Monday, December 30, 2013

Spiritual Feasts to Which We Rarely are Bidden

Crepuscular Dragonflies. Conte Sketch by Ken Januski.

It was very late when I went to bed and I had a delicious sensation of the cool of the evening, the open windows, and the sparkling song of a nightingale. If it were possible to convey this song to the mind through the medium of the eyes, I should compare it to the twinkling of the stars seen through the trees on a beautiful night; the notes so light, or vivid, or flutelike, or full of unbelievable energy coming from so small a throat, seem to me like those fires, now sparking, now faintly veiled, that are scattered like celestial diamonds over the great vault of the sky. When those two sensations are combined, as so often happens at this time of year, the feeling of solitude and coolness, with the scent of the flowers and, above all, of the woods - a sense that always seems more intense in the evening - it is one of those spiritual feasts to which we are rarely bidden in this imperfect universe.
Eugene Delacroix in 'The Journals of Eugene Delacroix', Phaidon Press, translated by Lucy Norton, edited by Hubert Wellington
I was thinking of writing a post on the most impressive books I've read this year, mainly art and nature related, before year's end. At the top of the list was going to be The Journals of Eugene Delacroix, quoted above. But then I read this section of the journals this morning and just had to highlight it in the post title.

What surprises me in this section of the journal, about 1854, is how aware and appreciative of nature Delacroix has become. It also indicates just how thoroughly engaged with and sensitive to the world around him he is. This is just as true when he writes about art, music, literature or anything else. Because of that every time I pick up the journal and read it I enjoy it immensely.

I've often wondered why I prefer sketches to most finished visual work and Delacroix does too. He devotes page after page to his speculations on this. Whenever I've mentioned it online it seems to fall on deaf ears, as though I'm the only one who thinks this way. So you can imagine how much I've enjoyed reading Delacroix's thoughts on the subject, one which he comes back to again and again.

He also talks about another of my 'obsessions', how detail kills most paintings, not because there is anything wrong with it in itself, but because it neglects the overall idea and impression of the painting. This is what positively kills me about so much wildlife art, letting details drain any sense of life in it, so I greatly enjoy seeing that I'm not alone in this. Delacroix was writing the same thing more than 150 years ago.

There are times of course when I disagree but that is unimportant. What is so striking about this book is that it seems to be the honest, unfiltered writing of an extremely thoughtful and sensitive artist.

So if I were to pick a best book of 2013 this is it.

1. The Journals of Delacroix. Translated by Lucy Norton, edited by  Hubert Wellington, published by Phaidon Press.

2. Treasures of the Forgotten Forest. Written by Robert Williams, published by Wildlife Art Gallery. Sponsored by Artists for Nature Foundation.

This is one of a series of wonderful books sponsored by The Artists for Nature Foundation. I always prefer these books for the art shown. But after reading them I also enjoy the writing about the ecology, and economy, of areas of the world that are endangered by development but also have particularly rich natural resources(by that I mean wildlife not minerals). Artists like Lars Jonsson, Bruce Pearson, Kim Atkinson have splendid work in this volume. This book centers on the Tumbesian region of Ecuador and Peru. There is also a wonderful video which I've had for a number of years. It can be found online.

3. Troubled Waters: Trailing the Albatross: An Artist's Journey. Written by Bruce Pearson, published by Langford Press.

I'd have to say that most of the books that have really struck me over the last few years have been published by Langford Press. They are as far as I can tell the premier publisher of books on the type of wildlife art that I enjoy and appreciate. Bruce Pearson has been making art and films for many years. In this case he returns to Bird Island and South Georgia, to study the albatross and other seabirds that he first saw 35 years ago. Pearson, to me at least, is the epitome of artist and naturalist. The artistry is undeniable. But so is the passionate concern for nature. This is true in all of his work that I've seen. In this case he directs those talents and concern to birds I'm largely unfamiliar with but who have been in great decline over the last 20 years. It reminds me of the same concern with species and an entire environment, including the human and economic one, that characterizes the books and projects of the Artists for Nature Foundation.

4.Bright Wings of Summer: Watching Butterflies. Written by the late David Measures, published by Prentice Hall.

This book is almost 40 years old but I finally managed to get a copy this year. I'm only about half way through, having run into a lot of distractions, and other books, since first getting it about six weeks ago. Whenever I've seen field sketches of butterflies by David Measures I've been struck by their freedom and animation. As with Bruce Pearson they combine art and naturalism. I was surprised when I started reading to find that he actually spent hours and hours, often convincing his family to help him, studying the butterflies of a particular patch of land. If you've ever tried to draw butterflies in the field you know how difficult it is due to their unpredictable movement. David Measures shows you how easy it is with both determination and skill. It's also a very rich book on the study of butterflies. I highly recommend it. And I hope it will help my own field sketches this summer.

5. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Written by Richard Crossley, Jerry Ligouri and Brian Sullivan, published by Princeton University Press.

Back when I was a programmer there was a series of books  from O'Reilly Press that stressed repetition, question and answer, interactivity and often humor, very low humor, as a means of learning. It sort of worked though I think it was a bit heavy-handed. Still it did match my own experience: I rarely learn anything the first time. I need to have it repeated.

And often the best manner of repetition is testing, over and over. The Shorebird Guide used this method to a large extent and this book does so even more. The end result is that I feel like I'm finally starting to get a handle on raptors and being able to differentiate one from the other, especially when they are high in the sky. My only problem, as it may be for many people, is that raptors are not regularly available to study in the field. I fear I've lost a bit of what I've learned and will need to go back to the book soon. But that's not necessarily bad. It's a book that I think I'll enjoy rereading. And eventually I'll get better at all those photographic identification quizzes.

