14 June 2017

Sorolla's letters to Gil Moreno de Mora

On my recent visit to Madrid I had the good fortune of meeting with one of the great granddaughters of Joaquín Sorolla, Fabiola. Due to time constraints our meeting at the Casa Museo Sorolla was necessarily brief. She managed however to show me some of her grandmothers sculptures and slip me a copy of one of three published volumes of  commented letters from the master.

This  Epistolario , volume I,  consisted of the letters he wrote to his life long friend Gil Moreno de Mora.  Gil was a fellow artist Sorolla met in Rome at a time when artists were awarded an educational residence in that city if they achieved certain merit in their youth. Gil however, belonged to a very wealthy family from Catalonia and increasingly left art and occupied his efforts  augmenting the  family fortune which consisted mostly of mines in the province of Córdoba. His position allowed him to do many favors for his talented friend. Sorolla returned these favors later on when he was the one with the ears of power.

I learnt much about Sorolla's daily preoccupations through these wonderful letters. I've always maintained -for my own sake, this is an interested opinion- that artists come in all shapes and forms. Married, single, rich, poor, young, old, kind or vicious. Successful artists are a rare breed despite appearances and they also evade any listing of defining features in their  path to success. Let's set aside for a minute the "hard work"and "persistence" formula which despite being almost an essential ingredient is far from fail-safe,  I am sorry to say.

 These  are some things I learnt from Sorolla's abundant correspondence with his friend:

Measured just in financial rewards, Sorolla was very successful indeed. His first exhibition at the Georges Petit gallery in Paris during the year 1906 produced approximately 300,000 french "ancien" francs after the sale of 75 out of 400 paintings and drawings shipped for the occasion. That is more than a million and a half dollars of today. The apex of his career, which critics place squarely during his first exhibition at the Hispanic Society of New York under the auspices of Archer Milton Huntingon, saw him earn  aprox. 190,000 $ worth of paintings sold  in dollars from 1909. That is 2 1/2 million dollars in today's money. And as if that wasn't enough, it does not take into account the tens of portraits commissioned in this occasion. The portraits could fetch hefty sums. President Taft paid 3000$ for his, almost 80,000$, and that was not a full body portrait. Ok, so he became very wealthy. Moving on.

Art Awards. Sorolla could make a circus tent with all the ribbons and medals. The only insight is that he was quite open about his award anxiety with his friend.  He often asks about the competition and the impression his paintings are causing. Sorolla also earned some national honors like the Legion d'Honeur and St Olof Cross. He was quite pleased with these.

Taft by Sorolla

Who's who. Another measure of success is certainly how many important people Sorolla met and influenced. The artist really got to know the Gotha of the art world fin de siècle sometimes in very close quarters. Of course he met every relevant artist from Spain: from Benlliure and Aureliano Beruete to Francisco Pradilla and Ignacio Zuloaga . He dined with the Royal Family and prominent politicians like Maura and the creamy top of literary Spain. He also enjoyed international appeal.  He showed Zorn the walls of Avila while the hefty Swede drank himself blind with champagne, for example. (Ah, northern tourists...)  He perceived Sargent as the guy to outshine and had some  vague respect for Alma Tadema but none for Tissot. Naturally, he got to portrait many of these prominent figures. The editors of the book point out Zuloaga had some acerbic commentary about Sorolla (while maintaining always pleasant rapport in person) but one could set that aside as mere artists rivalry. After all, Zuloaga mastered the representation of the "black" Spain and felt a certain threat when Sorolla started invading his turf in Segovia with his luminous experiments.

Politics. Sorolla had definite political opinions initially in line with those of Blasco Ibañez, a fellow Valencian and very prominent writer. He was very influenced  by the renovation agenda of  a few progressive intellectuals bent on liberating Spain from its dark mood after all vestige of empire was lost in 1898.  In other words, he was mostly a liberal thinker. Despite this leanings, he kept his opinions to a minimum,  the Royal family was an assiduous and prestigious client after all.  The painter talks fondly about them to his friend. I am not sure if he really held that opinion as Alfonso XIII was very unpopular and became extremely disliked later on due to his African wars. Sorolla was a well informed man in world affairs as he mentions the Russian pre-revolution of 1905 and other international and national events of relevance. Calling him well travelled is  an understatement.

Raimundo de Madrazo by Sorolla

More importantly, the letters go sometimes into details about the work process and paintings. The editors had the foresight of adding some plates of the sketches and drawings Sorolla added to his writing.
Letter fragments and a portrait Archer Milton Huntington.

Shipping & Handling: I simply can't believe the amount of shipping that went on. Hundreds of canvases crisscrossed Europe during the 1900's. Travel must have been a constant for painters and their families since their presence often meant a more favorable hanging at the Salon, a proper frame or an important commission. The exchange of photographs and sketches was necessary. One must reserve some praise for agents and gallerists that had to receive and ship back all these works. Sorolla only had some choice words for the British galleries love of commissions and contracts full of sly clauses. He exhibited at Grafton Gallery in London. 

