Near the start of the summer I received some pre-course information. In an introductory letter it was suggested that I 'could do some preparatory reading around Research Methods, by accessing an essential text for the module: Gray, C. and Malins, J. Visualising Research. A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design (2004 ed. 2016),' adding that 'there is a PDF freely available on the internet.' I followed the link and have now read this text.
Had I completed only my initial science-based qualification I would be struggling more than I am with the notion that my forthcoming study amounts to 'research'. As it is, I've largely got over this particular hurdle through familiarisation with the methods of action research (in the context of school improvement), so I can launch into my course without too much 'physics-envy', comfortable enough with the idea that my practice-based investigations stand a chance of generating knowledge in the required way.
I was also provided a reading list, though I don't understand this to be pre-course reading. Until I gain access to the university library I'm unlikely to be able to track down much of this stuff (articles and journals in particular). A few listed texts are books though, so I considered buying one or two. I struggled to find anything that really caught my eye, but plumped for 'On Not Knowing: How Artists Think.' The title chimed in with thoughts sparked off by William Kentridge's 'Six Drawing Lessons'. However, this proved a poor choice as Amazon's asking price was an absurd £266.57 and - to discourage me further - one of just two available reviews stated: 'This was really the most ridiculous load of art academic's twaddle. Terrible value for money too. Should be put straight in pseuds corner' (sic.). Which comment (a) made me wonder whether the inclusion of the colon in the book's title was unwarranted, (b) persuaded me to leave it not bought and not read, and (c) confirmed me in my intention to persist instead with a careful re-reading of the whole of Kentridge's excellent text.
I fear I may be difficult to please when it comes to suitable reading matter. I mean to be gracious and open to new things, but I suspect I won't suffer too much twaddle willingly. A legacy, no doubt, of the aforementioned analytical, science-based, training.
SHOW, WHEREVER AND WHENEVER
This is the first of two quotations from a statement (of sorts) by the abstract painter Albert Irvin. I don’t know if it’s ever been published: I saw it displayed in an exciting exhibition at the RWA (Bristol) and copied it down. Part of what he said was, ‘I show my work wherever and whenever I can and sell it to any noble soul who’ll buy it.’
I’m not sure if it’s good advice – judicious choices might be a better bet – but since, to date, I’ve rarely troubled to exhibit my work I include it as a prompt for future action and a challenge not to be too precious about it.
An omitted character in the previous piece of advice (in my print) was a mistake not an affectation. It forced my hand to include this piece of advice. It’s a point well made.
WHAT IS IT LIKE, BEING HERE?
Final quotes from Sargy Mann:
‘The overall determining question is always, what is it like being here? This is not an easy question to answer and indeed one paints the picture in order to find and fix that answer, and the act of painting effects what it is like being there, enhances the experience if one gets it right.’
A major theme in Mann’s writing is that an artist learns to see more, to see better, by creating. And thereby to make better sense of being-here. ‘Artists explore their world with their art,’ he says, and:
‘you see, most people… their ambition in terms of what art can offer them, is so incredibly modest and I want it to be very… very ambitious.’
SHOW AGGRESSIVE CURIOSITY WITH HEALTHY SCEPTICISM
This phrase is borrowed from my former professional life. These qualities were declared (in the National Professional Qualification for Headship standards current at the time) as desirable in a successful head teacher. I think they’re entirely transferable to any number of settings, including my new college-based venture.
Bernard Leach, the potter, propounded and defended a standard in his craft by publishing images of exemplary pots. The would-be potter, he explained, ‘should touch and examine pots made by a good potter. He should stay away from theories.’ By gaining acquaintance with the best, ‘the viewer may glean broad principles if not precise rules (which)… if they are deep and wide enough can be suggestive and helpful.’ Rules and reasons won’t do the job:
‘Judgement in art cannot be other than intuitive… No process of reasoning can be a substitute for or widen the range of our intuitive knowledge.’
(The trouble is I’m easily beguiled by clever words and the insights they seem to offer.)
VIVIFY THE PARTICULAR | SEE THE SUBLIME EVERYWHERE
I’m a little embarrassed to include these phrases… they’re out of step with the more down to earth guidance from Leach (above)... and they are undeniably beguiling.
