Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Ingenium?: An investigation of shifting creative values from the perspectives of subjectivity and culture in the works of Eugene von Guérard.

A presentation given at the 2015 Visual Arts and Design Educators Association (VADEA) NSW:

Ingenium?: An investigation of shifting creative values from the perspectives of subjectivity and culture in the works of Eugene von Guérard.

Fine art is the art of genius.

Genius is the talent (natural endowment) which gives the rule to art. Since talent, as an innate productive faculty of the artist, belongs itself to nature, we may put it this way: Genius is the innate mental aptitude (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art (Kant).

 ‘Milford Sound with Pembroke Peak and Bowen Falls on the west coast of Middle Island, New Zealand’, by German artist Eugene von Guérard, is a typical example of the Romantic tradition of the sublime in nature. An investigation of the artist, his works and ideas from the point of view of Romantic concepts associated with creativity reveals a highly driven, exceptionally skilled, and passionate individual – a genius in his ability to combine a “breadth of feeling and painstaking attention to detail” in his depiction of the remote and formidable landscapes of New Zealand and Australia, landscapes which had never before been captured in paint.

‘Milford Sound’ successfully combines sophisticated scientific investigations with the
‘poetry of divine power’. In his drive to depict beauty and meaning in the highest form, the artist has presented us with an awe-inspiring landscape, his treatment of subject matter being an embodiment of the feeling of a poet and the touch of a master. The work is evidence of the artist’s brilliant understanding of symmetry and form, with his depiction of the echo of reflections on the glass-like water, and the perfect precision of the minutely rendered pebbles in the foreground. However, an overwhelming sense of awe is also achieved via the depiction of the great magnitude of the mountainous landscape. The 5 tiny figures and boat in the middle-ground provide a point of comparison, and the sense of scale and grandeur forces the viewer to really understand, and therefore to experience, the power and magnitude of nature.

Von Guérard’s work has a distinctly Humboltian aesthetic. The lengthy volumes of Alexander Von Humboldt’s Cosmos, published in 1849, presented a visionary science in which the patient study of the natural world was linked with a semi-religious philosophy of unity and wonder. It saw a connection between the overwhelming sensation of the sublime and a scientific project such as drawing the minutiae of rocks and foliage. It was about a poetic science - the materials of science were given a religious structure. Von Guérard’s work is a perfect embodiment of the 19th Century Romantic philosophy of emotion informed by intellect.

"In Australia alone is to be found
the grotesque, the weird, the strange scribblings of
nature learning how to write. Some see no beauty in
our trees without shade, our flowers without perfume,
our birds who cannot fly. But the dweller in the
wilderness acknowledges the subtle charm of this
fantastic land of monstrosities. He becomes familiar
with the beauty of loneliness, whispered to by the
myriad tongues of the wilderness he learns the
language of the barren and the uncouth."
Marcus Clarke

In ‘North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko’, von Guérard encounters the vast Australian landscape first hand, capturing dramatically wild scenery encountered on expeditions, far remote from colonial occupation. Again, we see the minute forms of the artist or explorer, the scientist and the rest of the expedition team set against a vast and otherwise unpeopled vista. There is a combination of meticulous attention to detail and artistic licence with the framework of imagined rock formations in the foreground. This is a grand view, and quintessentially sublime in its depiction of awe in nature. The work also has an autobiographical element. The inscription on the painting reveals that the work is a record of November 19, 1862, the artist’s 51st birthday. On this day the artist truly put himself in jeopardy for his art, and as he immersed himself in recording the topography of the site a heavy storm approached from the NSW side. The situation was particularly bad as the team did not have all their equipment with them and so had to return to their camp, 11km away. This was a disastrous and dangerous journey. For von Guérard the remote landscape was not just an awe-inspiring scene but a profoundly frightening place.

Mount Kosciusko has been described as one of von Guerard's most inventive paintings. He not only created a remarkable link between foreground and sky but also added profoundly to the sublimity and grandeur of his subject. von Guérard successfully depicted the sublime in the Australian landscape by capturing the remote setting as a sense of something ancient, vast and strange. He defined the difficulty of imaginatively inhabiting Australia; however, by using the genre of the sublime landscape, von Guérard was able to make his discovery intelligible for the viewer, shifting the viewer’s discomfort into an aesthetic experience. The artist, as genius, cleverly uses a mode of expression which allows the viewer to not only understand the work conceptually, but also to experience a similar state of mind that the artist had when creating the work.

Cultural perspective
An assessment of the relations between the artist, the field of practice, and the attitudes of the audience, including the taste of the time, however, reveals an entirely different view of the creative performance of the artist.

