31 July 2020

Short stories: Black Lives Matter and making Basquiat great again

Now, to be upfront, I have never really been a big fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Yet there are many pictures which I like very much, and I have always recognised his creative gifts as a visual poet. My taste is kind of idiosyncratic but generally it might seem conservative to others in our contemporary moment of time. 

My rule in this Art thing is to only judge the  work, not the artist who made it. I learned that when I had to formulate for myself a way of reconciling the vast quality of Picasso's work: the sublime, the less so, the dreadful, and all the truly awful works in the bottom of the bin. 

So, when someone asks me what I think of Picasso, which is rare, to be fair, I reply with a request for a specific work in that person's mind even if they weren't thinking of one. It has become an easy, practical and diplomatic way to navigate Art criticism. 

But, back to Basquiat, now deceased, we know that his commercial success lives on a planet far outside of our own general orbit. I have seen pictures which I have liked very much, many of which have stuck in my visual memory bank for years. I also find his work quite meaningful in this time of Black Lives Matter and COVID all mixed up together, prescient, even.

This picture above is one which captivated me  but I was always bothered by an indiscriminate use of 'local' colour. So I decided to change things around to see if I could make it work for me. Its problems have to do with light and its arbitrary colour, but specifically, its overall  lack of graphic unity which can either kill a painting or send it up to the Louvre. Either way, it is something which can make or break an image's success or failure. I present his painting above in its original state. The following one (below) is with my alterations, for better or for worse.

I see now that I have rendered it more simply, more rather, 'directly and to the point', so to speak. It appears more austere because I am less distracted by the the slash or (splotch) of gold on the upper right corner. To me, it did not add anything to the picture (but I confess now that maybe it isn't as bad as I had felt it was when I first discovered this image years ago) Moreover, the over-all graphic harmony does also seem more coherent to me now. I cleaned up the figure's right leg and also around that quirky-looking bird cage halo so that it doesn't get lost in all the surrounding pink space. It is decidedly more straightforward. If it were a short story, it would be one which had undergone many revisions which is not a bad thing. I do understand, though, that his great universal appeal is all about that brutal urban drama, that 'in your face' splash of cold water. His work seems so emotional, which I think is OK, but I think much of it would be more profound, and would last longer in my imagination if it went beyond what writers call the 'shitty first draft'. Writers revise, revise, and revise again. Basquiat could have revised but then, perhaps, too much of his emotional anguish could would be lost for many of his fans. Who is to say?
I think it's a shame that such a talented poet of a man, didn't find his way out beyond his own bedroom walls, so to speak. Of course, he flourished inside them but he didn't make the leap across the bridge to a place where his big personality would give way to the long shadow of Painting history. He could have learned great things from Van Gogh, for example. But I know that large famously successful artists, especially since Picasso, often don't possess enough of an understanding about Painting history  because their egos take up all the space inside them. There is simply too much personality in so many paintings. (I know of a few who fit this bill and their work suffers because of it). I also understand that there will be many who will disagree with me on this. 

That Basquiat began as a graffiti artist is no surprise because his paintings on canvas and wood panels are graphic illustrations, and he is very, very good at making them. Sadly though, I too often I find that (straight from the tube) white paint a very abusive substitute for LIGHT. And the same could be said of Picasso whose abundant use of white paint  created truly appalling things. Indeed it is a big problem, this lack of LIGHT. I capitalise it because it is the light of a painting which can unify a coherent drawing or design of a picture. Sadly, too many painters use white paint to replicate the luminosity of light, which it is impossible.

Many of Jean-Michel Basquiat's pictures are still very sexy chic and made for this era.  This is also the era of Grunge-Chic where heroin and tattoos meet investment banking in condos high above the grit of Manhattan streets.

Here are some things which I really love for their simplicity.

29 July 2020

Otto Dix, and the problem of men and women together.

