31 May 2023

My audience is me and Monet

 Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 2 April 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

I have been peeking at this picture for weeks now and wondering why it has such a hold over me ever since I found it in the photo library and dropped it on the desktop. Since then it seems to stare back at me. 

My diary tells me that it was raining a lot last year in this first week of April 2022 when the picture was made, and also that I had only had just three days of sun at the beach. The 'Blooms' were good but short and they dropped off quickly like Russian dancers at the end of their number when they hastily vanish off stage in darkness. It also tells me that I am preoccupied by the war in Ukraine. What would I have thought then if I knew of the destruction to come over the next year? Though I’m listening to Brahms's Intermezzo a lot that week, to maybe sooth my heart it tells me almost nothing about this painting.     

But this week, about a year later, I see something in it I really like. It occurs to me also that like so many of my things, it may be just too simple, possibly too boring for most viewers in this synthetic visual world of today. This contemporary scene is really congested with so many charged images and ideas that I wonder if such simplicity could possibly attract a public whose taste appears to run towards entertainment.

In truth, I typically paint for a small circle of friends but in the end, my audience is really me. Recently, I was asked by someone about how I could keep working from the same motif over and over again for several years at a time to which I found myself replying like a true mountaineer:
"I climb this because it's there".

And to a great degree this is the truth though like many truths it is somewhat more nuanced. When I paint for me, I also mean for all the painters, all the ghosts whom I admire, both still alive and deceased. 

In the French film I loved from long ago, "Tous Les Matins du Monde", a master cellist, broken-hearted after the death of his daughter, he retires to become a recluse and he refuses to play for the Court of King Louis XIV. He tells a young protegé who badgered him about why he wouldn't come play for the Court. He explained that he only plays for the dead, and the unborn yet to come. I've thought about this line for years now because I, too, feel a supranatural connection with all the masters who came before me, and to all those unborn who will follow. I am surely not alone, I imagine that many different arts and crafts exert the same spell over each of their practitioners. 

This of course may scream of either megalomania or high melodrama, but truthfully, I was sincerely moved by this idea since I heard it in the film and it still stirs something inside me. It spoke about an historical lineage, but or tradition, something that for an American is confusing because we appear to operate in an open, circular system which, depending upon the vocation, spits out the past with an ease that shocks the rest of the world. Europeans, Japanese, Africans, Native Americans, all the older cultures of the world around us find our obsession with this American 'Manifest Destiny', a little too scary. We Americans seem too comfortable at habitually disposing our past in favor of our dreams for the future, one that never allows us this present moment. 

So I’m really curious about Art on a bigger scale, one that has a voluminous history, a world-wide one that has formed us, informed us, it has shaped how we think and feel, unconsciously, or by consciously ignoring it and offering us the Present. 

Although I like to think of my own quiet, discreet work as linked to the past I also think to the future, to where I might fit into this lineage of Art too. Leo, my teacher, always described this history like a large and special family, one that criss-crosses religions and cultures, histories and geographies up and down through time, a family large enough where its members share familial traits, even mannerisms across continents. This idea too, has worked inside me for decades,  and it too, has a future. 

Thus, I hope this little study which I like very much, can squeeze itself into the lineage of Painting History and find kinship with other larger works, ones certainly more grand and more visibly available in museums everywhere than in my small home on the Pacific coast of Australia.  

And just as I think of myself as linked into a communal past, I am also plugged into this mysterious place where I believe Painting can still go into the future. For somehow, I have this crazy idea that Painting could be re-attached to Nature if one can find the abstract means to navigate through the conceptual mine fields strewn over the international contemporary landscape. 

As I write this my thinking drifts over to someone like Claude Monet whose acute vision was formed by working from Nature from an early age. His vision expanded outward, certainly as much his ample waistline during his lifetime, and by the end he was able to create one of the mightiest works ever made by a painter; Les Nymphéas at the L'Orangerie in Paris. There he fused Nature to Art, compressing it into eight large heroic curved panels.   

After seeing them a painter might feel appropriately discouraged. But then he/she really should feel that discouragement, perhaps even be devastated by the truth, beauty, and grandeur of such a work. We are small next to this kind of artistic achievement and this is exactly as I think it should be. But at the same time it also foresees a future for us, one quite possible, if we could only find the bridge back to the past but for that we need humility, especially us Americans.

