Links of the Week

The Economist calls for fairness and balance in accounts of American slavery. What would Peggy Garner say?  (Well, that’s just one mother’s opinion.)

“Fuck your parliament and your constitution! Or: the kind of governments American leaders really like!

And a Sam Shepard interview at the Guardian: These days, he reads a lot of Irish writers. “They are head and shoulders above,” he says. “It’s the ability to take language and spin it.” And a lot of South Americans, too, “because they seem to have a handle on the ability to cross time and depth.” He struggles to think of contemporary American writers he rates, beyond Denis Johnson.

Robert Henri on the Mastery of a Fine Art

From a letter by Maxwell Perkins to James Jones, 28 May 1947, concerning work on From Here to Eternity, taken from Editor to Author:  The Letters of Maxwell Perkins edited by John Hall Wheelock (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950):

Yesterday, without naming you, I was trying to explain to a prominent and able writer what you were trying to get across in your book, and the great difficulties of it. It would have been much easier to make a man writer understand, but I think she did, for she is very intuitive. Then I told her you had been reading “——-,“ and she was shocked by that and agreed with me that while you are writing you should not be reading about writing. But then she spoke of a book which was not about writing, but which by inference enormously illuminates the problem. I have sent you that. I had read it years ago and thought it most revealing. It is concerned with painting, and is derived from the lectures of Robert Henri.

From The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, compiled by Margery Ryerson (Philadelphia and New York, J. B. Lippincott Co., 1951):

The real study of the art student is generally missed in the pursuit of a copying technique.

I knew men who were students at the Academie Julian in Paris, where I studied thirteen years ago. I visited the Academie this year [1901] and found some of the same students still there, repeating the same exercises, and doing work nearly as good as they did thirteen years ago.

At almost any time in these thirteen years they have had technical ability enough to produce masterpieces. Many of them are more facile in their trade of copying the model, and they make fewer mistakes and imperfections of literal drawing and proportion than do some of the greatest masters of art.

These students have become masters of the trade of drawing, as some others have become masters of their grammars. And like so many of the latter, brilliant jugglers of words, having nothing worth while to say, they remain little else than clever jugglers of the brush.

The real study of an art student is more a development of that sensitive nature and appreciative imagination with which he was so fully endowed when a child, and which, unfortunately in almost all cases, the contact with the grown-ups shames out of him before he has passed into what is understood as real life.

Persons and things are whatever we imagine them to be.

We have little interest in the material person or the material thing. All our valuation of them is based on the sensations their presence and existence arouse in us.

And when we study the subject of our pleasure it is to select and seize the salient characteristics which have been the cause of our emotion.

Thus two individuals looking at the same objects may both exclaim “Beautiful!” — both be right, and yet each have a different sensation — each seeing different characteristics as the salient ones, according to the pressure of their sensations.

Beauty is no material thing.

Beauty cannot be copied.

Beauty is the sensation of pleasure on the mind of the seer.

No thing is beautiful. But all things await the sensitive and imaginative mind that may be aroused to pleasurable emotion at sight of them. This is beauty.

The art student that should be, and is so rare, is the one whose life is spent in the love and the culture of his personal sensations, the cherishing of his emotions, never undervaluing them, the pleasure of exclaiming them to others, and an eager search for their clearest expression. He never studies drawing because it will come in useful later when he is an artist. He has not time for that. He is an artist in the beginning and is busy finding the lines and forms to express the pleasures and emotions with which nature has already charged him.

No knowledge is so easily found as when it is needed.

Teachers have too long stood in the way; have said: “Go slowly — you want to be an artist before you have learned to draw!”

Oh! those long and dreary years of learning to draw! How can a student after the drudgery of it, look at a man or an antique statue with any other emotion than a plumbob estimate of how many lengths of head he has.

One’s early fancy of man and things must not be forgot. One’s appreciation of them is too much sullied by coldly calculating and dissecting them. One’s fancy must not be put aside, but the excitement and the development of it must be continued throughout the work. From the antique cast there should be no work done if it is not to translate your impression of the beauty the sculptor has expressed. To go before the cast or the living model without having them suggest to you a theme, and to sit there and draw without a theme for hours, is to begin the hardening of your sensibilities to them — the loss of your power to take pleasure in them. What you must express in your drawing is not “what model you had,” but “what were your sensations,” and you select from what is visual of the model the traits that best express you.

In drawing from the cast the work may be easier. The cast always remains the same — the student has but to guard against his own digressions. The living model is never the same. He is only consistent to one mental state during the moment of its duration. He is always changing. The picture which takes hours — possibly months — must not follow him. It must remain in the one chosen moment, in the attitude which was the result of the sensation of that moment. Most students wade through a week of changings both of the subject and their own views of it. The real student has remained with the idea which was the commencement. He has simply used the model as the indifferent manikin of what the model was. Or, should he have given up the first idea, it was then to take on another, having destroyed the work which was the expression of the former.

The habit of digression — lack of continued interest — want of fixed purpose, is an almost general failing. It is too easy to drift and the habit of letting oneself drift begets drifting. The power of concentration is rare and must be sought and cultivated, and prolonged work on one subject may be simply prolonged digression, which is a useless effort, as it is to no end.

Your model can be little more than an indifferent manikin of herself. Her presence can but recall to you the self she was when she so inspired you. She can but mislead if you follow her. You need great time to paint your picture. It took her a moment, a glance, a movement, to inspire it. She may never be just as she was again. She changes momentarily. As she poses she may be in the anguish of fatigue. Who can stand all those hours, detained from their natural pursuits without being bored? At least there is a drifting of the mind, pleasant, gay, sad, trivial — and, imperceptibly the forms and the attitude change to the expression of the thought, and it gets into the brush of the careless artist and it comes out in the paint.

Few paintings express one idea. They are generally drifting composites wandering through the poses of many frames of mind of the sitter, and the easy driftings of the view of the artist. They present the subject, but the parts are as seen under different emotions, and their only excuse is that they are so wonderfully well done.