1 THE RESTORATION OF VENUS THE NUDE, BEAUTY AND MODERNIST MISOGYNY Exegesis Maureen Kay Kane BA (hons) Queensland College of Art Griffith University Exegesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of Visual Arts March 2010
3 Abstract The title of this project is intended to convey the main thrust of my studio research, in which I articulate a series of female nudes in an Australian landscape. It is also, however, a response to Wendy Steiner s book, The Exile of Venus: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th-Century Art, which argues that, in many respects, the history of elite art in the twentieth century is one of resistance to the female subject as the symbol of beauty. Steiner traces this resistance to Kant s theory of the sublime in art, whose effect was to identify feminine beauty with impurity, an identification taken to extremes by avant-garde modernists whose art, in the words of abstract expressionist Barnett Newman, sought to destroy beauty. The result was art that, in Steiner s words, turned the female subject from paragon into a monster, an animal, an exotic, a prostitute in the name of purity and civilized values. I argue that modernism s quest for purity was actually a quest for truth which took art in two broad directions: a) toward increasing abstraction and minimalism that sought the unadorned pure forms that underpin all art, giving it value; and b) toward the deliberate portrayal of abject ugliness on the assumption that reality was, after all, not beautiful and that truthfulness therefore demanded that we represent it as it was. The first path is not (necessarily) inimical to beauty, but the rejection of beauty by the latter caused not just a rejection of the female form as symbol, but, as Steiner claims, a misogynistic denigration of woman that led to a century of pornography, shock and alienation in work that often provoked anger and outrage. Although I had commenced my nudes-in-the-landscape project some years before reading Steiner s work, her analysis offered me an explanation for my own alienation from much of the modern art world, with what seemed to me its repeated and deliberate perversions. It also helped confirm and support my persistent interest, not only in pursuing traditional modes of art practice, but in creating works intended to be beautiful. If the twentieth century proved that art need not be beautiful to be art, it nevertheless did not succeed in expunging the human desire for and responsiveness to beauty, certainly not in the female form which became more blatantly deployed, often in debased form, in popular culture. The challenge for an
4 artist now concerned with beauty and the female nude is to inquire how and whether the undeniable but problematic power of female beauty can any longer be used for artistic purposes. My research also inevitably raised the question of the place of theory in art. Against the theory-dominated practice of much modern art, I felt the need to defend an older idea (which I felt verified in my personal history) that theory may grow significantly out of the practice as much as the other way around. The five panels completed for this DVA project are my response to these challenges using the most traditional symbol of beauty, the female nude drawn from life. Indeed the paintings try to make an emphatic point by using multiple nudes integrated into a Queensland rainforest landscape and painted on such a scale as to envelop the viewer. This exegesis expounds this work by explaining first the artist and her artistic trajectory, with both her persistent and developing concerns, and second the means and methods she employed to try to achieve the strong but implicit structure of composition that must support any work that aspires to beauty. Statement of Originality This work has not previously been submitted for a degree or diploma in any university. To the best of my knowledge and belief, the exegesis contains no material published or written by another person except where due reference is made in the exegesis itself. Signed:. Kay Kane 2010
5 i CONTENTS List of Illustrations Acknowledgments ii iii Introduction 1 Section 1: The Paintings 7 Section 2: The Artist and Her Intentions 10 Section 3: Means and Methods 29 Conclusion 43 Bibliography 47
6 ii List of Illustrations Plates 1. Kay Kane, The Restoration of Venus 2. Kay Kane, Mouth of Noosa River 3. Kay Kane, Shaft of Light, Springbrook 4. Kay Kane, Minnippi Drawing 5. (a) Kay Kane, Nude Study (b) Kay Kane, Nude Study 6. (a) Kay Kane, Limited Palette (warm) Study (b) Kay Kane, Monochromatic (cool) Study 7. Kay Kane, Rock Formations 8. Kay Kane, Nude Climbing 9. Kay Kane, Reclining Nude 10. J. van Eyck, Arnolfini Marriage 11. Kay Kane, Male Nude 12. D. Velázquez, Venus at her Toilet 13. (a) Kay Kane, Five Panel Analysis (the glance) (b) Kay Kane, Five Panel Analysis (vectoral) 14. (a) Kay Kane, Mouth of Noosa River (negative shapes) (b) Kay Kane, Monochrome (explicit enclosure) (c) Kay Kane, Monochrome (implicit enclosure) 15. (a) Lloyd Rees, South Coast Road (b) Kay Kane, Rock Pools 16. Kay Kane, Rushing Water 17. Kay Kane, Virtue and Power 18. Kay Kane, Springbrook Mist 19. Kay Kane, Layering Progression 20. Kay Kane, Panel 2 (limited palette, warm) 21. Kay Kane, Panel 5 (limited palette, warm)
7 iii Acknowledgments I would like to thank my supervisors, past and present: Keith Bradbury, Mostyn Bramley-Moore, Christine Kirkegard and Russell Craig for their academic guidance, my husband, John Kane, and my children Matthew and Philippa, for their patience and support.
8 iv What dazzles, in a Moment spends its spirit; What s genuine, Posterity shall inherit. Goethe Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void. Oscar Wilde I don't think of all the misery, but of all the beauty that still remains. Anne Frank All negative art protests the lack of beauty in our lives. Agnes Martin
9 1 THE RESTORATION OF VENUS: THE NUDE, BEAUTY AND MODERNIST MISOGYNY The use of the female subject as a symbol of artistic beauty still might appear a retrograde repressive enterprise. Wendy Steiner Introduction Jasper Johns, when asked what influence he thought he might have on younger artists, replied, To me, self-description is a calamity (cited Vogel 2008). Such an attitude sounds at odds with much contemporary art practice, where artists statements of the significance and meaning of their own work often seem as important, if not more important, than the work itself. Yet many artists will understand Johns reticence. It is not, I think, the product of undue modesty but rather of the fear of falsifying the complex and rather mysterious processes of artistic production. Gayford and Wright in a book of writings about art state (1998, xvii): One of the most obvious aspects of art and one of the main points to emerge from any conversation with artists, is that we are dealing here with an intuitive, and finally mysterious activity. As George Braque noted, the most important part of a work of art is the little bit that can t be explained. By trying to reduce what is essentially unsayable to handy formulas or trite categorizations, one risks being untrue to work whose meaning, if it has any, lies wholly within itself and nowhere else. The meaning of a negligible work is exhausted at a glance, and further explanation is superfluous; a great work may inspire a thousand enlightened commentaries without exhausting its meaning, again rendering explanation strictly superfluous. And yet artists inevitably talk about art practice and artworks, their own and those of others, and occasionally must be prepared to respond to the great Why? of a puzzled public. The task for someone writing a DVA exegesis is to find a way of describing their own products and practice in a way that avoids either triteness or mystification. My intention is to address as directly as possible the goal that I have
10 2 been striving toward over several years of concentrated studio work. In the following pages I will try to do this by explaining both the what and the why of my endeavour and, as importantly, the how. I have learnt from my own and other artists experience, as well as from much reading and teaching, that the what, the why and the how are neither as simple nor as independent of each other as may be naively assumed. It is often only in the actual doing of a work in the relentless searching and refining that comprises the how that one slowly discovers what one is really doing and why. I am inclined to think that it is only in this sustained process of discovery and organic growth that work of any depth is ever achieved. I will begin, then, with a brief outline of how I picture in general terms the relationship between artists, their aesthetic intentions and artistic methods (for want of a better label), and the meaning or significance of the works they produce. This will provide me with a kind of template for the exegesis that will explain its separate sections and allow me briefly to outline the significance of its title. As stated above, I believe that the real meaning of a work (that which gives it whatever artistic value it has) lies in itself or nowhere, and can be discovered only there by the interested observer. What I mean by this can be seen by noting a couple of consequences that flow from it. One is that the observer need know nothing about the artist who produced the work to infer or intuit its value. We know nothing of Homer and little of Shakespeare (some even doubt his authorship), but we have the work to which we eternally return. We know precious little about Vermeer, but we have the few stunning paintings that he produced in his lifetime to admire. And yet the artistic character of the artist in terms of sensibility, ingenuity, vitality, facility, perceptiveness, forcefulness, inventiveness etc is inevitably and indelibly inscribed in the work, and it is by these very qualities (or lack of them) that we judge it. The other consequence of the intrinsic nature of artistic meaning is that the value of a work cannot be imposed, so to speak, from without. Whatever extra-artistic significance the subject matter may have for the individual artist whether political, moral, philosophical or even art theoretical this does not and cannot by itself guarantee the meaningfulness of the work. Unless these values or interests are transmuted into genuine artistic values in the art process, the consequent product will induce nothing but boredom or irritation in the intelligent observer. T.S. Eliot argued
