Chaim Soutine exhibition

A visit to see Soutine at The Courtauld Gallery in London turned out to be a mismatch of the expected. Having studied this phenomenal artist ever since I began to paint seriously myself in the 1970s, his work has been massively influential, validating looseness and freeing up honesty. I’ve responded most to his landscapes – more so than the portraits but Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys are the subject of this exhibition. There aren’t many Soutines in British collections, so to suddenly be confronted by 21 portraits, most of which I knew so well from reproductions was something of a shock to the senses. Not so much the visual as the tactile.

soutine-3The Chambermaid (1913)

In truth, they were both disappointing and exhilarating. Maybe that sentence needs some explanation. Disappointing because they were less spontaneous than I expected. The execution was carefully considered even though he never made drawings, either on the canvas or in sketchbooks. In fact, there are none in existence. There I was, expecting de Kooning-like explosions of passion. Frenetic paint and ideas mixed up together and dumped spontaneously on the canvas, instead I found repetitive series. Nothing wrong with that, it was just not what I was expecting. More fool me.

My visit happily coincided with a curatorial talk. His painting practice was not mentioned once; at the end I had to ask the question ‘Did he use knives or just brushes?’. Neither on the information panels was there any reference to technique, well, just one reference to brushmarks. All reviews have been concerned solely with the subjects of the paintings – who or rather what they were, their jobs, their social status, their poses etc. It was more a psychological study than a painting one. That was disappointing for me as a painter, but it must be what most visitors are interested in. As a masterful manipulator of paint and restricted colour, how could this be?

With van Gogh, we hear about the way he painted, as with de Kooning, Pollock and Dubuffet, but if anyone needs his technique discussed and analysed it’s Soutine. One often encounters the same anthropocentricity with Rembrandt, whom Soutine admired above all, as must, I submit, any real painter. Just look at Rembrandt’s handling of  paint.

Details, Soutine (l) Rembrandt (r)

So those were some disappointments, what about the exhilaration? It’s what I get when in front of a REAL painting, a work in which the integrity and sincerity of the worker smacks you in the face, right between the eyes. This doesn’t happen often, even with ‘big names’ and the grand masters, there is so much commercialism to sift through. This has always been the case.

If I don’t paint for money, why should anyone else! Soutine didn’t, at least not until, he was ‘discovered’ by the immensely rich American collector, Albert C. Barnes. He became an overnight celebrity in Paris, and possibly more repetitive.

Soutine’s enormous impact stems from his ruthless approach and his early forthright attack on stuff of painting; his independent vision, fierce individualism. His close friend Modigliani had absolutely no influence on his technique whatsoever although he did on choice of subject. The other big quality was his downright angry unconventionalism. Oh, yes, his landscapes are angry, and from that anger he derived energy. But I’m not convinced his portraits are angry at all.

A human-being sat in front of you, staring straight at you – as his models did – can be unnerving, especially if that person is bored or anxious, and doubts whether he’ll ever get paid. I found it difficult to concentrate on the actual panting and distance myself from the living being in front of me, for his paintings certainly are ‘alive’. When I did, my passion bounded back.

In 1913, at the age of 20, he arrived in Paris from Lithuania. It took 10 years of extreme poverty before being discovered by Barnes. As a Jew he felt constantly persecuted and from 1940 hides from the Nazis. He dies tragically from an untreated ulcer in 1943.

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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?