Subjectivity and World Maps

There is an old Indian parable revolving around six blind men and an elephant (part of many religious traditions) that powerfully illustrates the perennial tension between subjectivity and objectivity. The narrative is simple—the blind men (or “men in the dark”) try to touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each touches only a part (side or tusk or ear or something else) and hastily concludes that it must be the elephant’s real and only form. They quarrel long and loud upon discovering the incompatibility of their accounts. The story has been used to encourage intellectual humility and respect for the views of one’s opponents. It is also a reflection on the tricky nature of truth and highlights the need for dialogue in human society.

The tale holds a special place in Jainism, where is it used to explain the fundamental doctrine of Anekāntavāda (literally “the school of many-sidedness”). According to Anekāntavāda, reality is perceived differently by different individuals leading to a multiplicity of vantage points. No single human being can claim to have a monopoly on absolute truth but the sum of various vantage points may give us access to greater fact. Anekāntavāda is closely related to two other doctrines: syādvāda (the theory of conditioned viewpoints) and nayavāda (the theory of partial viewpoints). The tale was popularised in the English-speaking world through a version written by the American poet John Godrey Saxe (1816-1887). It begins this way: It was six men of Indostan, / To learning much inclined, / Who went to see the Elephant / (Though all of them were blind), / That each by observation / Might satisfy his mind.

Blind men (here, monks) examining an elephant by Japanese painter, poet and calligrapher Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724), Wikipedia [Public Domain]

When I think of this fable, I am especially reminded of cartography. Map-making is one of the supreme pursuits of humankind whereby it has made its ingenuity and creativity manifest. People have been capturing, containing, measuring and making sense of space for centuries and there has been no map, from any place or any period, that can be considered fully “objective”. Our positioning of the continents, our sense of north-south-east-west, of centres and edges have been traditionally predicated upon our political and religious systems.

Consider two examples:

First, the Hereford Mappa Mundi (https://www.themappamundi.co.uk/) dating back to 1300 displayed today at Hereford cathedral in the county of Herefordshire in western England. For Christian Europe of the 13th and 14th centuries, the spiritual centre of the world was the city of Jerusalem–it was also the geographical centre of their maps. Second, the 19th-century maps coming from Britain (built upon the Mercator Projection first introduced by the Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569) that were structured to emphasise the scale of the empire with Britain painted red and placed prominently in the middle, and embellishments all around that depicted the culture of the colonies.

Hereford Mappa Mundi (world map), Wikimedia Commons
Map of the British Empire from 1886, Wikimedia Commons

The map that we consult today is definitely stripped of adornments but it still cannot be called merely or thoroughly “scientific”. It remains coloured by early modern European imperialist ambitions. The phenomenon of the “northern hemisphere” (with Europe and the United States) at the top and places like Africa and South America at the bottom are, at their core, just arbitrary conventions. If there is no reason why the map shouldn’t look this way, there is no reason why the map should look this way either.

The big lesson that we learn from the parable of the blind men and the elephant is that all viewpoints are conditioned. So no matter what cartographic framework we adopt of our spherical earth, we shall continue to aid particular political perceptions of the world (that obviously have huge psychological consequences). We cannot aim to reach a position of absolute impartiality in this matter.

A way in which we may hope to attain a measure of fairness, if not complete neutrality, then, is by exposing ourselves to various kinds of maps from time to time, historical and contemporary. Oxford historian Peter Frankopan, in his acclaimed book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015), writes about the experience of growing up with a (usual, normal) world map pinned on the wall by his bed, and how his subsequent encounters with the Hereford Mappa Mundi and an important medieval Turkish map (that had at its heart a city called Balasaghun) made him aware that the world could be seen and interpreted through dramatically different lenses. Frankopan’s engagement with these maps enabled him to get past the rigid and limited Eurocentric view of history that he had been hearing in the classroom.

Today there are many (less popular) cartographic proposals that challenge the Mercator Projection and encourage us to look at the earth in non-conventional ways: by placing the south up, by placing the Pacific at the centre, etc.

A South-Up Map
A Pacific-Centre Map

Brooklyn-based Northern Irish artist Oliver Jeffers (https://www.instagram.com/oliverjeffers/)—for his current exhibition “Observations on Modern Life”—at Lazinc gallery (https://www.instagram.com/lazinc/) in London has come up with maps that question our orientations—he turns the north down, dissolves nation states as we know them, shifts the borders that we are used to, and makes everything a matter of “land” and “sea” and not this country or that country.

