Undressed Art

Peter Steinhart's book The Undressed Art (2004, subtitled "Why We Draw") is fascinating—not because of what it teaches about drawing, but because of what it teaches about living. Steinhart describes himself as "a naturalist and a writer" but his first love, clearly, is the almost-thankless challenge of figure drawing. Some brief excerpts follow.

from Chapter 1, "Allure":

We are less engaged in producing than we are in practicing. It's a refrain that runs through the work of even the best draftsmen and draftswomen. We do it not because we're good at it, but because there is some prospect that if we keep doing it, eventually we may be good.

That last idea is one that has run through the minds of many of the great artists. Hokusai declared at the age of seventy-three: "From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the form of things. By the time I was fifty, I had published an infinity of designs, but all that I have produced before the age of seventy is not worth taking into account. At seventy-three I have learned a little about the real structure of nature, of animals, plants, birds, fishes and insects. In consequence, when I am eighty, I shall have made more progress, at ninety I shall penetrate the mystery of things, at a hundred I shall have reached a marvelous stage, and when I am a hundred and ten, everything I do, be it a dot or a line, will be alive."

... and later in that chapter:

I still feel at home in the woods. But lately something has happened to the story, or to the stories, I used to tell. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say something has happened to my ability to go on telling the story. Perhaps I have told that story --- that nature is the fullness of our hearts and that we are draining it dry --- too many times. Perhaps people have heard it so often that it no longer has the power to stir their hearts. Perhaps in the greed of the 1990s, when overnight fortunes were made on trivial inventions, we lost patience with the long and complex uncertainties of nature and biology. Perhaps we reached a point at which too few of us were still in contact with nature to keep a critical mass of opinion that what we were doing to it mattered. Perhaps the overweaning power of corporate lobbyists and campaign contributions has worn down the hope that we can translate the story into meaningful action.

from Chapter 3, "Learning to Draw":

To draw representationally, one must increasingly evade the grasp that language tends to place on the mind, must, in a sense, replace knowing with seeing.This is something many accomplished artists have noted. Monet once said he wished he had been born blind and had vision opened to him later in life so that he could see form without knowing what the objects were that he saw in front of him.

... and later in that chapter:

In the end, you may never really feel you have retrained your brain. The harder truth of the matter is that most drawings are failures and that almost all drawing is merely practice. One draws especially to learn. You learn and you learn and you learn. You are constantly making new connections in your mind. You are constantly trying to stop old connections from redirecting your pencil or from talking your drawing into a muddled death. You are concentrating in a specialized and extraordinary way. And in the end you are drawing in order to grow within yourself. Matisse said he drew "to liberate grace and character" and saw the work as "that of understanding myself."

from Chapter 4, "Connecting":

In this sense it is not the finished drawing that counts. It is the time spent outside oneself, of which the drawing is merely a record, the ticket stub in your pocket after the concert. "The sight is a more important thing than the drawing," declared Ruskin. What counts most is the intensity of one's connection.

from Chapter 13, "Ambition":

I am consoled by the idea that failing to make a living at art has a long and honorable tradition. Ingres advised: "Do not concern yourself with other people. Concern yourself with your own work alone." Van Gogh declared, "The only thing to do is to go one's own way, to try one's best, to make the thing live." As long as one has a seriousness of purpose, one can fairly claim a kinship with such artists.

Even more than that, I am consoled by the thought that there is a great deal of human genius that is not rewarded materially, or at least not in proportion to its contribution to the general well-being. Parenting isn't. Nor is compassion. Nor is one's ability to see clearly into one's own heart. Drawing well makes me feel wiser and more intimately connected with the world. That's a huge reward.

After I had read most of The Undressed Art it became clear to me that Steinhart is talking not just about figure drawing, but rather about any worthwhile activity --- any pursuit that helps the human mind develop toward its fullest potential.

(see also SeeingAndForgetting (15 Jul 1999), Tuscan Masters (25 Jun 2000), Art, Courage, Life (3 Jul 2000), ConversationsInPaint (18 Aug 2000), ArtAndIdeas (1 Sep 2001), MirrorArt (27 Dec 2001), ...)

TopicArt - TopicLiterature - TopicLife - TopicThinking - 2005-02-01

(correlates: PrecisionLiving, NothingnessShowsThrough, OnStickiness, ...)