His friend Gil became a de-facto agent in Paris for the painter. He seems to have been trusted with everything, from letting him pick the frames in France so as to reduce shipping weights and cargo bulk to demanding payment from galleries and even, in one occasion,  edit a canvas by folding one whole figure out to aid the composition. Sorolla not only approved the change, he cut the figure out. The painting in question is below: "Trata de Blancas", a rather benign glimpse into prostitution.

"Trata de Balncas". Sorolla. From his costumbrist period early on.

Thought process. Hidden among the worldly affairs of travel and family are some insights into Sorolla's creative process. He liked Winsor colors, who knew?  What was he aiming at, what inspired him, what did he expect from a painting and how did he go about composing one. Little snippets punctuated by delicious sketches and instructions. In contrast with the snobbery of today's curators and conceptual artists, Sorolla comes across as almost too adroit. He likes the sun, the play of light, the flow of fabrics, the beach and the scenery.  "Send me a winged Victory" he begs his friend.  Hard not to see the influence of he helenistic statue on the fabrics flapping against sun and wind..... what a direct and yet original take. It's what makes him happy. Commissioned portraits are a pain but pay the bills, oh well. Family portraits are a labor of love and it shows. He probably created the greatest family album ever, I'd say.

Museo Sorolla. Observe the Nike sculpture sent by Gil from Paris.

Family life. Sorolla was an orphan and was adopted by his uncle and aunt. He repaid  them by supporting them till their last day. But he was a married man as well and nary a letter is written where he doesn't mention his Clotilde or his kids, Joaquin, Maria and Elena; often  worrying about their health and fevers which must have been a lot scarier then than they are today. One reads about plagues of cholera and flu sweeping all over Europe.  During WWI , Spain remained neutral. Mostly because the King had allegiances to both sides. The press in Spain had no qualms about reporting flu outbreaks but the foreign press kept quiet about their own for obvious reasons. That's how the "Spanish Flu" came to be by the way. The more you know...
Sorolla was  most definitely a devoted family man. There you go, no need to embrace bachelorhood. But oh boy, is the right partner ever SO important.

The wife of the painter, Clotilde  (detail)

"Walk in the beach" Museo Sorolla

Work, too much of it: He says it. He feels the pressure. Sorolla worked hard. Clotilde also worked hard dedicating herself to the household while her husband painted and enduring long trips along with the master.  They moved often to ever grander premises. Sorolla loved his hometown of Valencia and says so very often. There he found his most original and sun drenched compositions. Conversely, he disliked Madrid where he had to live for business reasons  and yearned for his Valencia beaches. His last residence in Calle Martinez Campos was an example of traditionalist architecture, clean lines and luminous interiors.

My sketch of Sorolla's house. Watercolor.

The constant movement of clients, canvases and studio accoutrements must have been a tad much. One interesting datum, Huntington initially commissioned a mural of the History of Spain. It was Sorolla's idea to make instead a frieze showing Spain's peoples. He did this, not to defy Huntington but to have the chance to gather  true and natural inspiration from travelling around the peninsula. If one must judge against his Columbus portrait for example, it was a genius stroke. Shortly after finishing the huge commission for the library of the Hispanic Society  (2 million dollars of today) Sorolla had an hemiplejic attack at the youthful age of 56. The work  had taken its  toll. His friend Gil kept writing letters,  increasingly commiserating with Clotilde and less directed towards his fading friend. Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida  never painted again and died in Cercedilla on August 1923. Pace yourselves fellows.

"Ayamonte, fisherman's catch". Murals at the Hispanic Society, NYC.

20 March 2017

Living the way you paint and viceversa.

I recently read a couple of books on mindfulness. One of them was "The Power of Now" by Eckhardt Tolle. I am not a fan of inspirational gurus of any kind and regard  books like "The Secret" as actually very harmful  since they guilt  readers into believing their thoughts  are the sole obstacle between them and a notion of success that looks like a brochure for a cruise to the Bahamas. But I admit I fall for the catchy titles and read these books looking for practical advice (and I am disappointed 99% of the time).

"Roses for a snow day" 10"x10" oil on wood

Over time I've come to realize that I am only happy and fully 'mindful' when I paint. At least to a degree that  other activities won't reach. I get lots of painting ideas while at work;  I am constantly framing street scenes or fruit bowls in the kitchen into possible pictures. I don't try to figure out the "why" or the "for what purpose" any more.  As long as no amount of hours spent painting or in art-related activities feel like work, I just know it is my 'calling'.

And yet I become quite agitated when people in the street tell me I should feel "blessed" or that I should be lucky with such a "gift".  You know where I am going with this. I thank them. These comments are well meaning. It is a "gift" of some sort. Some may dismiss calling it a 'gift'  because  they "worked hard  at it" but saying that sounds  a bit desperate for recognition of their toils.  There is nothing wrong with admitting you were driven by something else beyond a duty to perform.

