my textile career from 1975
In late adolescence my room had 4 prints of Gauguin paintings on the walls. Because I was in the process of leaving a central Qld upbringing, they helped to make sense of the journey. When I abandoned drawing/painting, found solace in poetic expression instead, it was a matter of eking out the significance of a sound here, an echo there. But discovering weaving in my last year of my Diploma of Education, I somehow found the objective co-relative of my method in Van Gogh’s brush strokes. It is quite a free translation to go from the specific demands of placing yarns between warps to being inspired by the crazy, literally crazy calligraphy of Vincent’s free hand with oils on the end of a brush. Perhaps that is why older tapestry weavers speak with caution about attempting a “painterly” approach.
As for Van Gogh being “crazy”; in his last most fertile years, 1888, 1889, he was syphilitic and ate insufficiently but drank absinthe ( a lethal distillation of the wormwood herb with its hallucinogenic properties, followed by a brandy chaser. But look at any of his last paintings: Two Cut Sunflowers, 1887; or, Peiroulets Ravine, 1889. He makes the yellow marks of the outer sunflower dance in the light. Correspondingly, the blue of background and shadow congregate near the flower forms or slide away into distances.
Especially turbulent are the depictions of the rocky walls of the ravines; there seem to be two cowed figures climbing the path, one dead centre, the other to the right; are they figures or anthropomorphic shapes that embody the energy of time and place. You find yourself lingering over details, a single brush stroke at a tome, wondering what he intended. He was painting very rapidly during these days, between two and four works a day; my painter friend says two hours of work with oils is all that is possible before the whole needs to rest and dry; anyway, after two hours the light has changed radically.
But attempting to translate such turbulence into woven marks became an exciting challenge. Van Gogh certainly threw down the gauntlet to successive generations of visual artists; the imptressionists took him on as a patron; he certainly had a lot to teach expressionists as well.
I am neither archaeologist nor historian, so if some of my details are inaccurate, please be gentle in your corrections. I write as a descendant of the legacy of artists like Phidias, the sculptor who created the Parthenon friezes.
Ancient Greece was a privileged society of aristocratic males; to my best understanding, women did not participate in public life, and slaves were a part of the economic system. However, when it came to the Homeric stories, gods & goddesses were equal; this is clearly illustrated by the sculpture to be found in the Athens Archaeological Museum & the Elgin marbles in the British Museum, London. The Homeric stories tell of goddesses fighting alongside their male counterparts, on both sides of the Trojan war. Their sculpted images are sublime, serene & convincingly ethereal. Were I a woman, I would find them energising & inspirational. As a gay man, that’s also my visual reaction.
I think it a poetic justice that like a Levantine Athena, the wife of George Clooney, international human rights advocate Amal Alamuddin has taken on the case of the Greek Government for the return of the Elgin marbles to the Acropolis.
In following this story online, I was led to the Brit Mus argument for the non-return of the Elgin marbles, whose spruik is syrupy with insincerity & guilt. After giving a superficial & faulty account of the history of the marbles being removed by Lord Elgin, violated crudely with chisel & hacksaws, the narrator somewhat inexplicably tells how in 1925 (?) 2 schoolboys were allowed to break off the leg of a centaur during a school visit. To my untutored ear, this would make the Brit Mus unfit & negligent minders of the Greek treasure. The narrator also talks of protests, as if they amounted to acts of terrorism, mentioning talk of highjacking Big Ben in exchange for the marbles. The narrator facetiously says that the protesters intended to take Big Ben into protective custody, neglecting to add that this had been the spurious argument used by Elgin and later by museum curators, that Elgin had done the world a favour by protecting Phidias’ sculptures from further ravages of war.
When I visited Athens in 1978, there were guards on the hill of the Acropolis, circulating among the frivolous, noisy tourists, urging them to behave more quietly & respectfully, saying that this area was held as deeply spiritual by the Greek people. I copped a similar reaction by a bloke in a frock in Westminster Abbey; so that’s probably more equivalent. Talk of the great museums of Europe emptying their treasures is also beside the point. As for conjecture that the Greeks would not be able to purchase the marbles is ridiculous; the Brit Mus has financially subsisted largely by displaying the Acropolis friezes; if anything, the Brit gov should pay the Greek people rent for having illegally possessed this spiritual treasure.
