Christo­pher Allen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Athor­ough or even vir­tu­oso com­mand of tech­nique is not all there is to mak­ing good art. At times, as we can ob­serve in mu­sic or film — forms in which no one doubts the im­por­tance of skill — it can even run the risk of be­ing a dis­trac­tion from the more im­por­tant ques­tions of mean­ing, in­sight and moral vi­sion. Oc­ca­sion­ally a great artist, such as Donatello, seems to be striv­ing against his own fa­cil­ity, and in Chi­nese art too the value of a cer­tain spon­ta­neous awk­ward­ness could be ap­pre­ci­ated.

In the late 19th cen­tury, as the art academy reached its pre-modernist apogee, there was an over­pro­duc­tion of highly trained artists with lit­tle to say, and this duly led to a modernist re­ac­tion against the idea of sys­tem­atic train­ing. It is al­most a cliche, and not al­ways ac­cu­rate, to re­peat that the first gen­er­a­tions of mod­ernists none­the­less had the ben­e­fit of a thor­ough for­mal train­ing, but it is cer­tainly true that the best of them were highly skilled.

Monet’s train­ing was patchy by the stan­dards of his time, but his un­der­stand­ing of tone and colour was ex­tra­or­di­nary, al­low­ing him to make beau­ti­ful pic­tures where a less able painter would have pro­duced ba­nal­ity or kitsch. Pi­casso’s clas­si­cal train­ing prob­a­bly has been over­stated, but it is true that the works of his an­a­lytic cu­bist pe­riod, for ex­am­ple, are the prod­ucts of great skill and a ca­pac­ity for highly re­fined for­mal and tonal dis­crim­i­na­tions.

The ef­fect of modernism on art teach­ing, how­ever, was ul­ti­mately dis­as­trous, for it im­plied that tech­ni­cal train­ing, and even skill, were su­per­flu­ous. In Aus­tralia, we can see artists be­tween the wars try­ing to find vi­able for­mu­las for paint­ing, be­tween the fray­ing aca­demic tra­di­tion, the rather blood­less and ul­ti­mately neo-aca­demic re­hash­ing of Cezanne or cu­bism, and pleas­antly dec­o­ra­tive but light­weight de­sign. And then dur­ing the wars, our first real avant-garde, with Sid­ney Nolan, Al­bert Tucker and oth­ers, aban­doned tech­nique al­to­gether in the quest for some­thing like au­then­tic­ity of ex­pres­sion.

Th­ese artists did suc­ceed in pro­duc­ing some of the most mem­o­rable im­ages of mid-cen­tury art in Aus­tralia. But the so-called An­gry Pen­guins also made a great deal of re­mark­ably bad art, with­out di­rec­tion, ra­tio­nale or any kind of con­sis­tency or qual­ity con­trol. And the con­se­quence that we have seen in the fol­low­ing gen­er­a­tions has been a ten­dency to poor train­ing, low ex­pec­ta­tions in art schools and hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of grad­u­ates un­equipped with the com­pe­tence to em­bark on any kind of sus­tained ca­reer as an artist.

Many artists have been ret­i­cent about ac­quir­ing skill or im­prov­ing their tech­nique, fear­ful that this might in­hibit their cre­ativ­ity. In re­al­ity what greater skill does is ex­pose weak­ness or ab­sence of in­spi­ra­tion, which can be cam­ou­flaged to some ex­tent by clum­si­ness or gim­mickry. Art schools and teach­ers have an in­ter­est in pro­mot­ing the idea that all their stu­dents are po­ten­tial artists, when in re­al­ity only a few have the spe­cial com­bi­na­tion of abil­ity, in­spi­ra­tion, in­tegrity and the ca­pac­ity for hard work that such a ca­reer de­mands. So schools gen­er­ally don’t en­cour­age the rigour that would soon re­veal the lack of th­ese qual­i­ties.

But fac­ing the truth about one’s level of abil­ity is a pre­req­ui­site for im­prove­ment — a fact that would be blind­ingly ob­vi­ous in a field like mu­sic — and it is this ha­bit­ual and even in­sti­tu­tion­alised de­pre­ci­a­tion of skill that ex­plains the fail­ure of so many artists to de­velop. Time and again a young painter shows prom­ise in early work, and then set­tles into for­mu­laic rep­e­ti­tion rather than tak­ing the risk of grow­ing into a bet­ter, deeper, more ar­tic­u­late artist. And the re­sult is that the ma­jor­ity of paint­ings ex­hib­ited in com­mer­cial gal­leries are more or less vac­u­ous self-pas­tiches, timidly cling­ing to ster­ile man­ner­isms that are mis­taken for a per­sonal style.

The prej­u­dice against skill and ap­pli­ca­tion helps to ex­plain the am­bigu­ous place of Lloyd Rees in the his­tory of Aus­tralian art. He doesn’t fit into any stan­dard nar­ra­tive, and es­pe­cially not into the modernist myth ac­cord­ing to which paint­ing was sup­posed to pass through suc­ces­sive phases of lib­er­a­tion from servi­tude to the ob­ser­va­tion of the phe­nom­e­nal world un­til it reached the end of art his­tory with the solip­sis­tic cli­max of flat ab­strac­tion. Lloyd Rees: Paint­ing with Pen­cil Mu­seum of Syd­ney. Un­til April 10 The Gi­ant Fig Tree Balls Head

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