Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Her True Identity

The Unknown . Cast Drawing

Today I made a big discovery. It was someone's true identity...

It all started when I had borrowed a lovely cast which I ended up drawing four times. It was the face of a delicate, graceful woman...not too young, nor too old. As I traced over her features in my mind - and sometimes with my fingers - and worked on transcribing them to paper, I began to wonder who this person had been. Upon asking I found out that she had been dubbed "The Countess." Her features certainly spoke of a certain elan and dignity. It was not hard to believe that she was titled.

Even so, it was not enough. Soon armed with the name of the company in Chicago that had sold her to her owner, I found out that her official name in their old catalogue was "The Unknown." Ah..."Unknown." Perhaps poor and penniless, her body had been washed up on the banks of a river or an illness had taken her life, but she had been pretty enough to have her death mask made for distribution to aspiring artists.

But then, I didn't like the idea of a death mask. Rather I made her a poor but willing person who had to make a few dollars, and patiently sat while her mask was being made for sale to art schools.

Without the facts, these were my conjectures until a few days ago. That was when the owner of the cast said excitedly, "I think we have a lead!" A classical musician friend of his, a man acquainted with culture and the arts, had seen the plaster cast and announced that he thought it was Anna Pavlova!

The Acclaimed Ballerina, Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova! She was the famous ballerina who performed for audiences in the early 1900s. Her most famous piece was The Dying Swan from Swan Lake. It had been choreographed specifically for her in 1905 to Le Cygne from The Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns.

The Dying Swan from Swan Lake

"In 1931, she contracted pneumonia while touring in The Hague, Netherlands. Holding her costume from the Dying Swan, she said her last words; "Play the last measure very softly." She died, on 22 January 1931, in the Hotel Des Indes, in The Hague. On the day she was to have next performed, the lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and while the orchestra played Saint-Saëns, a spotlight moved around the empty stage searching in the places where Anna Pavlova would have danced."*

Anna's House Included an Aviary
Complete with Swans and Flamingoes

In Anna's day not only death masks, but also life masks were made of famous individuals. The plaster cast I used was made from a mask made by Austrian sculptor, Victor Frisch which is in the collection of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (input Anna Pavlova in the Search box). It is dated 1920.

Victor Frisch . Head of Anna Pavlova
Bronze on marble base, ca. 1920

Another life cast of Anna in tinted wax was made by artist Malvina Cornell Hoffman. She is the fantastic sculptor who created the ethnic sculptures at Chicago's Museum of Natural History.

Malvina Cornell Hoffman
Anna Pavlova Life Mask, 1924

Anna's death mask is displayed at the White Lodge Museum and Ballet Resource Centre, the home of The Royal Ballet Lower School (shown along with Margot Fonteyn’s ballet shoe).

It feels very different now when I see my cast drawings. I know who this person is...or rather, was. The knowledge of her name has changed everything...

* http://ann-lauren.blogspot.com/2009/02/19-20th-cent-ballerina-anna-pavlova.html
Also see this photo: http://gallery.ejwassoc.com/main.php?g2_itemId=339

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sir Joshua Reynolds Seventh Discourse

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Self-Portrait . 1780

Sir Joshua Reynolds, one of the founders and the first president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, gave a series of lectures to his student body in the mid-1700s. While some very thought-provoking things were said to these young men, the English from that era was difficult at times to understand.

So I began to paraphrase his Discourse VII for the Modern Man in modern American English. Even though I read much further than this - and his points were very interesting - the slog to make a good paraphrase was so hard that this was all the further I got:

Developing Good Taste
"Gentlemen, it has been my aim - ever since I began this series of lectures - to persuade you that success in your art depends not just on developing your technical skills, but even more so on developing your minds. When you are not painting, spend your leisure time

  • Reading fine literature - especially poetry
  • Studying human nature
  • Speaking with and listening to educated, thinking individuals
  • Thinking on how to apply what you learn to your life and art
Why should you do this? It is to develop Good Taste - taste which will carry over into your work and raise it to the highest standards.

However - sad to say - there are those who assert that the effort to acquire good taste is a hopeless pursuit. Instead, they feel artists ought to "court the muse in shady bowers," "await the call and inspiration of genius, find out where he inhabits, and where he is to be invoked with the greatest success," and "attend to times and seasons when the imagination shoots with greatest vigour, whether at the summer solstice or the equinox." [Take note, since the summer solstice is upon us!]

Absolutes in Art
These same folks are sure that striving to create art according to artistic rules and principles cramp the freedom and liberty of the imagination. They suppose that some just happen to be born with genius, and just happen to know the right things to do without direction from artistic principles, thought processes or hard work.

But I would assert that there is indeed absolute truth in art. Absolute or real truth is objective. It acts as a plumbline. These are things that can most certainly be ascertained. For example, you can tell if

  • a picture is like or unlike the subject matter
  • its coloring is true or not to the subject
  • the drawing and composition are good or not
  • the values and edges in a piece are correct or not

At this point in Reynold's discourse, I was surprised. Apparently there were battles between different views of art long before Picasso's Desmoiselles d'Avignon! If indeed Modern Art means "The point at which artists (1) felt free to trust their inner visions, (2) express those visions in their work, (3) use Real Life (social issues and images from modern life) as a source of subject matter and (4) experiment and innovate as often as possible," then what I had read from the mid-1700s was an objection to that very thing.

This battle continues. I myself have been astonished these past few years at several unexpected, emotional responses to my study of art warning me against becoming enslaved to principles while at the same time, praising the creative individual who follows their inner voice. Regardless, this is my preferred path. I also believe in creativity...but want to see it subjected to Good Taste and tried and true artistic principles.