11 3 that the more completely an artist can separate his creative mind from his own suffering, passionate self the better artist he will be, for then his mind will be better able to digest and transmute the passions which are its material (Eliot 1920, 48). Everything depends, therefore, on the manner and success of work that will inevitably reflect a particular sensibility. One has only to view the Hitchcock version of Psycho alongside the frame-by-frame remake by Gus van Sant to see that the dramatic success of the first cannot be reduced to an effective script, particular choice of camera angles or musical score. It is obvious that these two consequences of the intrinsic nature of artistic value are closely connected. In judging a finished work of art we certainly endeavour to categorise the artist in terms of choice of subject, medium, approach and so on. We also judge the depth and validity of their artistic intentions and, as importantly, their skill and success in realising those intentions. And although these are separate judgements, they are highly interdependent, a fact of the first importance when discussing my own work. Many historical works depicting the female nude have, whatever technical skill particular artists may have exhibited, clearly been painted with prurient intentions, which in my eyes devalues the beauty and substance of the female form. My own work, as I hope is clear, is informed by no such intention (though I must foreshadow here an important distinction between the prurient and the erotic, the latter being essential to my, and perhaps all, art as I will elaborate further below). We have therefore what I will call an artistic trinity: (a) an artist of particular character, capacities and intentions; (b) the means and methods of his or her working to realise those intentions; and (c) the final work that is the product of these to be placed before some public for judgment. I label this a trinity because the three elements are distinct yet so intimately interconnected as to form a singular artistic identity. The religious overtones are appropriate if they indicate the possibility of a certain spiritual purpose in art. Such a purpose can be explicated by comparing almost any art work with the production of a commercial television advertisement, to which the same trinity might seem to apply, if more trivially. In the latter we inevitably distinguish a commercial intention from an artistic one. However professional and effective an ad may be, however sophisticated the artifice it employs, its utilitarian function (it is after all trying
12 4 to sell us something) excludes it from the domain of art proper, whose purposes are ideally non-utilitarian. Some advertisements show us that art, or at least artful practices, can be used for communicative purposes, but I do not believe it is the central purpose of art (apart perhaps from the art of the political cartoonist) to deliver simple, straightforward messages. Susanne Langer writes: The essential function of art is not communication; for in communication the first requisite is always that the meaning which the recipient finds in the mediating symbol is the meaning the user intended (Langer 1988, 51). In the case of the artful ad, the intended message is the superiority or desirability of the product advertised, and if this can be read more than one way then the advertisers have clearly failed in their task. I believe that this presents a problem for works that aspire to be fine art but whose central intention is to preach or teach some unmistakable political or ideological message; didactic intentions too often overwhelm artistic ones. Christopher Allen (2008) puts this point (which is similar to Eliot s) very forcefully: talk is cheap in art, and the only ideas that have true weight in painting as in literature are those that have been fully assimilated and realized in the very handling of the subject matter and the shaping of the imaginary world. Such insights reach deep into the mind of the viewer; unassimilated ideology merely preaches to the converted and flatters the artist s sense of self importance. Nevertheless art must communicate something if it is to mean anything. Wassily Kandinsky (whose work over time moved closer and closer to pure abstraction), responded to modernists who insisted that the value of art lay in the achievement of pure form by arguing that: The artist must have something to communicate, since mastery over form is not an end but, instead, the adapting of form to internal significance That is beautiful which is produced by internal necessity, which springs from the soul (cited Steiner 2001, 109). But art springing from the soul may communicate many things, not subsumable under a single category of experience and probably not reducible even to a single stated intention of the artist. It is in the nature of effective art, I believe, that what it communicates will differ according to the dispositions and predispositions of the receiver. According to Langer, even artists
13 5 themselves may experience a feeling of self-estrangement confronting their own work at a later period, and ask: Did I compose that? (Langer 2008, 51). Such thoughts inevitably take us into the contested terrain of art theory and its relation to art practice. Here the meaning, purposes or necessary means of art are endlessly debated. Indeed ever since Marcel Duchamp, art has ostensibly been whatever the artist says it is. 1 It is assumed in the anything goes milieu of our postmodern age that no definitive set of standards can be applied to distinguish art from non-art, or even good art from bad art. This might be acceptable if artists and critics practised what they preached and agreed to live and let live, but in fact almost all of them fiercely defend definite views about what art is and should be, what is defensible and what is not, what should be despised and what admired. The trouble is that any definite position can inevitably be contradicted. British artist Robyn Denny once said to me that art, to be worth anything, must be subversive, yet that standard would rule out much wonderful art whose intentions, at different cultural and historical moments, have been consoling, inspiring, confirming, tragic or joyful. 2 Again, the trajectory of art since modernism has famously been toward the new, a cult both fostering and fostered by the contemporary chaos of art in which novelty itself becomes a standard, sometimes the only viable standard. Yet novelty is not originality (a much more complex notion), and the merely new is old tomorrow, providing no basis for the kind of secure judgment that, despite everything, we human beings always seek and possibly need to make. 3 My own instinctive attitude to theory is much like that expressed by Cézanne: Not theories! Works of art! Men can get lost in theories. It takes a hell of a lot of energy, an almost inexhaustible vitality, to resist them (Doran 2001, ). 4 It has to be accepted, nevertheless, that it is nearly impossible to look at a piece of 1 But according to Roger Lipsey (1988, 115): Duchamp s ideas are Zen without Enlightenment, a brilliant movement of negation, an emptying that did not know how to continue. 2 It is true of course that even art with such alternative purposes might subvert traditional practices or expectations, intentionally or not. But subversive is a very loaded term that belongs specifically to the ideological context of modern art, and it cannot be properly analysed apart from the whole history of modernism and post-modernism. 3 I would concur with Christopher Allen s (2009) comment that Authenticity and identity arise from the integrity of practice rather than the self-conscious pursuit of difference. 4 Maurice Denis claimed that all of Matisse s generation were not so much theoreticians, they believe more in the power of instinct. Richard Schiff (1984, 58) comments on this: In other words, they were or wished to be spontaneous finders, not premeditative makers.
