Too many images

As Krita hacker, I love to see what artists do with the application we’re creating. And they are doing some truly awesome things… The upcoming Krita 2.5 splash screen is a good example. But I’m still having flashbacks to what I wrote in 2007. Producing images is an industry, and Krita does its bit: we really focus on removing productivity roadblocks for artists, all the time. So there can be more images of unsuitably clad fighting women, as David Apatoff reports from the Comiccon.

But the fact is that we’re simply drowning in images. Just check this blog by Matt Rhodes: “I think Internet broke my brain.”

Don’t read on if you’re offended by full frontal male and female nudity.

I really feel with him. Whenever I sit down with pencil and paper or with wacom and Krita I feel the same block. I used to be quite a decent draughtsman, if never a painter, but why bother getting back the skills if every image I can think of is one google search away. I’ve been blocked from doing new sculpture for a couple of months until I had a good talk with Naomi and decided to not give a damn and just make everything that grows under my fingers and stop paying attention to ideas of what’s scupltural and what’s not. What else would be the purpose?

And that sort of segues into the thesis of a book I’ve been reading just now, The Nude, A study in Ideal Form by Kenneth Clark. In it, he follows Western art from the Greeks to the present day, focusing on the nude, both in in painting and in sculpture. In the end, he makes clear why the 19th century academic tradition had to die: a glut of images, all similar in form, content and purpose, the culmination of a tradition that started really early (my summary…):

First, there were the Egyptians, who worshipped the body and didn’t want it to rot, so they invented sculpture. Then the Pharaos hired a bunch of barbarian Greek mercenaries to do one of their wars for them. The Greeks saw the Egyptian sculture and started imitating that. Then the Greeks conquered Persia and a part of India, introducing sculpture to those regions, before being conquered by the Romans who started importing Greek sculpture wholesale.

The Roman empire split, and the west started on its own course of artistic development, producing amazingly realistic work with a completely different idea of what a body really looks like (see also Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander).

That stopped when the Turks conquered Constantinople and the Venetians Cyprus, when the refugees from the East Roman empire moved to Italy and kicked off the renaissance. Which then got a further boost when digging for old sculpture became fashionable.

Only all the colors and lead hair pieces of the old Roman and Greek sculptures were lost, so everyone started thinking that sculpture ought to be monochrome, which was a mistake that only was recognized in the 19th century when it was too late to do anything about it (it’s not true, what you can read in some places, that archaeologists back then scrubbed off the color, the pigments just faded away).

By that time, it was physically impossible to create a sculpture that was more an exact copy of a real body than was done before.

Except, of course, that because of traditional beaux arts ideals, you’d still not give a nude woman any details down under. (Which looks, too me, quite uncomfortable. Not being able to pass water… Check these images by Klimt, they really are absurd!)

So basically, east of the Canaries, west of Beijing, north of the Sahara, everyone has been working in the same tradition, creating images around the same stories (there’s pottery depicting the story of Leda and the Swan in the window of the shop next door, I’ve just finished a sculpture of a middle-aged faun grabbing his tail, gandharvas and nereids are practically the same thing), with the same proportional system, same ideals until that got broken in the early twentieth century by people like Picasso, who instead of inventing something new started copying African art. But until that point in time, art still had a purpose, architectural, memorial, esthetical. Now art hasn’t, it exists for itself, not even beautifully.

So, what’s fresh? I understand the need to draw scantily clad young women, totally. I’ve been sixteen myself, and I am still firmly in touch with my sixteen-year old self, especially when working on sculpture. Scantily clad men I find boring, which is a very proper 19th century attitude.

Going back to the tradition of Memling isn’t possible anymore — we lack the civilisation for that. Rodin claimed he was more gothic than classicist, but his training in a porcelain factory as a decoration sculptor firmly put him in the 19th century visual tradition.

But then I remembered what the lady at the sculpture shop in Zutphen said to a ten-year old boy who comes to try the tools and do some work. This lady is marvellous. Her girlfriend is very fine, too, sweet and helpful, but the one I’m talking about is wise and incisive — every time I visit, she says another thing that helps me along.

This time she said to that boy when he asked why bother “the purpose is to tell a story, if you don’t tell a story, don’t bother.”

And that’s it, isn’t it? Those zillions of knights, venuses, zombies and fauns — are they in themselves a story you’re telling, or just displays of technical prowess? If the latter, don’t bother. If the former, tell the story, and then, let the image, the sculpture make the viewer tell themselves a new story, one you didn’t predict or intend, but which you made possible!