Eric Coombes: Drawing, tradition and Peter Clossick

Despite the best efforts of the state-art establishment

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visual intelligence survives, argues Eric Coombes

In 1941, Augustus John contributed A Note on Drawing (from which I quoted a few words in the previous issue) to a book edited by Lillian Browse, containing reproductions of his own drawings. John records his sense of good fortune in having been a student at the Slade, and thereby spared an oppressive training in ‘the substitute for drawing’ prevailing in other places, notably the Royal College of Art or its immediate precursor at South Kensington.  This substitute was ‘Stumping’: ‘An innovation having no roots in tradition, it pretended to provide the student with a means of representing form without risking the use of a line. … the student was instructed to copy the objects placed google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; before him by means of a prolonged smudging and stippling process.’  This system ‘… blighted every trace of talent which suffered under its inexorable discipline.  Many a lad and lass, their souls alight with that flame which in the young only art and love can kindle, were fated, after a course of “Stumping” … to retire beaten at last …’  At the Slade, by contrast, ‘a

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very different system prevailed

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under Frederick Brown and his chief lieutenant Henry Tonks.  There “Stumping” was severely banned and the students
had to do the best they could with the point of a stick of charcoal and a sheet of “Michelet”. They were even encouraged to study the Old Masters!’.  He continues with some remarks about Brown’s use of ‘rhythmical lines’ and ‘Tonks’ insistence on the Contour [which] was equally sound and in the great Tradition …’

Two themes in this brief note are

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closely connected. First, John was repelled by a system which eliminated the risk of using line, because it extinguished for the src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> students google_ad_width = 970; the very source of joy, which had motivated them to study art. It did so by making mindless precisely what should engage the mind in the endeavour to find and articulate an intelligible visual ordering in what is drawn. This endeavour cannot bypass the decisions, the revisions of decisions and, indeed, the mistakes and attempted corrections, which are brought to judgement in the determinacy of line. To eliminate this
essential feature of

inaccurately) except, perhaps, in the limiting case where the sole ‘object of sight’ is itself a drawing. Now as in the past, however, visual representation is often naïvely described in this way. Even so sophisticated and powerful a thinker as Ruskin is guilty of this confusion, most obviously (if inconsistently) in The Elements of Drawing – although what is there posited as the object to be copied is an appearance, incoherently understood as an array of coloured shapes, already a kind of picture of the scene to be represented. But an appearance is of a different ontological order from
a picture and is logically uncopyable by any physical entity. One might as well say that a debt can be copied by a

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coin. This common misconception, which is derived from a notoriously fallacious strand of empiricist philosophy, is extraordinarily tenacious, and by no means dead.

In the practice of art, and even in the practice of criticism, this confusion need not be disastrous: a better understanding advances and articulates itself in the practices themselves, even where less defective conceptions do not emerge into the light of theoretical reflection, or emerge only inchoately in criticism. But it matters much more when, as often happens today, the misconception deforms both teaching and practice. Fifty or so years ago, most src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> art teachers at every level intuitively understood drawing as much more than a technique for making something that might as well be done with a camera, although they probably saw no need, and perhaps lacked the capacity, to explain this at the level of theory. They were content in the knowledge that anyone to whom this was not intuitively self-evident had not yet fully appreciated the gifts of the tradition that defines what the visual arts are. But nowadays the very word ‘tradition’ may meet with incomprehension, bewilderment or automatic, unfocused hostility; and its invocation may aggravate rather than deflect the vindictive resentment of uncultured ignorance. But, to touch again on John’s second theme, it is through the tradition of image making that perceptual capacities are cultivated which sustain drawing as a medium of thought. In this respect, drawing is analogous to language.

A photograph, of course, ‘reproduces’ the ‘objects of sight’ no more than a drawing does. But in the confused view we are considering, it

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might be thought of as a device whereby visual appearances are mechanically copied. The tenacity of the ‘copying’ error derives, presumably, from the experience of naturalistic painting where the vividness or immediacy of the depicted scene may engender the sense of looking at something ‘just like’ the scene itself. Less naturalistic modes of representation may then be conceived of as deviations from a naturalistic norm, although there is, in fact, no norm of naturalism. It is in a way surprising that this misconception remains so common, even among those supposedly educated in the visual arts, and even since the publication of Ernst Gombrich’s justly celebrated book, Art and Illusion. This book made a huge impression, quickly found
its way onto countless reading lists and initiated a chain of discussion, still continuing after more than fifty years. Since it is also very readable, quite google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; a few students asked to read it might have actually
done so. Few, if any, serious theorists would now endorse all its arguments and conclusions without important reservations (not least about Gombrich’s use of the notion of illusion); but among its indisputable intellectual achievements is that it put beyond all question the erroneousness of the ‘copying’ conception.

