The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

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I had to give up underlining bits of wisdom after I realised I was finding something worthy of note on every other page, no mean feat for a book first published in 1923. Although it’s less a book and more a collection of his letters, articles and teaching notes, it feels very modern. Henri passionately argued for artists to educate themselves and was dismissive of art schools, art competitions and any great institutions that could get in the way of  an artist’s own journey. A few samples of his wisdom:

“An artist who does not use his imagination is a mechanic.”

“No knowledge is so easily found as when it is needed. Teachers have too long stood in the way; have said: “Go slowly–you want to be an artist before you have learned to draw! Oh! Those long and dreary years of learning to draw!”

“The power of concentration is rare and must be sought and cultivated, and prolonged work on one subject  must not be mistaken for concentration. Prolonged work on one subject may simply be prolonged digression, which is a useless effort, as it is to no end.”

“He paints like a man going over the top of a hill, singing.”

“Let a student enter the school with this advice: No matter how good the school is, his education is in his own hands. All education must be self-education.”

“Don’t follow the critics too much. Art appreciation, like love, cannot be done by proxy: it is a very personal affair and is necessary to each individual.”

I could go on. But the point is there is a humane philosophy that I think anyone interested in painting and art more generally could gain something from. Henri benefitted from writing at the end of his painting career just before modern art veered completely off the realist track. My only quibble with the book is this edition which faithfully reproduced all the words but didn’t include any of the sample artworks that he referred to frequently in the text.

No. 39 of 100 books I intend to read and review in 2019.

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Patrick Sherriff publishes a monthly newsletter highlighting good fiction about Japan and featuring an original painting or sketch. He lives in Abiko, Japan, with his wife and two daughters.