A fuller quote makes a worthwhile point that’s definitely in tune with other thoughts that I’ve chosen to include. It’s from a discussion of the functions of art (a subject calculated to provoke florid language):
‘A third function of art is its capacity to vivify the particular… what we overlook or disregard, the mundane, the ordinary, becomes a source of inspiration to the artist’s eye… Art frames our view and captures the moment.’
This is probably the ‘something-rather-than-nothing’ sense of wonder already described (previous post) and essentially the same point made by Malcolm Andrews when he sums up a chapter titled ‘Astonished beyond Expression’ with the following:
‘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.’
HAVE NO PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
A second quotation from Albert Irvin’s self-deprecating statement:
‘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.’
STAY ROOTED IN THE VISIBLE WORLD
If ‘rooted in the visible world’ was to describe the work of my top painters (Ivon Hitchens, Patrick George, George Rowlett et al), all thoroughly figurative, it would hardly be a surprise. That it’s a description of the uncompromisingly abstract work of Terry Frost underlines how foundational it is as a principle for my future practice.
WONDER THAT THERE IS SOMETHING NOT NOTHING
I guess at some point pretty much everyone catches a glimpse of the fact that being-here in an observable world is remarkable.
That there is a world to see, and that I’m here to see it, feels significant. Uncanny. Surprising. Wonderful.
I have the health, resources, freedom and opportunity to give some time to this. Which makes me very lucky indeed.
I know it.
ASK WHERE YOU BELONG | STAY CLOSE TO HOME
For the moment I’m drawn to represent landscape. Mostly the places close to home, specifically an unremarkable bit of countryside at the edge of town and the estate itself where I live. ‘Landscape in art… asks us to think about where we belong,’ says Andrews (which perhaps invites deeper thoughts about what belonging means).
If the fact of my ‘being-here’ is remarkable, in and of itself, then the ‘here’ bit, the particular place I accidentally find myself in, feels significant. I’m not interested in tracking down exotic or striking views.
There’s certainly a tradition of representing ordinary people and places and things. Patrick George said, ‘I do not know why I am only interested in my immediate surroundings, the same trees, the same fields and railings… The well-known surroundings are like furniture in a room, just there until you notice them.’ And Martin Heidegger was at pains to understand average everydayness: ‘all existing is how it is out of this kind of being and back into it,’ he said. Rule this out as uninteresting and you rule out most of life. And that can’t be right.
HEY, BE HAPPY WHATEVER YOU DECIDE
Words from a poem by Raymond Carver in which, torn between several possibilities, he wonders how to spend his day. He concludes:
‘Hey, I’ll live, and be happy,
Whatever I decide.’
I hope that my art practice remain a source of joy. I don’t want to count myself amongst the number of those ‘who seem to hate their work and go through their artistic life in a state of self-critical rage and misery.'
PROJECT YOUR FELT LIFE
‘Felt life’ is from Henry James (he speaks of the ‘perfect dependence of the ‘moral’ sense of a work of art on the amount of felt life concerned in producing it’). In connection with my efforts I can do no better than quote Patrick George again: ‘Could there be a better way of passing the time than sitting in a field surrounded by the intense concentration of nature…? We paint because it is all marvellous to look at, that’s why.’ I hope something of that feeling shows through in what I make.
MAKE YOUR IGNORANCE AS PRECISE AS YOU CAN
‘What is the value of knowledge? That it makes our ignorance more precise.’
This phrase encapsulates a right attitude to study and practice, one that accepts ‘aims that we can achieve only fractionally and imperfectly.’ This isn’t, however, a counsel of despair: ‘It means… not abandoning the pursuit of truth, even though if you want the truth rather than merely something to say, you will have a good deal less to say.’
But not nothing to say.
TURN YOUR BACK ON LOOKING AND SEE
This enigmatic phrase is from Terry Frost’s notebooks. Various notes are gathered together in a chapter called, ‘Desire, imagination and discipline’. It’s a dense, allusive passage worth re-reading. I think it contains a lot of wisdom. Here’s a bit more:
‘If you look you can’t see for looking. Looking for something to inspire you to work is an escape from taking action.
The decision to take action is the only way of seeing.
If you look and look the tree becomes a tree and not a particular tree moment…
Turn your back on looking and see.
