Faces and Figures article by Spike- painters TUBES magazine
Posted On 18 December 2021
The article written by painters TUBES magazine chief art critic (Spike) for Tubes Artists Group was first published in TAG#6. Here we have re-published the whole article for your pleasure.
TAG #6 – faces and figures
faces and figures and self awareness.
Have you ever wondered what self awareness means exactly? We humans are often unaware of how we look to ourselves let alone to other humans. How could we be know? It is impossible to see through another persons eyes. And what we do see for ourselves is only segmented parts of what is reality. And what is reality? Reality is different for everyone, isn’t it? Our eyes place images into our brains through a complex network of light sensitive nodes and biological codes. Our brain then takes these codes, having first arranged them into
a sequence using actual and genetic memories, then it fills in the missing parts of the code and presents them in a logical pictorial vision inside the mind. All this happens in milli-seconds. As we all know our eyes are binocular and selective whilst a camera lens is monocular and un-selective (as pointed out by the Art Historian Norbert Lynton, in his landmark book, the *Story of Modern Art).
Yet the human eye is not intended to be for seeing only. Eyes, believe or not, are more closely associated to touch, or rather the ‘sense’ of feel, hence the artists hands are the important and natural extension for the eyes. We call our mind-visions ‘seeing’ many have renamed ‘seeing’ as pure Art. Because we can find no other solid ground for the visions that this ‘seeing’ miracle of nature has given us. That is why many humans think that they create what their eyes see, but soon realise that they don’t do that in actual fact. Eventually they call themselves Artists, for the want of a better explanation of their visions. Artists visions are supremely vivid, and as a consequence, they simply have to translate these visions to record the composited reality of their inner eye – One that even they are not in total control of. We call these translated composites, ‘paintings’ or works of Art. That is why they are valuable to humanity – every one is a unique record of more than one reality of the *world
(*Editor note ii-Refer to Landscapes. Tubes issue #16 2020)
Eleven thousand years ago, in the northern eastern part of the Mediterranean, a society built a structure that is regarded by some, as humanities first ever Cathedral. It is 6000 years older than the world renown megalithic structure Stone Henge in the UK. It would seem humanity is a far older species of mammal than we previously thought. Today we have named this important place of antiquity Gobekli Tepe. Basically, it is a collection of ‘T’ shaped stone pillars of huge and varied sizes, all set in a dedicated space specifically arranged to a pattern. And for reasons, as yet unexplained, the whole site was covered up with earth over many thousands of years ago. Many of these pillars hold carvings of a variety animals – and human sculls have also been found with emblems (unknown meanings) carved into them.
It is thought the structure was to bury and honour the dead elders. And the animals were intended are metaphorical ‘protectors’ of the souls of the people buried in the ‘Cathedral’ (and that was way before the Egyptians held the same basic death rituals for the dead). That is how far we humans track back and how long visual art has been part of our very nature.
All of us today and our ancestors have had this inherited genetic built-in ability to be ‘Self Aware’ creatures. Consciousness, is as old as time and the Cosmos (and possibly the big bang – if that is, thats what was really the start of the universe? Today, I’m not so sure it was). So, when it comes to the faces and figures of humans, which is the feature subject of this issue of TAG, it would be logical to assume we humans really do know how to show ourselves, and others, as a true likeness. In fact it would be perfectly acceptable to presume that by 2020 (a lot of millenniums after Gobekli Tepe) that we wouldn’t need to paint visions of ourselves at all. I mean, don’t we know ourselves by now? – Well, it seems no – not really. Humans are still discovering things about themselves – and more and more these are not only the images, but the visualisation of complex emotions, ones that the images convey. Emotions are pretty tricky to make as a visual, as they tend to be felt and not seen as such.
So, without being too obvious a such and for example, what does ‘Shock’ actually look like? How about medical depression? Or, what about ecstasy? How about lust? Sexual attractiveness? Desire? Hatred? Love? The list for the human condition is endless. These are the emotional conditions that works of Art may exemplify and that most humans are really interested in, at least enough to place them in positions of significance in our galleries, museums. Not unlike the ancients of Gobekli Tepe, we honour the invisible, or the mystique of the human spirit; which in modern senses could be termed as translations of emotional visions, with the face and the figure (bodies) of human beings acting as the catalyst.
Do artists use both reality and abstraction for these compositions? Of course they do.
The visions of the artist come in many forms, shapes and sizes. Artists can simplify and/or complicate an image deliberately, just to hew out from the surface the actual feeling that the vision demands. Movement is frozen with a two dimensional image in general, but movement can also be ‘emulated’ by the artist, if needs be. Look at the Scream by Munch. Is the painting moving? It seems it is, but only to the inaudible sound and vibrations of the torment of the man on the bridge. In fact the whole earth is moving and twisting in the unified agony of him. It is not just a painting of a man ‘imitating a scream’ – the whole painting is screaming. That is why that particular painting is so highly regarded as a work of Art (and not for it’s technical application of paint on surface). Capturing movements of a soul, a look in the eye, a smile on a face, positions of the heads and the bodies are based on the keen observations of life, of experiences, and in some cases, luck of the brush stroke, all intermingled with personal feelings. They express emotion – not the necessarily the reality of the person depicted. This is the real focus of an Artist, at least I think it should be, even if they are unaware of the importance of that level of communication, and some are, not that it matters. Innocence or ignorance can be a distinct advantage, when creating a work of art.
