Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘E.H. Gombrich

Quote of the Day

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What would make art easy for the painter would make it impossible for the beholder. If nothing were too improbable to make a picture, paintings could not be read.

E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2018 at 7:30 am

Masters of the earthworm, or the generalist’s dilemma

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Buckminster Fuller

Over the past year or so, I’ve scaled back on the number of books I buy each month, mostly for reasons of shelf space. Every now and then, though, my eye will be caught by a sale or special event I can’t resist, which is how I ended up receiving a big carton last week from Better World Books. (As I’ve noted before, this is the best site for used books around, and a fantastic resource for filling in the gaps in your library.) The box contained what looks, at first, like a random assortment of titles: Strong Opinions, the aptly named collection of interviews and essays by Vladimir Nabokov; Art and Illusion by E.H. Gombrich, which was named one of the hundred best nonfiction books of the century by Modern Library; Cosmic Fishing, a short memoir by E.J. Applewhite about his collaboration with Buckminster Fuller on the book Synergetics; and best of all, Ernest Schwiebert’s magisterial two-volume Trout, which I’ve coveted for years. If it seems like a grab bag, that’s no accident: I really had my eye on Trout, which I ended up getting for half the price it goes for elsewhere, and the others were mostly there to fill out the order. But my choices here also say a lot about me and the kind of books and authors I find most appealing.

The most obvious common thread between all these books is that they lie somewhere at the intersection of art and science. Nabokov, of course, was an accomplished lepidopterist, and Strong Opinions concludes with a sampling of his scientific papers on butterflies. Art and Illusion is a work on the psychology of perception written by an art historian, and the back cover makes its intentions clear: “This book is directed to all who seek for a meeting ground between science and the humanities.” Fuller always occupied a peculiar position between that of engineer, crackpot, and mystic, and this comes through strongly through the eyes of his literary collaborator, who strikingly argues that Fuller’s primary vocation is that of a poet, and reveals that he briefly considered rewriting all of Synergetics in blank verse. And in Schwiebert’s hands, the humble trout becomes a lens through which he considers nearly all of human experience: in the first volume, he wears the hats of historian, literary critic, biologist, ecologist, and entomologist, and that’s before he even gets to the intricacies of rods, flies, and waders. As Schwiebert writes: “[Angling’s] skills are a perfect equilibrium between tradition, physical dexterity and grace, strength, logic, esthetics, our powers of observation, problem solving, perception, and the character of our experience and knowledge.”

Hilaire Belloc

In short, these are all books by or about generalists, original thinkers who understand that the divisions between categories of knowledge are porous, if not outright fictional, and who can draw freely on a wide range of disciplines. Yet these authors also share another, more subtle quality: a relentless focus on a single subject as a window onto all of the rest. Nabokov was as obsessed by his butterflies as Fuller was by the tetrahedron. Gombrich returns repeatedly to “the riddle of style,” or what it means when we say that we draw what we see, and Schwiebert, of course, loved trout. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of them became generalists by accident; it takes a certain inborn temperament, and an inhuman degree of patience and curiosity, to even attempt such a comprehensive vision. But it’s no accident that all four of these men—and most of the generalists we know and remember—arrived at their expansive vistas through the narrowest of gates. Occasionally, a thinker with global ambitions will begin by deliberately constraining his or her focus, in a kind of apprenticeship or training ground: Darwin spent long eight years studying the cirripedes, a kind of barnacle, in what Thomas Henry Huxley called “a piece of critical self-discipline.” He knew that you need to go deep before you can go really wide.

And that hasn’t changed. The entomologist Edward O. Wilson recently published a book entitled The Meaning of Human Existence, which would seem insufferably grandiose if he hadn’t already proven himself with decades of laborious work on the ants and other social insects. When we think of the intellectuals we respect, nearly all are men and women who made fundamental contributions to a single, clearly defined field before moving on to others. That’s the generalist’s dilemma: it’s hard to think in an original way about everything until you know one thing well. Otherwise, you end up seeming like a dilettante or worse. I’m acutely aware of my own shortcomings here: I’ve spent all my life trying to be a generalist, to the point of becoming a writer so I had an excuse to poke into whatever subjects I like, but I’ve rarely had the patience to drill down deeply. And while I’m content with my choice, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone else. Hilaire Belloc once said that the best way for a writer to become famous was to concentrate on one subject, like the earthworm, for forty years: “When he is sixty, pilgrims will make a hollow path with their feet to the door of the world’s great authority on the earthworm. They will knock at his door and humbly beg to be allowed to see the Master of the Earthworm.” Belloc pointedly failed to take his own advice, but he has a point. We need to become masters of the earthworm before we become masters of the earth.