As a painter when I speak of colour I think about complimentary harmonies. I really cannot see one colour without perceiving its complement lurking right behind like shy girlfriend. What is a compliment harmony? A compliment to something is generally considered to be a quality which brings out the best in that object of which it is compared or to which it is contrasted. And herein it replicates relationships because just how many times have I found myself with girlfriends for whom I am an awful compliment. I seem to bring out the worst in them and it is usually a two way street, to be honest. Only in the past few years has this become apparent to me. Couples who bring out the worst in one another, alas, are not an uncommon sight. There are like in an Otto Dix painting, where warm pinks have sex with warm yellows, cold reds sleep drunkenly with cold greens. These couples clash like violins Stravinsky's in the Rite of Spring, but unlike in Stravinsky's creation there is rarely resolution. It is a life of continual disharmony. It's enough to make one single. 

But in a painting resolutions are real, and necessary, mostly, usually. There is the work of Otto Dix who defies this idea and turns it on its head out of sheer force of his intense originality. He was a painter of such visual force that he almost singlehandedly created a whole new genre of painting: Bad painting. His work was never 'bad' or 'kitsch' but a whole army of terrible painters certainly looked at his work and made wonderful kitsch from it filling hotel rooms the world over.


22 July 2020

Marcel and Lydia came to lunch at the Châteaunoir

It was reading both Marcel Proust and Lydia Davis which gave me the permission to write with abandon, opening up without the fear of seeming pretentious or foolish. Proust let me into a world of lengthy (and painterly) descriptions of Nature, Paris, and women. Like with so many wonderful writers, reading Lydia Davis has at times seemed to me that I have been invited to an autopsy performed on her characters, still alive, and writhing. I like her sharp incisions into the stuff of everyday life, out in the world, all the banal relationships we have with complete strangers. And also with our own strange selves are we confronted. She has a quick visual acuity which rivals Proust, (whom she also has translated). But where he takes a page, she pares it down to a sentence or two.

It's a tricky thing to write with a public in mind because one can really only learn to write by writing, writing a lot I discovered. And many years of writing for oneself in a diary only prepares oneself poorly for the wide outside world. But, it does teach one to begin stringing sentences together with some assurance. And only after much writing does one begin to feel confident that a small voice will rise up out of the mud to squeak, like in a story by Dr Seuss. And in the end, who cares anyway?

In Painting, many seem to be obsessed with finding a style. An old friend of mine who has been very prolific in her life as a painter suddenly expressed this problem to me the other day. I was stunned to hear her say this because for me, she has always had a style which is natural, very personal to her, and very recognisable. Then she showed me some things on Facebook. What she really meant to say was that she didn't like her style, her drawing. This is altogether different. So we talked about that.
It can happen that an artist will become dissatisfied with their work periodically. The question of Style is different, but it is something which newcomers in many artistic fields do fret a lot about. 

I read a book about the painter Martin Mull who attended Rhode Island School of Design back in the early 1970's. In it he tells a funny story about one of his classmates in Freshman year who idolised Vincent Van Gogh. This fellow not only went around campus dressed up looking like Vincent Van Gogh, but in the studio, he was also trying to paint with Van Gogh's explosive style much to the amusement of other classmates and his teacher. One day, after complaining about not having his own style to the class,  his teacher, asked him to paint a self-portrait as an exercise and he  went on to explain to the confused freshman that any and all of his 'mistakes' in the self-portrait would in fact constitute his 'own very personal style'. His 'mistakes' were in fact, his style. This proved to be a valuable lesson to Mull, and needless to say, it would have been a great moment for all the students. 

So all because of Marcel Proust and Lydia Davis, I learned to indulge myself, page after page of delicious descriptions of roaming The Louvre, spending time with Titian, and Goya whilst all the while obsessing about the hat check girl at the entrance who took my overcoat.

20 July 2020

I, moi, et Michel de Montaigne

A friend came over for a small dinner last week, someone whom I don't know well but I already consider that this someone 'might be a friend' perhaps. There is always this netherworld of space around people before and after friendships begin and end. Before a person is considered a friend they are certainly not a friend, and after a friendship has ended, for whatever the unpleasant reason, they are also certainly not a friend.

But in this netherworld, in this space between a friend, or not, it can be confusing, and I am not someone who lets just any idiot into my life.

So, I had bought a Japanese toilet two years ago and it is always a big hit when people come over and use it. It is a civilised way of 'doing business'.

Too many early years in France were used with smooth paper (to wrap freshly baked bread) and newsprint, both always hung to the side of a mangy wall from an old nail. Then I went to Japan and after a life in France I finally discovered civilisation.

