Emerging from the Tate Gallery drenched in Bonnard sunlight, an after-image of yellow, violet and peach has indelibly imprinted itself on my brain. Sated from a feast of colour, amazed in a theatre of looking, revolving slowly in a golden globe, a fourth dimension catapults one’s vision straight into Bonnard’s world. From the quotidian experience of a quietly shared morning breakfast, to leap and launch out into a world so impossibly verdant and glowing it feels hallucinatory.
These spaces draw the viewer close, whisper intimately through their veils of colour. We stand at the shoulder of Marthe as she pours milk into a jug. We meet the gaze of the suddenly appearing cat across the room. We disturb the thoughts again of Marthe in her sunlit bath. We walk quietly, catching sight of the curtain sifting light softly through the room. Everything is held, suspended for a moment, calling to mind Virginia Woolf’s ‘drop that forms at the end of the day…round, many-coloured’. As a painter, I am hooked on Bonnard’s brush marks and even his fingerprints that trace the heart, mind and eye working in bonded unison. In a rare self-portrait of 1938, the artist paints his hand clasped over his heart, caught as a painter in his treacherous pursuit of joy and beauty, yet not unaware of the bombs that fall near to where he works.
Each new room explodes on the retina as a fresh arena of pleasurable looking. All I want to do is get closer. In the room curated cleverly with frameless paintings, one has the sense that here perhaps one might actually walk clear through the looking glass, whisper something in the ear of someone and share breath with the inhabitants.
The Large interior ‘The Dining Room, Vernon’ (1925) is such a work. In the gallery I become aware that one HAS to walk across the work, appreciating the peripheral vision of the artist so that Woolf’s cat filching a piece of fish is not missed. And yet for all this invitation into a sensual spaciousness, one is held on the surface like a bee in honey. Behind the figures caught almost classically in their domestic routine, there is an area of painting that is so abstractly beautiful in its rectilinear geometry and veils of found and conjured unnameable colours that it brings Rothko to mind. Again, in a series of later seascapes ‘Seashore Red Field’ (1939), there is another such painting that with its bands of textured colours approaches abstraction. And so these cleverly invented compositions belie their perceived casualness, to dissolve close up into layers of smudged, stippled, scratched and smeared paint and colour. Every mark has a purpose. Bonnard came close to pursuing life as a lawyer and perhaps his love of the fact, the detail and the invention of the picture as a problem or a puzzle, evidence this. Patrick Heron noted that every painter has recognizable elements that become integral to his or her language. For Bonnard it was a net of squares drawn across his vision. Patchwork squares echo across the gallery. Here, evoking more literally a chequered table cloth of the breakfast table or afternoon coffee, or lunch on the verandah, there the dappled textures of the houses lit up on the hillsides surrounding Vernonnet.
Bonnard like Woolf refuses to pin down a reality, choosing rather to immerse us in a sense of flux, a shifting experience manifested in colour and light. He vexes many a viewer with his playful and somewhat casual figures in interiors that are quite as magical as they are prosaic. In the third room, where the frames of the paintings have been removed, the viewer is brought closer to the painter’s practice. One can see the edges of his compositions as he painted them on his unstretched canvases pinned up on his studio wall. On returning to view the room a second time I was struck by a far more radical discovery: these paintings aren’t meant to be viewed by a static viewer. As one walks across the work, the radical nature of his vision becomes apparent, as it takes in both the peripheral and the panoramic. Reaching the edge of the actual painting, one’s imagination is encouraged to continue unfolding the composition way beyond the edge. Indeed, a frame around the painting would confine the viewer’s perception.
Sometimes, as with ‘The Violet Fence’ (1923), Bonnard offers us a leap-off point for our visions and our thoughts. We collect ourselves at the fence, its striations of sumptuous violet greys on the flat surface, before he propels us into the alluring greenery, light and space of the view beyond.
Such a complete sense of space is also offered in the unfurling monumentality of ‘Landscape at le Cannet’ (1928). Here, after one’s eye has taken a dazzling sweep across mountains, valleys studded with houses, and impossibly blue sea, one discovers the painter himself reclining in the foreground. Only after Bonnard has walked (even flown) one across the landscape, led one into an adventure of looking, dropping through layers of space, does his reclining figure emerge as if from a fourth dimension.
The figures, people and animals in Bonnard’s paintings appear not unlike the magical moment when the dancing figure first steps out of the screen in the 3D ‘Pina the movie’. These are Picasso-like figures, harlequins, shapeshifters, guiding us into a reverie in nature, or into the possibility of an imaginatively transformed view of our quotidian lives. A glimpse of heaven, a chink left open, to glimpse something completely otherworldly.
