22 February 2022

Pierre Bonnard est un ange qui me surveille de loin

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

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

Here are two studies from last week which were both made the same night yet feel quite different from one another. The first one I painted is on top, while the second study arrived along with a red curtain of dusk 20 minutes later. 

Lately, I have been struggling with finding my way into 'something new'. Like a kind of writer's block I think. The only answer is to persevere and to remember that one cannot give up before the miracle. And this is a truism for me but at the same time there are ways to freshen things up in this solitary line of work. While it is wise to keep at it in a disciplined fashion, there are ways to shake things up at the same time. So I have cleared an area in my studio and have separated lots of older pictures which don't quite excite me. It's usually because they are boring for one reason or another, or they lay around my house in a state of limbo like bored teenagers because I haven't had the courage to paint over them to begin again. 

So, on the better ones I've started adding touches of colour, patiently looking for a way into them in hopes of finding an answer from the distance of both time and space. I am looking for the penultimate ending, like for a writer at the end of his/her novel. 

And all this, of course, makes me think of Pierre Bonnard, the King of Patience, himself! Apparently, he worked on canvas's tacked up on his studio walls for months and years on end. He painted (I believe) with a painfully slow deliberation as if Time itself had slowed down to a crawl. Really great things in art possess that awful cliché of 'timelessness', but it's true. Once a successful artwork lives, it lives forever; music, books, architecture, poems, paintings, they are all created in their own time, only to then live on in eternity (and as my cousin Frank in the Bronx always used to complain, what can you do about these clichés anyway, huh??) 
But then, this also leads me to some of Bonnard's famously discreet but brilliant things he said in letters to friends (which I have quoted several time already in these pages over the years). Here are a few which I read continuously through in times of difficulty in my own work. I hope your French is good.

"L'oeuvre d'art; un arrêt du temps" 

"Ce qui est beau dans la nature ne l’est pas toujours dans la peinture. Exemples : effets de soir, de nuit"

J’espère que ma peinture tiendra, sans craquelures. Je voudrais arriver devant les jeunes peintres de l’an 2000 avec des ailes de papillon.

J’ai une palette. Mais les assiettes me permettent d’isoler les tons, tandis que la palette a le défaut de proposer, de les imposer, et c’est un danger. Ce sont des choses que l’on n’apprend que très tard. Ce serait trop facile de se mettre devant un paysage, de l’observer et de le transposer simplement sur la toile. Il faut encore songer au lieu où les toiles seront ensuite regardées.

Élément étranger : souvent le blanc pur ou le noir.

Il y a une formule qui convient parfaitement à la peinture : beaucoup de petits mensonges pour une grande vérité.

17 February 2022

lambs and things in the trucks on the highway


Les moutons dans les camions sur la route 1996, oil on canvas, 150 X 150 cm

This is a curious painting from 1998 when I was in the small studio at the Châteaunoir. I was working out in Nature but also in the studio, something I do today in Australia. I haven't eaten red meat since 1980, I stopped within weeks of Reagan's first year in office. That is the marker because in his first year in office he signed a bill to allow cattle farmers to use steroids in the animal feed while he, himself, kept his private herd organic. The mother******! But at the same time, I have had in my blessed life a Vegan friend who didn't eat anything "that would try to get away from him" as he put it, nor would he wear anything leather. He was a great influence upon my thinking.

I had flirted for years with the idea of giving up meat but I guess I saw this as my final opportunity so I did give it up. I remember the day it happened. I was sitting in a famous hamburger place called Jackson Hole on the upper East side. I was reading the paper at the counter when I suddenly looked up at everyone around me. Everybody (including myself) was thick into their tall, rare red hamburgers (This was after all, the go-to-joint for the best burgers on the East side). To my surprise there was a woman next to me eating and smoking at the same time. (man o man, those were the days! cigarettes in coffee shops!) It may be rude and politically incorrect to admit but in a flash, everyone in that place looked really awful to me. They were pale, overweight and on the whole very unhealthy looking. I was 29 at the time but I probably didn't look too good either to be fair. I might say I had an epiphany of sorts, because I put my burger down and swore I would never eat red meat again. I haven't. But I have eaten chicken a few times times since then because I was looking for protein, but that didn't really work out for me either and didn't last. But, I have been eating fish, though that too might be in the outbox soon too.

People have asked me why, especially in France because I lived in a really carnivorous area. It was always a bit awkward at dinner parties. But as I explained not without difficulty that I am always happy "with a salad and simple stuff", then I would meekly tried to change the subject.
"Oh... Vous vous n'inquiétez pas pour moi Madame! une salade me va très bien,,, et,,,, vos chiens sont magnifiques madame!"

Sometimes, I found myself saying the dumbest things in French. And those looks they would give me (!) which I tried to ignore... Ha ha, but after a while, they got used to me, and mostly everything was pretty cool and to my surprise, I was actually invited out quite often. 