My little offering above is a fragment, but if it's a tiny fragment from such greatness, then I should happy.

25 May 2023

Henri Matisse, truly modern


Henri Matisse, Collioure, 1914, oil on canvas

I have always loved this painting by Henri Matisse. It’s an unusual one even in his own oeuvre, and I am curious about how he arrived at it. The drawing for it is tight, sober, but also extremely ambiguous indicating a set of open French doors. Once through them and looking outwards, it appears to be the night and a beguiling invitation to somewhere mysterious.

I like it for its light that emanates from every millimetre of its surface and this is because the 'drawing' for the idea of this picture is so 'right' and truthful. I am tempted to say perfect, but that is too much like the word 'genius', which today I try to avoid like I do a brown snake. 

Matisse created this dark opening that gently draws one outward into perhaps a late Spring evening where nightingales and wisteria compete for our attention. Would this be an invitation by the painter himself to gently 'leave the world unseen' as Keats had proffered in Ode To A Nightingale? Or was it an appeal for the viewer to make their own journey inwards to a nocturnal place inside oneself? And I am curious if he ever wrote about this picture?

Its colour harmony appears so simple yet it’s a sophisticated ensemble of muted tones arranged from a limited palette chosen from a place of sharp austerity.   

Once outdoors, the deep black violet sky sinks back into the night due to the light of the door frame on the left and the curtained one(?) at the right side, but also that bright vermilion blue green of the interior wall(?), if that is what it is, floats upon the surface of the painting in the foreground.

It is evident that this picture seems to be a bridge over which the latter-half of 20th Century Painting would cross. I am sure that it led directly to the large spaciously non-objective work of someone like Barnett Neuman, but also many of his friends at the 8th street clubhouse in New York, a rambunctiously artistic place in downtown New York City, back in the late 1940's and 1950's. It was a cauldron of raucous investigation (and celebration) into the possibilities for a new kind of American Art to emerge (right away!) because this was an impatient moment in America. 

Yes, sure, American painters took from Europe all the ideas they could they muster from artists throughout Europe, but somehow luminosity got lost in the mix. Perhaps the young Americans were so anxious to break down the conventionally conservative status quo after World War Two that they forgot about Light, that essential element without which paintings wouldn't open up large like an old camera lens.

Being Americans, even if just new arrivals, they did what Americans know how to do; break and destroy, then rebuild in their own image. This sounds cynical on my part but I think it's true. America seems to bring out the very best in humanity, but also the very worst too. And Art is no exception to this argument.

But hey! This is my own idea, everyone else gets to investigate for themselves, and they should. But certainly this is a big topic for another time. 

Yet, this wonderful picture by Matisse speaks to me, and to many others too, no doubt. And in its own way, it also broke down conventions in 1920's France. But it did not forsake light in the process. 

Matisse painted hundreds of 'window' pictures over his lifetime, mostly they were bright and joyful, full of colour, but this one is unusual. It's a nocturnal picture painted just before the outset of World War One, and though one could envision the comforts of a well-lit interior, a protected place perhaps, it might also foresee the dark madness to come.

17 May 2023

Henri Michaux meets Brunswick Heads

 Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 18 April 2023, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Ouch, two dark studies from a murky sky, a night wherein I worked without holding much hope. In fact, when I had arrived at the beach the sky looked unpleasant already as if in a bad mood. Naturally, this put me in a bad mood too.

But I was there, so,... I unpacked and cautiously made a palette, then immediately felt uninspired. 

But these strange things did come out of the session so I dutifully packed them up. The larger one above was slightly damaged due to my clumsiness when it partially dropped into the sand. I did what I could to clean it off a few days later when it had dried, but alas, it bears the scars in the upper right corner.

   I       Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, oil on canvas board, 25 X 20 cm

I think what I like about the larger one above at top, is that it comprises an element of which my old friend François de Asis calls 'les signes' which became quite a movement when the Belgian artist, Henri Michaux (1899 - 1984) filled his abstract paintings with what he labeled 'les Signes' (literally translated as ('marks'). This evidently expressed an early fascination with what has now exploded onto the Painting scene and is commonly known today as 'mark making', which corners a copious field of its own in the Contemporary Art school's curriculum worldwide.
His oeuvre was never my cup of tea, though François liked it, and seemed to take away something from it for his own painting. That's the way the history of Painting works; taking this, discarding that, stealing this, and destroying that....etc, etc,,,

Michaux, part Tachiste, part Surrealist, part poet, he was nonetheless quite cerebral (naturally, because he's French), and I am sure that he invented this style of working long before Pollack began making his own pictures by splattering enamel onto a canvas from the paint store.

