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.

Truth, Blood and Fashion

Truth, Blood and Fashion, Andrew Graham-Dixon in The Art of Germany on TV a few years ago described the German character by listing four couplets:

1. Passion & precision,
2. Craftsmanship & The impulsive gesture,
3. A love of nature & A love of the machine, and
4. A need for escape & A desire for control.

Each of these traits rang true for me.  I thought Donner und blitzen! – which (with Achtung!) was my sum total of German learned from war comics. [Incidentally, this elementary expression is a mixture of German and Dutch – which I’m told is my paternal grandfather’s side.]  But are those traits all in my genes from Luther and before? Somehow meshing with the Irish blarney or whatever other characters lurk there from my mother’s side?

Or is it all smoke and mirrors – you take from it what you want?  So what would a list of four opposing couplets look like?  How about:

1. Coolness & Inexactness
2. Ineptitude & Cautious
3. Uncaring & Luddite
4. Stuck & Powerlessness

Not very inspiring, are they?  I shouldn’t think many would want those on their CV.  Perhaps it’s not the qualities then in the original list that are important but their selection in the first place.  How does one define oneself?

My own life by Art and Science – it always has been. George Braque said “Art is meant to disturb, Science reassure”, but don’t both seek truth, whatever that is.  All painters know that perspective changes with viewpoint.  I think it was Cezanne who said, “Just by shifting my position a few centimetres, I would compose a completely different picture.”  Or words to that effect.

An artist has to be true to oneself but also to some universality.  Popularly, art is seen as more concerned with the former, and science with the latter.  For me, both are fundamental: it’s not so much sitting on a fence as striding back and forth across a stream.

But there’s a confounding variable in all this, which obeys but one rule.  It beguiles and seduces like a siren voice: it is wonderful, inevitable and dangerous.  It is called Fashion.  The wonderful and lamented Robert Hughes memorably wrote and filmed The Shock of the New; his thesis was spot on but he was insistent that just because something was new didn’t make it necessarily good or worthwhile.

There is plenty of new rubbish – the bin men collect it every week.

The crime writer Frances Fyfield, who has some of my paintings, gave these words to one of her characters, “I hate newness for its own sake … I loathe the deception hidden in new things,” (Trial by Fire, 1990).  This nails it; one must be suspicious of newness for its own sake – that which seeks to deceive.  Gee-whiz ideas are two a penny; you dream them up in a pub with a mate or over coffee.

“Where did you get that idea?” “In a pub. Ha ha!” I once had this response to a genuine enquiry of a film director; maybe it was true but to transform a good idea into Art requires intellect, perseverance, technique, hard work, reflection, genuine creativity, empiricism and something else utterly personal and altogether more intangible: a Quest for Truth.

I’ve just come back from looking at Rembrandt in London, so Truth is something that’s been uppermost in my mind.  I’d like to write more about that next time.

Landscape, Figure and Natural Beauty (from March 2011)

Vincent van Gogh is best known for the fabulous brutal landscapes but he said in a letter to his faithful brother Theo in 1882, “Much as I love landscape, I love figures even more.”  This interests me because I also began besotted by landscape and nature and thought it was down to a past life embroiled in wildlife conservation that always kept at bay the human figure.  Eventually though they came to merge in my ‘Figurescape’ series.  And by and by this became more central.  Perhaps an example of the evolution necessary to progress.

T-figscape, Oil on hardboard 60.5 x 75.5cms

T-figscape, Oil on hardboard 60.5×75.5cm

I can see more clearly now how Cezanne ended up painting his strange huge Bathers.

Today, in a curious coming together of disparate things (not so curious really because it happens all the time, we just don’t always notice), reading the always excellent Paul Evans’ Country Diary in The Guardian, I came across this throwaway sentence, “Natural beauty lies in the unexpected relationship between things.”  That could be one definition of Ecology, it is certainly a definition of how I regard the creation of Art.  So here in a small nutshell is a good working stab at the meaning of life.

For more see http://www.meyergallery.co.uk

Cezanne and his cardplayers (updated from Jan 2011)

Cezanne's card playersI had just returned from seeing this superb little exhibition at the Courtauld Galleries at Somerset House.  ‘Little’ in size perhaps but most certainly not in scope, depth and value to the serious modern artist.  To be able to get beneath the surface of these important works, see how the concept was developed, the thinking and process made manifest was vital to me as someone whose valued Cezanne above all others for some 40 years.  And moreover to get up tight to the paint surface and see the application and colours (so often corrupted by the printing process) for real was a unique opportunity: these paintings and drawings will never again be reunited in our lifetime.  Only two were missing, one from the Barnes Foundation (who aren’t allowed to loan out  works) and one in private hands who were regrettably unwilling to lend.

Going back to look at some of Cezanne’s writings, I came across some timely thoughts.  One in particular seemed germaine, “Art never addresses itself to more than an extremely small number of individuals“.  I heard someone at the exhibition say, “Are all these by Cezanne?”..!

He also said “It’s sufficient to have a feeling for art – and without doubt it’s the horror of the bourgeois, this feeling.”

Finally, “One doesn’t replace the past, one only adds a new link to it.”

The mark of a good exhibition for me is one that gets me leaping back to my own easel while reassuring me that I’m going in the right direction.

[February 2014]  Well I was then but not now for I’ve been away, battling with science and the corruption of it by politicians.  I’m waiting for a visit from Cezanne (he usually sits on my shoulder, grumbling and encouraging) or someone to gee me up and make me see the beauty all around me once again.

To nail an idea (from Jan 2011)

It’s one of those cliches that gets under your skin.  Well, under my skin, since it’s not something I’ve heard others complain about: it’s the notion that as painters we ‘Capture’ something.  You hear it all the time: “So and so has captured this or that”.  Said without thinking, as cliches are.

When I was working in Natural History and involved in field trips, what most people seemed largely concerned with was naming whatever it was they encountered.  As soon as it was named, or nailed down, they’d move on to the next thing and do the same again.  I used to try to get folk actually to look and not just capture it with a name, which is after all merely a human construct.  It can obscure the real beauty and wonder of the thing.

I’ve noticed that gallery vistors often spend longer reading the label than looking at the work.  Again they need to ‘nail it’ somehow.

In painting, we should be less interested in capturing some quality or life that exists elsewhere than in creating our own.  A subject, be it a model, an idea or a view, is a starting point.  One stays faithful to the origin while building and extemporising to create something unique and quite different and alternative.  At least that is my view.  When one looks at a tree or a card player, only the artist can know the subject at first hand: tomorrow it will be different… in the next half hour it will be different !

The painting exists more or less for ever, and as such it becomes the timeless reality.  Cezanne ‘created’ his card players, they never actually existed.  It was his genius as an artist that rendered them timeless.  Here is the difference between photography (that does endeavour to capture some moment in time and space) and mere illustration, however competent.  A true artist never makes that mistake but there are hundreds of good illustrators.