life drawing, CAVE ART, MODERNISM and BEYOND

The following text began as the INTRODUCTION to session 10 of my EXPERIMENTAL LIFE DRAWING WORKSHOP to be held in the WEA OMEGA CENTRE in PORTSMOUTH  08.07.2014
A key element of drawing begins with an understanding of structure, whether it’s of the human form, animals, plants or
architecture. I will return to structure later – what follows is a very abbreviated series of art movements leading  to
DECONSTRUCTION which is the focus of the session.

CONTEXT : Cantabria, Spain 40,000BCE – Portsmouth UK 2014CE .,via Lascaux, the Dordogne and Holland. . .

Art historians might argue that amongst the first “artists” were the cave painters. Drawings on cave walls in Cantabria in Spain date back an unbelievable 40,000 years BCE and In Lascaux in the Dordogne area of France there are some of the finest examples of early animal painting (17,300BCE). However, it was the Egyptians, followed by the Ancient Greeks who were the first to incorporate a paradigm or framework that governed how they made their artefacts.

The Egyptians (3100 BCE – 395 CE) believed order and form was more important than artistic expression or creativity.
Greek Art (c.650-27 BCE) looked for forms that echoed the order and harmony that they found in the universe. Greek
philosophers made one discovery after another about the laws of nature and this resulted in laws for physical forms too.
Plato (423-347 BCE) said that all 3D forms were variations on certain geometrical solids.

During the Renaissance artists revisited the Greek theories of proportion, order and balance.
Much has been written by popular author Dan Brown about the Golden Section, a mathematical system that is similar
to growth patterns in lots of natural forms. A rectangle that is divided and subdivided, according to the principles of the
Golden Section proportions and results in a spiral form, resembling many sea shells and animal horns.

As an art student in the early 1970’s, I turned against the tide and was interested in realism, firstly in the 17th
century Dutch Golden Age of Painting; epic marine painters like The Van Der Veldes’ and Romantic British landscape
painters such as Turner and Constable. NB: As I come from East Anglia it’s not really surprising that Constable is one of my all time heroes !

Next I turned to the 19th century and Realism or Naturalism and Gustav Courbet, who has a pure integrity about his work – stripped down, and real.

At school I was encouraged to look at modernism, although in comparison to realism it left me thinking about Hans
Christian Anderson and “The Emperors New Clothes ! I am now a little more circumspect !

Modernism was relevant to the 20th Century and it was a blatant rejection of realism. Modernism and modern art are
terms used to describe the series of art movements that critics and historians have identified from 1850 onwards.
Modern art was driven by a number of social and political agendas; these were often utopian. Modernism was
associated with ideal visions of human life and society and a belief in progress. (See Futurism)

Today, we place emphasis on creativity and artistic innovation – imagination, re-inventing the wheel,
discovering new art forms – violating the rules of order and balance – this is the legacy of Modernism, which proposed
new forms of art on the grounds that these were better suited to the present time. Modernism is characterised by
constant innovation and a rejection of a realistic portrayal of the world.This led to experiments with form and to an emphasis on processes and materials.

In the 1960’s conventions of the past were overturned once more, the rule books were rewritten and the period was identified as postmodernism with pluralism becoming the catch phrase.
Whilst Modernism rejected realism, by inventing a new set of rules for each new movement, latterly it was considered too
restrictive. However, the Modernists gave us new toolboxes and a new perspective. In contrast, Post-modernism focuses on style over substance (giving the impression that something is far better than the truth).

Postmodernism questions the distinction between high culture and mass or popular culture; (American Pop Art) it
smashes the boundaries between art and everyday life; and finally it refuses to recognise the authority of any one style, manifesto  or definition of what art should be.

Postmodernist art is characterised by a self-conscious sampling and blending of earlier artistic styles, conventions and
media. Whilst it could be argued that Postmodernism begun with Pop Art it embraced much of what followed, including
neo-expressionism, feminist art, conceptual art and the YBA’s, (the Young British Artists of the 1990s).

Just as Greek Art followed advances in science and philosophy so too did the next important movement, DECONSTRUCTION, which began with the scholarly work of the philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) ;
Deconstruction is a form of semiotic analysis.
NB That reminds me I must finish Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose !

Deconstruction’s roots are in the architecture of the late 1980’s and is characterised by unpredictability, (controlled
chaos) – take a look at the architecture of DANIEL LIBESKIND, FRANK GEHRY and ZAHA HADID. Their distinctive work, at times, verging on chaotic but coming together to form a unified (but fragmented) whole, together with an interest in manipulating a structure’s surface, skin, non-rectilinear shapes which appear to distort and dislocate elements such as the structure and envelope.

Returning to visual artists, Julie Mehrtu, an Ethiopian artist who lives and works in New York, is one of my top ten post modern artists – her drawings and huge paintings certainly illustrate controlled chaos ! Another contemporary hero is John Maeda, who is a true modern day Renaissance man being a computer programmer, graphic designer and artist.

In conclusion, the context of the session is as wide as it gets – but on Tuesday we will concentrate on DECONSTRUCTION. I’m looking forward to the session, in which we will try to manipulate the surface of the models skin and distort and dislocate the forms creating chaos, hopefully culminating in order and harmony.

I’ll post examples of the work produced later.



NB: Due to the pressures of time I have cobbled this post together with the help of Wikipedia, The Tate Modern website and The following books and in the interests of clarity I have not included citations for which I apologise !

Heartney, Elenor, Movements in Modern Art : Postmodernism, London 2001

Hoptman, Laura, Drawing Now: eight propositions, New York 2002

Francina, Francis & Harrison, Charles, Modern Art & Modernism a Critical Anthology, London 1982

Clark, Kenneth, Civilisation,London 1969

Jenks, Charles, What is Post Modernism ? Chichester 1996


About chriswoodartist

painter, print-maker and illustrator


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