When that great prophet/seer of the modern age, Tom Wolfe, penned his last sentence to his long spoof on the art world “The Painted Word” (1975) he rather under estimated the power the word would continue to have on that pre-verbal activity – Art. Predicting the view from the year 2000 he wrote “With what sniggers, laughter and good humoured amazement will they look back on the era of the painted word.” But here we are in 2010 on the same road with the same cops directing the traffic!
Things move so fast today that a new “Story of Art” needs to be written every 10 years. I am one of the last generation to have been taught the history of art by the same artists who taught the practice when at Camberwell Art School (1956). A very different story to the one students hear today. In those days “Art History” was not generally accepted as a suitable subject for study. It was still being resisted by some of the older universities as being too subjective and open to the whim of fashion to be an area in which to educate young minds.
This essay is designed to show how right the old universities were and how tragic it is that resistance crumbled. Soon after I had left art school The Coldstream Report suggested that art history should be taught at art schools by professionals and that the students should devote 20% of their time to it. At the time we saw no objection to the idea. I very much enjoyed looking at pictures and the commentaries that went with them were often helpful. The majority of my contemporaries at Camberwell made a point of visiting the great museums of Europe to see the real thing and make up their own minds about what they saw. Art history did not play a part in the final exams which had only one written component that could be inspired by history or by purely practical craft considerations.
The reforms of The Coldstream Report brought in their wake a huge revolution in art teaching, partly because they coincided with the invasion of American Abstract Expressionism, (which was sweeping the board in Britain at that time) and partly because of the large and vociferous presence of art historians in art schools for the first time. I witnessed at first hand the resentment they caused when I was appointed to the new staff at Wimbledon that was destined to implement the reforms and raise the standard from diploma to degree level. Naively, I presumed that the art history I had received would continue to be a necessary element in the background of any potential artist. I soon found myself in conflict with the professionals, nor were the students in a mood to hear a different story of art from me.
The wisdom I had received from practitioners was roughly as follows:- Cave art was remarkably natural and lively because it was the product of ‘eidetic vision’ a presumed condition of thought prior to the coming of language and number that imposed abstraction on an important part of the brain. The cave men thought in terms of images which they seemed able to trace onto the walls of their caves, rather in the same way as Stephen Wiltshire demonstrated with his drawing of St Pancras Station at the age of 12. More recently he has taken a short trip in a helicopter over Rome and produced an intricate and remarkably accurate aerial drawing of that city! (see Youtube). This visual memory was a gift of nature that has been swamped by abstractions in the modern brain.
Since this abstracting shift of consciousness it has been a struggle for us to see nature as it is. We artists have to invent methods of tricking the mind to see clearly before recognising what we are looking at. Recognition means abstracting: abstracting distorts the perception! Observation is not that dull procedure that art historians suppose.
The progress of art has never been a smooth and continuous evolution but moves in fits and starts with long periods of stagnation or regression. In those days we received that message very clearly: all that is new is not necessarily good. Greek and Renaissance histories are outstanding examples, not typical. Other civilizations were swings and roundabouts illuminated by individual insights not mass enlightenment. Great periods of art are infrequent, and fugitive. That was a message that still rings true for me today but it seems to have been forgotten.
Greek civilization from 1000BC to 450 moved from the abstract symbols with which they decorated their pots (in 960 BC) through the stiff architectural, archaic figures inherited from Egypt and Babylon. Very gradually the figures became more naturalistic; till that magic moment around 500 BC when, with an unprecedented “leap of the imagination” the Greeks arrived at the balanced and natural pose of contraposto within 50 years! A short period at this apex of achievement was followed by decline into empty naturalism: that is the copying of surface detail without the necessary foundation of “form”: the abstract element found in all great art.
“Seeing form” was the desired outcome of a course of study in my day. Not everybody achieved it in three years. As a sculpture student at Camberwell I and my fellow students did nothing but study from life for two years, usually at life size. Models stood for 6 weeks in one pose as a norm. Composition was half of the final exam but we were not encouraged to practise that until a month before the exam. Observation was the be all and end all.
