Recently I mentioned the connections between art and philosophy — a branch of study referred to as aesthetics. On this point, which deals with beauty and taste, I’m content to go with the conventional wisdom that says beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. You like what you like. I like what I like. Sometimes we’ll be in agreement as to what is beautiful and note-worthy; at other times we’ll have very different opinions. Still, all is well. We’re each entitled to our opinions.
My study of tonalism, however, has brought me a bit deeper into philosophy and art. I’ve been reading more about the life and work of Asher B. Durand, one of my favorite artists. Several years ago as I first began oil painting, I read Durand’s collection of “Landscape Letters”. While I enjoyed his essays on art, I was beset with questions. I addressed these questions in a post from January 2017. I had been oil painting for about 2 months at this time. I was excited and eager to learn, but Durand’s words made me question how an artist should approach nature.
He wrote about resemblance, and he wrote about representation. What was the difference? I wasn’t sure, but at the time my skills were so limited, it hardly mattered. Here is where my confusion began, with Durand’s insistence that an aspiring artist should choose a simple foreground object, such as “a fragment of rock, or trunk of a tree” — one marked by strong light and shade — and then to “paint and re-paint until you are sure the work represents the model — not that it merely resembles it.”
In my reading this morning, I came across these concepts again while learning about Durand’s “nature studies”. Now, his “studies” aren’t quite like my “quick studies”, but even so, he viewed them as preliminary works, not finished paintings. Making nature studies — en plein air — was the method by which he acquainted himself with nature.
Here is one study, “Interior of a Wood”:
To me, this is nothing short of a mind-boggling example of art. To Durand, it was simply a study. I can see at once why he chose this interior of a wood — all those minute details, the fungi, the subtle variations in color. These were the elements Durand insisted an artist must learn… and master.
Mastery of nature in art demands more than mere imitation; it requires representation. So, what do these different — yet similar — concepts mean? Frustrated once again with my inability to fully grasp what Asher Durand is trying to teach me, I went off on a philosophical tangent, turning toward ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and to a modern-day philosopher, Noel Carroll.
It was an insightful morning.
According to ancient Greek philosophy, art imitates life. Works of art, therefore, should try to accurately resemble real life subjects. It is this imitation that creates an aesthetic or artistic response in the observer. Going back again to the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Aristotle and Plato would suggest that it’s only when the beholder’s eye falls upon an accurate imitation of a subject that it can be considered a true work of art.
Moving forward in time now to contemporary thinking, we find Carroll defining art much differently. In the “representation” theory, a work can only be considered art if two qualities are present:
- The artist intends for a work to stand for — or represent — a subject or concept
- The viewer understands that the work is intended to represent that particular subject or concept
In other words, to put it plain and simple, a work of art can represent something without having to imitate it.
There are, however, problems with Carroll’s representational theory in that some artworks truly make no pretension of representing anything. Abstract art may or may not be representational. Design patterns can be art yet not be representational. Despite these questions, however, I now have a much better understanding of the differences Durand wrote about in his landscape letters.
For me, this is a liberating concept. I feel freer now to explore landscape art in my own way, playing with different colors, using the different methods I’m learning to add mood and atmosphere to my paintings. It’s bringing me back around to the idea of painting from the heart, painting what I feel, and sharing the beauty of nature in my own unique way.
The theory of representation allows each artist — even me — to speak with a unique voice.