On Motion in Art
Considering the Relationships Among Patronage, Training and the Arts
by Stephen Gjertson
Footnotes are inserted into the text within brackets.
The contemporary artist who wishes to follow in the footsteps of the great painters of the past must come to grips with two intimately intertwined facts: the reality of the twentieth century philosophic and artistic system and the reality of the twentieth century artistic pedagogical system. For me, this did not happen overnight. As a young boy it was my ambition to paint what I called action pictures: tempestuous battles with writhing figures, galloping horses and swirling smoke. I copied The Battle of Nashville by Howard Pyle in the Minnesota State Capitol and the illustrations of Tom Lovell and Stanley Meltzoff.
When I acquired more knowledge of art history the names of Michelangelo, Raphael, Rubens, Tiepolo, Andrea Pozzo and a host of others were added to my list of great action painters. They inspired me to a higher call. Now I also wanted to paint noble themes, make my figures take flight and fill billowing skies with exuberant gestures and swirling draperies. In college these youthful ideals sustained me as I began to confront a system that was adamantly opposed to them. After leaving the system discouraged, I discovered and was admitted to Atelier Lack, a small studio-school that combined the teaching of the Boston impressionists with that of the nineteenth century French ateliers. There I studied the Boston painters and learned about Vermeer, Ter Borch and Velásquez. As studio exercise I painted casts, figure studies, still life and portraits. My desire to paint other types of pictures had to be satisfied by our occasional composition classes. I spent most of my time struggling at the fundamental task of learning to see.
It was in the midst of my labor during those and the following crucial years that I came face to face with artistic reality. Not all at once, like running into a wall, but gradually, like trying to swim across the Atlantic Ocean. My artistic goals and the great works that inspired them were commendable. However, because Modern Art had never interested me, my paradigm was based, for the most part, on the history of art prior to our century. To my dismay, I discovered that painting successful imaginative work and surviving as an artist in the second half of our century was another matter. [Imaginative painting is an updated and broader term that was used at Atelier Lack to describe work that had formerly been designated historical painting. It includes all work that cannot be completely set up in the studio and painted directly from life: historical, religious, mythological, allegorical, fantasy, mystical and symbolic art. This is in contrast to impressionism, where artists have the subject in its entirety before their eyes and attempt to render the proper relationships that they see in front of them.]
Traditional artists who were born after World War ll live in an art world that is completely different from the one that existed during the previous six centuries. In past centuries, the depiction of the human figure was a necessary ingredient in the training of artists because the paintings or sculpture they were commissioned to do required such knowledge. Therefore, learning to represent the human figure was the primary goal within the workshops, studios and academies, whether the drawing was from convention, nature or a combination of the two. [Ancient work was often static, due to traditional codes of representation (as in Egyptian art). The depiction of motion and emotion became more natural and convincing as the culture and patrons gave artists the freedom to study nature (as did the Greeks and their heirs, the Romans). When the Renaissance began to flower after the Dark Ages it brought about a renewed interest in Greek and Roman art. From religious subjects to portraiture, the naturalism and variety of ancient art set the standard for many artists and craftsmen from the Renaissance to the middle of the nineteenth century.]
Broadly speaking, throughout history art has been in the service of three interrelated patrons: religion, government and the wealthy. Artists were craftsmen employed by these great patrons. It was the patrons who determined the nature of an artist’s work. The artists then designed and executed it to the best of their ability according to the established standards of the time.
The iconography of the arts developed in response to the dictates and desires of the patrons within the existing cultural milieu. Thus the arts portray the teaching and traditions of religion; the myths, legends, allegories, history, exploits and great personages of government and the pursuits, passions, pleasures and portraits of the wealthy.
