In 1984 Vanni was offered a position of teaching at the world-renowned Cooper Union School of Art in New York City. Up until then he had not been interested in teaching. He believed that an artist could transmit their knowledge to younger generations approaching art only when they were themselves fully accomplished in their own work. He believed that art was not something that could be taught just by getting a master’s degree in it. To transmit art to others it had to be lived, experienced, metabolized. When he started teaching, in his mid-fifties he felt that he was ready.
He taught at Cooper Union for thirty years, between 1984 and 2014. There he found an environment that was intellectually familiar, as other former students of Albers were also teaching there, continuing the tradition of integrating empirical experience and theoretical knowledge. His classes of Art Survey, Color Perception, and Old Masters Painting Techniques inspired many generations of students.
His course in Color Perception, was a foundation class of the art school. With certain variations, it was equivalent to the course created by Albers at the Bauhaus, further developed during his years at Black Mountain College, and later at Yale where Vanni attended his class. Through empirical experiments, students learned about color relationships and interactions. Vanni further developped Albers'original course by having the students first execute projects using colored paper collages, then later rework their initial project, using colors mixed on a palette, facilitating a progression from the theoretical to the practical.
The Old Masters Painting Techniques explored three thousand years of art creation and the many techniques that had been developed to render the artists’ ideas into any surface. He particularly focused on all the techniques that are not used nowadays such as encaustic, fresco, or the use of natural varnishes and glazes. He believed that an artist that has all the possible means of expression at their fingertips has more possibilities of transforming their personal vision into a unique expression.
The two abovementioned courses were taught in a studio environment. The students' work on specific assignments became the basis for a class discussion to develop the awareness of the possibility of expression of color or specific techniques. Unfortunately, because of the way these course were structured, we don't have any written or visual material on them.
On the other hand, the third course that Vanni taught, Art Survey, was a lecture class that offers us the possibility to become familiar with Vanni's unique approach to teaching Art, as he kept the essays that he gave his students as well as the slides he projected.
Art Survey was an established Cooper Union tradition following which art history courses were accompanied by a course taught from the subjective viewpoint of an artist. Teaching this course gave Vanni the opportunity to elaborate what he thought of art history.
Various lessons were devoted to examining works created by different cultures, comparing them to point out stylistic differences or affinities in the treatment of great existential themes. Other lessons focused on the ways that different cultures, through historical, economic, and social circumstances, express their particular view of art. Still other lessons dealt with the ways in which materials influence representation. The themes for his classes also were a pretext for showing quantities of images to illustrate ideas and stimulate the students’ visual perception.
The need to have the perfect images to visually demonstrate his ideas led Vanni to create his own photo archive of images. During his many travels around the world, he started photographing sculptures, paintings, and architecture. Over the years this resulted in an archive of 100 thousand images of art and architecture from all over the globe.
Here below is how Vanni introduced his Art Survey course, followed by three excerpts from his essays that illustrate his approach.
This course is going to present my personal views on art and artists. It is based on associations between different visual forms that are separated in time and space. They are going to provoke some reflections and debates; but rather than questions I’ll prefer to open question marks, arise new personal interests, desires to know more and explore by oneself new images, try new formulations.
Naturally, for a better understanding of what we are going to see, I shall try to relate them to a historical - cultural contest, pointing out some of the stimulating possibilities given by an imaginative reading of the past.
Every artist, from the most realistic to the non-objective, re-invents the world; the result constitutes a new object that is not representation, interpretation of outside or inside reality; it is an entity on its own right, born to an existence as real as the one of trees, stones, sun. Itself capable, as they are, of causing other things to happen, to create more new images to widen men’s vision, and bettering him through his senses.
From THE ART OF FEAR - Exorcising the Kingdom of Darkness
The fear of the unknown, the ghosts of the unconscious, the malignant power of nature on one side; on the other side the search for a superior ideal harmony unifying the apparent contradictions of life: humankind has always been torn between these opposed feelings, acting and believing accordingly in shaping its environment. The projection of fears and desires gave birth to religions; consequently, art gave visual form to the internal awe, or the search of harmony led the artist to create images of beauty, as mirrors of the balance of nature.
In one circumstance reality was elaborated according to the combined fears of the artist and of the worshipper; in the other the search for inner serenity transcended the burdens of everyday life in favor of the representation of ideal beauty as the perfect example of Divine Balance. Two ways to conceive life and to question oneself on the superior meaning of religion and art.
