Archive for December, 2009

Blackpaint 25

December 31, 2009


Yesterday, I was reading Hadley Freeman’s column in Guardian, in which she happened to bring up Gauguin in relation to the fim “Avatar”.  Unfortunately, I chucked the paper away (in the recycle bin, of course) and since then it’s found its way to the bin outside – and I’m not going sorting through that.

I was under the impression that she had written something like this, referring to the portrayal of the native population of the planet under attack: “Add in a couple of orange brush strokes and you will have something like a Gauguin and just as patronising, simplistic and offensive”.  I thought this was good, a controversial viewpoint to blog about – especially since today’s Guardian has a reference to a forthcoming Gauguin show at Tate Modern with the following words: “His art, however, is a time bomb, still ticking in the 21st century”.  This sounds pretty positive to me; not the sort of thing you’d write about someone patronising, simplistic, etc.

However, I checked her article online before writing, and it seems to have changed.  It now reads, “Add in a couple of orange brush strokes and you have a Gauguin painting.  It (the portrayal) is patronising, simplistic and offensive, like Palin and fake science.”  I suppose this still implies that Gauguin’s paintings are P, S and O, but the attack is  diverted through the easier targets of Palin and fake science.

Well, I could be totally wrong; on the other hand, at the bottom of the online article, it says “as amended on 30/12/09”.  If anyone cares enough to clear this up for me, I’d be grateful – tonight would be good, as I have not been invited to see the New Year in with anyone.  I wonder why.

For the record, I was wondering if you can patronise people who don’t exist (the people in the film, not the Tahitians Gauguin painted).  I suppose one is patronising the people who these fictional people resemble – or you think they resemble.  That could be dangerous in itself; who is to say that they see it, or themselves,  as you do?  This can be a recurring  problem for liberals and left wingers and all those who regularly feel and express indignation on behalf of others.

Since I can write what I like and no-one is reading anyway, I’m now going to do a U turn; I think it is P and S, but I think that Cameron was doing that PM thing of referencing other films (see last blog) and so, not particularly O.  But my son Tom violently disagrees and is doing a chemistry degree, so I suppose he must be right.


I got “Art Theory for Beginners” for Christmas, one of those books which have cartoons and look really simple – until you read the accompanying text.  I’ve been reading about all those French philosophers, Derrida, Lyotard, Barthes, Baudrillard etc., in an attempt to give my own poor work some sort of spurious status by linking it to some “proper” movement or idea.  No success yet, but will continue to try.


Another painting each from Jorn and Kirkeby, re my spurious thesis in last blog.



Watched Festen.  I think the ending was sentimental.  The family should have backed the father up to the bitter end.

Listened to “Cold, Cold Feeling”, by T Bone Walker (in “When did you last see your father?” by Blake Morrison – he must have had the same EP as me in the early 60s).

“I got a cold, cold feeling, it’s just like ice around my heart, (*2)

I know I’m gonna quit somebody, every time that feelin’ starts.”



Happy New Year.

Blackpaint 24

December 26, 2009

Jorn, Kirkeby, Updahl & Co

I’ve been thinking about the Balka entry of a few days back and whether the argument could  be extended to other nationalities; are do we (or  critics)  expect Scandinavians to do dark skies, mountains and snow, or else  creatures that  are a hybrid of Norse mythology and their own imaginations?  Obviously, there must be loads of artists who don’t fit these stereotypes, but they may act as a sort of filter through which foreign – and maybe Scandinavian critics view their work and therefore help to nurture, if not create,  the stereotypes.

Per Kirkeby

Asger Jorn, Trauer

Two examples above, that are fairly representative of the artists’ work at given stages of their careers; two more tomorrow that will undermine the premise.

Watching: Avatar- Apocalypse Now, Lord of the Rings, Soldier Blue, The Jungle Book, Alien – did I miss any other obvious references?



Blackpaint 23

December 23, 2009

Abstract Art

Found a great quotation today in the Penguin Book of Art Writing; “..the arrangement of colours and lines is an art analogous to the composition of music, and entirely independent of the representation of facts.  Good colouring does not necessarily convey the image of anything but itself”.  The writer is John Ruskin.

In the following extract, David Sylvester, writing about a print of Barnett Newman’s, says,”The more I looked at it, the more it made me wonder why painters since time immemorial had bothered to put in all those arms and legs and heads”.

That’s about it in a nutshell for me, as regards abstract art – although I still have a nagging sense that art should have a social purpose, the product no doubt of all those years as a lefty hanger-on.  Then again, if you look at the awful stuff knocked out by the Socialist Realists (and Nazi art, for that matter), social purpose sounds poisonous.  I suppose I’m saying art with a message is OK if the message is subversive, and if its produced by the “oppressed”, broadly speaking.  Art explicitly in support of a system in power is not OK.  I’ll come back to this tomorrow with examples that will, on doubt, completely undermine this half – baked statement.

