Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Anders Zorn's "Une première"

The painting "Une première" was one of Anders Zorn's first experiments portraying nude models in the open air. He was fascinated by the waves, the water reflections, the shifting weight, and the colors of the flesh as the woman and child wade into the shallow water.

Anders Zorn, Une première, gouache, 1888, 76x56 cm,
(29.92 in x 22.05 in), at the Nationalmuseum, Blasieholmen, Stockholm.
Zorn said, "My model was in Stockholm staying at a shoemaker's family with many children when I came along and asked to borrow a boy. The shoemaker had nothing against being rid of one for a while. The boy that suited me was sickly and close to death anyway. But what an effect fresh air had on a naked body. A couple of weeks later, I returned the boy and he was so healthy and rosy-checked that his parents hardly recognized him."

The original version of this gouache painting won a medal, but Zorn decided to rework it. He became so dissatisfied with the outcome that he angrily folded it and hacked it to pieces. A fellow artist, Christian Eriksson, gathered the fragments and put them back together. It is now considered a masterwork of figure painting.


Tom Hart said...

It's such a beautiful piece, I wonder what about it dissatisfied Zorn.

Steve said...

Zorn's intense self-criticism is remarkable. The painting wins a medal; he decides to rework it. The revision doesn't meet his standards, he destroys it. Even with the scars of re-assembly, others regard it as a masterpiece. Clearly, he was driven by an uncompromising vision of what the painting could be. It's fascinating how this story conveys the reality of a fiercely inner-directed artist.

James Gurney said...

Tom, yes, or what it looked like before he reworked it. I also wish we could see a whole set of Sargent's rubbed-out portraits before he got to the final.

James Gurney said...

Steve, as a former grade school teacher, do you think we as a culture send the wrong signal to kids doing art, telling them that everything they do is awesome? How do you foster that spirit of uncompromising self-criticism in a way that isn't paralyzing?

Steve said...

I just read a book, The Smartest Kids in the World (and How They Got That Way). The author covers a lot of territory (literally and figuratively) but one clear theme is that unlike students in Finland, Poland, and South Korea, American students are largely shielded from failure. The author's favorite word in this regard is "rigor." It is in short supply in American schools.

Like most things in life, it's balance. We all know people who say they were told at an early age that they lacked ability in one area or another and forever after abandoned something that might have nourished them.

I think the primary message has to be "You can do this. It won't be easy. It won't be fast. There will be failure along the way. There will also be improvement. You'll need persistence. You'll need to make small steps for quite a while. But the primary thing is, you can do this."

There was an interesting segment with Chuck Close recently on CBS Sunday Morning:

Regardless of anyone's opinion of his painting, there's a message of persistence in his story -- of quite literally breaking a problem down into small, manageable pieces -- that is instructive. That, combined with an inner faith in oneself that is not defined by others.

And, getting back to your original question, Jim, (" a way that isn't paralyzing") Close's experience arises from precisely that physical condition yet his spirit and attitude are far from paralyzed.

Kids can handle truth (and failure), particularly when it is delivered in a way that includes a message of being on their side, with them in their struggle; of being ready to assist for the long haul. When we watch kids playing on their own, they'll show incredible persistence trying to get something to happen, all while experiencing "failure" after "failure." I've watched kids try to make boats that float, or to push a swing so high it will wrap around the top bar of the structure. They'll cheerfully endure one unsuccessful attempt after another because there is no overlay of any one elses's disapproval of their "failures."

Sesco said...