14 6 contemporary art without seeing that, whatever else it may be about, it is making some art theoretical point. It is probably impossible in this environment not to make one, wittingly or unwittingly, as one pursues one s own artistic intentions. And this brings me to the point of my exegesis, and the structure I intend to follow in declaring my own intentions and allegiances and in explicating my own methods and struggles. The final term of my trinity (above) is the artist s work, in this case my own. It is final in the sense that it is the end-product of much thought and labour, but it is of course the first and usually only thing that viewers see. Their judgments will be their own, and I, as artist, cannot foreclose on them. What I can and will do, however, in Section 1 of this exegesis, is to describe briefly my paintings before commencing to explain how they came to be. In taking a certain path in my work I have, naturally, excluded other possible paths and ways of proceeding, and to explain this I will take up, in the Section 2, the first term of the trinity, myself as artist my passions, predilections (even prejudices), my artistic intentions and so on. Specifically, I shall explain how I chose as the title of my exegesis The Restoration of Venus in response to a book I read near the end of my studio research, Wendy Steiner s The Exile of Venus: The Rejection of Beauty in 20 th -Century Art. Steiner argues that much twentieth-century art resisted the female subject, particularly the nude, as a symbol of beauty. She traces this resistance to Kant s theory of the sublime, whose identification of feminine beauty with impurity was taken to extremes by avant-garde modernists. This defines the inherent misogyny in modernist work that Steiner attacks. My interpretation differs from Steiner s in seeing the modernist s quest as thrusting in two different directions, one toward an ideal of purity in increasing abstraction and minimalism, the other toward the deliberate portrayal of ugliness that truthfulness seemed to demand (if reality is indeed not beautiful). Yet the female subject fared no better in either mode, since feminine beauty post-kant could no longer be identified with either purity or truth. The result, as Steiner writes, was art in which the female subject is turned into a monster an animal, an exotic, a prostitute and killed off in the name of purity and civilized virtues (Steiner 2001, 18). The rejection of beauty was thus not simply a rejection of the female form as symbol, but a misogynistic denigration of woman that led to a century of pornography, shock and alienation. My image of restoring Venus, then, implies a general rejection of this misogynistic modernist tendency. In Section 3, I will describe the inventions and explorations, both technical and spiritual (to use an obviously loaded word), through which I strove to realise this
15 7 project s aims. In a short conclusion, I will reflect on some of the perhaps less obvious lessons that I have learnt during this challenging but ultimately rewarding journey. Section 1: The Paintings My doctoral research involves the investigation and combination through pictorial invention of two traditional genres in visual art, the nude (which my introduction has chiefly addressed) and the landscape. The landscapes are developed through primary drawing experience in situ; the nudes are drawn from life in the studio and subsequently integrated into the landscape design through a series of pictorial devices. Drawing has always been crucial to the evolution of my work as drawing and painting are, for me, inextricably linked. Some drawings were pivotal because they explored the concepts of shape and enclosure which became fundamental to my practice (in a way explained in Section 3). These are: 1. Mouth of Noosa River (Plate 2) 2. Shaft of Light, Springbrook (Plate 3) 3. Minnippi Drawing (Plate 4) 4. Figure drawings (Plates 5 (a) and (b)) The research developed from one particular talismanic drawing (Plate 7) produced in the first year of my DVA that lent itself to this idea (indeed it has become the centre panel of the five). From that work, I began to experiment with placing nudes in various landscape compositions guided by instinctive interest. It was out of these trial pieces that a five-panel concept evolved. Without doubt I had in mind Monet s large series of waterlilies, remembering the effect the latter had on me when I saw them in Paris in the late 1970s. From them I developed the idea of installing the paintings slightly octagonally so there would be a sense of unity within an atmosphere that was totally enveloping. The main body of work for examination thus consists of five large paintings of multi-figure female nudes situated in the landscape, both figures and landscape initially being observed and drawn from life. Figures and landscapes are configured in response to abstract and intuitive presentiments. Alongside these large works,
16 8 Plate 2: Mouth of Noosa River Plate 3: Shaft of Light, Springbrook
17 9 Plate 4: Kay Kane, Minnippi Drawing Plate 5a: Kay Kane, Nude Study Plate 5b: Kay Kane, Nude Study
18 10 two smaller variants are worked concurrently (Plates 6 (a) and (b)), creating crossfertilization, though each version has a different thrust by virtue of the colour range employed, the size, and the placement of figures. The three versions are worked in different colour harmonies. The smallest version is a cool monochrome using only Payne s grey and white, while a slightly larger series employs a warmer limited palette. The final series employs a fuller colour range than the two smaller versions. Although the structure, subject matter and composition are similar in all three series, none is exactly the same. Each has been drawn freehand from the outset, incorporating whatever individual variations may occur in the course of development. My aim in this process of free composition and assembly has been to explore and develop various pictorial conceptions that I feel are intrinsically satisfying. For me, the primary experience and empirical investigation of drawings begun from life or nature are of the first importance, yet it is also important to note the significant changes made in the transition from original studies to the drawings and paintings developed from them. The works are not, in other words, simply mimetic. The majority of my nudes are the product of shared studio sessions in the life-drawing room over a number of years, in which I only occasionally had control over the model s pose. They might thus be described as commonplace studio products somewhat in the nature of objets trouvés, whose artistic meaning derives mainly from their placement within a particular context. These nudes, life studies rather than art objects in themselves, were exploited for intrinsic qualities that assume a larger meaning when integrated into the broad landscape setting I gave them. The landscape was also taken originally from nature but required substantial imaginative modification to achieve pictorial synthesis. More will be said about this process in the following section. I now turn to a discussion of the main influences on my work and the underlying concerns and inclinations that have informed the direction the oeuvre has taken. Section 2: The Artist and Her Intentions My earliest and, I think, most formative influence in painting was my art teacher at Maryborough High School, Queensland, a Dutch immigrant trained in Holland in the
19 11 Dutch tradition, Alex Rotteveel. His teaching, with its emphasis on skills to be learnt towards the development of a visual language, remained with me into my undergraduate years in London in the 1970s and 80s. Admittedly in my foundation year at St Martin s College I flirted, like all my fellows, with abstraction and various modes of artistic experimentation, and the work I produced was often critically admired. However, by the time I reached the second year of my undergraduate degree at Central School of Art and Design I was deeply dissatisfied with it, distressed that I seemed to be learning nothing that really meant anything to me. I was at the time spending a great deal of time at the National Gallery and other art museums in London and Europe and thus gaining much closer acquaintance with art I had hitherto seen only in reproduction. In surveying this enormous, deep and complex tradition, I felt I had much to learn about how paintings I admired were made. I therefore chose, somewhat against the grain of Central teaching, to return to fundamental, traditional drawing and painting skills to explore in depth whatever anyone had to teach me. It was no doubt the remembrance of my Dutch teacher that caused me, when required to transcribe a piece of work from an Art Museum, to gravitate unhesitatingly toward Dutch Master Van Eyck s Arnolfini Marriage in the National Gallery (see Plate 10). The level of skill needed for the execution of such a painting was a challenge that I took on with enthusiasm and scarcely warranted confidence. However what I learnt about the painting process through this transcription was pivotal in guiding my general approach to personal practice. It augmented my ability to use drawing and translucent layers of paint in making a painting and increased my understanding of (among other things) the importance of the structural underpinning of a composition for successfully realising a visual concept. Since then I have persisted in exploring the methods and possibilities of traditional art practices (in view of the current unfashionableness of this route, some would say I have stubbornly persisted). I was aware quite early on of a particular attraction to rendering the nude, whether male of female, in ways that emphasised an ancient idea of beauty (as opposed to the deformations and distortions of modernism). I had read Kenneth Clark s The Nude (1970), and was fascinated by its account of the complex history of the subject in Western art. Even so I must admit, as a young woman with strong feminist instincts regarding my own and other women s rights and
20 12 situations, that this predilection was rather mysterious even to myself. Nevertheless, though I was highly conscious of the new concern for women s perspectives and had read with great interest John Berger s stringent critique of the male gaze in his influential book Ways of Seeing (1972), I persisted in indulging my predilection, grateful for the contemporary freedoms that allowed me to do whatever I wanted. The culmination of this trajectory came when I commenced the current DVA project and decided, through a step-by-step process, to undertake a series of large paintings that incorporated a variety of studio nudes into an Australian landscape. The challenge of how I would bring this off seemed to me considerable (and I will discuss it in detail in the next section), but this was not intrinsically separate from discovering the why of what I was doing. Certainly, having grown up on a Queensland farm and often drawn and painted there, I had an abiding affinity for the Australian landscape. I was particularly attracted to the Springbrook region with its variety of colour and form and the intrinsic drama of its rushing waters. This is an important element in the studio work, yet I was of course using the landscape as an armature for a broader concept incorporating the nudes. Apart from pointing to my own historical predilections, just outlined, I was at first somewhat at a loss to explain this. I always put visual responses and interests before everything else. Knowing that I was certainly not consciously attempting to illustrate any particular idea, or to explicitly defend any readily identifiable ideological position, my habit was to fall back on an insistence (noted in the Introduction) that the true meaning of a work is realised only in the work itself and therefore in the working, and cannot be imposed from without. I was comforted to come across in my reading Schopenhauer s views on art, including the assertion that the concept [i.e. the external idea] useful as it is in life, and serviceable and productive as it is in science is always barren and unproductive in art (Schopenhauer 1995, 149). This seemed, and still seems, to me true enough, yet did not feel wholly satisfactory. While adamant in maintaining that explanation of a work in progress was secondary, even inimical, to the work itself, I was profoundly aware that the subject matter of a work, while it cannot guarantee its value, can surely never be irrelevant to its meaning. There had to be a reason I had chosen one particular subject over others.
