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 coming up with anything from it; in a word, it was too beautiful, sweet, almost cloyingly so. Ha! And in front of such beauty (when it comes to women) I tend to shrink away like a toad. But in Painting, in particular, 'Beauty' is really really hard to pull off without it appearing sappy or sentimental.  

I have never been able to paint a 'beautiful' woman for that same reason. I am someone who admires beauty but at the same time, in Painting, I need the flaws, the marks of originality and 'imperfection'. Outside in the real world I am uncomfortable in front of a beautiful woman anyway, so with a blank canvas and a beautiful woman I am a nervous wreck. And yet I have painted a few women who are very nice looking but just not real beauties who shine for the camera, those lucky gals who seem to live in the outer space of real glamour. 

Of course it's all superficial but this is the teleport fantasy world we seem to live in. And then there is 'pretty' but not to compare with real beauty. 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, I had to see several films before I could trust her cinematic presence and admire her as a great actor with a 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 but 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 even 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, 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 working in Nature in this contemporary 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 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 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, nor painterly flourishes, no cosmetic make-up. In the end I invented it by taking bits here and 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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