seven questions for Leonardo

Dear Leonardo,

This is a letter from the future.  500 years have passed since you lived your days in the salubrious era we now refer to as ‘The Renaissance’.  You wouldn’t recognise this 21st century world, and it strikes me that you’d find the segment of it known as ‘The Art Scene’ a very odd circus indeed.  In this day and age the makings of celebrity artists are commodified, while at grooming institutions called Art Colleges young aspiring creatives routinely endure brainwashing (i.e. psychological trauma) as they are prepared for entry to, and status within, the art market.

Just recently I was delighted to revisit some of your drawings of Deluges and Maelstroms.  I realise that these works are but a tiny portion of your creative output, yet it seems to me that they exemplify much in our contemporary art world that has been trivialised, or lost altogether.

I’m no art historian and have scant knowledge of the details of your own art education, so when these questions popped up in response to the drawings, I decided to put them to you personally.
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
1          Did anyone in a position of assumed authority (teacher, curator, dealer, media critic) ever tear apart your work/practice in a critique, then inform you as to how it should look, and/or how you need to proceed?
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
2          Were you ever advised to subvert beauty?  Were you cautioned that expressing the beautiful is beneath the concerns of any significant artist?
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
3          Were you ever told that you needed to loosen up and express yourself more spontaneously?  That you might benefit from courses or workshops where you’d learn how to find your inner artist?
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
4          Was immaculate attention to detail and painstaking craftsmanship sniffed at in your day?  Were artisans who worked this way considered anal or seen to be avoiding unresolved issues?
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
5          Did anyone ever advise you against your instinct (and awesome capacity) to express a sense of the sacred in your work?  Were you ever told this devotional quality had no traction in the world of serious art?  (i.e. What sells.)
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
6          Many of your paintings carry a narrative, whether sacred or secular.  Did anyone ever tell you these narratives weren’t edgy enough?  Not original or conceptual enough?  That they lacked the irony and anxiety required to be really relevant?
 

Leonardo da Vinci - Deluges and Maelstroms, The Royal Collection

 
7          OR …  were you blessed to have guidance from some inner angel who ensured that your imperatives were never at risk from the ideas of others?  Who ensured you’d never be led astray from your own way of expressing the wonder of being alive – of inquiring, exploring with innocence and joy?

 

Of looking ever more deeply into the suchness of your world?

 

Without apology?

 

Rhetorical questions, I know.  Please excuse me.  So many young (and seasoned) artists of my time encounter and believe dogmatic and arcane opinions issuing forth from the self-appointed pundits of the visual arts.  Sometimes they abandon their creative practice entirely.

Most of these questions will make no sense to you, since in your day concepts such as “inner artist” had yet to be dreamed up;  the whole mind-field of psychology wouldn’t be mapped out (invented) for another few hundred years.  But I know you’ll understand the bit about an inner angel.

Please accept my heartfelt gratitude for your relentless curiosity and unswerving commitment.  Thank you for reminding us all, as the centuries roll on, of the high art of making authentic art.

Yours sincerely,

MLS
Maker and misfit from the 21st century.

 


 

About the drawings:

I am indebted to Stephen Ellcock, curator of the ultimate virtual ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ on Facebook, for this collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings from The Royal Collection.  (Ellcock’s page is an ever-expanding, online museum of images, visual delights, oddities and wonders drawn from every conceivable culture, era and corner of the globe.  For artists, it’s quite simply the best – and perhaps only – reason to hang in/out with FB.)

From his page:  “The series of drawings by Leonardo of a mighty deluge are among the most enigmatic and visionary works of the Renaissance.  Modest in size and densely worked, each shows a landscape overwhelmed by a vast tempest.  The drawings were probably made for his own satisfaction rather than as studies for any project.”

 


 

News from The Royal Collection:

In February 2019, to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, 144 of the Renaissance master’s greatest drawings in the Royal Collection will go on display in 12 simultaneous exhibitions across the UK.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing, a nationwide event, will give the widest-ever UK audience the opportunity to see the work of this extraordinary artist. 12 drawings selected to reflect the full range of Leonardo’s interests – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany – will be shown at each venue in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Southampton and Sunderland, with a further venue to be announced.

For more information:
www.rct.uk

 


Have you read I, Leonardo, written and illustrated by Ralph Steadman?
It’s a masterpiece.  Check it out by clicking the cover image below:

And don’t miss this beautifully illustrated review by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings:
Beloved British Artist Ralph Steadman Illustrates the Life of Leonardo da Vinci


The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.

– Leonardo da Vinci


 

on losing the plot and regaining the world of the holy fool

Michael Leunig is a much-loved Australian cartoonist, writer, painter, philosopher and poet whose newspaper work appears regularly in the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.  He describes his approach as regressive, humorous, messy, mystical, primal and vaudevillian – producing work which is open to many interpretations and has been widely adapted in education, music, theatre, psychotherapy and spiritual life.

His commentary on political, cultural and emotional life spans more than forty years and has often explored the idea of an innocent and sacred personal world.  The fragile ecosystem of human nature and its relationship to the wider natural world is a related and recurrent theme.

