To Begin at the Beginning

I’m spending a bit of recreational time pulling out and dusting off old bits of Art and Art History from what passes from my memory and education . Why? Because the govt. has decreed that the study of Art as a subject, is pointless and I respectfully disagree.

Art it seems is old hat, worthless in this age of digitisation. As a counter view, I’d like to suggest that digitisation means we need fewer people who can do sums and a more who can evaluate and think of the next original widget; an eccentric view I grant you, but there it is.

Art is about thinking, and therefore should be relevant. Alas even Art colleges have consigned traditional art to the dustbin.

Despite that and then, this time – really old – and therefore presumably really worthless art.

Now you won’t generally find this piece, or anything of its ilk,  in an art gallery, but then again you will find influences of it everywhere after Picasso. I’m alluding to neolithic and primitive art of course.

You see Primitive art wasn’t really considered art at all, at least not with a capital A, more like anthropology I suppose, but as Picasso pointed out, and then went on to demonstrate the ‘idea of primitive in Art is an illusion.’ Or to put it another way, there is no link between chronology and progress in the visual arts.

The Victorians of course saw it otherwise, Giotto was ‘better’ than his master Cimabue, and by the same token Rembrandt would be ‘better’ than Titian I suppose, but ‘worse’ than Constable. Which makes me or you better than Turner…See what I mean?

Chronological progress in art is clearly nonsense. I’ll add that to my list of reasons to dislike the Victorians.

Now, if you accept that old can be the next new thing this gets really interesting, because there are tens of thousands of years of great visual ideas out there just waiting for you to pick them up, and make of them what you will. And of course, we needn’t restrict ourselves to Western European Art , Africa, Asia, Oceana, The First Nations of the Americas , these were all – could only ever have been – visual cultures.

The piece I’ve chosen for this chat is one of my favourites, The Venus of Willendorf, thought to be some kind of fertility figure. Goddess? Shamanistic Item? Ornament?   Scholars argue pointlessly about these things, but one thing’s for certain it’s definitely supposed to look female.

No, in fact I’ll rephrase that it’s Female with a capital F: pendulous breasts, pregnant belly, prominent vulva, childbearing hips; this is absolute visual clarity. Nothing in this image is superfluous, and in the visual arts, that in itself is rare.



It’s very instructive to compare the Venus of Willendorf with other depictions of women. Here’s a famous one, The Mona Lisa.


Now ask yourself which is the better visual depiction of women? The Mona Lisa has more fame, it’s arguably a more technical image to create, it’s definitely more nuanced in its composition, paletisation and so forth. But do those things really matter, or is the essential femininity of these subjects the key thing?

Tricky isn’t it?  Or rather it isn’t. The Venus is clearly and far more obviously female, in fact many have argued that the Mona Lisa (and all of Da Vinci’s women for that mater), is very androgynous.

The big idea here is this: Prototype Form. That is to say the perfect visual representation of not an instance of woman such as Botticelli’s Venus, or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. but all Women.

Da vinci and Boticelli painted instances of men’s ideas of women in their time, the creator of the Venus depicted the essential nature of all women, in all ages on all continents, for ever. Quite an accomplishment.

I’m no expert, but the Venus is the same thinking behind the famous analogy of Plato’s Cave.Here’s the entry from Wikipedia:

The Allegory of the Cave, or Plato’s Cave, was presented by the Greek philosopher Plato in his work Republic (514a–520a) to compare “the effect of education (παιδεία) and the lack of it on our nature“. It is written as a dialogue between Plato’s brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates, narrated by the latter. The allegory is presented after the analogy of the sun (508b–509c) and the analogy of the divided line (509d–511e). All three are characterized in relation to dialectic at the end of Books VII and VIII (531d–534e).

Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners. The inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison; for they know no better life. The prisoners manage to break their bonds one day, and discover that their reality was not what they thought it was. They discovered the sun, which Plato uses as an analogy for the fire that man cannot see behind. Like the fire that cast light on the walls of the cave, the human condition is forever bound to the impressions that are received through the senses. Even if these interpretations (or, in Kantian terminology, intuitions) are an absurd misrepresentation of reality, we cannot somehow break free from the bonds of our human condition – we cannot free ourselves from phenomenal state just as the prisoners could not free themselves from their chains. If, however, we were to miraculously escape our bondage, we would find a world that we could not understand – the sun is incomprehensible for someone who has never seen it. In other words, we would encounter another “realm,” a place incomprehensible because, theoretically, it is the source of a higher reality than the one we have always known; it is the realm of pure Form, pure fact.[1]

When Picasso started his affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, he saw her as the very embodiment of a Young Woman. Beautiful, vital, sensual, feminine. His study of her in a red armchair reveals his absolute mastery of the Primitive.

Nude Woman in a Red Armchair 1932 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973

This work belongs to the remarkable sequence of portraits that Picasso made of Marie-Thérèse Walter at his country property at Boisgeloup. Marie-Thérèse is presented here – as in most of her portraits – as a series of sensuous curves. Even the scrolling arms of the chair have been heightened and exaggerated to echo the rounded forms of her body. The face is a double or metamorphic image: the right side can also be seen as the face of a lover in profile, kissing her on the lips.

By thinking about prototypes, and being beyond instances (shadows as plato would have them),  we can strip away all of the extraneous, unnecessary and distracting details, and visualise things as as they really are, and then as we wish them to be.

Using this type of thinking we could for instance redesign the health service to suit our current needs rather than political pre-conceptions, , re-imagine transport in this age of home working, reconsider the role of family units. Strip away the tradition, do away with the sacred cow of what we’ve always done before, and you get a clean sheet to work from.

Now that seems to me to be just the kind of thinking we need if we are going to be innovators not imitators. As Steve jobs remarked, innovators are the curious, the thinkers, the ones who immerse themselves in great ideas.

“Ultimately, it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you’re doing. Picasso had a saying: good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas, and I think part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world.”

I’m off to step outside of my cave…

4 thoughts on “To Begin at the Beginning

  1. Certainly a lot of food for thought here, Martin. I’m glad you mention Picasso. Spain is a very visual culture, hence their greatness at painting, architecture, film. But then I expect you will say what is ‘greatness’? Whatever it is, Picasso had it in spades, and so did Velazquez, Murillo, El Greco, Goya and even the Spanish Romanesque fresco painters, and medieval miniaturists.
    Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I entirely agree that we are searching both for essence and how to depict/transmit/understand it.
    That applies to all forms of modelling in mathematics as well as poetry and music and painting. The trouble is that achieving either an understanding of what is key or core to a topic is hard enough without the attempt to transmit that in some form to others.
    That is what is so great about your examples. they know what they are trying to transmit, and they do

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An excellent challenge Martin; select great ideas from the past and use them unencumbered and confidently to create the new, relevant and exciting for now.


  4. Couldn’t sleep while in a maras of accounts and threatening litigation. So it is a joy as always to be poked by your thoughts Mart. More a bloody great prod about what is important in being alive. Thinking creatively.
    What you are talking about is “touching” people by art, graphic, sculptural, musical and literary. Touching people involves moving them, it is a movement.
    The ice age art period shows a constant regeneration and experimentation. The BM exhibition four or five years ago was stunning. Only the few imperishables remain, while cloth, bark or leather craftsmanship of painting or creativity are all long gone. Not only cave art, there was so much more then, what we see in cave art is a mere flicker of what was a roaring fire of passion and creativity. The period we see that remains today covered 20-30 thousand years. Compare that to our last 1000 years. There were constant revolutions, reshaping, reforming around what we fundamentally find beautiful and attractive. It’s not unusual to find the ugly or grotesque in the revolution of creativity and imagination, injustice and social confrontation, the bizarre and magical are a few stop off points. All the “ greats” have been through this revolution, no sliding doors or smoking mirrors for the Masters, but a constant revolution of lifting, improvising, stealing, desecrating, regurgitating and refining. That is what being alive is all about. So many get stuck in a rut, which is only a grave with the ends knocked out, but not those that we recognise as great artists, they were and still are locked in a revolution of experimentation, the magic of a creative mind that stands on the shoulders of giants.
    Keep the revolution going Martin. Thanks, at this unearthly early hour, for getting me out of my rut!


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