Alla prima

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Alla prima

From Bill Hodgson

Published before 2005


Kimbal wrote:
I'm sorry, but this all sounds a little naive to me. Velázquez didn't give up control -- he had complete mastery and control of his art. That's the secret to making the work look effortless. It's to be so in control that you can do exactly what you want to do. Velázquez could get out of the way of his subject because he was in such complete control of his brush that he could put down exactly what he saw or wanted to see. That's really all there was to it. There was no mystical loss of self in his method only absolute mastery.


For this argument, I think writing compares to the compositional stages of drawing/art, but a possibly more-illustrative analogy to painting comes in comparison to acting. An actor does great work when he/she reaches through his own abilities and experience to the subject. Burying himself in the part does not mean he forgets everything he has learned about acting. A great artist doesn't say, "Darn. I didn't get it on the Golden Mean." He doesn't hold up his color wheel and force his choices to coincide with some particular analogous color scheme, just because the book says that's good. He learned such things along the way, though. These are early student efforts, and Bouguereau would have set them aside hundreds of projects before most of the ones mentioned. They would remain an intuitive tool. A great actor does not "lose control" so much as he merges his gifts and experience with his goals. He has honed his skills to the point where technical considerations most-often come intuitively. It is hard to respect an actor who plays the same character, regardless of the assigned story character. We could still enjoy the performance, just not respect the actor for doing anything extraordinary.

Sometimes we appreciate a painting just because it was well-painted. I have a number of friends who paint very, very well, have a distinct "look" and artistic personality but will almost certainly never be great artists. They are better technicians than, say, Frazetta, but no one concerned would consider their work as being as impressive as Frazetta's. It seems that very few people have even attempted to understand Bouguereau, and fewer still have seen through the layers of preconception working against him and his work. He is no less passionate than Frazetta. It's just that he was a shy perfectionist, like me, rather than a flamboyant, impatient artist like Frazetta. Bouguereau is a better technician working with a specific style and level of finish. Frazetta is in many respects an alla prima artist, but he never defined himself thus nor let such a thing limit him. If he wants to change something in a painting, ten years after "finishing" the thing, who is to tell him that is somehow "wrong?"

Personally, I find it staggeringly impressive that Bouguereau could do so much orchestration, planning, theme-injection, and careful work, in the production of art with such a soft, easy feel, rarely stilted, art which can be enjoyed for surface value as easily as it can be penetrated for often-interlocked truths. We've talked before about "universal truths" as well as how periods influence perception of (and painting of) those truths. The only truth we find by losing control is that we've made a mess. Ballet is all about the impression of effortlessness, yet it is the hardest, most-controlled activity with which I've ever been closely associated. I've heard several analyses of Nymphs and Satyr, from casual to academic, and not one has done more than scratch the surface of what he was about with the piece. It is a complex analysis of a rich, branching theme, yet the piece screams simplicity and ease of motion and presence. The closest I've heard to valid criticism (complaints about the style of posing) still holds no weight, when considering that Bouguereau's life experience and training were as a Victorian-era artist. Of course this affected his sensibilities. The Seventh Seal, Gone with the Wind, and Star Wars would all look quite different, filmed today, but none would be better for it. Rembrandt did a lot of work that had so-so beauty, very little merit, and essentially no search for truth. He employed a sense of "glow" that makes the mouth water. Some of his most-lauded pieces, however, make me say, "Yeh. So?" He was a great artist, one of the best that ever lived. The more I study, though, the more deeply impressed I am with artists like Bouguereau, who diligently and prolifically sought shades of the truth of who we are and who we wish to be, without compromising technical virtuosity.

Perhaps it's the evil illustrator in me, or a towering ego, but show me a beautiful search into humanity or our stage, rather than some emotional rambling of an artist who doesn't want anything so restrictive as "controls," even his own. Send him back to the sixties with a picket sign and license for free love. Bouguereau had a lot to say, ideas which were valid to both his time and ours and all, and no amount of propaganda or lack of study actually makes them go away. They just mean that far fewer people see and enjoy both the beauty and the relevance.

Bill