If you must look, stand on your head to do it.
Look at the works. Read the philosophers. Think and work as hard on the subjective as on the objective – one does not exist without the other…’
GLORY BE TO GOD FOR DAPPLED THINGS
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Ivon Hitchens’ paintings contain something of the quality of Hopkins’ poetry, and Hitchens' notes about painting include similar pairs of opposites (‘dark-light, warm-cool, up-down, in-out. Circular shapes, square angular shapes. Large sombre areas – short, quick notes…’). John Piper made the connection between the painter and the poet in notes for an exhibition in 1940, as described by Peter Khoroche (though he acknowledges any links between the two are actually strained). Anyway, if I ever manage to include an inkling of the same sense of wonder in anything I make I’ll be a happy man…
TRAP FUGITIVE VISIONS
This aim is taken from a discussion of Mark Rothko’s work:
‘One of the words Rothko used most often about his art – but it could be extended to all art – is ‘poignant’, for the best of it is suffused both with a sense of the inevitable passing of things, including us, and with art’s determination to trap, consolingly, those fugitive visions.’
INVENT, DON'T TRY TO RECOVER
I could be tempted to copy the work of others, and I know I’m tempted to recycle some of my own better bits in new things that I make. Both approaches are doomed to fail, before long.
As a teacher I used to tell children, ‘It’s okay to steal other people’s ideas as long as you make them your own.’ And I believe it still. The hard bit, of course, is making things your own: that requires invention.
(These words are stolen – and reapplied – from Tony Parson’s description of a character in his novel ‘Man and Boy’: ‘…she was still really young and curious, still discovering what she wanted from the world. Still inventing her life rather than trying to recover it.’)
For the first time, I’m starting formal study of Fine Art. What follows is advice to myself, plus questions to answer. I don’t think I could or should follow it all –some things probably contradict others – but I think that what’s here matters, or is at least interesting. I’m not pretending any of it necessarily applies to others. It’s really just for myself at this time.
The idea of gathering these thoughts was copied from the first lesson of William Kentridge’s ‘Six Drawing Lessons’. There, in preparation for a series of lectures, he ‘listed every thought I had ever had, or remembered someone else having.' Since all my thoughts are stolen from someone else I’ve explained who they really belong to below and in two subsequent posts.
ADVICES & QUERIES
The title, ‘Advices and Queries’, is the name of a book of guidance made by members of the Quakers (Society of Friends) in Britain. The first list of advices was in 1656 and ended with:
‘Dearly beloved Friends, these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by; but that all, with a measure of the light, which is pure and holy, may be guided: and so in the light walking and abiding, these things may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not in the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.’
Both ‘light’ and ‘life’ would be very welcome as I start my studies.
WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
‘Authenticity’ was a goal of some twentieth century thinkers. It supposes that ‘an individual must take over their own existence with clarity and intensity.’ I take this to mean that I should be able to give a decent answer to the question: ‘What do you want to do?’ Which is surprisingly difficult.
Oh… and then try to do it.
TRUST PRACTICE NOT RHETORIC
Perversely, I rather like the writings of Martin Heidegger (the bits I’ve managed to struggle through anyway). He showed that theoretical knowledge is not the foundation that we mostly suppose it to be. Instead, practical ‘taking care of’, or coping, is how we mostly deal with things.
Making a related point, Richard Rorty says that propositional statements ‘turn out to be rhetorical ornaments of practice rather than foundations,’ explaining ‘this is because we have much more confidence in the practice in question than in any of its possible philosophical justifications.’ This is worth emphasising at the start of my study of art.
ACT WITH PRECISION IN A STATE OF UNCERTAINTY
Reflecting on changes in the way he painted (a consequence of his failing sight and advancing years) Sargy Mann wrote: ‘As long as one has the ability to organise materials and is able to discover new experiences, art can be made. I have always believed that artists are people who can act with precision in a state of extreme uncertainty. It is not always easy or comfortable but it’s what we like doing and I hope to keep going.’
‘Keep going’ is very good advice too.
