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Looking and Seeing

26 May 2021

Looking and Seeing

In time, the impact of the lockdown will be assessed by economists, sociologists, psychiatrists, environmentalists and almost every other sphere of academia. But perhaps it will be most interesting to consider the creative output of this period of imposed isolation. Musicians have already released albums of music that respond to lockdown, authors are no doubt writing and cinema and stage will follow. Historically painters have often found inspiration in isolation, the work of artists such as Munch, Van Gogh and Gormley all explore the place of the individual in the world.

The last twelve months have enabled many of us to do things that we normally would not find time for, learning a language or a musical instrument for example. Being forced to look at the same view for weeks on end has encouraged many to draw and paint.

Drawing has traditionally been the architects’ principle means of communication, both conceptually and technically. Although computers have replaced drawing boards in most studios, a pencil and a roll of trace are still the tools of choice for many of us. The ability to pictorialise an idea is something that is still an important part of the design process.

The Architecture Club recently held a Zoom sketching event with Narinder Sagoo, a Director at Foster and Partners and one of the finest architectural artists around. The session explored drawing as representation, memory, and mental relaxation. Narinder explained how drawing every day has become an essential part of his life, whether sketching anonymous travellers on his commute or drafting design ideas with colleagues. I liked his idea that, for architects, drawing is “a way of listening”. It is this aspect of the craft that I find most compelling. We take thousands of photographs on our iPhones every year, and probably never look at them again. If I look at one of my past sketches I can recall the conversation, the weather, the sounds, the smells it is a complete sensory record of the moment. Drawing helps us move from just looking to seeing. It is both an analytical and emotional discipline.

In the hands of artists from Holbein to Hockney the humble chalk or pencil becomes an instrument that records the detail, the mood, and the feelings of its subject in a way that photography cannot. There is an astonishing album of 80 Holbein drawings at Windsor Castle, these portraits of characters from the 16th century Tudor court, mainly in chalk, capture the humanity of the subject far more evocatively than a painting.

Looking and Seeing
Mary, Lady Heveningham, Hans Holbein the Younger c.1532-43

Hockney is a supremely gifted draftsman, as his early pencil crayon portraits demonstrate. His career can be seen as conventional, he has followed the tradition of drawing and painting, and his work broadly uses art historical references. However, he has always found ways to innovate within that format, as his lockdown output demonstrates.

Looking and Seeing
David Hockney, Portrait of Shinro Ohtake 1978

'The Arrival of Spring', an exhibition of 116 iPad paintings by David Hockney at the Royal Academy was created in 2020 and documents the transition from winter to summer at his home in Normandy. Drawn every day in the isolation of lockdown, we experience Hockney’s world in a chronological sequence of paintings. It is interesting that he refers to this iPad work as painting, it reflects how the technology has developed since his 2012 RA exhibition of iPad drawings. As uplifting and joyous as these works are there is something rather flat about them, compare his ink drawings of the same subject that are in the catalogue.

But it is important to look at them as a group, this is in effect an installation, and what a great feeling it is to immerse yourself in his world and to be back in a gallery after all these months.

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