A revolution in painting


This post focuses on the revolution in painting that gathered momentum in the latter part of the nineteenth century. A key factor in its genesis was an earlier and still ongoing revolution in the then emerging science of visual perception (more posts on aspects of this to follow)At the core of this was an accumulation of evidence that demonstrated that colour is not a property of surfaces in the external world but a construction by the eye/brain.  In Chapter 6 of my book “Fresh Insights into Creativity“, I have described what occurred as “The Modernist Experiment”.  The word “experiment” is used because the discoveries of science, the threat of the recently invented photograph and the challenge to well-embedded assumptions posed by the Japanese print, led to:

  • A root and branch questioning of just about every aspect of painting.
  • A concerted effort to make paintings that would push forward the search for answers.

More than ever before, the thought-processes and working practice of artists illustrated the earlier groundbreaking contention of John Constable  that “paintings should be regarded as experiments.

A link to the chapter

Please click on the link below to access the chapter in question. In it you will read how the revolution in painting evolved between the 1860s, when the young Impressionists met with now celebrated poets and writers in the Café GuerboisParis, and the 1960s, when an exhibition called The Art of the Real, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, prepared the way for the arrival of so-called “Post Modernism” (to be the subject of a later Post).



Three products of the revolution in painting

The three paintings below show three late nineteenth century painters experimenting with approaches to picture making which would have been inconceivable before the Modernist revolution in painting:

revolution in painting
Gustav Moreau: “The temptation of St Anthony”, an experimental work painted in the last part of the nineteenth century.
  • Gustav Moreau was an early influence on Degas and the teacher of Matisse,
revolution in painting
Toulouse Lautrec – La Loge: An essay in experimentation
  • For detail on the experimental attitude of Toulouse-Lautrec, see Chapter 7:  “Toulouse Lautrec , the questioning of values”.
revolution in painting
Berthe Morisot experimenting with mark making.
  • Berthe Morisot studied under Corot, a precursor of Modernism in painting, before meeting Manet and marrying his brother. Who influenced whom is a moot question.

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False confidence

A personal experience

Continuing in the spirit of Tapies’ game-playing approach to creativity, we find ourselves jumping sideways to false confidence and self-deception, two closely interrelated subjects of great pertinence to both artists and scientists. These I will spread over two Posts. Both can be approached via episodes in my personal history.

The first anecdote, which is on the subject of confidence, concerns a flight of fancy that popped into my head at the time I was meditating on the mysteries of recognition, and how on earth the eye/brain systems could enable it.  My reverie took the form of what I came to call the “Abstraction-Hierarchy Model”.  It was a simplistic conception relating to brain-system processing that will be explained in more detail in a later Post.

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A conversation with Xavier

The possibility that artists can build substantial castles on insubstantial foundations leads naturally to the subject of “self-deception”. During a recent conversation, the French artist Xavier Krebs confided that, during the process of making a painting, there sometimes comes a moment of what he described as a time of massive self-deception. Suddenly, to his delight, the painting that he is working on seems to come alive in a way that is thrilling beyond belief. The experience is extremely potent and only too real. The balloon is not pricked until the next morning when Xavier rushes excitedly to the studio. There he finds himself confronted, not by the “masterpiece” he was expecting, but what he now experiences as a spirit-crushing “disaster”. Nothing has changed but the artist’s experience of what he is seeing, Yet he assures me that there is no room for doubt: The scales of self-deception have dropped permanently from his eyes:

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Scientific revolution gives artists ideas

Five Scientists and a scientific revolution

Strictly speaking a scientific revolution cannot have either a starting point or and end point. It is always part of an ongoing process. However, two events provide milestone contributions to the scientific revolution in the understanding of visual perception that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first was a lecture given by Gaspard Monge in 1789 . The second, the publication of a book by Hermann von Helmholtz in 1867. In between these two dates, various other scientists made key contributions to the science of visual perception. Three worth special mention were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Michel Eugène Chevreul and James Clerk Maxwell.

