08 August 2022

the fine art of illustration


I saw this last week in the NYT, and I just loved this image! This is very strong.

It's a difficult truth but Great illustrators are often so much more talented than even just the good painters these days. They really put them to shame, but then again it is the New York Times which has a stable of the very best of the best of so much.

Not much more to say about it except maybe that where a great illustration hits its mark is always in its graphic punch. This is usually where 'fine artists' seem to fall down. But Subtly, too, is a fine art in the world of illustration and a difficult thing to teach, to learn too. One has it or one doesn't. 

07 August 2022

Really?? No wonder civilians hate Contemporary Art


Yes! I know I am a killjoy when it comes to certain kinds of Contemporary Art. After all, Contemporary Art is a big tent and it has to be because in fact, it is what's going on in today's world of art. But hey! This is too easy of a tried trick, like fast food, of which most is junk and made that way because the Corporate world doesn't care about what the public consumes. And I would say the same about this. High end art galleries and museums and institutions operate the same way. Directors and curators are trying to hang onto their own tenuous jobs in a rough and tumble world of money and crappy content. 

But this particular installation feels tiresome and worn out and even by 1996 it was already a cliché but today it feels like a Hollywood film trying to pull the wool over its audience with cheap effects. Joseph Bueys did all this stuff years earlier and he did it much better.

Alas,,,,, what to do?

04 August 2022

Ikigai and the value of wealth


'reason for being
Ikigai is a Japanese concept that means your 'reason for being. ' 'Iki' in Japanese means 'life,' and 'gai' describes value or worth. Your ikigai is your life purpose or your bliss. It's what brings you joy and inspires you to get out of bed every day.7 May 2021

Ikigai, as explained above, is the Japanese equivalent to the French term raison d’etre, meaning (though slightly more laboriously) the purpose for one's whole being. But anyway, and typically, as with all things Japanese, there is a holistic idea embellished within and it embodies a comprehensive understanding of the Nature of all things. I say this because in America, it seems that there is a great divide between the world of Man as regards to flora and fauna. The American mind conquers Nature in stark contrast to the way of the Japanese which is born of an older culture, one that had been relatively isolated for several thousand years. It seems to me that their own human experience of living in the Natural world of plants and animals has arisen from folding themselves into their own geography. This is an advantage of living on a small island unlike the large continent called the United States. 
But, I am already off track because I really just wanted to speak to this idea Ikigai from a painter's point of view because when I came across it I was reminded of how privileged it is to be a painter in this increasingly hyper-technical world of machines. So many people in the developed world appear to be falling into a funnel of dysfunction due to a lack of any personal pathway in life that is separate from an attachment to these new 'smart' devices. To proceed ahead in life with enough means to provide for housing one's own family, educating their children and having the free time to express themselves creatively is a challenge despite also a living in a world of ease unheard of even 100 years ago.
The privilege of a life lived as any creative person, someone whose devotion places a complete attention to the creative act at all times is an anomaly in this new world of technology. 
But again, I go off on tangents. I suppose what I am asking is just how does one live any creative life, and what sacrifices does one need to make in order that happen? I don't know the answer, I used to think it was just having enough of a material means to get by but now I think it's much more than that.
For me, it means living in a space hovering between both the past and the future, a place where one's own personal history has confronted the fear of death. Because I have no family which is a luxury and a curse, it's a place where the importance of one's day is completely bound up in 24 hour cycles. It's a place where one has enough, and one doesn't need much more. It is enough to work at one's own craft knowing that the fact of failure is paramount in the day. 
I used to have a few things in life, material things but any more desire to acquire has been supplanted by the thirst to just live creatively in the unknowable present. And Painting, like so many other vocations is a perfect vehicle for this endeavour.   
I suppose that being an American naturally means to manifest American Exceptionalism. It means to be bold and courageous, it means carving out a life with little care to the Natural world or of even of one's consequences. But also as an American I was brought up to acquire, yes to create too, but mostly to create more and more money, material wealth. And this is at odds with Ikigai wherein the notion of wealth means something different, something where to have values means everything. With this understanding, is not the wealth of values more important than the value of wealth?
To live as an artist in today's world is enough, more than enough. 

