Empty Surfaces

Paul Cezanne wrote to his mother in September 1874, “I have to work all the time, not to reach that final perfection which earns the admiration of imbeciles. [T]his thing which is commonly appreciated so much is merely the effect of craftsmanship and renders all work resulting from it inartistic and common. I must strive after perfection only for the satisfaction of becoming truer and wiser. And believe me, the hour always comes when one breaks through and has admirers far more fervent and convinced than those who are only attracted by an empty surface.”

Two years later, at the end of a letter to Pissarro, he wrote, “I almost forgot to tell you that a certain letter of rejection has been sent to me. This is neither new nor astonishing.” Nothing much changes, does it?

In my recent wonder of Rembrandt’s portraits – surely his greatest triumph – I saw surfaces with barely an empty inch between them, and this includes swathes of canvas scrubbed in with huge cursory skill – no learnt craft that – the better to reveal truth and the perilous condition of humanity, so beautiful in its pathos and vulnerability.

We must distinguish between art and craft. The desire to display a high level of empty (taught) craftsmanship in painting (I can’t speak for any other art form) is often an attempt to deceive. To what end?  That you have something to say, that you have great skill, that people with money to spend will do so on you…?  I put ‘taught’ in parentheses because craftsmanship at its best and most meaningful is learnt on the hoof, empirically – then it is truly unique and genuine… bespoke craftsmanship. Andrés Segovia, the virtuoso Spanish guitarist said, “I had only one teacher, myself, and only one student, myself.” He also said, “If people have even a little understanding, it is better to move them than to amaze them.”

Much so-called art is therefore simply the display of craftsmanship. This can often be of jaw-dropping beauty, but if not used in the service of Art (with a capital ‘A’) it is as empty as a dumb blonde. [And I love the spectacle of a dumb blonde as much as the next man.] So, what are the empty surfaces Cezanne talked about? Don’t we see them everywhere? In every picture-shop gallery where art masquerades as a veneer of cleverness.

Fine Art is only revealed to those with the insight to see it. It is an insight that can be learnt, but how many bother, so beguiling is the cheap thrill of ooh-aah-art?  While I was being seduced and again educated by Rembrandt, he spoke, saying, “Look around, where else can you feel such breath of rare sincerity?”

Once you get your eye in, you can find sensual delight and phenomenal qualities of kindness and empathy. Here are a few artists who come quickly to mind and who reveal it in spades of differing sizes, (in no special order) Leonardo, Tiepolo, Francesco Guardi, late Titian, el Greco, Goya, Constable, Morandi, Daumier, Millet, Corot, Maurice Utrillo, Henri (le douanier) Rousseau, van Gogh, Pissarro, Berthe Morisot, Gwen John, Alfred Wallace and… please add your own.

Most of those names are well known, but there are others far less celebrated, whose paintings deserve to be recognised for their own sheer depth of humanity. The reason they are not is because they fall foul of the ‘imbecile’ rule. I’d mention, for example, Vassyl Khmeluk, Agnes Martin, Leon de Smet, Alvar Cawen, Philip Guston, and Sheila Fell. Friends also alert you; thank you Isabella Whitworth (who knows a thing or two) for Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Today, because of our capitalist and celebrity wracked idiocy, one must search diligently, and often forlornly, for equivalent humanity (wrack is Middle Dutch for shipwreck). It exists but may remain unseen forever.

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