‘Leunig’ is a household word here in Australia.  Who else consistently reminds us of our collective and individual vulnerabitlties? Our defences, needs and neediness? Who else – like an innocent wide-eyed kid – points out the elephants in the room and the unclothed emperors?

In total disregard of the snobbery around “content” in contemporary art, Leunig sows his seeds of simple sanity in the intimate space where the artist and viewer meet. He speaks in language we can understand, and as we listen to him – immersed in a mix or humour, poignancy and delight – our own wee holy fool smiles and skips about.

To my great delight Michael has given ‘the awakened eye’ permission to share one of his pieces of verbal artistry, an essay titled Regressive Painting and the Holy Fool.  In this work he covers much territory relevant to the theme of this site and of importance to all who take their playful creativity seriously:  What is genuine creativity and what blocks it? Where has our authenticity gone? What is the relationship between the ego and the holy fool? How can we find our way back to the world of our holy fool? Why does it matter?

As an introduction to the illustrated essay – which has its own page here –  this post offers a few quotes. It’s a teaser – read the whole piece and be reminded of what you know so well.


It is a way of painting.
It is a way of living.
It is a way of transcending the banal inhibited self and finding the divine.
It is a struggling downward journey – this stumbling, daring and devout pilgrimage back to mature innocence and raw beauty; to the sublime joy and the natural intelligence and wisdom of the holy fool.

 

Michael Leunig - The Holy Fool

 
… there is surely a measure of the holy fool in all of us.  What adult has not been a delightful or shocking little holy fool in childhood: the primal young creature who reached out innocently for what was forbidden, or sincerely said out loud a simple embarrassing truth?  ‘The emperor has no clothes’ cries the wee holy fool.  And who did not draw and paint in beautiful peculiar ways, or cry and sing freely for a short early chapter of wide-eyed creative life before the ways of the world began to impinge and inhibit?  Who has not known a time of free flowing reverie and wonder in the rich solitude and sanctuary of early consciousness?  Whose outlook and imagination has not been indelibly adorned by the daydreams and visions of childhood?

~

The dire pursuit of creativity in affluent societies is to a considerable extent driven by egotistical art ambition, but underlying this drive may be an intuitive attempt to recover the capacity for wonder, spontaneity, playfulness, openness, mindfulness and access to raw beauty; the qualities that were so natural and easy in childhood; a search for connection to one’s lost little fool – who is indeed the archetypal personification of creativity’s wellspring.

~

The artist needs to know how to lose the plot
– how to not care and how to not know –
and how to actually enjoy that freedom
and understand what a blessed revitalizing state all of that mess can be.

 

Michael Leunig - The Holy Fool

 

The most joyous painting is not done for the art world, it is done for the inner world; it is a self delighting other-worldly thing – a getting lost in regression and solitude; a sub-literate, semi-delirious way to be with the spirited little fool in the depths of one’s being for a while – there to invent one’s art freely, and there to find enchantment, infinite surprise and the bright wondrous question ‘What is this?’

~ Michael Leunig

http://www.leunig.com.au

Michael Leunig Appreciation Page on Facebook


regressive painting and the holy fool


in search of the sublime and beautiful

The great “painter of light”,  Joseph Mallord William Turner,  now has a page at the artisans’ gallery.

Turner, and Turner only, would follow and render on the canvas
that mystery of decided lines,
that distinct, sharp, visible, but unintelligible and inextricable richness
which, examined part by part, is to the eye nothing but confusion and defeat,
which, taken as a whole, is all unity, symmetry, and truth.

John Ruskin
on the man he regarded as the greatest landscape painter of all time.

 

Joseph Mallord William Turner - Sunset at Margate

 

Turner travelled extensively in the search of the sublime and beautiful. The paintings on his page are a small selection which (admittedly to my very subjective taste) express these qualities, regardless of whether one knows their location or subject matter; paintings which, in Ruskin’s words, deliver to the soul “unity, symmetry and truth”.
 

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was just 15 years old when he exhibited his first picture at the Royal Academy. His talent in the application of paint to render land, sea, sky and atmosphere was unmatched in his time. Commonly known as “the painter of light”, we can thank Turner for taking painting to the edge of abstraction and playing there, unafraid. His priceless legacy to the generations of artists who followed gave them (us) permission to engage this fearless and playful expression of the sacred sublime.

To continue reading, please visit the page:
Joseph Mallord William Turner

 


it’s all about relationship

For a few months – more than I intended as it turned out – I had a trial relationship with Facebook. I set up a page associated with this site, for the sole purpose of nudging readers over to explore its contents. It didn’t take long for the page to gather almost 500 followers, meaning folk who liked the page itself, not just the posts.

Several things happened. I discovered the existence of two separate audiences for my blogs – those who use FB and those who don’t – and noticed how different these audiences are; I learned that putting up good  material on FB (which I endeavoured to do on a daily basis) was no guarantee that anyone would click through to the website – in fact the average was about one per week; I noticed that it became somewhat stressful to ‘feed’ the page and monitor the activity;  and further, I learned that FB was not actually showing the page to its followers in their feeds. Why? Because I wouldn’t give them $ to do so. I grew weary of the constant harping for payment to “optimise” my posts.