31 July 2022

Satie and his childish children

Pan Am, Myocum, July 2020 oil on plywood, 180 X 120 cm

In the spirit of Ikigai which will be explained in the next post, here two recent pictures from my studio. They are larger and they take a bigger place in one's life and wall space. Unlike the Evening Prayers done from the motif, these are 'non-objective' pictures meaning that there is no anecdotal message or story for the viewer. This is pure painting, painting for painting's sake. 
Being a fan of Erik Satie, I think of these paintings in much the same way that he composed many of his own small works. In some of his oeuvre he wanted to create a new genre of music that might appear to be incidental, accidental even. His compositions floated in the background and were to be appreciated while at the same time taking in other aspects of the present moment, visual, or in a dreamy reverie. 
Erik Satie, for such an innocuously unpretentious man, inspired so many important and popular composers of the latter half of the 20th century. Our world today would be a different and poorer place without his lighthearted spirit of mirth. Nor would the works of John Cage, Terry Riley, Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich, among many others, be quite the same without Satie. He legitimised the art form of ambient music. Many visual artists during this era were also surfing the same kind of ambient form in art schools and lofts everywhere. 
And the second half of the 20th century brought about movement(s) and connections. Air travel became the obvious means of bringing artists together even faster than ever before. Suddenly fusions of so many different visual and plastic arts converged with science and music, politics and philosophy. Collaborations sprung up everywhere on earth like wild flowers. Being younger, I kind of missed this era by just a few centimetres, a little like a small boy who couldn't see over a fence because he was too short. 
OK,... but what I really wanted to explore is the idea of Ambient Art, but not like the riotous everyday household of Claes Oldenburg and the POP artists of the 60's. 
Mais non! I am looking for an ambient art that lives among us far more discreetly, one like an apparition of Monsieur Satie tiptoeing with an umbrella down a foggy street. 
In these paintings I thirst for an art form that knows its place in the room, one that knows where to place itself on a wall in the world, an art form that doesn't scream out to the poor guest as he/she enters such a space. 
Yet, also I long for an art form that lives and breathes the same air as the guest, one which is full of paint and full of tiny mistakes, one  with simple questions but complex answers too. And when they work, the colours are cousins and the drawing is fresh. There is nothing too extraordinary about them, they resemble those quirky, discordant measures in one of those Gnossiennes by Satie; magnificent and ephemeral but unremarkable all the same. For me that is their charm, these are paintings that inhabit my own walls purely for my own personal pleasure, and hopefully they won't scream at my guests, just surprise them.

Pan Am, Myocum, July 2020 oil on plywood, 220 X 130 cm

30 July 2022

At sea, reeling and feeling....

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 28 July 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 28 July 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

In order of appearance from the other night are four studies which came one after the other in quick succession. It was a great seance because the 'Bloom' seemed to last forever and I left the beach in the dark, alone and happy. 

I had arrived a little earlier than usual at the motif which revealed, in the top picture, a rather quaint-looking placid blue sea under the lemon sky at the very beginning of its pale metamorphosis. 

In the second one down, the colours begin to burn from the heat of the sun dropping behind me in the East. 

In the third one (below), the whole sky implodes with light, and the delicate evening blast appears to weave a structure embossed of mystical proportions. 

Little else to say about them except that the very last one is much more colourful than the photo reveals. In this last picture the evening bloom had evened out considerably and it is at this point when the entire scene appears wrapped in a veil of pink silk. The colour harmony is rich but for the life of me, I couldn't reproduce in photo.

I like them all maybe because I took such pleasure in them but also because the last two (below) were a real struggle but I persevered and I left with the goods like a fisherman who fought mightily with a large and rebellious marlin vanquishing it after an exhausting battle. Mine was quicker and far less tiring of course, but no less satisfying. 

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 28 July 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 28 July 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

20 July 2022

Help! Here comes a GIF! Cyrano de Bergerac exalts!

Being a visual creature I am really surprised that I didn't go into films when I was younger. I sort of know why, but I am still surprised nonetheless from the vantage point in this quixotic future place of today. 

I didn't go to film school because I had no idea who I was, nor did I have any sense that I had anything to say. I was a dreamy romantic, immature and lost, and so naturally I went to Europe to drink wine and read philosophy. 

