Saturday, September 6, 2008

On Writing an Artist’s Statement

Under the Awning
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida

While preparing a package for a national juried show, I was reminded that Jean Cocteau contended, "An artist cannot speak about his art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture." Despite this, I was required to include an “Artist’s Statement”.

When the esteemed Spanish Impressionist painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, who excelled in the painting of portraits and seascapes, was asked by a journalist, " Maestro, you have had such a brilliant success with works on social themes, will you please tell me what you think about them?" Sorolla responded " My friend, I just paint pictures – other people do the explaining!"’

I can relate to this, as I personally believe that any and all art should speak for itself, allowing the viewer to respond authentically to the work without pre-conditioning due to having read or heard commentary by the artist. Even if one works in an abstract or expressionist style, rather than in an academic realism approach, the audience’s experience should be primary, not secondary, to the viewing of the work. Furthermore, people should be encouraged to trust their own experience of the moment, not discount it.

The concept of the artist’s statement is a relatively modern one born out of the manifestos written by the Italian Futurists in the early 1900’s. Futurism was an attempt to revitalize Italian culture by embracing the dynamic power of modern science and technology.

Umberto Boccioni adapted Filippo Marinetti’s ideas to the visual arts and became the leading theoretician of Futurist art. In 1910 he and Carlo Carra, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla and Gino drafted and published several Futurist manifestos promoting the representation of the symbols of modern technology—violence, power, and speed.

They sought to free all artistic expression from the heavy religious atmosphere that controlled most art produced in Italy. The Futurists promoted art that related to the modern developments of their day - the automobile, the airplane, and mass communication. Perhaps one of their most arcane manifestos was the “The Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells.” Their philosophies were clearly delineated in their manifestos and make interesting reading. Herewith follows the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting:

Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, Gino Severini On the 18th of March, 1910, in the limelight of the Chiarella Theater of Turin, we launched our first manifesto to a public of three thousand people—artists, men of letters, students and others; it was a violent and cynical cry which displayed our sense of rebellion, our deep-rooted disgust, our haughty contempt for vulgarity, for academic and pedantic mediocrity, for the fanatical worship of all that is old and worm-eaten.

We bound ourselves there and then to the movement of Futurist Poetry which was initiated a year earlier by F. T. Marinetti in the columns of the Figaro.

The battle of Turin has remained legendary. We exchanged almost as many knocks as we did ideas, in order to protect from certain death the genius of Italian Art.

And now during a temporary pause in this formidable struggle we come out of the crowd in order to ex
pound with technical precision our program for the renovation of painting, of which Futurist Salon at Milan was a dazzling manifestation.

Our growing need of truth is no longer satisfied with Form and Color as they have been understood hitherto.
The gesture which we would reproduce on canvas shall no longer be a fixed moment in universal dynamism. It shall simply be the dynamic sensation itself.

Indeed, all things move, all things run, all things are rapidly changing. A profile is never motionless before our eyes, but it constantly appears and disappears. On account of the persistency of an image upon the retina, moving objects constantly multiply themselves; their form changes like rapid vibrations, in their mad career. Thus a running horse has not four legs, but twenty, and their movements are triangular.

All is conventional in art. Nothing is absolute in painting. What was truth for the painters of yesterday is but a falsehood today. We declare, for instance, that a portrait must not be like the sitter, and that the painter carries in himself the landscapes which he would fix upon his canvas.

To paint a human figure you must not paint it; you must render the whole of its surrounding atmosphere.

Space no longer exists: the street pavement, soaked by rain beneath the glare of electric lamps, becomes immensely deep and gapes to the very center of the earth. Thousands of miles divide us from the sun; yet the house in front of us fits into the solar disk.

Who can still believe in the opacity of bodies, since our sharpened and multiplied sensitiveness has already penetrated the obscure manifestations of the medium? Why should we forget in our creations the doubled power of our sight, capable of giving results analogous to those of the X-rays?

It will be sufficient to cite a few examples, chosen amongst thousands, to prove the truth of our arguments.

The sixteen people around you in a rolling motor bus are in turn and at the same time one, ten, four, three; they are motionless and they change places; they come and go, bound into the street, are suddenly swallowed up by the sunshine, then come back and sit before you, like persistent symbols of universal vibration.

How often have we not seen upon the cheek of the person with whom we are talking the horse which passes at the end of the street.

