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Spanish Notes, part III  If the route up the Tejeda Parque’s mountain fizzled out after 50 yards, going from path to single goat track to multiple goats tracks to indiscernible scrapings which would have confused Kemosabe’s sidekick Tonto, the route back down was completely invisible. [Tonto in Spanish means ‘stupid’, so in the Spanish version of The Lone Ranger, Tonto became Toro (bull), and kemosabe sounds a lot like the Spanish phrase quien no sabe, “he who doesn't understand”.] Already I digress, but since I’m not unused to being ‘he who doesn’t understand’ this title seems quite appropriate. Not for the first time, I’ve heard myself say confidently, “This way” only to realise that not only have I lost myself but also my unfortunate companions. Yes, I did once lead field courses so Mij should really have known better than to follow me. If there’s a hot sierra equivalent term for off-piste, that’s what we found. If you look at the photo below, the area top left is very similar to our downward route.

Spanish Notes, part II

View from villa 05 2 

The villa in its setting

 

The drive from the airport in Malaga to the Casa Brisa villa took 1.5 hours, the last third up a succession of tortuous mountain hairpins with humungous drops on the right hand side going up – the side of course nearest the car. There were barriers of various kinds but some of the party were unconvinced of their reliability. The villa at a height of about 700m had stunning views all round even with the villas, including ours of course, which sprinkled the hillsides. Why are houses in the countryside so often painted white? Those painted grey or off-white blended in so much better. One sees the same but worse in Cornwall where (second home) owners want to believe they really are in the Riviera. Houses in rural locations and painted white only work, I think, in real sun-scorched coastal towns.

Spanish Notes Part 1.

Since all difficulties these days are called ‘challenges’ (which, incidentally, is rubbish because life is full of colossal Difficulties in my experience, but, never mind, let’s call them Challenges), I decided, when thinking about how I might survive two weeks, half way up the Andalucian sierra, in the company of five children, that I needed a new challenge – a really Difficult one.

The challenge I decided to set myself was to ‘master’ (i.e. become reasonably competent at) the art of watercolours by the time I came home. How hard could it be? Even Ladies-who-lunch and Prince Charles do watercolours. However, I reckoned it would keep me out of mischief and give my poor tired brain something to tussle with (when I say, “keep me out of mischief” what I really mean is keep me away from children because I had expected Spain to be populated by swarthy dangerous toreadors and women who looked and behaved like Carmen.)

Vincent and the impossible need for help: Dale Carnegie (1888-1955), the American writer, said, “Most important things in life have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no help at all”. I try to cling to this thought when things go bad or I feel intellectually and creatively abandoned.  The most important people on this planet are Enquirers after Truth, and the function of the artist (along with ‘genius’ surely the most abused noun in the English language) is exactly that.  It's what, I'm convinced, Dale Carnegie was on about.

As warned on 17th May, here is a bit more about ‘truth’, or at least my take on it.  Despite the need to keep body, soul and family together, everything I’ve ever done – writing and teaching, natural history and science – has always been about that quest for truth; and it applies to the subjective matter of art as much, if not more, as anything else.

I honestly think this is what has sustained me through difficult times.  For example, during my doctorate – much of which saw me living in a camper van on the Welsh and Cornish cliffs - I used to promise myself a visit to the purpose-built Graham Sutherland Gallery at Picton Castle in Pembrokeshire. It was to here that he bequeathed his work (scandalously reneged on when it was all moved to Cardiff after his death, but that’s another matter). I used to drive past regularly; Fine Art promising as great a truth as the science I was doing.

But does ‘fashion’ represent truth in any sense? Even though I’m fascinated by its trends, I don’t believe the important things which Mr Carnegie was on about include it. Jean Cocteau said, “Art produces ugly things, which frequently become beautiful with time, while fashion produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time”. So much so-called art is clever novelty; the fact that it is promoted by businessmen doesn’t alter that view.

Another view is that craft alone produces good art; I don’t believe this is true either. It has its place of course (qv. Blog entry 7th Jan 2011) but it is in practice a tool allowing the functioning of art. Too often, beautifully presented bad art masquerades as fine art because it fools the “imbecile” Cezanne spoke of last time (4th Jan 2014, if you haven’t read people’s interesting follow-up comments to this, they do repay it).

Craft always demands time, but it is possible to spend too much time on something. ‘Beginner’s luck’ relies on the rank amateur diving into a task without thinking about it; the brain - source of all our discontents - replaced by intuition. This is why child and (truly) naïve or outsider art can be so engaging and staggeringly true. [A lady close to me, once picked up darts for the first time in a pub and immediately starting hitting the bull; when she was told how good she was and started trying to do it again she couldn’t; I don't think the facility ever returned.]

Van Gogh was a hugely intelligent and intuitive artist, largely self-taught at a mature age. On my shelves, amongst several hundred books devoted to other artists and genres, I have 50 volumes devoted to him and have studied his work exhaustively, reading all six volumes of his massive correspondence. So, trying to draw on the rational bit of my brain, I find I differ from all the words written by others about his technique (not that many bother with that).

It seems to me that most of van Gogh’s paintings and, more so, his drawings are shorthand - a means of getting a visual sensation down as quickly as possible. Not only from temporal necessity (eg. before conditions change) but also from impatience.  I do know all about this!  It is one consequence of a sense of mortality – something children, the naïve and the outsider don’t have.  Vincent dealt with it in his own unique way.  True, he was only in his 30s but, given his health and impecunity, he did not expect to live for long - always fearing his one true friend and supporter, his elder brother Theo, would abandon him. Reading his unedited letters, you realise that it was not always a happy relationship.