Some examples of Henri Michaux;

and this figurative curiosity I really, really like;

But anyway, though my painting above is not a non-objective picture like so much of Michaux's, nor do they manifest the philosophical XXXXX maxim to the arbitrary dictates of surrealism, there are nonetheless, four or five streams of different marking textures everywhere in it, as indicated in the very 'drawing' of the painting. I am glad for this, for it confirms that I am more classical a painter than what came out of the Impressionists and Cezanne. This is to say that although I can work in their spirit at times, I am really more 'Renaissance' in the attention I can pay to the various kinds of natural surfaces appearing in this world of elements (i.e. stone surfaces as opposed to water, or metal as opposed to the human skin, air to hair, etc, etc,..) 

The later Cezanne, and perhaps all the true Modernists onward from the Impressionists to Matisse and the Fauves, approached every painting surface like a mosaic of brush strokes, often wildly uneven at times, but fluently distributed, regardless of Natural's tactile diversity (a kind of visual version of Darwin's theory of evolution though in a purely abstract and visual context). This technical side of Modernism is one of the less discussed aspects of it, maybe because it's not part of the larger, more theoretically seductive side of its social contours. To be honest, I only just came up with it for myself while writing this. I think because it's a painter's issue, not one for the larger, historical discussion which critics generally like to swim around in. 

But,, whoa, this is a big conversation, more than I had wanted to chew off! I would need a whole chapter of examples and documentation to further explore it. But because  I am a painter, not an academic nor critic (in the worldly and economically driven sense) it might be above my pay grade as they say these days. Basically, I'm really only interested in my own understanding of Painting and Art as holistic ideas selfishly  for myself. How to create and make things that work successfully on a two-dimensional surface is always the real deal for me. 

But anyway, getting back to these two particular images of mine, I was curious about how these marks and brushstrokes have an antecedent in the history of Painting, and how, even if I don't always live in this older world, I like to dip my toes in it from time to time.


04 May 2023

Maurice Denis, finds simplicity and grace in this painting

I have always loved this painting! But curiously I have never really be a fan of Maurice Denis who was one of the Les Nabis, the group whose more notable members included both Eduard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. He was certainly prolific but so much of his grand figurative works has always seemed a little confusing to me. 
Les Nabis (according to Professor Google) comes from the Hebrew and Arab term for Prophets. I had always understand that they were interested in Symbolism and the Occult which is why I always assumed that both Vuillard and Bonnard, who were the truly great painters in this collective, fled the group to follow their own paths to glory.

But anyway, this wonderful picture above is a gem I think. And it's precisely so because it holds a vision that really opens up outwardly through the window of nature by abstract visual means unlike the conceptual approach prescribed by Les Nabis

I like it so much not just because it works, but also because it captures that lonely and somewhat poetic winter moment, a particular instant when one finds oneself in a darkening valley chill and separated from the last bit of sun just out of reach in the Western sky. When a painting is specific but not sentimental, it's an achievement. But it's also special because it evokes nostalgic memories from the France of my youth where scenes like this were commonplace. 

In this painting is a composition of a set of farmhouses and small road all lit up together in contre-jour against a dark, earthy landscape of warm pale hue. It's a strange sort of motif, almost a bit wonky but very original. I like it’s unique drawing which is in fact at the root of it’s originality. Something in the buildings tells me that it was done somewhere in the north. The cedar trees(?) or perhaps they are cypress trees, all woolly and unkept, climbing in a straight line to the top of the ridge. The four blue, thin clouds above, appear to be the only 'cool' colours in the whole composition of an otherwise bland warmth. The yellow sky in this pictorial context should almost feel exuberant but it doesn't really, it's a winter sky all the same and it speaks to the cold night coming swiftly. 

The following idea has been attributed to Denis one which I had never seen before but like very much. It's a frank description of Modernity in a Painting world before it became captive to the Contextual prison in which much of the Art World has become trapped.

“A painting — before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote — is essentially a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a certain order.”