Category Archives: Essays

Cubism still

    There is no such thing as Cubism. Not according to the unreliable Picasso. Nonetheless,something happened, and one name is as good as another.
    The rectangular transparent mark of Cezannes square flat hog hair brush occasioned the description “little cubes”. It resonated and stuck. We are stuck with Cubism.imagen
    image image image TT


If we draw a square, it could just as easily represent one of Cezannes brushmarks,the frame of a painting, a plan or elevation of a cube. All would be true. Should we wish to show all six sides,we open it out and flatten it,in one of a finite number of configurations,like a cardboard cube in the cereal box with little flaps ready to glue.

This flattening means the cube occupies more space in the picture frame,so if we draw many cubes ,overlapping is almost inevitable Overlapping was in the air. Photographic double exposures,xrays,and new huge shop windows that showed not only the merchandise in the window but also the artists reflection and what lay behind him in the street. According to the reliable Braque,speculation about the Fourth dimension had nothing to do with it. Cezanne had overlapped his brushmarks while looking for an edge wavering between binocular and monocular vision.That was enough. Bargue had emphasised all drawing began with line,and straight ones at that.The horse had bolted,and Einstein was not in the saddle.

For anyone searching for alternative visual language,empire building provided access to an array of indigenous art via anthropology, and protoclassical art via archeology. You didnt find tribal artifacts in the ” Art” gallery,but when found, distortion,frontality.simplification, suggested formal possibilities unimagined by the Salon.

Lets examine our “little cube” more closely. Lets assume we draw it, and as we roll it between thumb and forefinger a remarkable fact emerges. Sometimes we see only the square side plane. All the rest is hidden.
Then we are presented with two planes which recede from the line where the planes meet. The parallei to the picture plane.
Finally in three point perspective a corner reveals three planes receding,and all visible. Up to this point all is tradition.

BUT, i want more….More sides,and i have two choices. I can flatten my cube as before..or i can present the cube as a skeletal linear structure so i can see the hidden planes behind. In orthographic perspective any competent engineer or architect would understand..Remember,the cubists tried to explain their goals tO the public.They expected comprehension.

I now have two strategies for revealing the planes,lines ,and corners including those hidden in traditional perspective. But which to use? How far do we dissemble our cube in order to reassemble it? It is important to realise these choices or options are arbitrary but not random.

For example,can we keep the transparency and .”fill in ” some planes.? ..”paysage ” was the response. Translated, it means to walk through the landscape. Technically it meant breaking the” asterisks” created when lines intersect, typically a divisionist brush did the walking

Once paysage is introduced then light becomes an issue. Unshackled from perspective,it forms a continuous counterchange of chiaroscuro ,building toward the focus point.,not unlike the “cone of liight” of traditional drawing but conceived not just percieved. Most facets display an internal gradual transition of tone.

This brings us to composition,and the differences between primitive,analytic and synthetic cubism.
Simply,Primitive Cubism remained three dimensional and simplified forms into broad planes of cylinders,cubes,cones.
Analytic cubism dissected forms further,introduced transparency,but kept an overall traditional ” elevation” view
.Synthetic cubism introduced arbitrary forms and colour.
I am concerned in this essay with analytical cubism.

Once the form is broken down into the facets of our cubes,flattened and made trensparent, we will have lost the figure we had in the first place. How to restore it? Emblematic signs( a hat,moustache,guitar).lettering, faux textures,collage were all responses Also the distinction between form and space is blurred (faceted). One technique for reassembling the image was to find and emphasise lines which could be found running continuous through the image. By using tone, these could be made to imply large planes,running above and below each other parallel to the picture plane and frequently casting shadows on each other. There is no difference between these shapes and the “envelope.” used in traditional academic drawing, even when later it was collaged first then faceted..It has become clear that these long lines defining large planes must be part of the faceting process and derive often from the “spine” or envelope of the figure. It is here the blurring of space and form begins.

