The long flights to and from Europe last week gave me a chance to catch up again on some of my reading. Some, at least. One of my burdens, literally at times, is a fondness for reading and the ability to read very quickly — so I end up carrying multiple books in my briefcase alongside the big Dell computer. Cab drivers and bellmen are always surprised when they discover my briefcase’s weight (along with my suitcase, which is usually further loaded-up).
This trip saw me toting, besides the requisite city guide books, about a half-dozen recent magazines, Ekman’s Emotions Revealed, Poore’s Pictorial Composition and the Critical Judgement of Pictures, Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and Almendros’s Man with a Camera (movie camera, that is).
I’m now going into some long hours sitting around the Santa Clara courthouse, waiting for the bureaucratic mechanisms while I sit on a jury in San Jose. Ah, more reading time!
The Poore book is usually out of print these days, though it has been in regular service since its first edition in 1903 (later revisions include newer artists like John Marin). I sought it out after reading about it in a Michael Johnson interview with portraitist Patricia Dalzell in the UK Black and White magazine. Even less well-known than the book is the long-lost book series it began: Poore later added two more volumes, The Conception of Art (1913) and then much later Art Principles in Practice (1930). Both of the later books seem to have disappeared, but I managed to find copies in the old collection of the San Jose State Teachers’ College (now absorbed by SJSU), where they’ve been resting since the 1950’s.
I’m a sucker for old art-instruction books, and in many ways they are more illustrative of art history than writings specifically aimed as art history — at least for me. While on my long layover in London I got a chance to briefly see a few of the lads from the streetphoto list (John, Jawed, Gary, and Sam) and the same subject came up from Sam — that he too enjoyed David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge (I especially like it because it’s a history written from the point of view of a practitioner rather than an academic consumer).
(An aside on a Scientific American article questioning Hockney: analysis of a van Eyck’s painting doesn’t tell the story of how the mental process of the painter may have changed based on exposure to optically-traced imagery. Even if it was not used directly on a particular work, the idea of what an optical image looks like can have a lasting and powerful impression on the internal, mind’s eye of an artist)
In the talks I’ve given for NVIDIA, I’ve often mentioned a fact also mentioned by Hockney — the sudden appearance, a bit before 1500 AD, of well-defined shadows in painting, quickly leading to full-on chiaroscuro and the Caravaggistes. Whether you agree with Hockney’s optical assertions or not is immaterial on the point that at that time in history, Western painting clearly changed — not just in visual styling or “look,” but also, one way or another, in the execution-related mental processes of the artists and the physical tasks that lead up to setting color to canvas with paint.
Ben Lifson was at probably the one who started me on reading older art books, in his recommendation of Wolfflin’s turn-of-the-century Drawings of Albrecht Dürer and then John Ruskin’s The Laws of Fesole and the Delacroix Journals. Now, the Poore.
As I read these I naturally ask myself: is my interest in these works revealing (or creating) in myself a hopelessly-regressive, conservative aethestic? Could be, though I have my doubts, if only because I read everything: from Wolfgang Tillmans vague mumbling to the self-important declarations of William Mortenson (e.g. “one must always light from the front”).
I find Poore fascinating in his analysis of the art he understands, and he’s able to see past it — in the 1913 book he cautiously embraces Cubism and even the boisterous Futurism (of “the Futurist”: “we would rather see him than hear him” heh). His view is lenient, ready, and even eager to welcome the Next Big Thing. While the Art World of today is so narcisstically involved in convincing itself that everything it does is New in a haughty, dismissive way that claims to supercede the past while at the same time longing for the past’s authority, when I see through Poor’es looking-glass over the principles and methods and practices of the past I get the strong impression not of Great Revolution through the past century (as we were relentlessly taught at CalArts) but of mere fluttering changes in fashion set against a long and largely continuous history. Poore closes The Conception of Art by quoting (his friend?) Edmond Gosse:
Before my tale of days is told
Oh may I watch, on reverent knees,
The ‘Unknown Beauty’ once unfold
The magic of her mysteries!
New arts, new raptures, new desires
Will stir the new-born souls of men;
New fingers smite new-fashioned lyres —
And O, may I be listening then.
Shall I reject the green and rose
Of opals with their shifting flame,
Because the classic diamond glows
With luster that is still the same?
Change is the pulse of life on earth;
The artist dies, but Art lives on.
New rhapsodies are ripe for birth
When every rhapsodist seems gone.
So to my day’s extremity,
May I in patience infinite
Attend the beauty that must be
And, though it slay me, welcome it.