Friday, May 30, 2014

Do the Unexpected

"Manet did not do the expected. He was a pioneer. He followed his individual whim. Told the public what he wanted it to know, not the timeworn things the public already knew and thought it wanted to hear again. The public was very much offended." 

- Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, pp. 206-7.

Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863

"Art must take reality by surprise." 

- Francoise Sagan

Manet, Olympia, 1863
A nice blend of prediction and surprise seem to be at the heart of the best art.
- Wendy Carlos
Manet, The Races at Longchamps, 1864

The real artist’s work is a surprise to himself.
- Robert Henri
Manet, The Railway, 1872

"Do not know yourself.  I want to continue to surprise me."
- Arielle Dombasle
Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882

Originality Is About Being Honest, Not About Being Different

All images of paintings by Camille Pisarro
“The originality here is profoundly human. It is not derived from a certain facility of hand or from a falsification of nature. It stems from the very temperament of the painter himself and comprises a feeling for truth resulting from an inner conviction. Never before have paintings appeared to me to possess such an overwhelming dignity.” - Emile Zola on Pisarro at the 1860 Paris Salon
Originality, integrity, honesty, risk - I think of these words as very much connected. You cannot have originality without risking failure (or worse - rejection!). It won't do to just fall back on what others have done. BUT, I think you have to be infused with  tradition, to have internalized the beloved works that still blaze forth and enhance our world. One  draws sustaining water from many wells (i.e. Steal like an artist! And who doesn't? By all means, steal things from the art you love and use them - as all artists have always done, even the greatest masters. If anyone says anything, quote Goethe: “We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.”)

But that's largely just about technique. Originality for Zola, the kind he recognized in Pisarro's work, comes from trust in oneself. 

It's something more mysterious that happens while you're experimenting and taking risks while using the things you've stolen from the art you love. Of course, what we're talking about is an ideal (far from my daily reality at least). But Zola's brief words have a lot to say about how we might approach the form of contemplation called painting.
The "profoundly human" originality referred to above comes neither from a "way" of painting, a special technique ("facility of hand") nor from more stylized or non-traditional - or for that matter hackneyed - subject matter ("falsification of nature"). 
Its true source is the personhood of the artist him/herself. Supposedly it springs from what Zola calls "an inner conviction," a phrase that anticipates Kandinsky's notion of "inner necessity" or the "inner need" of the artist for spiritual expression. 
To me this means recognizing moments of clear "vision" and striving to create from below the surface, to express something real from a place of true presence, apart from  (and paradoxically intimately connected to!) what (subject) or how (technique) one is painting.
And this isn't the province of a few. We all have something real to which we can testify. 
The problem is that most of the time (in my experience at least) the mad buzz and swelter of ideas, memories, doubts, and a thousand other perceptions and sensations that assail one in the act of painting disrupt the original impulse (thus engendering the burning desire to try again tomorrow - yes! the joy of painting!).
One can only keep looking, stealing, thinking, making things, taking risks, failing, and maybe managing to recognize and nurture "inner conviction" by sensing its truth when it appears.
According to Austin Kleon (author of "Steal Like and Artist" linked above), it really comes down to doing good work and showing it to people: but of course, as he writes, "'Do good work,' is incredibly hard. There are no shortcuts. Make stuff every day. Fail. Get better." Take risks.

The reward? Eventually we get to make the art that we think should be getting made but isn't, to write the books we want to read, create the music we want to hear in such a way that it will be for everyone and truly ours as well.
Anyway, that's the idea. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

And We're Back

Sorry I've been out of touch! I've resolved to post more frequently, even if it's only a beautiful work of art, an inspiring quote, or an update on my own art and classes.

In that spirit, I give you ... Robert Henri.

Robert Henri, Agnes in Red

"We have great periods. Periods when we freshen, move forward into hopeful philosophy. Then comes the stamp of personal whim.

Technique becomes a tool, not an objective. We are interested and we have expressions we must make. All things are appreciated with an abundance of humor. There is an association with nature. Something happens between us and the flowers in a garden, a communication of gayety, a rhythm in the grass understood - something charming in a day's wash hung on the line - a song running through it all. Associations with nature. It's a state to be in and a state to paint in."

- Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p. 207

Monhegan, by Robert Henri