”I think this world is magical. Colour, form, space, relationships ‒ these elevate life. They energise. They elevate my whole consciousness…I think art heightens the potential of the actual.’ – Patrick Heron
I was pleasantly surprised to arrive in the newly opened wing of Tate St. Ives, having read some criticism of the curator’s hang of the Patrick Heron show. I expected a mish-mash of styles and periods, shapes and sizes. Instead, the exhibition appeared flawless and beautiful, allowing the work to unfold in a way which invites viewers to find their own ways through ever-expanding views, as new connections offer the possibility of fresh readings and discoveries.
Arrival at the gallery is introduced by our vibrant taxi driver, and her personal story of nursing Patrick Heron in his final days: “A lovely man,” she says. St. Ives is alive with people telling stories of their legendary artists – some, one suspects, more legend than truth. Not so our taxi driver’s empathetic account, and it is good to arrive at the show with some local sense of the man. Our winding drive to the gallery takes us through hedge-rowed lanes skirting the picturesque town itself before opening out at last to the sweep of beach and sea that is the backdrop, or rather the foreground, to the museum itself. For all the hoopla around ‘Best UK museum’, on approach, this Tate isn’t far from the banality of a typical parking garage or bathing facility of an English seaside town, and you would be forgiven for thinking it such. Once inside, however, its cathedral-like volume and light-filled spaces deserve fair praise. One can’t help feeling that Patrick Heron, so much a lover of modern architecture, would have been delighted to see his paintings unfold anew in a curtain of aerial light, through the fluid and generous spaces of the new extension. The exhibition propels one around the gallery, as a new work comes into view across the space just as one is inspecting the surface of another, continually enlarging the picture of Heron’s work, as many works become one.
It is a day of a slow, yet quickening, journeying between paintings and across rooms, walking backwards and forwards – as if we were spiders scurrying, or butterflies alighting here and there for a moment longer – our eyes dancing across a surface of exciting incident. And then hastening back to rediscover a favourite work as it gathers new connections from other works viewed around the gallery. So many filaments in an elaborate web of connections, alive with the energy of Patrick Heron’s seeing and experiencing of his world.
The curator has been canny in his grouping of the work to draw out Patrick Heron’s pictorial concerns: colour, edge and what Heron called the re-complication of composition. Even more helpful is the fact that Heron was an eloquent and articulate writer about art, and not only his own. You can hear his voice in his words printed alongside, as one comes close to peruse the work.
There is always something thrilling about experiencing roomfuls of one artist’s work, but then to be able to experience that work so close to where it was made is another level of happy treat altogether. And so to spend our days walking the clifftops close to Eagle’s Nest and Zennor where Heron lived. Also to walk in the footsteps of the other painters, sculptors and craftsman of St Ives – Peter Lanyon, Winifred Nicholson, Wilhemina Barns Graham, Bernard Leach to name a few – many of whose work is to be found in the adjacent rooms.
Later, happening upon Virginia Woolf’s childhood home, the little known Talland House, prompts a new connection. In Patrick Heron’s freedom and modernist experiments with form there is a kinship with the vision of the writer. The writer and painter show the same ability to work with free-flowing form, to lasso together near and far, “lumping all the letters together in a flash”. There is a sense in which both move away from a filled-out naturalism, to encourage us as readers and viewers to pay more attention, and to hone in on the wonder of the actual and natural world.
Living so close to the sea, it is not only Patrick Heron’s chromatic explorations that echo the nearby Atlantic ocean but also the sense of shift and change that is embedded in the way he worked, the surface of the painting belying the previous workings and re-workings of the painter. Finally, soft-edged shapes appear to emerge from the depths of the paintings or rise like newly discovered or rediscovered islands, luminous and suggestive, curious and strange. Virginia Woolf’s ‘lemon coloured wave’ suggests rather than describes these resonant forms reaching back and forth in time and space.
Heron’s abstraction was informed by the colours of his garden, the nearby fields of wildflowers on the clifftops of Zennor, and the views of slate grey boulders and impossibly emerald sea below. ‘Tall Purple’, painted in June, the month we visit the exhibition, and walk the cliffs during foxglove season, purple spires reaching and bending against the sea, seeing what he no doubt saw. And yet Heron’s paintings, abstract or referential, cannot be pinned down in the visible world and that is part of the point. On one of our walks, we peer out across a layered emerald and turquoise sea, experiencing changing pools of light and colour and in that shifting blurring edge we walk close to Yeats’s “rim of the world where language falters”. Back in the gallery hatched marks wriggle and scud across the surface; is that a seal slipping over the rocks and never quite gaining purchase?
Unlike the assured landscape painting of the gentleman painters who set up their easels along the cliffs of St Ives in the 1930s, Heron’s paintings inhabit an uncertain world. In the painting, frayed shapes demarcate a tenuous sense of belonging, the unreliability of nature and our perceptions.
