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On seeing for yourself….

Looking at artwork is inspirational – it helps to direct the personal creative journey. As much as reading great literature helps to improve literacy, style and to reflect on human nature, passion and emotions. One can learn substantially technically from studying painting directly, for example (this holds also for many if not all other artforms), encountering the artwork face to face, so to say. This type of looking is about analytical observation and deduction in connection with additional information relayed in the gallery or museum context. So I may be able to deduct what type of paint has been used, guess some of the painting media and application from the thickness or thinness of the paint, get a sense of what instruments have been used (brush, palette knife, fingers, other?!), and at times get a glimpse of the suppor. Unframed work reveals this best, but we can attempt to deduct whether the support has been smooth, (for example metal, wood or porcelain), or springy and elastic, (for example canvas or linen on stretcher), whether the support has been primed or prepared in other ways, (by applying gesso or acrylic primer). All these technical aspects of the making or preparation stages of a painting inform the way a painting speaks to us viewers when it has completed its journey. It is not wholly possible here to separate the process from the outcome.
Further aspects of direct observation allow for analysis of composition, palette (choice and harmony of colours), and pictorial content (representational, abstract, illusionistic). This all before we consult the literature of professionals, conservators, art historians, critics, and not unimportantly, the views voiced by the artists themselves. Incidentally, a good primer on how to become more confident in this direct observation analysis of art work is given by Marjorie Munsterberg (2008-9)
When I trained in art history the distinction of primary and secondary sources was considered all important. Although flawed in the age of digital media (what is an original, what is a copy?) it still has much validity when addressing the research process for contextualising one’s own practice. It makes a difference whether you look at an artwork in reality, in its site-specific setting (for example film on TV, as download, or in the cinema; a Madonna in its site-specific commissioned original setting of a Cathedral or in the Victoria and Albert Museum, to give another example). So it is important to consider how a changed setting of curatorship or distribution affects the meaning of an artwork (see Duchamp and this certain item of mass produced sanitary ware – the urinal – ‘authenticated’ by pseudonym in 1917), regardless whether you look at art in a gallery, magazine, book or on the internet.

Many aspects of an artwork, in addition to its textural, haptic and spatial dimensions, cannot be clearly identified in reproduction. We are looking at copies of the real thing. The German philosopher and art critic Walter Benjamin wrote about this in a seminal text published 1936, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original. The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity. (Benjamin 2005 [1936])
Benjamin throws in another heavyweight: the idea of authenticity. This concept, much questioned in our age ‘after modernism,’ is an important feature of western philosophical thought. Without wishing to digress further, just to keep this in mind, if interested in delving deeper into Benjamin’s text which is well worth reading in full. There are many good sources available now on the internet for Benjamin’s essay.
Benjamin succumbed to the forces in history, when fleeing fascism, unable to see a way out of the darkness that covered Europe at the time, when this great thinker departed prematurely at the age of 48 at the Spanish border on the 26th September 1940.
I am fortunate to own Benjamin’s published collected writings in the German ‘original.’ However, the concept of the original, or authentic essay, is also a difficult one to apply here as there were three different versions of this essay by the author, two of them published in the Collected Writings. His working method of revising a text and thereby shifting intention and meaning is one any artist is familiar with. Repeated re-working, over painting, erasure, additive and subtractive processes inform the creative process across painting, drawing, sculpting, photography and film as much as literary writing. Furthermore, the act of translation (something Benjamin also wrote about) adds and subtracts from whatever the original intention of an artist might have been. Translation being considered here more widely as the process of interaction of artwork with the viewer, which is after all involving two minds – one of the artist ‘speaking’ through the residue of the artwork, the other through the active engagement of the viewer/ consumer of art with the art object. This bringing to mind another text written by Marcel Duchamp (already alluded to in parenthesis above): The Creative Act (1966). In this short text Duchamp succinctly disentangles the complex interaction of artist, artwork, viewer and posterity.

When critically examining other artist’s work, their own voices are significant. I remember one of my art history professors warning us against believing artist’s statements, and reminding us of the art detective function the art historian must occupy: always examine the material evidence, and take any verbal statements with a pinch of salt. This was advice by the late Professor Noszlopy, who was a specialist on Cubism and Picasso. And there can’t be a greater self mythologiser than Picasso (apart from Duchamp perhaps?). I still think it is important to listen to what artists have to say about themselves and their intentions. It is further ‘primary’ material we can take stock of and gauge against the actual materiality of the art ‘product’ in its contexts.
Attending an artist’s workshop is another form of accessing directly how artists work. One of my students, Claire Brach, has an exemplary way of referencing other artists in her blog, here for example printmaker Jet James By describing her primary experience of attending Jet James’ workshop, and by participating in the practical learning process she writes about the most direct and intimate access to the making of an artwork. Besides, Claire’s context research strikes me as unusual in the way she attempts to credit her artists fully where possible, as she makes the effort of contacting them to obtain the right to reproduce their images on her blog. This degree of respect for authorship, and scrutiny of research is truly admirable and surpasses expectation. I hope that Claire’s accessible research is proving inspirational to other learners.