In our hyperconnected world, for the sake of practicality, it is not possible to adhere to multiple systems of cartography but art is one arena wherein we may certainly explore and communicate these alternative proposals, like Jeffers, in new and exciting ways, expanding our horizons thereby.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The power of visualisation and drawing your desired future

Credit PixabayMid-2018, I underwent a massive “shift in consciousness”. It was like my mind expanded exponentially between May and August. I began perceiving both myself and the universe in an entirely different way. I was powerfully impacted by the realisations that I have just this one life and that the world, for all its ills, is fundamentally and ultimately a wondrous place (these facts may seem obvious but most of us simply take them for granted). And so I decided I’d make good use of every minute, be more proactive in reaching out to people and also squeeze every drop out of my own potential. Quite naturally, I found myself gravitating towards content on personal development and self-help. I wanted practical tools and tactics that could help me lead a genuinely meaningful and useful life.

I soon noticed that successful entrepreneurs across different industries would recommend certain common practices for peak performance—for instance, meditation, journalling, affirmations, cold showers, not checking the phone the first hour of the day. Also, many would talk of “visualisation”—vivid, extremely meticulous imagining of how you want your life to be. The creative designing of your desired future in your mind. I have found this proposed by people like Chase Jarvis (CreativeLive), Vishen Lakhiani (MindValley) and Mel Robbins (The 5 Second Rule).

The word itself might seem a little delusional, some kind of dubious New Age trend similar to the “Law of Attraction” popularised by the 2006 book and documentary The Secret, but it turns out, the concept is indeed rooted in neuroscience and psychology. The people who recommend visualisation also frequently mention that “the brain is pliable” and that “the subconscious can be reprogrammed”.

Former attorney and now a highly sought-after motivational speaker, Mel Robbins, who completely turned her life around after being broke and directionless, says that “visualisation is her secret to success”. She explains that our brains have a filter, a network of neurons, called the “Reticular Activating System” (RAS) that allows certain information and blocks out other information. And it is programmed by us and the people from our past. If we constantly feel that we’re unlovable, our RAS, going through the day, will point out every single piece of evidence that confirms that negative belief. We can use visualisation to reprogram our RAS so that our brains can start to spot opportunities for growth. This is done through a two-step method. Robbins provides an example. We must:

  1. Close our eyes and, in our minds, have a specific picture of what our life looks like when our self-worth has improved (see yourself speaking up at work, leaving bad relationships, defining boundaries, going to the gym, etc.).
  2. Consciously think of the positive emotions that we are going to feel when that situation has materialised (happiness, gratitude, etc.).

When we do this, we are training our brain to have a totally different filter. Our brains do not know the difference between something that actually happens to us (like the F in a 10th grade test) and the things we envisage happening to us (like an abundant and joyful social life), that is, between “real” and “imagined” memories. So when we imagine getting a raise or becoming physically fit or entering into a faithful relationship, the brain encodes these scenarios as real memories. Your RAS filter will change, your network of neurons will modify and, according to research, you may very well end up developing/improving the confidence and the skills needed to manifest those scenarios. So the next time you are in a meeting, instead of looking for all the reasons why you should not speak up, you might immediately spot an opportunity through your new filter and just present your opinions and findings with little hesitation—for you have already rehearsed the situation multiple times.

Colorado-based Patti Dobrowolski, a critically acclaimed comic performer, business consultant, illustrator and author, spends her time focussed on new neuroscience discoveries that leverage the power of imagination and visuals to actualise a vision of the future. She goes further than Mel Robbins, passionately inciting people (even outright non-artists) to “draw” their Current State and their Desired New Reality in all their messy and glorious detail, respectively. The bridge between the two being three bold steps: (1). See it, (2). Believe it, (3). Act on it. Dobrowolski explains the process in this TEDx Talk:

Of course, this technique isn’t magic. When we will make a strategic effort to alter our circumstances, we will face tremendous resistance from within ourselves. Our wild and inventive right brain will be thwarted by our critical and cautious left brain. In another TEDx Talk, Dobrowolski points out that when you start to make change, the amygdalae (almond-shaped clusters of nuclei located deep within the temporal lobes) get all freaked out and will do everything to slow or stop you. For this reason, she suggests participants take out some time daily to daydream, allowing our brainwaves to enter the “alpha” state. Here the soil is soft. It becomes easier for us to weed out thoughts that might inhibit action and plant those that might advance us towards our goal.

Dobrowolski ends with an energetic note. After you have drawn your future and cleared your mind by assuming the alpha state, learn everything about who you want to be, where you want to go, how you want to live, do everything. You now have to act loudly for that key to turn the lock – and chances are you will be positioned to do so just excellently!

 

 

 

Pam Hallandal – Paper Walls

Pam Hallandal, self portrait, 1983
Pam Hallandal, self portrait, charcoal, 1983

Pam Hallandal (1929 – 2018), Australian artist and Former Head of Drawing VCA, impacted the lives of many artists in Melbourne from the 1970s onwards, including our very own teachers here at MAC, Michelle Caithness and Michelle Zuccolo.

Glen Eira City Council Gallery is celebrating her legacy with an exhibition, Paper Walls, featuring her incredible work and her passion for drawing. The exhibition will also feature Pam’s past colleagues and students, including Rick Amor; John Scurry; Greg Creek; Allan Mitelman and Michelle Zuccolo.

