The Art Spirit

police-car

“Genius is not a possession of the limited few, but exists in some degree in everyone. Where there is natural growth, a full and free play of faculties, genius will manifest itself.” — Robert Henri
I have always been a fan of Walt Disney. Not just of his animated films but of a certain image I have of the man himself. It’s not the dictatorial egomaniac that some biographers have depicted but the gentle, welcoming character who appeared at the beginning of each episode of the Wonderful World of Disney — small moustache, grey gabardine suit, warm smile, standing in his book-lined office.
When I flew home from LA for the weekend, I decided to re-screen one of my favorite videotapes for an infusion of inspiration. It’s an episode of the Disney show that I Tivo-ed a couple of years ago in which Walt answers letters from art students seeking direction in life. His advice to them is to read a book called “The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri. Henri was a painter and art teacher in the early part of the twentieth century, a terrifically inspiring guy who taught the generation of American realists that emerged in the 20s; people like Edward Hopper and Stuart Davis and John Sloan and Rockwell Kent, many of whom I like a lot. He encouraged his students to paint what they saw around them, urban scenes of everyday life — gritty, bold, and true. Henri’s students collected their noted from his lectures and assembled them into The Art Spirit and it has been a valuable guide for artists ever since, full of observations and ideas that are accessible and encouraging.
One of Walt’s correspondents asks him how he can develop style and Disney responds via Henri, with something like, “Don’t worry about your originality. You couldn’t get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.” To demonstrate how individual vision is really at the heart of style, he takes four animators form his studio, men who by day are paid to subvert their individuality in the service of creating a unified look for Disney movies and films them, of a Sunday, painting a tree. Each has his own way of painting, but more importantly his own way of seeing. One describes the tree in terms of architecture, like a solidly engineered structure on the landscape. He paints the tree as if it were made of steel pylons. Another artist is fascinated by the movement of the tree’s bark and studies the surface textures in detail. A third sees the tree’s relationship to the sky behind it and studies the negative space of the branches. A fourth observes the entire tree as unified shape and works on its relationship to the rectangle of his canvas.
Then we see how each artists interprets his vision in different ways through his materials. One paints of a big slab of plywood thrown down on a rock, painting with long brushes in a muscular way. Another draws in charcoal and then fills in with casein. When the paintings are done, they are juxtaposed and we can really see the varieties of worldviews in the four men. Even though they are talented artists, the real lesson comes from their willingness to put their own characters in their work.
It’s all shot in muddy black and white, typical old TV images, and the painters are not fine artists showing in NY galleries, just modestly paid artisans working for the Man. But the little film demystifies the process of art making in a wonderful way. It’s also a reminder of how the world has changed. Hard to imagine these days prime time Sunday night TV being devoted to something as ethereal as this. And the Disney Company, marred by well-publicized corporate battles and an surfeit of marketing and promotion, seems pretty far removed from the gentle art lesson on this show.
If you can, Tivo the Wonderful World of Disney, and see if you stumble on this gem. Or pickup a copy of The Art Spirit and be directly inspired by a great teacher. Try to keep in mind the wisdom of this thought from Robert Henri: “The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.”
— Written in a rental car in a rainy parking lot by the Rose Bowl, a few miles from the Walt Disney studios.

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