But as fate would have it, upon arriving there for University I met a painter (Leo Marchutz) in Aix-en-Provence who would change that part of me, some of it, the philosophy bit, but the drinking red wine part didn't change. In any event I became beholden to a new world of visual discipline, one centred around Painting. 

But like other dreamers, I was always going to see films any time I could. Then, when video came out I embraced that world too, and I have made about a hundred brief small things under the nom de guerre L'air de rien. Just for fun, here is a GIF made in Vimeo from one of my one minute videos from the i-phone back in 2018. It doesn't work as a GIF, but hey! It was my first try. I hadn't been into my account there in a long while and it turns out, to my surprise  that they have created many new options for videos posted with their site. One of them allows a user to make GIFS from one's work, quite easily in fact. So, indeed, it opens a whole new field of fun!

À l’Orangerie

But of course, it's a crowded field out there because everyone, it seems, has become a video artist in one small way or another as we now live in a world of visual absurdity, whether we like it or not, whether it's TicTok or not.

But I like it, most of it,,, some of it anyway. Better that people are shooting videos than guns, as we say up here in the Bronx. And of course the smart phone has become the tool of the trade for this explosive bouquet of craziness.

And finally, there is the GIF which arrived not too long ago (but long after the ubiquitous emoji though) and I embraced it quickly, entirely, completely, and besottedly like a young lover in high school. I found an immediate comfort in its innate cryptic wit. A well place GIF is a marvellous thing, a light touch of the quixotic quip, (think of Dorothy Parker in the sack with Marcel Proust).

And the GIF reminded me of an early hero of mine from boarding school. In an English class as an awkward boy of 14 I discovered Cyrano de Bergerac, and my fantasy life changed forever. Using his wicked wit instead of a sword, Cyrano  devastated his rivals, his enemies, and conquered love in an odd ball sort of way.

But I loved him immediately, he became my hero (more about that one day), but henceforth my wit would save me from any scrapes in life, I could be free forever with a sharp tongue. 

I soon discovered that a GIF too, could slice and dice with the just appropriate retort of irony. There is a certain art to it in a dime store sort of way. GIFS are to emojis as Van Gogh is to Julian Schnabel. Responding with a great GIF is a high art form and reveals something intimate about the user that might normally hide behind an insipid text. One can express anger, surprise, laughter or faux sadness (faux everything!) because a GIF's DNA is basically irony. 

"Brevity is the soul of wit"

I forget who said this (Nixon?),,, but it's a truism that survives even our most postmodern cynicism because realistically, the world really does need more irony.

Some of my GIF faves are Spanky, but one needs to be a certain age to understand this, Obama thinking wtf? Robert Redford, ditto for a certain age; and this curiously bent alteration of Robert Redford for those who really appreciate la double entendre. But, lots of other weird ones too, most of which I will keep secret in order to surprise some of you in the near future. Sadly, as you can readily attest, GIFS won't work in this Blog format so the following static image will have to do. 

And yes, we do live in world of disinformation and altered facts, but on the bright side, we live in a world of alteration too, and for this we are indebted to the artists of the early 20th century Europe who forever changed our take on the grand Bourgeoisie who ruled over everyone with their boring mannerisms. I don't often give big shout out to the Surrealists but today I will. 

17 July 2022

simpletons using paintbrushes for crutches

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads,  8 July 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads,  8 July 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

From last week is a curious set of studies. The Winter bloom has kicked in, and with a small moon the light becomes electric both in the East and Western sky.

These all feel a little unfinished which is OK because I think of them as studies anyway. Yet sometimes the motif is so rich with colourful possibilities, and because it changes so quickly, I just want to hop aboard like a commuter catching a red double-deck bus in London. The speed of execution might seem frantic to an observer but to the painter it is just a colourful pin wheel spinning easily always just beyond one's reach. It's also a double-edged sword that slices through both catastrophe and serendipity in one blow. 

These four were done on the same evening. The one just below is my favourite, one that works completely I believe. The others possess elements in each one individually which feel quite sexy and appealing but they don't quite hold up as a 'unified whole' which is always the goal. I cannot remember the order in which they were painted either but my favourite was likely made first judging by the colour of the sea. 

