Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Seven Discourses on Art: Sir Joshua Reynolds

This caught my eye in the free books on Amazon’s Kindle and seemed worth a read. It is, very obviously, a book of its time – with lots of references to Italian and Dutch painting – one of which Reynolds admired (in parts) the other he didn’t. It is quite a fascinating insight into the personal tastes of Sir Joshua, who is clearly not backward at coming forward when he thinks something is of little value.

More pertinently, because they are lectures to groups of students passing through the Royal Academy, the discourses have quite a lots of Sir Joshua’s ideas on how to develop into an artist – some of which still ring true today for a photographer.

My favourite quote:

“ is but poor eloquence which only shows that the orator can talk. Words should be employed as the means, not the end: language is the instrument, conviction is the work.”

This seems to encapsulate a lot of what the tutors who frequent the forum say – it’s about not being a slave to technique, or judging a work of art on purely technical grounds – which, given it was delivered in 1771, is quite a post-modern idea.

He rails against the use of copying as a method of progression, effectively suggesting that it gives you technical competence but no more, and suggests that a good method of progress is to look at a scene and imagine how a master would have painted it. This could be considered to stifle inventiveness, but Reynolds argues that “A student unacquainted with the attempts of former adventurers is always apt to overrate his own abilities, to mistake the most trifling excursions for discoveries of moment, and every coast new to him for a new-found country”. He is clearly of the view that a decent understanding of the canon is essential to the development of creativity and that a willingness to build on this history is a pre-requisite of being considered a genius.

I could go on – there are many quotable quotes in this vein that seem pertinent to the kinds of discussions we regularly have in the student forums – but I’ll finish with just two more: “ is enough to pursue his (the Masters) course; you need not tread in his footsteps, and you certainly have a right to outstrip him if you can” and “Be as select in those whom you endeavour to please as in those whom you endeavour to imitate”.

In spite of it being rather quaint at times, and in spite of Sir Joshua’s occasional tendency to spend too long bashing those he regards as sub-standard, I can recommend this as an interesting take on how to develop as an artist – in whatever medium. Some of it is still relevant, some of it appears in the light of modern opinions as errant nonsense, but it is none the less, thought provoking and engaging. And, as if that weren’t enough – it’s free.

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