Incidentally, light and colour present real difficulty that the cubists themselves avoided. Even if I change my viewpoint,the light still comes from the same direction .what is in full light is in full shadow 180 degrees around. And what light shines on the inside plane?

Finally,one aspect of modernism in general is the degree of ” finish”. It became part of the aesthetic to leave the periphery underdone,implying that the process of analysis and reassembly is never complete. For me, analytical cubism itself is not complete,and remains to be explored,particularly in relation to landscape

Brian E Deagon
17 sep .2014

Sent from my iPad=

Kitch and me

imageWhichever version of the history of art ńyouu read,its probably wrong..History is written by the forgotten. Its mostly just pale shadows of Greenberg and Rosenberg throwing drunken punches in a frozen New York dawn(or maybe it was Paris before the War.)
Consider that academicians had been at odds for four centuries with pistols drawn ,engaged in arcane debates,about technique and style .The introduction of a brash american or two shouldnt have mattered. Terms of abuse were mandatory ..”Pompier ! “realist,” “romantic,” “impressionist!” .”classicist!”
These were epithets with sharp edges,and contemporary artist academics wore labels proudly. French Polish Russian German and English, all had stronger national traditions to defend artistically, than the Bostonians and New yorkers.But the Americans  had dollars,and they were looking  for a cheap bargain basement deal.on the new art.
Trouble was, first they had to invent it, Greenberg took until 1939.
The americans were digging over easy ground.,looking for anything to justify the emergence of modernism. Hindsight supreme.

Example.signpost event. ultramarine blue became available in the1830″s and was adopted immediately. 100 years later came debate. Noone was shocked. The pigment was after all invented specifically for artists. Skies, water and silks came alive,but remained subject to the tonal modifications of black and white .Cabanels Birth of Venus was hugely popular and remained so. Wojciech Gersons version too met with delight in1895 .Both versions holding very different assumptions about social class,about reality,about gender.But.noone was calling for impressionisms head. The salon still ruled.,noisily
it was progress.Alma Tademas skies and water were at least as new as Monets.
Realism demands a crisp brush.Impressionism had not arrived. But Art Nouveau had,
From a different premise (science).the inclusion of prismatic colours (especially blue)in the colour wheel resulted in a radical palette-including. complementaries..”broken colour ” it was a long time coming but seemed to be overnight.Classicism was as blue as Realism

The cropped figures of Japanese art,use of flat decorative shapes, experiments in “depth of field” were some of the techniques artists experimentd with for fifty years.
Here the modernists could SEE the modern.They didnt have to explain it. they could avoid the influence of media,skip shifts in society,ignore the effects on artists education .It is ironic that greenberg had a Marxist belief in revolution. Greenbergs took place in cafes and newssheets. All rather bougoise

They found underdeveloped ideas, precedents,precursors,.what in jazz was called “roots ” And they found a lot of american artists to promote.There were a lot in Paris
.They found a lot of art to despise in their messionic zeal.(Bougereau,Lord Leighton chassier Solomon Gerome. )Cigar chomping critics come prophets turned out to be merely apologists with little knowledge of historic trends and their artists avante garding dilletantes How on earth can you put a pollock beside a Sargent?or a Gerome?.,then dismiss the latter as kitsch.? Especially since a lot of artisic production was………..kitsch. It was never a level playing field. some work was just. Awful. But noone of that gets into books “Fifty of the worst paintings of the c19”
It is a matter of record,the foreign assault worked. Art vacated Europe,and only the paintings which fitted the uniform were preserved.and stored away by Kahnwieler ,Stein and Rothschild.
The atelier system slowly collapsed before the depth of the revolution was realised.Art survived in Russia,Boston,Sydney.
And its.i back.



The earliest and possibly clearest examples of subject determining stylistic differences  is to be found in Neolithic art.

With remarkable consistency Animals are portrayed with direct realism based on observation while hunting , and probably dissection occuring when eating. Humans are shown smaller in scale, rudimentary in anatomy , and represented as schemata.  Landscape depiction is rare, small and diagrammatic, plan or map views prevail albeit with differing conventions. eg rock art pointers to real features which complete the map. Continue reading ACADEMIC LANDSCAPE AN OXYMORON? MUSINGS ON IDEALISM

The Black paintings

Darkness as wrapping

Black is the dark energy from which the universe is spawned.