By the first quarter of the twentieth century a fundamental shift was underway. Modernism, with its enmity for the philosophy and traditions of Western culture, had begun to take over the intellectual world. In the visual arts, this resulted in the rejection of much traditional subject matter and the eschewing of an artistic vocabulary based on the skillful and selective representation of nature. Within a short time, subjects and methods that had previously given the artist an opportunity to represent figures in motion were no longer considered acceptable by those who influenced and patronized the arts. For seven decades the institutions of government (major museums, universities, colleges, art schools, art departments, arts boards and most foundations) have been opposed to traditional representational art of all kinds done by living artists. They have not only refused to patronize traditional art but they have publicly and privately sought to discourage and suppress it. In this country, government support for the arts has gone to work that was opposed to traditional artistic and cultural values. Most corporate patrons have followed their lead, collecting what has been fashionable.
Religious institutions are no longer a significant patron of the visual arts. Except for sponsoring occasional arts festivals and small exhibitions they have fallen prey to mass market mediocrity or to forms of art currently in vogue. Most wealthy collectors today do not patronize living artists who work outside of the currently acceptable mainstream. The few wealthy patrons who do purchase representational art by living artists are primarily interested in portraits or paintings to decorate their homes or offices: still life, high-keyed landscape, plein-air figures or small genre work.
When serious fine artists attempt to paint figural works with subjects taken from history, religion, myth and so forth—considered the highest form of art by painters and patrons of the past—they find that almost no one is interested. Commercial galleries and dealers that handle representational art tend to stick with work that sells easily at modest prices. They are seldom interested in higher priced (because of the amount of labor and expense involved in their production) imaginative paintings that require added effort to explain and sell. Often, such work is also juried out of exhibitions. Artists usually relegate these costly, time-consuming and difficult to paint subjects to a corner of the studio or storage room. To survive they must do other work.
The Loss of Procedures for Imaginative Painting
Imaginative painting uses highly specialized generative methods. It also requires a specific type of drawing that integrates nature, anatomical construction, idealization, proportion and perspective. When David reacted against the superficialities of official French art in the eighteenth century, he rightfully sought to reinvigorate it by a renewed study of nature. Unfortunately, he neglected to retain much of the admirable methods of constructive figure drawing bequeathed to French art from the academy of the Carracci in Bologna. He thereby instituted an art that was tied to nature in such a way that hindered the expression of the Olympian fantasies that had graced walls and ceilings in earlier eras. Nevertheless, a great deal of technical and procedural information remained and, given the opportunity, many fine nineteenth-century artists were able to overcome this deficiency and create marvelous imaginative work.
At the turn of this century, when a new generation of painters arose whose artistic interests lay in other directions, and as the market for imaginative work declined, the skills and procedures necessary to produce it were no longer used. They were therefore not taught to young students. Within a generation these methods and much information that had been common knowledge in the studios of the previous generation were lost. Threads of traditional information and procedures were kept alive here and there by a few individual artists and a handful of older illustrators.
As a student interested in this approach to picture making, I was fortunate to receive a fairly thorough traditional art education. I was also a teacher for sixteen years. As both an artist and teacher I am certain of this: learning to draw is extremely difficult, even under the best of conditions. Four or five years of full time training only begins to scratch the surface and give the talented student enough skill of eye and hand to survive by painting modest still lifes or portraits. There is little time to acquire the specialized knowledge and skill necessary to paint complex imaginative paintings.
In the past, the goal of art training was to equip talented students with the skills necessary to paint imaginative figure compositions. In the present, with little practical information surviving and almost no market for such work, most students who are fortunate enough to receive any competent training merely acquire the skills necessary to do other types of work. Painters interested in imaginative painting most often fend for themselves. With only a tenuous living tradition to nurture them they are left to piece together shreds of information from other like-minded painters, books, copying, research into the past and looking at paintings. In many cases they resort to the indiscriminate copying of photographs for their figures—and this accounts for a good deal of the stiffness in much contemporary realism. [I believe that the “stabile” nature of much contemporary figure painting is caused by poor draftsmanship. This is, in most cases, the result of inadequate training (which fails to integrate drawing from nature with constructive figure and memory drawing) and/or an ignorant and unhealthy reliance upon photographs or slides. Motion in art, the suggestion of movement, is obviously not limited to imaginative painting. The gesture of any figure can suggest motion. Leonardo wisely advised the artist to “Represent your figures in such action as may be fitted to express what purpose is in the mind of each.” This is a matter of drawing. Other objects can suggest motion as well. This is a matter of composition. The observations in this article are primarily concerned with the more vigorous gestures necessary in complicated genre painting or work of an imaginative nature.]