While von Guérard enjoyed much acclaim during his career, by the time he had painted ‘North-east view’ he had started to fall out of favour. There were three major oil paintings which resulted from the Kosciusko trip however, only Mount Kosciusko seen from the Victorian Border (1866) and Valley of the Mitta Mitta with the Bogong Ranges (1866) were acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria. ‘North-east view’ was shown in April 1863 in Wilkie and Webster's music shop, one of Melbourne's regular showplaces for paintings, and then at an exhibition of art and science in Ballarat in August. While he had high hopes that the painting would be of great Australian national interest, the response by local critics was mostly negative, and it is said that this period spelled a sharp decline in the artist’s reputation. The work was, essentially, not viewed to be creative by many due to the changing tastes of the time.

In 1870, James Smith, a leading Melbourne taste-maker who had previously positioned the artist as Victoria’s leading landscape painter right throughout the 1850s and 60’s, wrote that von Guérard’s work “offers a minutely laborious description of almost every leaf upon the gum trees, and of every crevice in the rocks, which would make them delightful illustrations of a treatise on the botanical or geological features of the colony”. This was not a complement. The critic saw the artist’s attention to detail as being incompatible with greatness. The artist in response, however, argued that in their attention to detail “his paintings would have greater value, where it will be doubtful that those which can be taken equally well for a misty English or an Australian landscape will have the same future”. He also argued that while his works were an “elaborate copy of [Nature’s] details”, he was able to catch a glimpse of “divine poetical feelings”.

North-east view remained unsold. Von Guérard showed it again at Melbourne's Intercolonial Exhibition in 1866 and while the jurors singled out von Guérard’s painting for comment, declaring it "most remarkable" as "an accurate topographic portrait", this assessment was inherently dismissive because topographic recording did not rank as art. The press was much more hostile. The Argus considered the painting to be the least satisfactory of von Guérard’s paintings in the exhibition. ‘Rocks, rocks, rocks on every side’ decried the exasperated Smith, and ‘most uncomfortable to look at’, despite being ‘terribly true to nature’. The Australasian characterised it as "dreariness itself".

Smith’s tiring of von Guérard’s works reflected the change in taste in art that was not confined to Australia. von Guérard fell out of favour while other painters such as Chevalier and Buvelot received much greater acclaim and had their reputations reinforced with the purchase of their works for the National Gallery of Victoria. Buvelot became a highly influential artist and was admired by the artists of the Heidelberg school who named him the “father of Australian painting”. Christopher Allen states that “Buvelot thus turned Australian painting from its concern with the strangeness of nature – whether beautiful or terrifying or both – to the spectacle of its domestication. Of course, we are seeing the emergence of Australian Impressionism where the freer and less meticulous execution of plein air painting was preferred to the high finish of von Guérard’s intensely sublime landscapes.

Von Guerard's reputation remained the same for most of the 20th century. The original edition of McCulloch's Encyclopedia of Australian Art (1968) allocated the artist only 13 lines and described him as an "academic painter of landscape and mountain scenery". Robert Hughes's dismissed the artist’s works as being "indigestibly stodgy prospects of mountains and lakes".

Today (still cultural orientation):
In 1973 the Surrealist painter James Gleeson was visiting Mexico City to organise a cultural exchange for the National Gallery of Australia. While he was there the Australian ambassador told him of a painting by von Guérard in a local collection. When he saw it he immediately told the NGA’s director to buy it. In the 1980s we see a revival of the work of von Guérard, including North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko. The NGA chose the work as the cover picture of the first von Guérard retrospective (Candice Bruce's survey that toured around Australia in 1980-81), and pre-Heidelberg painting was studied on its own terms by Tim Bonyhady in Images in Opposition (1985).
Today, the appreciation of North-east view is entirely different. It is considered a work which embodies a masterful approach depicting the landscape in a highly skilled, yet artistic manner. When discussing von Guérard today’s critics and historians (John McDonald, Christopher Allen, Edmund Capon) all make comparisons to works of the artist’s contemporaries, and his contemporaries always fall short. Christopher Allen argues that von Guérard was the first colonial artist to move far enough away from settled areas to really engage with the deeper experience of settlement, and to therefore truly encounter the alien Australian landscape. Here, the artist differs to Conrad Martens who, whilst embracing the Romantic idea of the picturesque by capturing the atmospheric effects of light and weather in nature using a style which was “increasingly Turneresque”, was never really far away enough from ploughed farms, fenced gardens and Georgian mansions to truly experience landscape on a deep level.

