Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri


There are many types of holy book and each and every one of them – from the Bible to the Talmud to the Koran – is alternately filled with good sense, vague posturing passing for profundity, and plain old garden variety stupidity.
Many artists consider The Art Spirit to be their holy book.  Like many holy books, it is a compilation of miscellanea masquerading as a coherent text, and it shares all of the virtues and faults of other holy books – which is to say, ultimately, you get out of it whatever it is you bring to it yourself.
The Art Spirit is a compilation of the teachings, letters and overheard comments of painter Robert Henri (1865-1929), a leading figure in the misnamed Ashcan School of art.  Henri was born Robert Henry Cozad in Cincinnati, and was a distant cousin of painter Mary Cassatt.  The family moved west and founded in town in Nebraska, called Cozad.
Henri’s father soon became embroiled in a ranching dispute, and shot a man in self defense.  He took the family to Denver, Colorado, and he changed his name to Richard Henry Lee, and his sons posed as adopted children, Frank Southern and Robert Earl Henri.  Some time later, the family moved back east, first to New York and then New Jersey.
Henri studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before moving to Paris to study at the Academie Julian, where he worked with the great master William-Adolphe Bouguereau before entering the Ecole des Beaux Arts. 
Henri built a formidable career for himself, organizing several landmark shows and painting a number of original and striking pictures, including Salome and The Snow.  He closed out his career by becoming a celebrated teacher at New York’s Art Students League from 1915 to 1921.  It was there that former pupil Margery Ryerson gathered his various musings on art, painting and what it meant to be an artist and published it under The Art Spirit in 1923.  (Other students included Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent and George Bellows.)
I’m not sure if The Art Spirit was meant to be read from front cover to back as a consistent narrative of some kind, but it is a delicious night-table book for random sampling.  There is a lot of gold to be mined here, such as:
There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body.  In fact it is not only among the artists but among all people that a greater appreciation and respect for the human body should develop.   When we respect the nude we will no longer have any shame about it.
This is good, too:
Don’t worry about your originality.  You could not get rid of it even if you wanted to.  It will stick to you and show you up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.
Also good are Henri’s thoughts on the reasons for study:
If you are studying art and not making compositions, my advice is to begin immediately.  You study from the model mainly to get experience.  Your composition is the expression of your interests and in making your compositions you apply what you learn when working from the model.  Your object in painting from the model is not to become a painter of school studies, but to become a painter of whatever you have to express with figures, portraits, landscaped, street scenes, anything, in fact, that interests you.
I’m less impressed with Henri when he is vague.  For instance, I’m not at all sure what he means here:
I can think of no greater happiness than to be clear-sighted and know the miracle when it happens.  And I can think of no more real life than the adventurous one of living and liking and explain the things of one’s own time.
Or something.
And, of course, no holy book would be complete without some outright stupidity.  Henri dishes it up with:
If you do not act on a suggestion at first, you grow dull to its message.
Be yourself today and don’t wait till tomorrow.  He who is master of what he has today will be master of what he has tomorrow.  Many things we know are true that we have never made a part of us.  An artist is a master at the start, if he is ever going to be one.  Masters are people who use what they have.
Don’t demonstrate measure but demonstrate the results you may get from the employment of measure.  There is geometry in all good expression.
In a canvas there are two orders working together, the dynamic and static.
Things are an interesting interval away from you, as well as across the canvas.
Look for echoes.  Sometimes the same shape or direction will echo through the picture.
Got that?
The Art Spirit is certainly not to every taste.  It is, however, a fascinating look into the mind of an artist who gave serious thought to his craft, his artistic tradition, and his place in the world.  Sure, much of it is silly, but a great deal is also profound. 

1 comment:

Bruce said...

I liked the book too.