Sunday, March 7, 2010

REVIEW Twilight of Painting by R. H. Ives Gammel

I picked up this book (on inter-library loan, as it is out of print) on the recommendation of an artist whose blog I read regularly, hoping to learn more about the traditions of fine art.

Gammel's thesis appears to be that the academic painters of the 19th century (which term he goes to great length to define) and the impressionist painters of the 19th century (which includes anyone not painting in the fine tradition of painting handed down through the ages) had a falling out. The first impressionists, having been themselves trained in the academic tradition, had all of the fine art skills at their disposal and experimented in new techniques by choice. But when they went on to train their successors in (Gammel admits) the fine art of observing from nature and capturing the effects of light, they threw out the baby with the bath water and neglected to teach a full range of the painter's art, including drawing, so that the skills of the academic painter have been lost.

For me, a perplexing part of this book was Gammel's critique of the various art plates in the book, (which are, unfortunately, black and white.) Even allowing for difference in taste, I fail to see why this noodly lady:

is a better painting than this:

or even than this:

It seems to me that most of the paintings he includes in his plates are examples of fine painting in their particular traditions, and only a few exhibit the flaws he claims they do. I would have liked better illustrations and better explanations so that I could have understood his point. If the tradition of fine painting has been lost, he failed to show me that it has.

The book is full of a great deal along this vein, which, now that I've told you, you don't have to read. Certainly, some lively debates could be made for and against many of his points. But ultimately, I think the embedded lesson is "don't neglect your scales," that is, don't neglect studying the basics of drawing and design and understanding value, and the technical manipulation of paint, all of which contribute to great painting in any style.

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