Seeing but seeing.

André who has been attending my Studio Art class this term spent an entire session drawing a Protea. A charming older man who is always brimming with encouraging and engaging energy; he turned to me and exclaimed in his beautiful French accent, ‘I see, but I don’t see.’ For he had been drawing the complex flower for about two hours, only to come to the realisation that after drawing what he thought he had seen, he found himself coming back to see that what he had drawn didn’t really correspond with a deeper understanding he was gaining of the flower.

I had understood what he meant. After all, my own journey as an artist and in many respects as a person has been one of seeing, only to realise what I thought I saw was not the actual reality, but an approximate reality. I’m sure we can all relate to this.

After having thought about the comment he had made, I raised the topic at our next class. André responded by describing his own journey of realising how preconceived notions can get in the way of real perception. He said he had realized this when undertaking studies in philosophy. He spoke of his realisation that to understand what one is looking at, one has to become, in his words, ‘nothing’. I took this to mean that one has to suspend all judgement. It almost seems a little absurd that one would have to suspend judgment when encountering something as simple as a flower. But even in encountering a Protea, to have to quieten ourselves and observe, then observe again, we realize that we really don’t have the capacity to comprehend what is ultimately infinite in its nature. With the perceiving of all things, especially other people, we comprehend but we cannot ever fully grasp.

André, pencil on paper, 2017

Above: André’s drawing of the Protea on the left which he theatrically signed off at the bottom announcing, ‘Remember that name’.

The conversation with André reminded me of some comments a friend who works as a counsellor made to me recently. He said that the most powerful thing anyone can do for somebody who is seeking counsel is to listen without judgement. According to my friend, this is very difficult for most of us to do. I have since been trying to suspend judgement and am resisting the habit I have of giving advice when in conversations. I’ve resisted the urge to judge what was being said, included asking leading questions based on my own assumptions and internal reactions. I would have to say that to be listened to seems to be helpful for other people, so I have tried it again and again. Perhaps making art stems from the desire to be heard with the process of manipulating materials giving artists, for a period, the ability to speak without being interrupted. What does all this say about us, this hunger to be heard, to be understood?

The courses and workshops we teach focus on the fundamentals of art practice. Interestingly in an age where there is a multiplicity of art practices, most people that come to MAC want to draw and paint. Most people have tried and are seeking to deepen their understanding of these art disciplines. We live with abundant possibilities available to us, including almost infinite access to images, yet for many of us there stirs within us a desire to do something as simple as draw. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise; drawing is one of the few key ways in which we encounter the world and translate it. Drawing, mathematics, language, and music are some key ways in which we encounter, understand and manipulate the world. Drawing is the most direct way of perceiving the world in a spatial way, so we shouldn’t be surprised at its popularity. Perhaps, we should be asking instead why we dismiss drawing so soon after early childhood, when it is so fundamental to perception. By focusing on the foundational aspects of drawing and painting, I’ve been able to appreciate that skills we once presumed were gifts are actually very similar to mathematics, or music, or language, in that they can be learnt through good training.

André’s declaration of seeing but not seeing indicates that at the heart of good training in drawing and painting is the setting aside of all assumptions. To start with, setting aside self-judgement about our ability to draw or paint. Then setting aside of other assumptions about the subject we are encountering. Often, we have spent a lifetime representing our subject using a formula which has more to do with the iconographic type of language than real perception. Think here of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. So much of how we teach centres upon introducing tools and techniques that enable people to see rather than reverting to a set visual language.

We see this setting aside of assumptions in great achievements such as in the architecture of Antoni Gaudi. I recently had the opportunity to return to see the Sagrada Famiglia Basilica in Barcelona. Designed by Gaudi, it has been under construction since 1882. He oversaw its construction from 1883 until his death in 1926. It quite literally is the fruit of a lifetime of dedication and study, encapsulating a vision which is unlike any other. Nothing can describe this Basilica adequately; the scale and intensity of a lifetime’s work condensed into one massive sacred building. I have never come close to tears in front of a building but this one caught me unawares. Gaudi not only redefined the aesthetics of architecture by studying nature and carrying across many organic aspects, he redefined the very mechanical nature of construction with that same study. The brilliance of the Sagrada Famiglia is that it not only looks organic, it is in many ways structurally organic, its engineering being based upon the structures Gaudi saw in nature.

Columns from the Sagrada Famiglia which contain within them several different mechanical elements which are copied directly from nature.

An experience of great art is an experience of seeing, of seeing reality, often all at once, as an intense surge of truth. And it is, exhilarating. Whilst we perceive the inherent fidelity almost instantaneously, it has been for the artist, a lifetime’s journey in learning to see and subsequently translate. We as the viewer are struck by the distilled truthfulness which has been translated from long experience and work. I think this is what drives me as an artist. It is the quest for the unreachable infinite which received one grain at a time through labour, then imbues all things with meaning. If a Protea can be infinite, complex and beautiful, then how much more then, our lives.

Written by Marco Corsini

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