Renaissance means “rebirth.” It’s a term that refers to the intellectual and artistic movement that began in Italy in the 14th century, culminated with Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael in the 16th, and has influenced thinking and creating ever since. The art historian Ian Chilvers has characterized it as “the time when Medieval turns into Modern and the religion-dominated world of the Middle Ages gives way to a culture more responsive to the individual.” It has come to mean openness to change, to rethinking, and to the examination and often reinvention of more classical forms. These days, it seems we are living through a renaissance of realism in a world traditionally dominated by abstract expressionism. Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, for example.
More than anything, renaissance is an attitude that transcends times and places. For creative people, a minor renaissance happens every day as we reassess yesterday’s work and adjust our thinking to both its needs and our personal inclinations.
Would-be “renaissance artists” try to range widely in their interests, understanding, and capability. They do many things, know how to quickly research the information they need, do not necessarily follow the recipes of others, and are rather in love with the business of finding out for themselves. They both respect the past and contrive to discover the future. And just like Giotto, Pisano and Donatello, as well as the three guys mentioned above, “renaissance thinking” is learned.
The way I look at it, the idea of renaissance has eight great principles that just might be worth thinking about:
Curiosity as a way of thinking
Suspicion of authority and conventional wisdom
Respect for intelligently filtered history
Aspiration to higher levels of achievement
Vision for renewed potential in all things
Tendency to invent private systems
Reinvention and perfection of former skills
Accepting the challenge of the difficult
PS: “Francis Bacon would say that he felt he was giving art what he thought it previously lacked. With me, it’s what Yeats called the fascination with what’s difficult. I’m only trying to do what I can’t do.” (Lucian Freud)
Esoterica: I’m laptopping you from the shade of massive plane trees on the ramparts of a defensive wall that surrounds Lucca, Italy. Cooling breezes flow in from the Ligurian Sea and the air is filled with ancient wonder and present curiosity. This is Giacomo Puccini’s town, and tonight there will be a concert in one of the cathedrals now converted to a music venue. My daughter, Sara, is living here in a 13th century stone building where she is painting a new series.
A renaissance woman
by Lyn Cherry, Maryville, TN, USA
When I was lucky enough to visit Italy in 1980, I experienced a life changing event. I was “turned on” to the Renaissance artists, particularly the sculpture of Michelangelo. The unfinished sculpture known as St. Matthew in particular grabbed my attention. I saw his Pieta, his Moses, his absolutely fantastic David, but the body of St. Matthew writhing from the marble was just overwhelming. I admired the versatility of the Renaissance artists; they not only left us a legacy of wonderful visual arts, but many wrote poetry and prose and, as we know, da Vinci left many plans for inventions. In my own humble way, I have tried to be a Renaissance woman; I keep striving to paint, to write poetry, to read, to research subjects that interest me and to continue learning something new each and every day. After the visit to Italy, I went to college and graduated at age 51, a grandmother of three at that time. I am experiencing a kind of Renaissance in my artistic life right now; I’m trying to stretch my boundaries and paint some work I would not have even tackled a year ago.
As nature intended
by Edna Hildebrandt, Toronto, ON, Canada
There is a need for a certain renaissance in art today. In viewing some of the developments today I’d like to be able to see people in some compositions where they are recognizable as people or persons rather than some grotesque figure of dissected limbs and disfigured faces. I’d like to admire the beauty of man, woman or child as nature intended to be revealing their character, suffering or exultations and overcoming odds. Whether young or old, wrinkled or smooth skin as a child. They seem to be lacking those in some abstract art.
by Angel F. Matamoros, WA, USA
Your eight principles making up the idea of renaissance should be cut out and hung on the studio wall. It will be in mine. I’d like to think many of today’s artists harbor that same attitude, not only of transcending times and places but also broadening their interests and talents. Though many of us aren’t artists, sculptors, architects, scientists and poets all-in-one, a great number are artists, creators of strong families, sometimes bread-earners in another profession as well as self-promoters, learning the skills of trades we never thought we’d need to apply.
by Pepper Hume, Spring, TX, USA
Your description of renaissance artists who do many things, know how to research, and find their own way is a good description of theatre artists. Those are the exact requirements for people who design and build sets and costumes. Every show is a new challenge requiring new solutions. Of course, we laugh that once we find a new solution, master a new technique, that’s one we will never need again. But those challenges and learning those new things keep us open and alive as artists.
Competition in the Maritimes
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada
I got to thinking about your previous letter, about the gallery owners/managers and artists. Upon reading the clickbacks on this topic, it sounds as though your gallery experience is of a higher order to many out there! I get the feeling, reading of these poor souls’ bitter experiences, that the owners are like the MBA’s of today. They want to make money and they can’t really do anything else. In other words, most aren’t artists themselves and are dependent on the creativity of others, but tend sometimes to be brutally efficient at cutting out some and perhaps nurturing others, as long as it suits them. We are living in a world run by this type of, often short-term, thinking. We don’t nurture… you must produce or else! It is interesting to get the other side of the gallery scene. I live in Halifax where there is a lot of talent, artistically speaking, and we have the well known Art College, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. So we have a high percentage of artists per square foot here. I am now in a co-op gallery and we are building slowly, awareness and clientele. It is really, really hard to get into a regular gallery here. You pretty much need a BFA to be even considered (never mind that some of us have been painting since we could hold a brush, and have taken courses all along the way!). Anyway, I am not sure we are all better off for this ruthlessly productive new world we are in, designed by the profit-minded, solely.