6. The Art and Craft of Woodblock Printmaking : Woodblock Printmaking with Oil-based Inks and the Japanese Watercolour Woodcut, second edition. Written by Kari Laitinen, Tuula Moilanen and Antti Tantiu, published by Aalto ARTS Books.

As someone who's largely self-taught when it comes to woodcuts and linocut, I always feel that I'm missing some information that others learn their first week in class. My experience though shows me that most self-educated people feel this way and mistakenly attribute far better training to schooled artists than most actually receive. Still there are things I know that I don't know, like the proper viscosity of ink among other things. This book is good in that it covers much of that. It is an easy to read book, with just a few technically murky areas, that I've greatly enjoyed. I've read the first half and am just now on the section about traditional Japanese watercolor woodcuts. I don't expect to ever go in this direction but I expect it will still be informative.

7. Looking at Birds: An Antidote to Field Guides. Written by John Busby, published by the Langford Press.

Who knows how I forgot this in the original post since I wrote about it just a few posts ago. To repeat what I said there: This is a very slim book. I'd guess that there are more images than there are paragraphs. But the images show a wealth of experience in watching birds. The deceptively simple images show that the author thoroughly knows birds, so that when he sees something unusual, like a bird flying upside down, he has no trouble at all rendering the unique experience.

This book requires a bit of a leap of imagination: the leap being that there is far more to life and birding, than mimicking a photograph. There is so much more to see and to experience. And it is possible to get that down on paper.

People have always spoken of Delacroix as imaginative. I think you can say that John Busby is too. Not in the sense of summoning things out of a fantasyland. But in the sense of being able to construct the structure of birds seen only briefly in the most unusual situations, for instance that bird flying upside down, except for the head. That requires both experience, boldness and imagination.

100. Bad Boy. Written by Eric Fischl, published by Crown Publishers. I didn't really know where to put this book about famous contemporary American artist, Eric Fischl. I've been aware of his work for awhile but I stopped paying much attention to contemporary American art at about the time that he was first getting recognized. I was briefly introduced to him at a party at about this time. I don't remember a thing and I'm sure he'd say the same thing since this was a time of alcohol and drug induced haze as he writes about. And to be honest, I was a complete artistic non-entity. There's no reason in the world he would notice me, brain haze or not.

As I've reread this section on Fischl I think the obvious question a reader might have is: why mention a book you're so critical of? Why even bother reading it? I don't like writing negative criticism. That's not to say that I can't have quite negative reactions to art, books or anything else. But I mainly keep them to myself. As I recall the only reason I picked up this book is that I'd read somewhere that it was critical of the current art world where financial speculation is really the only factor involved. Though I never liked compatriots of Fischl such as David Salle I at least saw a painter in Fischl. So that and curiosity about his criticism of the current art world was enough to convince me to read it.

Oddly enough when I first posted this I'd included wealthy as an adjective to describe him. At that point in the book he was. But the oddest thing happened. His work lost favor, as I discovered as I struggled through the second half of the book, though he never quite became a starving artist like 99% of most artists.  I had to chuckle when he said he just didn't understand the work of the 90s, just as I really couldn't appreciate the work of him and other popular artists of the 80s. Another interesting note was that about midpoint in the book, in the late 80s I believe, he also stopped alcohol and drugs, having realized just where they were leading him.

Compared to Delacroix it is very boring. But it also seem honest, if a bit self-aggrandizing. His unusual family background helps explain his subjects to some extent I think. I can't at all agree with the blurbs on the back of the book though. It is not at all compelling reading. The pages about his pals John McEnroe, Steve Martin, et al. just seem like dull filler. But it still seems honest. Even when it comes to the huge sums that artists like Fischl were once paid for their work by collectors that he suspected might sell the work for a profit before even unpacking it. That strikes me as both an accurate picture of the art world I gave up on and as a very depressing realization for the artist. As I said I admire him for honestly talking about it. I just wish he had the thoughtful passion for art and the rest of the world that I find in Delacroix. But Delacroix I think was extremely unusual. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the writings of any artist to him. Still this book is dull in comparison.

Given all that there is to question about the art world of the last 20 if not 50 years it would have been nice to find something a little more trenchant. For instance he talks about his days at Cal Arts where he and fellow students were trying to be brutally honest, to move into new artistic areas. One could easily ask if this isn't the Academy of the last 50 years: New, New, New? Tough, Tough, Tough. Not a hint of joy. But no such thoughts arise in the book. Just a pretty weak criticism when the speculative art world turns from him to others.

I'm sure I've forgotten some books I really enjoyed. Perhaps I'll have to add an addendum or errata. The drawing at top by the way is one I've shown before: some unidentified dragonflies at dusk. The crepuscular activity reminded me of Delacroix and the nightingale.


Gabrielle said...

Ah Ken, I know I don't comment much but I do so enjoy your posts. You make me think.

Ken Januski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ken Januski said...

Hi Gabrielle,

Well I'm trying to comment again after I realized how sloppy my writing was in first attempt.

First of all: Happy New Year. It's nice to hear from you again.

Of course I couldn't be happier to hear that you continue to read and enjoy my posts. And of course if they get you or anyone to think about what I write then I'm doubly happy.

I was thinking of posting on your own blog about Artists Statements. I'm very skeptical but still thought I might write something. But finally I gave up realizing that I just couldn't find a polite way to express my skepticism about them in general.

In looking at your blog I realize how many posts I've not commented on. But as with you I do read them and enjoy them. And as usual I wish you the best of luck with your work. Just keep at it!!