Aug 062018

The word imagination shimmers in the mind along with ‘inspiration’ on a higher level than invention, construction or observation. In the Renaissance and earlier consciousness the true artists were the poets. Painters and sculptors suffered under the lesser designation as artisans/craftsmen. Unrecognised as artists because they were simple copyists, therefore without imagination. Vasari and his artist subjects worked hard to change this by equating their efforts with the imagination of the poet. Thanks to their efforts the visual arts now seem to top the charts as far as prices paid for our products are concerned. But there is a down side.

In the arts the word has come to mean working without reference to nature. So the expectation of imagination from the visual arts has inadvertently come to mean fantasy: to out-weigh observation. Whereas what we have actually admired in the past is the vivid observation of nature in which imagination enters as much and as little as in daily life. The patches of light that come to our retina have to be interpreted by the brain, that can only be an act of imagination because they are recognised usually in spite of inadequate data certainly not by perfect matching.

Every act of recognition requires memories and imagination. When I look at the chair beside my bed I see patches of dark brown and lighter brown light. The colour relationships remind me of corduroy and my memory of casting aside my trousers allows me to recognise the patches of light as my trousers but there is no evidence in the shapes I see that these are indeed trousers. It is the memory of light on corduroy that has given the clue to my deduction. Every act of recognition could be described as a discovery because we need imagination for the simplest acts that allow us to find our way in the world. Imagination is not rare it is an everyday necessity.

When Copernicus discovered that the earth was circling the sun he was using his imagination to see the orbits from outer space. That discovery has shaken the world so badly that had he advertised it he would probably have been burnt at the stake. There is a qualitative and a quantitative difference between my finding of my trousers and Copernicus’ vision based on data that was thousands of years old but not recognised. His was the greatest leap of the imagination made by Man. It has reduced our status from the centre of the universe to a tiny speck in a probable multiverse. The human imagination has grown in status based on Copernicus and his like but it is sensible to regard it also as normal and everyday. We need to distinguish between the low flights of recognition and the high flights of imagination.

The significance of a discovery needs to be the measure of its importance. We need to take some of the unreasoned shine from the word. Imagination can be vastly important or everyday insignificant. I fear that art historians have been over impressed by Vasari’s arguments and have illogically reasoned that as Rembrandt is undoubtedly exceptional he must therefore have worked from imagination. Alas. this is hopelessly wide of the mark. Yes, Rembrandt possessed a wonderful imaginative empathy with his subjects but to realize feelings he needed to observed them in reality. The scholars have imposed on a master of huge importance, one who consistently claimed to work from observation “anything else was worthless in his eyes”- a method of work that does not fit at all. To make him fit his new work description scholars have had to discard more than half his genuine works. When Rembrandt is obliged to work by construction, with flying angels for instance, he makes sure that we do not take him seriously; he adopts a looser style (Link to flying angels)

It is indeed surprising that so many scholars have subscribed to the absurd idea of his imaginative construction for so long in the face of so much contrary evidence, and while doing immeasurable harm to our understanding of the master. My article on Rembrandt’s use of mirrors (Burlington Feb.1977) should have dispelled any remaining doubts about the unanimous testimony of Rembrandt’s contemporaries in this respect. Changing entrenched beliefs requires much patience – as Max Plank observed “science advances funeral by funeral”. The damage to Rembrandt and therefore to art continues unabated. At Harvard the only time we came near to debating the issue – I would claim to have won hands down but clearly the scholars took a different view because they have brushed aside my evidence as if it did not exist. There is no evidence for their view other than the fact that many scholars have accepted it unquestioningly for nearly a century! All the evidence favours my interpretation.

Aug 062018

In his“Triumph of Art” Part 4 of the TV series Civilizations Simon Schama described Velásquez’ Las Meninas as “a triumph of illusionistic painting”, also, as “a huge brain teaser”. Velasquez himself is “the most cerebral painter of his generation”. Schama asked what is painted on this large canvas we see the back of? possibly the princess or perhaps the king and queen ? “Generation after generation of writers commentators and artists have tried to explain it” but, Schama thinks that “no one has quite got to the bottom of it”. He does not exaggerate the degree to which scholars have found mystery where as a practicing sculptor I have often found a simple, practical explanation for scholars’ mysteries. Of course, it is Las Meninas painted on the front of the huge canvas, self portraits often include the back of the canvas (Las Meninas is approx 3m high). I cannot disagree with his final explanation – the painting is about who is in charge of the way we see but alas my answer is unfortunately the theoreticians, not the painter as Schama implies!

Las Meninas Velasquez

Las Meninas Velasquez

My own inquiry started from the question how did Velasquez actually see what he was painting – obviously he needed a mirror to paint a self-portrait. He could not have seen those standing beside and in front of him without seeing them in the same mirror in which he saw himself; so it must be worth asking the question did he actually use a mirror. It would have had to have been a big one, plate-glass did not exist in 1656 when this picture was painted but there was a hall of mirrors in the royal palace in Toledo which Velasquez was in process of transferring to the new Palace in Madrid at the time he painted Las Meninas. Spain had been receiving tribute from Holland and the mirror we see painted reflecting the king and queen in Las Meninas is in a Dutch frame. The same mirror or an identical one can still be seen in the sacristy of the cathedral in Toledo. We would need two rows of four such mirrors mounted together to cover the figures within the subject matter in the painting. But for a Royal Hall of Mirrors that does not seem an exaggerated possibility. Unfortunately there’s no record of the size of mirrors in the hall but the painting seems to represent the room next door (with minor modifications). When we ask the question did Velasquez actually use a mirror? the answer comes back from the painting itself -YES, eight times. 1. Velasquez changed himself to a righthander, 2. he painted the Infanta in the same year with her parting on the other side of her head. 3 the lighting of the group on the left depends on reflected light from the mirror. Are these not proof enough that he used the mirror I published these ideas in The Artist Magazine in March 1980 but scholars continue to pursue mysteries in painting, clearly miracles are preferred by them to practical explanations.

My straightforward explanation would be useful to artist today who undertake group portraits. It is a technique which I suspect was used by Velasquez’ assistant for his family portrait and by Goya for his royal group, both artists included a self-portrait. But they disguised their method,. Velasquez did nothing to disguise his method. Art scholars think very differently to artists, they prefer written, cerebral evidence to visual clues; and as they have come to dominate the discussion of art in the media and everywhere else, so useful ideas for artists get lost. There seems to be only a one-way traffic between the theoreticians and the practitioners of art. I have offered similar practical explanations for a number of art miracles many of them are on YouTube (see The use of mirrors by Brunelleschi to invent scientific perspective, by Velasquez as above, by Rembrandt to multiply his subject matter and by Vermeer to augment his use of the camera obscura which I believe he used solely to observe unfocused light. Two mirrors crucially helped him to observe light and allowed him to work in a modest sized studio (3m deep). For artists and those who prefer practical explanations to miracles, I strongly recommend my answers to art historical questions.

I can also explain why I believe half the Elgin Marbles are Roman copies. Furthermore, to our surprise the Roman reproductions have been generally preferred to the Greek originals. (see my Elgin Arguments, Also on Youtube

). The extraordinary speed with which the Greeks freed themselves from the previous Egyptian formula which had endured 3000 years can be explained by their use of wax casts from life as the basis of their miraculous transformation in both bronze and stone (see The Bronzes of Riace for bronze and Dionysos for stone). These revelations bring the master works to which they refer down to human scale, examples from which living artists can profit.

I am still looking for a publisher for all this useful information, I have been looking since 1977.