The imitation game

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Drawing by Henri Matisse

Yesterday, while browsing at my local thrift store, I picked up a copy of a beautiful little volume called Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters by Robert Beverly Hale. The book is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of one hundred drawings by the likes of Leonardo, Cambiaso, and Degas, interspersed with notes and commentary from one of the century’s legendary drawing teachers. (Hale was a curator of American paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an instructor at the Art Students League, and the author of the article on drawing in the Encyclopedia Britannica.) I would have loved it in any case, but I was especially charmed by the curmudgeonly note on the first page:

It has always seemed to me that if you really wanted to excel in drawing the figure, you should go and study with the greatest living master of figure drawing. But the trouble is that there is no one alive today who can draw the figure very well; there is, perhaps, no one alive today who can draw the figure even as well as the worst artist represented in this book…But things are not as bad as they seem, because in these days of unlimited reproductions you can study with any of the old masters you wish.

Hale’s book, in short, represents a conscious return to the classic method of art instruction, which consisted of studying and emulating the drawings of past masters. For those of us accustomed to the idea that drawing ought to be done from life, this may be a difficult concept to grasp, but it’s grounded on a commonsensical understanding of what art requires. Few if any major artists have ever tried to draw exactly what they saw; every work of art, even the most representational, is the result of an intricate process of selection, emphasis, and omission. (Speaking of how artists will eliminate certain features, like cast shadows, for the sake of clarity of form, Hale quotes James McNeill Whistler: “When one of Whistler’s students said, ‘I like to draw what I see,’ the artist answered, ‘Wait ’til you see what you draw!'”) It’s the finished piece that matters, not its theoretical fidelity to its source, and it’s by studying the work of more experienced artists that we develop our intuition of what to include and what to leave out. Trial and error will accomplish much the same thing, but it’s always nice to have a model to follow.

Samson and Delilah by Luca Cambiaso

And this kind of imitation is central to all of the arts, including writing. All good fiction is the product of selection, or of “learning what not to say,” as Beryl Bainbridge notes, and most attempts to write down an unmediated string of impressions end up totally unreadable. Direct observation of life alone won’t teach us the fundamentals of plot, structure, concision, or any of the other strategies an author uses—as a visual artist does—to coherently project sensory experience onto a two-dimensional plane. There are countless approaches that an author can take, just as the sketches of Raphael and Daumier have little in common, but they’re all united by an effort to solve the same set of problems. And while it’s important to learn to see the world with a writer’s eye, it’s equally crucial to study great writing for what it tells us about the transmutation of the world into words. I learned how to draw by copying images from books and comics, and my education of a writer consisted of loving pastiches of the writers I admired. Even if we’re just imitating superficial elements of style, if we’ve chosen the right exemplars, we’ll end up absorbing something more valuable along the way.

Of course, slavish imitation can be a trap of its own. There’s a very real sense, for instance, in which the arts of China—while beautiful in their own right—eventually degenerated into the unthinking reproduction of traditional motifs, as E.H. Gombrich describes in a story in Art and Illusion:

James Cheng, who taught painting to a group of Chinese trained in different conventions, once told me of a sketching expedition he made with his students to a famous beauty spot, one of Peking’s old city gates. The task baffled them. In the end, one of the students asked to be given at least a picture postcard of the building so that they would have something to copy.

And when we look at the rows of novels on sale on the shelf of new releases, it’s easy to see them as a series of imitations of a handful of essential authors. (It’s worth noting that this is also a publishing strategy: marketing departments love to make a novel look more or less exactly like the ones you’ve liked in the past, down to the typeface on the cover.) But for all that, there are still times, especially early on, when imitation is more useful as a means of learning than the pursuit of blind originality. Most of what occurs to us has been done before, and better, by others, and it’s only by passionate study of the past that we can find our way into our own future.

Written by nevalalee

August 13, 2014 at 9:19 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 12, 2014 at 7:30 am

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