Portraits and presentiment (part 1)
The Mij, Oil on canvas 76x56cm
The Marmoset, Oil on board 73x49cm
Two new portraits presented themselves unbidden, and presented me in the process with renewed sombre misgivings about modern commercial art. [By ‘commercial’ I mean art produced for the marketplace] These misgivings conspired to see me destroying some old works, not because they haven’t sold but because they presented other misgivings: some technical and some personal. Since my first career was in zoological science, it’s perhaps relevant that curiosity weighs heavy with me.
That out of the way, portraiture must be the severest, most profound test of an artist (be they painter or sculptor) – something most avoid for its unforgiving and unrelenting scrutiny: of the practitioner of the model, of the beholder of the practitioner.
Over the last 12 months and more I’ve been debating with myself (there being no-one else really) about the path work takes and to where. You may (or may not) find these experiences a) interesting, b) helpful, c) provocative, d) irrelevant or e) just plain boring, so skip ahead if you don’t wish to read of someone else’s toils (but, as humans, don’t we enjoy some schadenfreude?!
2013 then is the background for a year of misfirings:
- My Structured Landscape exhibition produced all the inevitable doubts that such ventures always produce – one could do, think, arrange, select, price, publicize and invite better etc;
- The loss in early February of a dear friend & collaborator on some books, the great bird illustrator Malcolm Ellis
- A disappointing talk to North Devon Arts at The Broomfield Sculpture Park fell well below the standards I’d normally set myself; for some reason, the slides in transfer to their computer got muddled, which doesn’t sound disastrous in itself but the thumbnails were displayed on the enormous screen while we re-ordered them – a bit of a spoiler which took time to correct meaning I had to cut out some hilarious (or so I like to imagine) anecdotes;
- This was followed by the misfiring (for me but it would seem for no-one else) of Open Studio Art Trek;
- Then there were laborious preparations (e.g. thematic, selection, doubt, framing, pricing) for my Autumn show The Constructed Female at The Plough Arts Centre, and the incomprehension and misunderstanding it seemed to create for some;
- Distressing and disturbing ecological consultancy duties involving (inevitably) the slaughter of badgers – which I’m unable to avoid, and consequent on those…
- … thwarted attempts to reprint my 1986 book The Fate of the Badger (Batsford) despite some demand from affected caring people;
- My novel The Children Who Wouldn’t …’ http://t.co/mHsyDbdQXP was published. I think at least 10 people have read it, or at least bought it (for an impressive 77p, 99c in the US – and I just got a royalty statement from Amazon USA for 36p, mind you they withheld .12p for tax, I trust they spend it wisely). To top these distractions …
- there’s been a frustrating and disillusioning failure to find a venue for an altruistic exhibition of 12 paintings of 1940s pin-up ‘Land Girls’, done with the co-operation of some lovely mums in Cheshire, to help raise funds for ‘Help For Heroes’ or some other human warfare related charity. This I’d optimistically hoped to arrange to coincide with Centenary Commemorations this November – which is now highly unlikely.
While some of these tribulations are amusing and petty they conflate to such an extent that I found myself in the deepest doldrums since emerging blinking from a 5 year PhD in Glasgow and an ensuing short but disillusioning career teaching in Primary Schools and one ghastly private school. [Can doldrums be deep? Perhaps I’m just a lousy teacher]. The thesis, incidentally, of >300 pages, ca.100,000 words and gawd knows how many tables, figures and statistics remains I imagine unread and unused apart from by my sponsors www.paradisepark.org.uk/choughs. [The RSPB cannot even acknowledge its existence.] Of course it was not all awful, I had a good and rewarding year working in Cornish schools for the RSPCA, and a delightful two years lecturing and getting up and running a new FE College outpost in the grounds of Paignton Zoo, Devon.
However, outweighings prompted re-evaluation; so I destroy old work and find furious cathartic satisfaction in it. All of which brings me back to the portraits – inevitably a substantial element in The Constructed Female exhibition.
The two portraits I mentioned at the top had an underlying cause – partly to convince myself after nearly a year of scant activity that I could still paint. The first was of a model from Cheltenham who contacted me via Twitter, and has since become an engaging and feisty ally, and the second of the beautiful and long-suffering Mij whom I have of course painted many times and who has crept unbidden into other portraits (or so I’m told by people; and they can see it and I can’t).
What I can see (and maybe what I can’t) follows.
Portraits and presentiment (part 2)
Portraits, so I’m told by gallery owners, are virtually unsellable. I think this is disingenuous nonsense! To back up such a bold rebuttal, I cite the case of the Fowey River Gallery www.foweyrivergallery.co.uk who told me this but took one anyway. It was this one
Portrait of Naomi, Oil on wood 43.5 x 48.5cm
They phoned me in Wales the following day to say “Guess what? It’s sold! A young couple saw it, went away, had lunch, came back and said they couldn’t live without it” (verbatim because it’s a conversation I shan’t forget). Galleries guard their client list with a zeal that would do credit to Vladimir Putin’s police so I’ve never found out who they were but hope they still enjoy it. Even so, Fowey wouldn’t take another, but this was ten years ago, perhaps they might now.
Anyway, back to the premise. As I said in Part 1 my training (such as it was) was in wildlife zoology with an emphasis on sexual dimorphism and the captive breeding of rare and endangered fauna, so it seems obvious to me that biologically and ethologically the human face is central to our understanding of the human condition. We scan and study our own and everyone else’s without realising it, picking up and processing the tiniest inflections. Intrigued, entranced, attracted and repelled by each in turn. How can we not be interested in the painted portrait, which is always a double portrait – that of subject and artist?
Disabusing this, people say something like, “But I don’t know them” thereby implying that they might be more interested if it was a likeness of someone they knew, or of course, better still, a family member. So what is going on? Obviously we might like to have around us images of ‘loved ones’ but since we can admire a landscape or a still-life without ‘owning’ or even knowing it at first hand, why are we put off by the image of another human being?
Not always of course for we respond positively to a Rembrandt or van Gogh (self-)portrait, a Leonardo, a Matthew Smith, a Chaim Soutine, an Auerbach, a Hockney… and the list could go on and on. Is it merely then that a portrait painted by someone famous is acceptable while one by an unknown (however good) is not? No art aficionado, only a dealer, would admit this so one is left to ruminate on a determining factor. Is it simply that gallery owners are a conservative non-risk-taking lot and they simply believe that buyers do not like portraits, and will not buy them? As a self-fulfilling prophecy this takes some beating. But since I called Rembrandt as a witness, let’s return to quality.
Oh, I so hope this is the final arbiter, because then there’s hope. Quality is the touchstone: any artist worthy of the name aspires to it; and always before the grubby ephemeral of “Will it sell?”
So, I want ‘galleries’ to be worthy of the name they assume. A gallery should never be just a picture shop, though that is sadly what many are. Yes, they have to be financially solvent but alongside that (and are the two mutually exclusive?) it is their duty to present Fine Art to the public. If they don’t where on earth’s high street, can we find honesty and truth mingling with spine-tingling beauty and forensic enquiry?