Patrick Heron spent a lifetime exploring the magical equation of composition, that compelling activity of arranging one’s perceptions of the visual world onto a two-dimensional plane, the thing that gives painting its tension so that it pulls together like a sail in the wind. He championed the work of the French Moderns, showing a particular affinity for the work of Braque, Matisse and particularly Bonnard, painters who he loved and wrote about insightfully. In the poetic evolution of form in the painting ‘St Ives Window with Sand Bar’, we are reminded of Braque. In his ability to conjure a visual equivalent to his experience of being in and seeing the world, puzzled together on the surface, both Matisse and Bonnard come to mind.
Heron’s work collides chronologically with the all-over surfaces of Jackson Pollock and the colour formalism of Still or Newman. Like the Americans, he championed the gesture, the scribble, the personal handwriting of the painter. Meeting Rothko in Cornwall, he clearly had an impact on what was happening in his studio. In the end, he criticised the abstract expressionists for complacency and, unlike Rothko, perhaps could not reconcile himself to the idea of completely rinsing any sort of subject from the work. Perhaps Heron’s work bears a closer affinity to those painters of the 20th century who worked at the cusp of abstraction. One thinks of the rocky geometry of Nicolas de Stael (another visitor to Zennor) painting in Aix en Provence, the shivery archaic forms of the still lives of Giorgio Morandi and then later, the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn.
But the catalogue’s emphasis on Heron’s contribution to the language of formalism and abstraction in the history of art is in danger of undermining the importance of nature, and other more subtle determinants in Heron’s way of seeing, as they resonate through his paintings.
In the earlier abstract paintings Heron couples a free brush mark with the Japanese diligence of meditative practice. “True Red with Emerald Fragment” 1977 at first, appears as a more or less uniform field of red. On closer inspection, it reveals itself as lovingly painted with a tiny bristle brush, each inch with the same dedication. The viewer follows this seemingly effortless yet meditative passage of the brush as we dip from an appreciation of large expanses of colour to the small, curious, puzzle-like forms that trip up our vision.
Heron was a master of the musicality of painting, an expert at contrasting noise or rapture with areas of calm and silence. In the late garden paintings, crescendos of marks – daring, insolent, chaotic, luminous, awkward – rain down on the canvas, finding their counterfoil in quieter passages of flat scumbled colour.
For Heron, painting is about a body in motion, and in the gallery, his paintings pull us into that dance. The metaphor of the body as it moves this way and that in the evolution of the painting, and the psychological pull of the brushstroke, resonate further in suggestively organic shapes and forms that emerge in the paintings. In the late Sydney Garden paintings of 1989, cells, DNA strands, plant nuclei and honeycomb emerge in the brush strokes and surfaces. The painting does not call us to the naming of parts, rather allowing us to conjure our own reverie from what we see before us. The interconnectedness of flower, bee, wave and rock is evoked. In his paintings we follow his hand and body: these are generous sweeping gestures, not mean brushstrokes. We follow his hand as it plays across the surface, its speed, its pause, hovering for a moment, perhaps even days, before a wild scribble of zigzagging careens out across the surface.
Not unlike the coastal paths which more than once left us confounded in a field of flowers, as day slowed, all logic vexed as we looked for the gate that would hinge us back onto the well-worn and known coastal path. Heron sets our eyes jiggling with delight in his late garden paintings – textured run on marks, paint taking flight, here a raised bank of line work, here fields of colour scumbled, scored and scuffed. Yellow dots and dashes, splodges and splashes, straight out the tube, a haphazard hillside of dots and dashes. The paintings become fields of delight as we trace the mad joy of it all. As one stands before a painting, the effect is visceral and goosebumps tingle below the skin. The paintings are sensual and alive, reminding us that we are the same: alive, vibrating, much as one feels after a bracing swim in the cold Atlantic waters.
Heron, like Pierre Bonnard at Le Cannet in the south of France, never stopped responding to his immediate environment of west Cornwall, or the intimacy of his own garden. The large family Christmas painting affirms what we start to feel: these paintings are about love – the love of family, love of place, love of nature and, so evidently, love of looking and seeing and being alive.
Zoom into the early paintings and we discover in a detail the hatchings of the later mark-making: bold, reckless, playful and open forms that are so much a part of the Australian Garden paintings, and Heron’s discovery of this exotic and alien world that resonated with his own world of walking the Zennor cliffs, hedgerows and fields. In these Heron echoes the songlines of Aboriginal experience as evoked in their paintings. And so simultaneously invokes his own magical journey up and down the clifftops with an eye that enables him to fly out across the sea and look deep into its depths.
Patrick Heron reminds us of the interconnectedness of life. The exhibition leaps out of the gallery, in the scruffy and witty edges of the garden paintings, champions a particular intelligence singular to painting, painting as a sensual activity, that flaws logic and harnesses the richness of the moment.
It reminds us of the bodies in which we live, our connection to one another and to the greater world beyond. He reminds us of our better capabilities, what Wallace Stevens called “the precious portents of our own powers” and he reminds us timeously through the St Ives exhibition of the preciousness of our world.
