Memory in Art

One often overlooked faculty in art training is that of memory. The degree to which one’s memory can be trained is often surprising to students. The drawing above (from the book ‘The Training of the Memory in Art and the Training of the Artist’ by Horace Lecoq) is by an anonymous nineteenth century student at the École des Beaux-Arts undertaken as part of an exam. Students were given a certain amount of time to observe the cast and to memorise its overall proportion and details. They were then taken to a separte room to execute their drawing of the cast from start to finish.

In a way, all drawing is memory drawing. We must always observe what it is we want to capture, decide on how best to tackle the visual problem, and then execute our decisions. No matter how small the amount of information, when it is translated into drawing, it is always, by necessity, a memory. The training of this faculty of memory can greatly increase the number of decisions we are capable of retaining at any given moment and this can be a huge boon to efficiency when working from life.

Perhaps the most famous advocate of this form of training was Degas. He is quoted saying ‘It is all very well to copy what one sees, but it is far better to see what one now only sees in memory. That is a transformation in which imagination collaborates with memory.’

Artists of the nineteenth century pushed the limits of the use of visual memory in art. One such artist was Fortunino Matania. Matania had a long career as a journalist illustrator and created many paintings of scenes impossible to recreate without a powerful control of visual memory. Working as a war artist during World War One, Matania created images of trench warfare that are beautifully emotive representations of scenes he experienced and memorised in the trenches, and later realised in his studio.

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