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Zeuxis’ Soliloquy on Educating Art

A painting as a work of art starts within the consciousness of the artist. The artist has the inspiration for a representation of a feeling and he or she proposes to share this with other humans. It may be that the work of art is simply created out of a fundamental need of expression of an individual, satisfied in a tangible picture and not directly aimed at being shared. But even then, the necessity to communicate to the outside world seems evident. Whatever the motives that led the artist to express in art, at the beginning of the artistic creation is the Idea, sometimes already precise and motivated, sometimes only vague and embryonic. The work of art is created out of the idea by a process. In the result, we can recognise distinct features, the act and the elements of the composition. These are the form of the art of painting. The painter thus creates a work of art and then abandons it to the viewer.

While we state that a work of art starts in the idea in the artist’s mind, we do not have to claim that the idea is completely pre-conceived before the work of art starts. The idea may evolve along the creation of the work, grow richer, or even change altogether so that the final idea expressed is entirely different from the first starting intuition of the artist. The expression and the nature of the medium used, and the techniques used for the expression, may change the idea. The idea is always there however, as it evolves.

The process of creation of the work of art is characterised by the way of expression itself, by the act of painting. How the artist worked can sometimes be deducted from the resulting picture. Examples of that are when the painter worked with successive layers of paint, and his brushstrokes still show in the end product or when other means of laying down colour on a canvas or panel can be remarked in the work. Sometimes, due to the vagaries of life, we find unfinished works of an artist, and thus can see how he or she proceeded. A few artists explained themselves on how they worked. The viewer should rarely be concerned with how a painter worked, even though distinct art styles have emphasised the process of creation for its own value. We will not explain much about the process of painting, nor of the technique of the art, that is the materials used, their characteristics and origins. This education is not intended for painters but for viewers. We are concerned with the end effect.

During their process of creation, the painters use a number of elements to produce a picture. The artists have only a limited number of elements at their disposal, which in fact are but juxtaposed areas of colour laid down on a canvas or panel. But borders delimit these coloured areas, the areas come in recognisable forms, and these build a composition. The elements that painters can use are thus few: the idea, lines, shapes, composition and colour. With these few elements artists create stunning effects that need to be original in order to interest the viewer. It is remarkable, however, how by such frugal means painters have captured the interest and passions of viewers over so many centuries. The subject of thess lessons is the explanation of these means, which we call the ‘form’ of the art.

One might believe that analysing a painting in its pictorial elements would deliver the keys not only to understand the beauty or interest of the art of painting, but also to the rules for bringing art. Art would be revealed by the analysis of its elements and by the rules for their combinations. Nothing is less true. The art of painting is a domain in which the whole is always infinitely more than the architecture of the elements. Paintings seem to appeal to the human mind in many mysterious and as yet undetermined ways. More is at play than the analysis, even though analysis often arouses interest and liking beyond the first impression. But a painting does induce feelings spontaneously, which defy analysis, and which yet affect viewers deeply. We will also try to provide a synthesis of the styles of paintings, which is the set of elements used in a particular, globally recognisable way by painters in certain periods of history.

Paintings can express the emotions of the artist, but the artist can also use the technique of art to evoke emotions in the spectator which he or she did not necessarily feel during the genesis of the work. So we must be careful in our beliefs that emotions aroused in a viewer would also have been the emotions expressed. The visual arts can very much express the emotions of the artist, or appeal to the spectator in evoking emotions in him or her. That was certainly the case for instance for the Romantic painters. German and Austrian, also Scandinavian painters in particular, expressed during that period the emotions they felt when they were confronted with grand natural landscapes. But emotions can also be expressed and-or be evoked by non-representational means, and not represent the emotions the artist felt, but the emotions the artist wants to evoke in the viewer in a deliberate way.

We use the word "emotions" to include moods. Emotions might be anger or joy. They have a connotation of action. Moods would be more general states, such as depression, grieve or elation. It is often difficult to distinguish between the two, but both are feelings and we use the word "emotion" often also as a synonym for "feelings".