Jet James, Self, 2014
Jet James, Self, 2014

Furthermore, perhaps reading a ‘bite’ of Benjamin’s writings might promote some yet unfamiliar with his work to get the wonderful collection of essays called “Illuminations” (edited by another great philosopher of his age, Hannah Arendt). Or you might just want to enjoy Duchamp’s French-accented voice in the recording of the “Creative Act” (1961).
Image Credit: Jet James, Self 2014
Arendt, Hannah [ed] (1968) Walter Benjamin: Illuminations London: Random House
Benjamin, W (2005) UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, translated: by Harry Zohn , transcribed by Andy Blunden from Arendt (1968) accessed through https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm
Benjamin, Walter (1991) Gesammelte Schriften, Band 1.1 Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp
Brach, Claire (2015) www.tactualtextiles.wordpress.com
Duchamp, Marcel (1966) “The Creative Act”, Lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 19th October 1961 accessed via http://www.iaaa.nl/cursusAA&AI/duchamp.html
Audio via https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5KuZlIyQPZI
Munsterberg, Marjorie (2008-9) “Writing about Art” http://writingaboutart.org/index.html with subsection “Visual Description” http://writingaboutart.org/pages/visualdesc.html
Rosenthal, Nan. “Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/duch/hd_duch.htm (October 2004)
Audio on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5KuZlIyQPZI

Posted by author: Doris Rohr
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6 thoughts on “On seeing for yourself….

  • I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable for responding, as I often do, to the fascinating posts offered by tutors at OCA, because I don’t feel I have any authority, and it’s difficult to generate any discussion. I’m studying Drawing 1.I’ve read Bryan Eccelshall’s piece “In Praise of the Permanent Collection”, (so helpful). I’ve also been encouraged by my tutor to see some works face to face.
    I’ve put a lot of effort (and money) into going to exhibitions, both local to and distant from my home, to look at landscape art, by a range of artists, historical and contempory. I’ve even sat in the Print and Drawing room at the Scottish National Gallery, in order to see watercolours by John Sell Cotman and Thomas Girtin. The “Turner in January” exhibition was on, as was an exhibition of Arthur Melville’s amazing watercolours. It was an intense experience, and the first time I have ever set out with such determination and single-mindedness to “see Art” in such a focused way.
    But as a complete newcomer to the Creative Arts, I’m struggling to meet the high expectations as delineated in this post, Doris.
    For one thing, I could spend hours and hours in the attempt, which, whilst I am sure it would be beneficial and instructive and perhaps most importantly, enjoyable, it would detract from my own attempts to draw. I need to do lots of that if I’m ever going to develop any proficiency in the techniques, and, by extension, be able to understand and consider the technichal acheivements of “true” artists.
    I don’t want to moan or complain, and certainly do not want to detract from the great piece you have posted. I just wish I had more time!

    • Hi Alison
      my only ambition here for any student is to reflect on the complexity of artwork, process and authorship. Who has ownership over meaning in an artwork (the artist, the spectator, the curator)? One of my other intentions was to give some ideas as to why referencing (attribution of authorship) is important – an aspect some students at first year level understandably struggle with. But of course, please don’t feel to have to live up to any standards here, the fact that you are attending exhibitions and look at real work in the flesh – so to say – is excellent. This is primary research.

  • Good article!
    Unless the artist has a never ending supply of ideas it is good to be open to inspiration wherever they go. I find it on TV, watching interviews, theater, books, exhibits, the radio or on the street. Sometimes I get ideas from places I never thought I would…just have to be open.
    When it comes to artists’ statements? I especially like the long winded ones you can make no sense of to justify terrible art.

  • Another thing about seeing a work of art for real is appreciating its scale- whether large or small. Reproduced works are generally small and, although we can read the dimensions, it is often a surprise to be confronted with a much larger work. Sometimes, the reproduction is bigger than the real work and that is an even bigger surprise.

  • Hi Doris Thanks for posting this. I will look further into Benjamin’s essay. In my opinion I am wary of artist’s statements, surly, art as life is a fluid journey and changes with our discoveries? I am also sure as a new student to the OCA that I will come back to this piece in the future. Babs

  • Hi all
    I can understand the wariness about artist’s statements, interesting how this discussion partially arose out of Duchamp’s short lecture on the creative act. His in some way is more of a philosophical examination of who has ownership over the meaning of art, so in my view Duchamp does not really make a statement about his own work per se. But then we make statements all the time, on our blogs, verbally, in discussion. I agree with Babs that there is fluency in this, and we also often get our own work out of perspective. It is really hard to distance oneself to one’s own practice, hence art college likes to preach peer review and hence the need for us lot – tutors- to give you feedback to your own work.
    Daniel you made me laugh – yes quite – there can be a lot of verbose stuff going on in our statement culture. Alas writing the very self conscious artist statement is very much part of our culture now and a real must for professional practice. That and bios come my way often, I sigh and update an older one I keep on file. On the plus side – writing a statement which does not give all your intentions away, but promotes reflection and further creative responses can be very positive – act as a catalyst and review point. So does showing work – often this goes hand in hand with writing a statement. Documenting your work when showing then gives you those pivotal points where you can mark your own journey and changes as artist, out of retrospect. I found Duchamp’s idea of self documentation: to create a limited edition of mini- art object/ replicas of his work rather endearing. A very smart move indeed. Incidentally he got Joseph Cornell to help him with the boite de valise – Cornell’s work is very beautiful and accessible.
    As to multi- sensory awareness of an art work – Olivia thanks for the comment on scale. I totally agree. And texture! I have just returned from a visit to a gallery in Drogheda (Ireland) where I saw my first Glenn Brown “in the flesh.” I had his work on the internet but never for real. I was a bit surprised in the exhibition to see how flat his painting surfaces are. They looked like printed. And that – so I was told by more knowledgeable colleagues – is part of his message: he photorealistically reproduced a Frank Auerbach painting section. Now if I had not looked at the real thing I would have never got this point. Incidentally The Tate gallery link here is explaining this very well – so I should read the small print more carefully in future. But then – seeing is believing.
    See tate:

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