And I won't linger to speak of where "Ça va?" comes from, other than to say that it was an intimate dialogue between the king of France and his personal physician several times a day. This business, as it were, gave rise to that expression 'sitting on the throne'. 

So now I often, read on my own personal 'throne', usually the more erudite books in my library, better to contemplate life on earth in the most humble but somewhat comprising of positions (though my brother strongly advises me against too much time there).

I had started the lengthy In Search of Lost Time (en Anglais, hélas, on my comfortable  sofa, then we went to bed together, then, months later, poor Swann ended up next to the throne where I could linger like a hesitant fawn in the woods. Now, I am reading Montaigne (en Français) whom I have revered for decades. A page or two a day keeps the doctor at bay, I try to think.

So, "revenons aux moutons", as they in the French countryside. This lovely women at the dinner party went to use the loo (as the Brits call it) and having seen Montaigne placed upon a small chair in front, asked me, when she returned to the living room if it was 'for show', as she put. As if to say: "Who would really read Montaigne on the john in Australia?...and isn't this just to show off?"

I laughed, and I said something on the order of "when you know me, you will know" sounding cryptically like a wise man from the East. Then I served dessert.

16 July 2020

Beginings, middles, and the end of the canvas

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 12 June, 2020, oil on canvas board, 40 X 35 cm

John Cage says that life is never-ending, that the Beginning, the Middle and End is not part of the natural sequence. He also says that it is the reason why recordings are not music (he hears the trees rustle as music for instance, as a better model of Art)

I disagree, with all due respect to him. I say that Art (and music) is manmade, not natural, therefore one cannot confuse this with life. And because this is so, the beginning, middle and the end of a work are crucial partitions in separating Nature from Art. 

And yet, the Natural world also behaves in cycles of beginnings, middles and ends, so an artist makes these abstract partitions necessary for Art to function as independent of Nature. A painting is after all, an abstraction, pulled from the nature world and 'man handled' onto a canvas or whatever other form, but to say that this is Life is making a mistake. I agree with Cage that it isn't. It is ART, and it is manmade and so unique. But all animals, insects, microbes also create form with wilful intent.

I think we must take from the natural world and re-configure it into something human such that it symbolically follows our own lifespan, our beginning, middle, and our end...

11 July 2020

Two cousins, two continents

So the first image is one of Mondrian’s early pieces. It, like the second image, has been parked on one of my desktops for a hundred years. They sit crowded amongst many others like aircraft stored in the California desert awaiting re-use.

The second one is from the back of a truck which was parked for the longest time in the Industrial zone of Byron Bay here in Australia. I kept seeing it on different streets and the image grew on me over time. Finally, I snapped a picture of it so it could be parked on my own desktop.

I love them both for their unity of expression and their delicate colour harmony. The Mondrian is quite small, certainly not larger than A meter across but probably even smaller, about 40 centimeters or so. It is an intimate portrait, a dyslexic and future version of American wallpaper. It is an example of Modernism at it’s very precise best. It set off a whole movement of what I believe is called “Formalism” in the American school of the late 20th century. 

The ‘tagged truck’ could be a signature of letters but I cannot decipher them. There is a self portrait of the artist as ‘bad boy’ in the lower left which I find endearing. Anyone who knows me well, will know that I have always hated graffiti. I am someone, who, when strolling about town likes to ‘possess’ an empty, even ugly boring cityscape just for myself, for my own imagination. But I am of another age certainly, and yet, I have liked a few things over many years but only if they are transitory. 

I love the colour scheme here; the intense pale tropical blue signature against the ruined look of the metal, at times golden. The matt black of a solid shape sits in the very center like a weird bear and makes me think of Philip Guston.

08 July 2020

killing me softly in a public space

Sadly, I cannot remember where this is from but I loved it instantly. A public statue which speaks softly and doesn't carry a big stick. 

02 July 2020

Daffy Duck at lunch with V.

