It was a delight to read the typed artist's statement prepared by Albert Irvin for a publication or exhibition. It's winningly self-deprecating and witty:
'I hardly think that the ragbag of digs and pokes that I have had at life and that it has had at me could be graced by the name of "career", so I find it very difficult to write an account of what it has been to date, or a prophecy of its development in the future.
There was never any time since I can remember that I didn't want to be a painter and the opportunity to study painting first came to me in Northampton during the war. This was interrupted when I was dragged unwillingly into the Royal Air Force, where I wasted a valuable chunk of my life as the undistinguished navigator of a Beaufighter crew.
On release from the Air Force I resumed my painting studies at Goldsmith's College Art School in London, trying during four years to learn something of the elements of my art, and realising, on leaving, how little one learns as a student and how much is left to be learnt for oneself in the dedicated ritual of one's own studio.
I have, at one time or another employed most of the idioms current in the language of contemporary painting in an attempt to build for myself a means of self-expression both personal and capable of communication with anyone interested enough to be a spectator of my work.
I show my work wherever and whenever I can and sell it to any noble soul who'll buy it. This happens too infrequently for comfort so I am obliged to teach, one or two days a week. I like teaching; it can be aggravating but on the whole I like it. And it gets me out of my studio for a bit, which is a good thing.
I have no plans for the future. The future is a series of jerks from one painting to the next, each one sowing the seeds of its successor."
Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism: RWA, Bristol, 08/12/18 - 03/03/19
I hadn't encountered Albert Irvin before viewing this exhibition, which displayed a good selection of his (mostly) large, bright abstracts. The closest I'd come to his work will have been Peter Lanyon, who clearly directly influenced Irvin to take the purely abstract route that he did. (One of the displayed paintings, 'Sky', could easily have been by Lanyon.)
To put it in context, alongside Irvin's work was a selection of American Abstract Expressionist paintings: a couple of fleshy and energetic de Kooning's, plus a Pollock and others. Also the work of some British abstract painters: Peter Lanyon, Gillian Ayres, John Hoyland amongst them. Finally, work by the British 'kitchen sink' artists, which is where Irvin began. (Notable was John Bratby's 'The Toilet'.)
Irvin's large, late acrylics on canvas were undeniably the stars of the show, with brilliant colours and brilliant contrasts of colour, outgunning even the Americans for scale and impact. I sketched two, 'Almada' (1985) and 'Northcote' (1989) to make sense of their composition. Each has broad stripes of colour, sloping right, almost top to bottom, and narrower horizontal stripes extending virtually full width, sometimes seemingly created in one sweep, sometimes obviously composed of several joined strokes, end to end. There is no attempt to blend these marks into each other; beginnings and ends are obvious, albeit fuzzy. Paint is soaked into the canvas, often bleeding out. Laid over these background stripes are large ovals and roughly quadrilateral lozenges, each decorated with three or more sweeps of colour, more or less distinct. Much splashing and dribbling of colour has created lively marks, some harder edges and the most striking contrasts. In addition there are occasional sweeping curves including, in 'Almada', a large outlined oval. This feature stands out on my sketch, and was the first orienting thing I drew, despite its bright red colour almost matching much of the bright red background on which it rests. I find it intriguing, therefore, that this was my first mark: perhaps a practical consequence of my drawing being worked from the top 'plane' backwards (presumably the exact opposite of Irvin's work) to retain the overlapping feel of the whole image. I may, be wrong about the order of the paintings' construction, though. There was nothing to indicate lower layers having been disturbed.
There's a lot of red. 'Almada' must be 80% red. On the surface of 'Almada' a screaming blue sings out in two pairs of stripes, each laid over a complementary purple or green. Then, at the top, the same blue appears in three or four tiny patches unmediated by any intermediate layer. They're so striking that these splashes separate themselves and float forward above the dominant red ground. A similar blue appears in 'Northcote' but is held in check by being amongt other, darker (though still saturated) coloured stripes. The forward-most features on this second painting are two sweeping curves of scarlet, one full-width across the top, and a smaller asymmetric one at bottom right. They are as arresting as the oval in 'Almada' that I drew first.