21 13 Plate 7: Kay Kane, Rock Formations
22 14 Plate 8. Kay Kane, Nude Climbing Plate 9: Kay Kane, Reclining Nude
23 15 Plate 10: J. Van Eyck, Arnolfini Marriage
24 16 I had to learn what critics already know, that the relation between a work s meaning in a superficial sense (the subject matter, the story, the situation etc.) is not necessarily the same as what it is, in an artistic sense, really about (even if the latter is never quite clearly or finally definable). 5 I was always conscious that my intense explorations in drawing and painting had some deep ulterior goal that drew me ever onward and inward, but this seemed to me quite inexpressible, at least verbally. It was here that the extensive program of reading that I took on as part of the DVA process proved ultimately of immense value. In reading things that aroused my antipathy, I had to consider why they did. In reading arguments with which I instinctively identified, I had to ask why I responded favourably. And I had to ask how both antipathies and sympathies were reflected in, and reflected upon, my own work. This was admittedly very challenging. I eventually came upon a book that seemed in explanatory sympathy with my aims, Wendy Steiner s Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th-Century Art (2001). It is in response to this text that I have entitled my project The Restoration of Venus. Steiner is a Yale graduate and now professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in the study of nineteenth to twenty-first century literature and art. In this text she dissects the complex attitudes of modernists toward both the concept of beauty and beauty s traditional symbolisation in the form of the female. Indeed, she writes, the history of twentieth-century elite art is in many respects a history of the resistance to the female subject as the symbol of beauty (Steiner 2001, xix). She cites a 1948 statement by Barnett Newman The impulse of Modern Art is to destroy beauty an enterprise he explicitly defended in an essay The Sublime is Now (ibid., 111). Steiner follows Newman in tracing the roots of this attitude to the Kantian sublime (the aesthetic model of high modernism) which displaced the charm, empathy, reciprocity, and involvement evoked by an experience of the humanly beautiful with emotions of awe, admiration and fear in the face of inhuman, chaotic, annihilating forces. She notes that in philosopher Emmanuel Kant s text, The beautiful is distinguished from the sublime through its positive pleasure, its boundedness, its charms, its furtherance of life, and its imaginative playfulness, 5 Kuspit (2004, 16) notes Duchamp s view that making art does not necessarily give the artist insight into what he makes art about, a view I think I share.
25 17 whereas the sublime is related to negative pleasures, limitlessness, reason, a check to the vital forces, a repugnance to charm (ibid., 15-16). Because the humanly beautiful is associated with love and with charm and thus inevitably with the female, it naturally engages our interests and affections and invites gratification. But this personal appeal marks it, in Kant s view, as impure compared to the experience of the more masculine sublime, which discovers a disinterested and thus purer beauty in the heroic encounter with impersonal forces that threaten all one s private interests. 6 Kant allowed that the experience of the humanly beautiful was as legitimate as that of the beauty of the sublime, but the modernist avant-garde, says Steiner, heard only his metaphoric undertones and identified feminine beauty with impurity outright. The result was art in which the female subject is turned into a monster an animal, an exotic, a prostitute and killed off in the name of purity and civilized virtues (ibid., 18). It is true that the disappearance of representations of women as symbols of beauty or pleasure coincided with the disappearance of all illusionistic subject matter, as abstractionism (the extreme case of the search for purity) displaced representation. But Steiner notes that woman was not just any other subject. Eliminating her from art was the most programmatic way to reveal the logic of the sublime, to divorce the avant-garde from bourgeois values, and to dismantle the ideology of female value enshrined in chivalric romance (ibid., 35). The rejection of beauty was not just a rejection of the female form as symbol, but a misogynistic denigration of woman that in late modernism, she says, led to a century of pornography, shock and alienation in work that often provoked anger and outrage: People wondered why art should trade beauty for vulgarity, primitivism, disorientation (ibid., 74). But the triumph of the avant-garde was to create a mutual trap for artist and public. Artists feel they must shock; audiences in the know feel they must applaud shock. The thrill of repulsion has become a positive and sought-after experience in itself, a nihilistic sublime in which horror, disgust, and lack of sympathy are expected ends (ibid., 95). This was a one-way power model, in which the art work 6 The other great writer informing our Western tradition of the sublime was Edmund Burke, whose work Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) formed the basis of Kant s own analysis. Burke associated the beautiful with qualities like balance, smoothness, delicacy and colour, while the sublime he associated with terms like vastness and terror. For Kant the sublime marked a (superior) form of beauty, while Burke seemed to distinguish it from beauty altogether.
26 18 was reduced to the status of a thing, a fetish, a nullity, leaving the perplexed and ungratified viewer no choice but to see the artist as the real centre of attention. If perceivers experienced any pleasure or transport in contemplating such cerebral, alienating works, they could credit the artist s genius, or perhaps his uncompromising honesty in presenting this minimal pleasure as all that modern life could afford (ibid., xxii). But the uncompromising honesty of the genius artist too easily slips, it seems to me, into shallow cynicism. For instance, young British artist Damien Hirst discontinued his production line of giant dissected sharks and crucified cows in 2009 after making a fortune with them at auction, and returned to painting expressionistic, somewhat symbolistic works that were really quite conventional. An interviewer suggested to Hirst that, in his previous chasing of money, power and success, he had actually been playing with the art market as a sort of canvas a forgiving rationale that Hirst accepted with a nod to Andy Warhol who had granted permission for that sort of thing. But it had to end, he said, it wasn t something one could carry on with. It s almost like you ve been flirting or courting with the devil or something. Not even the devil, but definitely the darkest forces in the art world (Boldizar 2009, 7). A despised philistine art world that apparently deserved whatever it got when it let itself be conned, for Hirst asserted: I love the fact that before this recession loads of people were buying my work, buying and selling, and now it s worth less than they bought it for (ibid., 19). Steiner s work offered me an explanation for my own alienation from much of this modern art world with its repeated and deliberate perversions. It seemed to me that if one should ask what Hirst s production line works were really about, one would have to say they were about nothing other than playing the art game as currently constituted. 7 I am aware that my own work might indeed be called reactionary insofar as it reacts against such seemingly cynical mores, but that would be a merely negative description. I would prefer the label conservative in the best sense of conservatism, which assumes something venerable worth conserving. Certainly, the very conventionality of my painstaking approach to art-making sets it at 7 Dennis Dutton speaks of high kitsch that is entirely fake and parasitic but demands solemnity and high seriousness, and notes that Tracey Emin s unmade bed or Damien Hirst s shark in formaldehyde smell suspiciously of kitsch, as does the turgid prose of critics who take them so seriously (Dutton 2009, 242).