The gallery will showcase the breadth of her artwork and highligh some of the themes she depicted including portraits, contemporary life in Melbourne (shoppers, casino patrons, workmen) and other images exploring the human condition. Pam was a visionary teacher and mentor, employing a wide range of emerging and established artists to work with alongside her, educating students through their shared passion for drawing.

Many have been fortunate to benefit from the rich experience of Pam’s teaching practice (1970s to 1994). Others have simply enjoyed viewing the quality of her drawings, prints and sculpture which now belong in national and state gallery collections, as well as in universities and library collections throughout Australia. Pam’s career highlights included winning the Australian Dobell Drawing Prize for excellence in drawing in 1996 and 2009 (the only female to do so). Pam has been included in “Backlash” at the NGV in 1986, in many major drawing related exhibitions at Heide, Mornington Peninsula, Gold Coast City Art Prize, The Centre Gallery, S.H. Erwin Gallery, Sydney, Kedumba Invitation Art Award, Australian Drawing Biennial, ANU and a recent major solo exhibition at Ballarat Art Gallery.

Two teachers at MAC studied drawing under Pam Hallandal, and are also represented in this exhibition. Michelle Zuccolo was employed by Pam for five years in the Drawing Department, Victoria College of Art and Design, Prahran. Michelle has been included in the Australian 7th Drawing Biennale, Drill Hall, ANU, Canberra and has been a finalist five times in the Adelaide Perry Prize for Drawing, PLC, Sydney. She received an Honourable Mention by judge, Aida Tomescu in 2017.

Michelle Caithness recently participated in invitation-only the Keduma Invitation Drawing Award, NSW and is currently a shortlisted in the Dobell Drawing Prize, to be shown at the National School of Art, Sydney. Floor talks are scheduled throughout the exhibition, and Michelle Caithness will be discussing her drawing practice at midday on Friday 8 March at the gallery in Caulfield.

Exhibition details:
Dates: 7-24 March
Time: Monday to Friday, 10am–5pm. Weekends, 1pm–5pm.
Location: Glen Eira City Council Gallery, corner Glen Eira and Hawthorn Roads, Caulfield
More information here.

Written by Michelle Zuccolo.

Meaning and society

Jean Genet 1954 or 1955 by Alberto Giacometti 1901-1966
Jean Genet, Alberto Giacometti, oil on canvas, 1954 

Alberto Giacometti’s painting of the writer Jean Genet, shows a figure isolated and deep within the framed space. If a portrait is about knowing the nature of the subject, then Giacometti appears to have consciously held back from bringing about any resolution. Or perhaps he knew not to try.

Painted with approximate dabs and lines that have been drained of colour, the figure of Genet in the painting is visually restrained and inaccessible. It is as if there is half-hearted struggle to represent Genet which stalemates into locating him instead. We as the viewers are here and he is there, but there is an impenetrable distance between.

This impenetrable distance typifies the ravaged twentieth century and a resultant struggle around identity and meaning. Whilst that century began with massive optimism about the technological achievements such as the electric light, the aeroplane and the motor car; within two decades those same technological achievements enabled slaughter on an industrial scale. Looking at this painting, I associate it with the experience of the debasement of humanity which began en masse a few decades before and has never really left us. In previous centuries, art displayed a certain confidence in being able to represent reality; whether it succeeded is beside the point. But most of the twentieth century was spent without an assurance about what reality was and how to find it. The location of ourselves in relation to others, the world and common values became, at best, approximate and speculative. It is from this speculation that I think Giacometti worked on his portrait. Genet’s outsider status, that of being homosexual and having formerly been a thief is also a consideration in reading this sense of distance; but distance, per se, is common to much of Giacometti’s work.

Giacometti’s figures are often alone, as they are in his work ‘Piazza’, where they appear to cross a town square, but no-one appears to connect or meet. Those isolated figures, emaciated but erect seem to indicate even more about the nature of the human experience. They are elongated, like some of El Greco’s figures which lift upwards, like the spire of a Gothic cathedral pointing to heaven. Giacametti’s figures seem to not belong entirely to the earth and if they do, they are not entirely earth-bound; in both senses of that last word. Whereas the cathedral houses and contains human figures, the twentieth century skyscraper by comparison isolates figures from each other in a drama which is beyond the human scale. Giacometti’s figures stand alone like the skyscraper, but also aspire to something grander and more meaningful, like the Cathedral. It’s an absurd contradiction that is present in the writing of Giacametti’s contemporary, Albert Camus who initiated the idea of the absurd. For Camus life is void of meaning, or an inability to know any meaning, if it were to exist. So the emaciated sculptural figures seem to indicate a hunger for, but an inability to have satisfaction in meaning.

