Posts Tagged ‘Alice Neel’

I’ve made it pretty clear many times on this blog that I find abstraction and minimalism in art fairly challenging. Well, let’s be frank. I don’t really like it.

So, I was more than a bit taken aback recently when I watched the first programme in James Fox’s BBC series on The Art of Japanese Life broadcast on 12 June. In hushed tones that failed to conceal his extreme excitement he opened the door on a room containing a painting that had not been filmed before when not on exhibition. Once through the door he walked slowly and deliberately to the opposite wall.

The camera fell upon this picture.

Splashed Ink Landscape (source of image Wikipedia – see link below)

Initially I was baffled, but for some reason this time not repelled. I hung on his every word.

This is the Splashed Ink Landscape. Sesshu painted it in 1495 when he was in his mid 70s and though it might have taken only a few minutes to paint, it was the result of a lifetime’s experience and skill.

I’ll be honest with you, at first it doesn’t look like much, it just looks like some spatters on a page. But gradually an image, a landscape, begins to appear.

In the foreground a craggy outcrop of rock covered by trees and bushes, in the background these towering mountains that are half-hidden by mists or perhaps an incoming rain shower, but as you look at this picture longer you begin to see yet more.

So down there, that is a little wooden building, you can see the triangular roof. There is a fence around its perimeter, and that, believe it or not, is a wine tavern. We know that because the wine tavern banner is hanging out the front of it.

But there’s more even than that, because below that wine tavern you can see two near horizontal strokes, and those represent the ripples on a lake.

And on the right two people are rowing a boat across it.

You know, I find this painting absolutely breathtaking, and what is so exciting about it is the way it unfolds in front of your eyes. The way by looking at it you bring it to life. And what I admire so much about it, is how he’s achieved so much with such limited resources.

Look at the varieties of blacks, these deep dark inky blacks in the foreground, and yet in the background these blacks are so pale they’re almost white. And look at the varieties of strokes, the wide brush strokes, the narrow brush strokes, the wet, the dry, the washes, the scratches, all these different varieties of marks combined and mobilised to create this  landscape.

To my surprise, astonishment even, I was convinced. I could see it. What’s more I seemed to feel it, so strongly had this process drawn my imagination in.

So, I could completely accept what he went on to say.

The other thing I can’t get off my mind: this was made in 1495 – in 1495!

Back in Europe we had the Renaissance going on, and there were no images as audacious as this one. It would take 300 years, 400 years, for the watercolours of Turner and Cézanne, before any Western artist did anything as abstract as this. Seshu had helped create an intoxicating aesthetic, one that preferred ambiguity to clarity, absence to presence, and the hazy mysteries of nature.

When he went on to explain in a later programme the importance to Japanese art and design of ma (space), I could see how crucial the empty spaces were in this picture, how much they helped convey the wonder and mystery as well as the beauty of nature.

That Sesshu was a Buddhist monk indicates that his meditative practice as well as his skill as a painter had enabled him to achieve the magical effect of this picture.

I am in the process of going back to artists that I have skated over in the past including Mark Tobey, one of whose paintings I do resonate to and have included on this blog. Most of his work though has been too abstract for me to absorb. Perhaps I have just been too impatient. A friend of mine has kindly given me sight of his dissertation on Tobey. I began to read it some time ago but was too easily derailed by other things. I plan to revisit it.

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

Camera shots taken high over Tokyo at night and shown in a recent BBC programme on Hokusai looked so much like some of the abstract painting inspired by cityscapes, they suggested strongly that I might just have been missing something. After all Sesshu is not the first painter whose almost abstract responses to nature I have learned to love. Georgia O’Keefe is another.

I’m not sure my experiences of this kind of art will ever reconcile me to the problems posed by such poems as the The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell but I have a sense that they might help. I have just taken another look at Jarrell’s poem and have found the last three lines more evocative than before. Maybe there’s hope for me yet!

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

I want to move towards closing this post with a look at a painting by a recently discovered artist – recently discovered by me, that is. You’ve all probably heard of her before: I mean Alice Neel. Again I owe the BBC a debt. It was their documentary about her that gave me the heads up to her work. For now I’ll skate over the issues her life raises about whether it is possible to balance life and art effectively and compassionately. I may come back to that another time.

Incidentally, I found the book from which I scanned the picture only by chance. My scouring of the web at the time I saw the programme kept drawing the same blank on this book: ‘This product has been discontinued.’ Click the link now and the same dispiriting message still glares you in the face. However, I was recently in Scotland and had the chance to visit once more one of my favourite haunts – St Andrews. On the way there I was told there is a new book shop just off the High Street which was much praised by the locals. It doesn’t take much to encourage me to visit a bookshop so I popped in. Well, ‘popped’ is not quite the right word – ‘grazed around slowly’ probably captures it better. Anyway, I couldn’t believe my luck. They hold a huge stock of art books and there it was – Alice Neel: painter of modern life. My luck was in.The book contains a multitude of high quality reproductions of her art. There is one I  want to dwell on just now.