Returning to Istanbul from my two-month sojourn as a resident at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, I have in my possession three signed volumes. Together they signal the points of a triangle, or the pages of a trilogy, lived and experienced in Paris, that reach backwards and forwards through my life.
The first is Rachel Cusk’s new novel ‘Outline’, launched in November at the famous bookshop on the banks of the Seine, Shakespeare & Company, a place that recalls when as a young traveler from South Africa in her twenties, I stayed upstairs, read Colette, wondering at the goings-on between the then owner and the young women that seemed to be trading free board and lodging for the quotidian tasks of putting away the then proprietor’s socks. I remember I was gazing up at Chagall’s ceiling of the Paris Opera when I met Chen who took me along to Shakespeare’s where she was staying. I had already spent one night in Paris in a camper van at the Cité. It was Madame Bruno, the slightly intimidating Director at the time, who was alerted to my unusual sleeping arrangement in the parking lot, who had summarily evicted me. Diane Maclean and Estelle Marais, two South African painters, were staying in 1731 at the time, and pressed for space themselves they had generously offered to accommodate me in their camper van. I remember Diane was painting a portrait of Estelle. Diane has gone on to become one of South Africa’s most accomplished portrait painters, including that of Nelson Mandela. Estelle is most well known for her ability to capture the essence of the Karoo landscape.
Some decades later I find myself again in studio 1731, this time staying with another reputable South African landscape painter, my mother, Lindsay Page. Somewhere else in these blog musings, heritage , I refer to my visit to the Grand Palais to see a Max Ernst retrospective. I was 11 years old when my mother and I scrambled out of the car in the pouring rain and ran up the thousand stairs to join a long queue for the exhibition. Celebes was one of the first paintings by a French master that I ever saw in the flesh. Many years later, here my mother and I are on the same beat together.
At the Orangerie, as the sun sets into an impossibly clear autumnal sky, the filigree of the Eiffel tower is barely visible from the Tuileries Gardens. Inside the museum, my mother and I are marvelling at Monet’s Waterlilies. Both of us have been here before, and yet we see it all as if the first time, scrutinising up close the layered craggy cliffs of paint and then as we walk backwards, watch it all dissolve into the ethereality of water, light and colour. Close up there are water lilies that rise up like the pastries in the nearby boulangerie, in decadent swirls; such audacity in the mark-making, we agree, never visible in the photographs. As painters both, we can follow Monet’s brush as he dances across, up and down, round about the canvas, sometimes pushing in like a house painter squishing paint right up into the corners; then he is a calligrapher in a rhapsody of drawing. Dodging the selfie-takers, it is nevertheless a delight to use one’s camera to zoom in on a favourite detail and reveal the magic of the brushstroke.
At the Musee National d’Art Moderne, we find some of our old favourites: Vuillard, Bonnard, Dufy, Matisse and Nolde, amongst others. We happen upon Vuillard painting the sculptor Maillol in his striped trousers as he sculpts a nude in his garden. Then we meet Vuillard at home at Rue St Honore, a domestic scene lit by lamplight, and we are amazed by the suggestive power of his patches of colour in creating a notation for the fondness he has for his dog. Here is Bonnard’s ‘The Garden’ presenting us with a visual adventure. Once again, as painters, we stand close to observe how Bonnard relinquishes his hold on observed reality, allowing himself to delight more and more in the paint as he dabs and scumbles, gradually conjuring up the experience of a walk through his garden; unerringly sensual and spatial, the net of his marks engage one in both surface and depth.
Between the paintings we are gripped by a small sculpture, ‘Mother and Child’ by Laurenzen, then the raw vibrancy of the seascapes of Emil Nolde, and again the inimitable raffish style of Kees van Dongen, a surprising Debuffet of pressed wood – an objet trouve of beauty.
In the Musee Picasso in the Marais we encounter the painter’s bold playfulness. Somehow Picasso’s witty use of pattern and daring use of colour in his late works resonates in the patterns and colours of the nearby boutiques. A few weeks later at Musee D’ Orsay, we encounter Picasso again, this time in the special exhibition of his Rose and Blue periods. In Bleu et Rose we are affected by something else in his work entirely: Picasso’s humanity, and his ability to evoke so clearly relationships, moments of love, the personalities of Paris and Montparnasse. We marvel at the ease with which he works, incompleteness and suggestiveness informed by his extraordinary observation of the human figure and its movement, attitudes and nuances. The whole cast of humanity: harlequins, performers, players, prostitutes, friends, dealers, mothers, children and families are represented here.