27 19 odds with much current art convention, which sees the acquisition of expertise in drawing and painting, or painting itself, as hopelessly outdated. Yet my work falls readily within earlier traditions of Australian painting and I am comforted by the awareness that there are artists in Australia (such as Tim Johnson and William Robinson) who even now believe in the continuing efficacy of painting. (And it is curious in this regard that Hirst himself should some years ago write affirming the value of painting for himself: I always wanted to be a painter I was overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities of painting. I think it s got something to do with the void, the void of the blank canvas where anything and everything is possible ; in Gayford and Wright 1998, 474). I am comforted too by artists like the American James Doolin, a former abstractionist who moved into illusionistic painting out of a concern with beauty. In his own words: Beauty was one of the biggest taboos during modernism. Barnett Newman was only one of many who felt that beauty was bourgeois or sentimental.... In my earliest days of making abstract Artificial Landscape paintings, I tended to be cautious with beauty. Many of my decisions were driven by a strong anger toward the ugly nature of our industrial society. I made the paintings as intensely shocking and ugly as I could with strongly dissonant combinations of commercial hues that violently clashed. Looking back on my life as a painter, I now believe that color and beauty have always been most important to me (cited in Hickson 2001). The acquisition of skills cannot, of course, be an end in itself. Like the hard-won technical skills of the dancer and musician, they have to be put to work in realising some artistic intention. Steiner helped me to an awareness that my work was a vehicle for a larger intention, a restatement of the importance of beauty in the case of the present work in its most obvious and traditional form, the female nude. If this had previously been difficult for me explicitly to admit, it was perhaps that, as this author wrote, Embarrassed by our yearning for beauty, we demean it as something tawdry, self-indulgent, or sentimental (Steiner 2001, 32). If beauty is my concern, however, is it not necessary to define what I mean by beauty before continuing? I could, of course, simply refer to the Oxford Dictionary
28 20 definition, which states that beauty is a combination of qualities that pleases the aesthetic senses. But since the aesthetic senses are simply those that respond to beauty, this definition is perfectly circular. Its circularity points, however, to the philosophical difficulty of adequately defining beauty, one that has been argued over without finality since Plato s time. Umberto Eco, in his book on the history of beauty, notes this problem of definition at the start and states that therefore: we shall not start off from any preconceived notion of Beauty: we shall review those things that, over thousands of years, human beings have considered beautiful (Eco 2004: 10). In his companion volume On Ugliness (2007), Eco argued that ugliness has been defined through the ages only as the opposite of beauty, and it is enough for my purposes that, however much people dispute over particulars, they agree in general that the distinction is a real one (even those who claim to find beauty in the ugly must at least first identify the ugly). Since the point of my exegesis lies in the contrast with the conscious rejection of beauty by many modern artists a point made not just by Steiner but by other critics like Fuller (1988), Zangwill (2001), Hicks (2004), Scruton (2009), Smee (2009) I will take it that people are capable of making the distinction whether they can adequately define the terms or not. A more urgent question, perhaps, for one who has chosen the traditional lifemodel as a central element of their work lies in Steiner s observation that, so far, it has been hard to disconnect beauty from objectivization and oppression (Steiner 2001, 130). Steiner herself grapples, somewhat inconclusively, with this latter issue. Can the model who presents her body for study retain her independent subjectivity while becoming an object for idealist abstraction? Steiner writes: The model a person who poses is an important link between reality and artwork, since she is both a human being and an idealization, abstraction, representation of herself. She is reality mobilized for art, her appearance participating in both realms If an artist is a woman, if her work represents a woman, and if the audience is made up of women and men-therefore-invitedto-see-as-women, then the female model dominates the aesthetic situation. Other factors are set to her; she models them, enacting both passive and active
29 21 roles creating, watching, being watched, being made. This idealized real woman becomes the essence of the aesthetic experience (ibid., 220). As a female artist who paints the female nude, this seems to me profoundly misleading. Certainly, when I am in control of the studio I work in partnership with my models (whether male or female), the best of whom enjoy being inventive in suggesting and adopting poses. There is no contradiction in being an active participant in one s own objectification (and holding even a passive pose for any length of time requires active strength and discipline). Yet it does not follow that the model dominates the aesthetic situation. Only the artist can do that, whether the artist is male or female. Artists control the images they produce, and their aim may have nothing to do with idealisation. If I represent a woman to other women or to meninvited-to-see-as-women (whatever that may mean), it is because I have chosen to do so. Realist painter Jenny Saville would no doubt choose something quite different and far more confrontational (see Nochlin 2006, ) irrespective of what the model might do or think. Naturally I prefer that models be treated with respect and civility rather than bullied by a domineering artist, but the issue is really beside the point. Steiner s central concern and puzzle is how to reconcile the ideal of woman symbolised as beauty with the lived reality of women s lives. Obviously, she says, women do not want to retreat from the advances made over the last century in claiming their rights as independent subjects rather than mere objects of men s gaze, desire, possession and power (a feminist aim, she notes, to which the misogynistic avant-garde was either indifferent or opposed). And we surely must recognise the difference between real flesh-and-blood women and the ideal form of woman as presented in art (or, one might add, in advertising and fashion). Yet, she says, our thinking about women is so entangled with notions of art and beauty that we cannot simply deny the connection (Steiner 2001, 218). How can we admit our concern for beauty without again falling to the inferior status of (merely) desired objects? It is perhaps worth remembering that there have been times in history when men have also be idealised as objects of desire (see Kenneth Clark s chapter on Apollo; 1970: 26-63), and we seem to be living in one again (no doubt more trivially) if
30 22 we take David Beckham in underpants as representative. 8 In fact, I believe it may be less difficult (partly because of this) for today s woman to separate beauty from oppression than Steiner and other critics think, and for her to combine the ideal and the real in her own person in ways that enhance rather than diminish her life. Australia, after all, produced supermodel Elle, aka the body, who is admired as much for her business acumen in controlling and exploiting her ideal image as she is for her spectacular form. She demonstrates the modern possibility that a woman can be both self-consciously iconic and a down-to-earth creature of flesh and blood, and that the public will like her all the better for it. And as the famous go, so do we all. Steiner herself observes that our appearance is a crucial part of our identity who we are or think we are psychologically so that the ideal and the real are scarcely separable even in our own minds as women. By and large, modern women have not accepted the critique of the beauty myth (the title of a best-selling 1991 book by Naomi Wolf) that dismissed the cult of unnatural female beauty as a plot by men to keep women in their place. If anything, the advent of cosmetic surgery for the masses would suggest they have rather embraced that cult of beauty with rather too much enthusiasm. These are complex matters, no doubt, and if they reveal the enduring power of the ideal they also reveal the tragedy at its heart, that beauty is immensely valued but also fleeting (giving rise, perhaps, to the impulse to art?). 9 On the question of artists models, then, I claim that it is not the model s active selfhood that is the central issue but the presentation the artist makes of her in his or her work, whether to idealise woman or, at the end of a spectrum of possibilities, to denigrate her. The gaze that initially matters is that of the artist and it is embodied in their work, which in turn is intended to determine or at least influence the viewer s gaze (whether that viewer be male or female). Steiner quotes Laura Mulvey, who acknowledges that all gazes are not alike, that there is a masculine gaze that looks at a woman s body with eyes of love, as well as one that looks at that body with a desire 8 As both and artist and woman I also find much to love in a fine male form (and have painted many; see Plate 11), but the symbolic resonances are inevitably somewhat different. 9 Arthur Krystal (2005, 86) calls beauty a mess, a sinkhole, a trap because it raises so many unanswerable problems and because no matter how much is said about it, more remains unsaid. Yet he offers the intriguing, paradoxical (anti-platonic) suggestion that: Beauty may, in fact, exist only because it disappears, because it offers a glimpse of redemption in a world where such redemption is just an idea. That's why we spend so much time talking about it.
31 23 for mastery over it (cited Steiner 2001, 219). But why not also, I ask, a feminine gaze that looks with equal love, and even awe, upon the female form and finds there beauty worthy of deep contemplation? The essential item here is the first term of the trinity I outlined in Section 1, the artist with his or her particular artistic sensibility, capacity and intention. Consider, for example, the artistic character of Velázquez as revealed in his painting the Rokeby Venus, one of the most beautiful nudes ever produced and one that I have often gazed upon in the National Gallery of London (Plate 12). 10 A one-off nude, as far as we know, undoubtedly executed at the request of a male patron who wished to look lustfully at an undraped young woman thinly masquerading as the goddess Venus. But how far and how does Velázquez aesthetically transcend this brief? The painting is erotically-charged to be sure Cupid, god of erotic love, holds the mirror that indistinctly reflects the face of Venus, reclining with her back toward us, who seems to be looking out at the viewer as if conscious of her power, a power consummately realised in Velázquez s paint. There is none of the sentimental eroticism of a seventeenth-century Boucher here, nor of the academic titillation of a nineteenthcentury Bouguereau. Velázquez s rendering diminishes neither the subject nor the viewer but rather, in its breathtaking beauty, arouses a sense of joy in life itself. Eros is the charge that ignites the picture, but it is through beauty that our affections are transported through and beyond carnal desire toward a love of fertile existence as such. To my mind, it is love writ large. Because Venus is mythically the goddess of love, the exile of beauty from modern art can also be seen as the exile of love. 11 More often than not, modern art looks upon the world (never mind the female form) with eyes less of love than of 10 It should be clear that when I talk about character in an artist I am talking about artistic, not moral, character. I well remember my own confusion years ago, as someone who admired the music of Wagner, to learn of the profound flaws in that genius s character. Michael Kimmelman (2006), noting our unfortunate tendency to expect to find a great person behind a great artist, observes with respect to Velázquez: We know that Velázquez endlessly maneuvered for status, emulating Rubens s social stardom by painting less and less, and instead cultivated his roles as royal decorator, housekeeper, curator and courtier. As such, he died a great success, in 1660, the king having visited at his bedside. Genius and humanity in art, Velázquez reminds us, may have nothing necessarily to do with elevated character, which I suppose might be some consolation at a time when the art world is so drunk with money and shallow values. If only somebody today painted half as magnificently as Velázquez. 11 Such blanket generalizations should be qualified by noting that there were important exceptions to this prevailing ethos in the Australian tradition, especially among women artists like Grace Crowley, Bessie Gibson, Jean Bellette and Daphne Mayo.