Alberto Giacometti, Piazza
Alberto Giacometti, Piazza, bronze, 1947-48

For the remaining twentieth century there was much discussion about the operatives of power that led to war, colonisation, and genocide, especially power as it relates to language and culture. Those discussions have tended to deconstruct common narratives and meaning, and have enabled a new pluralism, which host multiple identities, narratives and meaning. So, meaning is now more individualised and tends to orientate around what the individual decides as one’s identity. So, in some ways our response to the absurdity described by Camus, has been to find meaning, and a cause, within our own tribe. However, the danger is that we do not connect, like the figures in the piazza. Finding meaning in one’s identity without considering how we must relate to others and difference, risks throwing us into a post-truth world. This is a world where there is no longer a reliable means to communicate across difference in a society; where how we govern is subject to the loudest voice or most popular cause of the moment rather than tested processes, and common values of discourse.

Written by Marco Corsini

 

The Universal of De Stijl

The De Stijl Pattern by Piet Mondrian (Credit: User “Husky”, CC BY 2.5, Wikimedia Commons)

Many of us have seen the design—blocks of primary colours red, blue and yellow randomly placed within a strict geometry of black verticals and horizontals before a white background. This pattern, which has been repeated the world over and impressed upon a variety of media (from canvasses to clothes to furniture to fashion), comes from the movement “De Stijl” (literally: The Style).

De Stijl Clocks on zazzle.co.uk

Initiated in Amsterdam in 1917 by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931)—two pioneers of abstract art—“De Stijl” was originally a publication. It was also, in large part, a reaction to the devastation of World War I.

Artists associated with the movement aimed to develop a universal language of art that could transcend different geographic and temporal boundaries and make sense to a broad, cross-cultural international audience. A sense of peace and harmony was reached only through minimal essentials of line and shade. In Western thought, geometry has often been associated with spirituality but such an elevated appropriation of colour had not been seen before.

The publication De Stijl, when it started, stated that its goal was the organic combination of architecture, sculpture and painting in a lucid, elemental, unsentimental construction. A manifesto of 9 points was formulated in 1918:

  1. There is an old and a new consciousness of time. The old is connected with the individual. The new is connected with the universal. The struggle of the individual against the universal is revealing itself in the world-war as well as in the art of the present day.
  2. The war is destroying the old world with its contents: individual domination in every state.
  3. The new art has brought forward what the new consciousness of time contains: a balance between the universal and the individual.
  4. The new consciousness is prepared to realise the internal life as well as the external life.
  5. Traditions, dogmas and the domination of the individual are opposed to this realisation.
  6. The founders of the new plastic art therefore, call upon all, who believe in the reformation of art and culture, to annihilate these obstacles of development, as they have annihilated in the new plastic art (by abolishing natural form) that, which prevents the clear expression of art, the utmost consequence of all art notion.
  7. The artists of today have been driven the whole world over by the same consciousness, and therefore have taken part from an intellectual point of view in this war against the domination of individual despotism. They therefore sympathise with all, who work for the formation of an international unity in Life, Art, Culture, either intellectually or materially.
  8. The monthly editions of “The Style”, founded for that purpose, try to attain the new wisdom of life in an exact manner.
  9. Co-operation is possible by: I. Sending, with entire approval, name, address and profession to the editor of “The Style”. II. Sending critical, philosophical, architectural, scientific, literary, musical articles or reproductions. III. Translating articles in different languages or distributing thoughts published in “The Style”.

In a video for Tate, Professor Michael White of the University of York demonstrates a Liverpool-based reconstruction of Mondrian’s French studio, which he occupied from 1921 to 1936 and which became one of the most celebrated places in inter-war Paris. White says that Mondrian was posing an interesting question: “Can you use colour as itself and not to stand for anything else? If you made yellow into a circle immediately people would start making associations with the sun or something like that. So he decides the only way forward is to paint in areas of perpendicular relationships.”

Many of us tend to look at art and immediately want to find deeper, hidden meanings. But by stripping away all symbolism and myth, the artists of De Stijl were able to, paradoxically, make their work not less but more meaningful. Naked and innocent, the lines and shades became accessible enough to be adopted by anyone and applied to anything.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Setting creative goals in 2019

Sabotaging your new year’s resolution is almost expected.

Let’s look at setting goals in a different way.

Have you made a conscious decision to focus on your creativity this year? You might want to learn how to draw, join an art class, or produce a body of work for an exhibition. Whatever your intention, it is important to set goals and be accountable. This may not sound very “creative”, however many successful artists have goals and rigid daily routines to ensure their practise is central in their lives.

Write it down

Writing goals is something that we should be taught in school. They are so underrated and are key to achieving your dreams.

A great way to begin writing your goals is to start with the big one. What is it? To earn a living painting? Become a portraiture artist? To enter the local art exhibition? Or learn how to paint with watercolour?

Once you have established your overarching goal, you can break it down into smaller medium-term and short-term goals to see what you need to do to achieve it. This will not only make it more manageable, it will show you just how much work is involved (which might surprise you)! Use the points below to help you create your short-term goals.

