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


 

tracing the contours of bewilderment

Jena Argenta brings her exquisite papercutting to the artisans’ gallery, and contributes an equally exquisite, deeply thoughtful essay about her work.

In papercutting and in drawing,
I can’t capture the Mystery of a crane or a lily.
I can only trace the contours of my bewilderment.

 

Jena Argenta: Walking the Dark (detail), black newsprint unmounted, full piece size 9"x16"

Walking the Dark (detail), black newsprint unmounted, full size 9″x16″

 

Frederick Franck and my mother were early teachers in how to see and how to love. And if one makes a practice of falling in love, everywhere, with everything, it pushes the reach of one’s arms. Far becomes near. There is no “other” in the margins. Suffering is not on the peripheries. Like beauty, it is palpable and immediate. Drawing can leave you feeling broken and small with God on your skin. It can change your life. And yes, Jordan Wolfson, it can change the world.

My papercutting, while part prayer, is just a fancy way to get back to that line. To illuminate it by leaving it out. It turns the experience of life drawing and its loving inside out. I want to share eyes with you. And to take my time. I want to dig my heels in like a heavy rooted oak in the city’s technetronic center and hold ground and show you how beautiful light is when it’s mediated by shadow.

– Jena Argenta

Read the full article, with more examples of Jena’s work, here.


artisans

artisans’ gallery


at last I don’t know how to draw!

 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Ce qui dit la pluie

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: Ce qui dit la pluie

 

This morning I read a beautiful expression of encounter with flow – or undivided awareness – in the activities of music-making and drawing. I’d like to share it with you. It reminded me of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous comment, as quoted by Henri Matisse:

At last I don’t know how to draw!

Unfortunately I can’t offer a sample of his music, or an example of the drawings, but here’s the ‘confession’ – from Dustin LindenSmith, one of the editors of the brilliant online Nonduality Highlights daily newsletter. It articulates to perfection the focus of this website and blog …

I had two quite glorious epiphanies this week while practicing two of my main passions: jazz tenor saxophone and drawing. In each case, I experienced several blissful moments of what behavioural neuropsychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.

While playing a slow blues in B-flat with my Hammond B3 organ quartet, I felt the music come through me completely unhindered, without any of my own conscious psychological involvement. For three or four minutes, I became lost in physical time and space, just hearing the notes of my saxophone being played to me as if in a dream. Improvising jazz can be a terribly cerebral exercise when playing a complicated tune. But in this instance, I exercised no personal interference with the notes that were played; they just flowed naturally through me, without my control.

Later in the week, while sketching somewhat aimlessly, I realized that if I changed my hand position a certain way and then removed my brain’s focus from the motor control of my hand, I could just “see” the image I wanted to draw in my mind’s eye, and watch my whole arm move in harmony with what I was seeing. As long as I maintained my focus of awareness on the “seeing” instead of the “drawing,” the image I saw in my mind was exactly replicated in graphite on the page. But “I” didn’t “do” a thing to draw it. It just happened.

The common aspect of both of those experiences? I think I was just getting out of my own way. For several glorious minutes this week, I got completely out of my own way, and let life be lived as it always is, but without my own conditioning or desires or influences laid on top of the experience.

Dustin LindenSmith


The artisans whose work is featured in this site’s artisans’ gallery all speak – in varying ways – of their practice in these terms. They notice that their creativity depends on nothing so much as their absence.They speak of a mysterious immersion in their work to the point of personal disappearance; a nondual encounter where observer and observed, subject and object, cease to be nouns separated by time and space, and are replaced by creative, dynamic action – by seeing, drawing, painting, making…

Are you familiar with this ‘flow’ in your creative work, your passion – or in your life in general? How would you express your experience?


seeing/drawing as meditation

perceiving without naming

waking up to wonder


as if it was a lover…

 

Amanda Robins: Dyad 2

Amanda Robins: Dyad 2, 2009
pencil on Arches watercolor paper, 115 x 95 cm

 

I examine the object as if it was a lover, a book, a document.  It is willing to offer everything to me, passively.  I am moving closer to the object, as close as I can, and it covers me benignly.  Warming me to the world of things.

I layer the pencil marks over one another in light strokes, building up the tones carefully.  Light glints softly off the graphite surface.  The paper colours and imprints like asphalt, a well-worn pavement with pockmarks and incisions.  The paper stump forces the graphite into the craters and valleys of the paper – sliding over the surface – burnishing, embossing.  I am entranced by this silvery surface – the powder creates a film, grey and silver clouds forming, the lines of pencil changing and perfecting them.  Away from the amorphous, I push the image into my favoured safety net … [t]his is the boundary, the structure which allows me to feel held and absorbed, contained and subsumed.

– Amanda Robins


SECOND/SKINS Exhibition Catalogue
www.amandarobins.com.au


Amanda Robins at the artisans’ gallery

meditative process made visible

slow art


to see clearly is poetry

 

John Ruskin - Rough sketches of tree growth, pen and neutral tint.

John Ruskin: Rough sketches of tree growth, pen and neutral tint.

 

Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind.  Let them go down a green lane.  There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals.  The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all!  But what will the sketcher see?  His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness.  He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light.  He will see here and there a bough emerging from the veil of leaves, he will see the jewel brightness of the emerald moss and the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a single garment of beauty.  Then come the cavernous trunks and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes.  Is not this worth seeing?  Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.

– John Ruskin


Quoted in The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton

Image © University of Oxford – Ashmolean Museum


John Ruskin at the artisans’ gallery

seeing without shadows