Art

Drawing Circles

The other day I blogged about the story of Giotto’s O: A messenger from the Pope arrived in Giotto’s studio in Florence one morning. He asked for a drawing to prove the artist’s skill to the Pope, who was seeking a painter for some frescoes in St. Peter’s. As Vasari tells the story, Giotto “immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it.” Of course, Giotto got the job.

I had never heard the story until I ran across it online recently. It stuck in my mind, a romantic parable of what artistic mastery means. To paint an angel, first you must learn to paint a perfect circle — something like that.

Curious, I wandered around the web looking for more information about Giotto and his circle, and, in the hopscotch way of the web, I found an interesting blog post that linked Giotto’s O to a different sort of circle, the ensō, the asymmetric circle of Japanese Zen calligraphy.

In Zen Buddhist painting, ensō symbolizes a moment when the mind is free to simply let the body/spirit create. The brushed ink of the circle is usually done on silk or rice paper in one movement (but the great Bankei used two strokes sometimes) and there is no possibility of modification: it shows the expressive movement of the spirit at that time. [Wikipedia]

The imperfection of the circle — the asymmetry, the visible brush trails, the blobs of ink — is the point. In its very “flaws,” ensō embodies a traditional Japanese aesthetic, fukinsei (不均整), asymmetry or irregularity. Garr Reynolds (one of my favorite bloggers) explains,

The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso … is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence.

So these two famous circles, Giotto’s O and the ensō, embody very different aesthetic ideals.

Giotto’s circle is precise mechanical perfection, “a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see.” Even his technique is machinelike: he pins his elbow to his side, turning his arm into a virtual compass.

Vasari adds another detail, as well. In the versions of the story that I initially read, Giotto loads his brush with red paint and paints the circle with a single sweep of his arm. But in Vasari’s telling, Giotto scratches out his circle with a pen (a quill, presumably) rather than a brush. He wants to eliminate even the wavering edge of a brush stroke, the little quivers of the bent bristles.

In writing, that sort of perfectionism is fatal. The very idea of creating “perfect” sentences or stories is paralyzing. No one can write perfectly. I have learned this lesson the hard way. I am a perfectionist by nature. It is no wonder the Giotto story appealed to me. But there are no Giottos in writing. You have to embrace imperfection, you have to accept the little oddities and surprises that emerge in the moment of creation, in the immersive “flow” state that characterizes the best writing sessions. I don’t know the first thing about Zen, but to me the go-with-it philosophy of the ensō feels much truer to the actual experience of writing well. It is not a feeling of abandon; like ensō painting, good writing is never careless or out of control. At the same time, every writer has to accept the little wobbles of his brush, the little traces of his bristles, the funny pear-shape of his ensō. Not because these flaws are unavoidable (though they are) but because they are beautiful.

To a writer like me — who tends to self-edit too much, who sometimes imagines he can write perfectly — the story of Giotto’s O teaches the wrong lesson. I will think of the ensō instead.

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Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas

Diego Velázquez: Las Meninas (1656)

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Giotto’s Red Circle

Pope Boniface VIII was looking for a new artist to work on the frescoes in St. Peter’s Basilica, so he sent a courtier out into the country to interview artists and collect samples of their work that he could judge. The courtier approached the painter Giotto and asked for a drawing to demonstrate his skill. Instead of a study of angels and saints, which the courtier expected, Giotto took a brush loaded with red paint and drew a perfect circle. The courtier was furious, thinking he had been made a fool of; nonetheless, he took the drawing back to Boniface. The Pope understood the significance of the red circle, and Giotto got the job.

James McMullan

The story of Giotto’s O apparently dates from Vasari’s Lives of the Painters. First published in 1550, more than two centuries after Giotto’s death in 1337, Vasari’s profile adds this nice coda to the story:

This thing being told, there arose from it a proverb which is still used about men of coarse clay, “You are rounder than the O of Giotto,” which proverb is not only good because of the occasion from which it sprang, but also still more for its significance, which consists in its ambiguity, tondo, “round,” meaning in Tuscany not only a perfect circle, but also slowness and heaviness of mind.

Like being called “thick as a brick” today.

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The High-Low Problem

The problem [Pauline] Kael undertook to address when she began writing for The New Yorker was the problem of making popular entertainment respectable to people whose education told them that popular entertainment is not art. This is usually thought of as the high-low problem — the problem that arises when a critic equipped with a highbrow technique bends his or her attention to an object that is too low, when the professor writes about Superman comics. In fact, this rarely is a problem: if anything profits from (say) a semiotic analysis, it’s the comics. The professor may go on to compare Superman comics favorably with Homer, but that is simply a failure of judgment. It has nothing to do with the difference in brows. You can make a fool of yourself over anything.

The real high-low problem doesn’t arise when the object is too low. It arises when the object isn’t low enough. Meet the Beatles doesn’t pose a high-low problem; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band does. Tom Clancy and Wheel of Fortune don’t; John le Carré and Masterpiece Theater do. A product like Sgt. Pepper isn’t low enough to be discussed as a mere cultural artifact; but it’s not high enough to be discussed as though it were Four Quartets, either. It’s exactly what it pretends to be: it’s entertainment, but for educated people. And this is what makes it so hard for educated people to talk about without sounding pretentious — as though they had to justify their pleasure by some gesture toward the ‘deeper’ significance of the product.