It is the source of light and colour.image

It reveals as much as it conceals

Like an empty stage, black is portent, potent and pregnant, but paused in anticipation. Black is. silent.

imageWarm and inviting or threatening to freeze like its close relative, Chaos,

Black can swallow substance like a fog,devouring shape and masking the weight of dreams.Yet it  sharpens the battle axe edge with Bintent,given form to follow.

Given subtlety, black takes on the character of its mixturesnjxs

It mutates into grey.

I The ancient ones knew  all colours came from black and white.  Our age was spawned by  Newtons prisms.For over 150 years we have been afraid of black.


“Never use black” intoned as incantation by generations.You have heard it yourself. Maybe said it yourself.This ought to be described as a clinically diagnosable medical condition and mandatorily notifiable contagious aesthetic position.


Certainly the so called impressionist painters had no qualms about using black. They didn’t let  theory spoil a good picture .And there are many.  Gray pictures ,using blacks and completed in the studio.

I have learned from the atelier to mix even my lights with black


I sing in praise of black.

A blank wall and a burnt stick.


Brian E Deagon 2015



Ryan Daffurn’s teaching is not what I expected. And that’s a good thing. We began a long drawing (say 10 hrs) with the admonition to get something down about the design or rhythm of the long lines of the pose in about 2 minutes.

This really surprised. I expected plumb lines to the weight bearing foot, “envelopes” within which details could be developed, and “measure, measure and measure again, after determining the eye level and viewpoint.” Apparently he wants me to work by a succession of approximations, refining and correcting as I go. Gradually I began to understand that accurate construction of design and anatomy can only begin with the whole. The same applied to light, which is constructed by mathematical logic as much as ” accidents of nature.” For example the skin tone differences between sun exposed neck and pale sun deprived chest might be noted or ignored, depending upon the conception. One things for certain, it’s not “look and put” realism. He begins with the overall conception, and is quite happy to idealise( or,if you will,”distort”) for the sake of clarity, gracefulness, dynamism or emotion in the pose.

We really need to say more about what I see as Daffurn’s idealism. It’s not the kind where everyone has a “Greek” nose and all female breasts defy gravity in their perfect cones. It goes much deeper philosophically in a Kantian or Heideggerian sense. It comes from a reverence for the constructed body, and a profound understanding of its structure in three dimensions, and the fourth dimension being potential movement in time, and all within a space of light and colour, revealing and concealing the body at the same moment.

Nothing really needs to be invented, just deeply understood. It’s a proud stance, underpinned by humility. Incidentally, the controlled art studio lighting is not mandatory, it’s just a help to the student. This is all based on a reverence for nature and the body we inhabit. More than that, it presupposes a profound belief in the intelligence of artist and audience, and the visual language they use. We intend to edify our viewer, not shock them This might not be fashionable, but it’s not “dead” as some post-structuralists might claim. To invoke beauty,hope,intelligence,diligence,persistence,structure, design etc may be idealistic and even naïve, but its not wrong..

Drawing of this kind is much more than a skill set or an arcane knowledge. It implies a moral relationship between artist and model I keep using the word “profound”. Because it is

Post script.17/5/13 Studying still life with Ryan is a revelation. I should have expected him to have the same attitude to colour and light as to form. And he does. Once again he is insistent upon the overall conception of light and colour interaction with our perceptual biology. I keep “seeing” what he expects me to ignore. I cannot paint without responding to the incident, the “flash”, the particulars.

Fighting the habits of a lifetime is starting to yield some suprises though, but the actual mechanics of eye movement and focus and the time element when shifting focus I am really struggling with. Its easy to say, “we see with the mind, not the eye  ‘. All problems are solvable provided approached systematically.  For example, it takes longer to mix my colours than it does to paint the picture, another dimension of the academic method no doubt!