ALWAYS TRY TO MAKE
This underlines the earlier advice to trust practice. Terry Frost declared, ‘The great problem is to sort out your own ideas,’ and went on to explain what this means for a painter: ‘Practice is the answer, experience is the catalyst between theory and practice. Always try to make, or a great danger is that you could think yourself to a standstill.’ It seems to me that the moment you stop making is the moment you stop being an artist.
BETTER BE SORRY THAN SAFE
Patrick George’s paintings are low key and well-mannered, yet he recognised the importance of taking risks. In advice to his students he’s quoted as saying: ‘Better to be sorry than safe when painting.’ My temperament is to be cautious, so I state this as a challenge to myself.
DON'T CHOOSE YOUR STYLE
Sargy Mann again:
'I have always detested the idea of style as something you choose and felt that style was how you turned out to have done it and should only be talked about retrospectively if at all… However, for all that I was opposed to the idea of style, I knew that figurative painting… achieved figuration by means of some sort of pictorial convention and although it was a condition of being any good that one arrived at one’s own necessary way of painting, nonetheless there were different conventions that had been employed at different times and by different artists and which were in some respects mutually exclusive. So there had to be some sort of choosing of how one was going to proceed even if one might change one’s way of doing it mid-way through making a painting. This dilemma of how to choose a figurative convention or pictorial language, but not choose a style has troubled me ever since my student days… The only test has always been, what seems most true at the time; different ways of drawing and using colour seem most true at different times.’ (My emphasis.)
EMPLOY IMAGES OF MAKING RATHER THAN FINDING
The images in this quotation are the pictures in my head of what I think I’m doing as I develop ideas and complete work (they’re not the works themselves). Am I seeking to find the one best way? Or making one of any number of alternatives?
Strictly speaking the answer has to be ‘making’, I suppose, but the danger of emphasising invention is that it seems to make all solutions as good as each other, an arbitrary choice amongst free-floating possibilities. But completing a picture can feel a lot like uncovering or revealing something; something connected to the way the world really is. Perhaps it’s simply an illusion, but the process of making does seem to contain necessity.
I want to make the things that I feel compelled to make, in ways that feel necessary, not just selected.
ASK QUESTIONS SLOWLY
My study and practice is likely to be framed in the form of questions, more or less explicit. These will, I’m sure, somehow be about the business of ‘being-in-the-world’. Since I manage to negotiate my way through each day I must have an inkling of what this entails, but whether I will manage to shed any further light I can’t yet know, only hope. I’m not even sure what an answer to this sort of question might look like. So patience is the order of the day: ‘Questions without answers must be asked very slowly.’
At the risk of being thoroughly distracted from a couple of existing themes this post records some thoughts and observations drawn from the writings of Sargy Mann (see last post).
Mann's work is unapologetically figurative. He sought to record what he perceived: 'At Camberwell I was given the ideal of a kind of realism which was an art of truth to visual experience. The world was beautiful and by drawing and painting in the right, selfless, frame of mind you could learn to experience, to see more of that true beauty and, to the best of your ability record it in a shareable form' (2008, p.21). I don't think he ever let go of this ideal. He plainly believed that making paintings changes what you see, makes you see qualitatively better even (in the same way that a wine connoisseur is trained to taste better): 'if you look at the real world in front of you as intensely and as freely from visual preconceptions as you can and try to record as truthfully as you can what that experience is, you will in time see more, see better' (2016, pp.7-8). And again, 'someone like Monet... just saw more, understood more through his eyes...and the sum of those things... is in those paintings. And if we have the right sort of energy, and the right sort of humility, we can share some of those discoveries. Now that for me is the glory of art' (2016, pp.9-10). Art practice is presented as a tool - analagous to the telescope in Galileo's hands - to reveal fresh truths about the real world: 'The overall determining question is always, what is it like being here? This is not an easy question to answer and indeed one paints the picture in order to find and fix that answer, and the act of painting effects what it is like being there, enhances the experience if one gets it right' (2008, p.178).
Mann sees a painting as a metaphor (I suppose it has to be as it clearly isn't the real thing).
'In all figurative art there is feedback between the experience and its means of realisation. This is the metaphorical nature of figurative art that enables entirely new and alien experience to be communicated' (2008, p.212).
'The process (of making art) both discovers and invents a metaphor capable of communicating that experience to oneself and others' (2016, p.30).
