Reading Notes: “Art & Instinct: Selected Writings of Roy Oxlade”

Roy Oxlade (1929-2014), was a British artist and writer, who studied under David Bomberg and alongside contemporaries such as Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. He was married to artist Rose Wylie with whom he lived for much of the later years of his life in Kent.

His views on drawing and what it means to make art, or to try do so are forthright and refreshing. As ever my Reading Notes are the snippets of text I heavily underlined while reading, occasionally with my own reaction included to. Enjoy, particularly as I think this book is now out of print and hard to find! Added emphasis my own.

001 Art

Too often, most of today’s leading artists simply illustrate, either through quasi scientific models or by simple analogy, ideas which describe situations of which they may be justifiably critical but which have nothing to do with art, in that they in no way transcend their immediate presentation

[On climate crisis] “Those forefront artists could have made an impact by scaling down their contributions to the current eco exhibitions, first by refusing to have work shown abroad in the interests of reducing air miles and secondly by exhibiting small drawings rather than elaborate installations”

“The privileged have the means to promote an urgently needed change in human aspiration… where material extravagance is seen not as a mark of success… excess wealth not something to be reluctantly surrendered, but instead, its abandonment welcomed as enlightenment. Get cool, give it away”

“There are exceptions but most often small is more beautiful”

“By switching off the air conditioning and abandoning all preservation techniques which are lavished on our art collections we could demonstrate that we are serious about conservation of quite another kind”

Abstraction may be preferable to cloying realism but the frisson of recognition and identification made through the communication of metaphorical representation is the thread which links prehistoric art with other forms of ‘primitive’ art”

“Drawing is not the preserve of specialist people called artists”

“Everyday life can do without art and that is its central paradox”

“Any successful art is a triumph over deliberation”

Since it has no ‘material’ justification, art is like a higher order game; it exists disinterestedly. When it succeeds… it transcends daily life and within its milieu humanity is liberated; … the liberating process is interactive. Art has a life only in the awareness of human beings.”

“So is art dead? A shared language of drawing is perhaps the most easily available and therefore promising direction in any search for a sound aesthetic in art… A traditional aim for artists has been to reconcile parts within a satisfactory whole. Making and understanding a log fire has something metaphorically in common with this. Like its components each fire is unique, yet to burn well not only do logs need oxygen, they must relate to each other according to the same ‘architectural’ laws. All log fires are different and the same. While we continue to concentrate on theorising about what drawing means in terms of what it illustrates, we shall continue to lose sight of its aesthetic language, its ‘architecture’. “

So what should be the subject of drawing? Less our concepts and more our perceptions of the things around us, our lives: things, trees, houses, cats, people.”

“The very intention of setting out to make a ‘work of art’, a masterpiece, introduces a self-consciousness which stifles the creative act”

“Bird tracks in the snow, aircraft vapour trails are flawless precisely because they escape the dead hand of intention. We appreciate them for their aesthetic value but they are not art.”

“Art’s central issue: the synthesis of direct and immediate engagement with materials, and a framework of sufficient complexity to hold the attention”

“Art bureaucrats carry a large measure of responsibility for the neglect of the language of painting”

“For the painter, drawn imagery is essential… [with] an avoidance of ‘arty’ sophistication, in favour of actions which precede thought – or which are oblivious of rational decisions“.

*** YES***

“Art objects are the embodiment of human feeling … ‘art proper’ -proper in the sense that its values are not theoretically and arbitrarily imposed .. but are found nowhere but in the work itself”

“Ideology, gender, politics, psychology all deflect the rational mind away from direct apprehension”

“For the artist living within the Western tradition the problem has always been how to prevent the possession or even the awareness of sophisticated technique from destroying the directness and natural impulse

“The self-conscious act of setting out to make art almost certainly, in so many cases, precludes its being achieved”

“A preference for a drawing made without the intention that it should be considered within the orbit of art”

[In reference to ‘After Progress Finding the Old Way Forward by Anthony O’Hear] … “Our attachment to post Enlightenment progressivism is misguided.. we have lost in a deeper spiritual sense”]

