Sometimes you’re taken away from painting by other work or chores…or simple fatigue or recreation…but we all need some interaction with family and friends. As for friendships they often tend to be longstanding, often forged way back. As one gets older they really do go way, way back. In this instance we all met – pause for reflection – forty seven years ago.
It started with a trip to Trent Bridge for the third day of the second Test against South Africa with my pal Allan. Cricket (along with Snooker I feel) is very much an artists game, something to do with space and time. And margins too, fine ones that can change the course of a match irrevocably. Despite England’s increasing forlorn chances of saving the game it was a good day’s outing. We followed this with an evening in the company of the fine singer songwriter Keith Christmas who played his latest album in its entirety explaining that he had conceived it with the live performance in mind. I cannot recommend it too highly.
On the way home we got to discussing what makes a great artist (in any form) and Allan repeated a conversation with his own son, Adam (himself a very talented musician) who suggested it was simply intensity. And I cannot agree more. Keith has it in spades and I like to think it may be something to do with age – Keith’s latest has some of his best work ever and quite rightly he wants it out there and admired by as many as can experience it.
On Monday last I was away to London to meet up with another pal from the graduating class of 1973 at Falmouth School of Art, Stuart. We were at Tate Modern to take in the Giacometti show that didn’t disappoint – full of well presented masterpieces. It was intensity personified – especially as regards the spacial awareness in what constitutes formal integrity. Over two days that took in a studio visit our conversations ranged widely though several of them were situated in his garden, a relatively small space but full of flower intensity that, to me at least, spills over into his paintings, ostensibly concerned with landscapes (mostly in Dorset & Spain) but just as much focussed on vibrant colour, light and form.
Our talks about painting were easy and relaxed – 47 years does that! – and some of it homed in on intention and ambition. What really matters to us is simply what our heart and head says to us in the moment – not all that extraneous matter that creeps in once you start situating the work in any kind of context. Is that what we mean by intensity?
I’ve written before about making fresh discoveries in painting even when one prides oneself on being pretty clued up. Today on my birthday I received from my wife a copy of Red by Michel Pastoureau (actually I was lucky enough to get his Black too, from my mother-in-law) and am really looking forward to properly tucking into it. But a first flick through the very good quality reproductions (as always with Princeton University publications) revealed La Chambre Rouge from 1898 by the Nabi artist Félix Vallatton.
Now although I’m aware of his existence I know very little about Vallatton and have seen even less…there doesn’t seem to be a lot of work about in easily accessible locations (certainly in the UK). But this picture was a revelation. One of our favourite paintings is The Red Studio by Matisse (on show at MOMA) that we’ve been fortunate to spend time with on two occasions and it truly is an astonishing and remarkable picture – a game changer in so many ways. But this Vallatton, to me at least, underlines the old maxim that nuttin’ comes from nuttin’, that everything has antecedents and that as Picasso said “good artists borrow, great artists steal” (and of course others have suggested that he nicked that one…possibly from T.S.Eliot). La Chamber Rouge of course doesn’t go all the way that Matisse did but then again it was painted in 1898 when young Henri was still wrestling with divisionism and some twelve years before The Red Studio and it has an extraordinary way of pre figuring the flatness of the latter painting although staying firmly rooted in a form of realism. It too, of course, picks up on other innovations…the mirror punctuates the picture plain in a way reminiscent of a reversal of The Bar at the Folies Bergère and even the figures in the doorway have a kind of reference back to Vermeer in my mind. In any event I now have a voracious appetite for both the books and for more of Vallatton’s work.
I often have only the briefest grasp on what I’m doing with pictures, but at least there’s usually some idea about the form lurking in there. But where I’m really stumped is on the subject of colour. Today I had some bright green to which I was about to add some Veronese to ‘damp’ it down a little and, without any conscious decision, I put it down at the last moment and reached for a Prussian Green instead. Was there a why? I definitely didn’t make any choice that I was aware of and yet something occasioned a change that had a fairly substantial effect on the outcome. Do we make these small decisions based on intuition or experience or some other force of which we are unable to fathom?