So again, for me, in this series, the trick is to paint quickly, seizing the motif by the throat if one can, and trusting one's intuitive sense of craft which is basically the whole of one's own painting experience, unless of course they're simpletons and they've painted and painted but learned nothing. 

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads,  8 July 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads,  8 July 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

15 July 2022

The Dig and an eternal eye turns towards to the present

This is a film-still that came after the credits for the film THE DIG which came out a few short years ago. I saw it twice because I have always had a crush on Cary Mulligan but also because I loved the story and it's a practical way to spend time in rural 19th century Britain without having to use a Time Machine.

Viewing films by streaming services (this was seen on Netflix) seems to erase the age-old movie theatre habit of watching screen credits slowly unfurl at the end of a film. An old friend joined me for a film a few years back at the theatre in Byron. I was surprised to find out that he insisted on staying for the entire roll out of the screen credits to the very end. I remained in my seat too, of course, but I found it a little vexing to sit through it after feeling ambivalent about the film. He felt the same way but that didn't stop him from dutifully watching it till the end. The film was American Sniper, and it provoked a great, almost visceral argument between us on the drive home. It brought out old differing dialogues about war we've had over decades. 

But hey, this anecdote has nothing to do with The Dig. I only bring it up to explain how I discovered it after the end of the film. I managed to see this still video on the second viewing because I had left the credits rolling as I brushed my teeth before going to bed. My curiosity was piqued; what does it mean?

The camera was set high up above the last scene of the film showing a small table placed in the middle of the now excavated wooden ship buried in the 5th century. The camera slowly recedes further and further away to reveal an eye as seen above, the table becomes the iris which I found to be a wonderful visual idea. But again, what was the meaning?

The iris is bright blue and is situated in the middle of an almond shaped eye evoking a place maybe further afield than Britain,,, Mesopotamia? To me, the eye looks sad, a bit forlorn, perhaps a knowing look of wisdom as if Eternity itself was now awake and checking into to see what is going on in this present moment. 

I can imagine that Eternity would indeed be forlorn if it got a glimpse of what Man has gotten up to over these past millennia. Ouuuuf, as they say in France,,,, It's not a pretty sight despite so many creative marvels made everywhere around the world. This greatness is offset a hundred times over by the fact that there have been too many Donald Trumps and Vladimir Putains reigning over the rest of us disposable mortals.

Eternity cannot not turn a blind eye to this terrible fact that many awful men (and a few awful women, maybe) seek to destroy all that is good and creative on this mother earth.

01 July 2022

Hakuin Ekaku revived from the dead


So again, I find older posts which seem to have great meaning for me.

29 June 2022

doubt is our passion


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

This delicious study came to me the other day because each week Facebook throws up memories on a certain day of the month from years past, almost always on the same day of the month, hence, June 25 2020, 2019, 2018, etc, etc going back five or six years. It's an interesting window, a commercial one no doubt but one which I have come to appreciate over time as one can see old things anew. So, to my surprise, this one came up the other day and it really gave me  a jolt. 

Since I began this series I have struggled at times (most of it) to find something from this motif which really knocks my socks off and will carry me to the stars. To be honest, I schlep through so much muddy failure that I have sometimes felt like a German soldier stuck outside of Stalingrad during Hitler's failed attempt to conquer it in 1944. Thankfully, it's subtropical here, but failure is still always failure. 

And yet once in a while, I do manage to succeed beyond my own still obscure and yet to-be-detected visual ideas, my inchoate longings "to settle things once and for all" in this creative loop. This one study has everything I have been looking for in the motif. How to describe that feeling? I am suddenly reminded of something Henry James once said:

"We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have , our doubt is our passion, and passion is our task -- the rest is the madness of art."

What I do like, most importantly, is that there is nothing in it which bothers me, there is no fault with it, all the ingrediants have come together as when a chef has created the perfect meal. Its colours are right and they are balanced in both value and hue, and these create 'the drawing' of the picture which has given us just enough of any idea to understand what we are looking at out in Nature.  And yet it is fluid so unlike a realistic likeness which, frozen in time, cannot breath into the wind nor exhale the clouds. The picture is also flattened, compressed like an excited candy bar, wrapper and all. This flat quality is everything I have been secretly coveting since finally 'seeing' Matisse only a just few decades ago. As a painter I came to him late in my life because I didn't know how to jump off Van Gogh's cliff and survive. 

