Academy, art, artist, canvas, Cezanne, create, Duchess of Cambridge, Henry Ward Beecher, Hockney, Hyper-Realism, Impressionists, Jackson Pollock, Kate, Michelangelo, National Portrait Gallery, Nelson Mandela, Neo-Classicism, NPG, oil painting, paint, painter, painting, Paul Emsley, RA, Romanticism, Royal Academy
Life and work have been, well… hectic lately. Lots of things are up in the air, as if life has been hit by a fast moving whirlwind. You know, the kind the Tasmanian Devil from the Warner Bros cartoons would produce, knocking everything up into the air as if hit by a bomb!
Part of the chaos has been preparation for the regional art show and other British open exhibitions that all seem to come up at this time of year. It’s like it’s Open Season for exhibitions.
It was reading the rules for entering the National Portrait Gallery BP Portrait Award that made me frown (mostly because a work I wanted to submit was created utilising a photo) and contemplate just how far we’ve come in portraiture since the Impressionists first reacted against the strangle hold of the academy system. Neo-Classicism and later, Romanticism had become somewhat “formulaic”. One painted in a particular way, the academy way. One didn’t just follow academy techniques, but academy values too and I wonder, has much really changed?
You see every now and again a generation of artists tears away from the accepted methods of how a picture must be constructed. The now much loved Impressionists tore away from the methods of the previous generation, Cezanne started to pull away from them and Picasso went even further, until by the time we got to the likes of Duchamp and his urinal, the idea alone was king. But still the likes of the NPG take a very traditional line and insist a picture must be constructed a particular way.
With the NPG (National Portrait Gallery) in order to enter the illustrious yearly competition your work must be a “life study”. Now, I’m not against life studies, they’re great and invaluable to the development of any artist that studies the figure. The problem with life studies is that having someone “sit” for you almost never captures much of interest about the sitter/subject. Partly because they have to hold a set pose for hours, which is far from spontaneous!
In fact a great deal of life studies have the feel of a Neo-Classical piece, as if they were painted in 1813 not 2013 and some are just plain dull! Impressive, but dull. Take the new portrait by Paul Emsley of the Duchess of Cambridge. Technically it’s beautiful. Paul is obviously, technically a very talented artist, but to me it has the look of a picture that might hang in a spooky mansion in an episode of Scooby Doo. So why do we insist on the subject sitting for a portrait?
In this case the traditional method didn’t help poor, young, vibrant Kate. All life and spontaneity has been squeezed out of her in the new portrait. Why couldn’t Paul Emsley have taken some sketches, done some studies and taken a handful of expressive photo’s to work from? Because that would be cheating of course. Rubbish!
Mind you judging from his approach the Mandela commission, he does tend to err on the serious and far from spontaneous side of life.
It’s worth noting at this point that although the NPG insists on entrants painting “from life” to enter the NPG portrait prize competition, NPG prize winner Paul, himself has worked from photographs, most notably when he painted Nelson Mandela. Emsley himself said of the commission, “I had to ask him to stop smiling (what a shame) as my intention was to do a fairly ‘serious’ portrait.” Emsley worked from fourteen photographs that he’d taken during meeting Nelson Mandela.
So why the insistence on “life” studies NPG? After all most of make use of the technology to hand, as did Degas and other “greats”. I expect if Michelangelo could have taken reference shots for his Sistine Chapel work, he would have done. He would probably have used a digital projector too, to get his sketches onto the Sistine ceiling. What! Outrageous! Maybe, but almost certainly true. Funny to think of Michelangelo or Degas being barred from the NPG for doing so though.
And yet… there is a real tension between the use of technology to assist the process of producing art and that technology itself replacing the art in art. In my view, if the technology helps in the process but doesn’t get in the way of the artist’s expression of him or herself in the work, then why not make the most it? Look if Hockney can produce work on an iPad that gets shown in the Royal Academy (RA), painters can use photo’s for reference, National Portrait Gallery!
But what about “photo-realism”? Now, this might be a little controversial and I certainly don’t want to offend anyone, but if a picture drawn, or painted from a photo looks exactly like the photo it’s taken from then, in my opinion, that isn’t art.
Any work where the artist acts like the human equivalent of an ink/paint/pencil jet printer, producing a picture that in indiscernible from the original, although sometimes amazing, isn’t art. You may as well have the original photo enlarged and printed on canvas and give appropriate credit to the photographer, clever it may be, sometimes amazing, but not art. I myself gasp when looking at a stunning photographic quality picture that’s been created with a handful of ball point pens, but again I can’t help but conclude it isn’t art. If it is, then my Epson printer is an artist.
Actually, if you think about it there must be a lot of great photography where the poor photographer isn’t getting the credit he deserves. We may gasp in awe at the drawing of water pouring off someone that looks so realistic that it “looks like a photo’”, but although an impressive feat of skill, surely the photographer deserves equal, if not more, credit than the artist.
Art has to have been, in some way, an expression of the artist. You should be able to recognise the artist – good or bad – in the pictures that they produce, even if they’re boring! In the words of Henry Ward Beecher:
Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.
Also Jackson Pollock:
Every good painter paints what he is.
*(Photo – courtesy of the NPG via the BBC)