Of Poetry And Painting
Republished from my previous blog.
I get greater value from books about art ideas, theories, and other artists thought process. I want to talk a little bit more about that and how those kinds of books can have more influence on my work than technique or how-to based books. I have just started reading some of John Ruskin's writings which is opening up ideas for me, which have been sitting just beneath the surface but I wasn't fully coming to grips with yet.
He has a section where he compares painting to poetry, which really piqued my interest because I share this idea. While many painters compare the similarity between painting and music, for me I see it as more closely following poetry. What Ruskin was talking about was how art patrons seemed to favour paintings which portray the world exactly as it is, but if the highest ideal of art is to imitate what already exists, why not just have a mirror on the wall, or open the window and see what is there in front of you.
"The difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy; false appearances, I say, as being entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us."
He further goes on to say how if poetry just stated what exists we would not be moved by it. Compare "the sky had an orange glow on the horizon with clouds building"', with "clouds billowed up in a crimson sky like the lust of new lovers". The first is just a descriptive sentence that may be more suitable for a news report - nothing to make it endearing and exciting. The second, poetry filled with emotive suggestion that engages the imagination. Without the heart and passion of the author putting into words a simile of what he feels in his heart, rather than the facts before him, there could be no poetry. The same thing exists in art.
"Amongst the painters, and the writers on painting, there is one maxim universally admitted and continually inculcated. Imitate nature is the invariable rule; but I know none who have explained in what manner this rule is to be understood; the consequence of which is, that everyone takes it in the most obvious sense - that objects are represented naturally, when they have such relief that they seem real. It may appear strange, perhaps, to hear this sense of the rule disputed; but it must be considered, that, if the excellency of a painter consisted only in this kind of imitation, painting must lose its rank, and be no longer considered as a liberal art, and sister to poetry."
Ruskin goes on to compare the paintings which imitate nature truthfully belonging to a class of historical documentation in painting. The other, where the painter embellishes the truth for emotive suggestion belongs to poetry. It is the artist trying to capture how the subject moves him, or makes him feel that leads to more meaningful art. This is the thing, the poetry, I strive for in my work. I am not in interested in having the viewer look at a painting and say "oh yes, this is Mount so and so painted from the third viewpoint in mid-September at 7:00 pm". I want them to think, "I remember that warm autumn day when my lover and I strode hand in hand along the mountain lakeshore, and the late day sun set the rocks aglow to which they mirrored a song welling up in my heart".
My husband is my sounding board and confidant for all aspects of my life. In art we do not always see eye to eye. He comes to art without any formal understanding of it beyond simply what appeals to him, and what he has thought the measure of excellency in art was - namely being the ability to realistically capture what exists. How many times have you heard someone in amazement exclaim the painting looks just like a photograph, as if that is the defining measure which makes it great. I have over the years been swaying his ideas on that aesthetic as a measurement of arts merit.
My argument has always been, how hard it is it to reproduce that which exists? You look and put down a visual truth as it exists as surely as a child tracing the outline of their own hand (not to say there isn't considerable skill involve or to suggest the execution is as easy as tracing). But to translate what you see into the emotions and spiritual attachment you feel towards it is a far more difficult task. You have no roadmap telling you how to do it. Take all the workshops you can, read all the technique books you want, and you will be no closer to being able to put your emotions (as it relates to your subject) down on canvas. That is why painters like Degas can create such a strong emotion in me that I'm likely to fight back tears in the presence of his work.
That is why contemporary painters like Carolyn Anderson, Michael Workman, or Quang Ho, who seem to capture the emotional essence of a subject without realism, can move and inspire me more than the highly realist approach of others. High realism is easy to understand. There is nothing left for the viewer to do but look and acknowledge the faithful reproduction of that which exists. The familiar and known is easy to understand. Poetry and emotion, on the other hand requires engagement from the viewer. They need to apply themselves to interpret the image and fill in the story as it relates to them. In creates a deeper level of engagement, just as poetry requires a deeper level of thought to interpret what the writer is really saying.
I do want to say that I don't discount the hard work of those artists working in the realist genre. The mastery of technique and the patience to work in this style is impressive; and I often think if I had the discipline to study this way of painting I may not struggle so much at the canvas to lay down the poetry inside. But then I think having any kind of calculated approach would be a barrier from that internal truth which I am interested in trying to portray. Perhaps it is the very struggle to express the emotion which gets to the heart of it in the first place.
In just a few short pages, Ruskin has set to words what I am striving for; of what I understood in my heart but couldn't articulate well. There are other books, such as Robert Henri's 'The Art Spirit', which are able to generate a much deeper understanding of what I am trying to achieve at the canvas in a more profound way than technique based books.
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Roberta Murray, ASA