 Evening Prayer Brunswick heads, 15 June 2020, oil on canvas board, 
30 X 25 cm

I met V. for lunch the other day, her lunch really whilst I watched her eat. Her tiny arms and small hand made me think of a wounded bird. She had explained to me when I first met her months ago that she had contracted Lyme disease, and since then, she was losing the use of her right hand. Immediately, I had felt pity. Now, not 3 months later she said that her other hand seemed to be 'going as well', as she put it somewhat cautiously. I think she is brave but also she puts on a good front to mask the fear. Who wouldn’t? But she doesn’t complain, a quality I like in people. I have a few friends who complain incessantly and I want to run the other way when they start up.

This was our first lunch date, as it were. We had first met on the street in a small town near home last year. A mutual friend introduced us but quite briefly. Then we met again on the beach where I paint most days. She sauntered down the small pathway looking a bit fabulous in an outfit right out of Vogue and wearing a large hat from the 60’s. She’s quite slim, actually.

Then, a while later, she began to compliment my work on Instagram to which I responded warmly, in my own way. When anyone reaches out to me, I thank them. I was taught to do so from an early age. 

Shortly afterward, V. not only gave me likes to the work I was posting but also began making up titles for the pictures relating to the colour and her own impressions of them. Most of the time she got it right though. Things like ‘Cassis framboise, fromage blanc’ and ‘Baked Alaska’, and one of my favourites; ‘Indecisive Enlightenment’. My small pictures and her crisp visual metaphors, coupled together as if Katherine Hepburn was in the sack with Marcel Proust.

So, that was then, how we began our acquaintance. And I insist, it is still an acquaintance but beginnings do begin somewhere, after all. 

She began sending me rather cryptic voice messages on Instagram each night before she went to sleep to which I responded with even more cryptic GIFS. I sent them  later in the night because I am a night owl. GIFS are marvellous things. They display just the right touch, the light touch of the quixotic quip; Dorothy Parker drinking gin with Daffy Duck on a back lot at Paramount.

Thus, we continued exchanging a few thoughts online for a few months but when it seems to fizzle a bit and I don’t hear from her after a week I send her a GIF to stir the martini.

She likes calling me Mr Magoo which to be honest, kind of irritated me for a while. (Am I that bald and blind?) Go figure. But then she told me that she sent me voice messages because it was easier than typing with her crippled hand. So I felt sorry, and forgave her for the Mr Magoo thing. 

She likes speaking French. I do too, but somehow I felt awkward speaking it with her in the middle of this small town at lunch. So we conversed in English, and I watched her eat a Middle Eastern dish with her poor wounded hand using a large spoon. That same hand which I imagined wrote lots of interesting things back in the day of her career as a journalist. She seems to be a bright, clever woman despite the infirmity, I think to myself. 

I suddenly realised that she reminded me of my dear friend Joyce who passed away 4 years ago. I loved our friendship so much. I last saw her when I said goodbye after a dinner in her château in Autichamps. I was leaving the next day for Australia. It was early December. She knew we would not see each other again. She knew she was dying, and I imagine she was pretty sure she would end it herself a few months later before my return to France, but I couldn't know this that night. 

When I wrapped my arms around her to say goodnight she seemed so frail and fragile that I felt that I was holding a small bird in my arms. She walked me out the gate and waited till I got in my car to leave as was her habit. The good manners of a Dutch woman from another age persisted. It was freezing cold, but there she was, waving her farewell to me as I drove away into the black night. 

So at the end of our lunch date V. and myself said our goodbyes. I was off to an appointment with my doctor at 14h, and her, I don’t know where she was going. And though everyone seems to hug in this town we didn’t, due to Covid, due to discretion, or due to what the French call Pudeur, sans doute.

01 July 2020

Léo and Giotto, Unity and Form

(This is a reprint of a text that I wrote for the Marchutz Blog Autour de la Table in 2019)

There are many places where Leo speaks of Volume directly. And yet in my memory, I believe he also often spoke of Unity when describing works which he felt manifested Volume, or a unified whole. And, though I have not read through all the transcripts there is something here that raises questions for me. I wonder if the transcripts will reveal them?

ONE NEEDS FAR MORE than just a few paragraphs to explore this idea because for me, there is nuanced distinction between Volume and Unity even though Leo would frequently interchange these words. Leo most certainly used these words to express something vital for all of us. But how did he mean them?

