While working on a Ex Libris (bookplate) commission, I sort of fell in love with the dogs, Jessie & Meiko, that I was drawing. One could say: ‘Of course, these dogs are very cute. They look healthy, playful and are full character’. Yet, I think there is more. As my graphite pencil is creating fur, I am, in my mind, touching that fur. When I add eyes to a dog, I add a soul to a body. And when I admire a healthy fur coat, I like to touch it and give its owner a cuddle. An artist can’t help but ‘bridging the distance’ between himself and an object. Of course this is not always the case. For instance, with political art, despite being deeply involved with the object, one needs to step away from it personally on order to add collective feelings, like repulsion, anger or fear to it, feelings much bigger than one person’s likes and dislikes.
Take for instance Guernica, Picasso‘s oil painting completed in June 1937. Or ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, by Caravaggio (1599). You need a healthy distance to the suffering in both paintings otherwise you would die over and over again during the making of this type of artwork. Still you can’t paint a convincing painting without coming very close to the objects that need to be transferred onto a canvas or drawing pad.
For me this is one of the mysteries of drawing and painting, and probably also of writing. It is about losing yourself, coming so close to objects of your focus that you disappear for a while. And this losing yourself can happen during the painting of a human, dog, flower, snail or ship. Or even seas, rocks, landscapes.
As I am progressing with my Oxford course ‘Rituals and Religion in Prehistory’, I read the following sentence: ‘Ethnographic studies of modern hunter-gatherers have often revealed that they view the landscape as something that is literally animated with moral, mystical and mythical significance. Particular places, rocks, lakes and rivers, are often believed to be the creation of ancient ancestors or spiritual beings, while birds, fish and mammals are seen as creatures that are powerfully related to humans’. (Living with the dead amongst hunter-gatherers, Aiden O’Sullivan of the Department of Archaeology, UCD, Ireland).
Has such ethnographic thesis been pushed forward by people with artistic sensitivity? To feel more than yourself alone or to feel that animals and places are full life, one has to be able to scale down oneself. And to open up to another way of perceiving life, or even being able to enrich one’s perception to sense life in, what we at school collectively have learned, dead material.
With art making, this way of perceiving doesn’t come as a forceful act or as a mind stretch; it naturally happens when people meditate or practise mindful drawing. In ‘The Zen of Seeing, seeing/drawing as meditation’, Frederick Franck describes drawing as ‘The Way of Seeing’, as a way of meditation, a way of getting into intimate touch with the visible world around us’. And distance in that world, whether it is geographical distance or distance in time, seems to be irrelevant.
Do you feel like bridging a geographical or time gap when you are making art? What are your thoughts on this, dear fellow artists?