Thursday, 19 December 2019

Dali's Christmas Cards

It's that time of the year again to send Xmas cards and to thank all of you that have ventured into the strange realms of drawing that this blog sometimes meanders into. Next year will see the first of a series of occasional posts from guest artists on drawing topics of their choice, but to finish off posts for this year I'm posthumously asking Salvador Dali to contribute a few of his Christmas cards to the growing pile that is becoming a yearly tribute to the way different artists apply themselves to the yuletide festivities. My favourite is still Helen Frankenthaler's for Xmas 1961 but here are some from Dali, (I have used him before, see his Santa with drawers), ranging over time from the 1940s to 70s.  


Happy New Year

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Monday, 16 December 2019

Why draw ears?

New York Graffiti ear

Take a good look at this graffiti ear, it's a really good one. Very economical with the line, just two curves, one inside the other and a little thickening to suggest the shadow of the deeper inner ear. Ears are a fascinating part of the body, but we rarely focus on them when drawing the head and tend to use eyes, mouth and nose formats. However sometimes it's useful to change focus and look at a different aspect of the head. 

Mozart: Drawing of his own ear in comparison with a normal ear

Mozart was as a musician fascinated by ears and his own in particular was slightly abnormal. This issue of what is normal and what is not, is itself fascinating. For an alien looking at creatures such as haplorrhine or ‘dry nosed’ primates, Mozart’s ears would be regarded as simply belonging to an animal of the ape like strand of mammal evolution and could perhaps have helped the alien sort out a classification difference between tarsiers, monkeys and apes.

The ear of a chimpanzee

Ears are often to be found on a class of early Egyptian reliefs called "ear-stelae." These stelae typically featured images of a god and a supplicant and to the side would be carved or painted several human looking ears. These ears were to aid the gods in hearing the prayers. So they were in effect something like celestial hearing aids. 

Obsidian left ear from a statue of Amenhotep III

The sculptor who carved the left ear of Amenhotep III, would have had to have a very clear idea of how the various elements of an ear fitted together, not unlike the understanding of topological flow lines that a present day Maya software user needs to have.

An ear constructed in Maya

“Ca ‘de l’Oreggia”

Designed by Adolfo Wildt, Lucio Fontana and Luigi Brogginiin in 1930, the sculpture above of an ear was used as an intercom, allowing visitors to announce their arrival. Once separated from its body the ear can operate in often unexpected ways. “Ca ‘de l’Oreggia” or “House of the Ear” in Milan, no longer has a working intercom system set in behind it, however it is now where people come to whisper their secrets, something that I suspect all cities need. I am therefore adapting one of my earlier large ear designs to become exactly that, a listening ear for those that don't have one. 
The Vacanti mouse was one of those viral images that came to inhabit my thinking back in the late 1990s.It was a mouse that looked as if it had had a human ear transplant, but which was actually a cartilage implant  
The Vacanti mouse

However, 20 years on, a university in Tokyo has announced that it has now grown a human ear on a rat, using stem cell technology.

I find an uncanny overlap between images that emerged from my own head as art and those that are emerging from the field of science as medical research.

Stelarc: Ear on Arm

Stelarc has of course 'grown' an ear on his arm. A model ear was implanted beneath the skin, so that the appearance of an extra ear is constructed, not unlike the Vacanti mouse.

Stelarc being operated upon

I would have been more interested if Stelarc had had non human animal ears embedded in his arm. It might have helped with that human animal divide. In many ways children already make the link, they have a fascination with animal/human hybrids and are still happy to become mixed up creatures, think of the number of different animal hats we can buy for our youngsters.

Is this such a long way from the old obsession with human / animal physiognomy?

We used to regard our various 'descents'  into animalistic behaviour as being 'failures', human beings slipping back into animal habits. Our beast like behaviour emerging when we are at our worst. However, this presupposes that we are superior to animals, and in earlier societies animal / human hybrids were regarded as essential bridges between us and the rest of the world. Our human capacity for self reflection, unfortunately also creating a perceived schism between ourselves and the rest of nature. This is not a real schism of course because we are part of nature and cannot remove ourselves from a set of issues that we are an integral part of, but our use of language can make for a way of thinking that appears as if it is not like the way other aspects of reality work. This 'consciousness' is both our special thing and what for many of us is our downfall. By being too self aware we fail to live in the 'now' and worry too much, perhaps we should listen more and talk less. 

Seth and Horus

It could be argued that Gods such as Seth and Horus are ghost memories of earlier shamanistic figures, and most of the folk tales of Europe and other continents will include stories of animal / human hybrids at one time or another, all of which could be trace memories of earlier shamanistic practices.

Dabbabi, the half-man half-bear, a not very bearish bear-human hybrid, as pictured in a 13th century bestiary by Zakariya al-Qazwini

Images of human/bear hybrids that have kept human ears

I seem to have drifted off subject again, but there is a method in my drift, ears are somehow more acceptable than noses or mouths when it comes to replacing them with animal ones, animal ears may even become 'cute', and 'sexy' as in Japanese anime figures.

