20 Sites n Years by Tom Phillips

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Tom Phillips has long been one of my favourite contemporary artists and he’d certainly be my candidate for one of the world’s greatest living artists even though the world at large stubbornly refuses to agree with this opinion. Phillips’ problem (if we have to look for problems) would seem to be an excess of talent in an art world that doesn’t actually like people to be too talented at all (unless they’re dead geniuses like Picasso) and a lack of the vaunting ego that propels others into the spotlight.

Phillips is predominantly a painter but a restlessly experimental one. On my journey through the London galleries in May I visited the National Portrait Gallery, a rather dull place mostly filled with pictures of the rich and famous by the rich and famous. There were two Tom Phillips works on display in different rooms, inadvertently showing his artistic range: one, a fairly standard (if very finely detailed) portrait of Iris Murdoch, the other a computer screen showing a portrait of Susan Adele Greenfield which manifested as an endlessly-changing series of 169 processed drawings and video stills. One work was static and traditional, the other fluid, contemporary and completely unlike anything else in the building.

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Renaissance Man

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Ask anyone for a definition of this term and most people would immediately mention Leonardo Da Vinci (can his reputation survive Dan Brown?) or Michelangelo, the two most highly-regarded geniuses of the Italian Renaissance. While Leonardo’s numerous achievments are well-documented, Michelangelo’s work as a painter and sculptor tends to overshadow his other talents as an architect (most notably for the dome of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome) and writer of over three hundred homoerotic sonnets and madrigals dedicated to Tommaso dei Cavalieri.

A lesser known figure of the period who perhaps exemplifies the full range of the polymathic Renaissance ideal is Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472). In an era over-stuffed with geniuses, Alberti tends to be overlooked but his achievements in a variety of fields still seem staggering today.

One of Alberti’s earliest works was Philodoxeus (‘Lover of Glory’, 1424), written when he was 20, a Latin comedy that was convincing enough as a parody of Classical style to pass for an original work of the Roman era. Other works followed, among them De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (‘On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Literary Studies’, 1429), Intercoenales (‘Table Talk’, ca. 1429), Della famiglia (‘On the Family’, begun 1432), Vita S. Potiti (‘Life of St. Potitus’, 1433), De iure (‘On Law’, 1437), Theogenius (‘The Origin of the Gods’, ca. 1440), Profugorium ab aerumna (‘Refuge from Mental Anguish’, 1442-43), Momus (another Classical comedy, 1450) and De Iciarchia (‘On the Prince’, 1468). More significant than all of these was Della Pittura from 1436, the first ever study of perspective construction. Alberti’s friend Filippo Brunelleschi had earlier devised his own system of perspective but Alberti was the first to set the principles in book form for other artists.

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Brunelleschi was an architect and Alberti also produced his own architectural designs, including the Rucellai Palace in Florence, the first Renaissance building using a system of Classical pilasters, and the facade of the Santa Maria Novella church. His monumental study De re aedificatoria (‘On the Art of Building’) was begun in 1450 and occupied him for the rest of his life, a ten-volume work and the first of its kind to address modern architecture based on Classical principles. This was also the first work of architecture to be printed in 1485 and remained an essential working text up to the 18th century. The book’s recommendations for fortification and siege defence were in use for hundreds of years.

Alberti’s restless talents also encompassed music (he was an accomplished organist), map-making and cryptography. The polyalphabetic cypher he created in 1467 was the first significant cypher of its kind since Julius Caesar’s and has since earned him the title “Father of Western Cryptography.” Alberti has also been proposed as the author of the enigmatic Hypnerotomachia Poliphili of 1499. The jury is still out on this but this is a book whose creation would certainly require someone of Alberti’s breadth of knowledge.

The Renaissance ideal rather fell out of favour in the 20th century, even though there were more than enough polymaths to go around (Harry Smith comes to mind). No one in Quattrocento Italy would accuse any of the great men of the period of being a “jack of all trades, master of none”, the familiar dismissal of a culture that makes a virtue of aiming low. Artists today have to compete in an art market saturated with mediocre work which means they need to find a single gimmick that distinguishes them from the crowd then plug it for all it’s worth. As Robert Hughes memorably says in The Shock of the New, “More artists came out of American art schools in a single year in the 1980s than there were people living in Florence during the Renaissance.” Artists like Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Tom Phillips let their curiosity and creativity carry them forward, producing work that ranges over a variety of styles and media. Phillips is a good example of the contemporary Renaissance man, a painter, sculptor, writer, composer and creator of the extraordinary artwork/experimental novel A Humument. The fact that most people are unfamiliar with his name says more about our world than it does about the value of Phillips’ work. Robert Heinlein isn’t a writer I usually have much time for but he had the perfect riposte to this situation, and to the philistine assertion of “jack of all trades, master of none”. “Specialisation,” Heinlein said, “is for insects.”

“One measures a circle, beginning anywhere…”

Robert Hughes writing in The Guardian about Rembrandt this weekend had this to say about one of the painter’s later works:

He had done pictures of himself that fairly radiate a gloating success, but the deepest was saved for the last decade of his life, when he painted himself as a painter at work, holding brushes, palette and maul-stick. He has his back to a wall, or perhaps a large canvas. On the canvas are two large arcs, incomplete circles. What are these abstract forms doing there? They come from Rembrandt’s reading of a well-known and indeed exemplary story in Pliny. The great Greek painter Apelles, so Pliny’s story goes, went to visit an equally famous ancient master, Protogenes, on the island of Rhodes. But Protogenes was out, and so Apelles, rather than leave him a note, drew on his studio wall a perfect circle, freehand. Protogenes would realise that only an artist of Apelles’ skills could possibly have done this. So Rembrandt places himself before the message that compares him to Apelles, king and ancestor of his art. Old age has at last freed him to make an incontrovertible, utterly simple proof of mastery.

This may be an artistic equivalent of one of those ideas Borges discusses in essays such as The Fearful Sphere of Pascal, where he plots the recurrence of the concept of “the circle whose circumference is everywhere and whose centre is nowhere.” The artist version emerges again with the pre-Renaissance painter Giotto:

According to a story related by Vasari, Pope Benedict XI wanted to employ Giotto and sent an emissary to visit the artist. The messenger asked Giotto for a drawing he could submit to the pope, to prove the artist’s worth. Giotto smiled and took a sheet of paper, dipped his brush in red paint, closed his arm to his side, and with one twist of his wrist drew a perfect circle freehand. Giotto handed this drawing to the messenger, who stared back in disbelief. ‘Is this the only drawing I’m to have?’ asked the messenger. Giotto answered, ‘It’s more than enough. Send it along and you’ll see whether it’s understood.’

Several hundred years later, Tom Phillips painted Fifty attempts to draw a freehand circle inspired by Giotto’s example. I remember being told the Giotto story in school art class and we all had a go at drawing freehand circles. It is indeed a difficult business but after a while your arm starts to get used to the motion. Like many things in art, practice is the key.

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