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Historical Art - A Time Machine, But What Else?

A huge visual & philosophical part of my themes uses the art & design of the 19th century & thus, a more recent neoclassical reflection on ancient Greek concepts of 'beauty' - or as we'd call it now, goodness. This hunk of research behind my pieces taught me many things & I kept coming back to one thing I realised I felt. I found that a drawing from any period, patina-coated or creased in the corner sends my heart racing. In fact peeking in to any contemporary artists studio at their process or studies does this & I'm not alone in this reaction, so why are we so fascinated? I think it's because no others so much as artists are such lightning rods of human connection. As Glen Keane says, (that's the guy who designed the little mermaid for Disney) in discussing Michelangelo, ''Design or drawing, is the direct line from the heart to a fixed visual communication of it'' It is for humans, by humans & no matter our sense of shame or defeat at our fellow (hu)man's rage, violence or corruption, we find hope where artists work to individually 'perfect' their form of visual language. Seemingly silent survivors in history, they in fact document not just that which they are paid to depict, but often what we are willing to see & they provide spaces to contemplate absolutely everything in our modern enjoyment of their work. It's as if we do not 'travel back in time' so much as they could sense our examination of it in the future. To quote Waldemar Januszczak, ''I know it's a cliche but standing in front of a Holbein, it's as if I really am there with the sitter'' & that skill is indeed an instant-travel time machine as Waldemar & many others feel. The flesh looks warm, the gazing eyes are about to blink, but for many I think it is also the reality behind a completed piece, a working artists life, which especially in historical art becomes more than a time machine. Artists become an instant direct line of human connection to a real moment of focus, a passing finite time of day & a real sitter who lived & breathed. In artists studies as much as their completed works, we can feel as closely parked to the long dead subjects presence, morals, or emotions as a perceptive artist. Not then just time machines, but a framed virtually interdimensional slice of a visceral moment with another person, in defiance of the man-measured time between us. It is in these intermittent stages behind a composed, completed artwork where I want my portraiture & figures to live...

Above - Holbein's cartoon (or preparatory drawing) next to the finished painting of 'the wide king'.

In this, I've been braving the world of oil paints & portraiture for the first time in a decade to find where I am able to join both ends of this 'connection' through artwork. I had felt it was missing in my interior, figurative pieces. My landscapes dwell in a rich detailed sunlit world which actually needs reducing to monochrome palettes of pencil for them to communicate disconnections from nature... but my interior & portraiture pieces, intended to further that sentiment, thus ended up either working beautifully as a skeletal study - or failing as a 'finished' piece. This interior human world is largely plastic & 'deadened' but that didn't mean the work could be, or how would anyone really 'feel' its sentiments?

I remembered the art nerds dream that is the exhibited contrast of Holbein's completed & cartoon stage of Henry's famous portrait, (above) A monochromatic study of the glittering bull-shouldered figure is hung beside it's completed oil portrait. In this, images of Holbein's amazingly real & human reference studies for his portraits flashed through my mind!

What if, I try to echo both of those pieces in one? Show the fleshy natural subject of the painting, locked in blank, plasticised garments & settings? A sort of lifeless reverse of those ghosts living in Holbein's studies - yet injected with the only remaining natural surfaces - the flesh & hair, within the stiff garments & structures. Thus my paint journey happily began this week. I've played with my oil paints, we've made friends & agreed rolled up sleeves are a must even in my chilly studio. So now I can move on to designing pieces... I hope you enjoyed my ponderings & work progress today. Sammy.




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