— Louis Menand, “Finding It at the Movies,” New York Review of Books, 3/23/95

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Vita Brevis, Ars Brevior

 

Last night I watched The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the 1965 film version of le Carré’s novel. The movie is very good — not quite great, but very good. It does a lot of things well. It is beautifully shot, with an elegant gray palette and wonderfully dingy sets. It is well written. Even at 112 minutes long, the plotting is tight and the dialogue is generally rich and credible. (Le Carré himself added some polish to the screenplay.) The acting is terrific. Richard Burton and Claire Bloom shine in the lead roles, of course, but the cast is filled out with obscure actors in supporting roles who are just as good, especially Cyril Cusack as the spymaster “Control” in London, and Oskar Werner as an East German intelligence officer named Fiedler. The whole thing plays like a watered-down version of The Third Man — which I mean as high praise, actually. You could do a lot worse than The Third Man Lite. I came away thinking that TSWCIFTC sits somewhere in that range of movies that are much better than average yet not good enough (or lucky enough) to last. I have no doubt it was one of the best movies of 1965; now it is almost completely forgotten.

To an artist, that is a queasy thought. Ars longa, vita brevis, we like to think. Life is short, art endures.* But the truth is, the vast majority of the art that gets churned up every year — movies, music, literature, pictures, dance, all of it — is about as brevis as you can get. It perishes almost immediately. Even very, very good work like this movie is quickly buried in the endless avalanche of newer creations.

This is no great insight. Every writer knows that ars longa, vita brevis is a vanity. You have only to walk through the endless dusty, abandoned stacks of a library to realize how quickly books are forgotten, even very good books. (Dr. Johnson pointed this out long ago.) Only an infinitesimal percentage of books remain current for any length of time. The rest die by the millions. Ars longa, my ass.

The good news is that, from the audience’s perspective, the reservoir of good art is vastly deeper than we tend to think, especially now, when the long-tail economy of the digiverse makes even the most recherché obscurities quite easy to obtain. If you scratch below the surface even a little bit, there are lots of forgotten jewels like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. That is a fact I will do my best to ignore when I sit down to work.

* Yes, I know that is not a completely accurate translation of ars longa, vita brevis, but it is how the phrase is generally understood today.

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The Pleasures of Imagination

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination — to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. While citizens of other countries might watch less television, studies in England and the rest of Europe find a similar obsession with the unreal.…

Why do we get pleasure from the imagination? Isn’t it odd that toddlers enjoy pretense, and that children and adults are moved by stories, that we have feelings about characters and events that we know do not exist? As the title of a classic philosophy article put it, how can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?

— Paul Bloom, “The Pleasures of Imagination”

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As if they had been around all along

The best new movies carry intimations of permanence along with their novelty and very quickly start to seem as if they had been around all along.

— A. O. Scott, “Screen Memories” in last week’s Times Magazine

That odd feeling you get when you first run into great artworks — they “very quickly start to seem as if they have been around all along” — strikes me as a pretty good definition of success in any art form, not just movies but novels, pop songs, or any other. Once you have met them, it immediately becomes hard to imagine the world without them. There ought to be a word for this feeling, some German train-wreck of a word like schadenfreude.

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Vermeer

Vermeer - Milkmaid

The effort to rival his best works, which was out of the question for anyone else, must have tormented Vermeer, whose self-generated standards demanded a labor-intensiveness scarcely convenient for a father of eleven, working in the middling genre of domestic interiors. Most of his Dutch peers averaged fifty or so pictures a year; Vermeer clocked in with two or three …

Vermeer was about twenty-five when he painted “The Milkmaid.” That’s hard to deal with. What made him so precocious? I hazard that it was the locomotive logic of a simple stylistic idea: to recast conventional genre painting in the terms of a perceptual realism as thoroughgoing as the medium allowed. The conviction of reality that flooded his canvases extended from subtleties of light to significations of character. Loyalty to his technique drew from the artist an approximation of humane wisdom that was probably far beyond his personal capacity, as a young man. This occurs with all sufficiently disciplined creative endeavors — klutzes in life transfigured as seraphim in their work — but seldom so sublimely.

— Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker (subscription required)

Vermeer appears to have stopped painting at age forty. He died three years later. There are only thirty-six authenticated Vermeers in the world. (View a highly detailed scan of this painting here.)

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Richard Diebenkorn: Notes to Myself on Beginning a Painting

Richard_Diebenkorn's_painting_'Ocean_Park_No.129'

The following list was found among the papers of the painter Richard Diebenkorn after his death in 1993. Spelling and capitalization are as in the original. (Via Terry Teachout.)

Notes to myself on beginning a painting

  1. attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.
  2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued — except as a stimulus for further moves.
  3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.
  4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.
  5. Dont “discover” a subject — of any kind.
  6. Somehow don’t be bored — but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.
  7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.
  8. Keep thinking about Polyanna.
  9. Tolerate chaos.
  10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Image: Richard Diebenkorn’s painting Ocean Park No. 129, 1984.

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