32 24 anger, irony, fear, anxiety, lust, horror, revulsion, absurdity, satire or cold analytical intention. This may be a reflection on the modern soul and the lived environment that we have built for ourselves, which is often purposely ugly in its created architecture and heedlessly ugly in its waste and exploitation of the natural environment. And yet the beautiful remains a common ideal, ironically most popularly figured in the female form as the mention of Elle McPherson reminds us. If the ideal image of the female has been all but banished from elite art, it has never ceased to exert its power and fascination at the level of popular consciousness. However debased its usage may be at this level, to deny its power would be folly. The challenge for an artist concerned with beauty is how and whether it can any longer be used for higher purposes. How, specifically, may the power of the female nude point to beauty as an ideal in the twenty-first century? No doubt my remarks on Velázquez have already prefigured an answer to that question, but in pursuing it further I must here part company with Steiner s views. In opposing beauty, with its connotations of pleasure, charm and human engagement, to the cool, impersonal purism of contemporary art, Steiner tends to (dare I say it) overfeminise and even over-domesticate the idea of beauty, as well as contentiously allying it with political egalitarianism. She commends, for example, Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard for their unfashionable association of art with the ornamental, and their comfort with an art of domesticity, femininity, charm: Modern artists, in contrast, stressed color, texture, scale, and line to insist that they were creating something essential, pure art rather than wall decorations (Steiner 2001, 62). 12 It is not my purpose to critique Steiner s views in detail. I wish only to register unease, not that beauty should be found in domesticity or in egalitarian forms, but that it should be restricted to them. 13 Beauty may be homely, but it may also break a home. Steiner underplays beauty as the vehicle of Eros whose power can stop us in our tracks, or at its flood can sweep us away, move us to our depths, arouse in us desires and longings we scarcely understand, exalt us or cause us to make utter fools of ourselves. Such power of both sweetness and pain no doubt explains why the female 12 Steiner amusingly notes that, nevertheless, there is a certain irony in the fact that Abstract Expressionism looks so good over sofas (2001, 62). 13 Regarding domesticity, I should note that I am a fan of Bonnard (not to mention of Jane Austen).
33 25 Plate 11: Kay Kane, Male Nude Plate 12: D. Velázquez, Venus at her Toilet (The Rokeby Venus)
34 26 form should become beauty s dominant symbol in male-dominated history, and why it should be alternately venerated and feared. It is possible to trace much of the social history of the West by tracing reactions to the female nude as these have waxed and waned over the years, affected by religion and fashion among other things (Cassou and Grigson 1953). Attitudes to sex and sexuality inescapably enter into the issue of the nude, whose representation has often been either taboo or, even when allowed, uncomfortably deformed and degraded by repressive moral attitudes, as in Victorian times (Myrone 2001). The first nude in our Judaeo-Christian tradition was, after all, Eve. In what then does the real power of beauty reside? Beauty the transient beauty we experience in our time-bound world, that the artist concerned with beauty tries to fix and realise in drawing, painting, sculpture etc. has historically pointed us either to an eternal realm of enduring value (Plato) or to eternal hell via the temptations of earthly love (Christianity). I prefer the former because my own research to realise beauty has led me to the view that creation (the making of something new) and discovery (of what is already there to be found) are inseparable and because the joy in the even smallest discovery feels like a glimpse of heaven. 14 This does not mean that I necessarily subscribe to religious or philosophical idealism, but rather that I believe art implies some sort of spiritual awareness. The inexplicable mystery of art referred to at the start of this exegesis, that makes a work live, directs us inevitably to the mystery of our own existence and also our future non-existence. 15 Such an attitude assumes that art points toward something real that is otherwise inexpressible, which is to say at a kind of truth. Yet the alleged association of truth and beauty made famous by poets, Keats most prominently, appears to have suffered an eclipse in modern times. 16 Indeed the whole ancient triumvirate of values 14 Richard Schiff (1984, 69) writes: The conflict and tension between a (conventional) technical means of expression and an originality of expression seems encapsulated within the broader problematic of making and finding. Schiff uses the opposition of making and finding as an integrative theme for his study of originality in the work of Cézanne and his contemporaries. 15 It has sometimes been suggested to me by art theorists that my paintings are a version of Arcadia, the idyllic, mythic Greek utopia. That was not exactly my intention, but insofar as they echo the Arcadias of Poussin in which, according to some interpretations, the shepherds simultaneously discover mortality and art in their paradise, with art implicitly a response to awareness of death I am not wholly resistant to the association (see Panofsky 1993, Ch 7). 16 See the concluding lines of Keats Ode to a Grecian Urn Beauty is truth, truth beauty whose meaning or significance has caused controversy ever since the poem was published.
35 27 beauty, truth and goodness could be argued to have succumbed entirely to the negative modern assault. I would say, however, that the central term, truth or at a least a concern for truthfulness has in fact triumphed over the others. Steiner speaks of the twentieth-century avant-garde s concern for purity, which is a form of truthfulness or reality, but she fails to distinguish between what seem to me the two broad ways in which many modernists pursued their realities. The first represented by artists like Mondrian, Malevich and other abstractionists was fundamentally Platonic, following a search for the pure ideal forms that allegedly underlie all art and give it its ultimate meaning. 17 It was assumed that these forms could be approached most closely by stripping off all the accretions of narrative, reference, representation, depth, even colour that may have pleased the human eye but distracted us from the main game. Dutton (2009, 159) traces this tendency again to Kant who, he says, set the direction for modern art-theoretical thinking in explicitly wanting to expunge from pure aesthetic experience such degrading factors as finery, mere ornamentation His philosophical followers through Clive Bell and Clement Greenberg up to the present have continued to regard pure form as what counts in art and anything else as mere cultural excrescence to be scraped off with the intellectual equivalent of a wire brush. The charming illusoriness that Western art had developed from Masaccio onward had to be overcome, and artists were severely admonished to dispense with trickery and be true to the flat canvas and so on. The end-point of the process was represented by conceptual artists who dispensed with visual forms altogether in favour of the idea alone. 18 This can be seen as a very puritanical purity indeed Concerning a relation between abstraction and truth (and à propos my reference to Arcadia in footnote 16 above), Tom Lubbock (2009) makes a curious point about Bridget Riley s new works, Arcadia 2 and 3, which comprise dancing fields of curved, landscape-hued forms suggesting a rustic idyll. They don t dazzle the eye but confuse it by assembling graspable individual elements into an ungraspable whole, for Riley s purpose is to create an experience of endlessness. It is brilliantly achieved, says Lubbock, but he can t quite believe in it, seductive though it is, for it is a kind of fantasy. It s not how the world goes. The shepherds suddenly bump into something. Their idyll is interrupted by a sense of limits. But these paintings don t encounter or recognize any limits. They go on forever. It s strange to say that an abstract work is untrue, but so it is. 18 The same could be said for tonality in music which stirred distracting human emotions and thus obscured form. Atonality purified music by stripping all emotionality from it. 19 Among notable modern formalists (often called minimalists) one might name Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly and Carl André (who observed that Art excludes the unnecessary ).
