Research: The Shock of the New – Art and the Century of Change

Chapter 2:  The Faces of Power

In this chapter Hughes opens with the view that World War 1 changed the sense of modernity created with the age of the machine and moved culture into an age of mass-produced, industrialised death.  Of course, all WW1 did, was to bring to the attention of the people, whilst machines could be our salvation, they could also be used to destroy us.  This chapter moves away from Paris as the centre of modern art to mainly examine art in Germany (the Weimar Republic) and post-revolutionary Russia, as it is in these places that art struggles to redefine the social contract.

Hughes first examines the rise of the DADA movement from the Cabaret Voltaire in February 2016.  He states that DADA can be encapsulated as the ‘eclectic freedom to experiment, enshrine play as the highest human activity.. with the main tool – chance’.  This is a useful description as I am trying to move more towards this goal in my drawings.  Two images by Kurt Schwitters stood out for me in this section of the chapter –  Merz 410 ‘Irgendsowas’, 1922, which is reminiscent of the collage paintings by Robert Rauschenberg where all objects and materials have equal value; and, Cathedral of Erotic Misey, 1923, which sparked an idea to combine this with an acrylic encased drawing (Sarah Woodfine would also be an influence here, see previous post).

Hughes goes on to look at Expressionism and the DADA response to this movement.  He states Expressionism is midway between idealised German gothic and an unattainable Utopia where the self or the void, ecstasy or chaos, were the choice of the artists in this movement.

The chapter then moves to art in post-revolutionary Russia where the art patron was the state.  Hughes uses a quote from Anatoly Lunacharsky which I found interesting –

‘Art is a powerful means of infecting those around us with ideas, feelings and moods.  Agitation and propaganda acquire particular acuity and effectiveness when they are clothed in the attractive and mighty forms of art.’

This brought to mind that whilst art, and particularly poster art in Russia, at that time fulfilled this need, today the same role is being assigned by states to TV and social media networks.

The rise of Constructivism is charted, particularly the work of Tatlin.  I found his corner sculptures interesting, which he equated to icons.  Making a drawing in a corner would be an interesting idea.  The poster art  of Aleksander Rodchenko were then explored where he combines design and photography to create powerful visions for the state, feeding into a view of the new state as a total work of art.

The chapter ends with a look at Futurism as the house-style of Italian fascism (e.g the EUR architecture) and Picasso’s Guernica, which Hughes states is the only humane, political, work of art in the last 50 years to achieve real international fame.  I not sure I agree with this last statement as I am sure works by Rauschenberg, Hockney (particularly his drawings around sexuality) and even Warhol to name just a couple, have a political message.

I found this chapter interesting, with some memorable quotes and ideas for future art.


Proj 3, Ex. 2: Foreground, Middle Ground and Background

For this exercise I went to the top of a hill near Hythe, as I knew a place where I could stop and sketch by the roadside.  I wanted to use charcoal for this image as I need to develop my skills in using this medium.  I concentrated on mark-marking to capture the essence of the scene rather than trying to capture the detail.

I think the drawing is quite successful as the background is more faded and contains a lot less detail than the middle and fore-grounds, as I used the side and thick end of the stick.  I introduced more detail in the middle ground using a harder and finer compressed charcoal stick and then a charcoal pencil for the foreground.  I lifted out some highlights using a pencil eraser and used a putty rubber to generally lighten some areas.

The parts of the image which did not work quite so well are the vines on the foreground tree trunk, the perspective of the fence and the grey compressed charcoal on the bollard in the foreground.

I then drew the scene looking across the valley in pen and ink.  Again, I think I have captured the view and made the differential between the three zones quite distinct, although I think I could have added slightly more detail to the middle ground and increased the range of values.

On the way back home I could not resist drawing the scene below as I liked the way the tress were coming down the side of the hill and the overall shape of the two trees at the bottom of the hill.  I deliberately decided to keep this sketch quite simple to see if ‘less is more’ and think it has worked quite well.