Paintings of faces and figures can also be ‘enlisted’ to cause distain and/or embarrassment in society in general. Let’s take the extreme case of Manet’s painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, (Luncheon on the Grass). The imagery seems simple enough. A nude woman, with another woman half dressed washing in a river, and two men fully clothed discussing something (?) The nude lady is staring at the viewer and smiling (her clothes strewn to right of the composition). It’s almost a photograph.
(Editor note iii:) It could well have been staged, as photography was in its infancy. Manet was from a wealthy family and well connected. He could have been in close contact with the French photographer, journalist and novelist; Nadar – real name: Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. Photography had been enlisted for references by progressive artists from before 1830’s in France. Nadar was the main person responsible for bringing ‘impressionism’ to the publics attention).
The Manet masterpiece was rejected by the Salon of 1863 – because it created an outrage with polite society – why? The painting highlighted the common habit of ‘wealthy’ French men having loose morals in secret, but behaving outstandingly moral in public – pointing out hypocrisy is hurtful, only to them that are guilty of it. It took forty three years before the painting was accepted into the French National collection and hung with pride in the Louvre, Paris (1906). Hypocrisy knows no bounds.
In a similar fashion in our own era, paintings have been taken off museum walls and/or covered up, because they offended the delicate sensibilities of a minority. The offending images were of course paintings of nude humans – And instead of these works of Art being viewed as painting of extreme clarity of vision and/or demonstrations of talent of the artist, or indeed highlighting a specific point in history, they were seen as ‘degrading’ (women).
Although I cannot recall the same minority complaining as bitterly to the mass media, Instagram or Pintrest, for displaying both male and female nude or semi-nude figures on a daily basis. It is quite alarming to consider that after the Manet episode of 157 years ago, there are still segments of our society that have not fully matured, culturally speaking. Be that as it may, the vast majority of people understand that Art, per sé, cannot be chained to rules or regulations set down by politically motivated mortals or religious dogma. Otherwise it would never have developed as a free creative expression from the early to middle eighteen hundred’s and onwards into the twenty first century.
There is an opinion in the public realm, that the human body, depicted pictorially accurate, is the most difficult thing for an artist to paint. And there is a smidgen of truth in that. Those who do paint the human (and that is almost every artist who has ever lived, at some point in their lives, including Monet), have had varying levels of achieving a successful conclusion. A conclusion that truly communicates and displays an emotional content without forcing the issue. It is not always a prerequisite that the human form must be used to convey emotions – Rothko is a glowing example of an artist whom whilst creating near vacancy of form in his imagery, all his major works were imbued with powerful emotions. Yet, after Rothko and maybe Pollock, the ‘colour field abstract painting and action painting stylistic and theoretical breakthroughs, could go no further. The new paths of the methodology and thinking behind the painting works of art that these artist represented, were totally explored as an avenue for artistic expression, almost as soon as the movement had started.
(Editors note iv): Few, if any art critical thinkers, consider that this ‘art cul-de-sac’ was just one of the (many) reasons behind Rothko’s deep depressions, for him taking his own life. And behind Jackson Pollock’s manic alcoholic life style, (after he had completed his masterpieces in calm and reasonable sobriety). His every day life became more and more extreme. And this extreme behaviour was responsible for the ending of his life. Following a party and a heavy drinking session in 1956, it was followed by a car accident (he crashed into a tree). The car crash killed both Pollock and Edith Metzger, a friend of Pollocks ‘girlfriend’ Ruth Kligman. Ruth was thrown form the car and survived the crash with serious injuries. She died from natural causes in 2010).
Beauty of the human form. The sheer joy of painting and the celebratory standpoint are also part and parcel of the genré of depicting the human body. The shapes of the human form, when zoomed in, create abstract patterns of outstanding beauty. We can also take the artists vision to the next step when we use our bodies to become a universe of concentrated inspection. Today we are able to delve deep beneath and into and beyond the skin at a microscopic atomic level. We can view the inside working of our own ‘soul’ containers with detailed live video recordings and static photographic record. DNA and protein formulations and images lead the artist into creating what appear to be abstract inventions, but in reality are in fact precise paintings of the ‘inner’ reality’ of a human body. Changed only in colour or tonal value to accentuate the new forms seen by the artist ‘minds-eye. stimulated by science and technological discoveries of the last four decades.
The human form as a subject, in our wondrous technological era, is open for grabs. The photographic references, thanks to the internet, know no bounds. A quick surf and you can gather enough information and inspiration for a hundred paintings. And yet, today there are the artists who ‘totally’ commit themselves to paint and draw the human form from life (models) – Why? – Perhaps, it is the restrictions of access to a living person that ensures the artists use the ‘memory factor’ in composite imagery, live as it happens on the surface as it is happening. Perhaps it is this ‘live’ reaction and restricted time allowance that propels the artist to create not just a beautiful work of art – but one with an altogether different sensibility and feeling. It’s like, a telephone conversation with someone thousands of miles away, it is good to gain an idea of how a person thinks, but a face to face conversation provides intimate knowledge of the person themselves. Despite our technologies of immediate visual link ups, via wifi and mobile phones, meeting up in person cannot be measured in any other way but the ultimate experience of a human being (for good feelings or bad).
It is because, as I mentioned earlier in this article, eyes are not only for seeing. They are for feeling and getting to understand the invisible ‘soul’ of a fellow human being, a soul that can only be projected in real life. And so, my dear artist friends, no matter what others may tell you, photographic references for painting another human is fine, but to put it simply, there is absolutely nothing as good as the real thing. And if and when you paint a self portrait don’t look in a mirror to see what you look like, become self aware and take a long deep look inside and reflect your soul.