36 28 The formalists may have been extreme, but at least they were not in principle opposed to the beautiful and they held on to the notion of the importance of form in a work (which for me is foundational). 20 The other modernist way of pursuing reality, by contrast, assumed a basically Christian view of a sinful world but without the saving grace of Christ, and thus emphasised ugliness rather than purity. The clue to its rationale can perhaps be found in Friedrich Nietzsche s views on beauty, art and truth. Nietzsche thought that sensuous art did indeed aim at the Platonic ideal but that, since the ideal did not in fact exist, artistic activity was necessarily dedicated to creating illusions noble lies perhaps, but lies nevertheless to conceal the endless strife and conflict that was the true reality. For him, the beautifying, concealing and reinterpreting powers of art falsify because they mask all that is ugly. He writes: For a philosopher to say the good and the beautiful are one is infamy; if he goes on to add also the true, one ought to thrash him. We possess art less we perish of the truth (Nietzsche 1968, 435; see also Sikka 1998, 248). Nietzsche, in other words, thought we needed art s illusory beauty to help us live, but the purist modernists would not afford us that comfort, especially after experiencing the horrors of war in the first half of the twentieth century. They relentlessly confronted us with the ugliness of reality through their choice of subject matter and the invariable violence of their means, from Picasso s fracturing of form in Les Demoiselles d Avignon to Tracey Emin s soiled bed. Peter Fuller (1988, 215) cites American artist, Leon Glub, who specialised in painting US mercenaries engaged in torture and rape, as saying about his own work: These damn paintings get uglier and uglier all the time, uglier in human time, uglier in intention, to take over the ugliness that is the political reality of these common circumstances. Fuller (1987) labelled ugly art in general (which included exhibits of folded blankets, a man seated in a bath of bull s blood, used nappy liners and sanitary towels, a beach covered in polythene) anaesthetic presumably a pun indicating having no aesthetic qualities, offering no aesthetic experience and rendering the viewer s senses numb. In his book, Theoria: Art, and the Absence of Grace (1988), a work that in some ways complements 20 Newton (1962, 23) points out that this endeavour to purge beauty of irrelevances and complications has surfaced and resurfaced in the golden age of Hellenic art and in the self-conscious revivals if it in the early sixteenth, mid-seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. That being the case, the modern formalists might better be seen as extreme classicists who try to present beauty with a maximum of what used to be termed nobility.
37 29 Steiner s, he traced the rise of such art to the disenchantment of the world by scientific materialism in the nineteenth century and the consequent loss of belief that the aesthetic response to beauty formed a channel of grace to spiritual reality. I would add that, if art thus broke with aesthetics, it nevertheless kept its commitment to truth. If art was about truth, it could no longer be about beauty and goodness, for the truth was neither beautiful nor good. We are constantly reminded of this by much modern art (Hicks 2004). This was the moral foundation, I believe, of the anti-aesthetic philosophy informing much twentieth century work. Whether or not artists called themselves realists, many of them were dedicated to showing us what was allegedly the ugly reality (no doubt for our own good). 21 I do not mean to argue that all of twentieth-century art can be readily assigned either to one side or the other of this division the explosion of experiments and artistic agendas during the era produced too great a multitude of works, some of them great ones, to be so simply categorised. But one does seem to be confronted repeatedly with tendencies toward either reductive minimalism or ugliness and disorder. Nor do I pretend to know what reality ultimately is, nor Truth with a capital T, but I know I can be, and should be, true to my own experience of reality. This has included joy as well as sorrow, beauty as well as ugliness, honesty as well as dishonesty, comfort as well as fear. If I seek beauty in my own work it is because it is there in the world to be found. Many of my greatest joys in life have been found in experiencing the genuine beauties created/found by other artists throughout the ages. I shall now address the second term of my trinity the ways in which I have striven to realise my aesthetic intentions. Section 3: Means and Methods I wrote above about the difficulties of describing the subject matter of a work of art, a topic about which Walter Sickert said: The real subject of a picture or a drawing is the plastic facts that it succeeds in expressing, and all the world of pathos, of poetry, of sentiment that it succeeds in conveying, is conveyed by means of the plastic facts expressed. If the subject of the picture could be stated in words there would be no 21 Hieronymus Bosch presumably painted his horrors of hell as a warning that hell may be avoided if we pursue the path of virtue, but the moderns offered no such hope. Mostly they merely repeated the admonition not to succumb to illusion, though why not was far from clear.
38 30 need to paint it (cited Gayford and Wright 1998, xvii). This is a restatement, in part, of my original observation that the meaning of a work is in the work and nowhere else, but the final form of that work embodies a myriad of decisions and re-decisions, some large and many minute, as well as many thoughts, second thoughts, adjustments, readjustments, new starts, fulfilments and frustrations. 22 It is, in other words, the product of an active and relentless search. But a search for what? Francesca Aran Murphy has said that: Beauty is not superadded to things: it is one of the springs of their reality. It is not that which effects a luscious response in perceivers; it is the interior geometry of things, making them perceptible as forms (cited O Donohue 2004, 47). In a similar vein, Thomas Moore says: The experience of beauty is not just one of pleasantness, but the power of an image to give order and clarify (Moore 2004, 216). These express quite well my feelings about my own way of working. I feel that, whatever may appear on the surface, I am searching for some implicit inner geometry that alone can bestow upon represented forms whatever emotional force, order and reality they have. To find this geometry has required searching observation through a process that is essentially one of learning to see, or rather learning what to see (see Plates 13 (a) and (b)). It is harder to see than it is to express, wrote Robert Henri (2007, 86). This is why I find drawing is so important, because it is in drawing above all that one learns to see. Also I find I work best when working through the linear aspects of drawing. If I do not know where to go with a piece of work I find it useful to start to draw in with the brush, then to lay blocks of colour and to work with the edges, placing one shape or colour next to another until desired tensions are reached. The linearity of drawing, in other words, helps me define essential shapes which form the basic compositional element of the paintings. The landscape drawings (see Plates 2, 3, 4) indicate my interest in seeing flat, as I think of it. This means finding in nature abstract shapes that, whatever volumes and depths may be enfolded within them, can be represented as discrete areas that 22 Duchamp writes that the artist s struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the aesthetic plane (cited Kuspit 2004, 19). I always think of art-working as intensely conscious action guided by unconscious intention.
39 31 may then be articulated to create a picture. 23 After reading Phillip Rawson (1969, 155-7), I learned to call these shapes enclosures, which become, so to speak, the formative engine of a piece of work. I was particularly struck by Goldstein s take on shape as an agent of action and energy (Goldstein 2006, 38), an idea that validated the way my drawing and painting was developing. I had long been intuitively interested in creating compositions that started from the placement of one particular large negative enclosure, finding that a clearer visual concept was achieved with this approach. The aim was then to search out implicit connections and phrasing between it and other enclosures, a method that seemed to me to bring to a picture a subtle power of understatement that I found deeply satisfying when creating a composition. Shapes may be either negative or positive, and the relation of these to each other is of primary importance. A positive shape is one enclosing an object body, tree, or stone a negative shape is an accidental one lying between objects and formed by their visual inter-relations. Bringing a represented object into distinguishable but anchored presence depends very crucially on focusing more on negative shapes than on positive ones (a counter-intuitive but illuminating idea for most students, as I have learned from teaching). It may be worth noting, with regard to this, that I had for some time been fascinated (like Damien Hirst, above), with the idea of the void without quite knowing why. 24 A void normally suggests nothingness, emptiness, meaninglessness something fearful and associated with death yet I have instinctively felt it as embodying some deep creative principle. The exploration of negative space showed me what Japanese Zen masters have long known, that no positive form has real presence without the negative. (I am aware too that the existentialist philosophers insist that being exists only on a ground of non-being, or nothingness; the importance of negative shapes in establishing the integrated being of represented figures seems like a perfect metaphor for this.) The void also suggests silence, which too can be a powerful force suggesting the deeply implicit, the often overlooked and the strictly unspeakable, and certainly I would rather my paintings murmur softly than try to out-shout the general cacophony. 23 Rather like the interlocking pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, except that the connections between these are arbitrary. In art one is seeking some intuitive logic of connectibility among shapes. 24 Hirst goes on to note that Max Beckmann used to paint his canvases black to represent the void and everything he painted he saw as an object that he placed between himself and that void (Gayford and Wright 1998, 474).
40 32 The enclosures defining a combination of positive and negative shapes may in turn be contained within larger enclosures to form a very complex rhythmical patterning. They also themselves enclose smaller, positive shapes in the form of planes surfaces of rocks, pools, flanks of a body etc at a variety of angles to one another. I am always concerned to simplify these planes and phrase them to create a sense of movement of various kinds, across the canvas, for they create another subset of rhythms that must be integrated with, and supportive of, the larger rhythmic structure of the work. 25 All these interrelated shapes necessarily presume boundaries, however delineated. I am therefore inevitably interested in the precise quality of a line or a boundary or an edge that serves the larger purpose of integration and interrelation. I try to find exactly the right quality, strength and variety of line for a particular part of the painting as it evolves. Edges in all their variety, subtlety and suggestiveness are, in other words, a major issue when working in this manner. One can see their importance in the work of the late Australian painter Lloyd Rees, with its varied, incredibly rich and carefully considered use of edge (see Plate 15(a); and compare with my 15(b)). I love the power and expressive quality of a line drawn with the paintbrush that can provide an edge with, not just definition, but directionality. This is of relevance to another technique important in my work, one used by painters at least since Tintoretto, termed open colour painting. This is a form of simplification that reduces painting to drawing with colour, supplanting realistic, form-defining relations of light and shade with mere suggestions of where light and shade exist. In ignoring superfluous details and elaborations, open colour painting frees the painter s hand to express itself my means of swift, linear definitions (Taubes ). My Minnippi drawing (Plate 4), while not encompassing the whole idea of enclosures, was certainly an experiment in what could be done with little other than shape. The painting that resulted (done in situ) influenced the whole series of nudes in the landscape. I used very strong colour with a limited palette (containing Venetian Red) that was not a reflection of the observable colour of actual place. An in situ 25 I am reminded in speaking thus of Walter Pater s famous (and no doubt overly simplistic) remark that all art aspires to the condition of music.