If anyone needs further convincing that the British argument is spurious, kindly consider that the Brit Mus lately pointed to the fact that the Acropolis had at that time no adequate museum to display these priceless works. This is unconvincing since the Greeks have now built a world class museum, within sight of the Acropolis, with display areas that recreate the relationship between architecture and sculptured frieze. That their argument has been reduced to logistics suggests that they acknowledge the right of the Greek nation to possess the marbles, that the British possession has been illegitimate.
Let us be under no illusion as to the extent and importance of the Elgin marbles; the Parthenon consists in its impact of three components: the imposing hill, the massive architecture and the friezes which wrapped round the building, telling its colossal narrative, and which Elgin managed to removed almost entirely. This is not a case of an incidental piece of sculpture but the circumambulatory narrative of the building, its explication in images of stone; the building and its friezes deserve to be re-united.
To my mind the British insensitivity is based on a clash of cultural principles: here is a country based on Judeo-Christian values unable to respect another’s spirituality, equal to their own but with different components. The fact that the sculpted frieze of Phidias depicts nude males alongside nonchalant, ethereal women and monsters allows Christians to respect the artistic values on display; however, as a pagan spectacle, it is not to be taken seriously, an edifice not the equal of Westminster, St Paul’s or Bucks Palace. We have endured Abrahamic shortcomings long enough; it is time for change; I wish Athena Amal a swift victory.
The painting by Van Gogh was owned until recently by Elizabeth Taylor; it was reputed to be her favourite & one can imagine the diva lounging in a rarefied seaside Californian light enjoying its equivalence to the southern French landscape. The painting has such a minimum of physical structures & such a predominance of light & colour it might well have prefigured James Turrell. Indeed, the early Impressionists wanted to call themselves Van Goghists.
I could wax rhapsodic about the landscape; what is most important is the strength of VG’s insight, his courage in choosing raw colours to recreate the light; the raw, childlike, fragile aqua seems to anticipate the darker blue that the Parisian post-Impressionists, Monet & his ilk, used as shadow. There is close observation & courageous representation. Previously, I have praised the talent of forgers like Myatt. But such people serve an intensely important cultural role. As soon as the pompous historical painting of the Victorian era was rejected and a series of incomprehensible autodidacts emerged: Cezanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, the bourgeois became seriously annoyed. They were puzzled by the new culture, their own collections were soon to be devalued. The new artists and their movements attracted pejorative tags: the work was “epater”, a “blague”; the artists were les fauves, beasts, like the Parisian danseuse, promenading with a wild cat on a leash. Of course, they were syphilitic, mad on absinthe, malnourished, suicidal. Basically they were anarchists, they had challenged the establishment since the Romantic era: Wordsworth, opium smoker Coleridge, Keats suffering tuberculosis. Modernism in painting had such radically new ground to cover, it burst on the scene in waves; indeed, a critic recently described post-modernism as merely the latest waves. It reflected the brutality of 2 world wars, just as abstract expressionism took on the violence of the wars in Vietnam & later there was the AIDS epidemic to be reflected in new idioms: Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring.
What forgers like Myatt have succeeded in doing is to learn several visual languages. This plays an immensely important role, since the first effect of visual innovation is to convince all & sundry that the work is unique, barely understandable much less able to be imitated. However, imitation is an essential component of the cultural conversation. We cannot simply keep declaring that So & So is just another descendant along the long line of innovators from Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse & Picasso. The conversation involves sharing communication about intentions, then images, then materials. Imitation is that first, jeune step towards understanding. When I studied modernist poetry I joined the queue of imitators of GM Hopkins, TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas, WH Auden & Sylvia Plath. These often shared each other’s voices; we echoed their endeavours. It is a phase of immaturity, but a necessary one. Babies learn by listening to adults & imitating; young artists do likewise. The wisdom is in rejecting imitation or falseness as a permanent look, but also in learning the methods of the great ones who have gone before. Yes, we all repeat Picasso’s comment that inferior artists imitate, but superior ones steal.
I like the anecdote of Picasso being the only visitor to Piet Mondriaan’s Parisian exhibition of minimalist, patterned paintings. With the unerring instinct of genius he realised that this was the new idiom. Interesting that he did not immediately paint like Mondriaan; perhaps he had a firm sense of his own voice, his range. Perhaps we are still at an early stage of cultural romanticism: first reject, then imitate finally synthesize.
