The great and the bad

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Life Drawing (Drawing of Blue King) (A2) 2018

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has indefinitely postponed a Chuck Close retrospective because of allegations of sexual harassment. The 77 year old paraplegic artist is alleged to have made inappropriate remarks about the bodies and sexual activities of women he invited to his studio to pose, allegations which he largely denies. Other museums, including the MoMA in NYC and the Tate Modern in London, are considering what to do about the works in their collections.

Recently, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston opened an exhibition of Egon Schiele’s work with new wall labels addressing the fact that Schiele was arrested for the kidnapping and statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. He was acquitted but was eventually found guilty of “immorality” because the girl had seen some of his nude works in his studio. “Wall labels in the exhibition acknowledge that Schiele has been a part of the current conversation, and don’t shy away from these issues,” a representative for the museum told artnet News.

How far do we go with this? Picasso famously either adored women or treated them badly: one of his lovers hanged herself and his second wife shot herself. Caravaggio was a nasty piece of work by all accounts and we perhaps shouldn’t enquire too deeply what Gauguin got up to in Tahiti. Being a great artist doesn’t necessarily require you to be a nice person.

But should their work be taken down from the walls of the world’s museums? Before I get trolled out of existence let me stress that this is a serious question, and I struggle with the answer. It’s disappointing that Chuck Close, an artist I admire enormously, apparently felt the need to make smutty remarks to women he had invited to pose. The relationship between an artist and the model is a complex one that I’ve discussed before, but it doesn’t involve uninvited remarks about the latter’s sex life. But does that mean that we should never see his work again?

Schiele was acquitted and the immorality charge was allowed to stand, one feels, to teach the artist a lesson about the nature of his art.  I’m not sure therefore why the Boston museum needs to make Schiele “part of the current conversation” for a crime of which he was acquitted unless they feel that his sexually explicit drawings are somehow – what? – immoral or provocative in a bad way. A drawing by a man of a woman masturbating can be seen either as exploitative or a celebration of the woman’s control over her own sexuality.

This is a big and tricky topic that has been discussed in more detail elsewhere. However this is an art blog so I wanted to at least acknowledge it in passing. We hear so much now about the things that men in positions of power – whether running a movie production company or holding political office or celebrated as an artist – think they can do or say to women and it’s only right that they are brought to book for crossing over the line. In the end, however, we may need to separate the art from the artist otherwise our cultural landscape will start to look very barren indeed, especially if we include writers and composers as well as artists in the purge: surely we can still admire Chuck Close’s work while wishing he had more respect for the women he invited to his studio?

The drawing that heads this post is a recent charcoal drawing of the life model I’ve been drawing, both nude and clothed, for some years now. Personally, I find the relationship to be unique in its intimacy and its distance, and I would never dream of introducing any other element into that relationship. Allegedly, Mr Close felt no such qualms about blurring the lines but I’d still like to see his monumental pictures in our leading museums.

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The forest at dusk

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Olivia (A1 charcoal, pastel and graphite 2018) Drawn over an existing charcoal drawing which was partially rubbed out

Can you remember your childhood? Sometimes you’d rush into things – where angels might fear to tread, perhaps – without a second thought about the consequences of your actions. Yet I bet there is no child in the entire world who could be encouraged to enter a dark forest alone as dusk became night.

I feel like that on the morning of Seawhite Studios‘ workshops. Not because there’s anything scary about Katie Sollohub or Emily Ball, but because when you sign up for their courses you know you’re going to be encouraged to stray over boundaries, perhaps into the dark forest of your creative fears, and challenge your own preconceptions.

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to attend Katie’s one-day workshop on drawing the human head. Katie and Emily work closely together, so anyone who was at all familiar with Emily’s wonderful book, Drawing and Painting People: A Fresh Approach, would know this wasn’t going to include a three-hour portrait session on the precise representation of the model in pencil.

We were guided through some liberating exercises – drawing our own faces with eyes closed, drawing the model without looking at the paper:

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(which resulted in the rather pleasing abstract above) – and producing a drawing by gently spreading crushed charcoal and coloured chalk over paper, completing it with a few lines. I’ve done this before – it’s discussed in Emily Ball’s book – but not with such a light touch, which made all the difference to the finished drawing:

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The image at the top of this post looks reasonably conventional. However it was one of two drawings that we were asked to do over existing ones. It was a pleasure to rub out a very dull drawing I’d done earlier in the day and concentrate on Olivia’s astonishing profile and her remarkable ear-rings. Little of the original drawing remains except for a few faint lines and the tint of the rubbed-out charcoal on the paper.