'In a good figurative painting, the abstract pattern, the impression it makes on you as a design, must be in total accord with the subject, must become the realisation of the subject. It is not enough for the pattern to read such that the elements of the subject can be named; that would be illustration, would be painting as simile as distinct from metaphor which is our goal' (2008, p.130).
Because of the progressive deterioration and eventual loss of his sight, Mann's paintings altered considerably over time. However, changes (forced upon him by his altered perception) were always in response to the question: 'What is it like being here?' For painters, the business of finding their right way to answer this question is urgent and non-trivial: 'I have always detested the idea of style as something you choose and felt that style was how you turned out to have done it and should only be talked about retrospectively if at all... However, for all that I was opposed to the idea of style, I knew that figurative painting... achieved figuration by means of some sort of pictorial convention and although it was a condition of being any good that one arrived at one's own necessary way of painting, nonetheless there were different conventions that had been employed at different times and by different artists and which were in some respects mutually exclusive. So there had to be some sort of choosing of how one was going to proceed... This dilemma of how to choose a figurative convention or pictorial language, but not choose a style has troubled me ever since my student days... The only test has always been, what seems most true at the time...' (2008, p.94).
Finally, in his account of his life an extraordinary hopefulness shines through. Mann took pleasure in what he achieved and understood that what he was attempting was of great value:
'Most of the time I have enjoyed painting very much and have, in general, always liked my own painting. I have always felt very sorry for artists, an awful lot of them, who seem to hate their work and go through their artistic life in a state of self-critical rage and misery' (2008, p.66).
'I am getting old and that can bring about changes... I can't, nor do I want to, predict what these might be, rather I welcome them, though with anxiety, but this is, I think, as it should be...' (2008, p.217).
'I want to tell people how utterly extraordinary and worthwhile (art) is. Because - you see, most people, I think, their ambition in terms of what art can offer them, is so incredibly modest and I want it to be very... very ambitious' (2016, p.31).
The two quoted texts are:
2008: 'Sargy Mann: Probably the Best Blind Painter in Peckham', Peter Mann and Sargy Mann, SP Books
2016: 'Perceptual systems, an inexhaustible reservoir of information and the importance of art: Thoughts towards a talk', Sargy Mann, Peter Mann (ed.), SP Books
Sargy Mann: Later Paintings
Royal Drawing School, London, February to March 2019
There's something pleasingly implausible about being taught how to see by a blind man, but that's precisely what Sargy Mann offers to do.
As with so much of my artistic education, it's my son Samuel who I've got to thank for knowledge of this extraordinary work and the man behind it. Samuel borrowed a copy, so gave me sight of, the self-deprecatingly named book 'Sargy Mann: Probably the Best Blind Painter in Peckham' and then took me to the Royal Drawing School show.
The Drawing School's paintings were almost all completed after Mann had become completely blind. How this is possible - and that they are as they are, so luminous and lucid - simply beggars belief. However, it's not a secret since the book is in large part an autobiography of the loss of Mann's sight over many years and his reaction to each change, and is brilliantly complemented by his son's film of the artist at work; measuring, re-measuring, drawing with Blu-tack blobs, explaining what he's up to and ultimately filling his large canvas with intense colour. I read the book and watched the film... and still I can't conceive how he did it, what was going on in his head to make it happen.
I'm interrupting my thread of posts about the possible analogy between paintings and music to record visits to a few recent shows.
George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field
The Holburne Museum, Bath, February to May 2019
I want to like George Shaw's work more than I do.
Given that I want to record places close to home - and that I want to do it in paint - makes me think that I ought to warm to his depictions of ordinary places. Given I'm of a similar age and background to Shaw, so instantly recognise the suburban Britain and 1970's imagery that he includes, makes me feel I should find him effortlessly accessible. Given that I too experienced a boyhood steeped in Christianity (low church protestant for me, Catholic for him) suggests I ought to intuitively appreciate the religious references in his paintings' titles. Even the fact that my teenage hobby of making plastic models meant I spent years enveloped in the smell of Humbrol paints (his chosen medium) suggests I might feel an affinity.
