Friday, December 9, 2011

How to Be Original

Aspiring artists often imitate an admired artist’s style. It's a great way to learn to paint and permanently  adds to one’s store of available techniques. 

Rembrandt. Self-portrait. 1666
Paradoxically, in most cases the admired work ultimately came to the admirer’s attention because it resonated with enough people as unique, deep, or original.... So not only the technique but the quality of originality itself can inspire emulation without one even realizing what one's actually responding to. And of course we prize originality in art over imitation. All artists probably have to some degree a desire to express their own unique vision of the world; presumably, over the course of artistic development, emulation ceases to be as powerful a force.

Robert Henri. Figure in Motion. 1913.
It’s like American culture - too often we emulate others who we imagine are enjoying “the good life” by wishing we were (or actually trying to become) as wealthy as we think those other people are. But it's really the wrong goal - that is,  it's a goal that isn’t really suited for what we want to achieve. 

Instead of focusing on becoming as wealthy or secure as we believe “the beautiful people” to be, we should try to focus on our ability to deeply enjoy our present life first. We will then have achieved the desired end without even trying. So with art. 

Would-be artists often begin by emulating the style of a particular artist or group of artists (plein-air painters who emulate aspects of the Rockport or the Impressionist style, say). Later, through the doing, comes one's own unique style. 

Says Robert Henri in the invaluable The Art Spirit: "Don't worry about your originality. You could not get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick to you and show you up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do."

Monet. Water lilies. (detail)
I think one does best, in life as well as in art, to focus on one’s own likes and loves, enjoying the pursuit of idiosyncratic experimentation. My own new goal is to live as much as I can in the work I do when I’m in love with what I’m doing for its own sake.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Striking Couple

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Peasant Boy at a Market (l), Peasant Girl Catching a Flea (r). c. 1715.

These two caught my eye at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts the other day.

I love their simplicity. I think it's a large part of their power. 

The painter, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, is remembered as a successful artist of the late Baroque/Rococo period (c. 1680-1750). He studied with Crespi, one of the "Caravaggisti" (basically, hundreds of artists who painted in the Italian Baroque style of Caravaggio - i.e., darkish canvases in which piercing directional light dramatically pulls subjects out of the engulfing shadows).

Piazzetta here applies his own version of the style - but with his own sensibility. Where Caravaggio and most of his followers went for highly dramatic, often religious or mythological canvases, Piazzetta and to some extent Crespi sought a quiet serenity to be found in the unguarded moments of everyday lives.

Piazzetta, Peasant Boy at a Market
Perhaps the lack of pretense in Piazzetta is what makes him so different. Here, Piazzetta's, Peasant Boy at a Market appears simply at home in his own world, unconcerned by his own poverty as he is momentarily preoccupied with digging a presumably single, small coin from the folds of his little satchel. The same poise and unconcern radiates from the woman's face in the work's companion piece.

Piazzetta, Peasant Girl Catching a Flea.
In the painting of the woman, Piazzetta treats a theme that Crespi had also tackled - a woman removing a flea from her person. But whereas Crespi's painting candidly details the process with a rather harsh degree of realism only partly softened by the warm, womblike light pooling around his subject, Piazzetta's bolder, more stylized art fully and lovingly transforms the moment. It's Piazzetta's painting that more whole-heartedly redeems the common and sordid, the "all-too human."

The MFA suggests that as the son of a woodcarver, Piazetta brought a sculptural sensibility to the modeling of figures with light and shadow. Perhaps his humble origins informed his whole approach to painting, i.e. his "naturalistic images of ordinary life that are characterized by a dignified, sympathetic portrayal of his subject, often peasants," as the MFA says.The poetry in his work is wholly his own.

I think these paintings' lasting value springs not from anything innovative in Piazzetta's style but in his feeling for the world he knew, his sincerity. Sincerity in art is something one must feel or sense rather than see. La Farge defined it as the intention "to express what you care for most by the simplest means that will avail you... not your knowledge (of artistic representation) but your way of using it."

There's a sort of archetypal, universal quality in these two works, born of rendering ordinary people's lives with almost religious dignity, much as Millet did in the 1800s. They work beautifully together too.