Structure

Artist Joan Miró adhered to a strict daily routine. He began the day at 6:00am with rigorous exercise, then would work in the studio until midday. He then took a five-minute nap, which he called “Mediterranean yoga”, then dedicated some time to his business affairs. Miró would then return to the studio until dinnertime at 8:00pm.

Women and Bird in the Moonlight 1949 Joan Mir? 1893-1983 Purchased 1951 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N06007

Structure in your day is very important if you are serious about achieving your goals. Now, most of us don’t have the luxury of spending our entire day in the studio like Miró. We have jobs, we need to pay bills, and our lives may be busy. To ensure that you dedicate some time each day to your creative goal, write out your current routine and see where you can fit in time for your craft. It may be as little as 45 minutes. This shows just how important routine is, because after we finish our compulsory daily tasks, that time in front of the TV seems appealing. It’s easy to lose days, weeks and years without really dedicating time to something you ultimately want to do!

The right information

It’s easy to suffer analysis paralysis with the multitude of books, online tutorials, art schools, techniques and advice out there. Don’t spend time absorbing mediocre information. If you are reading a book about technique and don’t like it, don’t read it.  Do your research; read the great books, attend art schools that align with your journey with quality teachers and artists. Don’t stop learning, but be selective.

Mindset

This is a tough one; we can be our own worst enemy.

Only compare your work with your older work, not someone else’s. There will always be an artist who is better than you. The journey is long, and you won’t always produce work you like, but that’s part of the journey.

And what you must remember is that you have something to offer the world, too. Your journey is unique and just as important, and there are people in the world who will enjoy and want to buy your work.

You will also experience plateaus and blockages during your journey. This is normal and part of the practice – it allows for periods of creative abundance. Don’t be hard on yourself, read books like The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, listen to music you don’t normally listen to, or shake-up your daily habits (like walking around the block the opposite way).

Turn up

Artist Gerhard Richter spends weeks in his studio planning his paintings, or rearranging items in his studio, until he feels an internal crisis and need to paint. Then it pours out.

This is probably the most important lesson to take away. Turning up. Once you have written down your goals and established how much time you can dedicate to your art, you must turn up.

Picasso would spend hours standing in front of his paintings every day. Just like Richter, the act of turning up and spending time planning, reviewing and being with their work was key to their processes. Most of us don’t have the time to do this, so we must be more conscious of how we use it. Go to where you create during the time you’ve set aside and stay there the entire time. Don’t make excuses. Just go there and surround yourself with your creative tools and your work. You will eventually want to put pencil to paper. But don’t beat yourself up if this doesn’t happen for a while!

We are here to help

So, to recap:

  1. Write down your goals
  2. Establish structure
  3. Source quality educational tools and teachers
  4. Keep your mindset in check
  5. Turn up.

Melbourne Art Class offers a supportive, creative community for artists who thrive when working with other creatives. Learn new techniques and share ideas with other artists in our group classes or focus on your journey with our one-on-one tutoring. If you’re not interested or ready to join a class, we have a wealth of free resources on our blog, monthly newsletter and Facebook page.

Now it’s up to you – start writing down your goals, and make 2019 count!

Written by Lauren Ottaway.

Calculated risks and the creative life

“The greater the risk, the greater the reward”, many of us have heard this or something similar to this line multiple times. It is often assumed that those who break new ground – entrepreneurs, innovators, revolutionaries – in any field do so after exposing themselves to huge amounts of danger and uncertainty. Surprisingly, after closely examining highly creative personalities in business, sports, arts and other areas, Wharton professor and organisational psychologist Adam Grant came to a different conclusion. In his bestselling 2016 book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Grant notes:

Originals do vary in their attitudes toward risk. Some are skydiving gamblers; others are penny-pinching germophobes. To become original, you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk. But the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple-check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker, “Many entrepreneurs take plenty of risks—but those are generally the failed entrepreneurs, not the success stories.”

In other words, original thinkers and actors always carry a balanced risk portfolio. That is, if they are taking extreme risks in one arena, they will offset them with extreme caution in another. Take Bill Gates, we all know him as the “Harvard dropout”. But consider this—when Gates sold a new software programme as a sophomore, he waited an entire year before leaving school. And even then he didn’t drop out, he actually applied for a leave of absence that was formally approved by the university, and then he asked his parents to bankroll him. He was ready to go back to college if things didn’t work out.

In the realm of the arts, T S Eliot is a great example of measured risk. Hailed as one of twentieth century’s most significant poets, Eliot continued to work for a bank and later, a publishing house even after gaining wide recognition for his creativity. Far from distracting us, having some kind of stability, fixed attitude and sense of security in one area of life allows one to be freer in another. Grant continues: “By covering our bases financially, we escape the pressure to publish half-baked books, sell shoddy art, or launch untested businesses.”