The cute ear type

I find ears very sculptural and have made lots of drawings of them. They also represent an opening in the body, one that is focused on communication with others. However because we don't normally look closely at ears in isolation they can be very strange. So strange that I have drawn them in the past as undersea life forms, (they are often described as shell-like) and as plants or have embedded ceramic versions of them into walls or gardens. 

Ear installed in a wall in York

Ciprianii’s ‘Rudiments of Drawing
In drawing manuals ears were singled out for individual treatment and in doing so they become like living individual creatures, as if escaped from their role as the brain's listening tool.  
Some drawings of ears are used in reflexology and acupuncture, both “reflex” therapies in that they work with points on one part of the body that affect other parts of the body. As an ‘opening’ into the body the ear is particularly important in these types of therapies and what drawing can do is create map like images that create clear boundaries that are not seen by eye when we look at an ear, but which are deemed to be there by the acupuncture specialists. Again we encounter drawings that impose grid like structures over things that have no boundaries, and like on the sea, we impose a system of reference points that allow us to make actions more understandable to ourselves, in both the cases of the ear and areas of sea, we are able to navigate or find our way through very hard to read territories by using gridded maps. But we also need to remember whoever makes the maps also gets to own the territory. 

I'm also interested in ears because they are often an un-noticed feature and yet they are powerful symbols of our interconnectedness with the rest of the world.

Left over huge concrete 'ear' from WW2

When we were listening for the arrival of bomber planes during the war several giant concrete ears were built on the south coast, their forms like our own ears concave, and suggestive of much larger forms hidden below the ground on which they sit. 

I'm at that age when I'm beginning to lose my hearing. So I have been trying to visualise what it feels like, together with the fact that as I get older, my ears are getting larger, a fact that I can't disassociate from my failing hearing. Are they getting bigger so that they can work more like ear trumpets? My artist's logic is not very scientific, but it helps me when I'm trying to conjure up images about what something feels like. 

The ear when uncoupled from the head becomes something strange, but perhaps all objects become strange when you isolate them from their context. The constant slippage of meaning is in fact normal as we constantly renegotiate what things do for us. At one moment ears are for hearing, but then they become supports for eyeglasses or they are essential to our balance or they are things on which we hang jewellery. However as soon as they are separated from the totality from which they belong, something is not right. Better though that they remain 'strange', for if we ever take them for granted, we might begin to forget just how special they are. 

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Monday, 9 December 2019

John Ruskin and the Elements of Drawing

Ruskin's first drawing of grass

Ruskin: drawing of oak leaves

Ruskin: drawing of leaves forming a pattern

I first read Ruskin when I was at school. I went through his ‘Elements of Drawing’ and tried to follow the steps that he laid out for those beginning to draw. I still remember his advice on how to draw individual elements and then to move on to masses, such as the shape of one leaf and then the form of a cluster of leaves as they hung from a branch.
Ruskin: drawing of a leaf

His drawing of a leaf above, helps me to think about our close relationship with other living organisms, I am reminded of our own bi-lateral symmetry and how we ourselves have a system of veins that fan out from our centre to our edges. Ruskin likes moving from the particular to the general. The process was one that he believed could be extended into a design principle. A particular observation, such as the shape of a leaf could be generalised to stand for nature itself. When I was doing my Pre-Diploma course at Wolverhampton in the late 1960s, my personal tutor was a textile designer and she used to show me her flower drawings and explain how she was interested in exploring nature and applying what she saw to her designs. At the time I was into Pop Art and tended to dismiss her ideas as either too design orientated or simply old fashioned, but I now think of her as representing an old approach that is becoming more relevant again, and one that has an importance that goes beyond the fine art / design divide. 

Ruskin: drawing of a strawberry leaf

Close observation can reveal how mathematical order underlies everything. A drawing of something as basic as a leaf on a branch stem could therefore be linked to a vision of nature’s underlying structures. Formal principles arising from this understanding could be then applied to art, architecture and design and they could be used to critique forms used in art and design. 
The way leaves are ordered around a stem
Curve 'a' is a segment of a circle, curve 'b' is based on the stem above