Post script 26/8/13The advice to see and construct the perfect, or idealized sphere as a first step is critical. Only then is it possible to show the shadow shapes, the terminator between light and dark, the form shadow, the cast shadow and all the detail of representation. It is an intellectual activity to construct this ideal world, and an artist should be able to do this without “reality” in front of them. THEN the perceptual takes over, noting the “accidents of nature” nuances of colour, texture and shape.Even here, an algorythm can be developed, like in fractals, to complete the texture of the orange without copying a particular. As I work with Ryan, I am beginning to see how idealism (mind) and realism (perception) work together. Brian E Deagon 29/12/12

Related Images:

When is a painting finished?

When is a painting finished?

In an Atelier,the first block-in is called an ebauche..Usually executed quickly, it is frequently left in varying degrees of completion, not for aesthetic reasons, but because students simply dont have time to finish it, or because the particular problem the artist was concerned with has been solved, and they move on to the final version.


In the C19, students began to leave more and more of the ebauche unfinished.Following the example of Constable , Turner, Rembrandt , Hals, Rubens, Velasquez, and Titian, they were puzzled by the vivacity and spontaneity of “unfinished” work. To their professors, “finish” was an aesthetic and moral issue..


This debate stemmed from the “Poussinistes V Rubenistes” and the followers of Ingres and Delacroix who were really continuing a debate that started in C16 Italy between the Florentines and Venetians.


“Is drawing more important than colour? Should the designo be worked out first, or can the artist make changes in the working? Is the intellect and reason the basis of art or emotion and intuition? “ Do you want a 10 minute debate or pistols at dawn ?


By the C19, the debate had begun to focus on “finish” What that had come to mean was the softening of tonal transitions in order to heighten the illusion of reality, and reality didn’t have brushstrokes! The problem was, you could “finish” a painting to death, and lose other values such as spontaneity.Its good to note the debate was not clear cut. Alma-Tadema was criticised by his peers for relentlessly “finishing” everything in his paintings to the same degree, thus ignoring “the natural order of things”


The master artists above( particularly Velasquez)were such “painterly” artists they were able to make the brush mark an intrinsic part of the illusion. At a particular viewing distance it all “fell into place” Closer up, it all “fell apart”, leaving an experience a bit like sitting in the orchestra instead of the audience.


So French artists , as French artists do, began to insult each other. The young accused their professors as guilty of “licking their paintings clean”.(ie,removing brushmarks) Unpeturbed the older suggested that the young “ would finish their paintings if they finished their education”(ie showed some respect for hard work,craftsmanship and the buyer)


The Impressionists were influenced by photographic representation of movement and light, but we were not told till recently that Bougereau and Alma-Tadema also used photography. It is clear to me that Bougereau was imitating the brushless surface of photographed nudes, and beautiful it can be.In Young Girl and Love ,he has not only idealised the proportion, but the surface of the models skin.Finished to perfection! But surely, Monets broken rainbow haystacks are finished in the sense of being completely resolved, and clearly in the studio! That leaves us with at least two meanings for the idea of “finish”


In all the debate over Modernism , we have forgotten what the dilemnas were .In the current revival of the Atelier and of its teachings we have also inevitably revived its problems. “Finish” is still a technical, aesthetic and to some, a moral issue. Another issue probably more important is the issue of what to paint. The Impressionists rejected Godesses in favour of middle class nymphets in fashionable dress.Can we adopt C19 approaches to picture making without also reviving its debates and its flaws? Is a tattoo and a nose piercing enough contemporary relevance?


.To eliminate the brushmark with the sole purpose of heightening illusion is to seriously miss the point. “Take a photo!” is then, good advice.Painting to imitate the brushless surface of photography is a folly if that’s all it is.(.Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the old “painting from photographs” argument.I can think of no reason not to.)