I saw a magnificent exhibition of paintings by Andre Derain at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney; the last work was his Dance of Life, one I prefer to Matisse’s efforts under the same title. The penultimate room of the show held Derain’s London bridge paintings. Incidentally Myatt holds a masterclass on copying one of these. But they would not have been conceivable without van Gogh’s work preceding them.
I confirmed my suspicions about the half-hearted reactions of a friend. He’s a Taurus & the solidity of the perceived universe is paramount; logically he distrusts the essence of this painting as insubstantial. By contrast I’m Gemini. Apart from constantly running an internal debate, to which, readers of this blog are subjected, my elemental disposition is the air; it is, therefore, a marvel that this impetuous genius could capture the elusive nature of sheets of invisible atmosphere adjusting over the earth, plus the birth of light delicately intermingling with these unseen motions.
Somewhere Inside something there is a rush of greatness Who knows what stands in front of. Our lives. I fashion my future on films in space.
Youtube the above cover by the no longer existent Sydney group The Clouds. Fabulous in their day as a pop quartet led by two women singers, Jodi Phillis & Trish Young; I saw them play at the Annandale Hotel in the late 1980’s. They wrote & issued 3 albums of original songs, but they covered Glen Campbell’s song.
Why is it by contrast, that when someone does a cover in art, he’s called a forger, like the British Mr Myatt. Ok, his intention (always important in a judicial setting) was to deceive & to make money. Post his incarceration & release, he now paints covers of work by Van Gogh, Derain, David Hockney, and does absorbing masterclasses in their style on Youtube.
I think, rather than just argue a position perversely & gratuitously, that what is happening here is important; apart from the fact that public galleries around the world are stocked with work signed with the names of famous modernist artists, but actually forged. The Dutch academy took the lead by researching the output of Rembrandt and publishing a definitive edition of his work; thus, incidentally defining what was painted by his students in his workshop and what was copied.
I am not interested in the protection of investors’ property; caveat emptor. What is important is the establishment of a post modernist language. There has never been a period of culture when artists did not copy the work of earlier artists. It is high time the COVER becomes an accepted term in the visual arts; we learn by emulating. What seemed at the time of the first modernists chaotic madness has come to be seen as reasoned method & visual study. There are enough enfants terribles, beloved of the international art scene, who paint in the style of previous masters; the fact that they do so is the nasty unspoken secret that nobody dares utter.
Better to emulate previous methods, as a way of perfecting new visual investigations of the world around us.
I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searchin’ in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin’ in the wire,
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line.
PS, post the above, 70 de-attributed Rembrandts have recently been reclaimed as by the master; at 70 x 50 million, that’s no small commercial transaction. Perversely, a US forger, Mr Landis never bothered to get the materials right, so his works self-destructed, as in spy movies. If I bothered to learn the language of an earlier master, I think I’d perfect the recipe of ingredients: Spiegel Im Spiegel.
For more than a century, The Education of the Virgin was believed to be the work of an unknown 17th-century Spanish artist and was kept in storage. But in 2004, the painting owned by Yale University was examined by a young curator, John Marciari, now the head of drawings at New York’s Morgan Library and Museum, who attributed it to Velázquez.
He published his findings in 2010 and scholars have argued about the attribution ever since. The foremost dissenter is Jonathan Brown, a professor of art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, who is considered the top authority on Velázquez in the US.
Now the specialists will battle it out at a symposium in Seville (15-17 October) sponsored by the Spanish bank Santander, which has paid for the work to be restored. Re-printed from the Art Newspaper, the event, so described, should be celebrated for the rarity it is. Tibetan religion structures a debate that struggles for the truth as a contest of wills; this is similar. Unfortunately, it already has the taint of commercialism across it: a bank has funded the restoration of the work; the efforts towards attribution are also expensive, a cost with an eventual investment in mind. However, in terms of enriching the cultural life of the planet, the cost cannot be calculated.
Outsider art is currently defined rather tenuously as an act that occurs in a vacuum: the artist creates an image with materials, without knowing the cultural precedents. One might argue that even third world people actually know the image of Da Vinci’s La Gioconda, so prevalent is it, so frequently reproduced in advertising material. One might be even more eclectic by arguing that a zone of creative unconscious exists which links us all, that there is no such thing as a cultural vacuum.