But in the flesh the works were less than the sum of all these parts. I was disappointed how photographic the paintings were, how smooth and glossy (for some reason I supposed he'd use matt Humbrol paints). The pencil images copied from films, television and porn looked like drawings torn from the sketchbook of an accomplished 'A'-level student, assembled for no good reason... perhaps to allude to a specific time, but to what end? I guess the religious links, specifically to the Passion, underline the misery, or at least mortality, contained in much that Shaw depicts, but I think they're in danger of being gratuitous.
Jonathan Jones in his five-star Guardian review of the show (07/02/19) suggests that there's 'hope in Shaw's vision,' that 'moments of redemptive promise' appear. He asks of a picture of a tree casting a shadow on a wall (above), 'Is that the shadow of Christ cast against a wall by a gnarled tree?' I'm tempted to say the answer is 'No. Why ever should I think it is?' But in this case I'm emphatically mistaken. A splendid little film ('George Shaw: An Introduction' by Jonathan Law, on YouTube) demonstrates a direct link between 'Ash Wednesday 8 a.m.' and William Holman Hunt's 'The Shadow of Death' (below). But (perhaps with a distinct lack of imagination on my part) I'm still left asking, 'So what?' In the film Shaw himself says the painting was 'a fairly literal translation of the (source) photograph in many ways,' before adding, 'I suppose I wanted it to move off from the Biblical narrative into a narrative which was much more general, not so much related to a kind of Christian thing but it was something to do with mortality and the trees though they look quite totemic and quite symbolic. I think they're quite apocalyptic in some senses.' 'He's utterly sincere,' says Jones, and this shines through in the unaffected delivery contained in Law's film . But I'm still left feeling mystified, and not in a good way.
I didn't buy the book of this show. Instead I got a catalogue from the National Gallery's earlier exhibition 'My Back to Nature'. This contains interesting essays about Shaw's past and about his techniques (I love the idea of him soaking everything up as a boy as he repeatedly visited the National Gallery sketchbook in hand, and envy him for it). The essays state, like Jonathan Jones, that the works are somehow freighted with great meaning: '(Shaw) does not make his landscapes on the spot... but prefers to select his subjects from photographs he takes, which he then copies in an apparently mechanical way. He never alters an image, keeping as close to the photograph as possible, but it is here that the transformation from fairly uninteresting and routine photographs to mysterious paintings loaded with unspoken symbolism happens' (p.11). I guess I just don't yet recognise the alchemy, the 'transformation', so the 'apparently mechanical' appears just 'mechanical'.
On the Holburne's website it says, 'Don't Miss - George Shaw in Conversation with Mark Hallett'. Having stumped up my £12.50 general admission (online, no concessions) that's exactly what I did do: miss it. In the business of a busy week I simply forgot to roll up. I meant to see if I could appreciate what's going on, but blew the chance. I regret it, especially now that I've seen the little film. Sorry George.
Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory
Tate Modern, London, January to May 2019
By all accounts I ought to like Bonnard's work less than I do.
This is an astonishing show. I'd always thought of Bonnard as a sort of also-ran twentieth century painter, but even if it's just because of its scale, this extraordinary exhibition seems to place him firmly up among the heavyweights.
Until viewing it I knew Bonnard's work almost exclusively in reproduction through Nicholas Watkins' 1994 monograph. Also a tiny number of displayed works (for example an impressively proportioned 'Summer in Normandy' included in the RA's 2016 'Painting the Modern Garden' show). In contrast, here, gallery after gallery displaying fully one hundred paintings.
I did my usual canter round it all before settling on a handful of paintings to have a better look at: a couple of landscapes, one big and one small, Marthe in her bath (of course) and a view out some French windows (of course). It got pretty busy, especially as the morning wore on, but I managed to make a few sketches to help me look.
Laura Cumming (Guardian, 26/01/19) gives the show four out of five stars. She recognised 'too many mediocrities... jumbled among the masterpieces' and thought at least some of the landscapes 'flaccid'. I didn't notice it much. I found it all very exciting. I started and abandoned three little sketches before completing my first one: it took me a while to simmer down.