On the eve of my departure, on yet another trip to the fabulous Pompidou Centre, this time together with my 17-year-old son, Tem, who has already seen the show, I fly through the brilliant exhibition “Le Cubisme”. It is a fitting finale to our adventure in Paris and her artists. Le Cubisme brings together the friends of Montparnasse: Picasso and Soutine, the Dadaists, the writer Tristan Tzara, and the poets Rocher and Paul Fort. Coincidentally, our last night in Paris is spent on Rue Paul Fort in Montparnasse. Also represented in the exhibition, are the visitors from the countryside, like Matisse, who traded oranges with Picasso in exchange for an introduction to Picasso’s collectors. Duchamp suddenly comes alive alongside Matisse as all the boring categories of my university Art History fall away to reveal a society of friends, fellow artists, writers, poets with a tremendous work ethic, living and liking and exclaiming the things of their time. Suddenly I am able to place one of my favourite painters, Nicolaas De Stael, side by side with Picasso, as they attend life drawing classes together. In Hemingway’s lively account of the times, his Paris novel ‘Moveable Feast’, he reminds one that art is best received slightly hungry. Cezanne’s still lives as Hemingway then and now we visit them at Gallerie d’Art Moderne remind us of this. Later, as we eat supper in our Cite studio apartment it is an opportune moment to draw some edible still life in the frugal repast of wine, bread and cheese, a Cezanne bowl of fruit in attendance.
At the Cité, we too are a community of artists. In my French class, the artiste des Bandes (illustrator/cartoonist), Burcu Turker hailing from Berlin, and I discover we have done drawings expressing exactly the same feeling, heads full to bursting with the excitement of everything we are seeing and experiencing. Which brings me to my second treasured signed volume: Süsse Sitronen by Burcu Turker. When I finally visit her studio shared with her partner, Mika a graffiti calligrapher, I find a desk arrayed with drawing materials, drawing books and walls covered in drawings. Burcu is a storyteller, and she explains how writing for her is easier than drawing. The new book she is working on is a story of being in Paris. As the story evolves, her protagonist is an office clerk by day and a graffitti artist by night. Burcu, like Lindsay and I, is also tuning into the Gilet Jaunes protests as they take over the streets every Saturday. And so Burcu too is living, liking and exclaiming the things of our times. Her life also draws quite literally back through Istanbul which was her mother’s home, making me once again aware of the links and pinpoints that make up a giant, and intricate web of connections across time and space that resonates through the Cité.
My third signed volume is by Patti Smith. I attend the signing of her latest book, Devotion. Since I already have the book at home, gifted and inscribed to me by my own devoted, I opt instead for the original French edition of ‘Presages d’ Innocence’. In it there is a poem about a tree that continues to hold on to its leaves well into winter. Next to the Memorial de Shoah, which is right next to our apartment building, there is such a tree, and my mother and I watch it as we pass by each day, its branches blackened by the rain, its leaves first bright green and then poured gold as slowly they loose from the bough.
Which brings me back to Rachel Cusk’s ‘Outline’, the third in a trilogy of novels, boldly proposing a new form. The first in the trilogy, ‘Motherhood’, is a daring and candid account. I read it shortly before my son was born and still recall her accurately comparing the 3am breastfeeding wake up call to an alarm clock. By her own account she was slated for this work: too personal, too autobiographical. It was unfair criticism but it launched her into a new way of writing, developed in the other two works in the trilogy. ‘Motherhood’ was an important book to me, a healthy antidote to the all too common romanticisation of motherhood. It was a privilege to hear Cusk speak at Shakespeare’s as part of a weekly series of book launches. What was I left with after listening to her speak? I was impressed by her courage, a combination of vulnerability and strength, thoughtfulness and honesty. Even as I was ready to praise ‘Motherhood’, the author was uncertain of my response: “What did you think of it?” she asked, when my turn at the signing table came. In our chat about the book, and realizing our sons were of an age, she congratulated me for carving a space of time for this adventure, and for my work.
Picking up on something I wrote a while back after visiting a major retrospective of Frank Auerbach’s work held at Tate Britain:
Frank Auerbach creates a cathedral of perception and then invites his viewers to do the same in this presentation of his life work at the Tate.
Visitors around the gallery are hanging on for dear life as they struggle to pin down the sliding and careening swirls of paint into some sort of fixed reality: “Oh, yes, now I see it!..”, is heard as we recognise something for a moment – that then slips away. Auerbach is a philosopher akin to Heisenberg as he forces us to question our own sense of certainty, not only as we perceive it in the visible world, but also in our thinking. These paintings also force us to think and to feel, reminding us that these are not mutually exclusive activities.
In the hallowed space of the Tate everyone looks up from the grid for a moment, and is surprised because Auerbach’s paintings celebrate the constancy of that familiar view, recalling one’s own view as one steps outside the door in the morning. This is not a mood, some invented aura suffusing the work; rather, the feeling of something that permeates the ground we stand upon. There is something redemptive in this experience that floods the senses, opens the mind and the heart; something glorious and intangible, a reminder of what Wallace Stevens called “the precious portents of our own powers”. Auerbach reminds us that we need to take care how we use these powers. As the viewer struggles to ground her views, opinions and perceptions in certainty, and is advised on the nearby Pimlico tube to ‘mind the gap’, Auerbach reminds us of the fickleness of our certainties and the whimsicality of fate. He heightens our awareness of life and death, mortality, climate change, war – the ever present march of time.
