Thursday, June 6, 2013

Failure and Da Vinci's "The Battle of Anghiari

I am in the middle of a painting, that I started two years ago. If ever there was a bad luck project, it is this one. The first model, who inspired it got pregnant. The second model was beautiful, reliable, but was unsuitable for the idea I had. I wanted slim and ethereal, she was earthy and voluptuous. I kept her too long because she was raising a baby. The third model was perfect, but she had been diagnosed with autism as a child and could not sit still. The fourth was blond- which was not part of the original concept, but she was beautiful and lived nearby. However, she had  many personal problems, and though she tried- artist modeling was not for her. It requires a person who can stand really still and not everyone is suited to that.   I had managed a drawing of her which I counsel everyone to do before launching a long term project.

So out of sheer exhaustion I canceled her, thought better of it and then called her back. She had found another modeling job. She may or may not be back. The thought of failing on something that I thought was an 'important' work had never occurred to me. This is a bit of a shock.

Actually, I was beginning to hate this painting. It is 7' high and I have expended a lot of time and money on it. Time is the most valuable loss at my age which is 70.

I began to long for the simpler more classical approach. Jacobs Collins figures, though they could have been painted a century ago have tremendous allure. I walked by some paintings I did years ago, that had that kind of chiaroscuro if  not skill. I just want to draw the peonies in my garden, just one of them.

Is it pretense or ego to want to make a 'great painting'. I don't know. The imminent failure of this work has created a nexus between relief and despair.

Curious to find out if and  how  huge artistic failures afflicted other artists, not at the outset of their careers, but when their careers were in full flower I found about Da Vinci and his lost masterpiece "The Battle of Anghiari". It is called his lost masterpiece, but recent efforts to unearth it have failed.

Da Vinci was about 50 when he started it and it was completely abandoned after 2 years of  unremitting toil.
The pressure on him at this point to make some grand statement at this later state of his life was great. Younger artists, like Michelangelo and Raphael were snapping at his heels.

Below is a truncated version of the full materials horror story. Some colors were running and melting on paint below that had hardened because fires were lit to speed the drying time.

"One of Leonardo da Vinci’s finest works is The Battle of Anghiari. It was a fresco made by da Vinci in the middle of the 16th century at sometime around 1505. It was a fine work lost in time.
In c. 1503, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to do the painting of The Battle of Anghiari for the Sala del Gran Consiglio. This is during the start of the Republican government. The painting depicts a striking, powerful battle between horsemen. The four horsemen depicted in the painting were allegedly considered to be Ludovico Trevisan, Niccolò Piccinino, Francesco Piccinino, and Giovanni Antonio del Balzo Orsini.
Leonardo da Vinci had done several trial projects in this painting in which he was practicing a technique called encaustic. It was done on a board and dried out in a warm environment. Granular plaster was then applied for a flat finish. Then a layer of pitch was applied with the use of sponges. The end product is a base most suitable for oil painting. Leonardo then did an impressive scaffolding of the fresco.
Leonardo da Vinci abandoned the painting in c. 1506 when he left for Milan. The complex and enormous painting remained in da Vinci’s workshop until the Hall was redecorated and then it was lost. The three sketches of this unfinished Leonardo da Vinci painting and some copies of the mural are the only proofs of the existence of the lost mural.
A drawing of da Vinci’s The Battle of Anghiari through the remaining preparatory sketches of the legendary artist was completed by Rubens during the early 17th century at sometime from 1603. He extended the unfinished edges of the central section and the fourth horseman’s sword. The medium used in the painting completed by Rubens were black chalk, pen and ink sharpened with lead white, over-painting with watercolor. This version of Rubens is known as The Battle of the Standard and now sits in the Louvre Museum in Paris."
This is reprinted from:

J K Rowling on failure.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.”

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. ~Harvard University, 2008


ian warburton said...

Sharon, I reckon failing is something we all do and however bad we feel we just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down -you know how it goes. regards, Ian.

Sharon Knettell said...

Thanks Ian,
Writing about it helped.

I don't think I or anybody realize how hard making art is. It certainly is not like painting a wall and going smoothly from point A to B and you are done with it.