Moreover, I see all of my painting heroes in this small unpretentious study. Of course, I am grateful that I am the author of it, but if I saw it anywhere, on any wall, celebrated or otherwise, I would run to it like a child does to a happy and furry dog. I just love the immediate feeling of joy in this painting. It sings, and I can say this because it is so rare that I have been able to get it right for myself. It is the feeling of surreal clouds at sunset, and for at least once in my life, I managed to get it right. And, it is not locked to the horizon line but can exist beyond it.

But I do not expect anyone else to feel the same exuberance or surprise as me yet at the same time I would certainly wish for it because for me this is what Painting is about; a communication of non-verbal feelings, not about relaying messages. I think this kind of art lives in the shade of humanism and no longer under the shadow of the Church. Today, messaging is best communicated by tweet.

Painting like any other art form is a uniquely personal experience so unlike the messaging of ideas too often shared cerebrally, almost with banal excess and without much of a commitment to any emotional investment. 

Painting and non-fiction literature have so much in common despite their different means of conveyance. A good picture is like great fiction because it’s invented, made up. And every novelist knows that fiction, like a great painting, has more truth in it than real life.

19 June 2022

rose perfume upside down


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

A couple of wonderful evenings of late as I rediscover the winter skies again. This past week the seas have been pale turquoise and the sky goes pink, the colour of perfume. I made six or seven studies over the course of those few days but for fun, I decided to turn this painting (above) upside down to look at it. It's interesting, with perhaps more visual logic than in its original state (below).  

One could say that what is true isn't always real, and in Painting, what is real isn't always true. But the most important thing in Painting is whether or not an image works, real or otherwise. In other words, how does it stand up to time, upside down or not.

15 June 2022

'Twas beauty that killed the beast

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, June 9 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Well, well, the weather has changed, most thankfully! After I don't remember how many months of incessant rain, the skies are mostly clear, and I am again allowed to work at the beach at twilight. As we approach the winter solstice here on the east coast of Australia the afternoons close up like heavy iron doors each day before 17h. But by the end of next week the days will again grow longer allowing us more light-filled afternoons (hooray!)

When I returned to the motif last week for a string of good days to paint I felt like a novice again, a beginner as if I knew nothing. But because I love the Zen painters of Japan, I can also again love embracing 'beginner mind'. When I know too much about Painting (or anything else) I become a smarty pants, and this is deadly for any artist.

And so I approached the motif with a lot of trepidation but also with excitement too, like a young child. These four studies all came quickly over the last week. What they share is a pale turquoise sea right before the onset of dusk. Many of the other studies dig into the deep violet sea which comes afterward as the twilight deepens into the dark drama of mystery before nightfall. But these in particular have something in them which I really like; They seem to possess that incredible 'lightness of being', (to steal the title of Milan Kundera's brilliant book of yesteryear) and this pleases me, especially the one just above. I am always amazed and grateful that this motif is the gift that keeps on giving and giving, giving ever more generously. 

Of course it's the same motif I first approached five years ago, and its behaviour hasn't altered an iota. What has changed is me, because I am a better painter, because I see better now. And that is what a good and hardy motif can teach even a mediocre painter. 

Somewhere, some French painter of the recent past has said (or must have) something like the following: 

"One tames a motif over time with persistant work from it."

Could it have been Monet? Bonnard? Maybe even Cezanne or Van Gogh who might have written down such a thing but in any event, it was, and is still a modern thought. And so it occurs to me (who is a smarty pants in the end) that maybe this idea is a little backwards. Indeed, if it's even real in the first place or perhaps just a figment of my imagination from having read so much correspondance between painters over the years. But nonetheless, it does occur to me that it may very well be backwards because I have come to understand that it isn't me who has tamed the beast, but the beast who has tamed me. It is the motif which dictates what choices I make and how I will proceed because of them.  

