Thursday, October 16, 2008

Art or Nature?

In 1822, John Constable warned:
“Should there be a National Gallery (which is talked of), there will be an end of the art in poor old England. The reason is plain: the manufacturers of pictures are then made the criterions of perfection instead of Nature.”

Constable's complaint seems foolish, but it contains a grain of truth. There is a risk in loving art so much that we forget to look at Nature. Art based only on other art ends up being mannered and derivative. The great breakthroughs in art have come from the intense study of the real world through the artist’s own eyes.

Constable’s argument, however, should be taken as a caution, not a curriculum. The study of unfiltered Nature is a bewildering experience. Nature cannot in itself provide the artist with any “criterions of perfection.” Even the artist who paints every day from Nature may find himself fitted with blinders if he lacks a foundation in technique and tradition.

How do we begin to interpret the infinity of impressions that Nature provides? We need a compass, a guide, a map. Other artists who have gone before us can offer that guidance. Their work can blaze a pathway of possibility.

Artists should go to Nature, but they should check in to the art museum from time to time to sift through the harvest of the great souls of yore.

But one should never let the treasures of the museum pull harder at the heart than the living truth of the world around us. As Longfellow argued in his famous sonnet "Art and Nature," (translated from Francisco de Medrano), the “works of human artifice” are like a mere garden, tiresome in comparison to the eternal and infinite grandeur—the “free and wild magnificence”—of the river and the meadow.

We should not hesitate to quit the cloisters of tradition and to revel in the direct experience of Nature face-to-face. Perhaps we might discover something that has never been discovered before.
The photo is of Henry Ward Ranger. The painting is by Giuseppe Gabrielle, of Room 32 of the National Gallery in London.


Erik Bongers said...
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Erik Bongers said...

I don't agree that the great breakthroughs in art are so closely linked to the (visual) real world only.
The way I see it, art is much more dominated by culture, politics and religion than by 'nature'.
Why in so many non-democratic cultures are the most important people depicted much larger than the less important ones? (e.g Egyptian)
Why is it that even today, Asian painters living and working in the US clearly show an Asian influence in their work?
And of course, the invention of photography has resulted in the absolute collapse of realistic painting and is the sole reason for a very first (I think) development of abstract art in the western culture. Abstract art of course already existed for centuries in the Muslim culture for religious reasons.
Those are just 4 examples of the dominant role of politics, ethnics, technology and religion in respect to art.

I love the revival of (hyper) realistic painting that is currently going on, but I think that after a century of discrimination of realistic painting, this style is currently taking it's place amongst other styles. I don't think realistic art will ever get the status of 'true' art, and I think that's a good thing.

This op-ed style post seems to suggest that the only 'real' art is the rendering of nature and thus the return to the study of nature will improve art. True, in 'realistic art', the quitting of the cloisters of tradition will allow you to revel, but I think it's equally valid to quit the cloisters of nature itself as is often the case with abstract or conceptual art.

Anonymous said...

I agree with erik. Lot of great arts are not based on Nature, but, in all theese arts, Nature is a certain type of inspiration. Language doesn't exist in Nature, though litterature contains a lot of great pieces of art (the say the least). Sure the writers are known to be, most of them, observing nature all the time. But they have something to say. I think this is what lacks the most in "realistic" art, something to say. If we were to translate some realistic paintings into words, some of them might be really boring poems.

Pompier painters in the 19th century were not so much criticized for their technique but must of all for their subjects.It's really basically the fight between films that are based on incredible special effects
and others that use theese effects to serve an original opinion.

So I think that an artist that wants to "improve" his art should better find what he has to say with it rather than "how" because the "how" will be easier to find. But that's only my opinion.

Glendon Mellow said...

I remember once reading a comic book writer suggest that if you want to write comics, don't read mainly comics. Read Chaucer, read Shakespeare, read Atwood, read myths, read anything else.

That seems to be what Mr. Gurney is suggesting here. To produce art study nature intensely, not solely other artists.

Even in art dominated by culture, politics and religion, nature is a starting point. Even if only to look at a composition and colour, the interplay of elements.

arecol said...

L'art c'est:le talent,l'adresse, l'habileté, le savoir faire.

On peu faire avec art beaucoup de belles choses.

et malheureusement, on peu également faire des choses beaucoup moins sympathiques avec art.

La tauromachie est considérée comme un art par les "aficionados"

J'aime l'art cultivé par James Gurney et Jeanette.
Je n'aime pas l'art de la tauromachie.

James Gurney said...

This topic raises interesting points. Erik, as you say, no artist ever escapes his artistic culture. Even Constable, who saw himself as an unfiltered realist, was clearly influenced by Claude Lorrain.

By "Nature" I don't mean fields and streams only; I'm using it in the broader sense of an artist's direct experience of life. You'd be studying Nature if you were sketching on a subway. For the sake of this blog we're talking about visual arts, but I suppose playwrights and dancers face the same issues.