But to leave the brushmark which becomes integral to  the illusion requires much,much more.I am not precluding the blended stroke either. The hue,value ,chroma , shape, density ,etc etc of every brushmark must be “right”

If the “what to paint” had a political and class dimension so did the brushmark. The mark is a signature. Its personal and all the way to Jackson Pollock being promoted by the USA in the Cold War as a symbol of democratic individualism, its interpretation is deadly serious. It also is in danger of being tamed by the Atelier ethos. You may view this as a good thing. Too much narcissism today anyway. Or a bad thing, impinging upon your unfettered right to creative markmaking. But if you are threatened by it, you are in the wrong school.


We would not tolerate a violin concerto in which MOST of the notes are correct. In fact, the academy method was to develop the painting till almost finished then add those “finishing touches” of heartstopping bravura. Sargent was famous for it.


I am suggesting an extraordinary level of mastery here, an aspiration for atelier students,and in an important way, it doesn’t matter if it’s a painted pumpkin ,a rose or a nose. To those who don’t understand “viewing distance”, the capsicum might seem “unfinished” if we mistake “polish” or “detail”for “finish”. On the other hand , when is a painting “unfinished, not resolved, incomplete”? Whats the difference between a “painterly” pumpkin and a badly painted one? I am still working on it.


To really succeed, the Atelier movement ( and it seems to be global) needs to have high expectations, but equally an ability to articulate them. For its students, the conversation over lunch is as important as it was in Paris a century and a half ago, and its not finished.

Brian E Deagon


Related Images:

Abstraction in Art

“There are no rules. No guidelines. No boundaries .” my friend complained. “How do you do abstract


Thinking about it, I could see he had a genuine concern.  I had no answer other than to mutter “ Mysticism. Its about esoteric mystical concepts of purification. Its shamanic identification with the creative process.”

He  frowned. Clearly that was not helpful.


Perhaps we could consider its parentage in Cubism and Surrealism?

Cubism itself had its lineage, including ( in no particular order)

  1. Cezanne’s difficulties understanding binocular vision, resulting in multiple viewpoints.
  2. New style shop windows which allowed the artist to see not only the window contents but also the reflected artist and the street behind him.
  3. Double exposures and X-ray photography
  4. Einsteins Theories on space and time
  5. Bargue’s guidelines for figure drawing
  6. The “discovery” of indigenous art, which was ( no..still is )viewed romantically as somehow more “pure” or “elemental”. It was used as a kind of purgative to remove layers of sclerotic culture and offered a new beginning. The new beginning became a nightmare in WW1

The outcomes of this torrent we are all familiar with. The upshot was a structure of mostly straight lines creating interpenetrating planes and a kind of elliptical composition. These planes do not exist behind the picture plane, but on it, or even project illusionistically into the viewers space, while still remaing parallel to the picture plane.


Understanding this structure is important, for it provides the underpinning of abstraction, the dominant “look” of the style. The Bauhaus reinforced this, taking over architecture, typeface, furniture. Its everywhere.


Surrealism had two arms, both belonging to Madame Blavatsky.

One was dependent on traditional illusionistic painting. Only the subject matter was bizarre. Burning giraffes come to mind.This flourishes in film still.

Of more importance was a more extreme outpouring of Freud and Jung’s unconscious that utilised chance or surrender of control as a creative principle.  Hence the throwing and splashing, the random ravages of weather or processes such as burning or collaged images from every fifth page.

When American artists in the aftermath of WW2 and the Korean war discovered calligraphy it blended seamlessly with this style of Surrealism.

The preparation of the artist before gesturing meaningfully upon a canvas was central to the creative process . Very Zen. Lots of positive and negative space.This is the shamanic side of abstraction. This led to extremes which in turn literally killed artists. Drug addiction is a poor preparation it seems.Better to meditate upon Earth Air Fire and Water, or play the Sex Pistols VERY loud.


So there is the Yin and Yang of it. On the one hand the artist manipulates mediums to create a structure that is an expression of the artists will, and the cubist ghost is never far away:  and on the other the artist becomes part of the medium which creates by itself a structure that is revealed in the making, and is independent of the artist’s will. Surreal really.


