Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James McNeill Whistler

“Nature is usually wrong…”

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James McNeill Whistler

Nature contains the elements, in color and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music.

But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful—as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.

To say to the painter, that Nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, that he may sit on the piano.

That Nature is always right, is an assertion, artistically, as untrue, as it is one whose truth is universally taken for granted. Nature is very rarely right, to such an extent even, that it might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong: that is to say, the condition of things that shall bring about the perfection of harmony worthy a picture is rare, and not common at all.

This would seem, to even the most intelligent, a doctrine almost blasphemous…Still, seldom does Nature succeed in producing a picture.

James McNeill Whistler, “The Ten O’Clock”

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2016 at 7:30 am

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

Comedy and the high-functioning psychotic

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Patton Oswalt

Last week, I noted that there isn’t a lot of humor in my writing, which I chalked up to the fact that I’ve spent most of my life as an author developing other elements of fiction. However, there’s an alternative explanation: maybe I’m just not wired for comedy, at least not compared to those who are good enough to do it for a living. A recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry reports that comedians tend to score higher on four categories of psychotic traits, measured against a control group of actors—who are used to going on stage—and individuals working in noncreative fields. These tendencies include “unusual experiences,” such as a belief in psychic phenomena; impulsive or antisocial behavior; difficulty in focusing for long periods of time; and anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure. (This last quality won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Woody Allen, whose working title for the film that eventually became Annie Hall was Anhedonia.) And although any study like this needs to be taken with a grain of salt, it certainly seems consistent with what we know about the inner lives of most comedians.

But there’s also a paradox here, which is that performing comedy on stage is one of the most demanding of all creative professions, and those who succeed at it have invested inhuman amounts of time and energy into perfecting their craft, which requires all the traits of focus and organization that true psychotics might seem to lack. In an interview last week with The A.V. Club, Patton Oswalt described his process of preparation for his first HBO special in terms more suited to an athletic event:

It was my dream to do a half-hour on HBO, so that was a big deal for me. I know this is such a cliché and other comedians have said this, but I did treat it like a prizefight. I treated it like I’m ready to go in to the most perfect half-hour that I could, and I was doing sets non-stop. In clubs, I just booked myself everywhere leading up to it. On the nights that I had off, I would find a stage somewhere where I could work on a big chunk of it over and over and over again.

Trevor Noah

Later, however, Oswalt was told by his director that he’d been preparing so obsessively that he’d drained the life out of the material—he’d performed the same routines so often that all the spontaneity was gone. The director’s advice: “Tomorrow night I want you to go out, go get dinner, go see a movie, forget that you’re doing the special, and then on Friday, when you do the special, I guarantee you, it’ll all come rushing back into your head, and you’ll have a great set.” And it worked. Which gets close to the heart of the inherent contradiction, and the challenge, of being a good comedian. If comedy’s origins lie in the kinds of lateral, nonlinear thinking that we associate in their more extreme forms with certain kinds of mental illness, its execution depends on systematic rehearsal, revision, and refinement, all of which has to remain invisible to the audience. The perfect comedy set has an organic, inevitable structure, but it also feels as if it’s being thought up by the performer on the fly, no matter how many weeks or months or preparation really lie behind every line.

That’s true of all great works of art, of course; if we’re aware of the effort that has gone into an artistic production, it implies that the effort wasn’t enough. (Or as Whistler puts it: “Industry in art is a necessity—not a virtue—and any evidence of the same, in the production, is a blemish, not a quality; a proof, not of achievement, but of absolutely insufficient work, for work alone will efface the footsteps of work.”) In comedy, that balance between the spontaneous and the structured is especially crucial, and difficult, which is why there are so many more psychotics than there are comedians, and so few great comedians overall. Watching a flawless comedy set, like Trevor Noah’s eight perfect minutes on Live at the Apollo in London, allows us to see a virtuoso craftsman at work, and it’s all the more remarkable when we consider how seamlessly these raw emotional materials have been transmuted into a skilled performance. It requires a personality both sane enough to master a nearly impossible skill and crazy enough to be drawn to it in the first place. And although that combination may be rare, it’s more amazing that it happens at all.

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2014 at 9:47 am

Quote of the Day

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James McNeill Whistler

Industry in art is a necessity—not a virtue—and any evidence of the same, in the production, is a blemish, not a quality; a proof, not of achievement, but of absolutely insufficient work, for work alone will efface the footsteps of work.

James McNeill Whistler

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2013 at 7:30 am

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