Life drawing, chalk on grey paper
In the back of my head,  however,  I also argue with the idea of a "gift" because it has no donor and it is incomplete. Shouldn't this great gift come as a package deal?  Attached to other gifts like marketing prowess and a great business sense? May be even a degree of recklessness?  If there was an intelligent cosmic force (ok, a God) willy nilly granting gifts and pushing you to be an artist, wouldn't that force (inner or outer)  provide some 'extras'?  A bit of luck and savvy to overcome obstacles? In other words, if you call art making a 'gift', you are a paycheck away from calling it a curse as well.

"Nelson Square" 8"x10" oil on canvas

 This "gift" idea leads directly to a giver. It's hard to explain art in merely anthropological or evolutionary terms. (That doesn't mean there is no biological root to art, I am sure there is). But why would one persist in a behavior so void of profit and so full of  grief, the grief of not being able to make it a career for whatever cause or "reason". So against the ropes and seeing time pass by,  I'll go ahead and admit it, I have been giving God a lot of thought lately. Why grant a gift that can't be opened? Why call it a gift any longer? Why do it at all if there is a diminishing chance of making the work  match the calling? And isn't this just putting the blame elsewhere because is too painful to blame oneself?

Mostly because I am an atheist and  everything tells me there isn't such a thing, these thoughts seem idiotic. But there it is. The  Judeo-Christian-Islamic  touchy grouch who lashes out at anyone who recoils from his buy-now, pay-later  immortality plan is not even in the picture here. Or any other version female or male or animal of capricious forces beyond our understanding. I am talking about the inner impulse that drives artists. Whether it is Gods or genes or guts, I don't care.

There's a story from the Bible that seems appropriate:

It's the "Jonah and the Whale" story or at least my take on it. I liked this book from the Bible when I was young because of the visual appeal of the prophet living inside a whale (whales have tiny throats and can't swallow a man by the way. Another coin in the Bible's jar of lost logic).
"St Jerome"

The poet León Felipe, exiled in México,  introduced me to the notion that Jonah could be a metaphor for the person with a vocation in general and the artist in particular.  Jonah doesn't want to 'want' to be an artist,  he wants a comfortable life being and X-Ray technician or a tax accountant.  But God demands he shares his gift . And so Jonah runs away and escapes to  get a job in New Zealand as a crew set decorator, mistakenly believing  it might satisfy his artistic calling. Most of his fellow men agree having a calling is a luxury for trust fund babies anyway. Jonah would rather die than give up his job safety.
"Vancouver Alley"

In the Bible, Jonah manages to convert Nineveh but gets no reward except scorn. See,  he sets out to be a "prophet of doom" like the good lice-infested bearded ones of yore, and it so happens that the gullible people  (this time, what are the chances?) decide to change their wicked and fun ways and  dress in ashes and dung. Oh, goodie.  His whole life is a forced service to his gift and it brings him, personally,  no reward. He is the Bible's tragic clown. Job at least got back his camels when  God decided to wager on the strength of his faith with good ol' Satan.

Sure, there's a lot of worse fates than being a clown but what's the lesson here? That you should go along with your calling even if you know it is not going to be easy or even successful.  At least you'll be a LOT less tired from fighting against it.

In other words, f***  it. Just paint, sculpt, dance or make balloon animals. It's what you are meant to do. Just do it any which way you want, with a job, without a job, with cancer, in the kitchen, with chalk or ink or piss.

St James Church, Crossroads, Haworth
Pendle Stained Glass Ltd. 1999

Many artists are firm God believers and I have seen first hand  the results of having an unwavering faith of some sort. I've met mostly Christians of several ilks, catholics,  mormons, etc... that set out to make a living in art at a young age and succeed with kids and wife in tow. I've also seen other artists inspired by other faiths including the much taunted "faith in oneself" (talk about tautologies, you are the one believing in it). The key word here is they do have "faith", a belief that cannot be faked when you are really gambling your career success on it. One has to respect this and I do envy it to a great degree.
Art and faith almost require the same strength of conviction against  a void. 

 To mention just a few artists informed by their faith : Daniel Keys, John Burton, Tony Pro, ,Jeremy Duncan,  Josh Clare and many many others.

 If you know many artists, you know "gift packages" are also indeed very rare. They do exist.  Artists that were born in artist families do better. Artists that found or worked with generous mentors do better, succeed earlier, spare themselves a lot of mistakes. Exposure to the business of art making  seems like a better route than any schooling. I am just guessing here and interpolating from many random observations. I am always surprised at the amount of artists that are sons and daughters of artists. Sure, a great number of  artists succeed despite having none of the above and even less advantages than others. Talent can break many barriers.  

09 December 2016

Changing the world one bad sunset painting at a time.

Picture this: You see a portrait of a war veteran and it is clumsily  drawn, the colors feel flat and cold. The flag hangs like a kitchen rag and the pose is as uninspired as a yearbook's. It doesn't even resemble the subject.

