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Empty Surfaces – Paul Cezanne wrote to his mother in September 1874, “I have to work all the time, not to reach that final perfection which earns the admiration of imbeciles. [T]his thing which is commonly appreciated so much is merely the effect of craftsmanship and renders all work resulting from it inartistic and common. I must strive after perfection only for the satisfaction of becoming truer and wiser. And believe me, the hour always comes when one breaks through and has admirers far more fervent and convinced than those who are only attracted by an empty surface.”  

Two years later, at the end of a letter to Pissarro, he wrote,

“I almost forgot to tell you that a certain letter of rejection has been sent to me. This is neither new nor astonishing.” Nothing much changes, does it?

In my recent wonder of Rembrandt’s portraits – surely his greatest triumph – I saw surfaces with barely an empty inch between them, and this includes swathes of canvas scrubbed in with huge cursory skill - no learnt craft that - the better to reveal truth and the perilous condition of humanity, so beautiful in its pathos and vulnerability.

We must distinguish between art and craft. The desire to display a high level of empty (taught) craftsmanship in painting (I can’t speak for any other art form) is often an attempt to deceive. To what end? That you have something to say, that you have great skill, that people with money to spend will do so on you…? I put ‘taught’ in parentheses because craftsmanship at its best and most meaningful is learnt on the hoof, empirically - then it is truly unique and genuine… bespoke craftsmanship. Andrés Segovia, the virtuoso Spanish guitarist said, “I had only one teacher, myself, and only one student, myself.” He also said, “If people have even a little understanding, it is better to move them than to amaze them.”

Much so-called art is therefore simply the display of craftsmanship. This can often be of jaw-dropping beauty, but if not used in the service of Art (with a capital ‘A’) it is as empty as a dumb blonde. [And I love the spectacle of a dumb blonde as much as the next man.] So, what are the empty surfaces Cezanne talked about? Don’t we see them everywhere? In every picture-shop gallery where art masquerades as a veneer of cleverness.

Fine Art is only revealed to those with the insight to see it. It is an insight that can be learnt, but how many bother, so beguiling is the cheap thrill of ooh-aah-art? While I was being seduced and again educated by Rembrandt, he spoke saying, “Look around, where else can you feel such breath of rare sincerity?”

Once you get your eye in, you can find sensual delight and phenomenal qualities of kindness and empathy. Here are a few artists who come quickly to mind and who reveal it in spades of differing sizes, (in no special order) Leonardo, Tiepolo, Francesco Guardi, late Titian, el Greco, Goya, Constable, Morandi, Daumier, Millet, Corot, Maurice Utrillo, Henri (le douanier) Rousseau, van Gogh, Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Gwen John, Alfred Wallace and… please add your own.

Most of those names are well known, but there are others far less celebrated, whose paintings deserve to be recognised for their own sheer depth of humanity. The reason they are not is because they fall foul of the ‘imbecile’ rule. I’d mention, for example, Vassyl Khmeluk, Agnes Martin, Leon de Smet, Alvar Cawen, Philip Guston, and Sheila Fell. Friends also alert you; thank you Isabella (who knows a thing or two) for Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Today, because of our capitalist and celebrity wracked idiocy, one must search diligently, and often forlornly, for equivalent humanity (wrack is Middle Dutch for shipwreck). It exists but may remain unseen forever.

- 04 June 2014 at 20:33

I liked reading that. Generally I agree but I query whether craft that his been learnt on the hoof is more valuable. Isn't it just a different process? You list some wonderful artists and some of these were certainly trained by other craftsmen yet they still exude truth. Xx
- 04 June 2014 at 22:46

Glad you liked it Emma. It's just my opinion when craft is all there is. But I did say that craft can be jaw-droppingly beautiful, and I am a resolute believer in craft and have referred to it elsewhere on these pages. You're right, of course, many of those artists were classically trained, as were their fellow pupils, so, for me, in that case, it is those few true artists who have it in them to rise beyond mere taught craft and find their own voice to touch the heart, intellect and soul as one. Segovia himself said, "Lean your body forward slightly to support the guitar against your chest, for the poetry of the music should resound in your heart."
- 05 June 2014 at 12:10

I enjoyed this blog very much. However it seems to be saying you've either got it or you ain't. And if you ain't, I suppose the natural next step is "why bother"?

Would you say it's more about the honesty and sincerity of the attempt, rather than it's successfulness at beauty or truth, that matters?
- 05 June 2014 at 12:30

Good question. I think I said that insight can be learnt but that it requires application; I'm not qualified to say whether the spiritual - which I guess is what we're talking about - can (be learnt). However, just by asking the question is proof enough for me!

I suspect that many many people have it in their DNA but conventional education (applied with the rigour of a National Curriculum - rather as a craft?) and the stress of modern life erodes and hides it.

Anyone interested in this might like to read Wassily Kandinsky's "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" (1912).

Thanks a lot for contributing, both your's and Emma's gave me more to think about.
- 05 June 2014 at 12:36

Regarding your last point Samwise, I honestly the think the two, or rather four, are inseparable. I believe any benign thing done honestly and sincerely is beautiful and true. It's then up to the viewer perhaps, in the case of painting, to decide if it is so for them as well. After all, 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'.
- 05 June 2014 at 13:17

'The reason they are not is because they fall foul of the ‘imbecile’ rule'.

As you know, Richard, I hadn't understood this comment, but then I'd not properly read and understood the quotation at the top of your post. I suppose Cezanne was striving to avoid complacency in a brilliant technique, and the self-awareness in that thought of his is somewhat mind-boggling.

Are you thinking that the craft of certain artists (Vassyl Khmeluk, Agnes Martin, Leon de Smet et al) is not regarded by 'the imbeciles' as perfect, and they are therefore not celebrated as much..?

Isabella (who really doesn't know b all)
- 05 June 2014 at 19:14

Thank you Isabella for those thoughts. Let's remember that Cezanne was about 35 when he wrote that to his mother, and 37 when he accepted rejection with equanimity (lots of artists die at 37, like lots of pop musicians die at 27 it seems... Discuss!). If you look at his paintings from that time, he was still developing his passion and making sense, gloriously, from his hawkmoth caterpillar phase of wild tempestuous youthful paintings. Mind you, he was a rebel all his life.

I agree completely with your last statement (though you phrase it as a question) which I think rather shows that you know much more than b all.!

Most people I speak to and show examples of the work of those artists - at workshops for example (so art-minded people you might say) - would not give them house room. There is a huge chasm still between Impressionism and Post-impressionism - even after more than 100 years, and I think Picasso is still regarded as an artist's artist.
valerie biebuyck
- 12 August 2014 at 13:56

Dear Richard
You are an artist of words, your paint brush is sorrow. Your word art is bought by my famished mind.
- 14 August 2014 at 16:20

That is lovely, it comes from somewhere very deep and heartfelt and is all the more touching for that. Thank you very much for reading and commenting.XX
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