Quietly Great

In a comment on the last post Chris Murray brought up the ghosts of Williams Etty & Orpen and it’s been bugging me to the point that I’ve not been able to write anything since. However  being bugged is good- it shifts the ice pack in my brain.

In the take it or leave it stakes I’m definitely for leaving Etty: slick, salacious and pornographic. But Orpen‘s a very different painter, objective, warm & humorous. Last year Tate Liverpool had a wonderful show of 20th Century drawing called Tracing the Century and, for me, one of the high spots was a group of anatomy teaching drawings by the man. They were assured, informative and, above all, impressive as large (big!) pieces of performative drawing.What’s more they felt utterly modern, of now as much as of the early 20th century.

Anatomical Study, Male Torso c.1906 by Sir William Orpen 1878-1931 William Orpen, Male figure, Chalk on paper, 112x80cm  1906

Orpen was a contemporary of William Nicholson (Ben’s more talented dad and a real favourite of mine),  and Henry Tonks.

Tonks was a remarkable character. Trained originally as a surgeon he taught painting at the Slade school between the late 1890’s and the outbreak of the first world war, when he returned to medicine. At the end of the war he produced a remarkable series of pastel drawings (in the Gillies Archive) of soldiers with facial injuries and the subsequent reconstruction.

tonks FoBHenry Tonks, Pastel drawings, c1918

There is no sense of subjectivism here; individualistic expression or lack of attention would not only be an insult but render the purpose of these drawings redundant. They are a very modern record of the results of modern industrialised warfare and are as fresh and as relevant to conflicts today as they were then.

Tonks went back to the Slade after the war and became professor of painting. He taught Stanley Spencer,  Gwen & Augustus John, David Bomberg and William Coldstream amongst many others.

Tonks, Nicholson and Orpen were people of their time, late Victorians and Edwardians, confident and certain in the idea of objectivity, that there is really only one true way of seeing the world.  At the same time they were aware of and being  influenced by the work of the French realists, the impressionists and Cezanne and others.

There was a quiet greatness about these painters but ( and this is where I become uncertain) I am not sure that it is possible to work in this way to the same effect today. All artists are made by their times and circumstances. A realist (such as  J-F Millet or Courbet) working in France in the mid 19thC would have had a whole range of ideological and social concerns driving their work; Edwardian painters in London would have had another set of social & economic influences.

Since then the main thrust of artistic discourse has been away from description and towards investigating how art interacts with ideas (doesn’t it always, anyway?): cubism, surrealism,  Duchamp; into the post World War 2 years, when the (expressionistic)USA played out its ideological opposition to the (stuffy & socialist realist) USSR in a series of individualistic gambits about “freedom”. I over simplify but, along with all that and the accompanying technological changes, it’s no wonder that the same drawing done in 1906 will have a totally different meaning to one done in 2013.

We live, so I’ve been told, in a plural culture where all artistic positions are relevant. That doesn’t mean anyone will take any notice, however, and it might seem that the only arbiter of worth is the market. But I do know that every time someone takes up a pencil with serious intent and concentration they will make a drawing which is of that specific moment and that particular place and has just as much chance of reaching out to another human conciousness as the drawings of Orpen & Tonks.

(I have just discovered how to do links- I do hope it adds something)

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Quietly Great

  1. Chris Murray

    Yes I can agree with you on this. Indeed I need to hear it. It tempers my own response to the current situation you lucidly apprise a response veering toward the academic; a pseudo academic, since I have no formal links with any academic institution. I have gathered as I can from informal conversation and personal study what I can of these systems but I am still as anyone else ‘on my own’ in this business of ‘self’ making that has become our lot rather than freedom. How any of this will, or can even, reach ‘another human consciousness’ without a consensus making body of some kind is where I become uncertain.

    • two thoughts I had today from your reply
      1) “The act of painting is about one heart telling another heart where he found salvation.” ~ Francisco Goya
      2) The observer of a drawing/painting cannot to be confused with the maker. However one who draws/paints is in the singular position of being both. It’s interesting that modern psychology does not accept that one thought may observe another; one is merely followed by the next. Yet, deep buried in my memory is the zen koan (probably via Alan Watts) “can the mind know itself?”. This suggests that, rather than guilty of solipsism or even onanism, the painter is in a uniquely privileged and special position.

      This kind of takes it out of the social/cultural field.
      Just a couple of thoughts

  2. Janey

    ‘The act of painting’ – it can be linear and non-linear. On a time-line, in the process of making, generating some circuitous, personal meanings, not always articulated by word-thoughts, but by other kinds of imaginings and choices – and external factors un-related to the hands-on doing.
    Other people may also experience the work as a sensory imprint, drifting past the retina. They may also have a response as an idea about its meaning, or maybe at a later date, depending on the loops of memory and circumstance.

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