Now imagine a portrait of Donald Trump where the artists has managed to miraculously dissipate all of the  arrogance and idiocy into a masterpiece of lush tones, an elegant poise and even a hint of a brain behind the constipated squint.  -(Just in case you were wondering, nah, it hasn't been done.)

This is not 'tremendous' at all . But how to make a good painting out of such poor subject matter.
Which one would the 'good' painting be? Should the soldier's portraitist be immune from criticism for his efforts to memorialize a hero? Should today's Zorn be criticized for elevating a gasbag into a statesman? (Like I mentioned, there's no examples of this particular feat).

Of course the answer is simple, the quality of the art is quite independent of the message it conveys.

"Three Prostitutes" Otto Dix 1925 Love this!

I  often wonder how art can help heal the world; what does it mean to make "important art?  We constantly read about 'significant' works and paintings that challenge the status-quo.  Are they? Did they? As much as I look I come out empty. It would appear  that art has never 'created' the necessary change but only reflected it back and commented on it, sometimes acutely.

 I've avoided this subject for very good reasons.  People are fanatic enough already about oil mediums.  Political and social issues are a whole other ball game because they involve the artist as a person and a citizen, not just as creator of works. And just in case it might sound as if I am censoring or trying to say something 'important', rest assured I am not.  Most artists I know aspire to something great and it is the process of perfecting  one's  expression that  keeps artists  trying and failing, not the results per se and -definitely-  not how amazing some of those artists  believe these results to be.

Jan Kasparec.
No matter how lofty the message, artistic excellence is about the 'how', not the 'what'.  I'm not only talking about technique even though it matters more than some would like to acknowledge.  And I am not dismissing "conceptual art" offhand either...but again, it is not the idea but how it is delivered.  How many horrid paintings of sunsets have you seen lately? How many godawful baby portraits?

This communicates Buddhism and environmental awareness.

Are there any bigger 'messages' today than the growing inequality of the world's wealth and the reality of environmental degradation?  Everything else either pales in comparison or is a direct consequence of these global maladies. If History is any guide the planet will find balance again by its own means of disease and mass extermination. So how do you make art with that?  Is it really the artist's job to even try to tackle things like these?

There's no right answer, of course. Some would say the artist must tackle what she is concerned about as a citizen only. "Just shut up and sing" as they say. Or even turn his lofty head AWAY form it and choose to ignore or even deny the issues. At least until the apocalypse withers his garden and burns the studio.

*My point is  that art is probably not  the right medium to affect change but a perfect means to express it.

*My second more important point is that artistic merit is indifferent to how urgent or radical the message is and a worthy message cannot insure a work of art from being awful. (Fortunately, evil messages have suffered the same lack of insurance or more.)

*The 'importance' of art often starts and ends with its importance to the artist. It only grows from there to wards the viewer, the community, the market and the world at large. 

Painting exalting racial purity (Nazi period)
Let's look at some 'big issue' paintings.

I know a few artists that paint homeless people. They mostly do in an effort to convey the dignity inherent in people that normally would not be portrayed at all, anywhere, and much less be able to pay for the luxury.  Not your run-of-the mill "pretty" subject matter. And easy to sentimentalize to boot. I like all of the following works. I especially like the one of the multiple boards stuck together because it makes the homeless the authors and they were paid for their words.  The Bastien Lepage is just phenomenally well painted and it has charm for miles. Fit for a chocolate box though. It also has a message but I'd say it is more of a literary type, heartfelt as it is.  The Jose Ribera is just powerful, unflinching and probably the superior piece.

Bastien LePage. "Pas Meche" 1882

A board made with homeless signs purchased from the writers. Artist: Willie Baronet.

well-wishing graffiti by Skid Robot.
 Jose Ribera "Clubfooted boy or the beggar" 1642

 Let's move on to the subject of war. Without a doubt , one of the most represented subjects in History. From heroic generals to fields of strewn corpses, war paintings are everywhere. Let's  look at recent examples.   Sargent, whom nobody would accuse of being a hack, created his incredible  "Gassed" painting after briefly visiting the front  at the age of 62. It is a masterpiece of light and composition but "war" it ain't. Oh, yes, there are soldiers and wounds and dead people but Sargent might as well have painted a row of angels. It resembles more of  an heroic Hellenistic frieze than a war condemnation. He might have been affected by what he saw but really didn't set out to question the war or war mongers .

"Gassed" S.Sargent. 1919

Next is someone that goes a step beyond Sargent, may be not in technique, but in message. We have a wailing mother holding a mutilated  soldier over some oil burning fields. Oil for blood. Not a frieze, but a 'Pieta'. Clearly, the artist has some very strong opinions about this and has focused the scene eliminating other corpses and avoiding contemporary clothing on the mother figure. She is both symbolic and realistic. The American flag does not have a single stain despite being crumpled under the agonizing soldier (the painter is buying insurance here since patriotism is beyond reproach -and the last refuge of scoundrels as they say) . The work is well painted but -and you may disagree- it is a scene in a play. So poised and theatrical that I don't think it is too far off ,  indictment-wise,  from the  Sargent in leaving us cold. I love it as an illustration. No more.