I’d had a rather difficult January, creatively: the lingering effect of flu over New Year and some demanding issues in my work life left me drained and uninspired. I’d done a bit of messing around with acrylic paint and sat in front of empty sheets of paper thinking, “I haven’t a single idea in my head…” The gentle explorations of Katie Sollohub’s workshop, however, cleared a path through the undergrowth as they have before – especially in that charmed space between the figurative and abstraction, which for me has all the wonder and terrors of the forest at dusk!

 

Collaboration

In his book The Undressed Art: Why We Draw, Peter Steinhart quotes a model called Molly Barrons: “I think it’s beautiful to see all these views of me. But I don’t think it’s me. It’s their perspective of me. It’s a very creative thing. And it’s collaborative.” Another model, Joan Carson adds, “What I’m hoping to do is get somebody connected with themselves through me.”

I’ve written before about the relationship between artist and model. It remains both fascinating and elusive: intense yet distant, tender but objective. Does it really matter? I think it does. It requires effort on both sides: whenever I draw Blue King in my Wednesday evening life class I’m aware not only of her physical exertion – an hour or more in a single position – but the fact that she is engaged in a partnership with our group. Molly puts her finger on it: it’s our perspective on the model, a collaborative exchange of pose and interpretation. Our teacher, Annabel Mednick, has often said that we’re not there to draw a portrait of the model, but to capture that light and shade, those planes, the solidity or otherwise of the human body in that position – all of which would seem to support Molly’s view of the process.

In recent weeks I’ve tried to almost sculpt the drawing out of roughly rendered swathes of charcoal, laid down to get the broad shape of the pose. Then it’s a matter of rubbing, drawing, smearing, even scratching to tease the figure out of that background. It’s a truly exhilarating way to draw.

Equally thrilling are the two or three minute poses we start with (some of them reproduced above). Spontaneity is everything: just draw, don’t think too much beyond capturing that arc of the body or turn of the head. Perhaps with this sort of work we – those of us drawing – are somehow connecting with ourselves through the model?

Listen

Listening (A2 charcoal 2017)

It’s nightingale time in Eastern England.

These shy creatures with their beautiful music are heard throughout the month of May, filling the evening woodlands with their magical song. I’ll never forget one springtime when my former partner and I took my daughter out into the woods of Snape Warren as the light began to fade. We wandered quietly through the trees for some time. Just when we thought there was nothing to hear, there was that unique music floating around us in the growing darkness.

Now there is a fashion for accompanying the nightingale. Suddenly, this lovely sound which has charmed poets and composers for centuries is no longer complete unless it can be used as a background for someone mooing along with a folk song or playing the flute or plucking a guitar. If there’s a better definition of gilding the lily, I can’t think of it at the moment.

The voice I hear this passing night was heard
         In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
         Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
                She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
                        The same that oft-times hath
         Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
                Of perilous seas…
Dear old Keats was happy just to listen and, of course, contemplate Death. He found beauty and inspiration in its song and in the fleeting nature of its presence:
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
         Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
                Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
                        In the next valley-glades:
         Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
                Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
May I ask that if you feel the need to sing Spencer the Rover or play your pan-pipes along with a nightingale, that you use one of the many recordings of this bird and do so in your own home?

Let the rest of us just listen, in a twilight coppice, to that magical sound that inspired the likes of John Keats.

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Just serotonin?

Silver white light (42 cms x 59 cms charcoal and pastel on Hahnemuehle Nostalgie paper 2017)

Recently, during a difficult period, I took enormous comfort in drawing. In Peter Steinhart’s book, The Undressed Art, I found the following passage:

Artists frequently compare the way they feel when they’re drawing to the sense of heightened awareness reported by practitioners of meditation….Jim Smyth, who has taught drawing for twenty years, says, “I believe the drawing process produces serotonin and endorphins in certain individuals. I see people who are not aware of their arthritis pain when they’re drawing. When they stop drawing, it comes back. Smyth once let someone monitor his brain-wave activity while he drew. “When I was drawing I would get alpha waves,” he said.

Alpha waves are electrical impulses in the brain that are associated with calm and focussed attention, Steinhart reminds us. Similar studies of meditation practitioners have revealed increased alpha, theta (these are associated with imagination and creativity) and beta waves (highly focussed attention).