So that’s about risk in the general sense, at the level of one’s profession/occupation. How much risk should one take within their creative work, particularly artists? Just how familiar or how novel can they afford to be? How can they best communicate their literary or visual narratives? In my view, Man Booker prize-winning New Zealand author Eleanor Catton has a very interesting point to make in this regard. In a Guardian article from 2014, she writes:

Creative influence can have a positive or a negative charge, either imitative (“I want to try that!”) or defiant (“I want to see that done differently”). Both kinds of influence are vital for the health of an idea. Too defiant, and the idea will be shrill; too imitative, and the idea will be safe. For me, the moment when these two charges first come together – when I connect, imaginatively, something that I love as a reader with something that I long for as a reader – is the moment the idea for a story is born.

Scene from Battleship Potemkin / Head VI, 1949, Arts Council collection, Hayward Gallery, London (Fair Use)

The space between “imitation” and “defiance” is again carefully calculated risk. The simple pursuit of what has already been tried and tested before can make one seem stale. On the other hand, being wildly unique can cause one to appear incomprehensible. It is useful, therefore, to pick up some pattern from the past that the intended audience can easily recognise and then present the narrative in a way that has never been attempted before. A small example that comes to mind here is the painter Francis Bacon, who developed a whole series of screaming mouths (in his own style) modelled after a famous image from a scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin. Memorable signs, symbols and structures, however tiny, within a seemingly innovative work of art make it more accessible to the viewer/reader and reduce the likelihood of loss for the artist.

Written by Tulika Bahadur

Gift

As a teacher, at this time of year I lead a privileged life of receiving Christmas season gifts from kind students. So far this season, I have been taken to lunch by some of my class, received cards, been given homemade fruit bread and kombucha, also chocolates and panettone.

Naturally, I am honoured and grateful for the thought, but I also sometimes stop for a moment and think about the decision surrounding what it is, to give a gift. With no obligation to do so, the giver has chosen to give. I may have received a gift as someone’s teacher and perhaps there is a recognition of my striving to give in that role through the year, but regardless, when I get a gift, I believe that the giver intended that I receive it as a recognition of my value to them or as a valuing of the relationship that has been formed. And I do feel valued as a person and I do feel the relationship recognised and strengthened.

If chocolates make me feel valued and recognised  then what of everything else I have received? If I begin counting the gifts I have received since birth I have to recognise that I was born into gift. My limbs alone would count as an invaluable gift.

How much is a limb worth? I think most would agree that it is worth far more than all their possessions. Almost all of us are born with limbs and many other equally valuable physical assets. So, whilst some of us are born into wealth and some aren’t, our physical bodies alone are immensely more valuable than our material wealth, and that is not to mention every other attribute we have such as our mind and our consciousness.

We are born into gift.

When we were in the womb, we did not knit together any of our limbs.

We did not even choose the circumstances of our birth.

We did not earn what we have received because it does not originate from us.

We did not earn what we have received because it does not originate from us. Even the greatest of us with incredible achievements do not make themselves or their circumstances. They orientate themselves towards a possibility and are therefore able to receive. A runner did not make their legs, rather, they use their legs. In a way, they fully receive their legs. The more they use them, the more they fully receive their legs. If we extend this metaphor, it can get very uncomfortable for us, because the moment we see everything as gift we have to begin to question our response. And locked in with response, is responsibility.

This is all without mentioning the natural world and the contribution to that world of those who went before us. Somewhere along the line, somebody risked something to improve their own lives and the lives of their children and we are those children. All gift.

We might complain about the circumstances of our birth, about our height or the colour of our hair but if you think about it, it was all gift, a few perceived shortcomings here or there but all gift. Of the bad bits, some have even said that in hindsight it was those experiences that helped form who they were to become, and that they are grateful for that. So arguably, even the perceived shortcomings are gift.

Yes, we groan and there probably are many who at least part of the time, ‘lead lives of quiet desperation,’ but even desperation does mean we do not live in gift. A prisoner still groans for and desires freedom as the fullness of their existence. A prisoner still values what they have and seeks its fullness.

The danger of gift is that we do not recognise that it is gift. Rather we begin to see it as an entitlement. Imagine that if I as a teacher received many gifts and walked away saying to myself something like, “I earned the gift through my hard work. The gift is a reward for my hard work.”

Something has broken down in this hypothetical scenario. The intended honouring of a person and relationship has been subtly manipulated into a transaction. What was given in kindness has been received with pride. The act of giving was for the other, but this form of receiving has been for the self. The only way the receiving can be equally for the other is that it recognises the gift as a gift, not as a transaction based on entitlement.

A gift is unconditional and therefore founded in love. As with love, what is intended as an affirming of the receiver and an affirming of the relationship can be lost and even worse manipulated by an inability to recognise gift. A gift elevates and affirms while bringing together persons, but when a gift is not properly received, the gift is destroyed or used by the receiver to empower themselves, destroying the original relationship.