Allen also discusses comparisons made between von Guérard and nineteenth-century American painters of the sublime landscape. He states that these comparisons are misleading as they ignore historical contexts. Von Guérard was part of a “crucially formative period of Australian culture”, whereas the nineteenth-century American painters were working long after a definition of what it is to be American was established. The Americans were viewing the romantic wilderness within the context of an established culture, therefore the works did not have the same down-to-earth attention to detail and von Guérard’s humility and integrity saved him from the perils of kitsch”.
Many critics (Allen, McDonald, Capon) today are now keen to refer to, and debunk, the cliché that is the view that European artists with their European aesthetic applied their European sensibilities to their depictions of Australian landscape. Allen, for example, states that “particularly pernicious was the lazy cliché -- still to be encountered in student essays and overheard in galleries -- that Streeton and Roberts were the first to see the Australian environment properly, while the colonial painters thoughtlessly rehearsed formulas they had brought with them from Europe”.

Critics today once again refer to the artist’s ingenuity in presenting a dramatic yet highly accurate view of the landscape which ‘moves’ its audiences. Sayers (201), argues that von Guérard “was undoubtedly the best landscape painter in Australia of this time and much of the success of his work relied on a combination of the meticulously observed with the grandiose”. Allen (2011) states that “no artist has ever looked so carefully, and with more exacting standards of accuracy, at the Australian environment”, and that “we recognise him today as a figure who towers above so many more ephemeral successors”. Today the artist is once again considered a genius in the Kantian sense, that is, as having innate mental aptitude or ingenium, and is also considered an artist of great Australian national interest.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Gratitude - Opportunities for happiness in teaching

What keeps me happy when general morale in the workplace might be low, or when I have a particularly difficult class, or an onerous project to complete? What makes me walk strongly and confidently when I am in doubt or fear, or when I am just plain exhausted? You might be thinking the answer is the kids - that it is the kids that keep me going. Or maybe it is the challenge - the promise of always growing professionally in a challenging workplace environment. Of course, most, if not all of what I do is for the kids. Another priority is always growing professionally for this is what allows me to provide quality experiences for the kids. However I find problems are presented when I rely on people, places or things to provide happiness or contentment with what I do. A student might refuse to complete work in my class, a colleague might tell me something I don't want to hear, or I might be looked over for a promotion.

For me, gratitude is where it is at. I am most content in my workplace, no matter what is happening around me, when I am practising gratitude. Gratitude is so important to my teaching practice and always has been. When I feel exhausted, frustrated, angry, tired, or overworked, a sense of gratitude helps me no end. When I am feeling gratitude for my job, for the students I teach, for my colleagues who inspire me, and for my life generally, I am less likely to take my frustrations out on my students or colleagues, I am more able to manage my emotions in a healthy way, I am less likely to gossip and carry on in a negative manner, and I am more able to be a productive and positive participant of my school and the wider community.

However, I also know that a sense of gratitude does not always (ever?) come naturally. I need to continue to foster a sense of gratitude for what I do, and for what my life has given me. This takes a conscious decision. Like love, gratitude is not just a feeling but an action. Or a number of actions. Gratitude comes when I act in a way which says that 'I am grateful for my life/job/family', etc. even if I am not really feeling it. How do I continue to foster a sense of gratitude? I actually have to consciously and continually remind myself that I have been blessed with a job that is not only rewarding but has been utterly life-changing for me. I never wanted to be a teacher. I never thought I could  be a teacher. I happened to be guided into this profession by some amazing mentors, and I have been given a career that I love. Every day I remind myself of the amazing experiences I have had in my teaching career, and how far I have come since the early days of university where I could barely speak from nerves, let alone get up in front of a class and teach. In fact, my first ever 'teaching experience' was in front of my university peers, where I gave a five minute presentation on the artist Joseph Cornell and the Structural Frame. I was so nervous and so fearful of failing that I rote-learned my presentation word for word the night before. The next day I repeated each and every word as I had learnt it. I am a different person now, and I no longer have the same intensity of fear or anxiety. Although I may feel fear when starting a new project or dealing with a difficult class, it is nothing compared to those early days.

What else do I do? If gratitude is an action, it must be fostered in opportunity. It is hard to always feel grateful, and even harder to act gratefully when the feeling is not there, however gratitude can be fostered in everyday opportunities. When an opportunity presents itself, I try to take pride in all that I do, and I try to do everything to the best of my ability. I keep my classroom a tidy, colourful, fun and safe place for learning. I participate in my school community whenever I can in a positive way, and I try to give back to my school and broader community. Helping others gives my life meaning, and I need to give back especially when I am feeling sullen, selfish, or full of ego. Giving back might mean assisting a colleague, helping a prac student, saying yes to being interviewed by a pre-service teacher as part of an assignment, contributing to staff development days, and being involved in sub-committees or working groups. It might also just be making a cup of tea for a colleague or helping out with a playground duty without expectations of them 'owing me one'. These actions make my life very full and rewarding. There are still the bad days or awkward moments, however, a sense of gratitude helps minimise these moments that may affect myself or others in a negative or manner. I am by nature a selfish person, so when opportunities present themselves to go against what shortcomings I have I try to take them, even if I don't want too.

