20 August 2022

Margo Robbie, John Keats, and the problems of great beauty


Evening Prayer Brunswick Heads, 17 July 2022, oil on canvas board, 30 X 25 cm

This is a picture from a few weeks ago which came up as a surprise because at the time I had felt so uneasy about what I was seeing. The motif appeared too pretty and I was doubtful of making anything from it; in a word, it was too beautiful, too sweet, almost cloyingly so. Ha! 

And in front of such beauty I tend to shrink away like a toad, and that has been the case since childhood, when in the presence of a pretty girl I melted. But later too, older and unwisely, when confronted with the glorious and natural glamour of a woman I would still deconstruct inside.. But, hey!! Great beauty is troubling, it makes nearly everyone tremble even for just a bit. 

I am still someone who admires beauty but from afar, so painting a 'beautiful' woman is impossible for me for all the same reasons. And thankfully my ideas of feminine beauty has evolved from the dreamy adolescent American I used to be.  

But beauty in Painting, is really, really hard to pull off without it appearing sappy or sentimental, desperate or drippy.  

I need the flaws and the marks of originality, the 'imperfections' in a subject. Of course it's all superficial but this is the teleport fantasy world we seem to live in. 

Then there is 'pretty' which has more to do with adolescence and not to compare with real 'beauty' which is in another world altogether. Think of Margo Robbie, whose beauty seems almost unreal. It's hard to imagine someone winning the corporal lottery like this. She is so remarkable that I had to see several of her films before I could trust her cinematic presence and see her sensitive intelligence. She isn't pretty, but beautiful and glamorous, a million miles away from everyone. 

And though the physical beauty of someone can be real, it's almost certainly contingent upon the conventions of the day only with tiny exceptions. As Rita Hayworth said so iconically; "Men go to bed with Gilda but wake up with Rita". 

So, beauty is a complicated subject, and today, more than ever, it's been turned on its head. In the world of Contemporary Art it has been  despised and much maligned, spurned like evil Igor. But hey! We can deal with it! "Beauty is truth", as John Keats so admirably mused so long ago, and he quickly added "Truth, (is) beauty". As a painter I am all in with this poetic truth of his. I know I seem to go on about this for years now, ad infinitum,.. but hey! That's why I have this space! 

But getting back to this particular evening at the beach (because it has put the spotlight on all this talk and thinking about beauty) I see that it created problems for me asI  work from Nature in this contemporary art world. How indeed, does one render its beauty without all the sappy sentimentality that so often goes along with it? Too many painters fail, I know because I have also failed too many times. So for me, it is in the flaws where they are held, these keys to accessing this secret.  

I have often used the analogy of rock climbing with Painting because the painter, like the climber, needs the cracks and fissures, the tiny veins and small scratchy holes allowing him or her, to find their way up an insurmountably steep smooth rock face, which to an observer, might look sweetly innocent. Like the climber I need a subject's flaws to access the means to reveal the ephemeral beauty herein but I am limited to using just a few primary colours and hog-haired brushes. How else can one avoid this sappy sentimentality? What means does an enthralled painter utilise to strip the motif of its superficial sweetness in order to find the real Rita each morning?  

And so my motif at the beach (above) was way too pretty, far too saccharine, and I needed to find a means to reveal its inner beauty without using tricks of the trade or painterly flourishes nor any cosmetic make-up. In the end I invented it by taking bits here while leaving out bits there. Did I succeed? Who knows? I like it, but then, only timeless eternity will tell if it enters into the Pantheon of Beauty and Truth.


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