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Pearls from artists* # 494

Shamans, Tiwanaku, Bolivia

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Emile Cartailhac was a man who could admit when he was wrong. This was fortunate, because in 1902 the French prehistorian found himself writing an article for L’Anthropolgie in which he did just that. In “Mea culpa d’un sceptique” he recanted the views he had spent the previous 20 years forcefully and scornfully maintaining: that prehistoric man was incapable of fine artistic expression and that the cave paintings found in Altmira, northern Spain, were forgeries.

The Paleothithic paintings at Altamira, which were produced around 14,000 B.C., were the first examples of prehistoric cave art to be officially discovered. It happened by chance in 1879, when a local landowner and amateur archaeologist was busily brushing away at the floor of the caves, searching for prehistoric tools. His nine-year-old daughter, Maria Sanz de Sautuola – a grave little thing with cropped hair and lace-up booties – was exploring farther on when she suddenly looked up, exclaiming, “Look, Papa, bison!” She was quite right: a veritable herd, subtly colored with black charcoal and ocher, ranged over the ceiling. When her father published the finding in 1880, he was met with ridicule. The experts scoffed at the very idea that prehistoric man – savages really – could have produced sophisticated polychrome paintings. The esteemed Monsieur Cartailhac and the majority of his fellow experts, without troubling to go and see the cave for themselves, dismissed the whole thing as a fraud. Maria’s father died, a broken and dishonored man, in 1888, four years before Cartailhac admitted his error.

After the discovery of many more caves and hundreds of lions, handprints, horses, women, hyenas, and bison, the artistic abilities of prehistoric man are no longer in doubt. It is thought that these caves were painted by shamans trying to charm a steady supply of food for their tribes. Many were painted using the pigment most readily available in the caves at the time: the charred stick remnants of their fires. At its simplest, charcoal is the carbon-rich by-product of organic matter – usually wood – and fire. It is purest and least ashy when oxygen has been restricted during it’s heating.

In The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

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Pearls from artists* # 80

New York, NY

New York, NY

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important:  whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of despair.  But the painting [“The Goldfinch,” 1654, by C. Fabritius] has also taught me that we can speak to each other across time.  And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you.  That life – whatever else it is – is short.  That fate is cruel but maybe not random.  That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it.  That maybe if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway:  wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.  And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.  For if disaster and oblivion have followed this painting down through time – so too has love.  Insofar as it is immortal (and it is) I have a small, bright, immutable part in that immortality.  It exists; and it keeps on existing.  And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire, and sought them when they were lost, and tried to preserve them and save them while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.

Donna Tartt in The Goldfinch 

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Pearls from artists* # 62

"The Sovereign," soft pastel on sandpaper, 58" x 38"

“The Sovereign,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 58″ x 38″

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Yes, I’m formalistically obsessed.  I see in a picture what I see in nature – everything has its place and is integrated.  Like a tree or a human body, the image is put together for a greater whole.  If you chop off something, you immediately destroy the organism.  Form is crucial to what I do, and I believe that the form, in a way, creates the content.  If you don’t have the form, you don’t get the content.  If you get the maximum formal relationships in a precise, organic, metaphoric methodology, then you have a better chance of bringing out the content to its full degree.  Of course, a picture doesn’t stand alone by its form.  You can have forms that relate but offer no meaning.  Ultimately, a picture is judged by its meaning, and I think that’s what a lot of people lose sight of.     

Interview with Roger Ballen in Lines, Marks, and Drawings:  Through the Lens of Roger Ballen, Craig Allen Subler and Christine Mullen Kreamer

Comments are welcome!

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