But when I did give up meat I also became quite casual around food, I would eat some cheese, some bread, noodles, tomato salad, lots of fruit, anything easy, whatever was in the kitchen in fact, and fresh is always best. And I am still like that. But I come from America, and Americans are big people, they wear big clothes, it's a place where meat is the mainstay of a meal yet with time, this idea slipped away the longer I stayed in France. 

But then another reason that it was easy to give up meat was because I harboured feelings of affection for animals; cows, their young offspring (disguised as the word veal on menus) And I loved birds, and especially pigs too. I was too aware even then that they were poorly treated, so this too, was a consideration. But why do I eat fish, friends would ask? I responded that I cannot pet them. That is to say that I cannot have relationship with them. But, if push came to shove and I were stranded in the wilderness I would surely eat any meat to stay alive. So this meat thing works both ways; it's a luxury whether you are eating it, or giving it up.

I drove a lot in Europe in those days and I was especially upset when I saw trucks full of pigs and cows transported in awfully crowded conditions. The trucks were emblazoned with bright colours as if in celebration. Large pink pigs were painted wearing the iconic white chef's hat and waving to cars on the autoroutes all over Europe, and beyond. Of course it seemed ludicrous but understandable. These happy creatures could not be seen as prosciutto. 

And in today's world, still a tricky consumer world to navigate, where animal conditions have deteriorated further, (and continue to do so) where large conglomerates seem to dictate the diets for too many people in the Western world,
(Don't mention what's actually in Chicken McNuggets) it seems like an easy choice to give up meat and so I am so very grateful I did. 

So now forty two years later, in today's world it's completely different. Vegans rule! One can navigate mostly anywhere to get a vegetarian meal (except Spain and the Middle East). It's new world I am grateful today. 

This is the backdrop for the painting above, and I am sorry for the pedantic rambling about all this, and which may be completely uninteresting to all the carnivores out there who will think secretly to themselves: "This diet has made this guy barking mad!! I am sticking with meat!"

Anyway, I am surprised at how easily I can go off on such tangents, but this is the context behind the work, the backdrop for the context more precisely. I wanted to see if I could depict a painting that expressed so much of what I felt in pictorial terms. I guess this is still one of the holy grails for a painter. But during those years I only worked in sepia tones and black because I imagined that it was simpler at the time, but in fact, I now know that it's because I was afraid of working in colour on such a large scale. I was basically afraid I would fail because colour implies so much, and I wasn't at the time ready for it. During this time I also made a series of paintings about the Bosnian War and the siege of Sarajevo also using black and dark browns. 

12 February 2022

Nakamura, Ken'chi, war painter, and the wounds of a generation

I cannot remember where I saw these pictures, or which city even, was it Tokyo or Osaka, the Bridgestone Museum, or the Tokyo National museum? But anyway, and despite the poor photos made with an old i-Phone, I was certainly moved by these paintings. They provoked in me lots of feelings. 

Done in a very Western style almost leads me to believe that the painter had studied abroad, USA or Europe? I remember thinking that it was an ambitious subject matter, one that depicted this iconic event in Japanese military history. As I have spent time with these paintings over the past few days they have elicited long buried memories from my childhood because photos of the war littered our house. They were scattered everywhere, in our bookshelves and desktops, coffee tables and piano tops, and  making it feel, through a child's eyes, as if we lived in a black and white cemetery. Our mother, who had joined the Red Cross in Italy, hugs a soldier, one of many phantom photos of phantom people from a phantom and unreal time before my birth. Also too, there were photos of the young and handsome, the beautiful and the glamorous to a degree, and they seemed to live in the permanent glow of a party full of gaiety on the eve of World War Two.

But this painting as the title states is about a crash taking place at high altitude over Japan. One of the planes, the B-29-15 BW "Calamity Jane" was assigned to to the 20th Air Force, 468th Bombardment Group at Pengshan Airfield in China. It took off on the 20th of August 1944 piloted by Captain Cornell Stauffer on a bombing run against the Yawata Steel Works on Kyūshu island in Japan. Over the target this bomber was flying no. 4 position of a four bomber diamond formation. On the bomb run while releasing their bombs, a Japanese fighter Ki-45 Nick piloted by Sgt Shigeo Nobe rammed the lead bomber B-29 "Gertrude C" 42-6334 head on. A piece of the wreckage struck the the tail stabiliser of "Calamity Jane" in fourth position, shearing it off and causing the bomber to enter a spin and crash. Nobe's attack was the first deliberate ramming of B-29's over Japan. "Gertrude C" was obviously destroyed immediately by the fighter plane.

Four of the crew on "Calamity Jane" who survived had bailed out from the nose wheel door, the rest of the crew and pilot presumed dead. Out of the eleven crew, four survived and were captured, then interned at the Omori POW Camp near Tokyo. They were liberated after the surrender. Then Nakamura painted this epic air battle in 1945 barely one year later.