Ruskin would argue that curve 'b' is aesthetically more powerful because it is varied and its form links back to an observation from nature. We have looked at issues like this before. In particular why the Bezier Curve is so important in both car design and graphic design and Hogarth's 'Line of Beauty'.  A curve that moves between one type and another will always be visually active and is more organic, i.e. it has 'life'. But for Ruskin the importance of the more organic curve is that it holds within it a 'memory' of nature, a memory that should be built into the things we make; and when we do so, we demonstrate our love of nature and the importance of our relationship with it.
Later I would read ‘the Stones of Venice’ and began to see that his ideas about visual interconnectedness could be applied to society. In particular he lamented the class divide and the separation between labour and management. In his chapter on 'the Nature of Gothic' he had this to say, We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.” (Ruskin, 1890) Just as a separation from nature impoverishes both us and nature, a division of human beings into one class and another also impoverishes both classes. 
Over time Ruskin’s political relevance became more important to me and because his name was mentioned several times in Bristol at the recent symposium on teaching drawing, I thought it timely to post my own reflections on his influence, especially during a period of intense political debate about the future direction of the country. 
If you begin your philosophy by stressing the importance of looking at a leaf and drawing it, that philosophy will no doubt argue for a close relationship between humans and nature. Look closely at a leaf and you will see things that entangle you as the observer back into the nature from which the observation began. Knots of mathematical, analogical, material and ecological entanglements are created as observations are made; for instance both trees and people at one point or another were on parallel evolutionary paths, in particular the need to move fluids around from one place to another was essential to both, the tree’s dendritic system of branching pathways extending right down into every leaf, being very similar to a human cardio vascular system, which is itself described as ‘dendritic’ or tree like in its branching structures. As we see similarities between ourselves and a leaf, we hopefully establish grounds for empathy between plant and human lives. It is the beautiful chemistry of photo-synthesis that captures energy from the sun in a plant’s leaves and this is taken up and distributed in a not too dissimilar way to how the human digestive system works, which then releases the sun’s energy into our own cells and gives us life. We are totally interconnected and that is Ruskin’s point. He believed that making, owning and sharing were not separate things, they had only become so under capitalist structures, but in earlier forms of society, ownership and production of art and craft were integrated and not separated out into a buying class, a class that gives critical value, a making class and an intellectual class. This separation of culture into different roles within different classes in society, Ruskin believed, resulted in a fracturing of art into high and low forms. For an upper ownership class, it became more about art for art's sake, validated by a class of specialist critics and specialist intellectual artists who did not want to think about their productions as craft, because craft was what the labouring classes occupied themselves with. The lower classes, often craftspeople who made things with their hands, had different values, their handicrafts and their culture came to be seen as of 'low' value or kitsch by the upper classes. Out of this milieu arose an idea of the artist as an outsider and the concept of the avant-garde or advance guard whereby the artist’s sensibility was out in front of ‘ordinary people’, sensing out the new and the different. This became part of the logic of capitalism, because new things are always needed if you are to get people to consume and therefore 'innovation' became more important as a commercial value. Ruskin saw that this sort of approach to art would eventually lead to a total separation between those that understood the site of production because they worked hard to make things and those that only valued the site of exchange or the transaction that saw value only in monetary profit. As he put it, neither will be content with their lot, "the one envying, the other despising"

Ruskin is a wonderful example of how something as basic as giving importance to looking at a leaf, could eventually if you follow it's implications, lead to an idea about how society should be constructed.  

The artist is seen as someone who can make observations that might help others grasp the wonders of nature. Drawing is seen as a very democratic tool that all people can use and although some might be better at using it than others, its practice will help everyone reach a better understanding of what is there to be seen. Gradually drawn observations will lead to a recognition of a 'bigger picture' whereby the principles seen in particular observations could be understood as belonging to certain patterns, patterns that relate to deep underlying principles such as mathematical order.  Ruskin believed that a separation between humans and nature will occur if we don't spend time reflecting on the fact that we are both part of nature and able to observe it; he also pointed out at the time that manufacturing was already despoiling the natural world and that we were avoiding our responsibility for the world around us. As the potter needs to understand the clay, so the weaver needs to understand the properties of cloth and the metal worker understand how iron can be worked. Making and conserving are close neighbours; someone that understands the hard won nature of individual production, will waste less and consume less. Someone removed from the site of production has no empathy with both the people and the various materials of production and will therefore find it easy to make decisions that lead to pollution and the ravaging of natural resources. Ruskin's observations still ring true and his ideas still effect the way artists think about the world.

Images taken from the elements of drawing

Without Ruskin in many ways we would never have had the moral conviction that lies behind Michael Landy's 'Breakdown'. Ruskin would have hated consumerism and would have seen it for what it is, a phycological endgame designed to trap people in a loop of want which they feel is really 'need'. We bloat ourselves on things and come to believe that we need them. Landy decided to make a piece of work whereby he got rid of all his possessions, a task that was far more difficult than you might imagine. He in effect had to develop a factory large enough to cope with the task. Finally after getting rid of all his belongings, Landy was left with a need to start again and the first work he did was to create a series of etched drawings of weeds. It was as if he had to start at the bottom again and to look for a subject matter that reminded him and us of what art was always about, noticing things and looking at them for what they are. By making drawings of "wild plants growing where they are not wanted and often in competition with cultivated plants", Landy reminds us of the need to include 'all' animal, vegetable and mineral forms in our interconnected and entangled eco systems and not just the cultivated ones that we humans think of as being important to us. In doing so he reminds us yet again of the continuing importance of Ruskin's thinking and of a vital lesson when it comes to making art, often the most simple direct approach is the most powerful and this approach when supported by a strong ethical framework can be of great service to us all. 

Michael Landy: Breakdown

Michael Landy: Creeping Buttercup

To read:

Ruskin, J. (1890). The stones of Venice.. (Vol. 2) London: J. Wiley and sons

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