exploring art and writing

Posts Tagged ‘painting’

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.


Writing about Looking.

In Fine Arts on January 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Norman Rockwell's 'Connoisseur,' The Saturday Evening Post, January 13, 1962 (cover). Private collection.

I would like to open this blog entry with a confession:

I have never read any Marcel Proust.

Or is that a disclaimer? I just thought I’d get it out of the way, because what I’ve been mulling over these last few days seems to keep bouncing back to the French author and his À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past).

I’ve been thinking about methods of describing emotional responses to art.

This is intertwined with the physical act of looking at an artwork. I recently discovered the horrors of having to attempt this in a short story – the first of the term (and it shows). My protagonist embarks on a journey to discover a portrait of Rubens’ wife, Helene, and on encountering the object becomes enraptured. Sparks fly, emotions soar, tears are shed. You get the idea.

Except sparks didn’t really fly. Emotions did not soar. It had never occurred to me before: I have no idea how you write about art on an emotional level. I’m not talking about art as an object ripe for description, but instead about the personal, emotive affect that it has on an individual. I fell prey to this struggle more recently with my post about British Art Show 7, for which I intended a follow-up entry regarding the artworks that particularly enamoured me and my friends. Listing them was instinctive enough, but trying to type their significance wasn’t just problematic…it was embarrassing.

And this leads me back to Proust. Edmund de Waal, in his recent and wonderful book The Hare with Amber Eyes, describes Proust’s mega-prose as being “suffused not just with references to Giotto and…Renoir, but, by the act of looking at paintings, by the act of collecting and remembering what it was to see something, with a memory of the moment of apprehension” (p106).

The “moment of apprehension” is an ideal way to describe one aspect of experiencing an artwork. Perhaps, as de Waal goes on to consider, it is also about learning to “stand back and then move forward,” both in front of an artwork and in your subsequent recollections of it. How well this will translate into writing, or to other people, I can’t say, as it doesn’t just depend on the artwork but on the writer, too. And that’s what terrifies me.

Objects in Time.

In Fine Arts on October 10, 2011 at 10:40 am

'Inhale (Yellow', 2002, Michael Craig-Martin

I think very well in lectures. That isn’t meant to be insulting to the speakers, because I genuinely try my best to listen attentively. Maybe it’s just the concentrated atmosphere of listening and thinking from the general audience. Today, for instance, I went to see a talk given by artist Michael Craig-Martin. One of the perks of being a student again is access to events such as this, and I felt a calming rush of excitement (contradictory, I know, but that’s what it was) as people thronged in and settled in their chairs. Once the infectious buzz abruptly receded with the first introductory taps of the microphone, I almost felt at home again. It didn’t matter that I was in a new town, with new people. Art is home.

That sounds hopelessly tacky, but I’m all for being honest and that’s how I felt. Comfort wasn’t my immediate reaction, however; whilst the audience had been buzzing, two women were talking across me about various goings on in the art world surrounding us here in this little town, prompting an initial rush of displeasure. This didn’t stem from the two women, who were pleasant and enthusiastic; it stemmed from my sudden awareness that I am completely out of the loop. Clueless. I’m having to start all over again.

When London-based curator David Sturgess began his interview with Craig-Martin I started to pay attention. And a focused mind for me is a productive mind; strangely, I can’t concentrate on one thing without concentrating on another.

Michael Craig-Martin’s work is not to my taste, although I can greatly appreciate his talent and boundless dedication. I can see the value in what he does. Whether or not I like looking at it seems irrelevant. You don’t have to like a person’s work to like them and their philosophies.

And so I started thinking about images. That sounds broad – bear with me.

I was thinking about images through time, and how certain objects (for the sake of argument I’m including living beings in this definition of ‘objects’) have appeared continuously through time, and how their representation has changed. It sounds so obvious it almost appears a worthless topic to mention, let alone write about. But I can’t shake the idea of an object existing hundreds of years ago and existing now (I’m not talking about literally the same object, but the same type of object) and it being represented in completely varying ways over time.

This thought may sound broad and slightly objective, as I could refer to variants in social trends and cultural ideologies when I talk about the re-representation of an object, but I am also considering it from a smaller, more subjective standpoint. This was prompted by Craig-Martin’s discussion of his own representation of images. He draws an object, a table for instance, depicting only its most common features, its edges and surfaces. He uses line to create a universally recognised image of that object and when he needs a picture of that object once more, he reuses it. Perhaps its proportions will change in relation to other items surrounding it, but it is essentially the exact same image. So throughout his painting repertoire we are presented with reproduced images again and again.

'The Ambassadors', 1533, Hans Holbein the Younger

It was the globe in Craig-Martin’s Reading With Globe (1980) that sparked questions about representation through time. When I saw it I immediately thought of Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors (1533). It is one of my favourite paintings and I spent many an hour studying reproductions of it when I was young. I used to suffer a sense of awe and wonderment when I looked at it, an experience magnified a thousand-fold when I visited it in the flesh.

And here was Craig-Martin’s globe, simplified and reproduced. It didn’t tantalise me in the same way that Holbein’s did, but the contrast between each artists’ portrayal of this object fascinated me for new reasons.

Reading with Globe, 1980, Michael Craig-Martin

An image of a globe in one painting symbolises power and omniscience, in another it represents normality and mass production. One object, two images and various interpretations and meanings.

As of yet I haven’t quantified whether I’m trying to come to some conclusion about artists or about objects. It may be that I care about neither and instead am interested in social and cultural trends in representation. Umberto Eco records these developments magnificently in his book On Beauty (Maclehose Press, 2004), in which he charts our depictions of Madonna and Christ throughout history. The array of contrasts and transformations are intriguing.