Most of us now forget this generation of heroes who climbed aboard these bombers. Indeed those lost in WW2 from all countries everywhere, both 'victors' and vanquished, perished alongside civilians, refugees, all the animals, large and small, horses by the millions, the pets, all the cats and dogs, but the homes too, and the churches and the farms alike, the artworks, along with everyone's personals. In war, no one wins despite what your leaders tell you.

Both Germany and Japan quickly became allies after all that! Of course they should be allies, but why all the destructive fuss in the first place?.... a reasonable person queries. 

I have been to Normandy a few times over the years, arriving at Dieppe from Newhaven in the UK or vice-versa. I loved taking the boat back and forth across the Channel between these two great nations, themselves at war with one another for centuries. My regret is not finding my way to the headstone of my Uncle Angus MacDonell who was a B-17 pilot and flew several raids in Germany before perishing over the sea. They never found the bodies of the crew nor the plane. They were listed like so many in the war as KIA (killed in action). But apparently, our uncle and the crew had reached the sea only to then disappear. How? Where? our grandmother and mother would ask themselves relentlessly thereafter. 

Most of these B-17's on bombing runs were shot down and crashed in Germany after being pummelled by fighters. The attrition rate for these raids from Britain into Germany was about about 40%. These pilots knew it but flew anyway out of duty, and hoping to be an exception to this statistic.

I think I never made attempt to locate his headstone because I had forgotten that he was lost over the Channel during the war. Wrapped up in my life I had forgotten this "Great Generation" as they are called and remembered, still venerated by the last veterans and their families. But like me, most Americans don't remember them. And this means that we will certainly still again go to war for small reasons, or none at all.

But, I have promised myself that the next time I get over to Normandy I will find this lost uncle's headstone. Like for so many other families in that time his death shattered our family. The wounds lingered on, infecting everyone, and disabling my mother's sanity. 

our uncle, Captain Angus MacDonell in his B-17

07 February 2022

Duncan Grant and a pillar of Abstraction

Here is another one of these orphan images which slink around my desktop in search of a home. If my memory is still solvent I am 99% sure that it's by Duncan Grant of the Bloomsbury crowd, and I think it came from one of the books I have about these remarkably talented and eccentric Brits. I like to look at it sometimes which is one of the main reasons that all my desktops are cluttered with images. My screens look like teenager's bedrooms.

This image above I believe is a gouache and perhaps a study of a stone sculpture which one might see around the gardens at Bloomsbury. The main house which is quite small in fact, with very low ceilings and not a lot of natural light is surrounded by a myriad of old red brick walls with many artistic additions here and there which always surprise the visitor. This gouache looks to be like something which might have been resting atop one of the many  brick walls zigzagging the gardens. 

I like it for its pure sensuality and the tactile emotional imprint, qualities achievable with gouache in the right hands. It is an image of an ornament but also for me, it is just a pure piece of abstraction. These muted colours also lend themselves to a somewhat primitive sort of application which indicates that this was painted by a poet, not a technician. The colours feel almost archaic; a broken black lifted from Pompeii and two Sienese favourites; red and salmon, as if chipped off an old villa.   

I love that it just exists in space expressed easily without too much thought. An idea put forth visually, but then too, as if were were no rhyme or reason for it. And for me, it truly feels like a an abstract work done for pure pleasure. It possesses self-expression but without the pretension of it. And even upside down it is remarkably intact.

06 February 2022

Andrea Mantegna, Matisse and Modernism (yet again)

So this is a re-print which I indulge in once in a while because I come across older posts which seem to speak to me in my current mind set (forgive my indulgence).

l'air de rien

02 September 2019

Andrea Mantegna, Matisse and Modernism

The magnificent Humanity of Mantegna and Matisse is alive and well in these images. Separated by 400 years, these two artists share an interest in depicting a full range of the human soul. What is lacking in sophistication in the last portrait (of Marguerite) is made up for in the simplicity of its expression. And, Mantegna is a hard act to follow, a bit like any popular band going on stage to perform after the Rolling Stones. But, it is through expressive means that paintings are bound to greatness despite the technique employed. And, Painting is about making visual decisions at every moment in the creative process.

I saw this small portrait of a young man (in pink) at the Capodimonte Museum in Naples many years ago. It was so small, and it was placed on such a large wall in a palatial room surrounded by so many great pictures by Titian that one could have easily not noticed it at all. But its presence was undeniable, like a beautiful child at a funeral procession. 

The modernity of Matisse's flat graphic space isn't new. It is but part of the curved arc of progression in Painting which returns always back to a graphic unity. I think of Giotto, from whom escaped Mantegna, and his training as a Renaissance painter. Giotto, who singlehandedly, had carried us out of the Byzantine and into the world of a truly Modern 14th century. It begs the question? What is the next step in Painting? Can we reel Post-Modernism back to an expression of Humanity?