In actual practice, most artists waver between these extremes. Kandinsky encompassed both. Most of the abstract “isms” live or die here.


Wolesy will bury his drawings for six months, Klien will cover his models in paint and roll them across a canvas, Gleeson will let paint run and blend , then use the result as a trigger for his quite beautiful brush. Mondrian and other purists were messionic  about minimal means. Kline ,Motherwell and the Europeans Matthieu, Sonderborg took gestural calligraphy to extremes, but never matched the Chinese. Pollock poured out his soul, but who knows where it went?

Vestigial colours of landscape, a horizon here or there, a hint of a figure and some will cry “ Its not abstraction!”    But does it really matter?


In the zeal some posess to “restore the old ways of the masters” we had better be careful. It’s a coaches nightmare to have his team obsessing about what the opposition is doing. Rather than pointless spleen levelled at Modern Art and its advocates, it makes more sense to remember that the work that was produced belonged to a particular historical period. Even if we don’t like the art, we should have the sense to view it with the eye of the anthropological archaeologist. “ What does this thing mean?” is a question never fully answered. And we might learn something after all.

Brian Deagon


Alma-Tadema. Fantasy Artist.

An_Audience_at_AgrippasCriticised even by his contemporaries for his technique, subject matter, composition and financial success it sometimes seems he could do nothing right. Yet he was also praised for the very same by others. The paintings are the same,regardless of the viewer. What we have here, is as revealing of his critics as of the artist.

Alma-Tadema’s technique was born of Dutch and Flemish realism. Not the Rembrandt and Rubens kind (high drama and bravura), but Vermeer and Jan Brueghel the Elder (dead rabbits ,goblets and fruit). His emphasis on “photographic” finish pervaded the entire surface of the painting. This disturbed . The still life accessories are painted with the same level of intensity as the figures in his staged dramas, prompting one critic to lament there is no room for “the soul”. Others complained that this egalitarian attitude was  dangerous subversion of the heirachic “order of things” and was a metaphor for “revolutionary “ political ideas.
Compounding the dilemna posed by his relentlessly even execution was his use of sometimes extreme cropping of figures at the edges, the dominance at times of what we would call “negative space”, and almost a refusal to give an “important” historical figure a central position. He was well aware of Japanese composition and photography , and used them not just as visual reference, but as emotive metaphor.This met the same critical incomprehension for him as it did for the Impressionists.

Confusing the issue further, his elaborately constructed “historical” pieces, all based on authoritative research, did not aim at authenticity entirely: rather the illusion of it. Historical artifacts would change scale, or a marble sculpture would be shown as the “bronze original”. Flowers would be used that weren’t introduced to Europe till centuries later.Architectural motifs from many sites would be combined into a “reconstruction” Most odd of all to some,and infuriating to Ruskin, was that the people in his paintings were portraits of himself, friends and family, rather than “ideal” patrician types.Despite all this playful invention, he is accused of a “lack of imagination”,because his work is ultimately “too?”convincing.

Perhaps what has irked the modernist critics from Roger Fry on ( who also showed no comprehension of Alma-Tadema’s compositional approach, accusing him of “lacking design”) was his obvious financial and artistic success. His patrons were the rich and powerful entrepeneurs of his day, all of whom “had to have” one or more of his works. The Medici built their riches on double entry bookkeeping, the Dutch invented the stock exchange, and the barons of Empire thrived on ruthless trade. All understood attention to detail, craftsmanship, and time consuming labour. All saw in one form of realism or another a reflection of their own values. To label Alma-Tadema a “reactionary” bourgeois is to chastise a duck for having feathers. A “reactionary” to one critic( Fry) and a “revolutionary”to another(Ruskin) illustrates my point. These political attacks are simply irrelevant.