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Cézanne falls short

A tiny bit of unpainted canvas

The portrait of Ambroise Vollard by Cézanne, now located in the Petit Palais in Paris, took one hundred and five intense, emotion packed sittings to produce. At first sight, it seems complete. But on closer inspection, we find that, even after all those hours of concentrated effort, there is a tiny patch of unpainted canvas, situated in the area where a knuckle should normally be.

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Tapies advocates looking games

A quotation from Antonio Tapies

In an earlier Post I suggested the advantages of a games-playing attitude as a stimulus to creativity. Due in large part to his pioneering explorations of picture-surface characteristics as subject matter for painting, Antonio Tapies came to be regarded by many as one of the key figures of twentieth century art. He has also proved himself a stimulating writer. One of his literary productions is a very brief essay entitled, The game of knowing how to look”, in which he gives his advice on creative looking. He starts by advocating focusing attention on some simple object, such as an old chair. He elaborates:

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Playful fancies as a stimulus to creativity

Having fun with creativity

The last but one chapter in my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity” illustrates how indulging in playful fancies can stimulate creativity. The chapter as a whole has been described by a friend as “very Postmodernist” and is by far the longest in the book. It demonstrates how even the silliest ideas can spark a ragbag of speculations and, thereby, lead along unimagined routes, to all sorts of thoughts, in all sorts of domains. In this chapter, some of the ideas turned out to be a bit frivolous, but all of them have an underpinning seriousness, and all lead on to another batch of speculations.

Right-minded or wrongheaded

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How reliable are my “truths”?

The nature of “truths”

When, as a young man, I went to university to study history, I was fortunate to have as one of my my tutors K.B McFarlane, who has been described as the most influential Medieval historian of the 20th century. Of the many things he taught me, perhaps the most enduring concerned the nature of “truths”.

In the course of a general conversation on essay writing, I confessed my horror at the idea of committing anything half-baked to paper and deplored the unenviable predicament in which this placed me. As a raw undergraduate under constant time pressure (two essays a week and an analysis of a constitutional document), I felt there to be no possibility of fitting in the research necessary for providing satisfactory answers to the essay questions that I was being given. My tutor seemed surprised. He said that this was a problem that had only caught up with him in later life (possibly explaining his growing reluctance to publish his own work). He then told me that when he was a student, a number of his contemporaries, being primarily interested in non-academic aspects of university life, left themselves too little time for their studies. To help these fun-loving friends with their logistic problem, the precocious undergraduate had offered to write their essays for them.

When he did so, he quite frequently found himself faced with having to produce more than one answer to the same question. To make life more interesting, he challenged himself to make the arguments used in the different essays as unlike one another as he reasonably could within the constraints provided by the “facts” at his disposal. I felt, “how marvelous to be free to generate different and, even, incompatible “truths” from the same material, how instructive, how creative and how salutary.”

truths from KB McFarlane
K.B. McFarlane

A liberation

It was a profound turning point in my intellectual life. This open-minded approach to the nature of “truths” enabled me to have a much more relaxed attitude to making sense of historical events. Ever since, I have ceased to regard the aim of the historian as presenting irrefutable conclusions, based on unambiguous evidence. Now, I take pleasure in looking for alternative ways of making sense out of the material at my disposal.

This game-playing attitude to the nature of “truths” has been of great value in the evolution of the ideas presented in my books on painting, drawing and creativity. Among other things, it has influenced the way I have told the story of Modernism in Painting, which plays an important role in all of them.

My understanding of this subject was hugely influenced by my two main art teachers, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko and Michael Kidner. It was they who gifted me the issues and ideas that set me on my personal journey of discovery. Hardly surprisingly, their selections of “facts”, and the interpretations they based on them, related to their personal history of concerns as artists. This is probably why, the stories they told were so different in their selection and interpretation of content, from those presented by art historians and critics.  Presumably, it is also why I have been unable to find some of the “truths” they communicated in the writings of others.

Was what my teachers taught me true?

