Italian Report December 1955
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------


By Way of Preface
In November 1954 the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of External Affairs in Ireland awarded Patrick Swift (it was Anthony Cronin who entered Swift's name for the award when Swift was abroad) a grant of £500 to be used for the purpose of studying the art of painting in Italy. Swift wrote a report on his return in December 1955 after twelve months travelling in Italy. This is the preface to his report.

I have always felt that painters above all should avoid falling into the attitudes of the Art Historian in their approach to paintings of the past. In particular the comfortable assumption of absolute aesthetic values as a starting point. Since it is necessary to use some books this is not easily avoided, because the aesthetic rules are rarely stated simply or clearly, but rather underlie the interpretation of the work discussed. For all historical purposes these rules are fairly adequate — for instance, Mr Berenson can scarcely put a foot wrong in the whole of the Renaissance, but the cat is out of the bag when we find him unable to appreciate Degas. This is particularly important in relation to scholars of the Renaissance among whom two very dangerous historical-aesthetic notions are commonly found, that of Progress and Experimentation in Art, which involves the idea of visual curiosity and scientific knowledge (in these terms Leonardo da Vinci becomes the great master) and the idea of Ideal Beauty and Style. These notions permeate the writing of art historians everywhere and it seems to me that in these terms the subject becomes a very dull one. It is chastening to reflect awhile on the limitations of Mr Berenson's aesthetic when we see that it leads him in fact to a belief in the death of art, or worse to ridiculous equations such as that of Rossetti and Botticelli. A real painter cannot afford such charming indulgences. For the painter, for whom painting is a vital activity and a way of life — not merely a profession — such attitudes as we find in the histories are deadly. For him the only benefit, at least the deepest and most important benefit which he can get from the study of the Masters comes from his capacity to see the painting in a thoroughly contemporary way. I mean in the present tense — the tense after all in which it was painted. Not for instance as an early this or a late that, nor as a good example of chiaroscuro or some other aesthetic or technical quality but as an immediately important human statement completely relevant to his life at the moment and convincing for that reason. If a work does not strike the painter in this way all further analysis of it will be futile, but if he sees it in this light and it assumes this kind of reality for him, then he will be able to learn from it on all levels, in particular it will repay detailed technical examination. My contention is that the Art Historian so far has made this difficult by assuming as a set of values on which to base his approach, aesthetic principles which act as blinkers to a fresh and personal vision of painting.
There are exceptions to the rule, and I think Sir Kenneth Clarke's book on Piero della Francesca is an example of a first class job. But nevertheless the use of books in the study of painting remains a depressing business. Although I went to Italy merely and humbly to look at the work of the great painters, once I contemplate describing my experience I find myself involved in these questions. My worse suspicions were proved true when I discussed the subject with some art historians of the younger generation in Venice and found that among these young men (one of whom was Mr Berenson's Secretary) the attitude, or rather point of departure, lay in the consideration of painting as a public movement — the emphasis on the social aspects of art.
A more rewarding approach to painting, in my opinion the only valid one, is to regard it as a deeply personal and private activity and to remember that even when the painter works directly for the public — when there is sufficient common ground to allow him to do so — the real merit of the work will depend on the personal vision of the artist and the work will only be truly understood if it is approached by each in the same spirit as the painter painted it. We must be willing to assume the same sort of responsibility and share the dilemma out of which the work was created in order to be able to feel with the artist. Since the deepest and truest dilemma, from which all good art springs, is the human condition we have every right to regard the needs of our own consciousness as the final court in judging the merit of a work of art, we have in fact a moral obligation to do so. This demands the precise honesty from the spectator as was required from the artist in making the painting. It is their common ground, the area within which communication can occur. Art in the end speaks to the secret soul of the individual and of the most secret sorrows. For this reason it is true that the development that produces great art is a moral and not an aesthetic development.
Such questions as these which students of art history took very seriously — is it possible to paint a socially realistic portrait today — for example, cease to have any meaning if we view the art of painting as a personal moral activity aimed at clarifying the painter's relationship with reality, and one moreover which will serve the same purpose in the life of anyone who has the honesty to avail of it. It is by deciding what is real for him and portraying it convincingly that the painter serves the true ends of art. The question of 'social' reality does not arise on this profoundly personal level. On the other hand the question of personal salvation and our relationship to God does. Art if it is successful in the task of questioning reality, if it is good painting and not merely a performance of dexterity, will be an affirmation of God.
The above, I fully realise, is not a completely satisfactory statement, but will serve to indicate my attitude rather than to explain or justify it. I regard as public the acceptance of standards based on absolute formal ideals. These standards are exterior to the world in which art is created and in which it exists, they are in the deepest sense 'post hoc'. Painting is created from within and we must begin from within if we are to understand it.
I do not deny that it is possible to discuss validly the genesis of art in public and sociological terms, but when this is done we should be clear where we stand. If such an attitude underlies a view that presents itself as a full evaluation of art and its development, it seems to me pernicious. I do not know if there are in fact such things as definable social standards of aesthetics that would have any historical or artistic value, but whether there are or not it seems clear to me that for the painter nothing less than complete personal involvement of a moral nature will do.

— By Way of Preface, Italian ReportDecember 1955


...................................................................





It is not an accident that Histoire de la Peinture en Italie remains readable; as Cézanne found it, who read it many times, or Baudelaire, who borrowed from it. This pleasant and incisive book provides us with an example of a kind of critical writing which is illuminating, instructive, and wholly delectable. And its importance does not depend on the validity of Stendhal's comparative judgements. It is an eccentric personal work full of specific observations and we get the sensation of being in the presence of a temperament and an intelligence* excited by pictures. This is an exciting experience. It is a personal matter. [*In the stricter meaning of the word — a spiritual being capable of choice.]
— X, The Painter in the Press


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
HOME
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Images
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Dublin Oil - Dublin Watercolour/ Ink - Italy - Oakridge/ Ashwell Watercolour - Oakridge/ Ashwell Oil - London Oil - London Watercolour/ Ink - France - Algarve Oil - Algarve Watercolour/ Ink - Self-Portraits - Trees - Portraits I - Portraits II - Porches Pottery - Books - Misc - Algarve Studio
Note: many of the reproductions displayed here are of poor quality
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
By Swift
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Nano Reid - Some notes on Caravaggio - Italian Report - The Artist Speaks - X magazine - RHA Exhibition 1951 - Eça de Queiroz & Fernando Pessoa - The Portuguese Enigma - Notebooks - All
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
About Swift
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Main
Patrick Swift: An Irish Painter in Portugal - IMMA 1993 Retrospective Catalogue - Dublin 1950-2 - By His Friends - X magazine - Poems - Further Quotes About - All

By His Friends
Anthony Cronin - John Ryan - John Jordan - C.H.Sisson - Martin Green - John McGahern - David Wright - Lima de Freitas - Katherine Swift - Tim Motion - Lionel Miskin - Jacques D'Arribehaude - Brian Higgins - George Barker - Patrick Kavanagh

Further Quotes
Brian Fallon - Aidan Dunne - Derek Hill - Brendan Behan - Lucian Freud - Patrick Kavanagh - Elizabeth Smart - Further Quotes About
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
HOME
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------