The brightness of the paintings conveys a joyfulness that is unmistakable. The colours, though often bleeding into each other, remain distinct and pure. There is no muddying or sullying of the hues, even where a lighter colour is placed on top of a darker one, even when the colours, so placed, mix.
As is often the case, it was revealing to see the artist's preparations in a sketch book. A good deal of planning was evident, with trials of specific colours, prepared as swatches, collaged together and photographed in various combinations. This was, presumably, the means of guaranteeing the zingy blue/red juxtaposition, for example.
I identified six marks of landscape painting in chapter 8 of Malcolm Andrews' 'Landscape and Western Art' (see last post), all of interest to me as I paint and print my local views. In this post I consider the personal relevance of the six points.
Since this reflection comes well after the making of the pictures that I have in mind, I must conclude that the seeming recognition of any of these features in my pre-existing work is a post hoc justification for their presence and thus devoid of any explanatory power. On the other hand, it might be possible to contend that the seeming application of any of Andrews' six insights may be the result of my intuitive stumbling upon, or (more likely) unconscious assimilation of, practices invented by other artists.
My little landscapes certainly take the view as the subject; they're not a setting for anything. Without exception the views are painted in situ (point #2). In fact, I've yet to find a way to satisfactorily paint a landscape elsewhere (though I have managed to derive prints from painted sketches and these are made in the studio). My images are small. I'd certainly like to make larger paintings, but practical constraints mean this would rely on using sketches and photographs indoors as reference material. So far I've been unsuccessful in this, which reinforces for me Vernet's point about the 'authority of nature'. I currently depend on having ready access to the motif, a fact that immediately highlights the changeability of what is depicted (part of point #1).
In an earlier post (26/11/18) I explored how my 'portraits of place' probably do contain a narrative element, by which I mean they refer to the passage of time. I saw this as a consequence of the pictures being painted, not photographed (#6), and of each being part of a series (#5). The links between the images are often made clear by my choice of titles (#3): many start with 'River Walk' and then incorporate explicit reference to the time or conditions they depict (e.g. 'River Walk (May): Low Moon Over Meadow'). Clearly when I made them I meant these pictures to be of particular places at particular times.
I have no interest in seeking out attractive views of far-flung scenes and recording them. Rather, I feel inclined to continue to record the increasingly familiar bit of countryside near where I live (#4), unassuming though it is. I want the images to capture the views that I've seen over and over, to bear testament to the fact that I saw them and that I spent time there.
I've touched on all six marks described in Andrews' chapter 'Nature as Picture or Process?' and how they relate to what I'm trying to do. However, a part of point #1 remains, that of wanting to hold on to the experience of being in a particular place. At which point Andrews discusses Turner's extraordinary 'Snow Storm', a pre-eminent example of paint arresting the human experience of being in nature. Far more quietly - not in any obviously sublime way - I could dare to hope to arrest moments in my experience of being here. The pile of paintings and prints that I amass will (I hope) be an autobiography and a legacy. I want someone in the future (and I probably mean my children) to have lasting evidence of my interior life, to be able to say, 'He was here.' Might this, in some as yet ill-defined way, be the extra 'values' ingredient that I add to a 'mere' depiction of place (see 01/12/18)? And what might that actually look like on paper or board?
Chapter 8 of Andrews' 'Landscape and Western Art' contains much that appeals to me, with immediate relevance to the things that I'm doing. Key points include:
1. A recognition that landscape painting may be wanting to hold on to the experience of being in a particular place, and a place that isn't in the least bit static: 'What we are concerned with... is the attempt to transmit the experience of nature as a constantly changing organism, not as a kind of grand-scale still life.'