I'm certainly not arguing for one kind of art over another, but rather for how one balances the sources of inspiration. I do believe that great inspirations in painting have some element of direct inspiration from life. Egyptian art is a good example. Those sculptors were definitely looking at real cats and falcons, even though they were working within a well-established stylistic tradition. And a comic artist like R.Crumb deserves credit for really studying people (and telephone poles and such) around him and weaving that direct observation into the fantasy of his comics.

Glendon Mellow gets my basic point that whatever kind of art you do, it's good to switch back and forth between looking at art and life. That's why the classic academic model of copying the masters and then working from the model and painting outdoors is a healthy mode of training.

And Arecol, the term "tauromachie" is new to me. Is that a kind of bullfight art?

Anonymous said...

Tauromachie is when a guy (most of the time spanish or french from south of france) wearing superb costumes try to fight a bull in a big arena. Picasso was an afficionado of such theatratical demonstrations.

Erik Bongers said...

Oh, right. Taurus = bull.
So tauromachie is sort of "bullfighter's machismo".

Random York said...

Well put, Jim! There is endless inspiration in what we call nature. I am learning a great deal from your blog. I think the ideas get rootbound without that refreshing input from the real world.
I make so many pictures that are solely based on childhood memories and daydreams with absoulutely no legitimate input from the real world, but I feel the need to look at the real world in order to tune myself. Like Robert McClosky said "I have one foot on a cloud and the other firmly planted on a banana peel".

Anonymous said...

Well, that statement by Constable refers to the art of the time, which was representational, so the study of nature - which simply means studying from life as opposed to another work or guessin/making-it-up - is crucial to success in that field. Not only in terms of learning about form, beautiful color, light and shade, texture, etc but also in terms of the artist developing their own original voice, or style, through direct interpretation of the source and not another man's interpretation.

Man does not create something from nothing. Every concept, tale, or image is based upon a thought or sensation derived from life

The purpose of studying other artists is so the student doesn't have to reinvent the wheel and can glean technical insights from those who came before, but studying from life is the far more important of the two, for reasons I stated above.

JP said...

It seems to me that most of the art that I admire, be it stylized animation, comics, painting, or anything else, has an element of "truth" in it that was gathered from the world outside of the mind. Guys like Heinrich Klee and Winsor McCay with tons and tons of creative captial drew inspiration from the things around them to inform their vivid imaginations and ground them. I think imagination and natural observation are perfectly paired, and to separate the two is sort of a disservice to both.

Allison Dollar said...

*nods* It's interesting watching people doing a whole series from their heads and quick snapshots, and then having to actually paint from life. And vice versa. You can see the a-ha moment happen in the art every single time.

I keep drawing from life, and experiencing weird optical phenomena, and going to other artists who paint from life and try and see if they've manage to capture what I've seen, or if I'm seeing things incorrectly, or just trying to find other explanations. But when I was younger, I used to paint copies. Strictly copies of other artists' works or photos. And Constable is right, those became my measuring stick for perfection and there is so much more to get from actually observing. Not just flowers and fields, but relationships and interactions. I could be a great photocopier, but I couldn't quite get it. I didn't understand for a long time.

arecol said...

oui la tauromachie est l'art de combattre les taureaux selon certaines règles.
d'après le dictionnaire
on peu également dire que
c'est l'art de programmer une mort dans un spectacle spectacle.

Alex said...

"...the manufacturers of pictures are then made the criterions of perfection instead of Nature."

I find Constable's choice of words fascinating, and if I can be forgiven for taking them entirely out of context and shoving them into the present day, they have a profundity that he would obviously not have intended.
Essentially, Constable's worry is that by gathering such a mass of paintings in one place, people will begin to lose touch with the world; mistaking a mediated and idealised representation of reality, for reality itself.
Couldn't it be argued that today this manufacture of images has evolved into exactly what he feared (in fact worse than he could of imagined)?
We're consantly presented with idealised images of, not only nature but also ourselves. Advertising is an industry that exists by enforcing this dissasscociation between imperfect reality and a manufactured, idealised view of the world. When it comes to informing ourselves of what is going on outside, we generally spend far more time looking at the world on screens or through projections, than first hand,"in the flesh".
As a culture we have relinquished our faith in our ability to perceive the world around us and judge it as it truly is; the manufacturers of pictures really are the criterions of perfection.

James Gurney said...

What a lot of great comments! John-Paul, and Ally and Crisp--I like what each of you had to say about the benefit of the direct study of nature.

Alex, you've found a great truth in Constable's statement. You're right: nowadays, with cable news and digital cameras and all the rest, our view of reality is more mediated than ever.

I suppose people's grasp of reality has always been mediated by artistic preconceptions and conventions. In Constable's time, those would have been concepts of the Sublime and the picturesque, as formulated by picturemakers. I have to admit that when I get to a new city, I often scan the postcard racks to see what images others have already found worthy.

I find that once you actually start sketching from life, reality hits you in the face and those artistic preconceptions no longer exert very much pull.