In short, I realised that the cyber-world of blogging is much more satisfying to me.  While I will always value my FB friends and continue to use my personal timeline as a noticeboard for the things that are important to me, I am making the return to the deeper and more rewarding blogosphere.


Sean Scully‘s video is a good example of the kind of post that I’d have shared on the now-retired FB page. It’s an apt one for my post today, because he too realises that creativity and painting (and life) is all about relationship. But there’s so much more. Whether you appreciate his work or not, his observations are worth consideration. I love the way he speaks of his obsession with “repairing the world”, and how he wants his work to express “a kind of subjective universality” rather than “telling stories.” How knowledge + craft = freedom. These notions are in alignment with all that this site, and yours truly, values.

 

 


If you landed on this page via an email notification or social media link, it probably won’t be obvious that the site has had a complete overhaul – including a new theme. The ‘home’ page is now a portal that makes the enormous amount of material in the archives more readily accessible:
theawakenedeye.com
Feedback is most welcome!


Relevant reading: how painting can help to change the world, actually


 

divinely superfluous beauty

 

The Awakened Eye - Peacock Feather

 

“The peacock’s tail,” said Charles Darwin, “makes me sick.”
That’s because the theory of evolution as adaptation can’t explain why nature is so beautiful.

Really, does the peacock’s tail have to be that beautiful? Do butterfly wings need such brilliantly varied patterns? Do seashells need such exquisite architecture and patterning to house a small crawling creature? Does a spider really need to spend all night spinning such silken symmetry? And don’t get me started on flowers…

Nature’s nature is to be excessive when it comes to design, and there’s nothing random about it. The beauty of nature is not arbitrary, even if random mutation has played a role in evolution.


Divinely Superfluous Beauty

The storm-dances of gulls, the barking game
of seals,
Over and under the ocean …
Divinely superfluous beauty
Rules the games, presides over destinies,
makes trees grow
And hills tower, waves fall.
The incredible beauty of joy
Stars with fire the joining of lips, O let our
loves too
Be joined, there is not a maiden
Burns and thirsts for love
More than my blood for you, by the shore of seals
while the wings
Weave like a web in the air
Divinely superfluous beauty.

Robinson Jeffers


Robinson Jeffers’ luscious poem eased its way back into my memory this morning when I read Deborah Barlow‘s post Useless Beauty on her blog Slow Muse. I’m grateful for her permission to share it here – for the benefit of those of us who might be in need of an awe-and-wonderment recharge.

 

The Awakened Eye - Bowerbird bower 1

Who needs a peacock’s tail when you can build this for your lady love?
The bower created by a male bowerbird.

David Rothenberg is a jazz musician and a professor of philosophy. He has written a number of books, several of them focused on the interface between natural sounds (like the songs of birds and whales) with jazz and other musical forms.

In his most recent and thought provoking book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution Rothenberg moves into the visual realm, exploring how beauty fits into the current concept of Darwinian evolution. Is beauty part of natural selection? Can its abundance in nature truly be explained by sexual selection?

Rothenberg makes a strong case for aesthetic selection. Beauty as a determiner. This is a delicious thought.

One of Rothenberg’s prime examples is the bowerbird. Each species creates a very particular style of bower, an undertaking that is extremely arduous. Amazingly, these structural—and very sculptural—creations are not nests nor are they used for anything “practical.” They are extravagant expressions designed to please the eye of the female bowerbird.

In many ways they seem to defy evolution since their sole purpose is to look good. But Rothenberg suggests that birds have their own aesthetic, similar to human “schools” of art, like abstract expressionism or cubism. And looking at the photographs of bowers below, how can anyone not think of our own human bowerbird, Andy Goldsworthy?

From the book:

The female satin bowerbirds do choose their mate after what they see in the bower and what they take in from the song and dance. But are they really evaluating the quality of their mate? Modern sexual selection theory says what they are looking for is good genes, while Darwin’s original sexual selection theory focused only on what the females like. Look what he has created — an artwork with style and substance, something no animal besides humans is known to do. Are we to brush all this effort off as a sign or a code for something more mundane and hidden? What if bowerbirds attract, mate and procreate for the propagation of bowers, not offspring? Look at the process as an example of aesthetic selection…

[These are] not structures to live in, but for the females to admire. They are built to be one thing — beautiful.

Rothenberg goes to to say that he does not believe evolution as we know it can explain art, but “a deeper consideration of art can enhance our understanding of evolution.”

He also writes this memorable line:

I believe our understanding of nature increases if we spend more time wondering about all this useless beauty.

Below, a sampling of different bowerbird offerings:

 

The Awakened Eye: Bowerbird bower 2

 

The Awakened Eye: Bowerbird bower 3

 

The Awakened Eye - Bowerbird bower 4


Slow Muse – Useless Beauty