As I settle in to my late seventies, like many of my age I have a tendency to look back and remember earlier times with tinges of regret and affection. My niece turned 60 recently and I have memories of driving her in my Morris Minor when she was around 18 months old, sitting on the front seat not secured by a seat belt let alone in a capsule, to see my future parents in law. How times have changed, mainly for the better I think in that regard.
My craft of painting places me the art world and in the early 1960’s as a budding artist I painted in the cubist manner and eschewed any ideas of traditional painting as old hat and outdated. I got the smell of oil paint, linseed oil and gum turpentine in my nostrils and have wielded the brush ever since. I knew then that I needed to learn to paint rather than pose as an artist and almost accidentally fell into a school teaching traditional realist painting from life. The wonderful perfume of those materials permeated that studio and I found that I enjoyed the discipline required to become competent in this craft.
So how has this world that I now inhabited changed? It is not the most progressive of worlds. Some of the materials have improved I guess but the biggest change has been in the people inhabiting that world. Whilst unavoidable these changes have not been advantageous in my opinion as this change alongside the rise of the internet is slowly destroying traditional realist painting in its pure sense.
The motto of the Victorian Artists’ Society, of which I am a fellow is ‘Ars Longa Vita Brevis’ and translates roughly as art lives forever but life is short’ and whilst the work of painters and sculptors etc. endures the artists die and are mostly forgotten.
Of course some artists are perennial and their work commands extraordinary amounts of money at auction but is the high price for the work itself or for what it represents? The further away we are from the times of Leonardo the more the dollar value of his work rises until it is out of reach to all but a very select few. Even the great galleries of the world can raise the funds to buy them. Why is this?
In a recent Netflix documentary, Fran Lebowitz in an interview with Martin Scorsese points out that at an auction of a work by Pablo Picasso the room does not applaud the work, they applaud the price. This shows the type of people who attend such events and their priorities but it shows how much works of art have become commodities whose monetary value out ranks the quality of the work itself.
Academics and such search for ever more meanings in the brush strokes of great painters in their quests for their fame or a PhD. They add to the mix of gossip and innuendo confusing the art loving public into thinking that these human beings had some special quality or magic power rather than concentrating on the hard work and dedication necessary to produce great work. Sure, some painters have led what could be called romantic and exciting lives but in essence, hard slog is what produced the results.
The idea of the artist starving in a garret or living on coffee and absinthe among prostitutes in the Latin Quarter of Paris may seem romantic to us in the twenty first century but most died young and in penury, never to benefit from the madly inflated prices of the their works being achieved today. Their stories, like the prices of their paintings have been exaggerated beyond belief by curators and dealers. All grist to the mill, I suppose.
I realised some time ago that my work could never approach the quality and appeal of many those who have preceded me. I also realise that this is mainly due to the fact that i was never driven enough to put the necessary work in. Given the advantages that I have had in terms of instruction and support I feel more than a tinge of regret and a deal of shame but one thing I have achieved is that I have passed on the knowledge generously given by my teachers and mentors to a number of my students of whom I feel rightly proud.
Of late I find that new students who have had previous instruction whether privately or in an art college have little or no knowledge of the basics of the craft of painting. They seem not to have been taught to recognise the degrees of tonal or colour variation or even to measure. it used to be a joke amongst students that teaching in some of our institutions consisted of receiving a set of materials from the teacher and being told to go and create. Nothing about the materials is taught apart from the dangers owing to OH&S requirements A joke no longer apparently!