And this reminded me of that famous line at the end of King Kong when the poor beast has fallen 60 stories to its death, a journalist remarks 

"Well, I guess the planes finally got him in the end!" 

to which the film producer responds

"Nah, it wasn't the planes that got him, 'twas Beauty that killed the beast"  

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, June 8 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, June 6 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, June 10 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

01 June 2022

sloppy coherence


        Around Siena, oil on canvas board, 35 X 27 cm

To continue the idea of the last posting, here is a small study made back around in 1986 while in Tuscany on a trip. It's sloppy but there is a feeling in it which I have always liked. Most importantly though it has a feeling in my own painterly sensibility which has endured all this time. Despite its sloppiness there is the universal feeling of Siena under the dry and terrible heat of August. 

The following studies go back a few short years in this Evening Prayer series that I embarked upon in December 2017 and which has remarkably endured for five years. I include them here because they share a certain coherence with all my earlier work. Sloppy still, yes for sure, but hopefully they possess the most crucial element in Painting; that of Unity, which demands the sacrifice and the submission of all the separate parts of a picture to the integrity of whole image. It is at the heart of the French Romantic tradition developed in the second half of the 19th century. And this was my chief education going into both the 20th and 21st centuries. 

3 September 2019 oil on canvas board, 30 X X 25 cm

23 December 2018 oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

29 February 2020, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

       28 March 2021, oil on canvas board 30 X 25 cm

29 May 2022

pondering peregrinations of a painter


a beginning begun sometime in 2018.

The thing about creation (in practically anything) is that for me, it is about opening up to the possibilities at hand because when I do that I have a fair chance to create something interesting, something beyond the moment. I say this because it's too easy for me to lock into an idea about a painting, or a motif, and because of that I find myself stuck within walls of indecision and unable to proceed freely. 

So it's funny that in grocery shops, surrounded by colourful items, freely associating with anything I seem to think about Painting. Is it all the shapes and sizes, is it the textures and materials, the cacophonous screams of bright colours, all of which beckon me (and everyone else) to dream and desire? And so yesterday afternoon, this very thought came to me right in front of the gourmet cheese section; 

‘Just as a work of art should naturally come from somewhere, it must also naturally, and organically go somewhere also, one's work needs coherence.’

I doubt it came to me just because I was looking at cheese. But then Carl Jung might say that just as cheese comes organically from animals, paintings too, have roots, and they come organically from other paintings, at least, this was my thought anyway... Phew...

So for me as a painter, not only do paintings come from other paintings, like in a series, but also from the vaults of one's visual past in everything one has ever seen outside in museums, books, and in other's studios. An artistic life is more or less one large department store full of colourful ideas and shapes no matter what floor one finds oneself on. 

But more specifically, I think I was interested in how organic ideas seem to grow from picture to picture over a prolonged series of work. In my own case these pictures made at twilight on the beach. It’s as if in a pictorial language, a personal dialect has evolved so much that each picture speaks and understands all the other ones. Perhaps it’s even like when at a large family reunion, where close and distance cousins meet up with each other, where elderly aunties and uncles smile, nodding at one another from across large ballrooms, where everyone looks for, and maybe finds similar and recognisable traits in other family members however distant.

So coming from somewhere is established by their past, but ‘going somewhere’ is more obscure. Does it mean that the past somehow indicates the future? In retrospect we can easily see this in most every painter’s life when it’s over. All the twists and turns of a painter’s pictorial peregrinations are visible suddenly like on a map for the first time. The artist himself/herself would not even remember all the decisions made to get from place to to the next, from one idea to another. 

But what interests me equally, is that a painter’s pathway into the future need not only be coherently connected to the past, but also to the future possibilities, as if there is a window already opened by the younger version of the painter much earlier on their career. Just as an acorn becomes an oak tree, the seed of the late work is already stored inside the young painter.

Here are some Van Gogh portraits to maybe ponder, just for fun.

Nuenen, Holland, November 1884

Nuenen, Holland, February 1885

Paris, early 1886

              Paris, Winter, 1886-87

Paris, Spring 1887

Paris, Summer 1887

Paris, Winter 1888

Paris, Winter December 1888

Saint Remy, September 1889

24 May 2022

the mysterious beauty of breath

Lately, at the most very random moments in a day my thoughts turn to a subject which continually abuses my mind about our contemporary culture, notably concerning Art and Entertainment. I say this because they seem to have been reduced to a kind of cultural equivalency. And yes, both are big industries in the world economy, though mostly in the American one, but nonetheless, they are money-making machines,.. cash-cows, as they say on Wall Street.

