17 October 2021

Van Gogh at the optometrist.

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 16 April 2018 oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

A real curiosity done sometime in 2019, maybe a July painting of a winter storm though it's hard to tell. But I came across it the other day and it started a small dialogue in my head.  

To be fair, it is a bit of wreck if one judges it by technical virtuosity alone, which of course it lacks in a conventional sense. But when I saw it again a long while, I was surprised at how well it conveyed the feeling of stormy clouds over the dark mysterious sea. Though I don't remember most of these small pictures, I do remember this one because I couldn't get the picture unified for the longest time until out of frustration, I took a larger brush and began sweeping it with circles as if I were using a broom. To my surprise, it worked so I stopped, and just let it be. Curiously, what holds the picture together are the pink bits of open sky in both the right and left hand corners. Like fingers, these bits of pink  grasp the large form, and they hold it firmly in place.

The effect of the picture is immediate. It's in your face, whether you like it or not. It seems flat, as if the massive and menacing clouds have been pressed into time, immobile, yet full of ruptured energy. It might even appear 'ugly' at first. But as Baudelaire once said:

"All truly great and original paintings often appear ugly at first". 

He could have been speaking of Van Gogh, but also Stravinsky. And I feel confident enough that he could be speaking about this image too. 

I want to paint things truly alive, almost breathing fire. In front of a picture, I wonder if I don't just desperately desire to feel that 'poof' of a feeling, as if one is at the optometrist when given the glaucoma test. In a fraction of a second the machine punches out air at high speed against your eyeball testing for pressure on the cornea. In the painting above I want that intense sensation thrown at the viewer in the same way. 'Poof', either one gets it or one doesn't. If one doesn't then either the picture isn't successful, or the viewer isn't. 

If I had not painted this picture, I believe I would still approach it with some surprise which is the only way I could express it. And though it was done in a decidedly European manner, it feels like an image which might have been done by a Japanese Zen monk who also happened to study Painting in the South of France! It shows an unusual aspect of Nature but from a very particular perspective; close up, and cropped. It doesn't manifest Concept (anathema to Zen) nor a conventional viewpoint. Yet it is a natural subject. It is a set of clouds mushrooming over a sea at dusk in an almost miniature scale as if chosen by a 75mm telephoto lens. It possesses a curious abstraction, maybe a bit too strange for most people's taste though. It reminds me of the music of Thelonious Monk; off kilter, and in your face, primitive and primeval, where technique is disguised as an autistic child.
It also made me think about what constitutes "being a painting". In this age of contemporariness, is it a mere momento? or perhaps a souvenir, or just out of date? 

But if an image conveys a feeling of the subject matter (the motif) like Monk, then, is it not at least partially successful? When I use the word feeling in discussing painting I never stray far from thinking of Vincent Van Gogh. We love him for his beautiful, terrible, and overarching uncontrollable feeling, as if he lived within an earthquake. 

He also seemed to have lifted the verisimilitude off the three dimensions of a theatrical stage by compressing them into a two dimensional drama on canvas.

He was a slave to his unabashed devotion in giving viewers his own sense of reality in pure and emotional terms. So though I don't compare myself to him, I do hold his work up as a model of how it can be done. It has been that way ever since I first read his letters at the important time when I was beginning to paint. He was certainly my greatest influence. 

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