Over time, I have personally come to understand that a painting can possess Unity but may not necessarily manifest Volume. Yet, on the other hand, a painting that manifests Volume will always possess Unity. Of course, this my own idea, and I don’t know what Leo would say about it. There are so many questions that I would like to ask him now, 45 years on, since I became a painter.

BACK TO THIS QUOTE, I think we all understand that he is speaking about the unified whole of a work to which nothing more can be added. But then too, Leo often spoke of a unified surface when speaking about the success or failure of a certain painting.

The second part of the quote could be a bit confusing because this was an improvised discussion, and Leo moved uneasily between German, French, and English. We often knew what he meant, but sometimes, for someone unfamiliar with his manner of speaking, the syntax and semantics had to be disentangled.

BY THE TIME LEO BEGAN WORKING in Tholonet in the 1930’s, one can see from his early oils that his understanding of both Volume and Unity held the paintings as if in a tight grip. His study in the museums would have prepared him for the structure of the Aix landscape, though perhaps the light of Provence would have come as a shock. One can easily picture Leo working out in the landscape because we have a few photographs of this. We could also imagine him painting a group of blue trees together in the hillside. But in that moment, what we wouldn’t discern might be his memory of seeing the extraordinary Volume in The Kiss of Judas by Giotto. We know through all of Leo’s subsequent work of the large imprint of that fresco upon his artistic sensibility. And too, it has a unified surface of which he always spoke with such amazement.

This reminds me of a late afternoon in his studio, probably in the Fall of 1975. We were looking at a large version of Peter with Christ (The Denial of Peter) and I remember saying to him:

“There is something of Giotto in this”

And he looked at me, and replied

“Yes, certainly… there is, but also… there is something in it which is not in Giotto!”

I remember it so clearly, it was one of those moments when he lit up in the autumn of his life.

I THINK ALSO OF HIS OWN LATE ST. VICTOIRES, and the late drawings from Venice from which he made color lithos. In these works there is both Unity of Surface, and Volume of image. Anything extraneous to the organic whole becomes a kind of bricolage, which Leo always abhorred. Bricolage is the term that François de Asis usually employs to describe a painting that doesn’t come together coherently. It is a picture that has been merely stacked up in a disjointed manner, one element after another, with neither visible Unity nor Volume.

So Unity and Volume are both elemental in the work of Leo. But how would he define these words and ideas? 

29 June 2020

Evening Prayers for the fun of it

 Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 
25 June 2020, oil on canvas board,
 30 X 25 cm

"Cash burn is not necessarily a bad thing, if the money is being invested in a way that will lead to future growth and profit."

I read this one day a few years back in an article in the Investing section of The New York Times. At that time I was in a period of great worry that I was going through all my savings. I have always had enough to just slip by in my life, but after a few poor financial choices over the years I began to see the bottom of the proverbial barrel. I also remembered what Hemingway once said, or wrote, that "going broke happens slowly at first, then quickly". I used to recount this to friends when discussing money problems but I almost always recounted it with a nervous fear of its irony. 

Around this time I was just beginning this series of paintings done at the edge of the Pacific Ocean here in Australia. It has turned into a series, a long-winded one perhaps, but after three years it almost feels like I have been writing a book. A long book, a steady one, and one which has silenced my impatience and fear of failure.

Like a diary the studies are done most everyday, and indeed I have come to see them as paragraphs in a long autobiography. A painter   who writes might say: "these are endless waves arriving on the shore". 

Just as my confidence has grown in Painting so have my worries about money lessened. Painting is an investment in future growth. It is a byproduct of believing in one's worth, in this case cultural, but hopefully fiscal too. If it's a pipe dream, so be it. 

If it is of value I will eventually be compensated. If not, then I will have at least enjoyed myself here on earth. I just have to have enough to keep going, and all will be good. 

25 June 2020

Anatomy of a picture made in Provence

This painting was boxed in storage for several years after arriving with many other things form France. It was among many flat packed cartons which I had not opened, so it was a great surprise to re-discover it. I am pleased to have it here in Australia where light and colour are so vivid, and it fits in so well.

It must have been around the year 2000 when a girlfriend of mine was working as a chef at the Bard Lacoste School of Art in the small town Lacoste in the Vaucluse. I often went on weekends to stay with her there, and I was there for the exhibition of the students' work done that summer. They each showed in their small studio spaces where they had worked. It took place on a weekend in late August, and it was screaming hot. I walked into this small cubby hole of a room where an American from New York, was showing about a dozen things. I immediately loved this and he was happy to sell it, I forget how much, a student price for sure. 

