Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Drawing traditions of narrative and allegory

I have tried to steer away from looking at artists that I have a particular interest in because I believe that drawing is a very broad church and there is always the tendency for people to think that I might prefer students to be working in one area rather than another.  However at some point what can happen is simply because of a desire to be fair minded, certain areas of drawing practice can become ignored. I have long had an interest in drawing as a narrative practice. In particular I see my own work as belonging to a long established British tradition of allegorical image making that includes Hogarth, Gillray and Rowlandson, just as much as it includes, William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Stanley Spencer and more recently Chris Orr, Paul Noble, Charles Avery and Adam Dant. In fact the cartoons of Giles probably had more influence on my work than the drawings of Picasso, but of my key artists in terms of what I would like my work to aspire to, not one of them is English; they are the Chinese artist Hakuin Ekaku, the Spaniard Goya and Dutch artist Pieter Brueghel.   

I strongly believe that we make sense of our lives by story telling. We need to develop a role in society in relation to our life’s meaning and we do this by creating a narrative within which we play out our part. Not all stories though are verbal and the meanings we make from our wider perceptions of sound, smell, touch, taste and vision are what give a vital essence and life enhancement to the feeling tone of life. Making art allows other senses full play and opens out possibilities of further stories not yet fixed into verbal patterns.

I will try and explain one aspect of how this works by looking at one of my favorite Goya drawings, the Porter, drawn in 1812.

Goya: The Porter

The porter, a brush drawn image by Goya is perhaps not one of his best known drawings but one I find particularly poignant. In particular it is a drawing that shows Goya thinking as he draws and using a method that I have myself found really useful.
When he is working out the shape and form of the drawing he uses a light toned sepia ink, see the faint line just to the right of the leg that is in shadow. He uses this light ink to organise his thoughts and to build and maintain a rhythm that will work as a type of undercurrent or deep flow that keeps the eyes moving over and through the image once completed.

As the image is ‘seen’ by Goya he moves on to darker toned inks, not yet the darkest but a mid tone.  With this he firms up the drawing and establishes the idea. Finally he will reach for a dark sepia and will pick out the major dynamics of the drawing, establishing the shadow and looking for those essential moments that will make the drawing live. It’s wonderful to see him having to establish new edges to the image after realizing he has made a mistake. The mid-toned strokes around the top edge of the porter’s burden did not ‘push’ the load down with enough visual weight or purpose, the new position and shape of the burden much more clearly weighing down on the porter below. Above all Goya’s darkest mark is used to establish the anonymous head of the porter. In atmospheric perspective, darker marks usually stand forward of lighter ones and here Goya uses a combination of atmospheric perspective and shadow play to establish the nature of the space as well as ensure the porter is in the shadow of his heavy load; a load that is both literal and metaphorical. The porter’s legs and feet are solidly planted in a patch of dark, which serves to take the weight of the whole image, we can see Goya adding darker strokes to the ground in order to emphasise the shadow and ground plane. The patch of sepia wash that forms the ground on which the figure stands, echoing the shape of the load, which itself is reminiscent of the form we usually associate with Atlas the World carrier. The ropes that bind the load almost read as meridian lines, but Goya has just touched them in with a brush in such a way that we can see how many there are and how they overlap each other. These ropes are clenched by massive fingers, fingers used to carrying heavy weights, fingers that are far more expressive of the nature of the porter than his head, Goya has focused on the one major characteristic that would single out a worker of this sort; powerful, strong hands. In this drawing we can see how Goya is able to transform what could simply be an everyday drawing of a porter, into something much more significant. This isolated figure now begins to represent all men, by not focusing on any particular recognizable feature, Goya has elevated the porter into a symbol, and we can begin to read this image as an allegory. This is one of Goya’s main lessons for me as an artist. He shows a way to respond to an everyday encounter and through a drawing process reshape what he sees, stripping it down into an elemental image that is capable of carrying allegorical narrative. The life of the initial encounter is still held and preserved in the freedom and energy of the brush drawing, Goya’s own body movements frozen in the brush strokes and their energy released each time that we look at this compacted image. The process that works for me is first of all an initial perception, in this case seeing a man carrying a load, then the gradual reflection on that initial perception as you attempt to make an image from it by constructing a drawing, and as you do so reshaping the drawing towards what it begins to tell you the image can be. Finally, once the drawing has become what it needs to be, then using this image to carry whatever narrative is arriving. Notice that these things arrive or come into being, as much as they are made or constructed and it is a matter of just being alive to the possibilities as they occur.  

There has been some curatorial recognition of contemporary narrative or allegorical work and in particular the curator Angela Kingston has highlighted the psychological intensity that can be accessed via the fairytale and similar narratives, see her downloadable essay here

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