It is true that Alma-Tadema’s historicism presented a world comfortably removed from the ugly side of life. He did not indulge in drawing allegorical parallels to contemporary political issues, preferring to deal in the main with simple human domestic drama transported to the Classical world. The problem with him is simply that he is the victim of his own success. His attention to surface texture is what drives him. Painting his beloved marble, furs, flowers, landscape, bronzes,textiles, figures, it seems he was voracious and almost indiscriminate. He was the consummate painter of surfaces, and as such was able to present a fantasy world so convincing that it confuses as much as it delights. Hence the criticisms based on the moral issues confronting the actors of his dramas. This was easy territory, and you didn’t have to know much about art to indulge in indignation.

His prodigious skill at rendering surface has its contemporary equivalent in computer generated imagery and its other worlds. He was one of the first and greatest exponents of Fantasy Art, and a reappraisal of his output could usefully use that frame of reference. He is the great-granddaddy of Photoshop and its composite images, and before that,an inspiration to Cecil B DeMille. Cinematically, his example survives. Gladiators still stir dust on our screens.
The question for the contemporary painter however is more vexed. Are there lessons to be learned from the “marbleous”painter? I believe there are. But that’s another story.

Brian E Deagon

Essay based on Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Elizabeth Prettejohn et al . Rizzoli

Exhibition Catalogue Date 1996. Kindly lent by Nick Leavey of Salisbury Studios.
1. The composite image.

2. Degree of “finish” and its place in composition.

3. Political statement embedded in composition rather than subject matter

4. “Framing” a work in terms of its intended audience.

5. Values and assumptions inherent in “realism”

6. Photography, Photoshop and their legitimate use in painting

7. Centrally focused vision , peripheral vision, the time factor in the act of seeing (ie instantaneous single focus V the wandering eye constantly refocussing over the entire surface)

8. The contemporary predilection for the fragment and the ‘unfinished”

9. The revealing of “process” as opposed to rendering(literally) till process is hidden.

10. The artists ego revealed rather than the subject.

A Deep Cultural History

Visiting the Northern Territory of Australia gave me a contact with a people whose ancestors have inhabited the land for 60000 years . It would be a stupid mistake to assume that in that time, their culture ( cultures?) remained static.  In fact , to assume only one Aboriginal culture , is based on ignorance, and is deeply insulting, if not overtly racist.The assumption is that the single culture remains static because the “primitives” lack the ability to  change,learn,”progress”,or diversify.Nothing could be further from the truth.The very idea of progress is (was) central to my culture, but need not therefore assume the status of an absolute virtue or value for another.

“Progress? Maybe something,maybe nothing.”

What I learned was that I had a culture too.  Seems obvious until you begin to ask ” What are the key concepts of my culture? How does my culture differ from yours?”  “Is my culture changing?”

I eventually realised that I was a child of my time. I had been shown Western European culture through the prism of Modernism.  Even my view of the Renaissance was based on the “ladder theory”;

“Every artist builds on the one prior. Every change is a progression onward and up.”

I know now that the paintings and artists were chosen to illustrate this theory. And if your work couldnt be made to fit the theory, it was relegated to the stock rooms.It never made it to the school library!

This view of art history is still the official view.Its simplistic,easily understood, and since we have had a couple of generations whose “history” of art begins with Andy Warhol, its not likely to change next week. “Transgressions” I believe is the new onward and up,and urinating on patrons to the acclaim of critics is the top rung of the ladder.This week. The ladder theory worked well until someone noticed the snakes.

There is an alternative view. A much deeper and richer history, and it is alive and well,or at least variable in its outcomes.  Most usefully, it is based on the craft of drawing and painting with its roots in the Renaissance. I am very aware that this craft does not always result in art, and the works are often mundane, even boring.  Knowing the “how” does not tell us “what” to paint.Annigoni referred to himself as a “painter”, not an “artist”.

One consequence of abandoning the inevitability of a bigger,better,brighter future is to begin to suffer a nostalgia for a Golden Age in the past.  Got nymphs flitting around in your top paddock?  Getting deja vu again?

The fact that Impressionism has been the orthodoxy for almost two centuries shows if nothing else that the popular imagination wont abandon the figurative. But art education did.  The artists who persisted with a study of anatomy,light,colour,and perspective drew comic books and animations in spite of their teachers! Frank Frazetta rules, Conan is King!  But hang on, isn’t this the very nostalgia…….and adolescent  “tits and bums”art that gave us thousands of rescued maidens by hundreds of artists that Modernism rejected?