Below – Peter Lanyon’s “Lost Mine”




Blackpaint 22

December 23, 2009

Joan Mitchell

No time to write much today, so I’ve decided to upload paintings by two of my favourite artists.  the first is joan Mitchell, who like all women artists, in the last century anyway, seems to have been passed over as far as critical acclaim goes.  Maybe because she went to live in France; maybe she wasn’t pushy enough – although by all accounts she had a temper; mostly, no doubt, old-fashioned anti-woman bias in the art world.

This is called “Salut Sally” and was painted in 1970.  she did a bunch of these paintings around this time that shared the characteristics of these; the mixture of dark patches and panels with that exploding, brilliant white light melting to gold, orange and violet patches and “controlled” dribbles down the canvas.  A sort of mix of Hoffman and Monet – but with Mitchell too.  I think she is stunning – only one picture I’ve seen in the flesh, the one in Tate Modern (much earlier, 1954, I think), but that is much more restrained with a grey background.

Willem de Kooning

I wanted “Palisade” for this, the one on the cover of the Taschen, but couldn’t find a picture, so I’ve picked these two, because one is abstract and the other, one of his familiar beautiful/terrifying women.

The first of these is “Door to the River” ,1960, which is pretty much what it looks like, so maybe its not so abstract after all; the woman is “Woman” , 1950 – 52.  What is there to say about them?  The colours, that yellow,  the brushwork – its all been said, better than I can, so there it is.

Listening to “Tin Pan Alley” by Jimmy Wilson (and Ray Agee, etc., etc).

“They tell me Tin Pan Alley’s the roughest place in town,

They start cutting and shooting, soon as the sun goes down;

Tell me, what kind of place can the alley be?

Every woman I get,

Lord, the alley takes away from me”.

Watched “Brighton Rock”, the original with Richard Attenborough as Pinky;   astounding how quickly the girl is talked into the suicide pact (although of course she doesn’t go through with it) – and how quickly Pinky disappears when he hits the water.  Something, maybe the music and the accents, kept reminding me of Olivier’s “Henry V”.

Blackpaint 22.12.09

Blackpaint 21

December 21, 2009

Last word on Balka for now

I think he was right not to specify how people should behave when visiting his big black box.  I saw on my second visit that a notice had gone up, asking visitors not to take photos or brandish mobile phones when inside the box, but I have an idea that it was the Tate people responding to complaints, rather than the artist – maybe I’m wrong.  

A couple of years ago, I visited Auschwitz – Birkenau with a group of college students.  It was a freezing day in November, we’d flown in overnight and sleet was being driven against us by a biting wind.  The visit was gruelling emotionally, of course,  and physically; there was a short service with readings and candles were lit and left on the railway tracks within the camp.

Like anyone who has had charge of a group of teenagers in such circumstances, I had been a little worried in case they should forget themselves and behave in an “inappropriate way”, during the long day; the site was full of young people from all over the world and some of them were pretty rowdy.  As it happened, my lot were fine.

As we walked back in the dusk, over the cinders  along the railway line, towards that square tower with the arch, I heard the kids chatting together and now and then laughing at some remark  and it struck me that I wasn’t scandalised at all (nor were any of the other adults); it seemed OK, even though we were where we were, between the barbed wire and the observation towers.  If it were being filmed, I suppose it would have been shocking to see youngsters chatting and laughing in the context but I don’t think they were being disrespectful; It’s very hard at that age to stay solemn for hours on end.  In any case, solemnity and reverence were not the objects of the visit.

The “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, which was stolen, has been recovered in three bits and arrests made:  I understand why its theft was desecration, but it seems ironic that this sign, itself a mockery and form of desecration, has become so important as a symbol of the Holocaust.  I didn’t know that the same sign was used over the entrance at other concentration camps; the explanation I read was that it was part of the illusion the Nazis tried to create, that these were work camps, not extermination camps.  Maybe so, but I suspect many Nazis thought it was true in some perverted way; and I remember reading in Anne Applebaum’s book on the Gulag that Soviet camps had something similar over the entrance (must look it up).  The difference is that, for the most part,  the Soviet ones were labour camps, even though millions of prisoners died in them over 70 years or so.

Back to normal trivialities tomorrow.



Blackpaint 20

December 20, 2009

Balka (again)

Laura Cumming, in today’s Observer, reviews an exhibition by Miroslav Balka in Oxford.  Balka is the artist who has the big installation in the Tate Modern now, the container lined with black felt that I wrote about “I am Blackpaint”, my first blog.  Although Balka didn’t say so (avoided it, in fact, because he didn’t want to direct audience reaction), I immediately associated it with the concentration camps, seeing it as a giant cattle truck, the people entering, going “into the darkness”… the associations are obvious, although I don’t think it detracts from the effect – IF you see it under the proper conditions.  The proper conditions include an absence of chattering, shouting youngsters, brandishing their mobiles aloft to shed light around.