Two of the now inaccessible sources upon which I built my life both as an artist and as a teacher were:

  • The dogmas of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, which, according to him, embodied, “all you need to know about painting”.
  • The account of the origins of American Abstract Expressionism given to me by Michael Kidner, which focused on the value of what he termed the “propositional approach”.*

Both were the products of attempts to abstract an essence from complex issues. Both have the virtue of presenting an easy-to-follow blend of simplicity and a clarity. However, it seems that these desirably qualities could only come at the expense of nuancing, or even of suppressing, potentially contradictory detail. Accordingly, the question arises as to whether what was lost in the synthesising process diminishes the value of what was gained.

truths from Maian Bohusz-Szyszko
Professor Bohusz-Szyszko
truths from Michael Kidner
Michael Kidner RA

Does it matter what their simplifications leave out?

In my case, there were two reasons why the answer to this question turned out to be “no”. The first was that the simplifications proved to be enormously helpful when I applied them in practice. Right or wrong, what they did for me was to provide clear route maps to follow. These not only opened up new ways of thinking about paintings but also, quite as significantly, new ways of feeling about them.

The second reason was more a matter of my personality. I have to admit that I am temperamentally unsuited to following route maps blindly: There was always a part of me that thought of my paintings as tests of my teacher’s beliefs. In other words, I could not help thinking of them as experiments.** My luck lay in the number of fruitful questions that these generated and the richness of the material that was revealed in the course of my attempts to find answers to them. As it turned out, the research that these triggered led me to delve into a wide range of sources of which the most important were:

  • Books on the practice of painting and drawing.
  • The history of the ideas of artists and art teachers.
  • The science of visual perception.

What I found led me to frequent questioning of widely accepted norms. I was shocked by number of accredited “facts” I came across that turned out to be either misleading or simply untrue, not least among them ones that claimed to have scientific backing.

Can my truths be trusted?

Faced with this predicament, I felt compelled to look for more reliable “truths” and over the years I am confident that I have done so. However, two questions arise:

  • Can my alternative “truths” can be trusted?
  • Are they are of practical use.

My attempts at comprehensive answers to these questions provide the main subject matter of my teaching and my writings. In my books, as well as explaining some of the numerous ways they can be of practical use, I give substantial evidence as to why they can be trusted. I have already begun the process of sharing some of this with readers of my Posts, such as the ones on The Venetian Colourists and Colour in Painting.  And, I intend to add many more in the coming weeks and months.

* I intend to elaborate on the “propositional approach” in a later Post that will discuss Michael’s work and ideas.

** Also in a later Post, I intend to submit a Post on the “Art/Science debate”. In this I quote John Constable as saying: “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature. Why then should not painting be regarded as a branch of natural philosophy, of which the pictures are the experiments?”

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“At last I don’t know how to draw” : Toulouse-Lautrec the first Modern Painter”

In 1992 I was asked to write an article for “La Revue du Tarn” as a contribution to  the “Year of Toulouse-Lautrec”.  In particular I was asked to give a critique of the big exhibition of his paintings that took place that year in London and Paris. More recently I included an edited adaptation as Chapter 7 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity“. Click here for a .PDF copy of it.

Apologies for the poor quality of some of the illustrations. They will be better for the published version.

Toulouse-Lautrec drawing-5

Toulouse-Lautrec : Drawing of a woman from the “Artilleur et femme” series

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Why I am a Flat-Earther

“On being a Flat-Earther”, an edited excerpt from Chapter 10 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”

A flat-earther is someone who insists that the earth is flat and who is likely to be derided for holding such a factually ignorant view. In this post, at the risk of being laughed at, I claim to be a flat-earther myself. A theme of this chapter is that any starting point, however far-fetched, can lead to creative outcomes, as is proved my the many artists who have painted masterpieces on the basis of crack-brain ideas. My purpose in this post is to emphasise two points, made throughout this chapter, namely that investigating alternative descriptions can unblock stagnant thought-processes and liberate creativity and that they can do it whether the alternatives are sensible or absurd. It is a thought-provoking idea, which is worth expanding on. So here goes: Continue reading “Why I am a Flat-Earther”