Such was the received wisdom. Though many years later I myself discovered that the great Greek “leap of the imagination” was nothing of the kind but simply the result of a technical improvement in life-casting. Nonetheless I continue to behave as if the Greek achievement was due to very refined observation. It is my belief that the artists’ main task is to keep the faculty of sight focused. The fact that the Greeks “cheated” and saved themselves no end of trouble has not upset that core belief. I rationalize my inconsistency with the thought that we need to be able to see what is going on out there in order to survive as a species. This is after all – fundamental; artists should not neglect their traditional responsibility in this. Look what happens when you leave it to art historians to decide where artists should go!
The organ of sight has not changed but the brain that receives messages from the eye and interprets them has changed beyond recognition. If that earlier brain is not to attrify completely, we better use it. Through the act of observing artists have come to realize the extent of that change. If the word-smiths did the same they would be better equipped for the task that society has foolishly wished upon them. Meanwhile artists should seize back the initiative in art they have lost through neglect.
During my student days it was de rigeur to accept Roger Fry’s dictum on Rome “that the loss of all her artistic creations would make scarcely any appreciable difference to our aesthetic inheritance”. I did not go along with that. My analysis of a portrait bust of Hadrian (1965 approx) has been the foundation of my syntax for “The Alternative Tradition”. I was intuitively aware of the great importance of Roman three dimensional geometry long before defining it.
This idea of ‘form’ was the very centre piece of art education in those days but by 1963-4 the existence of ‘form’ was being denied by the art historians. Their education was very different and they could not see it. My life’s work has been directed towards keeping the idea of ‘form’ alive. I use the word syntax to convey the yet more important idea that there is a grammar with which forms are held together in a structure.
Rembrandt’s drawings cannot be understood without the realization that his grammar is not the same as Renaissance grammar. His interest was concentrated on human expression in body language and he needed a more precise grammar of space in order to convey his findings. If we need evidence that the human ability to see is deteriorating intolerably, the steady sinking of Rembrandt’s reputation is the clearest possible indication of just that.
As I have written extensively on Rembrandt’s contribution to the development of the language of drawing www.saveRembrandt.org.uk I will skip that bit of history here.
If some tribunal existed in which I could present my case for reversing most of the judgments made by established Rembrandt scholarship over the last 40 years, I have no doubt that I could win. But alas there is no such tribunal, so the mighty establishments can ignore my abundant evidence with impunity.
I see the work of Brancusi as redirecting the attention to the ‘form’ basis of all art after a period of Victorian decadence when human sentiment had overwhelmed all else. As a student, I welcomed that new broom, but with hindsight I feel the pendulum has swung much too far. We need to get back to where our human interests truly lie.
Archaeologists have ignored my discovery that the Greek achievement was based on life-casts, as I have done myself. It is a pity that they have also ignored the two great chimneys I discovered at Athens and Olympia, which are necessary to explain the colossal Greek bronzes that we know once existed. These ancient chimneys are equal in effectiveness to the great chimneys that were built in the 19th century during the industrial revolution. Without them the Greek feats of casting would be impossible.
[It is now 10 years since I made these discoveries but no archaeologist has bothered to confirm or deny them using the array of scientific tests that they have at their disposal. The British School at Athens flatly refused to do so.]
If I may lay my customary modesty aside for a moment; I do find it strange that having rediscovered more important facts, more widely spread in the field of art history than any man alive, or dead*; that no student or department of Art History has shown the slightest interest in either the facts themselves, or in how those discoveries came about.
[*David Hockney, also trained as an artist, runs me closest in this respect. I much admire his pointing out the significance of the concave mirror but I have an earlier example of modern drawing (just after 1288) with a different explanation: an anonymous stained-glass artist tracing nature through glass (see The “Duccio” Window film). I am with Hockney on Caravaggio but feel some of his other examples are open to doubt. I find my own ideas more persuasive on Brunelleschi and Vermeer.]