We need, then, to distinguish a visual representation from a mere simulacrum or surrogate, which cannot, as such, embody thought (although it may contain information). This simple conceptual point has many implications for our understanding of the visual arts, and various lines of discussion may converge on it. It has an application to the history of early modernist painting, when associated theorizing was informed (though not always explicitly or clearly) by those implications, largely under the (not necessarily direct) influence of Schopenhauer. There is much more to be said here. But I must content myself with stating the following: A representation, as such, does embody thought about what is represented, which, in the case of visual representation, is essentially thought about how things look, including how things look in imagination and memory. (It is important not to misunderstand this by unduly restricting, a priori, the kinds of thought supposed capable of being internal to perception.) A drawing, as a drawing, is essentially about what it represents: it has the property of aboutness – or ‘intentionality’ to

use the philosophical term. We see the drawing as the record and embodiment of the draughtsman’s actions, understood as the movement of essentially communicable thought. The example of the embodied gesture in the decisively drawn line makes the point

not rely on meretricious contrivance. He is not bamboozled by the contemporary crassness that confuses novelty with originality.

We might approach his painting by returning to the understanding of drawing as embodied action, which I endeavoured to elucidate earlier. Of course, if this is right, it is not just true, but, in a broad sense of ‘logical’, logically true – true of all drawing, including smoothly finished presentation drawings, and not only of drawing which ostentatiously exhibits the physicality of its production. It is therefore true of all painting; or, if we wish to exercise pre-emptive intellectual caution, at least of all representational painting. But this necessary truth gains a google_ad_slot = "8637400688"; kind of visually exhibited emphasis or salience

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in Clossick’s painting. It is as if /* xin2 */ the painter wants to retain, or reconstitute, the early impulse of drawing in the final painting, the kind of drawing which Augustus John’s ‘note’ brings to mind, in which the action of representing finds an obvious image in the clear trace
of physical action in the decisively drawn line.

Typically, space as depicted in Clossick’s painting asserts its significance through the vigour with which it is invoked in the constructed morphology of the paint surface. The thick paint retains the

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texture which records the movement of the brush or other implement applying it, so that we have a very immediate sense not simply that a complex structure is described as something that was there, google_ad_height = 90; but that it has been reconstructed or reimagined in and through the process of making the painting.

Our perception of space has an //--> essential kinaesthetic dimension, and even when we are just sitting still, that element

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is integrated into our perceptions – at least

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subliminally – through memory and imagination, as potential movement. An important aspect of Clossick’s painterly idiom is that it enables such potentiality to be made explicit and salient in the construction of the painting itself, in the gestures embodied in the highly worked surface of the paint. Provided that the depicted space is established by the disposition of sufficiently recognizable forms, it is possible for imagined movement through that space to be embodied in gestures that are not constrained by an imperative exactly to follow a specific form, or which, in following it, withdraw from

explicit or determinate definition, to register the less focal character of the attention we give
to parts of what we perceive. A clear example of this is provided by Clossick’s painting
in the group exhibition: Santon, a vertical-format painting of a reclining female nude. She lies back on a bed, or bed-like raised surface with red covering; her feet are towards us, her right leg crossed over her google_ad_height = 90; left, the foot approximately touching the virtual picture plane, so that it is life size. Although it is src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> so close to the viewer, however, the foot is remote from the psychological centre of the attention we give to a person, and, being so close, can be – literally – overlooked. Though not in itself the subject of focal attention, it is at the culmination of a powerful visual thrust towards the viewer from the knee, drawn with an emphatic sweeping thick line, or visual pathway, of dark
paint, as much movement through space as description of form in space. At its culmination, that movement is turned back into the virtual space, by the equally emphatic and inventive drawing of the foot – or not so much of the foot, which is rendered with conviction but quite indeterminately, as of that counter-movement itself, as if the foot’s significance lies mainly