Unlike his close painter friend, Leon Kossoff, whose shivery skeins of paint build the image, Auerbach rather tilts at his canvas, far more of a swashbuckler. As he attacks the image again and again, oft-times in later works scraping down the whole image to begin again, showing a speed of working where the performance of the brush stroke begins on a quiet street corner as we wait for the bus, and then propels us into the air in a cascade of marks as St George takes on the dragon once more. And so the imagination is freed, much as it is by Blake upstairs as he evokes the beast and beauty within the imagination.
In Painting and Alchemy James Elkins writes about the psychological pull of the brush stroke: Auerbach pulls us about the room. While Richard Diebenkorn, whose 2015 show at the Royal Academy bears comparison, often works back across his canvases, quietening and battening down his strokes into broad expanses, thus imparting elegance to his compositions while keeping the surface alive, Auerbach’s surface is continually moving, yet arrives at the quiet grandeur of which he speaks – making him a worthy compatriot of Rembrandt (as he was in the 2013 exhibition ‘Rembrandt-Auerbach: Raw Truth’, which twinned the two artists’ work in the Rijks Museum).
In ‘Jake’ Auerbach’s film about his father, shown alongside the Tate exhibition, Frank speaks of the power of the artist’s initial feeling towards the subject, without which there is no point. Then he speaks of a visible tension in the composition, like a sail becoming taut with purpose in the wind in order to voyage out. If it isn’t there the work fails. Later, as I move about the other rooms of the Tate, I am looking for this muscularity of purpose and, sure enough, there it is in Blake and Palmer, though absent in some of their contemporaries exhibited alongside.
In Auerbach’s works there is the space of landscape, the perspectival pull of the drawn line as it leads one in, only to confound with an edge of painted blocks, almost decorative in their flatness. Things happening on the edge of the composition continually remind us of the flatness of what we are looking at. Later, prompted by Auerbach speaking about Sickert in the ‘Jake’ film, I go in search of his work. Sure enough, Sickert like Auerbach doesn’t pin down a reality, but rather evokes a feeling, creating paintings that are pages ‘torn from the book of life’.
In his numerous interviews, notably with Catherine Lampert, Auerbach invokes poetry, referring to the lines of Robert Frost: “A great painting…is a shape riding on its own melting into matter and space, it never stops moving backwards and forwards.” The paintings, in their celebration of the quotidian, in their sheer painted weight and volume, and yet so redolent with light, also call to mind the late works of Monet. Like Monet’s, each painting is an evocation of this relationship between the inner and the outer world of the artist. Like Monet, there is a struggle and a reckoning, as strong feeling meets the demands of paint and composition.
For Auerbach, again like Monet, there is weather outside the studio and weather within the studio. Auerbach is a colourist of the found palette – oil and occasionally acrylic colours run about inside one another. ‘Summer Haze’ is a feast of dissolving pinks and ochres, while ‘Summer Heat’ contrasts in its strident use of inky blue blacks and bold primaries – a surprising take on an English summer. These paintings also speak of the solitude and even loneliness of the painter’s days, spent in overalls in a quiet room pushing paint around. A wintry darker work in palette makes me wonder on the painter’s disposition at the time: isn’t every painting after all a self portrait?
After the thoughts, the reverie, the push and pull into buildings, across streets, jostling past people barely there, the this way and that of walking a busy London street, the dragons that emerge in our imaginations, suddenly we are landed back in the squish and scrape of the paint.
If sometimes the paintings become airless in their alchemical layers of paint and colour, it is nature that is evoked and it is nature that I seek as I leave the exhibition, wandering into a park, and the colours of autumnal London in their gear of light and shift, again evoking the paintings and a glittery warmth that is at once human and alive. I am drawn into the layers of colour as seen in reflections on a pond, layers of rock, something silvery and golden in moving trees. And so the artwork reaches back out into the world through my thoughts and perceptions.
Geographies of paintings done and redone. Having walked the long-mediated underground from the Metro station into the glammy Zorlu centre, arriving in Mamon, announced as it is, 250 m then 150m, then 100 only; a grey airless tunnel and I try to remain jolly, focussing on my fellow commuters who with winter’s wet arrival have begun the retreat into their black coats. I randomly open Ruskin while standing in a bookstore. He writes of how iron-oxide is such an important aspect of the land and its countenance, its days and its nights, its light and its shade. I am reminded as I read of these half tones and semiquavers, of roofs and rosy hues of evening hills in Ireland the summer before last, and the in between colours of some of the small paintings I did afterwards. But in July, on the other side of the world, the Karoo on a winter morning throws off the colour of bruised fruit. The varnished-gold sky has traces of rich indigo, pathways of the night. That winter’s day dark olive green shadows bake into the earth, russet and grey. And then wanting to write something on the recent visit to South Africa and the returning to Istanbul, I found suspended in my drafts here another piece on returning from Ireland written a year ago. So here it is, together with the paintings.
