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Learning from the heritage

Joe's Creative Journal

1998 Year 1 No. 6

Aug 27

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See also the other journals:

Daily Drawing 1.31 Art Journal 1.6 Pablo Journal 1.4 Marketing Musings on Art 1.6

621, in a crowd

Rembrandt: Bathsheba
David's lesson

Beckmann / Joe

Who makes it on the net?


This series is not intended to be a university course. I am not an art scholar, I am just a painter. I will tell you some secrets I stumbled about - as I later found out, I was not the first, of course, you can even find them in books. Nevertheless, it is hard to decipher them, so I will take the pain to spread the word. My motto will be, as always: Als ich kan (from a painting of Jan van Eyck, found as a citation in a modern mathamatical book, meaning: as good as I might).

Your appreciation will give me the power and strength to endure. It is for you and all the great masters that I do this work, and I hope you will enjoy it. So don't hesitate to send me your feedback in order to help me with that goal! This kind of journal is new to the net, so please tell me if the size is ok (images are great, but big!).

As I am writing in a foreign language, I am not sure to express myself correctly, but I hope you will be able to guess what I mean any time.

Also, I invite you to join in my effort. Send me your articles and comments to be published in this journal.

Yours truly,

Learning from the heritage

Last week, we had a theoretical lesson. I prepared you to look for your own way. We live in our time, we have achieved great freedom of expression, art has been liberated for hundreds of years, you can do whatever you want - the only question left to be answered is: What do you really want?

This question is so hard, most artists surrender before they get an answer. Take for example one of the greatest masters of our century: Pablo Picasso. He lived for 93 years, and there were many years during which he did not know what to do. He did produce notwithstanding, but whatever he did then was just awful. And he knew it and suffered. As he was a genius, these bad paintings are still grandiose and powerful, but it did not help him, neither us.

Now I don't want to prove this to you today, it served just as an example to show you that when it comes to last questions, king and thief are on equal means. If you want to produce art, it won't help if you made the most famous painting of the world. The next one is totally new, and you could just as well fail with it.

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I'm talking about good and bad, and the term for that is quality. I don't want to start a philosophical discussion either, I want to provide you with a method to get along. It helped me at least, and it is a method most people use intuitively, so it won't be new to you at all. Here it is:

Expose yourself to as much good art as you can and watch how you grow. Let the term good rest undefined for the moment and believe in our cultural setting. Go to museums, buy books, visit the public library or lend yourself as many books, even videos as you can. We have possibilities today our forefathers could not even dream of. Use them. Give all those curators and editors due credit and take that as good quality what they present you. You are safe assuming that what they don't show you won't be good. If what they do show you is really good you will find out soon enough.

If you use the web to look for good art, try Mark Harden's Artchive and Carol Gerten's Fine Art. Don't look at random, either on the web or otherwise! You won't improve but weaken yourself instead. For example, if you stroll the museums, don't look at all pictures alike. Your soul can't take that. You will be done in less than an hour. Ask for the most famous paintings they own and take time for those.

Last week I quoted Ed Dyer, 55, with his early experience of Picasso's Guerníca at age 17 and asked him for permission later. This is what he replied: You are free to quote anything I have written. Learning more about the creative process does I think improve my ability to appreciate a greater range of art. I tend to make quick judgements about art. I will try and develop more patience.

I was granted this lesson when I was 17 years of age. An old friend took me to the largest museum in Berlin to show me a mere 3 paintings. We hastened through the halls, he urged me to not even look at all those wonderful paintings from far distance to not spoil my eyes. When we found one of the three, we took some time.

Remember, I was 17. He begged me to watch a painting for some 10 minutes, just to give it a try and have an experience. If you are grown up, you will be more patient. You will experience more. If you like, write your experience down, send it to me and share it with others.

If you look at pictures in books or here on the web, always keep in mind that this is not the original. What you see is better than nothing, but your mind has to compensate a lot. I can show you only thumbnails to keep the size reasonable, but if you want to look closer, start your internet connection and look at the blowup. You will see the difference. Then imagine how the original will look like.

I will show you some works today of fellow artists having found their way. You will see a broad spectrum of seemingly unrelated works, reflecting the different souls that produced them. Imagine yourself being another soul trying to find its way. Find out which of the works attracts you more, which less.

If you want more exercise, try Eyes on Art. I did not make the course due to lack of time, but from what I saw I'd like to do it myself. To save myself work, I took the images used here from Mark Harden's Artchive. If you would like to see a blowup, go there.

The first painting I want to show you is a Manet. He is a French painter of the second half of the last century, living in an urban atmosphere in Paris, showing a bourgeois Sunday scene. Look for a while, you will feel that this is a great painting. You will feel the painter's heart living with these people. It doesn't matter who they are. We don't know them anyway. They are like us. And, of course, totally different.

But the more you look the more you feel what life is. It is a simple scene. Manet does not need a fancy setup. After a while you will see how this is achieved through painting. He cares as much about the shades as about all other items shown. You can't describe how the color contributes to the overall impression, but you can easily see that each part of the painting is taken care of equally.

It is a very personal statement about life. Of course, there are persons portrayed, too, but this is not what makes this painting great.

