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Entries in books (4)


Book Report: "Guido Reni" by Pepper

Guido Reni
A Complete Catalogue of his Works
with an Introductory Text
by D Stephen Pepper

My husband found a mint copy of this out of print book and gave it to me for Christmas. I am so thrilled to own it! 228 reproductions including 16 color plates. The introductory essay, a biography of Reni's life and discussion of his intentions as a painter, illuminates the role of painting in the early 17th century.

I had always been taught to admire Caravaggio above all others of this era for his earthiness and "realism", and that it was due to the limitations of the times that his paintings were considered scandalous for his depictions of dirty feet, dead corpses and shadowed figures. But this essay by Pepper helped me understand the reaction to his paintings in the light of the times.

In the early 17th century there was an inherent tension between the concepts of heaven and earth, as neither was thought to be any less real than the other. The duty of painting was to be a visual philosophy, depicting ideas above all else. And so the way drapery and figures were treated in painting were at the time a visual discourse on ideas about the nature and order of the universe. Painting itself was seen as powerful enough to actually transform the soul of the person viewing it, so the job of the painter was nothing less than to elevate the souls of his viewers.

Caravaggio's work was scandalous not for the technique, but for the ideas. Instead of making paintings that elevate and educate, Caravaggio did not show the tension between planes of experience. To him a dead figure should be painted to appear truly dead in every way (appealing in our own era, but not the goal of the times). To do this was seen as denying the possibility of resurrection, denying redemption itself. So his paintings were not simply "too gritty" for the times, but were seen as lacking the ability to inspire.

As for Reni, seen in this light, I've developed an even greater appreciation for his paintings. His depiction of the human body is profoundly insightful, and his ability to show strength, vigor, weight and action while also showing effortless divinity gives his paintings a singing tension. He was described in his time as having a "mortal hand painting celestial vision".

For example, his treatment of drapery, structural but also flowing, was recognized and admired by his contemporaries, and apparently Bernini himself admired Reni's drapery before he sculpted probably the most striking garment in art history, the robes of St Theresa.

Reni studied in his youth with the Carraci, the artist brothers who founded a painting school in Bologna that emphasized studying from life and seeking beauty through naturalism. They rejected the non-naturalistic Mannerism and saw Raphael as their master, as he used knowledge of nature as a means for expressing ideas. Although Reni left the school, he was consistent with these ideas throughout his life.

After reading Pepper's introduction I am even more inspired by Reni's paintings. His deep and thorough knowledge of form allows him to elegantly describe complex tension and balance. He shows how earthly form can be an expression of the divine.

The act of observation can sometimes allow us to touch a plane of experience beyond what is perceivable by our five physical senses. In that sense, it is conceivable that a painting can "touch the soul". Certainly Reni's do.


Book Report: "Flow"

"Flow" is the state we get into when we are challenged to sharpen our skills to accomplish a task. The athlete, the scientist, the gardener, the mechanic, the artist, the chess player all feel flow when they are working at their best. Flow is the optimal state of human experience, meaning it's the state most fulfilling to us.

Reading the book has really inspired me - of course as an artist I relate to the state of flow while I paint, but also for everyday, non-art experiences: I am finding so often when I want to disengage and tune out and watch tv or hang out on the internet or otherwise waste time, that it's equally restful and relaxing to actually engage. There is fulfillment in the everyday contemplation of what is in front of us.

I am reminded of a quote by Thomas Moore:
"Simple gestures taking place on the surface of life can be of central importance to the soul."

Painting and drawing could be called "simple gestures" - really, it's just pushing colored mud around with a hairy stick - but anyone who has tried it understands that it can take you pretty deep - through a quagmire of wrestling with our deepest fears, and occasionally through that to a place of peace. To where time and self-consciousness stop and we can just Be, without evaluating or worrying.

Maybe all we have to do to access the soul is to set up a space with a few objects on a table and some lighting, and look.

Simple gestures.


Book Report: Art and Fear

I read this book years ago, and I didn't realize how much it had influenced my thinking until I recently opened it to look up a quote to bolster my argument in a discussion, and found that I've lifted my own philosophy about talent and artistic training directly from the authors.

So, I re-read the book in full, and decided to write up a little book report and give them credit for their theory which I have been trumpeting as my own.

I don't agree with everything is the book, but it has some fabulous ideas that were very liberating to me at a time when I was terrified to make art.

"The prevailing view of artmaking today [is that] art rests fundamentally upon talent, and that talent is a gift randomly built into some people and not into others. In common parlance, either you have it, or you don't.... This view is fatalistic - and offers no useful encouragement to those who would make art.

"Artmaking involves skills that can be learned. The conventional wisdom here is that while "craft" can be taught, "art" remains a magical gift bestowed only by the gods. Not so. In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your voice, which makes your work distinctive. Clearly these qualities can be nurtured by others. Even talent is rarely distinguishable over the long run, from perseverance and hard work."

"... our flaws and weaknesses, while often obstacles to our getting our work done, are a source of strength as well."

"Making art provides uncomfortably accurate feedback about the gap that inevitably exists between what you intended to do, and what you did."

"Your job is to learn to work on your work."

"Those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue -- or more precisely, have learned how not to quit."

I have learned the hard way (and I am sure the authors have learned this too) that this philosophy can raise ire. But I do think their words might resonate deeply with many people who want to make art but for one reason or another feel they are not "real artists".

All we can do is come up with a philosophy that helps us keep making art. So if this philosophy resonates with you, read this book, and then go forth and make art.

Also, I'll be teaching a drawing workshop for art-makers of all stripes soon, so if you think the philosophy would be helpful to you in the classroom, come to San Francisco in late April - details coming soon!


Sketchbook: Master Copies

Sketches after Ingres, "Bather", 1808
and Carravagio, "Lute Player", 1596

Sketches after Rubens, "Descent", 1612
and "Apotheosis", 1691

Sketches after Reni, "Deianeira", 1621

Sketch after Robert Campin,
"Portrait of a Woman", 1420

I bought the beautiful book Sister Wendy's Story of Painting because I wanted to refresh my art history knowledge with a general overview. Sister Wendy (of PBS Special fame) has written an inspiring survey of art, with hundreds of high-quality color reproductions.

The format is similar to Eyewitness Guidebooks, in that the information is presented visually with lots of sidebars and with a storytelling style of writing, great for a general survey. She has included an illustrated time line for each major period of art history, which is great for visual learners.

Sister Wendy tells the history of painting in terms of the constant sweep towards and away from Classicism, the swinging between Northern and Southern European influences, and between Catholic and Protestant perspectives. After reading the book I feel like I could plot all of art history along these major axis.

As I read the book I put a sticky note on every painting I found especially interesting, and now I'm going back through all the bookmarked pages to do sketches. I've found when sketching from a heavy book, it's good to set it up in a cookbook stand. And try to keep the cat away from the piles of graphite shavings.