I think it is appropriate that we have a season where we celebrate with the giving of gifts and the birth of an obscure child in an obscure stable, a child born to be king. The obscure child reminds us of the nature of love and the nature of gift, given in the humility of a stable. The stable does not coerce us with glitz or glamour, rather it leaves us free to choose to receive.

The gifts I have recently received challenge me to recognise the many more gifts I have received through the year, many of them being people I have met. Have I recognised these gifts?

Have a wonderful Christmas break.

Marco

The wondrous Medieval Bestiary

In conversational English, the word “medieval” carries plenty of negative connotations. Many of us see that era in Europe as a time of superstition, stagnation and fear that was, thankfully, superseded by a much-needed “Enlightenment” in the 1700s. Although such an impression of the Middle Ages continues to prevail among the masses, serious historians now maintain that the term “Dark Ages” should be applied to just the period immediately following the fall of the Roman Empire (around the years 400-500). The span between the late 700s and 1500, it is understood, brought a considerable amount of social stability, political organisation and educational activity, including the flowering of the first universities.

Cranes take turns at night, watching for enemies, Harley Bestiary (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For all its flaws and challenges, medieval Europe was a fascinating place and epoch. And medieval men and women, full of faith, adhered to a conception of the cosmos that was theatrical and imbued with sacramental meaning. They constantly looked for proportions and patterns in Creation and believed in the interconnected of all things. In their worldview, matter transcended itself to communicate truths of supernatural importance.

According to the Italian scholar Umberto Eco (1932-2016), the philosophers and theologians of the period believed in a universe that was filled with light and optimism. In both poetry and painting, medieval people portrayed themselves as living in extremely bright surroundings. We can see this in the illuminated manuscripts. Eco writes in History of Beauty (2004) that even though they were probably executed in environments “where the gloom was barely relieved by the light from a single window, they nevertheless brim with light, with a particular effulgence engendered by the combination of pure colours: red, azure, gold, silver, white and green, devoid of nuances or chiaroscuro.”

There is a category of the medieval illuminated manuscript that stands out: the bestiary, known in Latin as bestiarum vocabulum. The bestiary, as the name suggests, was a compendium of beasts, real and legendary, that contained descriptions and illustrations accompanied by moral lessons. Although the document goes back to the 2nd century (the first one was in Greek, titled Physiologus), it became popular only in the Middle Ages. Nature was perceived to be God’s second book of revelation after the Bible, and animal life, in all its variety and adventure, was interpreted through an allegorical lens and investigated for hidden spiritual/religious significance.

Adam naming the animals from the 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Professor David Brown of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland explains in his book God and the Enchantment of Place (2004): “Even today some of these stories survive in the corporate memory, as, for instance, the parallels between Christ feeding us in the Eucharist and the pelican reviving its chicks with its own blood. So too do some of the associations, such as the snake or the ape with evil, the hare and rabbit with lust and fertility or the dog with faithfulness. On the other hand, even those well versed in Scripture might have difficulty conceiving how particular biblical verses were expanded to make the eagle a symbol of renewal, the stag of perseverance, or the lion of resurrection, far less of the lessons without biblical underpinning as in the association of the beaver with chastity, the hydrus with salvation, or the peacock with resurrection. Although in the latter cases ultimately derived from paganism, it would be a mistake to dismiss such borrowings as no more than that, for in the process of adoption they have usually also been thoroughly Christianised… Likewise the strange hybrid creatures that are depicted were far from being cultivated as mere ‘freaks’ but more as object lessons or even as themselves worthy of salvation.”

A manticore from 13th century Rochester Bestiary (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Read an excerpt from a bestiary kept at Bodleian Library in Oxford, translated by historian Richard Barber: “Deer by nature like to change their homeland, and for this reason seek new pastures, helping each other on the journey. If they have to cross a great river or lake on the way, they place their heads on the hindquarters of the deer in front, and, in following each other, do not feel hindered by their weight. And if they come to a place where they might get dirty, they jump rapidly across it. Another peculiarity of their nature is that after they have eaten a snake, they hasten to a spring and, drinking from it, their grey hairs and all signs of old age vanish. The nature of deer is like that of the members of the Holy Church who leave this homeland (that is, the world) because they prefer the new pastures of heaven, and support each other on the way; those who are more perfect help their lesser brethren through their example and good works, and support them. If they find a place of sin, they spring over it at once, and if the devil enters their body after they have committed a sin, they hasten to Christ, the spring of truth, and confess, drinking in His commandments, and are renewed, laying aside their old guilt.”

Such presentations might strike us moderns as too fanciful. But in our disenchanted world where noisy engines have expelled much mystery from the natural world, it is refreshing to encounter such grandeur, luminosity and sense of wonder.

Written by Tulika Bahadur

Painting and feelings – my journey with art

Art is in doing. Take the first step and be yourself. Brutally honest will do fine.

