Thursday, November 10, 2011

"I have done a good deal of skying...": the Artist's Statement II

What we would all like, I suspect, is a chance to see the artist at work. Here is a photograph of the painter Trevor Bell, who lives and works near Penzance, Cornwall:

Lovely. A cup of tea, a bit of small talk, and then some big questions, please....

So why would an artist find it difficult to write out a statement?  Perhaps today's truth will be obsolete as you move into a new painting phase. Perhaps you don't really see your own work as clearly as you hope. Or, worst of all, perhaps someone might come along and say to you, "well, if you really knew what you were doing, if you were John Constable or someone like that, you might not feel such a need to talk about your work; it would all be so clear."

To which I would say, "Really? Let's test your theory, shall we?" And off we go in search of John Constable. We saw this painting at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven: "Hadleigh Castle, the mouth of the Thames: Morning after a Stormy Night" from 1829:

It is the morning after a storm, as he has mentioned in the title. The light would be constantly shifting; it wouldn't be easy to re-capture the exact shadows, even coming out at the same time every day.  But he is an accomplished painter by this time, aged 53. He knows the days are always too short; he complained once to a friend that there is too little daylight, "imagine to yourself how a pearl must look through a burnt glass" (in other words, no reflection, no transparency, nothing to paint at all).  On one painting trip, Constable wrote a friend that "I have done a good deal of skying for I am determined to conquer all difficulties." (And, in fact, there was an entire wall at Yale filled with his sky studies).

Now, look again at the painting. The sky seems perfect, reflecting a lonely landscape lit, only for the moment, by the aftermath of rain.  And look again, just for a minute or two, and fix for yourself, in your mind, the emotion, the scale, the breadth of what Constable has captured on the canvas. Now, here is the final public statement that Constable made about his work, just seven years later, one year before he died: "Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not a landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments."

Maybe it's just me ... but does this painting look like a scientific experiment to you?  Constable wrote another letter "quite alone amongst the Oaks and solitude of Helmingham Park,"  where he said he was not entirely sure, yet, of the quality of the work he had done so far; he did not know, he said, "what I may have to show you .... I shall not come home yet."  His inquiries were continuing on. Even Constable, it seems, wanted to leave a written record of what he believed he had achieved with his art, and even we might disagree with what he concluded ...

"So," says your skeptical friend, "jump ahead a bit, and look at Cezanne. He didn't need any notes."  You smile, just for a second. "Okay."  So you go to the man who painted with Pissarro, who showed the next generation of artists the way forward, a new way of seeing.  And you find he did converse, quite freely, about the ways he worked: "Basically I don't think of anything when I paint. I see colours. I strive with joy to convey them onto my canvas just as I see them. They arrange themselves as they choose."  Yes, very funny. No, really, what happened?  Well, Cezanne wrote in a letter from Estaque (a sea-side town near Marseille) to Pissarro that "the sun here is so terrific that objects appear silhouetted not only in white or black, but in blue, red, brown, violet. I may be wrong, but it seems to me the opposite of modeling."  And that is true. When we lived in Malta, the sun, even in winter, was so strong, so "white," that it flattened everything out, and it flattened things out just in their own colors. What Cezanne was doing, in his pulling colors onto the canvas, was, perhaps, just seeing the south for itself.

So, what does Cezanne tell us about what artists should do? he says "the artist must silence all the voices of prejudice within him, he must forget .... and then the entire landscape will engrave itself on the sensitive part of his being."  As proof, here Cezanne will tell us that he waited and waited before he painted the mountain that is forever linked to him: "For a long time I was unable to paint [Mont] Sainte-Victoire ... because ... I imagined the shadow had to be concave, whereas in fact it's convex, it disperses outward from the centre.  Instead of accumulating, it evaporates, becomes fluid, bluish, participating in the movements of the surrounding air." 

This is from 1904. I feel that I haven't seen it before. I never saw the interchange between the air and the mountain before, not until I read that last observation.

Perhaps the ideal artist's statement is not about what you actually paint but about the nexus of stimuli in which you are working ... the air that shapes you.  That's where I am going to start.

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