From THE ART OF HARMONY - Body as Idea of Perfection
Beautiful and Good: for the ancient Greeks they were two complementary aspects of reality. The perfection of the body was not complete if the mind was not the mirror of its beauty; Spiritual was made visible by Form: the closest material representation of the world of pure Ideas. The platonic philosophy was based on the notion of the pre-existence of the immutable matrix of all things, and that the outside world showed only the confused shadows of reality. This concept had a great influence on the development of Greek aesthetics. The study of the human body was developed to the extreme, to achieve the ideal representation of Harmony and Beauty.
The classical Gods were not divinities of fear; the Greeks did not know the Original Sin. Balance and Harmony were the goals; Art provided a way to get closer to the unchangeable perfection of the world of Ideas. This progress from analysis to synthesis, towards the idealization of form is the mark of classical art, that avoids the excesses of romanticism, that hints without stressing; and the human form becomes the center of the universe, as the fundamental element of comparison and measure of all things.
The ideal forms set by the Greeks were the example to be studied and followed throughout the development of Western Art; the Renaissance artists dreamed to get close to the perfection of their predecessors; the forms created around the 5th century BCE became the objects to study and analyze after the Middle Ages, when a new moment of balance between culture and prosperity was reached in Renaissance Italy. Classicism as representation of equilibrium; concentration on the refinement of form. Rhythm, grace, measure; every element finding its ideal, mathematical shape and position in space, no one element surpassing another: everything contributing to the immutable harmony of the Whole, a mirror to the perfection of the Universe.
From THREE WAYS TO WORSHIP, THREE WAYS TO BUILD - Wood, Stones, Bricks
The relationship between humans and their surroundings sets a pattern that identifies a particular culture in time and space. His concept of the world is expressed by religion; art gives a visual form to his thoughts and becomes a new object that stimulates knowledge and imagination in the following generations. Art pieces become to them as real as the trees and the rocks and the clouds that had contributed to their creation. Thus, art creates art, providing us with re-elaborated reality that provoke new imagery and new achievements.
Water, stones and trees: the forms of nature, always present in the Japanese mind, permeate their art and their original animistic religion, Shintoism. Everything in nature has a soul, and the souls are gods, the Kami. The body is the mirror of the spirit, and the care given to it purities both from dirt and sin. The height of the mountains symbolizes the elevation of the mind over the brutality of matter. This theology unifies man, nature and God.
Buddhist temples show how wood, a natural material, can be used with the greatest respect for its intrinsic characteristics. The structure of the temple is elastic, as the material dictates; the walls are simply space dividers, and do not contribute to the statics of the buildings. The beams cross one another like in a growing tree. Looking at the roof of a pagoda (pagoda means Buddha's grave) is like looking at a wood, all the apparent intricacies correspond to an organic rationality.
Whereas the Japanese embodied the idea of eternity in temples that look forever young by replacing the parts as they get old, the Greeks expressed their idea of eternity through the durability of stone. They too started by using trees to build their temples, then retained only the static quality instead of the elasticity. Weight keeps the structure together; later the stone gives a majestic display of its earthly quality - the mineral growth echoes the geometrical harmonies of the mind. Verticals and horizontals scan the rhythm of vision.
The Doric temple, the oldest of Greek architecture, represents one of the purest attempts to embody an abstract concept. The Greek religion personified light, air, sun - worshipping the elements that made life possible on earth. Their sense of guilt was so low that punishment after death was reserved only for some exceptional sins against men and gods. The temple is the place of worship of a God created in Man’s image. A great variety of rhythms is obtained using only predetermined shapes: Column, Lintel, Pediment. Proportions connect the whole building to the minor details. The intercolumn space defines the form, the entrapped voids become as active as the full elements; the apparently straight lines of the plan are the arc of an enormous circle; the columns are swollen at two thirds of their height to express the weight they carry; the echinus, the round cushion-like shape between the column and the lintel, seems compressed by the load; the comer columns are thicker, to compensate for the intense glare. The location is chosen according to tradition, or to the indications of an oracle (the two very often coincide). The orientation is usually East-West; at the Equinox the sun rays illuminate through the open gates the inner altar. And yet if we look at two Doric temples, they are different and alike - like two different persons are.
For the new great monotheistic religions this was the ideal form to represent the ascent of the soul to heaven. Down to earth, the maze of columns represents the complicated path of man through life; the space is subdivided into segments of light and darkness, in an infinite variety of forms. As the eyes rise the elements converge into more measurable quantities, the geometrical order becomes more discernable; from here originate the four pendentives on which the circular unity of the dome rests. This is the ascent of the soul from the contradictions of life to the eternal spheres of the skies, identified with God himself. And whereas the dome in the Western tradition remains a precise shape of geometry, holding in itself the concept of a measurable space, in the Islam it acquires a more transcendent quality. The dome as the sky is stressed by the abstract decoration.
Here is a link to have access to all 16 Art Survey essays