Our bodies penetrate the sofas u
pon which we sit, and the sofas penetrate our bodies. The motor bus rushes into the houses which it passes, and in their turn the houses throw themselves upon the motor bus and are blended with it.

The construction of pictures has hitherto been foolishly traditional. Painters have shown us the objects and the people placed before us. We shall henceforward put the spectator in the center of the picture.

As in every realm of the human mind, clear-sighted individual research has swept away the unchanging obscurities of dogma, so must the vivifying current of science soon deliver painting from academism.

We would at any price re-enter into life. Victorious science has nowadays disowned its past in order the better to serve the material needs of our time; we would that art, disowning its past, were able to serve at last the intellectual needs which are within us.

Our renovated consciousness does not permit us to look upon man as the center of universal life. The suffering of a man is of the same interest to us as the suffering of an electric lamp, which, with spasmodic starts, shrieks out the most heartrending expressions of color. The harmony of the lines and folds of modern dress works upon our sensitiveness with
the same emotional and symbolical power as did the nude upon the sensitiveness of the old masters.

In order to conceive and understand the novel beauties of a Futurist picture, the soul must be purified; the eye must be freed from its veil of atavism and culture, so that it may at last look upon Nature and not upon the museum as the one and only standard.

As soon as ever this result has been obtained, it will be readily admitted that brown tints have never coursed beneath our skin; it will be discovered that yellow shines forth in our flesh, that red blazes, and that green, blue and violet dance upon it with untold charms, voluptuous and caressing.

How is it possible still to see the human face pink, now that our life, redoubled by noctambulism, has multiplied our perceptions as colorists? The human face is yellow, red, green, blue, violet. The pallor of a woman gazing in a jeweler’s window is more intensely iridescent than the prismatic fires of the jewels that fascinate her like a lark.

The time has passed for our sensations in painting to be whispered. We wish them in future to sing and re-echo upon our canvases in deafening and triumphant flourishes.

Your eyes, accustomed to semi-darkness, will soon open to more radiant visions of light. The shadows which we shall paint shall be more luminous than the high-lights of our predecessors, and our pictures, next to those of the museums, will shine like blinding daylight compared with deepest night.

We conclude that painting cannot exist today withc without Divisionism. This is no process that can be learned and applied at will. Divisionism, for the modern painter, must be an innate complementariness which we declare to be essential and necessary.

Our art will probably be accused of tormented and decadent cerebralism. But we shall merely answer that we are, on the contrary, the primitives of a new sensitiveness, multiplied hundredfold, and that our art is intoxicated with spontaneity and power.

We declare:

1. That all forms of imitation must be despised, all forms of originality glorified.

2. That it is essential to rebel against the tyranny of the terms “harmony” and “g
ood taste” as being too elastic expressions, by the help of which it is easy to demolish the works of Rembrandt, of Goya and of Rodin.

3. That the art critics are useless or harmful.

4. That all subjects previously used must be swept aside in order to express our whirling life of steel, of pride, of fever and of speed.

5. That the name of “madman” with which it is attempted to gag all innovators should be looked upon as a title of honor.

6. That innate complementariness is an absolute necessity in painting, just as free meter in poetry or polyphony in music.

7. That universal dynamism must be rendered in painting as a dynamic sensation.

8. That in the manner of rendering Nature the first essential is sincerity and purity.

9. That movement and light destroy the materiality of bodies.

We fight:

1. Against the bituminous tints by which it is attempted to obtain the patina of time upon modern pictures.

2. Against the superficial and elementary archaism founded upon flat tints, a
nd which, by imitating the linear technique of the Egyptians, reduces painting to a powerless synthesis, both childish and grotesque.

3. Against the false claims to belong to the future put forward by the secessionists and the independents, who have installed new academies no less trite and attached to routine than the preceding ones.

4. Against the nude in painting, as nauseous and as tedious as adultery in literature.

We wish to explain this last point. Nothing is immoral in our eyes; it is the monotony of the nude against which we fight. We are told that the subject is nothing and that everything lies in the manner of treating it. That is agreed; we too, admit that. But this truism, unimpeachable and absolute fifty years ago, is no longer so today with regard to the nude, since artists obsessed with the desire to expose the bodies of their mistresses have transformed the Salons into arrays of unwholesome flesh!

We demand, for ten years, the total suppression of the nude in painting.