The artistic journey
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
I started out my life drawing at Atelier Lack in Minneapolis, and did portraits for years after. Around the same time, I joined a local watercolor society. In about 2001, I decided that I wasn’t having enough fun doing the realism, and began my journey into abstraction. I also became experimental and use of acrylic, inks, collage and even glitter and metallic pens were incorporated. I began having a lot more fun. Over those years, the watercolor society got more rigid in their rules, and last year after 17 years as a member, I had to leave there, but had found 2 other artist groups that I felt fully supported my journey. My renaissance has gone from realism to abstract to something in between. And a big surprise to me, this year for the first time ever, I am also beginning to do landscapes. Who knew? I am having a time of big fun!
Dealing with criticism
by Louwtjie Kotze, Randburg, South Africa
I was just wondering what your views are on criticism. I have a friend whose wife is also an artist. He criticizes her paintings, mine and anybody else’s without invitation and is very vocal and very detailed about it, even if it is only on display in our own homes. I have found myself second-guessing the beauty or quality of my work. Even the works that I felt I did well and which I really loved creating, have now become mediocre in my own eyes. I know one should be thick-skinned about criticism, but I just wondered how you and other artists experience the unasked for criticism. Maybe thick skins are cultivated with experience? I have only been painting for 3 years and do appreciate good criticism which would help me to improve my work. I also realize that if you put your art out there, for instance at an exhibition, you are asking for criticism, and that I can handle, because I believe that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Any thoughts or opinions about this?
(RG note) Thanks, Louwtjie. I’ve noticed that uninvited non-artists who are compulsively critical can practically never be pleased with anything. While it may seem a thick skin is necessary in dealing with them, their opinions can be more a source of amusement and curiosity as to where the critic is coming from. The knowledge they give can be compartmentalized and even be useful. After the uninvited critic has dumped on you, ask him to elaborate. Seek to understand and do not take things personally.
There are two further antidotes. The first is to get a second opinion from a respected someone who is in a position of authority. The second, and by far the most valuable, is to teach yourself to be your own best critic. This requires creative mileage, a ranging renaissance mind, and the tendency toward curiosity rather than definitive opinions. Thus are thick skins developed. Thus are unwanted critics neutralized. Thus is true progress made.
Security of home
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA
When I read the list of Renaissance principles, I couldn’t help but smile as I thought of G.K. Chesterton’s introduction to Orthodoxy. He said, “I have often had a fancy for writing a romance about an English yachtsman who slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas. What could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?” I think we need, as Chesterton says, “romance” which he defines as “the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure.” We strive for the new, the curious, the innovative, but we need the stability and security of what is proven to be the good, the beautiful, and the true.
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Speaking only for myself I find I’m always suspicious of any work I complete. I’m curious to see that I accomplished my goal, which I established for myself at the outset. I check my memory to see if I painted a completely new image and not copied one from my past. I look to see if I pushed myself or was I cruising on my experience and ability. Did I push the envelope, even a little? Some works come easily some are like childbirth.
When I finish a piece, I leave the studio for the day and return the next to get a fresh view. This time is critical for me for I will then decide if the piece is a keeper or not.
Throughout history to present day artists have tried to find a distinct voice. In the end when all the methods and techniques are learned you are left with yourself. If you lack enthusiasm, curiosity, suspicion, aspiration, invention and a willingness to tackle the difficult you will be missing the greatest part of this process.
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
Fascinating that in music, composers never felt the need to go back to composing like their ancestors or indulge in copycatting. In retrospect, there were, of course, distinct eras in music, but each new one drew on the best of the previous one and carried on from there. Whereas you can see continuity in the development of (Western) music, the evolution of art seems to have been a very bumpy road, strewn with hazards and throughout history dependent on agents, sponsors and experts. Classical music was also dependent on the patronage of the great and “good.”
I don’t think that list of Renaissance aspirations is unique to any era. The quest for self-improvement and thirst for knowledge, not forgetting jealousy, greed, hatred, aggression and a few other rather more negative attributes, are what brought humanity to where it is now. Maybe we’ll all be drowned in that final pot of boiling oil, aspirations, monuments and all, but we should remember to plant a tree first, of course.
Enjoy the past comments below for Renaissance…
acrylic painting, 24 x 36 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Rand Teed of Craven, SK, Canada who wrote: “I like principle 2, it has served me well for years! My current renaissance is teaching kids about Drugs and Alcohol. I taught art for 25 years and that evolved into this: www.drugclass.ca.”
And also Annette Reynolds of Birmingham, AL, USA who wrote, “Oh my! Our beloved, inspiring Italy. How lovely! Thanks for sharing the light and breeze with me in Alabama.”
And also JoRene Newton of TX, USA who wrote, “I have not been so fortunate to visit Italy but those of you who have give us others a wonderful picture of the source of the Creativity of those Renaissance Artists!”
And also Nancy Vandenberg who wrote, “Lucky you!!! Opera in Lucca!!! I was there on a tour in May. Our local guide said the water is so good that you can fill your water bottles at the public faucet in the square. We all did and it was delicious. Seems that test it every two hours. Be sure to go the Puccini villa out at the lake. Not in Lucca but not far away.”