41 33 Plate 14 (a): Kay Kane, Mouth of Noosa River (negative shapes) Plate 14 (b): Kay Kane, Monochrome (explicit enclosure) Plate 14 (c): Kay Kane, Monochrome (implicit enclosure)
42 34 Plate 15 (a): Lloyd Rees, South Coast Road Plate 15 (b): Kay Kane, Rock Pools
43 35 painting, Rushing Water (Plate 16), was also a development towards this constructive approach, the water being seen as a large triangle projecting into the composition from the bottom to the top of the paper. The water rushes down this triangle in the opposite direction to which the shape itself is projecting, the countermovement intended to create tension, life and force as well as an aesthetic focus. Another important developmental painting done in situ in an afternoon was Springbrook Mist, which incorporates a subtle take on enclosures in its construction (see Plate 18). While my paintings have been developed through close observation of both nudes and landscapes, the manipulation of figure and landscape has been guided by purely abstract ideas of form, repeated motif, and the discovery and juxtaposition of visual enclosures. My method of proceeding is to search for sequences that include some particular combination of both negative and positive shapes, and to phrase these rhythmically across the canvas. Any particular shape is interpretable in twodimensional terms (i.e. as flat), but its edges may be formed by parts of objects that occupy variously the fore-, middle- or backgrounds of the picture. Each enclosure, therefore, is in effect a depth slice that produces a compositional tension between painting surface and pictorial perspective. Some sequences of shapes are explicit, and some implicit, but it is their integration and mutual adjustment that is intended to create visual interest (see Plates 14 (a) and (b); 17). Another important element of structure is the reference to time through the layering of paint over long periods (unlike in pictures completed in a single sitting). The paintings were begun by drawing in the compositions (as originally conceived they have since been through many transitions) using yellow ochre that was easily modified by raw sienna when necessary. After that, large areas were blocked in with transparent paint whose colours aimed at broadly defining spatial separation, foreground, middle distance and background, working from warmer in the foreground to cooler in the distance. The intention was always to work toward greater opacity of paint, maintaining wherever I could areas of original transparency and moving from thinly applied to thickly applied paint. I like to maintain a juxtaposition of transparent and opaque paint across a painting, hoping that the final layers will reveal those applied during the earliest establishment of enclosures and shapes (Plate 19).
44 36 Plate 16: Kay Kane, Rushing Water Plate 17: Kay Kane, Virtue and Power
45 37 Plate 18: Kay Kane, Springbrook Mist
46 38 The integration of transparent and opaque paint is a delicate and difficult process, but it brings great dividends in terms of glowing colour and richness of expression. At times, in searching out enclosures and drawing figures, I have lost the transparencies and had to reinstate them by completely painting out areas with white, redrawing into them and reintroducing the transparent paint, before moving on. Edge was also often dependent on this layering procedure, being stated and restated in a particular area as layer upon layer was put down until a satisfactory edge was found. *** I am aware that my description up to this point, though essentially accurate, is the summary outcome of long research that obscures many false starts, confusions and temptations toward the superficial. It is perhaps worth relating an episode of blockage here because it relates closely to what I am trying to do in my work, even if I sometimes do not succeed. I feel best when I have an almost physical sense of rightness in my working, and find it distressing when this eludes me. At one point I felt quite stalled with the larger works, not knowing in which direction I wanted to continue developing them. After an enforced break from painting, I returned to my small series of nudes in the landscape at Springbrook. I tackled the monochrome series with the idea of simplifying the landscape, and in the process the large enclosures within the composition suddenly became much clearer to me. I realised that playing with shapes across the whole picture could be, and indeed turned out to be, the key to resolving the troubling aspects of the large series. Looking back, I saw that my dissatisfaction had a lot to do with the way the nudes were integrated (or rather not integrated) into the landscape. What I was searching for can also be expressed as linked bodies or chains of bodies in space (Rawson 1969, ). Multi-figure compositions created without an understanding of this concept look fragmented, and I find that the perceptual faculties must be alert to linkages if a sense of unity is to be created. The visual field must be so organised that all the positive bodies in it form closely linked and interlinked sequences with an inherent direction, a direction inscribed over or across negatively conceptualised areas in which open space is treated virtually as substanceless body. By bodies I mean not only physical human bodies but all plastic entities, including
47 39 Plate 19: Kay Kane, Layering Progression
48 40 human parts, folds of flesh, bunches of foliage, rocks, clouds and so on. The links in these chains of bodies may be obvious continuities like linked hands, successions of arms, clusters or groups of forms. They may also be articulated by tonal pathways or continuities or echoes of colour from one shape to the next. They may be otherwise purely notional and abstract links such as the vector of a pointing finger, or a glance bridging a wide interval, or a particular patterning of feet. The chains may run through like bodies for example, among the arms or feet of a group of figures or through unlike as through rock, human figure to tree. The linear axes of volumetric forms usually play a vital role, but a tenuous link such as a glance may be charged with almost the whole weight of a divided but weighty composition. Connectivity is thus produced by often invisible lines whose presence is felt rather than seen. To read the invisible connectives, the spectator must trace out and interpret for herself/himself the implied vectors of the lines. This requires reading the gaps in linear sequences which may sometimes be longer than the visible segments. Such complex linearity permits the phrasing of shape and repeated motif across the canvas, producing rhythms, counter-rhythms and counter-changes that both unify a work and create the tensions that give it liveliness. With time, my thinking about how I should tackle the figures became much more concise and goal-directed. I had been concerned that I was drifting toward more and more visually realistic modelling of individual figures, focusing on each in isolation rather than as integrated pieces within the whole. I was painting figures on a landscape rather than figures truly in a landscape. I realised that I had been concentrating too much on external appearances, coming to my work from the outside in, as it were, rather than from the inside out. I therefore became more intent on finding/creating, through use of colour, tone and edge, connections between all the abstract shapes whether of figures or aspects of the contextual landscape. I began to draw into the paintings with strong linear boundaries, not just around the figures but also around any enclosures and negative shapes that suggested themselves as I referenced the original drawings (Plates 20 & 21). My usual practices of rubbing back and painting through were also important in aiding inventiveness. After roughly applied paint dried, with the under painting showing through, I seemed to see other ideas for integrating
49 41 Plate 20: Kay Kane, Panel 2 (limited palette, warm) Plate 21: Kay Kane, Panel 5 (limited palette, warm) the landscape through colour, shape or tonality. My diary entry of 18 June 2008 reads: In drawing over the initial attempts at a particular part of the painting I kept seeing in the previous layers of paint what I had to do drawing-wise though in reality there was nothing much there especially in modulating the rock formations to fit the composition. They almost seemed to solve themselves. Of course, establishing pathways and connections was immeasurably complicated by the fact that these had to be pursued, not just within a single painting,
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Plato 1 Plato though some of the aesthetic issues touched on in Plato s dialogues were probably familiar topics of conversation among his contemporaries some of the aesthetic questions that Plato raised
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MHST 336 PHIL 231 Philosophy of Music Instructors: James O Leary, Kohl 322, email@example.com Katherine Thomson Jones, King 120D, firstname.lastname@example.org Office Hours: Thomson Jones, King 120D: Monday,
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21L.011, The Film Experience Prof. David Thorburn Lecture Notes Week 9: Afternoon Lecture Film in the 1970s We ll be watching two films tonight instead of one: McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Cabaret Remember:
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African Dance Forms: Introduction: Africa is a large continent made up of many countries each country having its own unique diverse cultural mix. African dance is a movement expression that consists of