Luisa, one of our resident Friday morning Drawing and Painting students, has generously shared her reflection on her time at MAC, and how art has impacted her life.

I have been attending at Melbourne Art Class for a year. And in that year, I have not only discovered more about art, but also about myself. Art, and specifically painting, unlocks stuff. Opens doors you did not know existed. It can best be described by quoting Joan Mitchell, who in 1986 said:

Feeling, existing, living, I think it’s all the same except for quality. Existing is survival; it does not mean necessarily feeling. Feeling is something more: it’s feeling your existence. It’s not just survival. Painting is a means of feeling “living” … Painting is the only art form except still photography which is without time. Music takes time to listen to and ends; movies, ideas, and even sculpture take time. Painting does not. It never ends, it is the only thing that is both continuous and still.

Yves, 1991. Oil on canvas, 110 1/4 x 78 3/4 inches (280 x 200 cm). Private collection. © Estate of Joan Mitchell.

Mitchell was one of the few female abstract expressionist painters who gained critical and public acclaim in the 20th century. I read her quote often and only slightly disagree with her views on music. (Yes, music depends on time, but where does a note start and where does it end?) Abstraction in art, is by its very nature, abandons objectivity and moves into ethereal exploration.

One of the leading avant-garde jazz pianists, Craig Taborn, produced a recent album Daylight Ghosts. Taborn modified the sustain pedal of his piano in order to imagine a note when it is no longer audible. He then plays different notes and chords to talk to that note wherever it exists. He often visits art museums in New York to collect ideas for his music.

Once upon a time, I was a lawyer. And every day felt like groundhog day. Only voices, places and faces changed. The constant was a treadmill, self-doubt and a vulnerable ego. A mistake, a lost case and everything imploded. Happiness was as elusive as a good night’s sleep. The lawyer was moderately successful, but that only meant groundhog day was longer and more intense. People said the lawyer was eccentric, thought outside the square, had a creative streak. All I wanted was to feel the wind on my cheek and have the fragrances of plants and flowers linger forever. I wanted to step into every soft pastel orange sunset.

One day I did a Google search for art classes in Melbourne. The first one I stumbled upon was www.melbourneartclass.com. I enrolled in the only class available at the time, Portraiture with Marco Corsini. It was a fortuitous decision. In the beginning, I believed I was hopelessly out of my depth, wasting everybody’s time. At the time I did not realise the reach of Marco’s empathy and patience. Four weeks later I could produce a fairly accurate self-portrait and a week later I began painting with oils. It speaks volumes about the quality of the classes; the extent of their reach. I now paint things as I imagine and feel about them. I am no Joan Mitchell or Craig Taborn, but I think I know what they were aspiring to. There is more to life than survival or winning or being better; best; most.

I believe everybody is blessed with creativity. Granted some are more aware or talented than others. This “more talented” thing is an aberration, not an excuse. We meet more talented people every day in every aspect of life and we try to manage it without thinking or resentment. I also believe that we should not to confuse skill with creativity. Anybody who is reading this has a wealth of experience that feeds intuition which, in turn, is the basis of creativity. Do not compare or be judgemental. Artists, like Cezanne, Jackson Pollock and Rauschenberg were not great technical painters. They were magnificent artists and their influence will continue to resonate and open doors in our minds.

Art is in doing. Take the first step and be yourself. Brutally honest will do fine. Feel the wind on your cheek, smell the flowers and paint it. Integrity cannot be faked and it is often what makes art great. Everything else, like a prize or a sale, are simply bonuses. The reward is in expressing yourself on a canvas without rules, comparisons or judgement.

I am not a good technical painter. I am rather rough. Everything I do, is intuitive. Despite that, I have against all expectations, sold three paintings. It was not supposed to happen. The bigger reward is that I am content with my lot in life and happy that I no longer live groundhog day. The black shutter in my mind has lifted.

For me the key to painting is fluidity. The movement away from temporal to “a temporal”. Observing to feeling. For me it is spiritual; in a material world, everything has time limits. The idea I am exploring is to transcend this, to emphasise the nature of metaphysics as something that is forever. A place where time does not exist.

I recently looked at some eucalypt leaves in various states of decay that a friend of mine painted. I told her that she painted delicate evanescence and that it was beautiful. I could see a forever. Evanescence suggests the leaves will fade away. It does not mean they are gone. To make my point graphically, I enlarged her paintings with the edges of the leaves cropped off. Separated content from form or borders, her work entered a new dimension. Something that I saw and felt. It is beautiful and stirs curiosity.

Another way to phrase it is to “stop and smell the roses”. They linger in memory or on a canvas.

I love walking in the bush after the rain. Thousands of fragrances hanging in the air and my nose weaves through them. I pause when I enjoy something more.

‘Struggling artist’ sounds good. Should have tried it decades ago.

Written by Luisa Blignaut