There are only three options: Indifference, Negative rejection, and positive praise. An intelligent teacher will understand that choosing certain works of a child over others is rife with subjectivity, the teacher's own bias and the current bias of the culture. Of those three choices it seems to me that positivity is preferable, allowing a child to explore their creativity and develop their skills in an environment of acceptance. Soon enough they will meet the market place and the critics, either of which will give them a narrower perspective on their skills and vision. Picasso was a representational prodigy, earning him the right to create crap as he explored for the inspired piece. Think of yourself as a teacher with a classroom made up of young future masters, and how you would approach the evaluation of each trial as they brought it to you if you didn't know they would become masters: Here comes young Dali with something very disturbing to you; Young Picasso's work is astoundingly good to you; Here comes young Gurney with his efforts; Young Andy Goldsworthy has created something for you out of leaves, even though your assignment was to complete a painting. How do you not praise all of this without bias? But as to fostering 'uncompromising self-criticism', giving children the experience of, getting them comfortable with, destroying works that they themselves deem as inferior, might help.

Anonymous said...

Steve's comments remind me of a study from a couple years ago about children who are praised for their effort vs. children who are praised for perceived innate things like, "you're so smart."

Certainly seems like a fair amount of that happens to children in regards to art, as well. How many kids are simply told "you're a good artist" or "you're talented" and the matter is put to rest. Sounds like praising children for the work they put into art as opposed to some ineffable descriptor like "talent" would produce artists who are more focused on working hard.

dragonladych said...

I tend to only look at the technical side of my own work. It's too hard to have an opinion about the general impact of your own art. Once in a while I'll be satisfied with a piece because it turned out the way I wanted it to.
I often destroy things that might maybe interest others but I am not happy with it. I am slowly learning not to do that, I have made a few people happy by giving them the pieces I would have throw away otherwise :D

I get upset if people try to "reassure" me if I don't like a piece, I don't really care about opinions unless they are a constructive critique. It might sound a bit pretentious but I want to progress and learn, that's the main thing for me. I want advice on how to make things better the next time, I think I interpret the "compliments" as a way of dismissing this need and that's why it upsets me, even if I know that most people really mean it as an encouragement.

I've also noticed that a lot of people think that you are dismissing yourself when you are not happy with a piece, and also that some people actually identify with their work. That must be awful really. I just see a piece of paper with paint on it, I don't see how it would be a self deprecating thing to want to get better!

en_b said...

"The boy that suited me was sickly and close to death anyway. "

Good lord!
I admire his work so much and find that quote particularly remarkable.

Terry said...

en_b, I agree. That knocked me sideways. It makes it sound as if the father didn't really care what happened to the boy. Glad he thrived with some attention and outdoor exercise, though. Tells you a lot about that parent, though. And maybe Zorn, too?

Tom Hart said...

I had the same reaction as en_b and Terry about the "sickly and close to death" quote. It's so over-the-top callous, though, that I have to wonder if there's a translation issue involved.

Robert J. Simone said...

I have a painting buddy who likes to tell me, "now Robert, don't do anything rash". That's right before I wipe one out.....Zorn needed a buddy like mine!

James Gurney said...

Tom, Terry, and En_B: I agree. The story only makes sense to me if it's assumed by all that this notable artist was going to do the poor kid some good by feeding him, giving him attention, and fresh air. If he was sickly anyway, all the better.

Sesco, given the range of possible artistic directions a person can take in today's world, you're probably right: any kind of strong criticism could be damaging. An art school probably works best if teachers and students all agree what the skills and goals are to be. In the absence of that, probably the best a teacher can offer is what Steve so well articulated, what I would describe as supportive interest, and a modeling of the teacher's enthusiastic pursuit of his or her own goals.

Lee, that's fascinating. My brother, who taught kindergarten for 35 years told me that vague praise can be as damaging as harsh criticism. Has anyone else had the experience while sorting through a difficult problem on a location painting that someone slows down their car, rolls down their window and says, "You're so talented! or You're such an awesome artist."

Dragonladych, I like the way you've sorted all that out. The flip side of all this self criticism is genuine pleasure in a painting that does work, and balancing the pleasure against the pain is inevitable.

Torbjörn Källström said...

Sometimes I tend to take praise in the opposite way that it was intended. A friend says something like, "i like how you did that with that thing", and it makes me think, "I didn't mean for that to stand out or look weird, I'll probably have to fix that."