Interview with Michael Bell: The Renaissance
First of all, it’s an honor for all of us to interview you, Mr. Bell. Thanks again.
M.C.- Let’s begin with this question. In these weeks, we have talked about great painters, the real worth of a piece of art… I would like to know your opinion about contemporary and ancient art. Artists have numerous influences… Days ago we talked about Michelangelo and I would like to know your opinion. I think that maybe the Renaissance is the most influential period in the history of art. People like Leonardo, Rafael or Michelangelo give us the path of modern painting: perspective, shapes… I mean, can we understand modern art without knowing the Renaissance? What’s your opinion?
M.B.- Good evening Martin. The pleasure is mine. I do think everyone needs to understand history to be able to appreciate modern art, and the Renaissance is really where the journey begins for me. It has its roots deeply embedded in the importance of learning the right balance between both “process and product” — technical vs. intellectual approaches — and Leonardo da Vinci was the king among kings of process. Da Vinci was also, in my opinion, the original father of “visual journaling” – a movement I’ve been pioneering for years.
M.B.- For da Vinci, the process of recording questions and making daily observations was one of great importance. His visual journals, of which seven thousand pages exist, also contained observations and thoughts of scholars he admired, personal financial records, letters, reflections on domestic problems, philosophical musings, prophecies, plans for inventions, and studies on anatomy, botany, geology, flight, water, drawings and paintings.
Da Vinci’s philosophies would have an effect upon how others could find meaning in art, in the value of reality, and in the world in general. And if you don’t believe me how important “the process” is regarded, just ask American business magnate Bill Gates, he’ll tell you…
In November 1994 Gates purchased eighteen sheets of Da Vinci’s visual journals for 30.8 million dollars.
M.C.- Talking about old masters, some of them had difficult and tumultuous lives. As we know, you also had problems in your childhood. We would like to know… is the artist’s work the direct reflection of his/her life or is art the mirror in which the artist can watch his/her life?
M.B.- I believe it’s both. A piece of my life is deeply engrained in every work I create, and my life is also reflected back at me directly through my work. I experienced such unspeakable tragedies at such an early age it kind of just stays with you, like your own personal shadow. You don’t know what to do with it, but it’s always there. For a while it would show its face in the rough crowd I’d hang out with – the kind of hair-trigger guys that would take a baseball bat to your head in the blink of an eye; the life-threatening situations I’d put myself in daily – yet somehow strangely know just how to navigate carefully through; and then there was the violence. It wasn’t something I ever talked about much or even opened up about with my artwork, but as I look back over the body of work I’ve accomplished, it’s all in there. As artists, it’s important to learn more about ourselves by reflecting on what we’re really doing with our work, whether its art, writing, poetry…and ask ourselves: “Am I drawing a line from my life to my art that’s straight and clear?”
M.B.- For me, it used to be a subconscious thing. I’d do things in my work that I’d recognize only later for what they really were. Now I’m more aware of each brushstroke, each color choice, and I “listen to my paintings” more during the actual process of painting, as opposed to reflecting on it after the fact. Other masters I’m particularly fond of who have also led tumultuous lives include Caravaggio, Goya and Edvard Munch. Munch’s been quoted as saying “Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied the recesses of the human body and dissected cadavers, I try to dissect souls.” I think Munch says it all in his work and I find that extremely courageous. He says visually what words would never be able to accurately describe.
M.C.- I would like to finish with a hypothetical question. Tell us, Michael, if you were born in Florence in 1600, what kind of painter/man would you like to be?
M.B.- I’d probably be hanging out with the explosive tempered Caravaggio, swaggering from town to town with a sword on one side, paintbrushes on the other, leading an entourage of loyal followers from one brawl to the next. I probably would have been involved in that 1606 incident which led to his fleeing Rome with a price on his head. I’d be at his side, like my friends are for me, dodging attempts on our lives while making a living painting out the violence that comes all too naturally to us with beautiful brushstrokes and chiaroscuro on canvas.
Art historian Andre Berne-Joffroy once said of Caravaggio: “What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting.”