He explained that it was a small cabanon in the valley below which he could see from the small dark room he used as a studio. I squinted off down into the hazy blue valley below Bonnieux and indeed I could make out the small stone house. For me it was a unique kind of vision, selective, and totally eccentric. An original, I could tell, a Black guy from New York, a gay actor, and capable of seeing something so differently, more differently than anything I had ever seen done in this iconic region. It was Canal Street meeting the route to Apt.

What I see is certainly not clear and which is one reason why I like the picture. It is specifically ambiguous. The luminosity of the pale, sun-kissed stone walls of the cabanon catching the afternoon rays is probably the most provençal visual truth of it. The sea in which the entire picture seems to swim is the big blue sky of summer in Province. The emerald green stripes running up and down across the painting are either the delineated fields so typical in Europe, or maybe hallucinations of  mature Cypress trees ubiquitously alining  small roads everywhere in France. Are  the small white popsicles lined up diagonally pale bluish olive trees? Or could they be small pickets holding up fences in lines along the field of grapes? Are the the black lines fields in deep shadow? Again, so much allegory of colour and form in here which allows a continual surprise.

Of course I have made all this up because I cannot for the life of me remember how he described any of this, though he certainly did at the time. I should check the back of the painting to see if he wrote his name by some chance. I could write him a card and ask what he remembers about his painting.

24 June 2020

Lincoln asleep in Lafayette park

During this awful US presidency which has pushed rationality up and away to the moon, one has to keep working to maintain one's sanity, one's hope, and one's sense of decency.

Personally, I feel caught between both the Left and the Right, between the Woke and the Asleep. And I always return to the importance of Art in all its forms. It is the one enduring activity which allows the creator to still believe in something bigger than all this essential nonsense. Our political battles and our social economic ties are indeed essential, but they are also nonsensical without a personal engagement with ourselves in a deeply personal way. And that is why any, and all Artistic activity is important for everyone, creators and participants. 

22 June 2020

some leap to conclusions, others to their deaths.

 Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 28 May, 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

I am thinking of Sol LeWitt, who wrote: “Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.”

I have enjoyed Sol LeWitt for many years but I haven't been moved by his work. It has amazed me in a certain way but I have not been emotionally engaged by it. Yet, I like what he articulates here very much. Although I have never been able to move beyond the idea (which is the point I suppose) of Conceptual Art, I can see that Sol LeWitt was not the serious sort of boring Conceptual Artist as so many seem to be. He was full of mirth, and it certainly flowed out of him throughout his career as a visual artist and architectural decorator. 

I like the idea of being a mystic even if I don't really see myself as one at all. In fact, if I met someone who did consider him/herself a veritable mystic I would turn right around and run as fast as I could in the other direction.

A painting can be a mystical object in itself, but it can also invoke something deeply mysterious for the artist alone. He receives a divine treasure from the Muses or just maybe, it makes him a lot of money which is pretty mysterious too.

18 June 2020

Cézanne's apple and Van Gogh's pear

In France many years ago I dropped in on a painter friend with whom I was associated. He is someone I admired, artist whose mind had been educated in the French system, one shaped by rational thought. It was a Spring afternoon and he was in his garden when I arrived putting some last touches on a picture. Our usual banter almost always turns to Painting but on this day we spoke of a programme which had aired the previous evening on France Musique which highlighted the relationship between Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. At one point I said that although I loved Debussy, I had a deep emotional rapport to Ravel. 

Ravel seems to me more like a comfortable armchair of 19th century Romanticism in which no doubt Brahms had certainly napped. Debussy on the other hand, was steering music into the 21th century. So it was no surprise to me  that my friend replied that Debussy was the greater artist. Though this conversation was at least thirty years ago, from my diary at the time, I would summarise his thinking thus: 

"Unlike Ravel, Debussy's musical ideas were not weighed down by an excess of emotion."

