RBSA Artist Bob Sparham is an art historian and printmaker. In this article, Bob explores the influence of art history on his practice and discovers fascinating theories behind human vision and perception.
My name is Bob Sparham I am something of an all rounder in that I am a fine art printmaker (my first love of course) an art historian and a witchcraft historian. All of which I used to teach before my retirement. As these are seemingly diverse subjects my passion was through my teaching career was to find ways to link them together, and it remains my passion in my old age. In pursuit of that project I have found two major influences the Art Historian Ernst Gombrich and the Historian of Ideas Arthur Lovejoy,Gombrich in his book Shadows, the Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art 1makes the point that the rendering of shadows and/or the use of light and shade to model form, is the distinguishing mark of paintings and drawings in the Western tradition.
I want to argue that the depiction of shadows in Gombrich’s terms is actually a scientific project which uses what he calls the Beholders Share to utilize each of our own psychological histories to make the rendering of shadows and/or the use of light and shade to model form, make sense. The case study I would like to consider which I feel demonstrates that we do indeed have such a psychological history and that it is important in drawing the rendering of shadows have comes from the work of the psychologist, Dr Oliver Sacks who wrote it up as a chapter called To See and Not See in his book An Anthropologist from Mars2 and is concerned with the experiences of a patient called Virgil who went blind as a result of an illness contracted when he was three years old but regained his sight as a result of an operation undertaken when he was fifty.
As Virgil regained his vision in time to see his bride for the first time on his wedding day, common sense would suggest that this was a story with a completely happy ending. However, sadly reality is more complicated and Virgil experienced all kinds of difficulties coming to terms with his restored sight. He described walking down a tree lined street on a sunny day and getting stuck because he could not tell the difference between the trees and their shadows, thinking he had to climb over those shadows as he would the tree trunks. The two quotations from Dr Sacks I have chosen to illustrate these matters follow. The first section addresses the confusion Virgil experienced when he looked out of his hospital window:-
The rest of us, born sighted can scarcely imagine such confusion. For we, born with a full complement of senses, and correlating these one with the other, create a sight world from the start, a world of visual objects and concepts and meanings. When we open our eyes each morning, it is upon a world that we have spent a lifetime LEARNING to see. We are not given the world: we make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection. But when Virgil opened his eye, after being blind for forty-five years having had little more than an infant’s visual experience, and this long forgotten, there was no visual memories to support a perception; there was no world of experience and meaning awaiting him. He saw, but what he saw had no coherence. His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them; he was as the neurologists say, agnostic. Everyone, Virgil included, expected something much simpler. A man opens his eyes light enters and falls on the retina: he sees. It is as simple as that we imagine 3
Later in the chapter Dr Sacks describes a visit he made the Virgil’s house a few weeks later, in order to discuss his case, in the following terms:-
When we arrived at the house, Virgil, caneless, walked by himself up the path to the front door, pulled out his key grasped the doorknob, unlocked the door and opened it. This was impressive, he could never have done that at first, he said, and it was something he had been practising since the day after surgery. It was his showpiece. But he said in general he found walking ‘scary’ and ‘confusing’ without touch, without his cane, with his uncertain, unstable judgement of space and distances. Sometimes surfaces or objects would seem to loom, to be on top of him when they were quite a distance away; sometimes he would get confused by his own shadow (the whole concept of shadows, of objects blocking light, was puzzling to him) and he would come to a stop, or trip, or try to step over it. Steps, in particular, posed a special hazard, because all he could see was confusion, a flat surface, of parallel and , parallel and crisscrossing lines; he could not see them (although he knew them) as solid objects going up or coming down in three dimensional space. Now five weeks after surgery, he often felt more disabled than he had felt when he was blind.4
A critic of the psychological approach might well respond to the Dr Sacks case study material about Virgil’s experiences by saying ‘that it is all very interesting but what is the relevance to painting and drawing’ My answer to that question comes partly from earlier in Dr Sacks chapter when he discusses the historical background of people who were either born blind or who lost their sight as infants only to recover it later in life. The most important section reads:-
In 1728, William Cheselden, an English surgeon, removed the cataracts from the eyes of a thirteen-year old boy born blind. Despite his high intelligence and youth, the boy encountered profound difficulties with the simplest visual perceptions. He had no idea of distance. He had no idea of space or size. And he was bizarrely confused by drawings and paintings by the IDEA of a two-dimensional representation of reality.5
However if we take psychological development rather than historical development against which the mimetic conventions of drawing and painting should be judged, we can, I feel, still accept their validity. The process of learning to see, of making our world through the incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection, as described by Dr Sacks. It is not change but rather continuity that is important in understanding the wonderful, complex process which we all have undertaken and completed. It was a psychological process which has enriched our lives, and I believe that the mimetic conventions of art speak to that process reflect or mimic that process which is why people find them so attractive.