Max Ginsburg. "War Pieta" 2017

Now, here it is. Even better and edited down. The horror of war. No mom coming to cry. No patriotic hints. No face to recognize. No heroic pose. Just mud and shit and this was someone who went to help (he is a red cross soldier)   and got gassed instead. I really nails the point and this painting hasn't left my head since I saw it two years ago. We are in Goya territory here as far as driving the message home.

Ardius Fidelis. Gilbert Rogers 1919

And, oh the irony, that most capitalist of artists, Mr. Bansky, going directly to the thinking cap. Two childish characters ( pst, they are really stand-ins for large corporations)  holding the hands of a Vietnamese real life child burnt by a war chemical. How much do these children-loving logos really give a flying crap?  And Bansky didn't even have to create anything but combine a few iconic images -my opinion. Is this a war painting/image? I'd say 'yes' and its offensive value is off the charts because any war, just or unjust, should leave one offended, not exalted. The funny thing is that it is a stretch to call this a painting, but few would argue that it is not art.

May be paintings are not the right way to express disent or rock the boat. More on this later.


And what about feminism? Did pop-art endless display of vaginas, vacuum cleaners and Barbie dolls stir the masses towards  an improvement in women's status? In my opinion they might have helped reclaim art as a feminine endeavor.  Big iffy "might".

Marie Chorda. 'Great Vagina'

-If you've lived in any population (Los Angeles, for example) where there has been a racial minority (even though 'latino' populace is now a majority in LA) or native population in need of reclaiming some pride,  you've seen the murals. Some are riots of color, direct and, well, proud, but few are also good. Criticizing the quality of the mural is often tantamount to criticizing the message. You either like it or you clearly are an 'imperialist' parading Western post-colonial prejudice.  I don't care. Some of these murals are lurid messes with little merit.  It really has nothing to do with the sympathy their message might stir in the viewer. I am sure I can find some examples of well executed murals painted by the people claiming their space.

Cesar Chavez portrait in mural form. artist?

For contrast, the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.....well,  true,  he was not a struggling immigrant. He was also well  aware of the Western art world  and therefore had a large advantage. OK! May be not the best example of "urgency". But he could convey the anti-imperial anti-capitalist message liek nobod's business.  As I said,  I will look for examples of "good" murals made by the people they are intended to portray. There's got to be a few as the gift of art does not stop at the strawberry fields of Camarillo or the Laguna Beach mansions.

Diego Rivera. "The river" mural

Economic inequality is a tough one. Art is considered a luxury item so who in their right mind would paint something  that goes against the very belief in luxury? But that hasn't  stopped artists who wanted to make a name for themselves and make a splash. After all, even corporations are not always opposed to own their own critics as long as they can hang them in a lobby and not in their conscience.  The mansions of moguls are filled with images of peasants and their quaint simple lives. The offices of real estate titans often feature beautiful animal sculptures and landscapes of the West.

Anyway, nothing new here. At this point I think we get the idea.  There are many other areas of meaning like art done as therapy  which I'd love to talk about  or environmental art, native art, propaganda ... The citizen artist is allowed to be stirred by his day to day concerns and worries, could he or she do otherwise?

"And They Still  Say Fish Is Expensive!" Joaquin Sorolla. 1894
Alex Schefer. "Burning Bank of America"

 Actually, many artists have found that sending a 'message' was what their mission in life was. Many have found illustration and caricature the proper means to do so.

James Gillray. 1805. "The plumb-pudding in danger"

I am sure the painting below has some meaning -something about the story of a young artist's rise to maturity I read. It is part of a series much like Hogarth's "A Rake's Progress" or a "Book of Hours". It has nicely rendered lights and fabrics and it's finished within an inch of its life with Germanic thoroughness. The scene is a puzzle but between reading about  it to find out and just moving on I'd rather do the latter because I doubt I'd be impressed.  May be this piece is a victim of its own "cleverness" and a perfect example of that large group of artworks that belong in the ivory tower of academia art,  if not academic; enigma art,  if not enigmatic. But it wants to be an 'important' piece, it wants it so bad.  I am sure it is important for the artist, and may be that should be enough.

artist: Scott Hess

02 November 2016

Vancouver Blues...and Reds.

Community garden at sunset, watercolor

Well. it's been a good five months already since I arrived in beautiful British Columbia. Yet another country to where our constant search for work has led us. No use pretending, it wasn't easy. Facebook might show us as 'jet setters' and moving about with ease but we've cropped a lot of grief away from those Facebook posts. 