“A positive role for painting is most likely to be continued when it is being simply itself, when, as music most typically can, it appeals to the realm of ‘non-functional’ being

Great work does not depend on size or complexity. Both the latter are incidental to quality”

002 Artists & Critics

On Rose Wylie drawing a robin … “Robins scarcely stay still for more than a couple of seconds. They switch and click from place to place like animated film. So to draw a robin from life, as Wylie does, requires the sharpest of perceptual attention. The resulting drawing relies entirely on immediate perception unencumbered by knowledge of robins. So what has happened to her previous experience of looking closely at birds and robins in particular? She seems without effort, and this is crucial to be able to give her total attention freshly, without prejudice, to whatever it is that attracts her eye and be totally absorbed by its unique qualities. Knowledge – and this includes the background of art history as well as observation of the physical world – has been assimiliated but somehow completely overtaken by the impact of the new experience”

003 Drawing

On ‘Good draughtsmanship or real drawing’ …

“The key [to authenticity] is to be found in the long tradition of representational drawing and painting as metaphor”

“Metaphorical image-making … can, with infinitely subtle shifts of emphasis and idiosyncracy, refer us to unexpected aspects of shared existence”

“Coleridge’s prescription for poetry, and obviously applicable to drawing, was likeness in unlikeness”

“If as I believe is the case, drawings by untrained people are more likely to offer fresh insights and idiosyncratic vitality than drawings by professional artists, then there are many difficulties to overcome”

“the radical shift demanded requires recognition of the absolute gulf between real drawing – drawing as metaphor, and what is universally known as good draughtsmanship”

real drawing as a ‘phenomenology of drawing’ where the artist attempts to grasp intuitively at an object’s visual essence without artifice, without preconceptions … the expressive artist works towards synthesis and not analysis”

“as Bachelard says, images have ‘no need of scholarship'”

“Bachelard says there is ‘a warm intimacy’ at the root of all images, in the pursuit of which reason has no part”

“Bomberg’s spirit in the mass, defined by him as ‘the poetry in mankind, contemplating nature’ … the authentic image is the most fleeting product of creative consciousness … the image in drawing cannot be verified in any way comparable to scientific proposition; it is not susceptible to analysis .. the creative imagination transgresses normal everyday laws of process and expectation”

Image comes before thought, before the intervention of reason”

“The milieu of the creative consciousness is an alert openness to possibilities, backed both by awareness of traditional precedent and the recognition that the past cannot be regained”

“the trace of a frozen tantrum has little value. Lack of control is not a virtue “

On ‘Vitamin D: for drawing’

“it is only through the ‘impassioned impulse’ that the drawing will ‘swell’

‘The drawing.. comes out of a controlled wildness .. the liberated working mood familiar to artists and others who rely upon a bringing together of intuitive resources. ‘

“How can artists who are sharply aware of art history and current practice produce work which is innocent of it? .. as artists, we fall continuously in to the trap of watching ourselves work .. To avoid the trap it is necessary to leave the framework of expectation, the safety of an anticipated result, and instead trust hand and eye to combine instinctively. “

“Initiate a choice of starting point .. allow for an openness to change”

“Matisse’s work at its best .. triumphs when he has been able to bring about a synthesis of innocence with awareness”

“Content has dominated form for most of art history”

On ‘Visual arts’

“The pursuit of the visual arts in practice and appreciation is a high level human activity, involving the human personality in a profound way, to which the notions of pastime or hobby are inimical”

“Painting and sculpture give pre-eminence to the organisation of virtual form and space”

“we paint because we have seen paintings”

“the kind of art we look at and admire will be of paramount importance in the formation of our value judgements”

“to be of your time demands an organic link with the past which is quite distinct from perpetuating it”

“Our infatuation with Renaissance classicsism has obscured in the most extraordinary way the long history of art, and its transcultural differences and affinities”

“Only rarely has successful art been values at the time it was made”

“[Clive] Bell identified, as the main obstacle to an understanding of ‘significant form’ the preoccupation with representation”

“the blunted sensibility seeks diversion in known repetitive forms”

“What has been lost is the capacity to respond intuitively to fresh experience together with the imaginative ability constantly to revitalize that experience with new insights”

Sculptural space is not real space, any more than a Rodin leg is a real leg. This is to say that while lines, blobs, smudges, colour patches, lumps and spaces stand in for natural forces and even sometimes actual physical objects, they also retain to a greater or lesser degree their own identity as pure marks or lumps.”

