Artists: Notes on Art Making

The first test of all art is that it is not something static like a piece of stone. Whether it is a painting on a canvas, or is represented on stone, brick, wood or anything else, if a work of art, does not express this dynamic quality adequately, it is not worthy of its name. In the Shilpa-Shashtras there are references to the sixty-four creative arts. In those days such creative arts used to be taught with great care to all. A princess and her maid were equally qualified to paint pictures. With the advent of Victorian era and by reason of modern western education, by fine art we came to mean chiefly painting, sculpture and architecture completing the pentad of art by including music and poetry. All other forms of art we now designate as the “minor arts” or “arts and crafts.”

If we consider the subject depicted in a painting in its dynamic aspect, we shall find evidence of two different kinds of expression. In the one imagination is preponderant, while the other is realistic. When we stand before a painting, it takes us right into the scene depicted and we forget all about the room or place where we actually are. This is another test of art. Besides, the more an artistic production holds our mind and stirs our thoughts, the greater is its worth. The literal meaning of ‘chitra’ painting is ‘ashchariya’ surprise. So it has been seen that many people found solace in their sorrow by looking at a painting.

In the old treatises on art there are references to nine ‘rasas’ (i.e. great tastes). It is the work of the artist to bring these to our mind, although some people may consider art as superfluous embellishment. The architect builds houses to create suitable environment in such a way as may broaden the outlook and standard of life and thus spiritually uplift people’s minds. The sculptor creates forms out of earth, stone, metal, etc., through which various human mobile moods take permanent shapes. All these apparently lifeless objects can be endowed with life spirit by an artist and made to speak all that is in his mind.

The creation of an artist reflects all the aspects of his own mind. The ego of the artist is embodied in the object. It is the artist’s mind which is behind the stone and the chisel that makes the piece of sculpture a thing real and attractive in its appeal. In the domain of painting also there are two kinds of artists; one is a realist and the other of an imaginative type. A realist would arrange in his mind whatever beauty he perceives in nature and then deliberately copy it out on his canvas. Landscapes and portraits of the western schools are good examples of such realistic art. The imaginative form of art embodies impressions of objects observed or created purely out of one’s inner urge and intuition. Oriental artists are followers of the imaginative style.

Art has a dynamic quality and the artist’s mind is the source of it. It is also seen that when the mind of the artist becomes weak and imitative his imagination also fades away. Then he goes on seeking after the various styles and mannerisms of the other artist’s work so that he may easily copy them. In the name of experiment, he goes on adopting the style of the Bengal ‘pat’ (folk-art) or of the European ultra-modernists or the Chinese style. On the other hand Indian style of painting is strictly imaginative and as such extremely difficult to follow. The great master artist Dr. Abanindranath Tagore revealed to us the mystery of the art tradition of our country, many have adopted it. But others we see, even after their initiation finding it rather difficult, leaving it and going back to the realistic western methods viz. landscape and portrait painting.

We often notice in our periodicals reproductions of such work. Some of them are positively ugly. They bear testimony to one fact, namely, that they are not drawn with adequate care. If we see with them some unfinished picture by Cezanne or Van Gogh, we feel that the lines from the artist’s brush which show an extraordinary power and movement have, in course of a forceful expression, come suddenly to a stop. The one gives evidence of a challenge in the artist’s mind to depict a novelty, the other is a free expression of the mind. The one indicates poverty of the mind, the other testifies to a remarkable wakefulness. Man has both the sleeping and waking behaviours. When he is asleep, he does not know where he is, as his mental machinery is not working then. Then again, there may be a state in which a person, even though awake, sends his mind far beyond his bodily existence by trance or meditation; this ‘turiya’ state is known to the ‘yogis’. When a person attains this state, there does not remain for him the necessity of giving shape to a materialistic thing. That is why the work of artists expresses much more of their waking state. What we call abstract art, is the embodiment of shapes and postures of which we may get intimations in the land of dreams during our sleep. Sometimes in our dreams we seek to visualise strange and grotesque shapes which it is possible for us to portray in abstract art.

Therefore, we see that in the case of all genuine art, the mind of the artist finds, expression and the merits of the work can be judged through its sincere dynamic quality.

