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Archive for the ‘Painting’ Category

Ode to a Painting: Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.

In Art, Painting on January 15, 2015 at 9:10 am
'Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer', Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

‘Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer’, Caspar David Friedrich, 1818

Painted in 1818, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (that’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog to you and me) is perhaps Caspar David Friedrich’s most recognisable painting. Friedrich has been established as one of the leading German landscape painters to emerge from the Romantic period. His depiction of human figures within vast and looming panoramas has prompted all sorts of arty types to list him as an influence, including Max Ernst, René Magritte and Mark Rothko.

The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog encapsulates all the themes generally associated with Friedrich’s work: spirituality, nature, contemplation, the passage of time. His depiction of Germanic landscapes even drove the Nazi movement to appropriate his work for patriotic propaganda. Fortunately, the resulting stigma didn’t endure throughout the mid-twentieth century and Friedrich’s paintings are valued once again.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is a masterful depiction of nature and our philosophical contemplation of it – not to mention the rugged manliness of a lone ranger who goes hiking in what looks like his Sunday best. As far as landscape paintings go, it’s pretty damn sublime.



In Art, Books, Children's Books, Drawing, Painting, Writing on April 3, 2013 at 3:00 pm
'Das Geschenk Der Weisen', the German translation of O. Henry's 'The Gift of the Magi.' Transformed into an wondrously beautiful children's book by Lisbeth Zwerger's watercolour illustrations.

‘Das Geschenk Der Weisen’, the German translation of O. Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi,’ transformed into a wondrously beautiful children’s book by Lisbeth Zwerger’s watercolour illustrations. I couldn’t read a word of the story but the pictures had me captivated as a child.

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” C. S. Lewis.

One constant when you toil as a lowly bookseller is The Sudden Recollection: the jolt of memory as a customer hands you a picture book and your brain goes ‘hey, didn’t someone read that to me once?’ And you look over the counter and see their child gleaming at the book in your hands.

The picture book that got me thinking: Jill Murphy's 'Peace at Last,' published by Macmillan Children's Books.

The picture book that got me thinking: Jill Murphy’s ‘Peace at Last,’ published by Macmillan Children’s Books.

Pictures have power. Stories have power. This is why I am a genuine believer in the universal appeal of picture books.

Good art and good narrative translates into adulthood. The preconception that picture books are only for children is absurd. After all, who reads children all of these books? Adults – of all shapes, sizes and minds. I’m still young enough to be terrified by the prospect of having children but I already know which books I will be reading to them because (selfishly) I enjoy reading them myself. A customer summed up this excitement for me last week when I sold her a copy of Judith Kerr’s ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ (another staple of my literary diet as a toddler) and she exclaimed, ‘I can’t wait to get home and read this to my daughter!”

So I think we can all agree that picture books are also for adults to enjoy, but why exactly? What is it that separates stories and illustrations that have an expiry date from those that are timeless? I re-read a few of my favourites to try and pinpoint the answers and came up with a few suggestions:

A picture book can express the trepidation and excitement that you feel when you meet the friend you’ve been waiting for all along…

'Leon and Bob' by Simon James, published by Walker

‘Leon and Bob’ by Simon James, published by Walker

…A picture book can delve into a world where dreams and real life are indistinct, where magic is still genuine to a person and where logic exists but does not overpower or corrupt…

'The Whales' Song' by Dyan Sheldon, published by Red Fox Picture Books

‘The Whales’ Song’ by Dyan Sheldon, illustrated by Gary Blythe, published by Red Fox Picture Books

…A picture book can paint how creativity can transform the world we live in…

'Rabbityness' by Jo Empson, published by Child's Play

‘Rabbityness’ by Jo Empson, published by Child’s Play

…And a picture book can remind you of your childhood; it can make you think of your children, your grandchildren, your nieces, nephews and godchildren; a picture book can make you want to draw your own pictures.

A good picture book will stay with you for life.

The titles I’ve mentioned here are an infinitesimal drop in the vibrant ocean of children’s picture books. What picture books do you remember most?

The Problem with Self-Portraits.

In Art, Identity, Painting on November 6, 2012 at 1:33 pm

‘The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic (and Moral) Life’ by Gustave Courbet, 1855.

For this marvellous, stupendous book I’m writing, I have somehow made the scenario ‘paint self-portrait’ imperative to the progression of the narrative. This is terrifying. Below is a list I’ve put together in order to dissuade myself from embarking on such a silly flight of fancy:

  1. You have to look at yourself for ages. This can be very boring, unless you are Gustave Courbet (as evidenced above).
  2. You risk looking like a puffed up narcissist with too much time on their hands. Of course, if you don’t care what people think, you can always make yourself look quite sad and then your self-portrait is not masturbatory, it is deep.
  3. Wanting to paint a self-portrait for non-narcissistic reasons probably means you’re searching for what some people call ‘meaning’ or ‘truth.’ Beware of learning more than you need to know, or of learning nothing at all.

These are the criteria that go through my head when I toy with the idea of painting another self-portrait. I was a regular mirror-searcher as an adolescent, no doubt due to my friends’ quite appropriate hesitance to sit for me while everyone else actually did useful stuff; I had to make do instead.

Painting a self-portrait is painful. It can be like ripping out a page from your diary and tacking it to the wall. OK, so maybe it won’t specifically say ‘started period today, life is OVER’ or ‘have reached Quarter Life Crisis, life is OVER,’ but something significant will have undoubtedly reached the canvas after repeated dark nights spent with yourself, a mirror and the romantic aroma of turpentine. Sure, the impact is probably reduced somewhat by our over-saturation in everyone’s self-portraits *cough*facebook*cough*, but I can’t be bothered to bitch about social networking.

Poet and Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen describes self-portraits as ‘a lonely exploration’ of the artist. Egotists like Gustave Courbet aside, self-portraits also seem to reek of the age-old desire to outlive our smelly, saggy bodies. Young people take more pictures than the old. At least the ones I know do. And it seems there is no escaping the revelation of your darker depths to those who may only know you from a self-portrait; as journalist Laura Cummings phrases it: ‘No matter how fanciful, flattering or deceitful the image, it will always reveal something deep and incontrovertible.’ Damn.

It’s no wonder people like looking at self-portraits. But painting them…I’m still not so sure. For some people there seems to be an urgent need to imprint themselves all over the place. For others it isn’t as simple as that. When Cummings asked in her book A Face to the World: ‘who is this in the mirror: myself or another, I or he?’ she was asking the question that keeps pattering through my head when I look at old self-portraits: who the hell is that? I don’t know if I’m ready to start finding out.