Long awaited painting

Sunflowers in a glass vase (lr)

Sunflowers in a glass vase, Oil on board

My resistance finally broke down and I tackled a study done after a break of 18 months. This the second attempt; it’s rough round the edges and it’s been a struggle feeling a way back into managing thick paint.

The actual sunflowers had long since expired, so I needed recourse to memory, pre-knowledge and imagination. This is a detail of the painting.

Sunflowers in a glass vase (det2)The only other oil painting done in that year and a half was this commission for a friend.

Rosh on a couch A3 size 2 (2)

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Reflections on a Lost Exhibition

Reflections on a Lost Exhibition

I’ve always believed – when younger, without really understanding why – that paintings breathe. Sculpture too. They are the only art forms where there is a tangible link between maker and beholder. Believe me, paintings talk to you! There is nothing in between: no translator, no intermediary, no signer, in short, no interpreter.

bottles-and-brushes-oil-on-plywood-49-x-73-5cm-2

Bottles and brushes, Oil on plywood 49 x 73.5cm

You confront a real painting (I don’t mean on-line reproductions, postcards or even high quality book illustrations) pretty much exactly as the artist did – at the same distance – as he or she did at the moment when (s)he contemplated the finished work and felt content with it. The visual experience is the same: you breathe on it in the same way and it responds. This is demonstrably not the case with music, film or writing for any medium – all of which require an intermediary and very often several or even a team. You are only reading this because it’s been through several machines.

This is all fine but an exhibition of paintings is a two-way thing. A meaningless exercise if one half of the equation is missing. It is unbalanced, there is no conversation. Paintings without people, talk to themselves or merely stare bleakly at each other across the void.

img_0415-3A corner of the gallery

The painter provides the paintings, the gallery provides the space, and both parties promote it as best they can. That’s how it works; the only way it can work. If a painter spends years in oblivion wrestling work out of heart, soul and mind, he can legitimately feel disappointed if the gallery falls short.

This is the second year running I’ve been let down by a gallery. Not tuppeny-ha’penny galleries but pukka ones. The exhibition with ceramicist Eilean Eland suffered from poor gallery publicity before and during the event. As artists, we did all we could: half-page illustrated articles in quality regional and local journals but both galleries did very little. Why that should be must be the subject for another time.  Nevertheless, those visitors who did attend were enthusiastic; words like “stunning”, “vibrant” and “expressive” cropping up in the Visitors’ Book but during most of my attendances, the gallery was often empty. Stairs from the busy shop and café one floor down appeared to be an obstacle too far. To be fair, there was little incentive from the Arts Centre – not the box office, shop or counter – to encourage movement beyond the caffe lattes.

wedding-carnations-oil-on-mdf-46x61cmWedding carnations, Oil on MDF 46x61cm

This was particularly depressing because we were in an Arts Centre and not a café. I felt sorry for my paintings and for Eilean’s terrific sculptures in having little or no human company. They felt neglected. Most artists need interaction with their audience. Imagine live theatre or an orchestra playing to an empty auditorium, or an important football game before no spectators. You cannot expect anyone to be at their best.  In a previous life, I’ve been a cinema projectionist several times, and occasionally had to show films – usually in matinees – to literally one or two aged people. Even though technically it made no difference to putting on a good ‘performance’, it always felt a tad futile.

Sweetpeas in a blue jug, Oil on canvas 35.5 x 46 cms.jpgSweetpeas in a blue jug, Oil on canvas 35.5 x 46 cms

At its most elemental level, art – painting and sculpture – is as much a part of show-business as anything else. People look at paintings to be uplifted, thrilled, enthralled, perplexed, surprised or, if they are of a more educated mind, perhaps technically intrigued. [I will not use the word ‘challenged’ in this context.]

Above are two versions of a Study of anemones after Vassyl Khmeluk. I fell in love with the original of this painting from a tiny reproduction in a newspaper. Khmeluk (1903-86) was a Russian painter who has for me become a favourite (see previous post That loving feeling.  Copying this got me back into painting after my Blighty Girls experience last year (see previous post My dear blighty girls). The anemones remain favourite paintings despite or perhaps because of that difficult time. It was, technically, an intriguing exercise which I hoped might rub off on visitors. Two people did indeed tell me (unsolicited) that they were their favourite paintings but otherwise I noticed little engagement with the more ‘challenging’ paintings throughout September at The Plough Arts Centre in North Devon.

Daffodils in blue glass - horizontal, Oil on cardboard 55 x 76.5cm.JPGDaffodils in blue glass – horizontal, Oil on cardboard 55 x 76.5cm

Since very few people reading this will have got to the show, I’ll include some photos to give an idea of the venue and exhibition. It was an opportunity for me to show some of my ‘still-life’ studies. In my naivety I thought it the most ‘commercial’ of the three exhibitions I’ve had at The Plough Arts Centre, but it’s difficult to sell if no-one much comes.

img_0417The Daffodil corner of the gallery

Are we down-hearted?  Yes, I suppose we are a bit, but no doubt something will happen to buck up the spirits: Carry on regardless (now that’s a film I probably showed once!). Actually, something has come along because I’ve just sold my third painting in 12 months to America without any opportunity of them being breathed upon by any of the buyers. Why Americans seem to like my paintings more than the British is a mystery to me.  A gallery owner in Cornwall last  week said that perhaps it was because they felt French (or was it because of my beret?). I love France inordinately but think I have only two paintings there, and I always feel they are more German than French, but maybe not the still-lifes. Any comments?

Apple triptych, Oil on panel 16.5 x 30 cm.jpgApple triptych, Oil on cherry wood panel 16.5 x 30 cm

[Ends]

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”