George Inness, in the book Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy, is quoted as saying, “While looking at the Claude which hangs next to one of the Turners in the National Gallery – and which knocks the Turner all to pieces –I seemed to be in the presence of a great, earnest mind.” It was a quote that came to mind while I was sitting in the dentist chair, waiting to get numb. There was a print hanging on the wall. I stared at it, a group of five workmen, maybe miners given their lace-up work boots, or maybe farmers given their western style hats, sitting on a log and leaning against an adobe wall. Maybe you’ve seen this particular print. But since I wasn’t “numbing” fast enough, I decided to study it some more. Had I been a casual patient I might not have noticed some of the details. That the men all had a similarity, not just in the facial features, but in the exact same tilt and shape and size of the head. Or the shadows, connecting the forms, which did not read true. Ahhh… I thought. Had the artist used a photograph of one man, and projected it against his canvas five times? A rendering by hand would have not produced such exact smiling replicas, lined up in a row.
I overheard something similar in a gallery last year. The gallery director had just opened the shipping box and set out the paintings from an artist. As he examined them, he took out his phone. “No,” he was saying, “I don’t care if it’s part of your process, I can see the black ink lines through the paint and my customers will not buy your paintings. I’m going to ship them back.”
We can become slaves to technique. It is the primary thing we think about. We put a mark on canvas and fall prey to the obsession. Over the centuries, when artists would grow too dissatisfied with their results, they would go to the museums and study the Old Masters. How did they do that, they wonder? What brush, what mixture of paint? Is it any wonder the lure of short cuts becomes so strong? David Hockney even wrote a book on the subject. Called the Hockney-Falco thesis, Hockney argued that the accuracy of the work of the Old Masters was impossible to do by eye-balling it, so they must have used optical aids like the camera obscura. Falco, a physicist, calculated the type of distortion such devices would create, and Hockney pointed out the “errors” in the work of Old Masters. The book sparked intense debate: you can read about it here if you are interested, but it really boils down to a single argument -- is success based upon the artist’s unique, rare skill, or his ability to use technology? Because if it ends up in the technology realm then anyone with a slide projector can create a passable image.
It is a philosophical question best dissected at the end of a day. I think about all the art I have viewed over the decades, the images, those few, that still haunt me: you are a child again, on your back in the summer grass, watching the stars spring to life in an ink black sky and it dawns on you with chills down your back that life, existence, the entire mystery is just about to reveal itself. Just beyond those twinkling points of light, if only you could touch them. The realization that there is something powerful and violent, awesome and beautiful all at the same time is mind boggling. Unimaginable, until you just imagined it. That the artist, in one extravagant stroke of paint upon canvas can come close to recreating it. Why would you ever want to fake that?
Albert Einstein said, "Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." It seems to me the whole idea behind being an artist is fairly straightforward. But then this is a dialogue that has been going on for a long, long time. We see the paintings that gain the applause and everything looks the same. Yet we are told the importance of finding our voice, what makes us different. I don't suppose we will solve it anytime soon.
Here is another quote from the Inness book: "We cannot be impressed by that which does not touch us."
George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy, Edited by Adrienne Baxter Bell, published in 2006 by George Braziller, Inc., New York.
1. pg 15
2. pg 173
Einstein quote from BrainyQuote