We do not want to impose an individual taste for what can never be fully analysed to offer a logical explanation for beauty, harmony or other reasons of liking of art by viewers. We will start immediately from the premiss that a work of art does not need to just be pretty and gorgeous or nice or sweet or harmonious to bring forward feelings of aesthetic pleasure. We will plead for the attitude that a picture can be ugly in aspects such as in its content, and yet be admired, and grasp our interest. A work of art and especially works so complex as paintings, cannot be analysed entirely to the extent that its elements, which constitute it and produce the qualification "art", be proven and explained by logic. The analysis is always a posteriori, after the genesis and production of the work and the analysis will never fully prove the art. Explaining the visual arts in words also seems very vain, since the art of painting is not the art of literature. How would it be possible to explain an art by another art’s means, when different arts appeal to different processes of appreciation in the human mind? The effort of explaining paintings in words will remain inconclusive. This is however the only way we have to teach and learn, however inadequate. But we have to realise that at this moment of time and understanding, nothing replaces viewing paintings to discover the art. The education into the viewing of paintings is thus an education into recognising emotions, and into a disposition towards entering the work of art, a disposition for discovery and recognition.

We need to describe the notion of pleasure some more. Art gives us pleasure, but not everything that gives us pleasure is art. We might like to play a game, be entertained, and draw pleasure from that, but the game we play is not art. When we look at a painting we take pleasure from the very object itself, the painting, for its own sake. Moreover, we have no emotions when we are coming up to a painting and see just a flat canvas with areas of colours – it is not an emotion in itself. We have to provide, to enter into some effort of imagination to contemplate the painting and have emotions evoked in us, however rapidly the coloured areas and the forms we recognise may strike us. We need to have some disposition to taking pleasure from a painting, for it to appeal to us. This last point is an aesthetic attitude. Without the viewer opening his mind to a work of art, without him or her being in a disposition for art, no pleasure can exist. So art demands openness of mind to begin with. Art gives us pleasure, but art is not defined by the notion of pleasure only. We will have to find out other criteria to define art by. But art does give us pleasure. There are however no universal and objective criteria to determine when there will or should be pleasure taken from art. The taking of pleasure is a particular event, and a matter of taste, which is inherently individual. There are no agreed-upon criteria for personal aesthetic evaluation.

Nevertheless, we can try to understand some of the single artifices and procedures that are at the disposal of the painter to create the complexity of his or her art. A painter uses lines, shapes, colours, composition, and many elements more to delight the viewer. We can at least try to understand some of these elements separately, as well as the innumerable ways in which they can be assembled and combined, to discover the ingenuity of the artist. Lines, shapes or forms, content, will then better be recognised by the viewer and he or she will more easily comprehend the means by which the painter reaches his or her goals.

The elements are just tools. They are not rules by which a "good" painting could be judged or a "bad" painting recognised. It was sufficient for a theorist of art to devise one or the other set of features as criteria for "good" art, for a group of painters to make magnificent and powerful pictures that broke all such rules. That has happened over and over again in the history of art.

The effort of analysis that we will offer in this text is thus an effort of building up knowledge, of considering piece by piece the architecture that the painter has applied, of understanding and admiring it. We will not start from the whole picture and dissect the content. We will depart from the basic elements, and then constitute the picture to a synthesis. We will start with the simplest elements, with vertical and horizontal lines, and then proceed to shapes and colours. Ultimately we will reach concepts of harmony, as well as the breaking of that harmony, which is creation of interest in the viewer, the final inexplicable quality of paintings. Paintings are infinitely more than lines, shapes and colour, for so many other features enlarge our view and broaden our perspectives in art: content, titles, meaning, the artist’s emotions, and many more. We will discuss how the painters often lead us miles in distance and years in time beyond their frame. The final goal of painting is communication and imagination.

We already touched slightly the motives of creation of an artist. The artist may create only because of a personal need of expression, the need of exteriorisation of his feelings, especially when he or she is incapable to express his or her emotions otherwise than in creating art. Artists are often lonely people who perform their process of creation in isolation, unable to communicate well with people in other ways. But even when artists only work for themselves, the ultimate aim of works of art is social communication. The obvious example of such a person and artist was Edvard Munch. This artist lived alone during many of his later years because he was of a too delicate and sensitive nature as to be able to live a normal life for long amidst other people. He kept his pictures in his house, jealously guarding his paintings, selling only a few to live comfortably, and calling them his children. After his death, the thousands of canvases were discovered covering the walls and floors of his home.

Leon Tolstoy (1828-1910) emphasised communication in art. He wrote, "To invoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced and having evoked it in oneself then by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others experience the same feeling – that is the activity of art". And also, "Great works of art are only great because they are accessible and comprehensible to every one." G87 . We endorse this view. Without communication, even if the message is seemingly one of rejection of communication, there can be no art. If there were no communication wanted between artist and viewer, then why would a viewer bother to look at a painting? Thus it is essential to search for the means by which a painter arrives at communication and to try to understand these means. We will see that the painter has at his or her disposal a surprisingly large set of means to enhance communication, and these means do not just include the obvious, which are the coloured areas on the panel.

