Drawing from the Past
Introduction to 'Past and Present' exhibition catalogue
`To me there is no past or future in art’, said Picasso, `- if a work of art cannot live always in the present, it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past, perhaps it is more alive today than ever it was.’
This broadly speaking, is the view of many artists (though probably not of most art historians).
Artists like art. That they do is one reason why they are artists, and there is no better way of savouring art than by drawing it. The main reason artists draw from the masters is that they love them, and they are inclined to draw what they love, especially if they like drawing a lot. Art is, for artists, a way of life and we must not always be looking for a conscious or clearly formulated reason for their everyday activities. Sometimes a ‘copy’ is made simply ‘for something to draw’, at other times as a preferable alternative to some other activity, like doing the income tax return (on the same desk as the postcard you turn out to be drawing). Artists draw to experience and understand their subject, whether imagined or looked at; they also draw to make something (the drawing), or even just to relieve an itch in the fingers as Dufy put it. In the past it was natural for artists to want to experience and understand the works of the masters by drawing them, and so it still is today for some.
Expressive art is comprised of two things: that which is expressed, the subject, and the means of its expression – the work of art itself. An artist, therefore, has to discover his subject, and how to give it permanence in a work of art. The fact that for a true work of art the subject and its means of expression are inseparable; that the subject cannot be completely known, and certainly cannot be described, other than by the work; and that the efficacy of the ‘work cannot be judged without reference to that which it is expressing – does not mean that at a slightly more generalised level an artist cannot think about subject matter and the means of its expression separately. An artist might draw or paint from the work of a master in order to find out about the master’s subject – to share the master’s experience as far as possible, or to find out about how the master has managed to give that subject expression, what sort of pictorial language he has used, what is his style and the reasons for it. The chances are he will want to know about both, though which is his primary interest may affect the sort of copy he makes. An artist whose main interest is in the `language’ of the master, how he uses design, how he composes within the rectangle, how he orders his tones and colours, is more likely to make a copy with a close relationship to the surface pattern of the original. The divisions, intervals, shapes and rhythms of the master’s patterns will be what such an artist is trying to discover and understand, together with, of course, the master’s reasons for arriving at them. In this exhibition Euan Uglow’s drawings and paintings would seem to be of this type.
An artist whose main concern is to share the master’s experience of his subject might be more inclined to take Cezanne’s advice to Emile Bernard when he wrote of drawing from the Venetians in the Louvre, ‘But you should draw, as if you were drawing from nature . . I understand this to mean that you should look at the painting until it seems real to you, and then draw the forms in light and space just as you would if they were actually there in front of you. This explains why Cezanne’s drawings made from paintings are so inaccurate with regard to surface pattern, and why these inaccuracies are like the divergence from linear perspective in the drawings and paintings Cezanne made from nature. An artist drawing from a master in this spirit might expect to discover his own surface pattern arising out of his attempt to share the experience given to him by the master, and feel that his allegiance to the master was only to the experience and not to the master’s pattern even though this pattern is the medium for the experience. The drawings of Leon Kossoff would seem to be particularly fine examples of this sort of concern. In practice it is not at all a matter of clearly distinct alternatives and all artists drawing out of a love of, or an interest in, a master will be concerned with both the master’s design, and what the design is expressing. He may approach the master with a particular interest, and can only approach him by means of his own perceptual and comprehending apparatus, but he will want to be surprised and make discoveries.
It is my belief that looking at the different drawings, paintings and sculpture in this exhibition will help us in the future to have a greater understanding and enjoyment of the masters. It will also help us to understand what it is that particularly concerns the individual artists represented in this exhibition so that we may address ourselves to their work more profitably (be less inclined to complain about the batsman’s follow through or the field setting, when we are, in fact, watching a game of hockey, so to speak). Lastly, since what this exhibition enables us to share in is fifteen different lives devoted to exploring the world through sight, I believe that we will leave it better equipped to enjoy the visual fruits of both art, and the world around us.
Sargy Mann, 1988