We then engaged in very precise criticism as always, sometimes to the point of didactic exhaustion. But that is also what I loved about living in France among these hyper-opinionated participants in our collective cultural brawl. And Art criticism was part of our own brawl, our bond, the artistic glue which allowed for the relationship to replenish itself over years. And yet, I was annoyed by his confidence, his certainty, in placing one accomplished artist above another on a shelf in the Pantheon. 

Any avid listener to France Musique receives a large dose of both composers on a regular basis. I had listened a lot to both Ravel and Debussy since arriving in France years earlier. But for me, I have learned to love artists for a variety of different reasons and I  don't generally attach my feelings to a hierarchy. I have learned over the years to critique the work by an artist, not the artist himself. It keeps me out of a lot of problems. It is diplomatic, for sure, but also it is a cleaner, more precise way of looking at art. I have found that in all things artistic, roads should never lead to Rome, but away from it. And Rome, as destination, would be a conventional art of little interest.   

Paul Cézanne is generally considered to be the father of Modern Art. Like Debussy, he ushered into the 20th century a new structural form which broke away from centuries of pictorial thinking as if a dam had burst and swept away most of what was housed in the Louvre. To a great extent there is much truth to this. 

Vincent Van Gogh, on the other hand, isn't considered in the same light, and he, like Ravel was steeped in the 19th century structure of Painting arriving from both Delacroix and Rembrandt, among so many others including artists from Japan. Yet Vincent Van Gogh opened up the palette to more light than the world had ever seen or experienced beforehand. He was a new lightbulb.

But According to Emile Bernard who knew both Van Gogh and Cézanne, Cézanne had heard of Van Gogh, but thought he was a mad man who made mad paintings. Alors? Quoi faire?

I am someone who detests the word genius, and I never use it. But I do use the words Greatness, Great, Good, OK, and Awful, to describe Art in general, but also people too.

It has been many years since I have often remembered that conversation with my old friend. I remember being a bit shocked at the audacity of it. It still shocks me in a way. 

All these years later have given me more clarity to see that greatness comes in different colours, different forms, other even newer tastes. To compare two very great composers is like trying to compare Cézanne to Van Gogh; an apple to a pear. 

14 June 2020

Satie went out without an umbrella

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 13 June, 2020, oil on canvas board

In Painting, I never struggled with the painting, nor colour harmony, not even drawing. I had to learn a lot and work at it of course, but it was never, ever foreign to me even from a very early age. It was a gift which allowed me to proceed in this thing I came to understand as Painting. I had a very intuitive grasp of Art, and in fact I took it for granted. I couldn’t believe that others around me didn’t share this.

My problem in Painting arose from me. I had to overcome all my own very personnel issues around creativity. I was my own problem, but Painting never was.

By studying music I have had to overcome the difficulties of the music. I was propelled
into piano from a long secret obsession with this black beast of creature which we had in our house. I never took lessons which were somehow reserved for my sister who didn't really give a hoot. But I languished underneath the piano until I was discovered and thrown out. 

Fortunately, by the time I really did get ready to jump into the work I had been sober for a long while yet sadly, I am already of a certain age so my hopes have been somewhat muted thus far.

It has been work, and work which I have loved doing. Most of the time I am a mountaineer at the bottom of the cliff looking up to see what the task is for the day. I wasn’t given the gift of music. I was given the gift of Painting but something deep inside of me wanted the music. 

But how?
At 14 I imagined that I was too old to start but began a few lessons anyway with a teacher at boarding school. I must have been so unteachable and scatter-brained that she lost interest in me and I gave up. At 19 in my second year at University, in the Art School, I thought I would really love try to play piano but I then thought; for sure I am too old, so I gave up again. Much later in New York I exclaimed: Screw Everything! And I bought an old creaky upright which was delivered on my 30th birthday. So now, I have played off and on for 38 years. Yes I have learned to read a little, I have learned a few classical pieces under my belt. Satie especially makes me long for the Moon like a teenage girl in love.

But now I have jumped into the Standards, the old show tunes from my parents youth with an abandon which almost shocks me. I determined to understand enough to enjoy myself which, to be fair, I already do a dozen times over. More to be revealed.

13 June 2020

Chopin's grand spiderweb of melodic harmony

I was listening to Chopin's Études (Opus 10) this morning as I moved around my house on a small project, all the while I was glancing at the walls at a few pictures which I had framed and recently hung. 