Most artists eagerly seek this communication. For without communication there is no interest in the viewer, the viewer passes by and the picture is not looked at, thus does not exist. Painters have used many different artifices to catch and keep the interest of viewers. There is thus a double act of possession in works of art. A viewer seems to possess a certain feeling for a picture, and this feeling is his alone, thus he or she possesses the picture in an instance of intimate and personal link with the picture. At the same time, during the time of interest, the painter takes possession of the viewer since the artist has been able to attract the viewer to his or her idea. This social contact that can span centuries is one of the magical mysteries and wonders of works of art.

The communication can be straightforward as well as complex. Some abstract pictures learn us in simple communication and in simple language of lines, form and colour more on the art of painting than complex figurative paintings do. Abstract art can be savoured precisely because it teaches us to look at the basic and distinct elements of art. Therefore we will often refer to abstract images in the beginning of these lessons. When we arrive at more complex images, such as those of Caravaggio or of Nicolas Poussin, we will need all the elements taken together to explain the richness, and the subtlety of these masterpieces. Having stated that, we need to add that abstract art can of course be complex too, as is shown for instance in Wassily Kandinsky’s compositions. These defy logical analysis, are all emotion, though Kandinsky was one of the first to write almost scientifically on the constituting elements of painting.

While we state that art is communication and attribute that statement to Leon Tolstoy, we do not follow this author in all the conclusions he derives from the statement. The fact that art is communication is not necessarily a criterion from which to make deductions on what should be considered "good" art or "bad" art. The degree of neither the communication nor the quality of the communication should be a criterion by which to value a work of art. But the element of communication – in the relationship artist, work of art, and spectator – is always present.

Claes Oldenburg wrote in 1961 in his "Store Days", "I am for an art that develops while having absolutely no notion of what art is, an art to which we would give the chance to start anew completely from zero." It is in this spirit that we need to look at art, even though in the following text we will proceed more methodically in our quest for understanding. It is in this spirit that we will progress in our discovery of the marvels of painting, starting with the simplest of elements such as vertical and horizontal lines, and discover the complexity of harmony.

We can propose the principles of aesthetics that are the basis of this education as follows. The artist has a conception, an idea for a work of art, by his intuition. The artist takes this inspiration as the beginning of a process of creation. The artist expresses the idea in a certain form. We define the term "form" as all the features of an art that constitute a work. For painting, form means the lines, shapes, colour and other modes of expression used by the artist on the panel. The expression by applying this ‘form’ by the artist is a communication to the viewer. The result is intended to be viewed, and that is communication.

When the viewer sees a painting, he or she has an experience of certain emotions. This aesthetic emotion can be of a complex nature, and not necessarily be nice or sweet, but we will always call this "pleasure". The notion of pleasure is very subjective and we will call more "pleasure" the feelings Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) already expressed as, "The style of an artwork produces an impression which is not adequately characterised as pleasure, satisfaction, or a delightful feeling. Rather, a definite form of activity is imparted to the psychic life of the receiver, and in this activity the psyche is rewarded, intensified, or expanded as it were. Style exudes on energy, which enhances the vitality of the perceiver and his feelings of life. The emotion or pleasure builds on various aspects at the view of the work of art". G87.

We will propose three phases as the viewer learns more about a painting while or after contemplating it. A first aspect is the viewer’s first impression, when emotions are evoked spontaneously in the viewer. A second aspect is the discovery of the viewer of the details of structure, of technique and of form of the art in general. Finally the viewer reaches an opinion of the painting in an aspect or phase of recognition. In due time we will explain these notions further.

The first part of this text is about the form of the art of painting. We will explain how a painter can use form in a work, that is lines, shapes, colours, composition, and so on. While doing that we will explain how form evokes particular feelings in the viewer, and we will emphasise this way of communication of the idea of the work to the viewer. At the end of the text we will expose the process of viewing by a spectator from first impression to recognition.

During history, the use of form in painting has changed, as the use of the individual elements of form evolved. Parts of the education are dedicated to a description of various particular instances of form, as applied by Western-European painters in history. This overview will allow us to explain with more examples the aesthetic principles outlined above.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: May 2010
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