In saying all this, there are times where I stretch myself a little thin, but this just means stepping back a bit, practising gratitude in my classroom and trying not to take on anything new for a few weeks. This has taken practise and I am often out of balance, however, this is all part of the fun of growing professionally.

This week my first ever Year 12 class received their HSC results. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have taught them. I am grateful for the rewarding experiences that came from mentoring students with their bodies of works. I am so proud of their results. Their results did not show others that I am an awesome teacher, their results showed me that they worked to the best of their ability and enjoyed what they did. For that I am grateful.

There is one journal article that continues to inspire, motivate and help me in my teaching. I have kept the article on file for a few years, have recommended it to others, and I re-read it when I need just that extra little bit of support with my teaching. I recommend it to you...

The article I refer to is Practising Gratitude to Enhance Teaching and Learning  by Dr Kerry Howells, Faculty of Education, University of Tasmania.You can find this article at in an issue of Education Connect: Occasional Papers in about Social and Emotional Wellbeing, issue 8. Topics in this issue include: Gender and wellbeing, gratitude in education, teacher education and professional development.

This TED talk also talks about gratitude as a means to happiness as opposed to relying on happiness to feel grateful: David Steindl-Rast: Want to be happy? Be grateful.

If you have anything you want to share on gratitude, I would love to hear about it.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Wordle for name and define

I like to use Wordle as an opportunity to learn about and encapsulate key content or concepts. Often when I read and summarise articles I pull out the key words and concepts, and Wordle allows me to do this in a more visual, engaging and concrete manner. 
This is a Wordle I created for an education kit for VADEA NSW about the Australian artist Jonathan Jones. By collecting and bringing together all the relevant words associated with the artist and his practice from newspaper articles and other sources, I am able to gain a basic overview of what this artist knows and does.
I am hoping to use Wordle in this manner as a starting point for student investigations, where students start their thesis/investigations with a basic lower-order, but also very important, 'name and define'. I've not talked about Max Wood's ALARM Matrix for teaching and learning in this blog yet but I intend to... it is something I have been working on during the last term, and it is a very effective matrix for student response, guiding them from a basic name and define right through to critical evaluation.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Curiouser and curiouser

I like to tell my new Year 7 students that artists know stuff. This, of course, extends to teachers of art, art critics and historians. We know stuff. And that is why being an artist/art student/critic/historian/art teacher is so fascinating.

I love art theory. Art tells us about the world in so many ways. However, I'm yet to work out the exact equation that will make my students love theory as much as I do. For the time being I try to make my content and examples as interesting and current as possible. Art theory is not easy for students, I know. I love the following quote by Stuart Hall from Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies (1992). The quote begins Anne D'Alleva's Methods & Theories of Art History (2005).

I want to suggest a different metaphor for theoretical work: the metaphor of struggle, of wrestling with the angels. The only theory worth having is that which you have to fight off, not that which you speak with profound fluency.

A reassuring quote also, as it indicates that having my head in the books during christmas break in anticipation of teaching HSC art historical and critical studies for 2013 is OK. I do feel I am wrestling at the moment - I'm not sure it is with angels, however. I'll keep you informed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Glossary of Key Words from the Board of Studies

A Glossary of Key Words

Account for: state reasons for, report on. Give an account of: narrate a series of events or transactions

Identify components and the relationship between them; draw out and relate implications

Use, utilise, employ in a particular situation

Make a judgement about the value of

Make a judgement of value, quality, outcomes, results or size

Ascertain/determine from given facts, figures or information

Make clear or plain

Arrange or include in classes/categories

Show how things are similar or different

Make; build; put together items or arguments

Show how things are different or opposite

Critically (analyse/evaluate)
Add a degree or level of accuracy depth, knowledge and understanding, logic, questioning, reflection and quality to (analyse/evaluate)

Draw conclusions

State meaning and identify essential qualities

Show by example

Provide characteristics and features

Identify issues and provide points for and/or against

Recognise or note/indicate as being distinct or different from; to note differences between

Make a judgement based on criteria; determine the value of

Inquire into

Relate cause and effect; make the relationships between things evident; provide why and/or how

Choose relevant and/or appropriate details

Infer from what is known

Recognise and name

Draw meaning from

Plan, inquire into and draw conclusions about

Support an argument or conclusion

Sketch in general terms; indicate the main features of

Suggest what may happen based on available information

Put forward (for example a point of view, idea, argument, suggestion) for consideration or action

Present remembered ideas, facts or experiences

Provide reasons in favour

Retell a series of events

Express, concisely, the relevant details

Putting together various elements to make a whole