I don't know if Manet was a pleasant person. But from this painting I feel I would like to have him as a friend. Somebody who can make such a painting can't be that bad at all. Would you like to have pained this?
Something different. Edward Kienholz, American artist, second half of this century. Environment, kind of sculpture, using objects. Shocking subject: see clipping. With a sculpture, it's even more annoying to see it as a photo. You got to step around. Kienholz even made things to go into. You could feel how to be in such a room. This car scene could be a movie still photo. What does it do to you? Totally different from the Manet. Movies are forgotten the day after. What about this? What does the artist communicate about himself? Do you project yourself into the car? Are you the man or are you the woman? If you are moved, is it the shock only or something else, too? Would you call this art? Be proud if it were yours?
This is Munch. Could be one of our new wild painters, too. Is this a sketch or a full blown piece of art? Is this question useful? Is it your way to just act and get your emotion to the canvas? Munch knows proportions, he knows about bones and muscles and flesh. Our modern wild painters do not for the most part. Is that important? Parts of this painting are done more carefully than others - is that good or bad? Would this painting have improved if completed or is the incompleteness part of its value?

Lots of questions. This painting does not need much preparation. It is done fast, too. You can produce lots of these in a short time. You can make lots of experiences, too. You can find out about yourself. What does that painting of Munch do with you? What does that painting you are doing yourself do with you? Munch did it for himself. You do it for yourself, in the first place.

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This is Zozzy. Sent me the image as a feedback to JCJ (this ezine). He wants feedback and criticism ("you can be hard on me!").

I find it hard to write about this picture. It is interesting, but it is not "good". There is something about this picture I associate with pictures you find in therapeutical books, pictures done by people who do not aim at producing art but solely at expressing themselves. These pictures are discussed not in terms of art but in terms of psychic contents. In this respect the picture is interesting and I could write something.

But I think this would not serve the purpose here, this would not be what Zozzy expects me to do. We talk about art, and art is not only about content, but also about form. So I guess it is here where something is lacking. If I look at the pictures in psychological books, I feel somehow depressed. So I do here. Something is missing.

I can only guess what it might be in this case. The risk is that whatever I say specifically can't help us if taken literally. You remember the discussion about proportions. If you obey all laws of proportion you are not at all guaranteed to produce art. Conversely, you sure can produce art although you disobey all laws of proportion. This said, I'll try it.

The reds come to mind first. They are somewhat brutal. Next the greens. Applied undifferentiated, as you see it often with children's or patient's work. The same applies to the face color. The lines are straight and clear, but undifferentiated, too. You see that they lack expression, they are somehow timid.

You can see it best at the brown walking figure. Look at the legs, the knees, the arm. You can see it much more clearly at the size Zozzy sent it to me (87KB). I decreased the size of the picture to 12 KB to save bandwidth losing details thereby.

The hand holding the dancing figure is worst. The dancing figure is best, it has some power and expression. Look at the tree with the branches and fruits, how schematic they are in contrast. To prove the difference to you, I'll show you these two details:

Now you can see the face of the dancer. These eyes do express something. The face itself is a great invention. There is just about everything wrong with this face. But it expresses a lot. See how the color of the face changes. Both eyes are different in many aspects. I could go on with other details of this figure, but you'll probably see it yourself.

Now the tree. Look at the lowest branch. See how weak its construction is. The angle at left is worst. The circle could be a correction mark of a teacher showing just where the weakest part is. Compare it to the angle of the branch above; it is not good either, but clearly better. (If you see just the clipping here, you could rather take it for a ... well, here my simple German-English dictionary leaves me in the lurch ... I mean this funny insect, we call it a worshiper, you probably know what I mean. In the whole context, this association is gone.)

The background behind the tree is differentiated, but .. somehow it is at random, it does not mean so much. The second fruit from above has kind of an aura, but you sense that this is just a left over from some coloring of the background which was probably yellow first and then turned red. Compare it to the face of the dancer or his raised hand, you'll see the difference.

Somehow there is a touch of naivety. If the content were nice, that would be a naive picture. But it is not. You see that there is much power and conflict and problems, but all this content has not found its form. It's like a dream that is only confused, incomprehensible, not at all beautiful, powerful and convincing.

I guess it would be no good to change anything with this painting. Leave it here and turn to the next one. It is a door pushed open, let's see what's out there. If you walk on, light years from here, you probably see better what lurked out here.

Now with Zozzy's picture we got a good example of how difficult it is to talk about art. Nevertheless, it is no situation to surrender. You might not want to talk to somebody ignorant, this would be an uneasy situation. But you would know what's good nevertheless, and if you found somebody equally trained you'd both be happy to appreciate.

Translate the situation to music: You don't discuss it verbally, you just say: Listen here, and now this: Oh, how beautiful this tone, or melody, or whatever. You hear it, and if your partner doesn't, you probably won't be able to help him easily.

So this is what I'll try to do: Show you good and bad examples of what people like you and me did before to learn and find out what could be done now. If you want to profit for yourself and you liked what I did for Zozzy, send in your stuff. I'll try my best. Als ich kan.

Last week:
What is art?

Next week:
Wild and insolent

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