Kitsilano Beach sunset. watercolor sketch
Many artists know that art is a solitary endeavor. Adding immigration (three times!) to it makes the whole endeavor quite a hurdle. The times of 'art martyrs' might be gone and we have paint tubes today  but that doesn't mean making art has become a breeze. Renting apartments and moving frequently makes finding a suitable  and affordable studio space almost impossible -if only because easels don't fit in planes and security deposits are hefty. Distance makes family matters take second place. Despite the price of art supplies you can't afford to buy cheap materials and every place has its quirks when it comes to shipping (Canada Post is a total headache, they've lost more mail in five months than all my US mail in twenty years). And when your family is sick and tired of hearing you moan, try  rationalizing the risks involved in becoming a full time painter  and just 'quit your job and paint'. 

"Cypress Street"

Vancouver is a city that has grown and is still growing at a breakneck pace. Real estate is pricey and construction is pervasive. Foreign and local investment are frantic. I like to compare it to a "mining town on hormones", still provincial in many aspects but bursting with technology, film and food  ventures. People that have lived here for a while have a totally different perception of it than newcomers. Surrounded by a truly beautiful landscape but close to commodities  like oil, timber and minerals, add its sensible  (albeit bland) metal-and-teal-glass urban newness, layer some decidedly favorable lip service towards "First nations", animal welfare , gays  and pot and you get quite an attractive place to retreat in a middle class bubble ...if you have the means and the marketable skills necessary. You'll get bored to hear it was "voted the city with best quality of life" x years in a row and so on. That might be but that "vote"  comes from biased sources so caution to navigators.

Granville Bridge, Watercolor sketch
As an urban plein air painter, the city itself is a little lackluster. Sure,  there are some quaint neighborhoods like Mount Pleasant and Point Grey.  The abundance of water and majestic trees is truly a sight to behold. If one manages to buy or rent a car, I am sure there are plenty of locations deserving attention.
Here are some of the problems I've found as I started painting:

"Capilano Fishermen" 9"x12"
a) Rain. It rains, for days, heavily, soggily, darkly. Days are dark and short in winter. It hasn't been too cold yet but water can get to you. Most people here wear yoga pants to the supermarket or hiking equipment to the office so there is a massive assortment of shops where you can find waterproof and hiking  clothing.

b) A high tolerance for alternative lifestyles means most of the 'tolerating' will be done by you, not the politicians,  as  you try to  avoid the  masses of panhandlers and addicts in the downtown area permanently engulfed in a cannabis fog and shouting matches while you paint.

Jericho beach 8"x10"
c) A serious lack of cultural options on the visual arts front. The city prides itself in its  public art  which falls into two categories: 90% is absolute bollocks and 10% is great. The City Gallery offerings are quite dismal. Photo exhibits of black and white photos of sad children in alleys are great, once. How many "dialogues" and "conversations" and "engagements" before someone comes up with a painting worth hanging that is not by Emily Again Carr? Don't get me started on the totems either.  I love Haida arts and motives but it's like living on a diet of truffles, truffles and truffles.

d) Not much of an art scene. Curiously, however,  I found a lot of urban sketchers and graffiti artists, some life drawing studios that are quite nice and a few plein air artists.  And by any standards there IS a lot of art done in Vancouver,  it is just done inside film studios. Commercial art galleries are a better bet  than museums. South Granville has a few  interesting galleries. My favorites so far have to be Pousette  (Francophone artists)  and Heffel  (group of seven, classic canadiana).

Mt Pleasant, watercolor sketch
e) A less than adequate public transport. Vancouver's public transport is good in relation to most American cities. Certainly it pummels Los Angeles sorry excuse for  a public transport into the ground. But I could go for hours on why it still sucks. As a painter, I find it difficult to find means to get to the places I want to go in a quick uncomplicated manner. (I have no car and car rentals are a problem when lugging lots of dirty paints).  On top of that, it seems Translink is not keeping pace with the growing urban growth and its needs. From the awful design of the buses to the constant delays I could go on but  this blog and the reader's patience would be exhausted.

f)  Art supplies. Two main chains with brick and mortar stores, Opus and De Serres. Not enough inventory of quality stuff. No linen canvases for example. No quality ready-made frames. Limited spectrum of brands in general. Mostly oriented towards the crafts market.

P.S.  Not that I care much for peoples comments but "Nice day to be painting outside" is the most common by a looong stretch. I don't know why. I rarely bump into another painter.  Its innocuous enough and sweet to hear. May be someone said it once during a school trip and now that's what you say.  Am I reading too much into this?

"Wreck beach" sold
In conclusion, painting in Vancouver has been, well, different. But not all is negative. Here are some of the GREAT things:

-Canada's great landscapes are awe inspiring even if they are hard to get to without a car or means  of transportation.  I must try a bit harder. Rain and weather pose a problem but they DO create plenty of subject matter. The colours of summer flowers, or the flaming reds of autumn are simply fantastic so you can expect changes and shifts aplenty.The sky is everything.

Monet's Heart Attack, vanDusen gardens.
-New artists I've met. Danny Ferland, Leslie Gould, Angela Muellers, MJ Sarmiento, Shawn Vandekerkhove, Marcus Wild and many others. Always great to make new friends.