Red Road Home 2013
Returned now to Istanbul after some weeks in Ireland, immersing oneself in so different a climate and culture. What remains and how does one speak, write or paint of landscapes that unfurl between land and sky, dropping slow colour across earth and water, running like ink into roads and fields? I return with a wad of drawings stiff with pastels, water colour, crayon, splats of slate grey, teal blue, all the greens. And remembering standing in shallow rock pools looking across a long blonde beach towards the green fields, suddenly electric and moving so that emerging later from a swim in its waters I was compelled to draw, fingers trailing across the sand, long lines of hillside suddenly pitching against a farmstead roof, archaic in simplicity. Attaining sacredness as shapes of barn and house, triangle or rhombus, symbols of human habitation, peaceable and pieced, quietly into the landscape.
But elsewhere churches sharpen their spires upward appearing dark and godless against such a wriggle of field and a roar from the wild sea close-by, deceptive in its apparent emerald blue tranquility. And what of women, the names that are writ in water from my ancestors as they boarded ships from Ireland? What bleak lives, what wrenches, what conflicted existences drove them into perilous journeys to distant shores of England, South Africa, New Zealand? Was it just a sense of adventure, or flailing for a different truth to what was presented in the church homily? Or was it a fall from or against theır positions of lifetime subservience? Reading in the papers of the Magdalene laundries, and discovering Edna O’Brien who bought the pink house down the road from where we stay, and how she was hounded for her lifestyle and her books, for an artist one and the same, in the way of breathing and seeing… and all this must now find its way into the paintings.
Now, in a morning reverie, I take a bus towards my studio, and there is a mist that obscures and a mist that reveals. Is this a kind of limbo that I find myself in now, returning to Istanbul and the Bosphoros, even after anointing myself again in her waters, eating salty fried food close to her shore. What am I to paint?
What remains after a visit to the homeland? How to weave these skeins of memory, recent and past, into the work. I am left with a sense of the animation
in the Karoo, our last stop before we were bulleted back via the long road north into Johannesburg, our take off city. Back ın the studıo I am at first reluctant to look out at the Bosphoros, or to be lured back by the strangely complex cargoes of the ever passing ships in their sea of blue. I immerse myself in the Bosphoros where I meet up again with my friend Seta and swim with the women who are now bronzed clean from a summer of sun and swimming – and they welcome me.
What moved my friend one day to take me to her deceased father’s apartment? Untouched since his death, a fisherman and a musician, she invited me to enter her portal of memories. A room lined with long playing classical records, old photographs and paintings. A host of coats still hanging in the wardrobe. Here she visits daily? Weekly? İ have been in several apartments in this city where personal histories pile up, memories and old ornate furniture that finds no traction in the jolly primaries and tasteful greys of IKEA chain stores. So it is something of a banal tragedy when on my customary walk down the hill with its burgeonong fig trees and grape vines there are two old chairs crashed on the road. Old chairs fallen off a truck or tossed carelessly from the adjacent apartment block.
What is it about the prospect of an open studio that pulls me back into the paint, has me reworking a painting that has been la2ily checking me out from a corner of the studio. Or how about getting going on some of those blank page canvases right now. Something great about picking up a slick wet canvas and nailing it there and then onto the wall. Then there’s the fun of placing this next to that and a chance narrative of splat and slide, blue and crimson black, umbrella and bridge.
Open Studio 13
Date: Friday 6 december 17:00 – 20:30 Saturday 7 december 11:00 – 16:00
Exhibition continues 9 to 13 december (by appointment)
I often have occasion to pass by the pink yali on the Bosphorus where Argonauts one of my recent Istanbul paintings now lives.
Paying the painting and the home of its discerning collectors, the Kahraman family a visit I was struck by how the bold abstraction of the painting “The Argonauts” and the contemporary funkiness of the painted ceramic bowl “Trafik” spoke happily to the ornate decorativeness of the old Ottoman Yali. Although this is an historic Istanbul home its interior has a fresh upbeat perkiness which keeps the chandeliers tinkling and adds new bloom to the rose strewn carpets. A delightful home for works of art, old and new.
In the loft bedroom where the owner’s budding designer daughter stays when home from London, “The Argonauts” continues its journey with the ships viewed from the balcony.
Inspired by my visit to the Kahraman family, I continue to Ortakoy and the tranquil family home of Kristin and Kahraman Cicekciler. Kristin is the collector of the large oil painting Hull and more recently Halic Lantern. Here Kristin has cleverly arranged carefully chosen objects and colours, bringing a monumentality to the piece.