I then had a break from the course for 10 days to deal with some other major commitments and when I came back I thought I would try to redraw the scene across Wye Valley entirely from memory.  I hoped without the scene in front of me I would concentrate more on making marks rather then detailing the view.  I used a sponge, the side and ends of wedge and cone foam brushes, and pen and ink.  I must admit this is the first time I have tried to make a drawing entirely from memory and the result is surprising good.

Once this was completed it inspired me to go one step further and combine the two approaches – drawing both from the scene and from memory.  Whilst I had been out drawing landscapes one thing that struck me was the range of colours there were in roadside verges.  I decided to try a drawing using memory and some chance to create the background, and then travel to a scene to add foreground detail.

I create the coloured background in watercolour using a sponge for the back/middle ground,  flicking the paint and using the side and top edge of a wedge sponge brush for the foreground.

The next day I drove to the roadside verge and started adding the detail of the plants in ink.  Originally I was going to add much more detail, but once I had completed the dominant plant species shown, I stood back from the drawing and decided to stop.  I liked the way the viewer can fill in the rest of the plants using the colour splashes to trigger their imagination and own memories.

I am beginning to really like this combination of chance with detail in my drawings and will explore it more in future drawings.

Research: The Shock of the New – Art and the Century of Change

I picked up The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes when looking through the library for a book which could give me an overview of art in the 20th century,  It seems to be quite a good read for me at this stage of the course as it is written in fairly straightforward language which will serve as an introduction to the subject prior to any further in-depth reading.

Chapter One:  The Mechanical Paradise

This chapter introduces the notion that the speed of change in scientific and technical discoveries and the rise of the machine age at the beginning of the 20th century is reflected in the pace of change in art.  Robert Hughes cites the Eiffel Tower as example of the change in our visual perspective with the symbol of change not only the view of the tower itself  but the view the spectator gains from the top of the tower; this view creating a new landscape based on frontality and pattern rather than the familiar recessive and depth perspective.

He used Cezanne’s remark that one must detect in nature the sphere, the cone and the cylinder, as evidence that he was the father of abstract art and his paintings of Mont Set-Victoire, with the broken outlines and blocky brush strokes, as pointers towards a greater abstraction of the image.

He then goes on to look at Cubism, mainly the work of Picasso and Braque.  A couple of notable things from the text were that firstly, that our knowledge of an object is made up of all possible views of it – the front, back sides, top, etc., and that cubism tries to encompass all those views into one image.  Secondly, that in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso (said to be the first ‘modern’ art painting) by leaving out the men (two were in the original sketches for this painting, a sailor and a medical student) Picasso has turned the viewer into voyeur.  Thirdly, that cubism stacks the forms up the canvas in a pile, as through the ground has rotated 90 degrees to the eye.  All these things I need to think about trying in my drawings – a multi-viewpoint of one object; leaving out something in a drawing thereby changing the nature of the interaction between the viewer and the image; and, stacking the shapes up the canvas (e.g. my Dungeness drawings).

Hughes states that Cubism took abstraction only to the point where enough of the real world is left to supply tension between reality and the visual language within the frame.  He goes onto say that they actually moved back from pure abstraction in their later pieces by including pieces or images of actual objects in their collages.

This chapter goes onto to look at the work of Delauney,  who explored the mechanical age via its light, structure and dynamism, and Futurism, whose practitioners believed that the machine should be worshiped and could be the saviour for all social ills.  The work of Francis Picabia, I See Again in My Memory My Dear Udine (1914) and Marcel Duchamp,  The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass), (1915-23), are discussed which Hughes states explores machine action and sexuality.

This was an interesting opening chapter for me as it both sparked ideas for my own art (outlines in a previous paragraph) and introduced a number of new works to me.  It is of course just one work on this era of art written from one critic’s point of view and I will bear that in mind as I continue reading the book.