I try to use the mimetic effect of atmospheric perspective in my Linocuts which is the effect the atmosphere has on the appearance of an object as it is viewed from a distance. As the distance between an object and a viewer increases, the contrast between the object and its background decreases, The colours of the object also become less saturated and shift towards the background colour, which is usually blue, but under some conditions may be some other colour (for example, at sunrise or sunset distant colours may shift towards red). What I want to do, being very influenced by Japanese prints, is to represent light with lino printing ink, trying in my small way to follow Monet’s project like him as described here :- When I saw Monet with four canvases before him in a field of poppies, changing one palette for another as the sun travelled on its course, I felt that I was witnessing an investigation into light itself, all the more precise since the unchanging subject matter forcefully underlined the changeability of light. 6
Some examples of my prints are below:
Monet’s work as described above is an example of what is the philosophical tradition of empiricism. Of course the sworn enemy of empiricism is historicism which in our times is best represented by Conceptual Art.
Working In my role as all rounder printmaking is my favourite discipline. Comparing the working methods of these subjects particularly art history and history. I much prefer history and will only work within historical methodology (indeed I am dismayed that there is a difference between the two methodologies but there is, within art history practised within a Contemporary Art framework). Historians work within theFalsification principle which originates from Karl Popper’s philosophy of science: ‘Statements are scientific if our empirical (or in history’s case documentary) experiences could potentially falsify them’ this distinguishes science from non-science or history from non-history ‘Any theory that is impossible to disprove is no valid theory at all.’ – Karl Popper. Contemporary art however works with the paradigm about art history are that it is a process going from somewhere to somewhere. A process with a beginning, middle and end, a process moreover that advances in small incremental steps. Thus the history of art can be divided between good modern artists whose work reflects the historical process and bad traditional artists (who can include Abstract and semi Abstract artists) whose work inhibits or does not reflect the historical process. Mainstream historians of political and social history have not accepted that there is a process of modernism, of innovation marching through the centuries and driving history forward for about 40 years, and there is shed loads of evidence against that paradigm, but who wants to listen to boring old evidence? So it is impossible to disprove the process theory. which is thus non-History
Thus the process model within Contemporary Art History is impossible to disprove. and now we have two histories Mainstream and Contemporary Art History the latter of which gives its practitioners (according to themselves) a mandate to close down all kinds of Art Schools and Art School facilities, Print rooms, Ceramic studios, and Life Classes (for example) and even Art Galleries themselves in order to find the cutting edge of the non-existent historical process.
Some Arthur Lovejoy’s key points were, as he wrote:-
There are, first, implicit or incompletely explicit assumptions, or more or less unconscious mental habits, operating in the thought of an individual or a generation. It is the beliefs which are so much a matter of course that they are rather tacitly presupposed than formally expressed and argued for, the ways of thinking which seem so natural and inevitable that they are not scrutinized with the eye of logical self-consciousness, that often are most decisive of the character of a philosopher’s doctrine, and still oftener of the dominant intellectual tendencies of an age.
For me the ideas of a simple process of progress driven forward by technological development are very much unconscious mental habits, ofour culture. ‘You can’t stand in the way of progress’ people used to say in my youth. I believe that it his high time that this model is scrutinized with the eye of logical self-consciousness, before the concept of skill is driven from Contemporary art practise.
1. Ernst Gombrich. Shadows, the Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art. London 1995 pp19-25
2. Oliver Sacks. An Anthropologist on Mars, Seven Paradoxical Tales. London 1995
3. Ibid. p.108
4. Ibid 113-4
5. Ibid. p104
6.G Clemenceau. Les Nympheas. Paris. 1928. p85 quoted in A Kostenevich French Treasures at the Hermitage, Splendid Masterpieces, New Discoveries. New York.1999. p127
7. Arthur Lovejoy. The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge (Mass.) 1936 p.7
By Bob Sparham RBSA
The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) is an artist-led charity which supports artists and promotes engagement with the visual arts through a range of exhibitions, events and workshops.
The RBSA runs an exhibition venue – the RBSA Gallery – in Birmingham’s historic Jewellery Quarter, a short walk from the city centre.
The gallery is currently closed due to Covid-19.
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