GATES INTO THE FUTURE
The quality of durability is always very significant for the epoch. In the final analysis probably no one wishes to purposefully understand quality. It is lowered because of the surrounding imperfection. This lowering begins quite imperceptibly. At limes it takes place under a pretext of seeming improvements. Striking the eye, among many other deviations from stability, is the problem of lack of durability in art materials which causes creative achievements to be short-lived.
One does not have to be an artist or an expert chemist in order to observe when going through art galleries the sad changes in colors of the paintings of past and present centuries. Terrible impressions are made by the ugly oilcloth-like, cracked canvases. As if chains were put on the painting in circular and longitudinal cracks. This is not the noble "crackle" of the old Dutch masters. This is not the golden patina of ancient lacquers, but a sort of sad black veil which covers the human creation forever.
On other paintings we see new outlines becoming visible. Galloping horses prove to have eight legs. There were cases when a dark figure on a light background appeared to be light on a black-brown background. Where thick layers of paint were laid on, they fell away in whole layers, producing irreparable damage. All in all, when comparing painting of different centuries, anyone can see that the painting of the last century leaves an unusually heavy and dark imprint due to the decomposed oil colors.
Much thought has been given to these unfortunate oil colors. Inviting ads have come out constantly about new, especially lasting oil colors, but in reality they proved to be just as defective. Artists, becoming desperate because of this imperfect material, naturally began looking for better results and again turned to tempera, to the egg colors, and to combinations of glue and powder colors.
Although all these methods caused much inconvenience and demanded expenditure of time for preparation, nevertheless there was found in them that freshness of colors which forever has distinguished the luminous primitives. Naturally, in the final analysis everything is subject to change. It is only a question of time. And yet it is better to realize that paintings can become visions instead of black boots. We even see excellently preserved pastels of the eighteenth century. We see many excellently preserved frescoes. It means that the main defect of oil colors lies either in the oils or in the undiscriminating combination of an absolutely unnecessary quantity of unnatural tones. It is known that some artists did use a vast quantity of all kinds of colors. They put them on almost without mixing, yet in close proximity, and thus a reaction took place due to uncombinable substances. It is also known that for speedier drying the artists used all possible fixatives, and the preliminary drawing was covered by a most harmful combination of fixatives.
Lately, denatured alcohol has often been used as a fixative, or alcohol of quite a poor quality, and shellac of low quality. If one puts together all these harmful conditions, even a nonspecialist would understand how harmful all these indiscriminately used materials must be.
Therefore the recently felt desire of artists to simplify materials as much as possible and to work with only tested combinations becomes quite natural. In this direction one is excellently helped by the study of Italian and Flemish primitives which have reached us in the best condition. They also help to understand the process of technique, especially in those paintings which reached us in an unfinished state. There are quite a few such unfinished paintings, which by the will of fate remained in the process of work, and one can notice especially clearly on them exactly how the work was done. On such paintings, for example, as those by Van Eyck, one can observe how unerringly the color was laid on, how very precise contours gradually were traced and the painting was brought to an astonishing perfection in clarity of thought and firmness of hand.
It is not noticeable in these paintings that the search for tonal qualities took place right there, on that very same, carefully prepared hoard. Creativeness was revealed in simplicity and clarity. The artist knew definitely what he wanted to give and how he wanted to express it. Of course, this very clarity of creative process did not involve the artist in unnecessary, complicated mixtures of color. After all, the sonority and harmony of tones does not issue because the vegetable and mineral substances were blended in an "unnatural" way, but because of that blending which was so correctly defined by the French in their daily life as valeur.
In his autobiography Stravinsky recalls the just words of Rimski-Korsakov that there are composers without the piano and composers at the piano. The very same should be said about painters. Some want to solve tonal problems in searching upon the finished canvas. And others solve these problems inwardly, clearly, with power of imagination, and sing their colorful song when already in possession of mastery.
Old Italian and Flemish masters, in creating their unforgettable artistic images, solved them from within, with the power of imagination, and then sang out their colorful song, clearly, precisely, and simply. In this combination was contained true mastery.
At present we see that many young artists are impelled to these clear and precise, incarnate visions. In these strivings they will unquestionably avoid that tomb-like black impress which hangs persistently over many paintings of the past century.
Clarity of creativeness and a developed imagination will allow the artist to be restricted to most simple materials. In these comparatively simple materials were painted the greatest works of art.
I had an opportunity to observe with what simple means the good icon painters even today attain excellent results. True, certain ancient qualities of materials nevertheless escaped them. Thus, for instance, the quality of drying oil used to cover the painted surface had tremendous significance. Every good icon painter, besides the contemporary prepared drying oil, had also in his possession a treasured vessel containing a certain amount of the ancient drying oil. The master collected it from the ancient ruined icons, being aware that nothing would give that penetrating golden luster as does this age-old drying oil.
It would seem that the formula of drying oil was more or less known and even mentioned in ancient instructions. And yet anyone could see at once the obvious difference between the most modern materials and these — the ancient. Some think that time itself influenced the blending of materials, but others surmise that the old masters had their secrets with which they parted quite unwillingly. The latter supposition is not without reason, especially since many instructions in icon-painting were written in their own incomprehensible way, which was strictly safeguarded in the family.
From Italian chronicles we learn that oil and other materials were preserved in monasteries in earthen pots for scores of years before they were permitted to be used.
I had occasion to express perplexity as to why at present paintings are so lightly subjected to investigation by newly discovered rays, not realizing what would be the results years after these experiments. Since we speak about the preservation of the monuments of culture, then the utmost attention should be shown also in all technical respects.
I read recently about a certain art teacher, who in examining the paintings of his students exclaimed, "Indeed, lasting colors are not needed." Such pessimistic exclamations must not be uttered at all. During all times there were masters and pupils, there were all stages of growth in work. But the master, from the very beginning of studies, repeatedly spoke to his pupils about the essential quality of the materials. The master established a system of art education in everything. The pupils became, as it were, his children, and often lived together with him, affirming the general principles of life. Creativeness and life are so inseparable! He who understands the order of things in life, who enters into the rhythm of consonances, will also bring the very same foundations into his work. In the name of harmonious foundations of life he will not want to do things negligently. In the bravado of ignorance he will not presumptuously assume that which he does not know. The master shaped men out of his pupils.
People who understand duties and responsibilities know what that quality is that is manifested in imagination and in technique. The realization of quality will also bring with it a good quality of technique.
It is quite understandable that in art literature as well as in general literature the question of quality of materials is very important. If the writer knew that the ink used to print his creativeness must disappear after a few moments, it would not be an encouraging factor. Likewise, in all other fields, if people think about the future, they must naturally think about all those qualities of which in the future they will not have to be ashamed. Good quality of thought, good quality of imagination, good quality in execution — all these are the very same good quality, or gates into .the future.
June 1, 1935