A Self-Reflection on Progress to Date

Following the last exercise I decided to reflect on my progress on the course so far.  Whilst my tutor feedback has on the whole been positive, I am still reverting to my safe option of drawing the visual appearance of the object without experimenting enough.  This tends to produce a drawing that is OK,  however, I feel I am capable of much more but for some reason am not realising that potential.

At my last feedback session my tutor advised me not to treat the course as a tick-box exercise but to approach the course in a more organic way – cross fertilising ideas between different exercises, research and sketches, taking forwards things that have worked and looking back at previous work to see what elements I think could be used in future drawings.

I do have a tendency to put the previous unit away in a portfolio once it comes back from my tutor and never look at it again.  I therefore got out every piece of work I have completed so far and laid them out on the floor so I could reflect on my progress.

One of the first things I noticed was that I was more experimental in the first unit when the subject matter was looser than in the still life unit when I stiffened up my approach, which in many ways has continued into the landscape unit.  It would be easy for me to blame the unit exercises and say it is because they are more perspective in the choice of subject and style of drawing but that would be untrue.  I have always felt I have a great deal of freedom from my tutor in my interpretation of the exercise requirements.

Looking at my work laid on the floor I seem to work best when approaching the drawing from two seemingly opposite views point – focusing on detail and being experimental.  My drawings of the clarinet, texture of objects, the bath and the stairway all focus in on the detail of a view and are therefore quite analytical.  The drawings of recycling waste on a KFC bag, frontage prints, continuous line drawings and panorama are more experimental in nature and have a vitality lacking in many of my other drawings.

It is also clear from looking at my drawings that narrative in an image is important to me.  This  can be seen in the drawing of my feet in the bath and the series of still-lifes on man’s impact on the environment.

I clearly get better at drawing when I repeat a subject and work larger, as well as when I just play – such as my continuous line and blind drawings.  Surprising for me, my pencil drawings look the weakest whilst my pen/ink and charcoal drawings the strongest.  On looking back at my pencil drawings this is probably because I am not using enough contrast in the tones, with the range of values far too narrow.

In relation to research even though I go to exhibitions and undertake research, once that post or piece of research is written, it is forgotten and I am not actively taking forwards much of what I have gained from seeing the artist ‘s work.  The except to this is the skeleton drawings following my research into the shelter drawings of Henry Moore.

So, why do I return to trying to portray an accurate rendition of the visual appearance of the object when my better work includes an element of experimental and randomness?  Well, amongst other things it is easy, safe, I think it is what the assessors will want, it saves thinking too much and culturally, it is probably what I have been conditioned to think is ‘good’ art and this rises from my sub-conscious each time I try to produce a drawing.

Why I am not taking forwards previous ideas and successes from past exercises and my research?  It is because once completed they are filed away and will not see light of day until I go for assessment.  This has clearly got to change.  I need to keep everything together so that I am continuously reviewing work and research and incorporating what I have learnt in future pieces.  In effect,  keeping a visual diary of work for the exercises, sketches, research notes in one place so that each time I pick things up I can refer back to sparkle new ideas.  I thought I had started to achieve this by working mainly on A3 paper so that I can bind it all together at assessment time.  But clearly these are still being put away as completed and not seen again until the assignment due date or assessment.  I will reflect on how to move this forwards which works for me.

The Future

  • Focus on detail where appropriate
  • Be far more experimental (paper, medium, mark-making, random events, accidents, process, etc), expressive, and enjoy the moment (stop over-thinking)
  • Include narrative where appropriate
  • Interpret and re-interpret the exercise
  • Stop trying to be neat and be more uninhibited
  • Continually review past work and research to incorporate it in future work
  • Bring everything together in one visual diary to achieve the previous point.

Following this self reflect I looked at my tutor feedback reports for assignments 1 & 2 (another thing I file away) and unsurprising, all the above has been mentioned.  Sometimes however, you need to discover it for yourself in order to move forwards.

