality. An image is formed in my mind.
During the painting process the original feeling or experience works as a propelling force and as a severe critic: is the atmosphere still there? Then let me grab this brush, select that color. Feeling, experience, joins with technique. That’s the way feeling comes in the artwork.
All manner of problems must be solved. Form and color work differently on a panel than in reality. Picture yourselves an infinite space in which a tree extends its bare branches. The painting has to make do with only a small square. I must make up for that. Because I want to evoke just that infinite space, that defines the atmosphere.
A difficulty here is that the paint of the represented sky reflects the real phyisical light, while in reality space becomes perceptible partly through the light in the air, through dust particles that catch the light.
Roaming through the representation, the eye of the beholder should be able to enjoy itself unhindered. That is why there is a harmonious abstract pattern laid (as it were) under the representation; attention being paid to directions, light and dark, balance, etc.
That pattern can force you to remove branches or to bend them. I sometimes make a photo of the painting in progress and manipulate it in Photoshop; that can be quicker than sketching. The illusion of space on a flat surface can force you to change colors further away, even though that’s not the way they were seen.
In short, in naturalistic realism the painter consciously applies distortions, but as inconspicuously as possible. It must be hidden. The greater the skill, the more poignantly the experience is represented. Inconspicuous distortions can be found in many classical works of art. Personal feelings? Yes, very personal, but in the sense of total involvement. What is really added by the artist is the enchantment that was in the original experience, the beauty, the thrill, guided by her (or his) artistic talent.
Seeing A Street in Utrecht in Backlight you may think : “Oh, I know this already”. Then you will move straight on and miss the beauty of it. That will be reserved to the attentive viewer. She will walk in her mind through that street, with that nice atmosphere. How was that achieved? By all sorts of choices made by the artist. He managed to hide them.
Is Imitation just virtuosity? It is more than that. Because how can it be that the art of the Dutch Golden Age still enchants millions of people? The painters themselves were enchanted by beauty and skilfully expressed that in their work.
Dennis Dutton states in The Art Instinct 13) that love for beauty is inborn. As long as that instinct is not weeded out, there will always be people gripped by beauty and artists driven to re-create the beauty found in reality.
Please, no dogmas. There are many ways towards beauty; contemporary naturalism is entitled to its own place in art and art history.
12) Henk van Os, Voor het eerst: Russische landschappen, p.39. In: Patty Wageman & David Jackson (ed.), Het Russisch Landschap. Groninger Museum, Groningen & The National Gallery, London, s.d.
13) Dennis Dutton, The Art Instict. Beauty, Pleasure & Human Evolution. New York 2009.
Besides the book ‘Leonardo. Guía de arte y artistas’ Galería Artelibre publishes every year ‘Arte y Libertad’ with about one hundred artists from all over the world. It appeared at the end of 2018 and my work is in it too!
This art gallery is based in Zaragoza, Spain, and wants to be a window for artists from all points of the compass. It is a virtual gallery and has a website featuring a great many artists: www.artelibre.net. My page is: http://www.artelibre.net/en/node/27050. They display a great range of other activities, like book publishing, organizing a yearly portrait competition called Modportrait (together with MEAM), teaching art classes in the gallery workshop in Zaragoza, organizing exhibitions in other locations.
When you are talking about this gallery, you are talking about José Enrique González.
My husband J and I visited Galería Artelibre in November last year to hand in my work ‘Our Gingko in Autumn’ for the exhibition ‘20 años, en 20x20’, celebrating the gallery’s twentieth aniversary, 150 artist are going to take part, all of them with a work of 20x20 cm. You can say that 20 stands for 20 years of promoting realist art. That warms my heart. Just like the efforts of Museum Møhlmann in Appingedam (Holland) or MEAM in Barcelona.
José Enrique González was very hospitable and showed us around in the gallery’s premises, harbouring a great many works of art. He gave a demonstration of ‘dry oil’ technique. It is like drawing: you must dip your brush with oil paint just as long as to make the tip feel dry to the touch; then you can apply it to paper; see Tetuán II.
We were able to attend the opening of the wonderful international exhibition ‘Algo más que realismo’ (‘Something more than realism’) in Zaragoza. That is also a yearly happening.
In short, our visit to Galería Artelibre was heartwarming and inspiring!
Translation NL_EN: Jeroen Strengers