Waldemar Januszczak doesn't like Bonnard much. His review (sub-titled 'brightness is not the same thing as brilliance') repeats Picasso's damning opinion ('a potpourri of indecision') which, half-remembered, is probably the source of my sense of Bonnard's supposed inadequacy. I understand the force of his criticisms ('Too many marks. Too many colours. Too little sense of direction.'). Bonnard's taken to task for not noticing historical events ('Two world wars come and go, but you’d never know it as he dabs away contentedly at his retirement art'), but is every artist required to pass political or social comment? (To be fair they're pretty big things to have overlooked.) But I can forgive much given the sense of excitement that this display engendered in me.
The fact that the paintings were created away from the motif, from sketchy little drawings, with such a range of colours, these are the things that strike me. I've no idea how I can use that insight in anything I ever make but it'll bear some thinking about.
I'll take my first example of an analogy between the formal elements of a painting and of music in Ivon Hitchens' work, already referred to in the last post ('Music', 26/02/19). The distinctive formal feature in question is Hitchens' commonly used wide horizontal format. The reason for its choosing is said to be two-fold, a consequence both of the subject being depicted and of 'the demand of the picture itself, in purely aesthetic terms' (p.67 of 'Ivon Hitchens', Khoroche, 1990, Lund Humphries).
Firstly, the motif's influence is felt because a landscape is typically viewed as a sequence of scenes taken in as the viewer's eyes 'range to left and to right'. A square canvas 'cannot be true to this visual experience' since this shape is seen all at once. That makes sense. By requiring the viewer's eyes to range over the wide-format picture Hitchens introduces 'progress', and a 'time element' (Hitchens' own words, ibid. p.67), both essential marks of a piece of music. (Presumably others who have painted narrower formats are capturing a different 'true' aspect of the visual experience with which they're presented.) So far so straightforward...
So, what demands does the picture make? This is where the nonsense might well begin...
Manifestly a picture makes no demands whatsoever; it has no agency.
I'm entering the realms of metaphor within metaphor so would do well to tread very carefully...
To ground the discussion I want to remind myself that I'm focusing on one key feature of Hitchens' paintings, i.e. their wide format. What does this specific feature offer the artist that might make its inclusion so compelling that it feels like a demand of the image itself (I presume that's what this talk amounts to...)? In essence the elongated format seems to require the placement of several scenes one beside the other, like a comic strip (though not necessarily read left to right). Because the viewer's eyes have to sweep across it, the painting is seen as a sequence that lasts some time which opens up other music-related possibilities. Khoroche again: 'A wider canvas allowed for several interrelated elements: space for forms to 'echo', for colour areas to react on each other; multiple perspective, and the division of the canvas into two, three or more sections setting up contrasts and counterpoint; control of the spectator's eye movement - the timing of the eye's progress over the canvas - what (Hitchens) called 'eye music'. (p.67)
Khoroche exemplifies what he means with reference to individual paintings. Of 'Holbrook Pools no.1' (above) he writes: 'there are three, if not four, vertical divisions of the canvas, giving as many different perspectives. The rhythm and direction of the brush strokes, the weight of the pigment and the deliberate placing of the different colour areas lead the eye in and out, across and back again, in excited exploration of all the harmonies and contrasts in the painting, while at the same time allowing it to absorb the atmosphere of a particular scene - boat, foliage and bridge' (p. 67).
In a slightly earlier and less typical painting ('Winter Stage, Moatlands Park', above) Khoroche identifies similar elements: 'the canvas (is) divided vertically into three compartments, each offering two different vistas of varying depth for the eye to explore as it turns radially to look into the dark forest beyond the verandah windows... Hitchens orchestrates shapes and colours and highlights, controlling the movement of the viewer's eye over the canvas in such a way as to give aesthetic pleasure' (p.68). Like beauty (if it's not the same thing) 'aesthetic pleasure' is presumably in the eye of the beholder, so whether Hitchens' orchestration is indeed pleasing depends on things beyond his control. I might, for example, be so distracted by the distortions of perspective created by three scenes in one as to be unwilling to carry on 'listening'. I'm not, as it happens, and on the contrary find the representation of what must be a sweep in excess of 120˚ exciting. I've only seen the image in reproduction so I can only guess how that sense would be amplified if stood not far distant from a painting spanning fully 156 cm. (It's in the Tate collection so I might get the chance one day.)
In conclusion, the wide format, it seems, opens up a space to push the viewer's eyes around which in turn offers echo, colour reactions, counterpoint, rhythm, harmonies and contrasts. More to think about there then...