"That's it!"
It suddenly occurred to me that there was a poignant relationship between what I was looking at, and the Chopin Études. It's strange because from the very beginning of this series at the beach three years ago, I imagined these pictures as 'etudes' in fact, even though they are hardly more than twilight's faint whispers. But I don't wish to reduce Chopin's Études to that description. 

This is my own understanding for things that I've made quickly to capture an ephemeral aspect of Nature. But saying that, there is also a lightness in many of these 'Études' which Frederic Chopin wrote when he was only 23 years old. There is a quirky and sometimes frenetic side to them with which I identify in my own small studies done at dusk. Each one has its own emotional logic embedded in its brushstrokes, and there is a repetitive motif which cycles through the colour wheel  in the same way that Chopin cycles through all the different keys, one Étude at a time.

In fact, each picture has 'its own idea' just like the Études by Chopin. And because they are small studies without a whole host of different relationships which might be housed in a larger and more complicated painting, there can only be room for one idea at a time.

When one listens to these small Études by Chopin I think one can understand that they too, possess but a simple melodic idea. It is in his Concertos where Chopin  develops a grand spiderweb of melodic harmonies. And a musical sketch is not too dissimilar to that of a painter's.

Each of my small pictures are distinct in the same way as each of Chopin's Études. And, although I also think that each picture is original, they are as different to one another as one sibling is to the next. Yet in them all, there is always a family resemblance somewhere, however obscure. And this ressemblance isn't just physical; not just the eyes, the ears, the smile, the feet! It relates also to the voice, the laughter, sense of humour, and the weird personal twitches shared in common between siblings but hardly discernable to outsiders. These are for me, in painting, the indescribable little quirks of a picture, the inexplicable brushstrokes or erasures, the marks of mistake rendering a work of art so distinctive and original, so human. 

And one only has to hear the first measures of a piece of music before one recognises the hand and soul of Frederic Chopin. And so it also is with a painter whose originality is visible for all to see at first glance. It's in the signature of the hand. It cannot be faked.

This is for me the remarkable way in which Art runs parallel to Nature in that Nature's logic is as original as it is repetitive in our visual world.

11 June 2020

trees wearing red rubies likes medals

 Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 6 June, 2020, oil on canvas board

I began a diary on 26 January, 1986. I was on a boat from Ancona to Piraeus, two nights and a full day of travel. The boat left late on the evening of the 25th and I had drunk much wine in a cafe in the Port before embarking. The next day in the early afternoon with a slight hangover I sat on the reclining chairs and started this diary in earnest. We sailed South and in the sky an army of small white clouds seemed to run past us in great haste back towards Italy. Surprisingly, I have pretty much written everyday ever since. It became a habit as I was hoping it would, finally. 

So, I include excerpts here in these pages as a supplement to my visual life. I began to transcribe them into my laptop 2 years ago. Little by little, word by word, needless to say, it has been a very, very slow process. I am only up to BOOK 4,... that's how slow it is. And yet what a pleasure it is to relive old memories, old trips, so many failed paintings, but so many great sunsets! So many museums in Europe in which I loved to be lost. There are two weird truths which come out of going through these old diaries.

One: I see that I was so much more grateful and full of joy than I remember during all those years. I had always, erroneously imagined that I was eternally depressed, but the diary tells me otherwise despite my sadness and sense of solitude often expressed in these pages.

Two: I realise just how golden it is to have youth on one's side, to have one's health. This is a precarious life for most of us, and to have good health is to have a great advantage. Health and Youth! 

And I come away from this by seeing that if Then was golden, then surely today is just as golden too. In twenty years time when I shall indeed be an old man, will I look back and marvel at,... no,... will I be Grateful for just how wonderful my life is TODAY?

1 November, 1989 (Châteaunoir)
Blood red sunsets these days. Small red lights sit on the trees as if they have been pasted upon them. It reminds me of the women in India who paste their cow dung onto the trees for drying, then use them for cooking. I remember so many trees covered with pale polka dots lining the dusty roads as far as I could see. And these trees too, at the Châteaunoir are also a tactile experience as well as a visual one. These Oak and Pine trees wearing red rubies likes medals pinned to their chests as far as I could see this evening.