Even if she was not always compassionate in her personal dealings with others, I think in her art, at the very least, she displays amazing empathy. Take this picture of her daughter-in-law, Ginny, painted in the last months of Neel’s life. Ginny had just lost her father and Neel had just heard she was herself going to die soon. Yes, I know she is partly reading her own anguish into Ginny’s face but she is also responding to what she sees of another’s pain. Of course, I realise that there is no need for me to ignore this kind of portraiture just because I can now perhaps respond to more abstract works.

Ginny (1984) – image scanned from ‘Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life‘ edited by Jeremy Lewison


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Things have been a bit difficult lately – three colds in three months. Really fed up with it. Not sure why my immune system is misfiring. Will be finding out soon from the GP.

Books have always been reliable companions for me. No surprise that this has left traces.

I can still remember 1975. It was my first job in mental health. I hadn’t been there long before the Deputy Manager shared her impressions of me.

‘You’re doing quite vell but you know vot you’re problem iss?’ She had a slight Austrian accent.

‘I haven’t the faintest idea,’ I lied as a dozen possibilities leapt instantly to mind.

‘You talk like a Buch.’

‘Shouldn’t everyone,’ I thought but did not say.

Things haven’t changed much since then I think. I number books among my friends and most of my closest friends love books. Bookish is my mother tongue.

So anyone who knows me well would know where I might go to lift my mood: Hay-on-Wye.

It was good to end up in one of my favourite haunts if only for a short while, though it was a bit tedious driving there along the slow and winding route I had decided to take for some strange reason. Maybe I thought it would make up in the picturesque for what it lacked in speed. This proved a delusion as the hedgerows en route blocked off most of the view.

We drove back along wider roads.

We only had time for one bookshop and a coffee. When this is the case it’s a no-brainer which shop to head for – the cinema bookshop.

My time spent grazing there will feed my appetite for reading for a week or two.

In the end, I was sitting, well-pleased with life once more, at a table in the Shepherd’s ice cream and coffee parlour, with my small crop of books spread across the table well away from my cappuccino.

The view from the window was more like a painting, the lines were so sharp and the colour was so bright.

I had hoped to find some books on David Jones but my search had drawn a blank. I had at least found a book on Alice Neel and a biography of William Blake.

The only other downer in the cafe was the father at the next table, with his wife and two young sons, who never lifted his head from his mobile phone from when we arrived until they all left.

After being so enthused by a recent BBC programme, I was pleased to get hold of the book on Alice Neel as my attempts to buy a collection of her watercolours had failed so far. It is shortly to be reprinted though. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to buy her only recent biography as the reviews weren’t all that good and the price was quite high. For a mere £2 the biography hard back by the Belchers was quite a bargain.

Getting the biography of Blake was a bonus. My interest has been reactivated by my reading about the art and poetry of David Jones, who is referred to by many as the modern Blake. Peter Ackroyd’s work is usually readable and informative so this should be a pleasure in store.

The last purchase was a complete surprise. While I was busily brevitting on the upper floors for books on David Jones, my wife had stayed at the stacks near the entrance and was waiting for me with further temptations when I emerged from my expedition into the interior. Maybe there is a lesson to learn there – by going too fast into the depths I might often be missing something important at the surface.

She grabbed my arm as I was about to walk into reception to pay and pointed to a blue pile of books at the end of a nearby shelf.

‘I thought you might be interested in that,’ she confidently stated.

Dylan Thomas!

What amazed me was that these were the paperback centenary editions of his poetry that only came out in 2016 at a price of £16.99 in Waterstones. I’d decided to wait and see, much as I admired and enjoyed his poetry in my 20s: even though the book I recently reviewed on The Death of Poets re-whetted my appetite, it had not done so strongly enough to make that price seem worth paying. To find all his poems here for a paltry £6.99 made buying a copy seem irresistible.

Fragments of his lyrics flew into my mind. ‘Now I am a man no more no more/And a black reward for a roaring life,/(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of strangers),/Tidy and cursed in my dove cooed room/I lie down thin and hear the good bells jaw–’, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light,’ ‘Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,/The night above the dingle starry,/Time let me hail and climb/Golden in the heydays of his eyes,/And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns,’ and ‘in my craft or sullen art.’

It is perhaps worth quoting the last poem in full before I close this post.

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Now which book of my £12.99 haul should I read first?

It shouldn’t take me more than a month to decide.

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