I should avoid being unduly pedantic or literal about the analogy between viewing an image and listening to music (see previous post). It is, after all, a metaphor and not a direct correspondence. I can readily accept that there's something similar, which may be enough to make the comparison worth playing with.
However, to unpack the formal 'relationships' seen in images surely requires some understanding of the terms used to describe the elements that they're said to contain. Machotka talks about relationships of size, colour, distance, balance and movement, plus patterns of tension and resolution.
There's much talk about music in Peter Khoroche's discussion of Hitchens' paintings (some of it taken from Hitchens' own writing). The vocabulary here includes Machotka's terms but is far broader and includes counterpoint, rhythm, echo, harmony (linear, tonal and colour harmony, in fact), and melody. There's talk of 'progress' and 'time' (analogous to features in music). More prosaically: form, shape, tone, contour, light/shade, solidity, flat, direction, gesture, weight, dark/light, warm/cool, up/down, in/out, 'large sombre areas' contrasted with 'short quick notes'. (Hitchens set great store by balancing all these pairs of opposites in his paintings.)
A convincing way to demonstrate understanding of the musical analogy would be to deploy some of these terms accurately; to recognise the presence of the various features in specific images, give an account of them and (best of all) explain their function or effect. And, if I can't do this myself yet, to amass examples in others' writings to begin to get the idea. So that's what I mean to do.
This post builds on the last, and picks up a couple of additional 'prior concerns'. Interestingly, the blurb on the back of Machotka's book identifies him as a professor of psychology and art. No surprise then to find discussions about the business of perception.
Two ways of perceiving: '[There are] two ways of looking... [i] mechanisms of identification and [ii] processes of organisation... Organising processes include groupings and segregations of objects, the formation of a coherent sense of space, and the perception of meaning or expression [which] may precede recognition... [for a brief moment] we may register only color, size, tilt, curvature, and other properties...
[Then there are] mechanisms of identification or recognition: of deciding what the thing is that one is looking at. They are schematic and require focused attention... we... need some sort of category or mental template, or schema, against which to judge the visual information available...
Purely abstract paintings may be subject to a different process. Since there are no objects to identify, organisational processes should dominate from the start.' (pp.36-37)
These ways of looking are 'rapid', 'require no specific attention', interpenetrate without our being aware of it', are even 'simultaneous' (p.36). They're certainly 'involuntary'.
I'm puzzled about how to view, how to understand, and ultimately how to make images which are abstracted or abstract. So I think I'm most interested in the 'processes of organisation'. What am I actually doing when I look at a painting, especially an abstract one? Can I get better at it? How?
An analogy: Reflecting on something as abstruse as perception is demanding. It's hard to describe processes that are involuntary, and essentially hidden. In this circumstance it's not unusual to resort to metaphor, to make things more accessible (in my experience gaining understanding is often little more than getting used to an idea, taming it by making it familiar).
Immediately preceding his discussion of perceiving, Machotka compares the experience of looking at a painting to that of listening to music: 'in listening we respond to the formal relationships of its notes - its melody - at the same time as we grasp the words, and the response to the melody is normally the more deeply emotional one of the two. With paintings, the shapes and surfaces that we recognise as objects, come also to be seen... as relationships - of size, color, distance, and above all of balance and movement. Colors will be seen primarily in relation to each other rather than by themselves, and they, too, will create patterns of tension and resolution. Experiencing a painting formally has much the same aesthetic effect as feeling the tensions produced by changes of key, repetitions of themes, changes of instrumental timbres, or resolved and unresolved chords.' (p.36) I suppose it sort of makes sense, but the seductive attraction of the analogy - and also its danger - is the temptation to suppose that because the emotional impact of music is 'understood' (i.e. experienced) this in itself makes the so-called-similar visual experience 'understood' too, simply by virtue of being told that they're quite like each other. But this is not automatic. It's entirely possible to know that one experiences something (an emotional response to a song, say) without knowing how or why it affects you, and - with or without such insight - transference to a different context (e.g. looking at a painting) might be entirely spurious. Surely the differences between the auditory and visual experiences are at least as great as any supposed similarities? And how 'understood' is the musical experience anyway? This probably needs quite a lot of unpacking.