Anyway, Cumming describes in her review some of the exhibits at Oxford as “wintry, tense … maaking a point of uncertainty….In these film installations, Balka returns over and over again to a history one assumes must be Polish, because the artist is Polish, yet which tug the mind in all sorts of directions.”

There is a still from “Pond”, showing a ring of trees with a frozen pond within it and a black blob resembling a kneeling figure in the distance.  Cumming identifies it as “Birkenau, which is both a forest and a death camp.”  presumably, this is information supplied by Balka, in notes, perhaps, or a voiceover (unlikely).  This identification seems to me to conflict with the objective of “making a point of uncertainty”; without being told it was Birkenau, it could be a park anywhere; Clapham Common, New England, Sweden… As soon as you know the artist is a Pole, and more, that he lives near Treblinka (Ithought it was Cracow, near Auschwitz – maybe that was where he grew up) – the association is inevitable.  The trees across the pond loom in, the blob is a kneeling figure from those horrible photographs of mass murder by the Einsatzgruppen.

Anyway, the review is great and the exhibition sounds great too – but I want to consider the point above.  Is it possible for a Polish artist to avoid – assuming he/she wished to avoid – associations and inferences from World War 2 and the Holocaust?  Only, I think, if they were to avoid greys, blacks, browns, whiteouts, mist, forests, black and white film, huts, trains… you can continue the list.  If they were to specify “this work is not about the war” that would, of course, be taken as irony.  Some histories are so powerful that they can’t be escaped from, I think; even if the artists were able to free themselves , the reviewers and audiences would still contextualise.

And why not?  Once the work is on the wall or screen, it doesn’t belong wholly to the artist any more – that goes of course for poetry, music, all forms of art.  I remember seeing a Sean Scully in the Tate, mostly greys, whites and browns, that immediately suggested cattle trucks and concentration camps to me.

So, I don’t think that Polish artists can escape at least the question; how does this relate to the war?  They are constrained by their history, not necessarily to create, but  to be interpreted in this way.  Not for them the sort of trivia I deal in; colours, shapes, materials used for their own sakes and properties; they must be significant.  

Listened to: It’s Cold in China Blues, by Isaiah Nettles, the Mississippi Moaner.

“So cold in China, the birds can’t hardly sing;

And it made me mad, ‘cos you broke my diamond ring.”

Perfectly logical.



Blackpaint 19

December 18, 2009

My Paintings

Painted a lot today and I’ve finally got something that looks halfway decent – a light grey at the top with a sort of curved spear of black, green, white and charcoal poking up through it.  Another spear of reddish brown poking up on right, into a big area of ochre (that might be going lighter tomorrow, when I can buy more white).  Bottom half of canvas is a complex mass of shapes in reds, ochres, grey, black and blue, criss-crossed with charcoal lines – looks a bit landscapey.

This one goes well with two previous, the striped one that ended up looking like a Heron and the pink, orange, green and black patchy one.  Nice to have done some paintings I actually like; haven’t done that for weeks.

I think I’m going to stick some of my pictures in this blog – I’ve realised the obvious, that its not interesting to read descriptions of pictures; why do the paintings and then describe them in words?  I’ll have to charge the camera batteries up first, however. 

Short blog today, since I’ve done a lot of painting.

Watched “Carefree”, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with a brilliant swing dance song, called, of all things, “The Yam”.  Written by Irving Berlin, I think (the music, not the film, which is nonsense).

Listening to; Byker Hill, Trad, arr. by Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick

“If I had another penny I would have another gill,

I would make the piper play “The Bonnie Lass of Byker Hill…”

Blackpaint 18.12.09

Blackpaint 18

December 17, 2009

I’ve hung the stripy one on the wall and have managed to convince myself that it’s not as bad as I’d thought.  Lots of orange and red patches with a significant area of smooth, flat olive green at the top.  Now it looks just a little like a really bad, roughly painted Patrick Heron (contradiction in terms, I suppose).

Bad Heron

I started another in dark blues, blacks and dark greens last night, but have lost my nerve and overpainted big areas in reds, ochre, and light greys, so that now it looks like others I have done, only with the colours drained of life.  Done my usual trick of scarring it with charcoal swipes and heavy black sweeps, to give it “gravitas”.  As I look around my room, with my canvases stacked against the walls and bookshelves, I realise that I’m copying myself – but badly.


I’ve got that “30,000 years of art” book that Taschen brought out last year; was doing drawings of the contents, but only made it up to 710 BC before flagging.  Looking at the drawings, I think William Boyd would have little trouble deciding why I am a non-figurative painter.