Yes. It is. And its persistence should tell us something.  In fact its not surviving ,but thriving in computer driven graphics.And in order to produce that, you still need to be able to draw , if not paint. In fact , the drive to produce more intense realism in animation is part of the revival of academic technique.

Ingres , Gerome,Nera Simi, Annigoni,Lance Bressow took me  back to Florence.    David,Lefebvre, Bougereau, then across the Atlantic from Paris to Boston and Tom Ouellette.  Throw in the Dutch connection, and there is a deep vein running from Europe to America.  Speed and Bridgeman in drawing, Graves ,Sargent and others trained in the ateliers of nineteenth century Paris. Deeply conservative, this is a rich vein of ……..dare I say it?……..culture. Realist traditions are alive and living in America. And almost by accident,I have become an heir to these traditions.

The antipathy toward Bougereau seems to stem from his leadership of the French Academy.He seems to have been hardworking and “a nice guy”. What is forgotten is that he himself resigned when his suggestion that new and unacclaimed artists should be the focus of the prizes and medals, was itself rejected.He was also one of the most successful artists financially. I have seen an original Bougereau, and it was stunning. Most criticism that begins “Its only……”seem to come from people who know bugger all about the craft of painting and even less about drawing.

Bargue and Gerome produced a systematised curriculum designed to revitalise French artisans,and were central to the work of Picasso and Van Gogh among their generation.There is another “history” to be written here.And lessons to be learned.

Studying Richard Hatton’s Figure Drawing is to be given the observations of generations of teachers and artists. The same applies to Bargue and Gerome’s book.  To ignore this collective (and collected)wisdom is an act of anticulture, almost barbarism.( Yes, I know the barbarians cop a bad press.)   It is simply not possible to make all those thousands of observations on your own, unguided; heroic and romantic visions of genius and new paradigmatic ideology and Ayn Rand notwithstanding!

There is a world of difference between “creativity strategies” such as wrapping, framing, gridding, decontextualizing, markmaking, disrupting, interrogating,recontextualizing, layering, metamorphing,collaging,referencing, oh! and transgressing etc; and learning the craft of an art form.  Unfortunately,the need for funding of art education has driven an intellectualization of course content to “compete” with other disciplines.Bit stupid really,since good drawing IS an intellectual activity. Baby is gone with the bathwater,down the contemporary relevance plughole!

And so to the 10 tone “strings of colour” that I am learning from Tom Ouellette here in Boston.  For me they are a key to a mansion.  Only a key, but vital knowledge for giving my figures a palpable physical presence I have been seeking.

Deriving from(apparently)Jacques Louis David’s adoption of a “Venetian” palette, it has been systematised into four “strings ” of ten tones . These “strings” are a red earth, a yellow earth, a neutral gray, and a pink based on alizarin. Each string has ten tones, hence a palette consisting of forty “flesh tones”.  A bit over the top?  Yeah, but the idea is beautiful.  And you need a bloody big palette to hold it all. And after you master that ( if anyone ever can), then you still have all the problems of contemporary relevance and “invention” to deal with.

Now at this point its necessary to point out that “tones” was not part of the artists language till the Nineteeth century.Prior to that was “chiaroscuro”, that useful device of light against dark.  ” Truth to nature” was not an issue.I draw attention to this only to point out how we continually misjudge the intentions , methods , and vision of artists of the past. And how we must take everything with a grain of salt : taste, test and swallow only when palatable.

There is another dimension to all these “tones”.   Shadows must remain transparent, half tones translucent, and lights opaque. This advice comes as far back as Cennino Cennini in the Fourteenth Century, and its probably more important than anything that came since.

So here I am. Halfway up or down another ladder.  I may not be making much progress, but I’m not going to step on a snake!

Brian Deagon

Boston MA USA.  19/11/2007