And so, it has vexed me for the longest time because as any dear reader of this tiny newsletter will know, I do not see Painting (as well as many other art forms) as a form of entertainment. 

I will try not delve into other areas of this dialogue to keep it simple. But inviting literature into this discussion might help my point because I think we all accept that some books are inherently entertaining while others possess something more sacred. And ditto for music, as well as for films, theatre, and television too, for that matter. I am up for it all, though in my own case I almost never read anything to entertain myself except magazines and newspapers online (where I waste too much time) but ditto for music. But I do also watch all kinds of films and serials for many varied reasons. For me, at times, it’s just to watch the end of the world all squeezed together into a mushroom cloud but also, maybe just to be eating mushrooms with a crew of hobbits in Middle Earth. Some nights, I tag along with cops hunting down a serial killer with a fetish for blue feet. So when it comes to films and serials, my taste runs the whole gamut as they say in Tinseltown.

But I do try to discern various levels of artistic input in almost everything I engage with in life. So in films, I can be all over the shop. In music much less so as I am discriminating, but when it comes to Painting, I bring out my scalpel. 

This morning for instance, almost in a flash while playing piano, it occurred to me that this whole thing in my head was actually quite simple. 

The answer isn't complicated; It can be reduced simply to a level of pathos, of mercy, suffering and death, and a compassion built into the painting through the originality and skills of the painter. But of course it also needs to be well rendered too. With these elements it has a chance of moving us, the viewers, allowing us to see both life and death in each brushstroke. And this understanding of it naturally excludes a Post-Modern glib cynicism. 

But it doesn't have to be a Vanitas of Medieval times, filled with skulls and other morbid symbols from a dark monastery. On the contrary, a light-filled self-portrait by Van Gogh is more than enough, for he embodies all these traits I have listed above.  

Entertainment, on the other hand, only reveals a photocopy of that experience, and though it can be deliciously appetising in detail, it is still a kind of junk-food that will leave us empty afterward no matter how much we have ingested.

Personally, I usually feel nothing in front of cheap entertainment, but sometimes I can  freely indulge in it too, as with the guilty pleasure of watching James Bond seduce a woman half his age. But the thing is that I know it's just entertainment, I know that my senses have been manipulated by the cheap thrill of it, and I know I'm being entertained by it all with sheepish pleasure because I have consciously given myself up to it. 

But in the world of Painting where artists compete to entertain the public is where the trouble begins for me, for I like the carnival to stay at the carnival (what goes on in Los Vegas, stays in Vegas)

This an important consideration, a vital distinction which separates the men from the monkeys. For instance, when I read a novel I want something well written, a thing constructed of wit and intelligence, something which comes to me through a wise devotion of craft. I am not interested in dime store novels or airport-reading, though there is a place for them too (somewhere). 

A really great picture will also exhibit ‘a thing of wit and intelligence’ two qualities which arrive only after an arduously long and patient slog on the part of an artist to achieve this wise devotion to craft.

This glimpse of mortality in front of an art work is what moves us, and brings us to tears ultimately. But it isn't as easy in front of a painting as it is watching a film or an opera. If one has never wept in a movie house alongside others, one has not lived.

But again, tearing up while listening to Puccini’s Manon Lescaut may be a lot easier than to shed tears in front of a self-portrait by Van Gogh at the Courtauld Institute but they both evoke in us the same feelings of  mercy, suffering and death. Ditto for James Joyce’s short story The Dead, from his small book called The Dubliners. 

But yes, it is also in this presence of beauty too, where that very complicated word is inextricably bound up in the poet's own solemn understanding of death.

I am reminded also of Manet's late still-lives which he made the year before his death. Giving up his previous thirst for medals and fame, when infirm, he quietly gave himself to a series of bouquets in vases. The fallen rose petal risks to be a cliché under less gifted painters but I think these things he made at the end of his prodigious life were his very best. They are less grand perhaps but more poetic, they are timely symbols of both life and death in one breath. Today, a still life will suffice when we remember that Nature Morte (in the French) means exactly that. 

So, contrary to entertainment, Art isn’t about ‘killing time’, it's the shadow of life folding under the last breath.