2. An understanding that the practice of painting on location carries weight: 'One of the earliest advocates (of open-air painting) Claude-Joseph Vernet, insisted on the authority of nature: 'You must do exactly what you see in nature; if one object is confused with another, be it in form or colour, you must render it as you see it, if it is good in nature it will be good in painting.''
3. A suggestion that a title may be well-chosen. Speaking of examples of Turner's landscapes, we are told he 'enlisted poetry to enhance the meaning of the picture. The quotations... are not simply decorative extensions to the picture's caption... they are functionally essential to the experience of the landscape.'
4. The merit of painting in a highly familiar setting: 'Authenticity in landscape art, in these terms, is a transcription not of 'nature', but of subjective responses. It often involved a process of sustained direct contact with the chosen site... It meant saturating oneself in the site so that it ceases to be just a visual field, ceases perhaps to be a 'landscape', but becomes a complex of sensations... It becomes an environment.'
5. The value of creating multiple, related images. Speaking of a famous sequence: 'Monet has, by adopting the series format, altered his landscape into an environment... It becomes pointless to talk about ten juxtaposed Grainstack pictures as ten 'landscapes': they relate to each other as facets, or transcribed experiences, of a single 'environment'.'
6. How a painting can surpass a photograph of the same scene: 'What photographs seem particularly inadequate to document is this complex experience. They do convey rather precise information within their frame and moment in time, but until one has seen the motif itself, extended in depth and breadth, one will not feel its attraction, nor sense the effect of change of season or point of view, nor grasp how pressing is the translation of deep space on to the flat plane of the canvas.'
I'm not entirely sure what the final point of the final quote is getting at, but the other points are eminently understandable and chime well with the insights (such as they are) that I've stumbled upon in the course of making paintings and prints in the recent past.
On and off, I've been trying for some time to find a way to successfully combine an etched landscape image with colour.
Initially I tried using two etched plates, one printed black and one printed in a colour. On both plates I resorted to scribbly marks on a soft ground to mimic the feel of some of my location sketches. The result was not at all what I had in mind.
I next created a single etched plate and printed this as a second layer on top of a colour monotype. (I previously used the same monotype technique on its own to create some painterly landscape prints.) There were two shortcomings with this approach. Firstly, the added aquatint tone combined unhelpfully with areas of sketched texture to produce undesired, patchy regions of open bite. Secondly, the use of white ink in the mix produced more or less chalky colours. Whilst these had worked satisfactorily on their own, with black ink printed over they did not. The combined effect of these two drawbacks was to reduce the contrast of the etched textures, muddying the overall effect. My most recent attempt has sought to remedy both issues.
Firstly, bite times for the aquatint have been reduced so tones are lighter, allowing the colour layer to show through more effectively.
The partially stopped-out soft ground covered zinc plate prior to biting in nitric acid (left), plus the monochrome image printed from it once etching was complete (right).
Secondly, the intensity of colour has been modified by using an extender rather than by adding white. This results in a colour layer with the appearance of a watercolour wash. Colours are more transparent and do not modify the intensity of the black .
Coloured inks applied to a (slightly stained) plastic sheet (left) and subsequently transferred to paper. (right).
Below is the finished print, with etching printed over coloured monotype.
Andrews' Chapter 8: 'Landscape and Politics'.
Landscape as text.
The repository of all sorts of hidden messages, even when it doesn't look like it.
Especially when it doesn't look like it.
Especially when it's trying hard not to look like it...
'Landscape in art can express a set of political values... when it is least seeming to invoke political significance... Pictures of wild scenery, without a trace of cultivation or human presence... appeal largely because they dramatize that landscape's own untrammelled liberty... They are places where political life emphatically is not, and therefore remind us of what is absent.'
There's the danger of a sort of doublethink or double bind here. If an artwork contains an overt political message, it's political. If it doesn't, it's obviously trying not to be political... so it's taking a stance after all... a political stance (maybe a 'gesture of defiance'). Ergo you can't be apolitical as an artist.