Looking at the matter historically, in the paintings of the primitive people we get a record of their danger-ridden life in the scenes of hunting portrayed by tem. In the ancient paintings, both of the east and west, we similarly find evidence of a religious spirit moulded in an environment of religious restrictions. In Europe today, an extra-ordinary type of new art has appeared (at the beginning of the twentieth century) due to the hold that science of psychology has taken on the human mind. Now-a-days, when the artist carves a figure on stone or on a piece of wood, he does not think of the subject matter he wants to represent in his work, but he thinks more of the natural shape and texture of the medium itself. In this way his subject-matter of course suffers. If the carving has to be done on hard granite, for instance, the sculptor would design the shape of his figure in such a way as would express the special characteristics of granite stone. The expression of the figure itself would occupy only a second place. So also in painting the artist takes pains to find out the inner structure of matter as conceived and discovered by scientists and moulds the subject-matter of his painting accordingly. Thus, the prism-form in cubism, is in reality an attempt at a crystalline representation of things in their primitive state. The modern architect designs the outer shape of the house on scientific principles, with a view to keeping out dust, smoke etc. Such chances in the mentality of man take place at every age and art also keeps pace with them. Even in an ordinary painting, by observing the scheme of lines and colours one can say howmuch of the wakeful spirit is behind it and how much of the sleeping state.

A third way in which we can see the artist’s mind working is in the sphere of technique. For example, take the question of the clarity that the lines and colours have imparted to the subject represented. In this matter, the artist seeks to know the observer within himself; he finds out how he should arrange his lines in a rhythmic discipline, so that the intrinsic beauty of the painting would be best appreciated. Again from experience the artist knows that if his painting contains a mass of indisciplined lines, it becomes static. In the matter of colouring also he knows that, just as, if we put the sky below in a painting and the earth above the balance is lost; even so in painting one cannot put a dark colour above and a lighter one below. This balance in art cannot be taught. Every artist has to keep his mind prepared to understand it according to his own experiences. Fourthly, the material, country, race, social order and economic factor often work through the artist’s mind and reflect themselves in the artist’s work.

The question of individual likes and dislikes is also involved in graphic art. All may not perhaps agree to accept certain works of art. With reference to some particular colours even one may say “I don’t like brown;” another, “I don’t like red;” and so on. But the artist is not concerned with such criticism. Modern Europe is giving up one by one the rigid canons of art of the Victorian age. Unlike the artists of those days, first of all they are now almost completely ignoring the subject matter of the paintings. This treatment is very similar to that of a picture painted on a carpet or a curtain, in which we do not take any cognizance of the subject matter, but only see if the design is appealing to our eyes, and properly executed. The picture itself is only the background here, on which one attempts to arrange certain lines and colours. Such lines and colours may not be arranged in a symmetrical and rhythmical pattern. (see Maurice Denis’s remarks on modern art page 18 of this book.) Such changes of views with regard to art are the outcome of the economic and commercial bent of mind of the present war-ridden world. It is the quantity and not the quality that is required these days. For, if the painting is not made to suit some pattern of crafts the latter can have no novelty in design; and these modern paintings, drawn without adequate thought and training supply the want of such novelty.

On the other hand, if the painter has a scientific mind, and attaches more importance to what he actually knows rather than what he sees in nature, then the science of perspective invented in painting to show the distant views of the objects will have to be discarded. Objects situated further away from our sight look smaller than nearer ones, though in our intellectual minds we may be fully aware that the former is much larger than the latter. This is indeed a most favourable argument for the ultra-modern surrealist to discard perspective. In all artistic creations we find the artist’s mind and if we judge it by our own mind only, with our preconceived ideas, we shall for ever fail to grasp it. Through the artist’s work we get a glimpse of his psychology as he remains one with his creation.

It is the commercial artist who has to think of the means to bring his work with within easy reach of everybody’s mind. But in doing so, he has generally to go far away from what he himself has to give. That is the reason why many artists draw or carve in a detached way without bothering whether others would like their work or not. Wherever the artist has had to follow certain religious conventions, we notice their restrictions manifested in his work. In the Byzantine school of painting in Europe, as also in our ancient Jain, Buddhist and Hindu art the psychology of the priest is visible. As the religious creeds of Hinduism do not preach a fixed dogma and depend mainly upon individual spiritual experiences, artists have open mind and unfettered freedom of expressions. Even in the art of Renaissance school of Europe known so long as romantic art, a dogma was apparent; and it is from this that the modern artists are trying to free themselves by seeking to bring in some novelty in their work by means of varieties of experiments outside the recognized style.

