Art History v. Experimental Archeology
I have often found it beneficial to sketch furniture while examining it. Unlike a photograph, a pencil insists a form be understood to be reproduced. But my sketches don’t always look like my subjects. My failing can be attributed to both my lack of skill and lack of understanding of the subject. I’m not convinced there’s a great deal I can do about the former, but I’m not all busted up about it. The latter, however, is the point here.
When we draw, we deconstruct what we see into tiny sub-elements of shape and color. We can never perfectly reproduce what we see. Always our work is an approximation of reality. For the uninitiated, the well spring is always the subject alone. Serious students drink in the subject, but also rely on things they know to be true or suspect may be true. This is why the old masters (extending that category into the early 20th century painters like Thomas Eakins) dissected cadavers. We see what we see, but masters use their knowledge of what is happening under the skin to help them fill in the gaps of what they don’t see but know to be there. This was a tough concept for me to grasp when I was taking art classes many many years ago.
Furniture art historians use their familiarity with a large number of related pieces to help them make sense of what they see. Once a piece of furniture can be categorized, it can be compared with related pieces. Within that comparison, a deeper understanding of the piece can be achieved. The academic furniture historians I know tend to attribute every feature to some esthetic or stylistic group.
Experimental archeologists, including the many reproduction furniture makers we all know and love rely on their knowledge of how things were built to help them fill in the gaps between what they see and what is or was. Some attribute every feature to a woodworking tool or technique. No criticism, but Chris Schwarz did some of this in his WiA talk last year entitled “Furniture with No Name”. I agree that it can be annoying to constantly look for meaning behind certain furniture forms beyond. I’ve long preferred Chris’ point: (paraphrasing) “it looks like that because that’s the shape my molding plane made” or “that’s how much wood I had”.
In my opinion, you have to take both approaches if you want accuracy and clarity. No way around it. This has always been part of my drive to learning “the olde ways”. My goal is now and has ever been the accurate reproduction of period furniture. But my approach isn’t in any way exclusive to period furniture making. I see this as the same as the heavy metal rockers who are classically trained musicians. It’s a foundation. Nearly all furniture is related to something that came before it.
Before I leave the subject to your comment, I just want to point how how thankful I am to get to read and learn from the likes of Chuck Bender and Peter Follansbee who I believe are among the best at what they do precisely because they have been able to combine art history and experimental archeology. I can also say that having met and mingled with both that I believe their understanding of the subject has only increased their appreciation for the originals and joy for their own work. Lets add a few more names to the list, shall we? Pat Edwards, one of my favorite woodworkers ever, Rob Millard, Chris Storb, and the man I regard as the father of modern reproduction furniture making, the late great Gene Landon. All possess a combination of art history backgrounds or approaches with period woodworking experience and produce magnificent work.
Not to stir the pot at all, but just a quick word between friends regarding Megan’s recent editorial about the many ways of woodworking. Tho I know she doesn’t mean it this way, the many acceptable ways to cut a dovetail can sound like a participation trophy. In our zeal to play nice we can discourage woodworkers by uplifting the underserving (no I’m not thinking of anyone in particular). Just want to make the point that there is good work and better work. I’m inspired by better work and strive toward it. The guys listed above (not an exhaustive list and not my job to make one) produce what I consider to be better work. Like my drawing skill, I think there’s little we can do about our natural talent. I may never make a list like that for that reason alone. But we can work on our understanding of the subject so we can improve on what we have. I believe the approach to take must be a two-pronged one.