And if the politics is inevitably in the work then the commentator is at liberty to uncover all sorts of messages and themes... on a spectrum from the banal to the entirely fanciful, perhaps regardless of the artist's avowed intent, or in the total absence of any evidence of intent (for example, because the work was made, quite possibly anonymously, centuries ago).
What if I want to make paintings and prints and I don't see them as containing anything political? Must I conclude that I shouldn't be so naïve?
The obvious political message to incorporate in a landscape today would be one about environmental degradation. If I choose not to include this am I necessarily betraying blindness, perhaps willful blindness? Can I paint a view solely because I like it?... Of course I can, I've done it. But, I suppose, I thereby put to one side any claim to be 'contemporary'? Is that the price? Is it the mark of contemporary art that it speaks to contemporary issues? Put like that it seems obvious that the answer has to be 'Yes'. Could one contemporary issue be the need to represent attractive views? Plenty of amateur artists do it; what about any 'proper' artists. Who is making landscapes these days?
Chapter 5 of Andrews' book ('Landscape and Western Art') is a diversion about incorporating a bit of interior within a landscape in order to frame the outside view. He describes some interesting works, but the discussion isn't relevant to my current interests.
I feared Chapter 6 ('Astonished beyond Expression') might be equally off the point as it's sub-titled 'Landscape, the Sublime, and the Unpresentable' and earthquakes, precipices, torrents and avalanches don't feature much in my local views.
However, part way through my reading of the chapter I made the following (pretentiously expressed) note-to-self: 'Is there a way to use painting to communicate the (Sublime?) 'something-rather-than-nothing' insight (brute fact) evident even in the mundane, in everydayness?' Only to have my cryptic question answered almost immediately in a concluding discussion of Cézanne's later works: 'The inexpressible, 'unpresentable' properties of landscape, its power to dislocate and renew vision, are not confined to the great scenic spectacles of the world. The Sublime happens anywhere, once the film of familiarity is lifted or pierced.'
Part of the thrust of the chapter is that in the face of the Sublime our powers of expression fall woefully short; we are lost for words, or for ways to depict the experience visually. So a new language is called for, a novel way to lay hold of the sensation: 'the forms of nature, objectively portrayed, are not only inadequate but inappropriate as a means of representing the Sublime'. Hence we observe qualities of obscurity and indeterminacy in the works chosen by Andrews to make this point, paintings by Friedrich, Strindberg... and Cézanne.
Now, as yet, I don't really get Cézanne. The Ashmolean, in an exhibition entitled 'Cézanne and the Modern', displayed a collection of what I took to be washed out works, similar to Andrews' example (above). To my shame I walked past them, eager to reach the other, more meaty, 'Moderns' - van Gogh, Degas, Soutine (especially Soutine)...
But since then one or two things have steered me towards a reappraisal of Cézanne (Andrews' chapter 6 included) and now I have a book about him...
(See post of 10/02/2019, and following.)
If there's a middle ground where the particular and the ideal, 'topography and idyll', exist in harmony - and I'm not saying there is, but just suppose - then Rubens' 'Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning' might occupy it.
This image depicts a specific place, Rubens' own house set in recognisably Lowlands countryside. Yet the 19th Century Royal Academician Fuseli, otherwise so ready to despise 'the tame delineation of a given spot... what is commonly called views,' lifts Rubens above his contempt. So the artist must have done more than show us what his neighbourhood looked like. He has idealised it, but not at the expense of the particular.
Malcolm Andrews takes pains to explain how the palette and structure of the painting skillfully replace classicist tropes with characteristically local techniques. He summarises this technical insight neatly: 'Rubens's topography is mapped in the vernacular'. But more fundamentally Andrews identifies how Rubens achieves his idealisation of the landscape (thus avoiding Fuseli's opprobrium): 'Het Steen represents for Rubens a set of values... and it is that set of values, not just a pictorial estate map, that is transmitted in the painting.' This is really significant. If I'm tempted, even a little bit, to agree that 'mere portraiture of place' (see previous post) is not enough - I'm not saying that I am, but it's a thought worth entertaining - here is a clue to what must be added. Values.