Smyth believes the chemically induced sensation of pleasure is what keeps many people drawing. “There must be some physical reward for some people,” he says. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it.”

Well, it might have been a need for serotonin that urged me to draw when I was feeling low – certainly lack of it can result in depression and insomnia – but I like to feel it’s more than just a neurotransmitter ‘fix’. Isn’t any creative act – whether making lines on paper or following notes on a musical stave – a way of imposing order on the world by creating another world where you are in control (however much it might sometimes feel that the line is controlling you!). The end result, a unique piece made by your own hand, is a bonus: something to remind you of that time when you had your hand on the wheel.

The above drawing is one of the ones I completed during this time. Based on a rough sketch of the excellent model in the life drawing class I attend, I drew the figure in charcoal and dissolved some of the edges into the pastel background. I’m trying to get away from enclosing everything in a black line and this approach, I think, worked well. The addition of white pastel produces – I hope – a mystical feel, as if the figure is conducting some sort of energy. And not just serotonin!

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‘A day which lay sly and unseen’

Life drawing (A1 charcoal 2017)

The London Book Fair starts today and my mind is on meetings and future publications and sales forecasts. I therefore offer you a recent life drawing and three excerpts from The Book of Barry*.

First, from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles:

She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year. Her own birthday, and every other day individualised by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought, one afternoon, that there was another date, of greater importance than all those; that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?

My admiration for novelist Colm Tóibín knows few bounds. He was one of the many who paid tribute to the painter Howard Hodgkin, who died last week. Unlike most of the other obituarists, however, Tóibín, understood that

[Hodgkin] found a style as a painter that matched who he was as a man, and he stuck with that. There were times, he must have known, when the emotion in the work seemed to exceed its cause. That was part of the risk he took. Each painting was a balance between released emotion and something coiled, concealed, withheld.

And finally, two quotations from writer Ray Bradbury, who died in 2012:

Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything.

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies,” my grandfather said, “A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched in some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.”

* The Book of Barry is a small Moleskine filled with newspaper clippings and things I read and enjoyed in books or magazines and wanted to keep. Some are mean, some are moving, many are funny – at least to me – and some turn a light on human folly or pretension, while others are simply weird or just too good to forget. I once gave it to someone as a gift but she found it less engaging than I, and kindly let me have it back. Really, everyone should keep a book like this for all those fleeting things one reads online and in print.

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The naked and the nude

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Life Drawing (A3 charcoal 2016)

In his seminal book, Ways of Seeing, the great – and now late – John Berger attempted a new way of looking at art. His low budget television series of the same name (which can be found in its entirety on YouTube) had one eye on Sir Kenneth Clark’s much better funded Civilisation when it turned its attention to the matter of having no clothes on.

‘To be naked is to be oneself,’ said Berger, ‘To be naked is to be without disguise…To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude…Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.’

The nude is a commodity, often commissioned by men, which Berger captured succinctly when he said, ‘You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.’

Today, if we want to look at naked people we no longer have to surround them with cherubs or call them after one of the seven deadly sins. Perhaps in response to this, painters have changed their view of the body: Lucian Freud made a career out of painting naked people that turned a harsh light on to the flesh, removing eroticism from the equation almost completely.

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Life Drawing (A3 pencil on newsprint 2016)

Where does that leave life drawing? It’s partially an exercise in seeing and the coordination between hand and eye. The living life model in front of you could just as well be a vase of flowers or an arrangement of apples and oranges then? Not really. There is something different about drawing the living figure, as I discovered when I first started attending classes. It was difficult, for a start: the arm exists in relation to the shoulder, in relation to the hip on which the hand rests, in relation to the backdrop, in relation to the negative space formed by the shoulder/elbow/hip triangle. There is more though: you may have a relationship to a vase of flowers, but I believe you must have a relationship to the fellow human standing naked, not nude, before you.

In The Undressed Art: Why We Draw, Peter Steinhart addresses the matter of looking at life models in this way: ‘You would quickly feel a human connection, a kind of compassion with them. You might also begin to feel that there is an immense dignity, energy, beauty in them. And somewhere along the line you might realise that you are more or less abandoned to your gaze, that there is something fundamentally human in your curiosity.’

I came across these two life drawings recently while searching for something else. You produce a lot of drawings in a term’s worth of classes, and many end up in the recycling. These two remained in the folder, however, largely because they conveyed something of the humanity of the model. Both were obviously quick poses, but both, I think, captured the dignity, the energy and perhaps even the beauty of the sitter.

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