Restoring the Fundamentals
Serious Patronage and Sound Artistic Training
In my opinion, to revitalize the imaginative painting tradition with its expression of motion and emotion, and thereby reinvigorate figure painting in general, we need either a cultural revolution or (and this seems to be where we are headed) a reformation within the artistic counter-culture. We need the motivation provided by a healthy market for imaginative work. Until there is once again a significant number of patrons who commission or purchase subjects that require the ability to depict or suggest vigorous motion (on the earth and in the air), the impassioned, concentrated acquisition of the knowledge and skills necessary to produce it will remain wanting. Without support, talented artists who seek the knowledge and skill to successfully create such work will only be able to do so on a limited basis.
We also need to return to a sound system of training painters—with a significantly longer period of training. [Which means having qualified students begin at a younger age or remain students for a longer time.] This will only be possible if we learn the lesson from recent history and abandon the idea of teaching “art” in art schools or college art departments. These institutions are either under the domination of ideologies opposed to traditional realism or they are run for profit and cater to the amateur. Artistic education will once again have to be received in a small studio run by a trained professional. Only here can the methods and skills necessary to produce fine works of representational art be efficiently and effectively imparted. Some of the neglected academic disciplines and suggestions offered by Mr. Ackerman would certainly help get more animation into contemporary work if they were an integral part of a sound curriculum taught by a qualified painter. [In many cases today, the visual arts seem to be the only profession where a practitioner can be well-known, well-respected and well-paid without having any aptitude, training or skill. For practical information on curriculum, see “Pigments, Nature and Brainless Criticism,” by Peter Bougie, Classical Realism Journal, Volume III, Issue 1 and On the Training of Painters, by Richard Lack.]
Mediocrity versus Excellence
By past standards, many of our mainstream fine artists are purveyors of politically correct mediocrity and many of our well-known popular artists are purveyors of sentimental mediocrity. In the middle are those who respect the art of the great masters of the past and are endeavoring to continue and expand this magnificent legacy. Some of the best and most interesting work being created today is done in relative obscurity, and in some cases under duress, by this group of artists. A few of them have, indeed, been accorded marvelous opportunities and they have given us works of beauty and substance. In my own tradition, R. H. Ives Gammell produced many fine paintings that were filled with action and emotion. The sculptures on the facade of the National Cathedral by Frederick Hart and several frescoes by Ben Long are a credit to this nation. A few private institutions who support the arts, such as the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, have also begun to commission work that affords an artist greater opportunity for expression. But this is only a beginning. There are many qualified artists who would welcome the challenge and opportunity to tackle complex projects, yet they are primarily commissioned to paint still lifes or portraits.
We need fewer seminars on the arts, less arts festivals, art awareness groups, art therapy and empowerment sessions, art workshops and pats on the back for poor work. If imaginative painting is to survive and if art of motion and emotion is to have a vital role in the future of art in our country it needs serious, enlightened patrons—the encouragement and support of modern Medicis who dare to follow in the footsteps of the great patrons of the past. [Such patrons are familiar with the history of art and understand the important role that art plays in shaping a healthy culture. They recognize artistic excellence, encourage artists of genuine merit and buy or commission significant works of art.] If the mediocrity of much that parades under the many banners of realism today is to be transformed into excellence, we also need to restructure the way painters are taught. Only through increased patronage and the thorough training of artists will talented men and women have opportunities to develop and use their skills to create animated works of emotion-stirring art.