Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Richard Holmes, on the biographer's art ... not unlike the painter's

I have been reading Richard Holmes's Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1985) and he is a splendid observer; we go into the Cévennes on the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson and into Italy with Shelley (and that is only the first half of the book). Holmes finds an aspect of the landscape that existed in Stevenson or Shelley's time and works to imagine that world; instead of photographing the outside of Shelley's rented house, he looks from the windows out to the sea... seeing Shelley's view.  Or, having waited in vain for a taxi of any sort, he walks up the path Shelley would have taken from the station at the Bagni:

"I passed through the long colonnades of chestnuts and plane trees, the leaves dropping around me, the smoke rising white and blue in the light, the sky full of leaves, beautiful and purgatorial. Shelley wrote at length in his letters about these trees, the water, the sky, the stars at night, entranced by them" (p.145).

But, as he has already warned us, this kind of tracing footsteps, turning corners, almost seeing his quarry, with something like a child's joy in the game of hide-and-seek, has its limits and its responsibilities. He discovers that the modern bridge he crossed with great glee is not the bridge Stevenson used... that bridge stands, broken, neglected, further down the road. So then he reminded himself, he tells us, that:

"You could not play-act into the past, you could not turn it into a game of make-believe .... Somehow you had to produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact. The adult distance -- the critical distance, the historical distance -- had to be maintained. You stood at the end of the broken bridge and looked across carefully, objectively, into the unattainable past on the other side. You brought it alive, brought it back, by other sorts of skills and crafts and sensible magic" (p. 27).

I paint many working-through-the-past landscapes; this always begins as great fun (which day? which beach?) and ends with my working to pull "the unattainable past" into a "true" version of itself in the present... And I like seeing it as "sensible magic"; that appeals to me as a description.

Here is the next version of my "Stone" painting in the "orange slices" series. This series came into being from Van Gogh's idea, (quoted in the "Every Painter Paints Himself" blog), that as we paint a bird's nest, say, we also hold in mind the outline of a cottage; this hidden second idea enriches the painting. And so I am taking this literally, and bringing to the surface two simultaneous images.  This draft of "Stone" is made of the memory of walking along the beach at Watch Hill, and, at the same time, remembering a room overlooking the sea on the Western coast, at Pacific Grove:

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