Vincent van Gogh and the impossible need for help

Vincent and the impossible need for help: Dale Carnegie (1888-1955), the American writer, said, “Most important things in life have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no help at all”. I try to cling to this thought when things go bad or I feel intellectually and creatively abandoned.  The most important people on this planet are Enquirers after Truth, and the function of the artist (along with ‘genius’ surely the most abused noun in the English language) is exactly that.  It’s what, I’m convinced, Dale Carnegie was on about.

As warned on 17th May, here is a bit more about ‘truth’, or at least my take on it.  Despite the need to keep body, soul and family together, everything I’ve ever done – writing and teaching, natural history and science – has always been about that quest for truth; and it applies to the subjective matter of art as much, if not more, as anything else.

I honestly think this is what has sustained me through difficult times.  For example, during my doctorate – much of which saw me living in a camper van on the Welsh and Cornish cliffs – I used to promise myself a visit to the purpose-built Graham Sutherland Gallery at Picton Castle in Pembrokeshire. It was to here that he bequeathed his work (scandalously reneged on when it was all moved to Cardiff after his death, but that’s another matter). I used to drive past regularly; Fine Art promising as great a truth as the science I was doing.

But does ‘fashion’ represent truth in any sense? Even though I’m fascinated by its trends, I don’t believe the important things which Mr Carnegie was on about include it. Jean Cocteau said, “Art produces ugly things, which frequently become beautiful with time, while fashion produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time”. So much so-called art is clever novelty; the fact that it is promoted by businessmen doesn’t alter that view.

Another view is that craft alone produces good art; I don’t believe this is true either. It has its place of course (qv. Blog entry 7th Jan 2011, http://www.meyergallery.co.uk) but it is in practice a tool allowing the functioning of art. Too often, beautifully presented bad art masquerades as fine art because it fools the “imbecile” Cezanne spoke of last time (4th Jan 2014, if you haven’t read people’s interesting follow-up comments to this, they do repay it).

Craft always demands time, but it is possible to spend too much time on something. ‘Beginner’s luck’ relies on the rank amateur diving into a task without thinking about it; the brain – source of all our discontents – replaced by intuition. This is why child and (truly) naïve or outsider art can be so engaging and staggeringly true. [A lady close to me, once picked up darts for the first time in a pub and immediately starting hitting the bull; when she was told how good she was and started trying to do it again she couldn’t; I don’t think the facility ever returned.]

Van Gogh was a hugely intelligent and intuitive artist, largely self-taught at a mature age. On my shelves, amongst several hundred books devoted to other artists and genres, I have 50 volumes devoted to him and have studied his work exhaustively, reading all six volumes of his massive correspondence. So, trying to draw on the rational bit of my brain, I find I differ from all the words written by others about his technique (not that many bother with that).

It seems to me that most of van Gogh’s paintings and, more so, his drawings are shorthand – a means of getting a visual sensation down as quickly as possible. Not only from temporal necessity (eg. before conditions change) but also from impatience.  I do know all about this!  It is one consequence of a sense of mortality – something children, the naïve and the outsider don’t have.  Vincent dealt with it in his own unique way.  True, he was only in his 30s but, given his health and impecunity, he did not expect to live for long – always fearing his one true friend and supporter, his elder brother Theo, would abandon him. Reading his unedited letters, you realise that it was not always a happy relationship.

I am nearly twice his age so have a great sense of mortality (let’s not beat about the bush) but I’ve always been driven and impatient.  This is not cool, I know that, and frustration only ever an impulse away. Again, nothing to be proud of, but from anger comes energy; it is how you use this that is important. I admire the calm painstaking builder of crafty(?) images but just get cross with my own ineptitude – always eager to get down the next sensation – the next miracle that nature has contrived to lay out for the curious.

Had it not been for Theo, we would never have heard of Vincent van Gogh; have no doubt, his stunning work would not exist.  So perhaps Carnegie was both right and wrong: surely we all need at least one steadfast supporter.  Vincent was a driven individual; maybe he would have been lucky and found someone else who was (relatively) rich, influential and supportive, or maybe he would have died in alcohol-fuelled bitter anonymous ignominy. Oh yes, we can relate to that too.

But above all his drawing repays profound study, I mean the pencil>chalk>ink system he developed. And although his Arles period is considered by most to be his apogee, I have always related more to the following Saint-Remy asylum work. Here he was removed from worry and ambition. Gone was the impossible dream of his Studio of the South, the nightmare of his Paul Gauguin worship, and all the day-to-day cares, which are considerable if you are minus a life partner (and, um, even with one).

Then Theo and Jo had a baby, and by the time he got to Auvers, under the quixotic care of Dr Gachet, Vincent was self-destructive, bored and worried beyond endurance. This the work reveals all too clearly.  Originality was exhausted – burned out – and what any artist worthy of the name doesn’t do is repeat himself. Some Auvers work is unfinished – abandoned because the effort was too much – pointless and desperate, it no longer engaged or excited him.

It seems I paint sweetpeas each year – they always engage me – but this year, as part of a series of still lifes I’m doing for The Plough Arts Centre in Devon, England, I did one partly as a homage to Vincent.  It’s not in my gallery yet, so this is just a tiny preview.  Even though, as usual, I paint with knives not brushes, I hope you can see something of what I’ve been prattling on about in it.

Sweetpeas in a blue coffee pot, Oil on canvas 61x46cm   Sweetpeas in a blue coffee pot, Oil on canvas 24×18”

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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.

Portraits and Presentiment

 Portraits and presentiment (part 1)

        The Mij Oil on canvas 76x56cm 2          

The Mij, Oil on canvas 76x56cm

and

The Marmoset Oil on board 73x49cm 2

                                                                               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:

  1. 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;
  2. The loss in early February of a dear friend & collaborator on some books, the great bird illustrator Malcolm Ellis              Paradise Park Garden Party 08vi06 3
  3. 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;
  4. This was followed by the misfiring (for me but it would seem for no-one else) of Open Studio Art Trek;
  5. 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;
  6. Distressing and disturbing ecological consultancy duties involving (inevitably) the slaughter of badgers  – which I’m unable to avoid, and consequent on those…
  7. … thwarted attempts to reprint my 1986 book The Fate of the Badger (Batsford) despite some demand from affected caring people;
  8. 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 …
  9. 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

 Naomi Oil on wood 43.bmp

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?

A rough and racy wench (revised from Jan 2011)

There lived a fine practitioner of painting in Cornwall. His name was Frank McNichol.  He has now sadly passed on but he left behind a phrase that rings with me still: “Craftsmanship, my boy, craftsmanship.”  There is no doubt that Frank was a fine craftsman, and I believe him, of course I do.  But did he mean the kind of craft learnt at the feet of a master, or that which one teaches oneself by studying them?  Perhaps both.My take on craft is that while it is indispensable and, indeed, the measure of art, even though I doubt many looking at my work would believe me.  But then what do they know!?  Laying paint on canvas, even when done with meticulous care does not necessarily mean over-fussy or prissy.  There must be that magical frisson of transfusion: The Moment in the act of painting which metamorphosises subject into object.  It can take infinite number of forms.What directs it is the ‘artist’.  What executes it is the craftsman.  Finding symbiosis is key.Sickert said, “Painting is a rough and racy wench.  Flourishing in the scullery, kitchen or dunghill but fading at the breath of the Drawing room.”

Image

Walter Sickert, Seated Nude, (Private collection)