Posts Tagged ‘Turner’

On being inarticulate

April 13, 2021

 

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you may feel that I can write reasonably clearly and in detail about literature and explain what it is I like or dislike when I’ve read a book. I’ve found myself provoked to think about why this is so much harder when it comes to art and music. On and off over a couple of days recently I slowly leafed through a hefty tome about Monet, which was copiously illustrated with reproductions of his paintings. I loved it. But why?

The simple answer to my question about art and music compared with literature is that I suppose I have some kind of expertise in the field of literature, as studying and teaching it has been pretty much my life’s work. So I can explain in detail what it is in a novel or poem, whether plot, character, themes and ideas, language or whatever, that I like or dislike; I understand and can explain how words and writers work Getting beyond the gut response ‘I like it!’ is much harder for me in other fields.

I really enjoy visiting art exhibitions, and some paintings I will happily sit and stare at for hours. I recall a Turner exhibition in Edinburgh about ten years ago; I fell in love with Modern Rome so much that I now have a copy of it on the wall at home. And an exhibition in Berlin a few years ago which juxtaposed impressionist and expressionist paintings took my breath away.

Thinking about Monet and Turner in particular, I realise that a great part of what attracts or fascinates me about many of their paintings is the attention they pay to light. Monet painted certain scenes – most famously, perhaps, the front of Rouen Cathedral – many times, at different times of day and at different seasons, presumably because he was so fascinated by the changes of lighting. Another thing that I find myself reflecting on is the difference between art and photography; to me it seems to have been liberating for artists not to feel obliged to focus on achieving some ‘realistic’ or recognisably ‘accurate’ reproduction of their subject. So the idea of impressionism speaks to me as an evocation of certain places or objects, with associated ideas and feelings, which are sketched out (wrong word, I know) for the viewer to fill out the gaps for her/himself as they choose; there’s an openness to interpretation I like about such art.

Music is even harder. J S Bach I can listen to for hours; I am in heaven. But how? Why? What does he do to me? I get headaches trying to understand anything about musical theory, and one of the regrets I do have is never learning an instrument. But without music, I don’t know where I’d be.

That’s as far as I get, and it doesn’t feel very far, compared with what I can say about literature. Is it because art (and music, for that matter) is rather more open, and rather more likely to affect one emotionally, whereas literature, though it can and does affect our emotions, is rather more analytical, rather more susceptible to analysis and deconstruction?

A tour of my library – part three

August 10, 2019

61TD2aaM3XL._AC_UL436_SEARCH212385_ It’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to take a serious interest in art, and it’s a pretty eclectic one, given that I have no formal training or study of the subject: it’s a bit ‘this is what I like’, really. I’ve long liked photomontage, having come across the work of John Heartfield when I was quite young; I fell in love with the romantic visions of Caspar David Friedrich, and actually went off to Rügen to see the famous chalk cliffs which he painted: they are quite stupendous, although have not survived in the same configuration today. Turner I came to like when I went on spec to a major exhibition of his paintings of Italy in Edinburgh about ten years ago; since then I have sought out other exhibitions and acquired books of reproductions of his watercolours too. If there’s a particular movement I really enjoy, it’s Expressionism. The one book I will rave about is actually the catalogue from an exhibition I visited in Berlin a few years back, which set great works with similar themes and subjects from the impressionists and the expressionists side-by-side. It was an absolute eye-opener and I spent hours, completely engrossed.

Currently there is a shelf in my study dedicated to Poland and things Polish, including a good number of history books, particularly those of Norman Davies. I have also collected a number of memoirs written by Poles who underwent similar experiences to those of my father during the Second World War, as well as diaries of writers and other cultural figures from that period. The most interesting and curious book in this collection I inherited from my father, who was presented with it on a visit to Poland in communist times, and it’s a very odd book for them to have allowed to be published: a facsimile of – I translate – Index of the Names of the Gentry, originally published a couple of centuries ago. Our family name is listed and we have (had, rather, for one of the first acts of the reborn Polish state in 1919 was to abolish the gentry) a coat of arms! What you need to know, contextually, is that it was the name that mattered, not wealth, status, social standing… you could be a poor peasant family (like us) or stinking rich with an estate.