I am nearly twice his age so have a great sense of mortality (let’s not beat about the bush) but I’ve always been driven and impatient.  This is not cool, I know that, and frustration only ever an impulse away. Again, nothing to be proud of, but from anger comes energy; it is how you use this that is important. I admire the calm painstaking builder of crafty(?) images but just get cross with my own ineptitude - always eager to get down the next sensation - the next miracle that nature has contrived to lay out for the curious.

Had it not been for Theo, we would never have heard of Vincent van Gogh; have no doubt, his stunning work would not exist.  So perhaps Carnegie was both right and wrong: surely we all need at least one steadfast supporter.  Vincent was a driven individual; maybe he would have been lucky and found someone else who was (relatively) rich, influential and supportive, or maybe he would have died in alcohol-fuelled bitter anonymous ignominy. Oh yes, we can relate to that too.

But above all his drawing repays profound study, I mean the pencil>chalk>ink system he developed. And although his Arles period is considered by most to be his apogee, I have always related more to the following Saint-Remy asylum work. Here he was removed from worry and ambition. Gone was the impossible dream of his Studio of the South, the nightmare of his Paul Gauguin worship, and all the day-to-day cares, which are considerable if you are minus a life partner (and, um, even with one).

Then Theo and Jo had a baby, and by the time he got to Auvers, under the quixotic care of Dr Gachet, Vincent was self-destructive, bored and worried beyond endurance. This the work reveals all too clearly.  Originality was exhausted – burned out - and what any artist worthy of the name doesn’t do is repeat himself. Some Auvers work is unfinished – abandoned because the effort was too much – pointless and desperate, it no longer engaged or excited him.

It seems I paint sweetpeas each year - they always engage me - but this year, as part of a series of still lifes I’m doing for The Plough Arts Centre, I did one partly as a homage to Vincent.  It's not in my gallery yet, so this is just a tiny preview.  Even though, as usual, I paint with knives not brushes, I hope you can see something of what I've been prattling on about in it.

Sweetpeas in a blue coffee pot Oil on canvas 61x46cm   Sweetpeas in a blue coffee pot, Oil on canvas 24x18”

Empty Surfaces – Paul Cezanne wrote to his mother in September 1874, “I have to work all the time, not to reach that final perfection which earns the admiration of imbeciles. [T]his thing which is commonly appreciated so much is merely the effect of craftsmanship and renders all work resulting from it inartistic and common. I must strive after perfection only for the satisfaction of becoming truer and wiser. And believe me, the hour always comes when one breaks through and has admirers far more fervent and convinced than those who are only attracted by an empty surface.”  

Two years later, at the end of a letter to Pissarro, he wrote,

Truth, Blood and Fashion, Andrew Graham-Dixon in The Art of Germany on TV a few years ago described the German character by listing four couplets:

 

1. Passion & precision,
2. Craftsmanship & The impulsive gesture,
3. A love of nature & A love of the machine, and
4. A need for escape & A desire for control.

 

Each of these traits rang true for me.  I thought Donner und blitzen! - which (with Achtung!) was my sum total of German learned from war comics. [Incidentally, this elementary expression is a mixture of German and Dutch – which I’m told is my paternal grandfather’s side.]  But are those traits all in my genes from Luther and before? Somehow meshing with the Irish blarney or whatever other characters lurk there from my mother's side?

 

Or is it all smoke and mirrors – you take from it what you want?  So what would a list of four opposing couplets look like?  How about:

 

1. Coolness & Inexactness
2. Ineptitude & Cautious
3. Uncaring & Luddite
4. Stuck & Powerlessness

 

Not very inspiring, are they?  I shouldn’t think many would want those on their CV.  Perhaps it’s not the qualities then in the original list that are important but their selection in the first place.  How does one define oneself?

 

My own life by Art and Science – it always has been. George Braque said “Art is meant to disturb, Science reassure”, but don’t both seek truth, whatever that is.  All painters know that perspective changes with viewpoint.  I think it was Cezanne who said, “Just by shifting my position a few centimetres, I would compose a completely different picture.”  Or words to that effect.

 

An artist has to be true to oneself but also to some universality.  Popularly, art is seen as more concerned with the former, and science with the latter.  For me, both are fundamental: it’s not so much sitting on a fence as striding back and forth across a stream.

 

But there’s a confounding variable in all this, which obeys but one rule.  It beguiles and seduces like a siren voice: it is wonderful, inevitable and dangerous.  It is called Fashion.  The wonderful and lamented Robert Hughes memorably wrote and filmed The Shock of the New; his thesis was spot on but he was insistent that just because something was new didn’t make it necessarily good or worthwhile.

 

There is plenty of new rubbish – the bin men collect it every week.

 

The crime writer Frances Fyfield, who has some of my paintings, gave these words to one of her characters, “I hate newness for its own sake … I loathe the deception hidden in new things,” (Trial by Fire, 1990).  This nails it; one must be suspicious of newness for its own sake - that which seeks to deceive.  Gee-whiz ideas are two a penny; you dream them up in a pub with a mate or over coffee.

 

“Where did you get that idea?” “In a pub. Ha ha!” I once had this response to a genuine enquiry of a film director; maybe it was true but to transform a good idea into Art requires intellect, perseverance, technique, hard work, reflection, genuine creativity, empiricism and something else utterly personal and altogether more intangible: a Quest for Truth. 

 

I’ve just come back from looking at Rembrandt in London, so Truth has been uppermost in my mind.  I’d like to write more about that next time.