The Art Instinct (4)

Is skill and virtuosity connected to our perception of reality? What I mean is, do we perceive a painting as exemplifying great skill when it approximates as closely as possible to what we have seen with our own eyes in the world?  Of course, this is the field currently occupied by photography.  When we want to capture something we have seen, the photograph is probably the most effective way of doing that.  Before the invention of photography, there was a need for artists, for example, to provide images of kings and rulers, to commemorate special events. Artists are no longer necessary in order to pursue those goals.  Yet artists still exist.  Photography has not made artists redundant.  It has not even caused the death of painting, which many feared would happen.  The artist, then, is intentional about their work in a different way today, because of a change of role.  Attention to external likenesses is not the only preoccupation for the artist, and arguably, never has been. There is so much more to learn to communicate through art, and in painting specifically, than photographic likeness.


I want to consider the cases of Philip Guston and Richard Diebenkorn. But first, here is Gwen John, one of the most underrated British painters.

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Gwen John – Self portrait 1902

This self portrait painted early in her career does not exhibit the smooth somewhat glossy skill of Giovanni Bellini (see previous post), but is clearly skilful and well painted. However, what is striking is not the level of practical skill involved, but the quiet strength of the work.  This is a quiet woman who nonetheless has determination and strength of purpose.  I remember seeing this painting in Tate Liverpool a few years ago, and though it is darker and smaller than I had anticipated, it was captivating for the sheer presence of the subject.  There was a power communicated by this small painting that is difficult to describe.

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Gwen John – Self portrait


In this later self-portrait, there is a definite change of stance, a defiant confidence, if not an aggression, that takes the centre stage. This painting says, ‘This is me, like it or not, and don’t think I’m going to change just for you!’  The artist is not highlighting her skill with the materials.  Instead she is focusing on conveying her thoughts about herself, and fixing her place in the world.  Her skill is in the portrayal of the invisible, in the communication of her inner thoughts.  This is an area of skill that is not included by Denis Dutton, as he considers the factors which characterise the virtuosity involved in the making of a work of art.



Gwen John – ‘The Convalescent’

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Take another example from her work. Compare ‘The Convalescent’ with her early portrait.  It is clear to see from this comparison that the artist is working on a different way of expressing what she sees.  There is a mistiness, a less clearly defined style, one which is coming away from the traditional ways of painting to embrace new ideas, in this case, influenced by her tutor, Whistler, and the rise of Impressionism amongst the fellow artists that she lived amongst in Paris.  I pick this painting out because it points, once again, to the preoccupation of the artist, which is fixed on something other than the traditional range of skills that Dutton has in mind.

This is also exemplified by the career progression of the abstract artist Richard Diebenkorn.

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Diebenkorn’s early work includes many still life paintings.


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No shortage of skill here. He takes the ordinary experiences of life and makes them accessible to you and me.  Yet he began as an abstract painter.  The Royal Academy describes him this way:

‘Revered as one of the great post-war masters whose staunchly independent career takes us from abstraction to figuration and back again.’

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Richard Diebenkorn – Ocean Park 60 (1973)


‘It is in 1967 that Diebenkorn goes back to abstraction and it is in the dialogue that he establishes with Piet Mondrian where this show triumphs allowing us to see his whole journey backwards. Even though it could be said that his latest paintings are abstract and cold, they are all about human error, erasure and correction. According to Diebenkorn life is a learning journey through which we must get in touch with our darker side in order to accept the often underestimated beauty of contentment.’

(Q The Huffington Post 14 April 2015)

His very successful Ocean Park series of paintings are certainly not known for neatness and accuracy. It is obvious that this is of no interest to the artist.  His skill lies in communicating outer landscape seen from an inner landscape.


Philip Guston made a similarly extreme move, this time away from abstraction to a more figurative mode of expression.

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Is one more skilful than the other? Is it a retrograde step to go from the former to the latter? Has the artist lost confidence in their abilities?  Or is it more likely that the artist’s intent has changed?  I think that this last possibility holds the key to the conundrum.  Skill is no longer the target.  Today’s artist has other intentions in focus.

Philip Guston – ‘Smoking’ 1973



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