-The same way that London forced my hand and I added  Emerald Green and  Black -or Payne Grey-  to my palette, I find myself squeezing a lot more Cobalt blue and mixing alizarin  in more places (always use permanent) . A definite cooling of the palette. Raw umber seems to be more appropriate  that brown oxide for deep shadows here. It has that oily color of dirty moss. Indian yellow bright spark has given way to lemon yellow.

Snug Cove, Bowen Island
-Water. Lots of it. Lots of boats on the water.

I have quite enjoyed using "Meetup" to gather with urban sketchers and discovering new places to draw inspiration from. I also enjoy attending life drawing sessions at Basic Inquiry. So I haven't lost hope that eventually, one day, may be soon, we can settle somewhere and really have a go at this thing called art. In the meantime, may be I should just buy a laptop and get serious about digital art. This place  might be the right place for that (as the 28th day of uninterrupted rain draws to close outside my window) 


13 August 2016

Picasso, the unprofessional. And why it wasn't such a bad idea.

It might come as a surprise that I write about Picasso when I might be explaining how my recent move to Vancouver went and what wonders of painterly inspiration I discovered in British Columbia.  Well, that will have to wait till I am ABLE to get to those places of inspiration since for all Vancouver's semi-adequate public transport, it is not enough to go out on a day trip to the lakes. In other words, One needs a car in order to reach what is truly unique in Canada (and the US for that matter) . 

 "Picasso, the painter and his muses" is on show at the City Gallery and I went to visit it. I am glad to report the show was well attended, crammed even. I had not thought much about it until I happened upon some lectures by Alan W. Watts that had nothing to do with Picasso but got me thinking...

Picasso. The name alone represents shorthand for twentieth century art much in the way Einstein represents “science”. And yet, Picasso carries so much baggage. Unlike Einstein’s theorems, anyone can have a go at his art and wonder about the odd position of eyes, perplexing or wanton disregard for classic draftsmanship (“But he used to paint so well…” people bemoan) and sexual exploits. Here is a  bit of what I love about Picasso: He got out of his way. He never called himself a ” professional artist”. He never “improved” except in the sense of being more himself, even if it meant changing. He embraced the material world as if it didn’t ‘matter’, a true 'materialist'. He let being a artist happen to him and not the other way around. And to hell with nirvana.

The reason I find Picasso’s paintings liberating is precisely because nothing seems forced, sweaty, shoehorned or meant to impress. Pretty much the same reasons I love Sargent’s artwork except where Sargent swims in technical prowess, Picasso  revels in mischief.  Neither man really “worked” at it in the 'proletarian' sense of  getting their “chores” done both Marxists and capitalists love so much. They excelled at being themselves. 

Katherine Besiegel, curator,  at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The Vancouver show basically showed how Picasso hopped from muse to muse like a sun crazed bumblebee,  had many fruitful marriages and love affairs, let the women influence his art or was led to the women that matched his ideal at the moment and produced many, many portraits. In return, he seems to have been loved by the women something fierce -despite his being a fickle companion. This is all well documented so there's no point in detailing his affairs of the heart any further. The details of his sexual behavior are of no interest to me except for the bigger picture they reveal: a creature unrestrained and lustful.  Not all artists are well suited to dance with their calling and be allowed to spread themselves so abundantly...even though he was hardly unique in that respect. Klimt and Augustus  John come to mind, (100 children, really?)

 Young Picasso painted very well. He even won several awards. But , honestly, nobody would remember his "Science and Charity" painting if it wasn't for the exploits of the "future" Pablito. Let's not get tangled into history either, the sentimental pink and blue periods, his classic and cubist  forays. Let's not talk about his styles - in plural- or try to explain his rise to stardom. Everyone knows that Picasso became an art beacon only comparable and - in my opinion much superior - to Matisse and Bacon. There is an enormous amount of bibliography on his art and life available and I claim no added knowledge whatsoever.

"Science and Charity" Pablo Picasso. 1897

Hold on,  the big picture:  Art is what artists do because they can't help it. Artists least and last  desire is to explain away their goals on trite artist statements and making lists of awards and collectors. Most can't even explain how they do what they do or conduct a proper workshop -  much less with the added burden of traveling to  Provence,  for a week, with lots of wine involved. And what about commissions, what a drag, really. Sargent gave up commissions the minute he could at age 50, the lucky geezer. Artists DO all those things of course, some of them even have blogs and want to be called "professional" artists as if  making a living from art or  painting 8 hours a day would make someone 'better' than some  bumpkin kid in Tennessee  that just happens to create one stunner after another in his basement -with  lots of sleep in between and a job at Home Depot. What we call genius, if it is genius, can't be taught and no amount of hours, degrees or "professionalism" will compensate for  good ol' mediocrity. Otherwise schools would overflow with Mozarts and Feynmans.

