This last week I’ve thought a lot about Michelangelo – visiting Casa Buonarroti in Florence which has some of his work, both, sculpture and drawings and notes on scraps of paper showing how he would look at a a block, a slab of marble, and envisage the shape of what he would draw out of it – the spirit or soul of the marble, you could call it, waiting to be brought to life…. Then at the weekend we were up in the mountains near Carrara where those marble quarries are situated and I was looking at a book of his work and making drawings and thinking about how the Renaissance was born through the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture: the study of the human body by looking at it in the round. For generations of art students in France and Italy drawing was taught through the study of plaster casts as well as by studying the live human figure in a life class.
The book I was looking at had the most amazing shadows which helped me to notice details in Michelangelo’s work, but which also acted as confirmation regarding the importance of shadows in helping to define something that we may be drawing or painting (in certain circumstances, not always, depending on the technique or style that we are employing – sometimes we might choose to use “flat” colours, but that is for another time). But as I looked at the works in the Accademia – the famous David, the prisoners, and also his works in the Bargello, across the road from where we used to live, I was reminded of Robert Mapplethorpe’s Bread roll and the impact it had on me seeing it in the Accademia in an exhibition of his photographs next to Michelangelo’s sculptures. I am attaching the image here.
Light, shadow, and the human body linked the American photographer’s studies to Michelangelo’s sculptures. But there were also dramatic studies of flowers … and then there was that bread roll – such a simple everyday object, but the impact it had on me seeing it “live” in the context of that exhibition was like seeing a portrait by Rembrandt. I felt and understood at that moment what it is that an artist does when he really looks at, penetrates the soul of what he is viewing and through the intensity of that act of looking, brings out something unique in the object of his gaze, communicates to us something that takes it out of any particular time or place. I saw that a bread roll could be likened to a portrait of a human face.
I don’t know if you can appreciate any of this from looking at a reproduction on a screen. I bought a small loaf of bread in Florence today and have photographed it in colour but also rendered it in black and white – lighting it so that there is a dramatic shadow. I invite you to try this exercise. Think about light and shade, look closely.
My other suggestion is to look at Michelangelo so that you can copy some of his sculptures or if the weather is good, go to a park or garden and find a statue or sculptural feature to draw and paint.
If all this leaves you cold then do a still life composition à la Chardin – a beautiful “simple” composition of a glass of wine, a bottle, a loaf of bread and a knife on a sheet of paper that looks as though it was torn from a newspaper. Chardin was another who found character and soul in a loaf of bread!
We’ve come a long way to get to a hundred – thanks for your enthusiasm and devotion.
Keep well all of you.