Two things happened this week to inspire this post. the first was that I came across a painting I made way back in my student days. It is mainly gouache on cardboard but there is some traditional watercolour. The paint is mostly applied with a brush in the usual way, but some of the watercolour is sprayed on with a fixative spray. There is also a little flicking on of the paint with the brush. It is a beach scene. Figures were drawn from life on a beach, but before being transferred to the painting the two outlines were moved closer together, producing not just a thinner figure, but a bulbous one. I was studying book illustration at the time and the painting was something of an experiment, not intended to ape what I and others were producing on the course, but obviously influenced by it. The colour, for example, was intended as decoration. This painting, not a success in my book, was included in my first ever exhibition - by which I do not mean it was a one-man exhibition! It was a student exhibition held in a pub/restaurant. The local press attended and made a vox pop of diners' and regulars' opinions of the exhibits. Adverse comments to do with my works, my mind immediately binned, as you would expect, so those that have survived were all positive. But not always what I would have wished. One I remember, for example, was of a woman referring to my beach scene in words something approaching: You know exactly what it was like to be on that beach. The colours tell you. Obviously, the colours suggested something to that lady, but they were not used by me to communicate anything about the beach. (That in itself, I guess, could become a talking point, but bear with me.)
The other thing that happened this week was my surrender to the temptation (first ever!) to write to the Times - see previous post - to comment on a painting. It struck me that in all the posting I have done on this blog in the last two and a half years, I have never discussed a painting. I have talked about schools of paint, genres and styles of painting, even individual painters, but never have I focussed on a particular work of art, as I did, of course, for my paragraph for The Times. (Do not fret thyself, I am not going to focus on my Beach scene!) Did that indicate a weakness of some kind, I wondered. And then it struck me that if so, then in this I am in good company, for I have long had a theory that when it comes to the visual arts, we English choose to talk in the most general terms possible: we would rather talk about Primitivism or Purism than, say, Amedeo Modigliani or Le Corbusier, and are more comfortable commenting on Henri Rousseau or Aubrey Beardsley than on Boy on the Rocks or The Eyes of Herod. And then, when we are forced down to the particular, to a single work of art, our first instinct, as so often in poetry, is to look for its meaning, for the symbol or for some effect of the colour on our emotions, its mood perhaps, something that will unlock the painting for us. The lady who spoke about my painting was - in my view - missing the mark, but she was responding in a long tradition, in the way she had no doubt been led to respond in the past, a very English way.
And so it was that I thought I might occasionally look at a single painting or sculpture - the danger, of course, is that I may lead everyone astray in a quite different direction. I have chosen for my first artist - yes, I confess it, I chose the artist before I chose the painting. I chose an artist who I believe does produce paintings with very definite moods... but - and I will come to the buts later... an artist who is a plein air painter - out in all weathers - responding uniquely to the natural scene. The painting I have chosen to focus on is one by Ivon Hitchens, A Lake and Outflow.
When I look at my Beach Scene I see a picture that might have been conceived in black and white and later thought to be in need of a bit of colour. When I look at the Hitchens I see a painting in which colour is integral to the original conception. It is integral because, though muted, it is the picture's light and that light is its space.
And then as I look at the picture my eye is first drawn in by the large, centrally placed mass of foliage, before running diagonally up and left, travelling along the outflow pipe above the small fall to the yellow rectangle, from where it travels back across the canvas, this time just below the top edge, until it reaches the end of the dark canopy. From this point it slides down the back of the curved mass with which we started. Reaching the bottom edge of the picture it is released into the secondary vista (as I will call it) which takes up the right hand fifth of the canvas. This is rather more naturalistically portrayed than one would expect from Hitchens, and the eye now travels up and back into the distance through a short flight of steps provided by what I take to be a boat, a sluice gate and a stream winding away into the distance. From the top half of the picture it is now led forward, down and left until it once more encounters the curved central mass. This time, though, it is carried over this natural obstacle by a bridge of light pigment to a more loosely rendered pool.
I speak of the eye being carried back (into the picture) and forwards (out of it), for the picture has depth. Not so its individual constituents, though. However round and bulky a mass of foliage might have been in its natural setting, in the painting it is a flat sweep of colour (sometimes just a squiggle of pigment). Typically for Hitchens, there is no moulding - except in the notable exception of that right hand vista. The trees, the canopy and all the major elements of the scene result from the painter's inner response to what is before him. It is a genuine abstract painting: he has abstracted from the scene that which created the internal response.
The areas of canvas left white are vitally important to a Hitchens painting. Try covering up the two lightning-like flashes splitting the bank of trees to the left of that vista. The eye now travels quite differently around the picture, for the most part travelling in circles around the canvas's major space and only taking the most cursory notice of the smaller one to its right. If I had left those flashes of white canvas where Hitchens left them, the integrity of that bank of trees would have been shattered, but try covering up the little scene to their right. The depth is not destroyed, as I would have destroyed it, for it does not come only from the perspective of that small vista, but also from the bank of trees in spite of (or because of?) those flashes of naked canvas.
The actual experience was therefore the source of the impulse, but the impulse was not some kind of reflex action. It was the result of prolonged reflection and it had to take its place in an architecture, a space, that he was building to contain it. The response rebuilt the experience, so that where some painters give us the shape, form and detail of, say, the tree that was before them, and where others present us with the paint that reinterprets the tree, Hitchens gives us the tree existing as paint.
To achieve this Hitchens developed a visual language that was personal to him. He explained that there are seven instruments in the painter's orchestra. They are:line, form, plane, shape, tone, notan and colour. There are also seven principles of composition: transition, opposition, subordination, rhythm, repetition, symmetry and balance. But he also said that all this was too formal and that: No amount of theory will make a painter. I try to understand my subject and find out what I want to say about it... remembering that in the end it will be the natural handling of the paint that will give me pleasure. And that is all I have to go by.
This last point is vitally important. It is in my opinion the outstanding quality of Hitchens's works. The quality of the paint and the way it was handled is exemplary. I have never seen the slightest sign or suspicion of him having tried to improve things somewhere along the line. This is a great problem for many of us non-geniuses, of course. We lesser mortals are completely vulnerable to the artist's greatest fear. It is a fear that besets us when a drawing or painting is really taking off and spreading its wings. Just when we should be feeling ecstatic is when it strikes hardest. It is the fear of uniqueness, the very attribute we should be open-hearted to welcome. Sometimes, too, when we have begun to lose the plot, when we are trying to rescue our lost vision, it will strike, often in the form of encouraging us to make it more like some other painting or some other person's paintings that most folk think good. I never get the feeling that Hitchens feared uniqueness.
And yes, to finish with one of my earliest points, there is a mood to the painting. In that sense it has a meaning outside the formal elements which comprise it, but they and not the mood are what was important. I do not get the impression that Hitchens began with the mood; he began with his individual responses to the various elements of the scene. It was the consistency of those responses which has led to the mood.
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