What that might mean now is not obvious.
Andrews indicates what it meant for Rubens:
'...in terms of technique, as well as in the choice of motifs for his landscape, Rubens is underscoring the local, national identity. For this well-travelled, well-read man of the world his home is not just the sheltered manor house; it is the opportunity to inhabit an idea that is both inseparable from a particular place and yet larger than any particular place can embody.'
Andrews' Chapter 4, 'Topography' and the Beau Ideal', presents two extremes of landscape style. It may be that any given depiction of place can be located on a continuum between these two extremes since in practice, as Andrews acknowledges towards the end of his discussion, 'polarities are not as sharply antithetical as they might seem and... sharp distinctions... seldom exist.' In concluding the chapter with a discussion of a magnificent painting by Rubens, Andrews gives one example of how the tensions between styles may be resolved.
On the continuum, at the extreme left as it were, is the 'mere mechanick' of the faithful presentation of particular places (not unrelated to mapping) exemplified by the Protestant Dutch, and evidenced in a painting by Ruisdael (below) and in unassuming etchings by the splendidly named 'Master of the Small Landscapes'.
I'm reminded of the modest paintings of the Norwich School (John Crome, John Sell Cotman and others) in Norwich Castle which are very much in the same tradition. Also of the minor painter Thomas Churchyard (1798 - 1865), to whom I'm related, a fact in which I take inordinate pleasure given the convoluted (though fully documented) link between us.
In contrast and on the right (as it were) are the works of Franco-Italian painters such as Claud Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin. Absolutely nothing modest here. Rather, these theatrical effusions, thoroughly divorced from any specific place, are packed with intellectual pretensions, pastoral lushness and overwrought emoting.
These works bear little resemblance to the real world. They're not meant to. They 'represent the poetry of landscape, the elevation of a lowly genre from mere portraiture of place to ideal models of human happiness or heroic dignity'. In this sentence it's the word 'mere' that says it all.
Before pressing into the rest of Andrews' book ('Landscape and Western Art': see previous posts) I'll briefly consider how the themes of chapters 2 and 3 connect with anything I've ever made.
In every case, in marked contrast to chapter 2's Renaissance examples, the things that I've painted present the views that they depict emphatically as 'subject'. Individually each sketch is the setting for nothing. No-one appears and ostensibly nothing is going on. The images appear to have the character of unpeopled snapshots.
However, a moment's consideration reveals that my pictures might be seen to contain subtle narrative features. Firstly, each painting takes at least a couple of hours to produce, during which time things hardly remain static. The view alters with shifting light and changing weather so the finished paintings necessarily hint at the story of their creation, pointing to the choices and selections required for their production. Secondly, when seen as a series, a story of change over time is appparent, principally the story of seasonal change. This feature is reinforced by the knowledge that almost all the images are of the same small patch of countryside. Finally, the collection of paintings as a whole could be understood to contain the story of my involvement with this bit of the world, the bit where I happen to live. The choice to focus on this unexceptional stretch of river, and latterly the estate I walk through to reach it, is not arbitrary. I depict it precisely because it's where my life goes on. I don't think I'm particularly interested in recording attractive views per se, more in trapping the fugitive experience of being here and of making myself look with more than a passing glance at where I happen to be. That intention, I think, has some narrative content, even if the paintings themselves show it only obliquely.
Of course, I have no need to encounter this landscape at all. Involvement with it is a choice. I visit it voluntarily and for a reason, namely - surely the reason why anyone wanders into the countryside from the town - because it is a 'pleasant place'. The theme of Andrews' chapter 3, of seeking refreshment in landscapes, helps explain my presence in, and subsequent depiction of, fields and trees and skies. This motivation less obviously accords with my attempts to record the houses and streets close to home, but even then I believe I'm trying to hold on to the generative experience of being out and not in, of having time to walk and not work.