Proj 3, Ex. 1: Developing Your Studies

I looked back at my sketch walk drawings and 360 degree studies and chose to develop the Dungeness studies.  I tried out a couple of compositions before decided to have the power station buildings as the background with the huts and beach in the foreground.

Even whilst doing the initial sketches I knew I was not completely happy with the composition but thought I would adjust it as I developed the main picture.  I prepared a paper with an ink wash to give some random variety to the sky and added a yellow ochre band at the bottom of the page.  I then used conte crayon to develop the buildings and rest of the picture.

I think this image is unsuccessful.  Whilst I do like the simple block shape of the power station looming over the landscape,  the perspective of the middle and fore ground is wrong, the marks are not varied enough, the path is all wrong and the colours are wrong.  Also, once again, whilst I enjoy drawings which have gestural marks which show energy, this drawing has defaulted to my restrained approach of depicted the visual appearance in too literal a way.  It is not the move towards a more abstracted drawing that I wanted for this drawing and admire in other artists.

I thought back to my feedback from my tutor at the last assignment and decided to go back over all the work I have completed to date, lay it out and reflect on what has worked and what was less successful, look at her assignment reports and look at a way forwards for the rest of the module.

This ‘failed’ drawing is a good thing as it has made me question my approach and review my progress.  This is also probably a good time to undertake the review as I am about half way through the course and need to reflect to improve.  I shall undertake this reflection this weekend and my next post will detail the result.

Proj 2, Ex. 3: 360 degree Studies

I took this exercise to be about finding drawings in unexpected places.  I therefore choose to go to a place where I knew the landscape would be pretty uninspiring and see what, if anything, I could draw.  I went to Oare Marshes, a flat marsh landscape next to the estuary with lots of mudflats.  My first two drawings show part of an old WW2 concrete structure in the foreground and then the vegetation extending back to the estuary in the first drawing and to the power lines in the other direction.

My next drawing shows the layers of vegetation plus various plants and the final drawing in ink looks across to the wind turbines on the Isle of Sheppey.  These four drawings did bring home to me that you can find a subject in any landscape and whilst I might not choose to develop any of them further, just drawing them sparks ideas for other locations.

I decided to extend the idea of this exercise and complete a larger panorama drawing.  I want to have some definite fore, middle and background so picked a higher viewpoint looking across a valley at the top of Wye Hill.  At my last feedback my tutor encouraged me to use charcoal more so I decided to use this medium for this drawing.  The drawing was completed over two days at the same time each day to try to keep the light the same.   It is 1.10m long by 0.32 m high.


I enjoyed undertaking the panorama so went down to the coast to complete a drawing in colour using conte crayons.   This is of the salt marsh at Pegwell Bay with Ramsgate cliffs in the background.  this drawing is 1.07 m long by 0.38 m high.


I think the charcoal drawing is the more successful of the two panoramas as it has a greater depth of field and a better variety of marks and tones (although this is difficult to see in the blog photograph).

Proj 2, Ex. 2: Sketchbook Walk

For my sketchbook walk I chose to go to Dungeness, a place I visit quite often both for the nature reserve and because I like the variety of the environment – quite bleak beaches, old and new beach houses, converted industrial buildings, unusual beach plants and, of course, the power station.

For my sketch walk, I kept my materials quite simple – pencil, pen and A3 paper attached to a drawing board.  My four small sketches show the diversity of buildings at the site – a broken down wooden hut, a group of more traditional beach houses, a former lookout building now converted to a modern home (right next to the lighthouse fog horn) and a final sketch of the beach itself.

Whilst there I decided to do a larger pen and ink drawing of the old lighthouse and round keepers residence with the new automatic lighthouse in the background.   I used a sketching water-brush to wash the ink and provide the tone.

Finally, I also drew the power station in pencil, setting it in the context of the single landscape.


I enjoyed this sketch walk as, despite my initial reservation of drawing outdoors, I am finding that my confidence is growing and I am becoming less concerned with passers-by.  The sketches are not my best work but do capture something about the place.