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I gave up the study of history after O Level, taking up English Literature instead, telling myself I could read as much history as I liked when I liked, and have done just that. My reading hasn’t been structured or systematic. Particular interests have been ancient Rome, the Reformation, the Soviet Union, Poland and modern history generally. Roman history I studied at school, and it’s such an important part of the background to European life and civilisation it’s hard to avoid; I also remind myself that the Roman Empire lasted for far longer than the British or American ones… The interest in the Reformation links back to my Catholic childhood and the cultural vandalism that was the English Reformation, as well as my current interest in theology, as I attempt to make sense of my existence. And Polish and Russian history – well, that’s obvious.

August favourites #16: Artist

August 16, 2018

I feel a bit out on a limb writing about art, which isn’t a field in which I can claim any kind of expertise or systematic knowledge; I haven’t got much further than liking various paintings and artists. But, exploring a new kind of creativity has been bringing me much pleasure in my retirement. I’m not terribly interested in portraits, or very representational art (we have photography now); impressionism and expressionism, however, fascinate me. I saw an exhibition in Edinburgh about ten years ago, Turner and Italy, which caused me to explore Turner’s work further, and fall in love with it. My favourite painting then was Modern Rome, and it still is. I’m constantly astonished at how he used light so expressively in so many ways, and although I really like many of his large-scale works, I’m also amazed at his sketches and his watercolours, where he can conjure up so much just with a few, almost random, lines, or patches of colour. I have no desire to draw or paint myself. I’m slowly learning to just sit and look, and really enjoy that…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

The Art Museum

December 11, 2015

61IMIf4BSBL._AA160_I’ve been thinking about my preferences in art as I’ve leafed through the pages of this enormous book again. I bought it a couple of years ago as I realised that, being retired, I had more time to devote to exhibitions and galleries that I previously had. It is as near as you can get to a single volume guide to the world’s art and its history, although it has vaarious flaws, which I’ll get on to eventually…

For some reason, I’ve come to enjoy ancient Egyptian art, particularly statues and sculptures, and a recent visit to the Neues Museum in Berlin was wonderful, although I did come away with the feeling that the only reason the Germans hadn’t brought the pyramids back was that they were probably a bit too big… I suspect my interest dates from seeing the first Tutankamun exhibition at the British Museum in 1972.

Over the years I’ve come to enjoy the impressionists a great deal, and have fallen in love with German romantics like Caspar David Friedrich, but my greatest pleasure at the moment comes from Turner‘s paintings, watercolours and sketches. But then there are also unexpected, one-off discoveries, like the astonishing Otto Dix series Der Krieg, based on his experiences of the First World War. My tastes are very catholic, as you can see. And modern printing technology allows books of reproductions of very high quality.

As I thought about what I liked, what gave me pleasure or spoke to my condition, I also wondered about what I didn’t like, or, more accurately, felt I couldn’t access or understand. Some art I find so culturally distant from what I have grown up with that it is hard to approach or understand – the art of Africa, India, South East Asia or the Pacific, for instance; I find European and Middle Eastern art much easier on the eye and the brain. In a slightly different way, I have also felt that, upon reflection, time is also important: I find a lot of religious art, particularly paintings (sculpture and architecture less so) too austere and remote, and most portraiture from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries leaves me totally cold and uninterested. This, I think, is because it strove to be representative, and, in a post-photography age, it just doesn’t work for me at all.

Everything is in this book, in small doses sometimes, and overdone at others. My first gripe is that, when I’m looking at pictures, I’d like to know where I can go and see the original: that information is clearly given, but in an appendix at the back of the book, and this book is so large that quickly flicking to the back just isn’t an option. By the time I got to the end of thebook, I felt that there was an undue emphasis on recent – late twentieth century – art and sculpture, whereas earlier eras were a bit skimmed over. Or is it just that there is so much more art being created now, a greater variety and more experimentation? How subjective is the selection made by the editors? Picures and scupltures are reproduced in high quality, and there is a very informative glossary, annotation and location of every work ‘exhibited’ in the book. It will continue to be a useful companion in the future, though I suspect it won’t stop me acquiring other, more detailed collections of particular artists’ works.

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