Ideally, people would go to school because  they are interested in something already and they want to find out more, share how others go about it,  get to hone the skills they know they can hone. In some cases, school is where people discover what they already knew that they should pursue and pursue it if they don't get knocked off or into drugs! Professional artists make professional paintings, correct and durable and well composed. That is a looong way away from a "good" painting.  Some even take refuge into following a school, obfuscating detail, and (gasp) photo-realism.  The great news is that we can all relax, there is no getting "better", just getting to be more in tune with yourself. Toss the self-improvement books aside. There is only good, or even just sufficient, management of what's there. 

I see this in Picasso.  He didn't seem to care much about trying to get "better", better at selling, better at marriage, better at drawing, better at waking up at six AM to prime canvases...No. Picasso never  tried to "stick with it" and "put the hours". He changed styles like coats, following his bliss as they say. He was constantly at work without even knowing it.  He was lucky to be paid enormous sums for painting/sculpting/making freakin' plates. (And that's another sticking point, isn't it? His art fetched great sums even though it doesn't look like it took him that much effort to put it out there).

Before I get too ying-yang and Zen in this matter, let's look at  some long-winded explanations and  far-fetched theories that  could justify "bad" drawings? Here are a couple of attempts:

Disruption of the Western canon:  It has often been said that the Western ideal is one of individuality: Each one is the architect of his/her destiny. We can always improve our station in life, steer our lives towards comedy or tragedy.  I would argue that the true legacy of Western thought is the dissatisfaction with what is established, what has come before. Progress may be a misguided idea but it is a distinctly Western one. This has manifested itself in Western art as well. We see how we have represented ourselves as bags of skin with little connection to the surrounding space. In Eastern art, for example, everything seems to float and live in an immaterial world where the space between things is just as relevant as the things themselves. African art is so embedded in the environment it can't be understood outside of it, on the painted bodies and the ritual masks.  Naturally, Western artist of note have intuitively grasped some of these ideas in different degrees and contemporary art has little use for these distinctions. We owe a lot of that disruption to Picasso and the artists that caught on to these ideas, there are many.

Science reveals more: Picasso was a man of his time. Scientists knew already that  there is nothing truly 'solid' and they knew it through experimental means, not just as an Heraclitean notion. Even the David of Michelangelo is just a mass of tightly vibrating atoms held together by powerful electric forces. If they stopped, it would vanish in a wisp of heavy dust. In other words, the most beautiful works of art are already disembodied. Very few of  them will survive a mere three thousand years, if at all.  Picasso might reflect the knowledge of his times but is that even relevant?  Turner might have done the same before atoms were discovered with equally disembodied canvases.

Mother and Child 1921

I share with many a traditional (traditionalist?)  artist my way of understanding art, I praise  the renewal of "atelier" training and  the proliferation of artists that express themselves  by using paint and knowing how to draw  instead of  offering obscure ideas and far-fetched agendas or splattering their  navel-gazing on the walls.  This is still a  minority position in the wider world of the "art market". However. I do not automatically condemn everything that came before. Picasso or otherwise.

Portrait of Francoise.

My take-away.  Ah, but why do I care. Here is why: Who says you have/deserve to make a living... as an artist? You have to make a living AND you are an artist. Two different things. Related as they are, they remain different.   You'll dance in the kitchen if you missed Dance School because you got pregnant at fifteen, you'll write amazing emails because you can't possibly spare the time to write a novel  and you'll  hum fabulous songs because you lost your voice in an accident. You like to eat so you work and make a living and work towards a goal knowing that the work is where you dwell as the artist.  But the artist just is, already. No stage, gallery or publisher can add or subtract, validate or deny. Mentors are a blessing, so are schools but to try to reach for someone to teach us how to be professional artists is like hiring a policeman to make sure you obey the law. They won't. The last thing they want is competition. Ridiculous, I know. You might be lucky and find a mentor or happen upon an opportunity or just decide it is too much effort and let go. Forgive yourself. Persistence tears mountains down but it also kills the fly hitting its head against the glass.  Attitude is everything until it isn't.

If you start a business to sell fertilizer because you want to make a living helping farmers, that's good and fun and necessary. But if in the process, money becomes the final goal, no matter what ecological disasters might ensue, you become Monsanto and start justifying your enslaving of farmers via your GMO crops and then you are scum. Most corporations, by virtue of their sole interest in the bottom line cut corners and produce nothing but short-term benefits while they pile up the disasters. If you decide to be a professional artist (a corporation, really) because you want to communicate wonder, do art and don't worry about the final goal, monetary success is not the measure of you, just the success of your corporation as a business. Being a professional artist is great for those who can make the business side float the same way that you'll save a lot in frames if you are skillful enough to make your own. But being an artist does not require it. Aren't you glad Picasso taught you that? So start being.

P.S. Those who try to imitate Picasso are delusional. You can only imitate the voice that guides you, that "thing" that we might call a soul and that is the closest we'll ever come to a God.