“art is about the rhythms and relationships of forms organized within the virtual space of the work’s own ‘world’.”

“images, as Gaston Bachelard says, come before thought, they are invented in action, in the very process of making”

“Talent is to do with intelligence, attitude and sensibility and least of all skill …. a willingness to make truthful statements, however blunt or seemingly crude, without recourse to conventional solutions

004 Bomberg

“So what did Bomberg mean by mass? …. ‘an indefinable element – subject to Gravitational forces on the one hand & being part of Realities that exist in the mind on the other'” [Bomberg, c.1953]

“I suggest that mass .. stands for an intimation of aesthetic value, a synthesis of thought, feeling and poetic imagination brought into being through the speculative actions of the artist in response to the physical world of nature and things”

“His challenge to ‘hand and eye disease’ drawing practice was a recognition on his part that such drawing was symptomatic of society’s increasing reliance upon science and technology”

“The artist participates as ‘being’ in the world as poet, rather than as one who measures and quantifies, [and] gives emphasis to tactile values and the body

“Charcoal, chalk and oil paint were the materials best suited to a practice of bodily involvement … everyone worked standing up”

“our growing enslavement to technology and reliance on reason, at the expense of feeling

“the vital thing is form the habit of painting … it is essential to maintain a sense of identity as an artist … ‘keep the paint moving – even if it is for only six hours a week‘”

“Above everything else he value the development and expression of personality of the artist as a unique idividual”

“if art accords with nature becuae it is expressed in terms which have their roots, both physically and metaphorically, in natural laws it will transcend the circumstances of its won time”

“utilise instead a primitive sign language which is formed as it is drawn. It is a language used about things, it draws attention to, emphasises, punctuates, pulls and pushes in a ‘will to form'”

“the only salvation from industrial insanity lay in a new and balanced relationship with nature and here the artist could offer a counter-direction to technological alienation through a fundamental ‘gestural language’ of form”

“in actual experience our eyes move constantly over and between objects and so make an assessment of form”

“the draughtsman .. appears to attempt the drawing of everything at once. In reality, this becomes more practicable as an attempt to assess everything while looking at something”

“‘approach to mass’ a;sp demands the engagement of an attitude of mind, in which the draughtsman improvises, on impulse, about the forms which constitute his world.”

“the inspiration of our effort lies more in attuning ourselves to the forces of Nature

“‘Drawing is good’ writes Bomberg ‘when it tells us something we do not know”

“Drawing is about form, not in its mere representation, ‘but more the representation of all our feelings about form'” [Bomberg]

“Between spectator and work. Authentic appreciation follows from an unmediated confrontation”

“The drawing with ‘mass’ reveals a truth about the relationship of man to form and space”

“The feeling of ‘rightness’ in the relationship of forms, that they are held in the mutual tension of compatibility. When this is achieved in surprising juxtapositions or new combinations we experience the pleasure of creativity”

“Bomberg rightly saw that drawing is not about the representation of form but is about all our feelings concerning a form”

“The quality of space, that is, the relation of space to objects and its relationship to human scale, triggers a response in the human mind which precedes the process of reasoning. It is in this sense that is is a primitive response”

“‘mass’ is rooted in the physical; it gains from these qualities its gravitational centre and demands the existential involvement of artist and audience in the shared world of nature and things”

“In Bomberg’s practice .. ‘the gift of form’ is consciously engaged by the bluntest and most economical drawing technique”

“A continuous dialogue between subjective encounter and objective embodiment”