Eric Coombes: Drawing, tradition and Peter Clossick

Despite the best efforts of the state-art establishment 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 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 very different system prevailed 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 closely connected. First, John was repelled by a system which eliminated the risk of using line, because it extinguished for the students the very source of joy, which had motivated them to study art. It did so by making

mindless

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precisely what should engage the mind in the endeavour to find and articulate an intelligible visual ordering in what
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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 visual thought is to render drawing mindless and deny its very nature. It

​ was clearly important—to invoke the second

integral to the draughtsman’s thinking, and the trace remaining

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is alive with the meaning with which that action imbues it: the risk of not immediately getting it quite right is just the risk that attends and is inseparable from thought itself. To eliminate that risk is to withdraw the mind from its internal relationship to drawing—that is, the relationship in which drawing is thinking, not merely the product of thinking—leaving nothing but an inert routine: a ‘substitute for drawing’.

It is misconceived, therefore, to take the ‘skill’ of drawing to be merely a technique, merely the means to the end of producing a certain kind of artefact, which might, in principle, be produced, equally well, or more conveniently, by some other technique. Something like this misconception must underlie claims that photography, for example, can be considered a form of drawing, and ‘Stumping’ as described by John could almost be described (with qualifications unimportant in the present context) as a pointlessly laborious procedure for manufacturing substitutes for photographs.

In a previous issue Dr Selby Whittingham cited Finberg as complaining in 1910 that ‘the only kind of training that is provided for English art students is training in this capacity of reproducing objects of sight accurately.’. Finberg may well have had good

reasons for complaint, but his actual words here, if taken perfectly literally, make no sense. Drawings, of their very nature, cannot possibly ‘reproduce’ ‘objects of sight’ (accurately or inaccurately) except, perhaps, in the limiting case where the sole ‘object

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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

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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
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can be copied by a coin. This /* 9-970x90 */ common

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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 google_ad_height = 90; 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 /* xin2 */ years ago, most 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

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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 src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> 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 might be thought of as a device whereby visual appearances are mechanically copied.

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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

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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 google_ad_height = 90; of discussion, still continuing after more than fifty years. Since it is also very readable, quite a few students asked to read it might have actually done
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 particularly clear. But the principle must be generalized to include not just line, but all the resources available to the draughtsman. It must also of course, be generalized to include painting, because painting is drawing – drawing with an extended range of materials and tools, and (usually) the additional dimension of colour. And with /* xin-1 */ a little reflection we see that this also extends to sculpture.

To understand a drawing, painting or sculpture is not merely to know that it embodies a thought, but to perceive it as doing so. The possibility of its being so perceived is essential to its nature as a work of visual art. It is not enough for it to be arbitrarily associated or linked with some thought, which remains external to its perception. This requirement by no means excludes the possible relevance and efficacy of supplementary information or critical elucidation, but it does exclude what is now typical of state art and of the sad travesty now presented in Fine Art finals shows: things which cannot so much as pretend to bear meaning without elaborate and often absurd ‘explanation’ – alleged meaning which remains entirely unperceivable even when it is made known to the viewer. The requirement of perceivability can be fulfilled only if the materials constituting the work are raised to the status of a medium. The medium of

contemporaries or near-contemporaries as students at Camberwell School of Art between the mid-1970s and the beginning of the 80s: Julie Held, David Tebbs, Susan Wilson and Clossick himself. In picking out these painters, I imply no disrespect for the admirable work of the other exhibitors. But these four are particularly interesting to me in the present context, partly because I am very familiar with their work, but also because they all insist on the importance of the discipline of observational drawing, which was still maintained vigorously at Camberwell when they were students there, although it was already sinking to varying depths of dereliction, corruption, deformation or outright destruction in many, probably most, art schools. From their shared grounding in that discipline has evolved the individuality of quite different, though inter-congenial, artistic personalities – demonstrating that disciplined study, far from flattening individuality, is what google_ad_slot = "6023194682"; supplies the means of realizing it. They have received none of src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> the support, still less the imbecile adulation, lavished on the Hirsts, Emins, Lucases, Creeds etc., but have continued with their serious and life-enhancing work, not in the easiest of circumstances, during the thirty-five years or more since they were at Camberwell. A model for such long-sustained effort could have been provided by one of their most respected mentors there, Tony Eyton, who also had a small painting in the exhibition. Now in his mid-nineties, Eyton has enjoyed considerable success, and  – not only in my opinion – among //--> the most distinguished painters of the last half-century, he continues to be ignored by the state-art establishment.

A small solo exhibition of paintings by Peter Clossick, also at Felix & Spear, will run through May, under the title of ‘Spirit & Matter’, words which evoke Bomberg’s well-known references to ‘the spirit in the mass’. Clossick’s painting immediately brings to mind the work of Auerbach and Kossoff, of that growth within ‘the great tradition’ which owed so much of its strength to the example and teaching of David Bomberg. Far from being a fault or weakness, it is greatly to Clossick’s credit – central to his strength as a painter – that he does not self-consciously will himself to deviate from their example, by seeking novelty for the sake of novelty in a factitious show of differentiating his work from theirs. He knows that, for the painter, true individuality arises, unforced, only from participation in a shared visual culture, which sustains the media of thought within which individuality evolves. His painting embodies an individual sensibility all the more powerfully, because it does not rely on meretricious contrivance. He is not bamboozled by the contemporary crassness that

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confuses novelty with originality.

We might approach his painting by returning to the understanding of drawing as embodied google_ad_slot = "8637400688"; 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 kind of visually exhibited emphasis or salience in Clossick’s painting. It is as if 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 google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; significance through the vigour with which it is invoked in the constructed morphology of the paint surface. The thick paint retains the 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, 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 google_ad_width = 970; element is integrated into our perceptions – at least subliminally – through memory and imagination, as potential movement. An important aspect of Clossick’s painterly idiom is that it enables such potentiality

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to be made explicit and salient in the construction google_ad_width = 970; of the painting itself, in the gestures embodied in the highly worked surface of the paint. Provided that

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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

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leg crossed over her left, the foot approximately touching the virtual picture plane, so that it is life size. Although it is 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
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his subject-matter, including, but not confined to, the relatively straightforward example given above of imagined movement through the depicted space.

Clossick usually works on his painting in the presence of google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; its subject, often scraping a painting down at the

end of
a session, so
that only