Man’s mind cannot remain fixed for ever on one idea alone for its support. One can easily observe what great changes take place in a man’s life time. So also in the ideology of art we find how dynamic the minds of artists are. It is indeed an interesting thing to note how one’s style springs out of another in a new form. In ancient Europe, Byzantine art, which followed Oriental art in its simplicity in execution, became a great support of religion, and showed one aspect of art; then the realists came and broke all links with their predecessors. Again a change came over these realists and an impressionist school was established as early as 1874 by Turner, Monet and Cezanne. They tried to express the object of nature with an easy stroke of a brush. Futurism was originated in Italy during 1911 to 1915. Marinetti was a rebel against harmony and good taste. Similarly abstractionism was an offspring of Cubistic school in 1909 and Dadaism sprang up in Switzerland in 1917. But the artist’s mind did not stop here. In 1924 a scientifically minded artist, a physician (Andre Breton) tried to see art from the point of view of psychology and founded the Surrealist School. He found his hints in crude forms of paintings and drawings made by the children or images made by the barbarous people and began making experiments on those lines [1]. In this way, the active mind of the artist is leading art into so many channels, and will do so in future to an inconceivable extent.

It has already been pointed out that the mind of the artist undergoes changes according to his environment. This can be tested very well in the drawings made by the children, because impressions are much deeper on their simple minds. I know of a five year old girl who is fond of drawing pictures. Her special liking is for the picture of beasts and the cat is among her hot favourites. So, when she draws a human figure very often it is seen that its limbs resemble those of the cat. Similarly the drawing of a boy who likes railway trains will bear their stamp to some extent. With the growth of the mind, the style and subject matter of painting would change. It has been found with some great actors that owing to the fact that their childhood was spent in the rural country they could not altogether get rid over rusticity in their speech and manners. Similarly it can be observed in the works of artists and sculptors how gradually their tastes have unfolded themselves with the development of their mind.

In order to understand the artist, one should try to know him through his mind revealedin his works. It is not possible to judge him by the width of his works or variety of his technique. An artist can learn technique from outside sources, but the imaginative faculty can develop only through experiment and cultural refinement of his mind. That is why if art is judged in terms of this mental outlook, one can always form an estimate of the wealth or poverty of the artist’s conception. In the present, commercialised world, people attempt to pass conventional patterns as works of art. There is a limitation in that, whereas there is no limit to art so far as it is inspired by imagination. Therefore we find that the spirit of Kalidasa’s “Meghaduta” has been expressed in an immortal way by Shailendranath Dey, that of the Vaishnava poets, by Kshitindranath Mazumdar and that again of our mythologies by Nandalal Bose. But even above the historical spirit we find that Abanindranath Tagore has invested imagination with its own real power.

We must not forget that the approach to art after Byzantine or Gothic school of paintings (on which artists never put their signature) became personal and that in the days of the Renaissance, a scientific approach to nature and perspective were invented. Evaluation of art, artists and experiences in art since then underwent a great change, and psychological science has now come to liberate western art from its previous realistic scientific approach. In this manner art is going outside the pale of aesthetics in the west. Though a set of scholar-critics of Europe are eager to add such scientific value in art, the naturalistic school (especially in landscape and portrait) never ceased to exist. The beauty of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” has in no way changed, though sometimes undervalued by the science-cum-art minded European critics. For in this kind of painting one can easily have an access into the mind of the artist in spite of its subject matter being borrowed from the Gospel. Whereas, to understand a surrealist work one must be educated in a scientific analytical standard lid down by a set of scholar-critics. In this way, art is going to become a chequerboard of scientific formulas and not a mental vision transmitting mystical experiences and translating the phenomena of life and nature;--age old ideals in which Indian art has always found its Gangotri of inspiration in spite of its many foreign impacts.

Notes

[1] “Experimental Psychology and Modern Painting” by Donald A. Gordon (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, March 1951, Vol IX No. 3.) Published in Art and Tradition by Asit Kumar Haldar, 1952
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