Alastair Sooke in presenting a BBC 4 parter about ancient Egyptian art is furthering contemporary culture: by examining various artifacts he accelerates the process whereby culture re-values various media; the more conventional process begins by a jostling comparison of painting, drawing, sculpture & woven tapestry. Over decades if not centuries, given the vicissitudes of the art market, their relative standing is adjusted. Once the entire production of a nearby culture is exposed, and its insights appraised, the effect is like a tsunami through contemporaryactivity.
This was the result in the 1920’s, when the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb were photographed and his funeral mask became known to society at every level. That it’s an early Velazquez makes it the greater miracle. As a culture we celebrate WARS. We should ceremonialise events like this discovery instead; from L to R, fields of green, brown, red, blue, gold, such extravagance.
Oleg Grabar wrote an impressive four part volume with the above title. Largely & impressively based on a study of Islamic arts, the work conceded initially that several mediations were possible. Recent studies of craft have focussed mostly on narrative, deftly avoiding re-interpretations of more formalist study, and compensating in a post-colonialist era for a lack of objective importance given to the experiences of ordinary people.
Meanwhile, working backwards, in his BBC 4 parter on the Arts of Ancient Egypt, Alastair Sooke makes an excellent case for the post-modernity of an aesthetic as atypical & unorthodox as ancient polytheistic Egypt. Like the craft workshops of Renaissance Italy, representation was achieved, not within a hierarchy of importance but via several media. As a result, a painter, a weaver, a ceramist as well as more traditionally a painter or sculptor is seen to achieve convincing & powerful representations of deities. A post-modernist note is struck, whereby the contemporary painter’s spiritual exhaustion is avoided; the Victorian separation of art & craft, of fine arts and domestic output is also struck as redundant.
With the benefit of hindsight, it has to be admitted that the painted plaster bust of Nefertiti is probably one of the most powerfully achieved works of art in the ancient world; this, despite the fact that the medium of working with plaster & painting it probably did not rank highly on the contemporary hierarchy of arts & crafts. Such anarchy has parallels with the post-modernism of today. Yet the artistic/craft expression is not accompanied with the to be expected self-deprecation, the aspect of the “blague” or self-conscious mockery accompanying such artistic anarchy.
It only remains to meditate whether the formalism of post-Renaissance art has left a legacy of self-consciousness; the ability of painting or sculpture to depict form is to be respected. Competition by an unorthodox medium automatically provokes the response of ridicule. The difficulty of this post-modernist situation is that it gives the artist the freedom of experimenting with a new medium, something that, for it to be effective, must happen over a period of time. The viewers, however, are left to re-equip themselves: how are they to assess a new material? How is value to be assessed? What must happen following the experience of a new phenomenon? One could quote Nancy Mitford in her fiction Highland Fling, describing the first exhibition of surrealist work in London: my favourite is a work depicting fire irons, made with grey & pearl buttons & framed with cotton reels.
This is Park Guell, completed by Antoni Gaudi between 1900 & 1914. The tilework especially intrigues me. Firstly, please excuse my not acknowledging the photographer, the labourer being worthy of their hire.
The trial of Paul Yore occurred recently in Melbourne for producing & displaying allegedly “pedophilic” imagery; a member of the police force collecting evidence, felt emboldened to cut out examples for the benefit of the court, an all time low in my book for barbarian vandalism. A defense witness from the NGV, produced a definition of contextualisation, whereby the artist changed the frame of reference, certainly the intention of the work, by decoupage. It seems extraordinary that anyone could find the resulting artwork in any way successfully lascivious, enough to feel the situation warranted a complaint. How true it is that evil is in the eye of the beholder; likewise extremes of sexual deprivation. I once wrote a letter that was published by the SMH; it resulted in a sex phone call from someone outback, who rang to talk dirty; it had been provoked by my using the phrase “gangbang” in my letter. There is perspective & intention that need to be considered in evaluating art.