However, I mention it because I have found the Chinese drawings and paintings.  Always few colours, many tones.  Greys, luminous bronze tones, brilliant whites (for example, flying cranes), dramatic black sweeps.  All I need to do is to pare down my palette, put in less stuff, that is, fewer marks on canvas – and acquire a bit of good taste.

Must stop as “Curb” is about to come on.

Listening to Emmylou Harris, “From Boulder to Birmingham”.

“The last time I felt like this, I was in the wilderness,

And the canyon was on fire”.



Blackpaint 17

December 16, 2009

V&A Mediaeval Gallery

To the above today; the usual saints (Margaret with her dragon, Catherine (no wheels though), Ursula and her virgins being dismembered and stabbed, the six “Proto Martyrs” being beheaded for preaching in Marrakesh – new atrocity to me – Stephen in glazed terracotta with white stones stuck to his head, crucifixions, depositions, assumptions, a German death of the Virgin Mary with a crowd of bearded men fussing round her, vaguely reminiscent of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. 

For my money, the best thing in the galleries is a screen from Hamburg, done by Master Bertram, showing 45 scenes from Revelations.

Cast Hall

On to the fabulous, quiet, gloomy cast hall, the room with the two halves of Trajan’s Column and there found this staggering thing, the Shobdon Tympanum, done about 1100 in a Herefordshire church.  I’ve never seen anything like this woman in her sailor’s T shirt, with her smaller companions entwined around her like something a sculptor from the 40s might have dreamed up.

National Portrait Gallery

Nothing in the Tudor bit to touch the portrait of Thomas Cromwell, done by Holbein or maybe his workshop.  Piggy features, iron determination, that sure line and sharp relief of Holbein.  Nearby, Nicholas Bacon, surely the ugliest face in the gallery.

Upstairs, Ross the Arctic explorer, who turned back when he saw the mountains in his way – they turned out to be optical illusions.  Also Burnaby, the Boy’s Own soldier,  stretched out on a divan, smoking a cigarette, a bit like Stephen Fry as the general in Blackadder.

In the first 20th century bit, I thought the outstanding (or most interesting) was Patrick Heron’s TS Eliot, the Joyce, Wyndham Lewis’ Ezra Pound and a self-portrait by Ithell Colquhoun, who is new to me.

In the last section, the portrait of David Sylvester and the Sid James by Ruskin Spear.

Still struggling with my stripes – too crowded, needs some space in there.

Listened to; Gil Scott-Heron’s Johannesburg.

“I hate it when the blood starts flowing,

But I’m glad to see resistance growing –

Tell me what’s the word? Johannesburg!”



Blackpaint 16

December 15, 2009

Shading (NB – see Blackpaint 76, 78, 81 and 82 for more on Michelangelo)

I’ve been studying the shading used by the old masters in their drawings.  Mantegna appears to be consistent; he shades with diagonal lines from top right towards bottom left, or horizontally if shading a flat surface tilted towards the viewer. 

Titian, as far as I can see, uses shading lines that are variable; diagonal from top right or left, horizontal and vertical on the surface of water and vertical for a cliff face, say.

Leonardo appears to favour diagonal shading lines from top left towards bottom right – but will so the opposite on occasion and sometimes (anatomical drawings) will cross them to form a patch of diamond shapes.  With bones, he appears to favour horizontal shading lines that curve with the surface of the bones.

Michelangelo does a rather shallow diagonal from top left towards bottom right and sometimes vertical.

Durer uses lines in any direction that suits the surface, curving them to follow the contours.

Having said all this, no doubt tomorrow I’ll find more drawings that completely contradict it.Leonardo

See Blackpaint 40, 41, 76, 78, 81 and 82 for more on Michelangelo…but read on here first!

The Trial

Watched Orson Welles’ version of the above, with Anthony Perkins doing a brilliant, nervy, bemused Josef K.  Fantastic shots of muddy wastelands, lowering skies, shabby concrete flats (shot in Zagreb).  Also the huge statuary of the entrance to the Gare D’Orsay and labyrinth of corridors and hallways.  Jeanne Moreau, Elsa Martinelli and Romy Schneider deepening Perkins’ bemusement at various stages.  Scene of a host of naked, elderly men, holding their numbers,  standing cowed beneath a statue cloaked in a white sheet (to the intro of Albinoni’s Adagio).  Surreal incidents, dreamlike quality; fantastic (but no doubt deeply flawed; every film I like turns out to be deeply flawed).

Listening to: Christy Moore, Vive la Quinte Brigada.

“Vive la Quinte Brigada,  The passion and the pledge that made them fight,

Adelante! is the cry around the hillside,

Let us all remember them tonight”.