Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Palaeolithic artist: part 13

Jong vrouw (Saskia?), zittend bij een raam
(Young woman (Saskia?), sitting at a window)
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, ca. 1634-5

"Art by its very nature is not science, and science by its very nature is not art; both these spheres of the mind have something in reserve that is peculiar to them and can be explained only in its own terms."

C. G. Jung, On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry Translated from “Über die Beziehungen der analytischen Psychologie zum dichterischen Kunstwerk,” Seelenprobleme der Gegenwart (Zurich: Rascher, 1931).Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 15: Spirit in Man, Art, And Literature: 015 (p. 66). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition. 

Part (separated) of a handscroll attributed to Shi Ke (石恪)
Five Dynasties period (907-960). A Chan (Zen) Buddhist work
that was of primary importance in the subsequent development
of Chinese art.
Rembrandt was in his late twenties when he drew that young woman. He painted the self portrait in yesterday's post in the last year of his life. The painting was bound by its technique, and yet we saw, in the enlargement of a detail the same Zen art-like use of line. The styles of the lines in the drawing above, and in the Shi Ke drawing to the left are different, but the gestures are the same. In both of these works, it is those gestures that are dominant. In the Rembrandt drawing, the wash represents shadow and the lines especially stand out in the part of the composition where the scene is flooded by bright sunlight. In the Shi Ki drawing, the wash mainly represents the tone of the subjects, and light and shadow is very subservient to that.

The Altamira boar perfectly balances the techniques of Rembrandt's late self portrait painting and Shi Ke's drawing. It is thus a far more modern work despite it being of  the Palaeolithic era. This is what Picasso understood when he said "After Altamira, all is decadence"

The portrait to the left was painted by Rembrandt in about the same year as his drawing of the young woman, but the gestures of the drawing's lines are completely absent. Rembrandt is completely subservient to the more complex techniques of painting which he was still learning and developing at that time. It was only his later years that he was able to combine the two and start to approach what had been mastered by the Palaeolithic artist.

Shi Ke, too, had not achieved the balance of the Palaeolithic artist, his shading was lacking and only tone and gesture were somewhat balanced.  He was, like Rembrandt, in his late painting, subservient to technique, but the technique was not of drawing as he appears to have originated that style and had nothing to learn in that respect. It was the technique of Chan Buddhism that had constrained him.

detail of tableau I by Piet Mondrian, 1921
We turn, now, to another Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian, and we run into the same problem we had with trying to clearly see the drip of paint in the enlargement of the Rembrandt painting. This time, though, we can only get a slight impression of the textures of each colour. We can see the texture better in the black areas than the white, but the yellow eludes us. It was Carrie who had brought this to my attention. She had said that the modern art student is so used to being influenced by photographs of modern art that their products fail to include much texture and everything is as smooth as paint on the wall of your living room. In essence, this is a problem with all sorts of "book learning" as compared to experiential learning, and this effect spans all arts and disciplines. Compare the detail with the full size version:

The entire painting

I have used a very small image of the entire painting to exaggerate the effect that gives the book-learned art student the problem, although some books certainly do contain illustrations of paintings that are that small. Even if some detail of texture is available to the student who studies the book, it is the overall effect of the geometry which interferes with the perception. We see such smoothness, also, in advertizing art, but by assigning cause enter into the chicken or the egg problem.

"Beginning" Kenneth Noland, 1958
Magna on canvas (fair use)
We come now to the best of Modern Art, as far as we have been able to succeed in our approach the mastery of the Palaeolithic artist. Kenneth Noland is considered the founder of Color Field painting, and whenever you see vast sums paid by public galleries for this sort of work, and even works of  different modern styles of similar calibre, you also see great public indignation and comments like "My kid could do that". No, I'm sorry, your kid could not do that. Your kid might be able to do what you see, but you do not see the painting at all. Take a look at the Zen-like gesture of the outer black circle and compare the brush work to the lines in Shi Ke's drawing. Even that shape, in this example, is reminiscent of a theme in Japanese Zen painting (Enso). See how the intermittent white line on the outer edge of the outside blue circle, and the next inner orange circle approaches the use of line in the Palaeolithic example. Science has tried, and failed, to understand art. Contemporary art has taken a step backward. Its great variability speaks more of styles and subjective thought. "Cleverness" and conscious originality has replaced the impossible task of us reaching the Palaeolithic artist. Picasso was right. We cannot go further back in the history of post-classical western art on our quest. The badger-hair blender of the Renaissance has removed all gestures and before that, dogma had almost eliminated art, itself.

Although impossible to tell from its content, this post was mainly alla prima. While I started with its general idea in my mind, my thoughts evolved as I wrote it, but more importantly I discovered something that came as a complete surprise to me and is responsible for a dramatic difference in my concluding view of the Palaeolithic artist. Of course, you will have to wait for the final episode for that.

This episode is dedicated to the memory of my wife Carin Perron (1957-2003) who brought the Mondrian/student problem to my attention, and whose favorite painter was Rembrandt.

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