…..And to think from this manifesto we’ve moved into modern “Artspeak” and opaque jargon in copious artist’s statements!

It is interesting to note that the reality of war dampened, if not killed the Futurisitic movement by 1918. Ironically, one of the shining stars of the movement, Carlo Carrà, subsequently become a metaphysical painter, quite possibly due to his disenchantment with Italy's entry into World War I in 1915. He abandoned the concepts embraced by Futurism in lieu of inspiration from the works of Giotto and Uccello, and by the Modernist, Le Douanier (Henri) Rousseau. It is yet more interesting that Carrà didn’t write another manifesto, he simply painted.

I wish that artists would start to refuse the requests to provide artist’s statements and force the viewers to arrive at their own understanding of the work. But, alas, this will not happen. Failing that, my suggestion is for artists to consider the implicit words of Voltaire, "The secret of being a bore is to tell everything."

Capanni sul mare
by Carlo Carrà


Anonymous said...

wow nice blog

Kim said...

excellent post Sharon..
I agree wholeheartedly...
I remember art school being the major reason for me developing an absolute aversion to 'talking about' my work...
still it continues to be a requirement...
I loved the final quote...very true !!!

ESCUDERO said...

Hi - Sharon hope all is well. Just checking in to let you know that your blog is wonderful! I love Carra, and that I have nominated you for a special award. Check out my blog on Sunday the 7th. Congratulations for your great work!

S. A. Hart said...

Victoria, many thanks! I definitely will check your blog---It's one of my daily "habits". Am glad you appreciate Carlo Carrà's work, as many people aren't familiar with it. I particularly enjoy his later work.

Kim, it's a sad reality that art school readily lends itself to a form of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) for many artists. In addition to "talking/writing-phobia" as a result of art education, there are artists who entirely shy away from critiques of artwork ---even that of others'--- because of the malicious nature of the critics in art classes they personally endured. Unfortunately, it has also caused many a good artist to lose hope and pursue other endeavors, too.

Alex said...

every artwork is an embodiment of freedom. Sometimes though the meaning of the piece itself maybe too obvious but people would always interpret it in different ways. So for me, it's better to leave the interpretation to the mind of the multitude

Ragtree said...

Thank you so much for this post. I have always felt that I needed to explain what I was thinking when I sculpted a piece, but I never had the words and I felt it always cheapened what I was experiencing when I created the piece. I have being a bore down!

Renee :)

S. A. Hart said...

In 1906 M. Dujardin-Beaumetz, the French Secretary of State for the Fine Arts, wrote an impassioned letter to the International Olympics Congress. In the missive he articulated, "Art is a universal language that each one speaks with it's own accent."
If one subscribes to that understanding, as I do, then written words aren't necessary to further enunciate what the artist is communicating. Furthermore, it is what unites us as artists, regardless of what country we are from, what style of art we relate to, or what mediums we use. Perhaps it is even safe to say art succeeds where other forms of diplomacy fail.

PurrPrints said...

Heh--the voltaire quote-how true. I also like to approach a work undisturbed by preconceived notions--but I'll admit that, once I have done so, I do enjoy (and am often enlightened by) brief summaries from the artist. Not because I take these as the be-all-end-all interpretation, but rather because it enriches my experience to contrast my own impressions with the ideas of its creator.

KentuckyGal said...

Who would have thought that artists were confined by some of the same adminstrative "BS" that we with mundane jobs are. A hearty huzzah for your continued glimpses into your artistic life.

Dave King said...

I absolutely agree with your remark that the viewer's experience should be primary. I have never been a great one for statements and do not think you should explain a work, even if it is possible to do so - a doubtful eventuality, to my mind. By telling the viewer what s/he should experience, you are damning the person who doesn't feel it to a sense of failure.

You can quite see why the reality of war would have led to the abandonment of much that the Futurists stood for, but in spite of what I have said above, I find much in their Statement to applaud, and much in their works to enjoy.

Thank you for a really excellent post. I am a newcomer to your blog, but find it very impressive.

S. A. Hart said...

Dave, I agree entirely. In fact, all of the manifestos published by the Futurists are well worth reading.

I hope you continue to enjoy the various posts I publish here, as they cover concepts not readily found elsewhere. As is often said in various locales in the US, "Come by and stay awhile!"

Dave King said...

Will do!