18 December 2020

Bosnian war, they cut off noses don't they?


They cut off noses in Bosnia-Herzegovina, don't they?, August, 1995 oil on canvas, 80 X 50 cm

Many years ago I made a small series of paintings in which I tried to express some of the horror I felt when reading about the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. These pictures are so dark that I never even put them on my walls almost because somehow, I was too shy about showing this side of myself to anyone. It suddenly seemed too personal, not something I wished for anyone to see. It was a modesty, an embarrassment, but mostly though, just shame which the French call la pudeur.

Back in 1995, though I was in a different place and I just wanted to see if I could render such darkness in certain formal terms. I didn't want to indulge in wild black, nihilist abstractions which could mean little but reveal my own solipsistic demons. I did not want to create an image exploiting the theme of war out of some dubious politically-correct motive, that is to say, making an incoherent image to randomly slap a sexy war-torn cliché of a title on it. I absolutely did not want to sentimentalise it with too much frothy formality, a technically proficient realism one sees in museums from previous wars to glorify patriotic heroism (but I would not have been technically capable of this, anyway).

Of course I am analysing all of this 25 years later. I was thinking of none of this at that time. I just wanted to express an idea simply, without fanfare, without anything which could derail the immediacy of a pictorial idea.

I didn't fuss about how to do it, I painted it quickly with an idea which came from a clipping in the newspaper about the Serbs cutting off Muslim noses. At the same time, it made me think about all the rhinos and elephants of Africa whose tusks have been removed with a chain saw. 

For me, Painting is always using metaphor, but only an accurate metaphor for both the surface of the picture and its content. If the metaphor is apt, then it can hopefully become real enough in plastic terms to convey emotion.

As I was packing up to leave my large house in Dieulefit during this brief period I received lots of friends who came by to bid me adieu, and who were a little incredulous that I was actually leaving. Amongst them was an old friend who brought her new beau who was a therapist living in nearby in Poët-Célard.
We were in the studio where I was packing things up in quiet desperation, as one does when moving. I had put about 4 or 5 of these dark things around the empty studio walls when they showed up. The 'beau', whose name I have forgotten, was very interested in them. We looked at them together and after about 5 minutes we noticed that he was silently weeping, discreetly. And for the first time in my life I witnessed something one rarely seen as a painter; someone was actually weeping over my own work, and in my presence. Then consequently, I became moved by his tears, and all I could do was remain quiet, very awkwardly quiet. 

He confessed that it had never before happened to him,  this overt show of emotion in front of a painting. He was a therapist trained to a certain degree in stoicism, empathic yes, but stoic nonetheless. And, like for most of us, music, films, dance, books, and theatre demand an emotional response, but rarely in front of a painted image, (though I've heard of those who shed tears for Rothko). And, the painter should ask: why wouldn't it be that way for Painting too? Oui!    

Then, afterwards over tea in the garden, he more fully expressed what had happened for him. I became so moved by all his movement that I told him to pick out a painting for himself to take home as a souvenir of our meeting. He picked out a small landscape done many years earlier from Le Tholonet. 

After they left I remember thinking that the reason I feel such difficulty showing these things is that they are really all about my own childhood. They are about all the pain I had sealed away in my crypt of pride for so much of life. Why would I show that off to anyone? La pudeur, de rigeur!

I painted these dark things while at the Châteaunoir in my studio in the blazing summer heat. On one of the walls I had pinned up newspaper clippings about the war, one of which, a young Muslim child who was kissing the tombstone of his father killed by the Serbs. It was the visual inspiration for all the paintings done that summer.

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