My attention in the Paul Yore matter was drawn to the profusion & accumulation of his art practice. Similarly, Gaudi makes use of several differently patterned ceramic tiles. In a process similar to fabric applique, he fractures then re-assembles them; the only structural principle employed is that he creates pattern columns from the same tile, a vertical visual unifying element. I found it intriguing to ruminate how it was possible to fracture a visual pattern, then create further interest by re-assembling the pieces in new ways. Gaudi was nodding to certain Mediterranean traditions, from Roman mosaic work, to the Renaissance work of della Robbia. He resolves artistic issues of supporting the weight & sharp edges of broken tiles by making them an intrinsic part of his architecture; in fact his use went beyond mere decoration.
In the age of modernist art there are few predecessors & mentors; I feel I have discovered mine in Gaudi’s decorative practice, for my own button & object assemblage.
One of my fave Patrick White’s novels is the Vivisector, not least because it depicts the bitchy dinner parties of Sydney’s eastern suburbs arts community.
There are numerous meditations on the process of painting, a method of representation someone once described as a series of accidents, or was about AFL?
Tapestry weavers talk about that crucial moment when what the artist has achieved on the loom JUST LOOKS WRONG. What do you do then? Abandon the project? Cut out the offending wefts? It’s heart-wrenching.
Docos about UK painter Francis Bacon noted that his method was to destroy works that ALMOST achieved what he wanted, but never quite got there. Friends who had watched the build up towards a ferociously intense image would return to his hovel, next day, horrified to find that yesterday’s work had been scraped away. One wonders how many canvases which survived were things Bacon was too dis-spirited even to destroy, that they survived out of apathy?
Sydney has a dubious backstory of its artists having their rubbish bins raided for artwork the painter discarded out of disgust. The auction catalogues bear witness to this phenomenon. A work with impeccable provenance will be listed with the artist’s full name, which is abbreviated in direct proportion to doubt as to the work’s origin, until only the artist’s initials are quoted; the most dubious offerings, for instance the garbage bin pieces, are listed as Attrib.
Trust those pesky Scandinavians to do this. A Tom of Finland stamp with the command: LICK ME. It’s instructional, pleasure & function combined.
& if my dubious use/ possible invention of instructional is to be questioned, let’s put it on the record: during reporting at the NSW ICAC, instead of “donor” an eager young reporter created “donator”. It’s Marvel zine language.
Recently. a Public Broadcaster program commented on the increasingly religious content of cosmic superhero comic media, cosplay & so forth. The outward forms may have changed with a few generations, but I grew up with Superman & Batman comics. I also felt the benefit of re-interpreting some of the mythic dimensions of the religion I was raised in, namely eastern European Catholicism.
I went travelling & experienced the sites of many cosmic events: Delos, for instance, an island that seemed particularly involved in the veneration of Apollo, with its large open reception/celebration area, decorated with sculptures of winged phalloi/birds; the Parthenon in Athens, then Cairo & Luxor. There were the great museum collections: Athens, Cairo, Rome, London.
Having transmuted traditional spiritual experiences into the multi-cultural ones of hippy-dom, I became conversant with yin/yang, the principle that all creatures/experiences own a trace of their opposite. Having endured the polarity explored in literature of Apollo/Dionysus, I also found solace in the archaeological acecdote: that the temples devoted to the worship of these very different deities would be inhabited by both; in other words, one god would go wandering, and his opposite number would take up residence, so as not to disappoint the worshippers.
But like any other lustful young man, I keenly looked out for signs that my fave super heroes took note of my existence & my special needs. I relished the fact that at the last supper, Jesus allowed his favourite disciple John (the beloved) to rest his head against the Master’s torso, BLISS.
Buddha had a similarly favoured follower. Meanwhile, Krishna (HARE) looked kindly on his sub cult of followers; (he was known as “the flute player). Their museum relics exuded such strong traces of compassion & awe: Apollo, Buddha, Krishna. One has to wonder, since statues of Apollo were found in Piraeus harbour & off the coast near Gaza, perhaps he was placed there as a way of placating the uncontrollable mysteries of the watery depths. The Balinese, for instance, consider their offshore dimension to be the home of implacable demons.
I also found copies of that personification of 1950’s existentialist angst, the Silver Surfer, kitted out in 1980’s re-interpreted, revivalist gym-silver lycra.
My superhero became a composite of all of the above; I am not that blindly devotional to ignore the limitations of each: Apollo had an unfortunate case history after all, of neglecting his lovers at some point in their involvement & allowing them to come to a bad end. Apollo, Krishna, the Buddha, Silver Surfer, MY HERO. Action, Time, Vision.