An intriguing mannequin, espied in the window of a prominent Istanbul retailer takes on a sculptural presence as she appears to watch over the painting.
The apartment houses a significant collection of paintings, and the owner clearly has a special fondness for each of them. Kristin shows me “Halic Lantern” in its easy but elegant new home among the books and the paintings.
Sometimes I run to my studio along the Bosphorus. A way to get my vision tuned afresh. The fishing boats are out casting their yellow spirals and pitching their tents on the silvery plains. Hot sepia tea is being served at the borekci near the studio, and the fish carts sell their wares outside the neighboring mosque. It only remains to pick up a fresh loaf from the local bakery for lunch, then into the studio for the day’s work.
So it was with interest that I discovered that 82 year-old painter Alex Katz, recently exhibited at Tate St Ives is a runner. Katz who describes his painting as both “aggressive” and “optimistic” includes giant flowerscapes as part of his recent work. Pursuing realism at a time when it was unfashionable to do so (alongside the Abstract Expressionists) his is a roving, cavorting imagination with a daring and disciplined “abstract grammar” that lend his images a force. I have been enjoying tracking his interviews, realizing that he was always the footnote in my study of Art History at university. Not unlike Richard Diebenkorn, another long time favourite painter.
Alex Katz talks about painting but he also talks about watching films, dancing with his wife and muse, Ada and about running. After a long day in the studio painting large canvases he rejuvenates by running. Haruki Murakami in his book “What I talk about when I talk about running” points towards talent, focus and endurance as the key ingredients for both writing and running. AS one grows older, he says it is focus and endurance that keeps one in the race. To that I would add, the sheer pleasure of breathing.
From our studio window we watch a small boy nimbly scale the fence, and inhabit the garden. His absorption is complete as he sets about filling his pockets, with the green fruit (“erik”) of the plum tree, first his front pockets, then the back until his jeans threaten to give into their load. Pausing occasionally to sample his wares, tugging at the higher branches, until he has feasted and can gather no more, without hurry, and completely unaware that he is being watched, he disappears again.
Beyond the studio, the restless surge and hum of the world. The Bosphoros bringing spring storms, and a world immersed in deep colour, purples and greens that start to find their way into the new paintings…
Finally settling back into the quietude of my Bosphoros studio after a couple of months working in South Africa, and then another of orientating myself back on Turkish shores. Finding myself with a lot to absorb, and integrate; preparing for new work to come.
Three weeks spent in the international Thupelo artists workshop at the Bag Factory, Johannesburg, places my feet firmly back on the ground of my home land. Each day we gather early for breakfast, before setting about our work, free of any of the distractions that might ordinarily keep one from one’s studio practice. It is a privileged space where the emphasis is on the working process, one’s own, and the witnessing and sharing of others. And we are privileged to be sharing the space with the studios of Sam Nhlengethwa, David Koloane and Pat Mautloa, art stalwarts of the struggle years, who lend warmth and gravitas to the flux and flow of the workshop. The historic Market Theatre, bastion of anti-apartheid activist theatre, and also incidentally, the venue for my very first solo exhibition “Going Home” (1992) is just round the corner. As we walk our daily ten minute walk, to the studio through markets, past Pep Stores and “Killer Prawn”, only sometimes resisting the allure of potato samosas and the haberdashers and shoe shops of the Oriental Plaza, the street names remind us that we are indeed in the company of good artist souls; the sharply observant contribution of the 60’s writer Can Themba, and the sweet and feisty singer of whom he wrote, Dolly Rathebe. After the workshop, In Cape Town, I will start the search for a singer to take part in “Ek se^” the public performance piece I will be staging as part of the Infecting the City public arts festival. More about that in another blog…
But back in my Bosphoros studio what remains of Johannesburg? A city forged of mud and earth and human hearts; glittery and strange edifices, that angle and climb across a depth of sky; trees made of clouds and clouds made of trees; walking in Fordsburg and the growing familiarity of the neighborhood mosque and its visitors. At street level at night, missing drain covers and missing people.
Recollections of the Bag Factory, a busy cave;, my happy collaboration with long time close friend and fellow painter, Jenny Parsons; witnessing the quiet containment and intricate pleasures of our fellow studio artists, Igshaan and Lerato, and working alongside another stalwart, the indomitable, Helen Sebidi, “Mama Helen”as she is affectionately known. Not forgetting the jiving energy of the Fela Kuti studio next door, or Benan’s beautiful hard won portraits, Akirash’s body painting project, Fiona’s ( also our youtube documenter) quirky bioscope. And too much more to mention here.
Now back home again in Istanbul the muezzin calls me outdoors into the evening light of a rainy Tarabya, threading his call with the colour of ripe plums.