Avigdor Arikha (1929-2010) was a painter, printmaker and art historian, born in Romania to German parents. After losing his father in a concentration camp, Arikha took refuge in Israel after the war, eventually moving to Paris where he lived the remainder of his life.
In the 1960s Arikha visited an exhibition of Caravaggio (1571-1610), the painter whose brutally honest realism and dramatic use of light and shadow, began to put an end to the period in art history known as Mannerism that followed the Renaissance. For Arikha, the exhibition and its narrative of the history of Caravaggio’s time was an epiphany that led him to view his own time, the period dominated by Pop Art and the beginnings of what is now called “Post-Modernism,” as another incestuous Mannerist period. His solution was to abandon the abstract paintings that he was doing and to just draw directly from nature and always in one sitting. For eight years he did nothing but draw. Working with Sumi ink and brush was a favorite material. Later he picked up paints again but his subject matter was transformed.
Like Giorgio Morandi, another artist who turned his back on the dominant art form of his day, Surrealism, and returned to a direct study of nature, Arikha’s work has much to teach us about attitudes and motivations for art making. Arikha demonstrates what art can become when it stops striving for self-importance or cleverness; when it ceases to be made as an appeal to the “gatekeepers” of the so-called “Art World” and turns its eye and its hand instead to the private, and the personal.
Marlborough Gallery will be showing work from Arikha’s estate this month in New York. Many of the pieces were in his private collection. You can view work from the show at the Marlborough website, and in this special album, below.
A 5th century Chinese treatise on brush & ink drawing offers this cryptic advice: “By the movement of the brush, establish the bones.” What are “the bones” in a drawing? Without bones the body would be a limp sack of skin like the one Michelangelo depicted in his painting of the Last Judgment. Without wood or steel framing, a house would be a shapeless pile of bricks. Bones give structure and form to the visible world. In tonal drawing, the “bones” is the broad tonal patterning that links the various parts into a cohesive whole. The draughtsman seizes on this as a means to create a unified composition.
The Chinese notion of bones relates to the concepts of Notan in Japanese art, and also to the idea of Macchia in 19th-century Italian painting, all of which are based on rendering light and dark in terms of simplified tonal patterns. Because the human eye is so sensitive to tonal nuance, learning to simplify values takes practice. Looking at master drawings is a shortcut to developing this ability.
Attributed to Caravaggio, the drawing above adopts a curious strategy. Instead of allowing unlimited tonal gradations, as do the drawings in an earlier post, Caravaggio translates the visible spectrum into three distinct flat tones, or “steps,”and uses this simplified palette as a means to discover the hierarchy of his subject through the placing and massing of the lightest lights, the darkest darks, and everything in-between. The interweaving tone patterns move independently of the lightly sketched outlines of the figures or objects. Certain edges disappear. Parts of forms tilt into and out of the light. Despite the elimination of gradation and detail, the drawing remains surprisingly luminous and evocative, encouraging the viewer to finish it.
For artists whose livelihood depended on the integrity of their compositions, value studies such as these were a means for discovering, simplifying, organizing, and expressing the essential massing of light and dark in their subjects. To appreciate such brevity and abstraction it’s important to understand that this drawing, and the others that follow, are really about structural contrasts and relationships, not things. Using a limited number of tones is a way to sift out the clutter of small details and fractional half-tones to get to the poetry of the big abstract tonal structure – the real bones of the subject.
Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for Students, by Arthur Wesley Dow, 1920.
Filed under Practice, Theory