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Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Girl Who Ate Wood

Her ruler
most days
eaten half away.

Plague on all they centimeters!
Dooz me 'ead in
straight they do
always gawpin' up at I,
givin' I the evil eye.
Some days I darezn't even lift I desk lid up!
Where'm all us English inches gawn?
All bin eaten, az 'em?

Health, psychology
and medical agreed:
a dietary deficiency.

at times by fear:

They gangle down
them do
they hair roots
strangle all us brains -

they's why we stupid, see?

The family affliction.

Only she
and not the doctors
knew the cure:

chow down wood -
lots of it -
every day.

This is not the first poem I have written about this particular young lady. I did in fact briefly post one that I subsequently found unsatisfactory. This is not just a new version, however, it is a totally new poem. A different poem. For that reason, I would be particularly grateful to any good soul who felt able to offer a critique.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Last Monday : Thoughts on digital photography.

Last Monday I played truant. We spent the day at Wimbledon, on court number 1. (Part of the reason I got behind with my blogging programme.)

I used the occasion to try out my compact digital camera. We have been pretty much inseparable, it and I, since I acquired it a couple of years ago. It did a grand job of recording the Norwegian fjords for me and has proved a valuable work horse, a trusty all-rounder. Last Monday, though was my first attempt at using it for action photography. I knew it would be difficult, of course. There is a delay between pressing the trigger and the shutter operation. The camera has a few calculations to make and will not be hurried. The fact that the actual shot you so desparately want will not wait for its calculations is of no interest to it whatsoever. I experimented, testing my ability to anticipate the moment at which to activate the trigger allowing for its abysmal response. Total failure. Not only was I hopelssly out, but I didn't get any better as the day wore on.

There are other disadvantages to the digital camera as opposed to the film-laden one. The colours representing the shadows are not always very authentic-looking. The other biggy (for me) though, is its auto-focus and the fact that it makes all those damned calculations for you. The problems here (again, for me)are those of not being able to adjust the depth of field and/or the shutter speed. On Monday this latter disadvantage resulted in some shots being far more blurred than they should have been. However, the auto focus facility is also one of its main strengths, of course, for me as for many other non-professionals - snap-takers, if you will. I do use the camera for recording purposes and not as an art medium, but I do also keep wondering if it is not time to change and let it replace the paint brush, but so far I have not taken the plunge.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Technology Sucks!

There has been a development since my last post. For last evening's watering session I decided to abandon the cans and use the hi-tech alternative. My hose is a state-of-the-art device boasting a portable reel - the hose equivalent of an outside drive, no less. (Come to think of it, the path is a sort of outside drive, too.) I worked from the path, at all times directing the water away from it, so that the path remained in its pristine state. Brilliant, no? The dramatic revelation occurred at the end of the session, when it came time to reel in the hose. My concentration (such as it is these days) being totally directed towards the reel, its handle and the necessity for the hose to be wound on in a kink-fee condition, I had none to spare for the antics of the nozzle dancing its way up the garden path and dribbling its contents as it did so. True, I could have influenced the choreography by varying the speed or smoothness of the winding, but as I say, I had no attention to spare for this until the job was done. Then, and only then, was I able to assess this latest example of land art. Comparing it with the one displayed in my previous post, I think you will have to agree that it amply demonstrates the truth of the proposition that I have always espoused and kept dear to my heart: that art should always be done by hand. (See, I told you I get carried away.)

Friday, 26 June 2009

Am I a Land Artist, or what?

Having been out watering the garden one evening recently, I discovered that I had slightly over-watered the path. But then it occurred to me that it might be a bit of involuntary land art. Am I a potential land artist and had not realised it? Maybe I am marked out to be an urban land artist... Or am I a second Jackson Pollock? I know he always maintained that his results were not accidental, that he controlled the flow of the paint, but then maybe I controlled the flow of the water - subliminally. No, thinking about it, I don't want to be a second anybody.

No, a land artist is what I will pin my hopes upon. (I really am getting to be quite excited at the prospect opening up before me!) I do know that one swallow does not a summer make, but I am not relying on the say-so of this one photograph. I do have another 847 such pieces of incontrovertible evidence, if you would like to see them - we have more than one path and there has been a lot of dry weather lately.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009


A few days ago I walked into our local book store with the solemn intention of buying a dictionary. However, in order to reach the Reference section I had first to pass the poetry shelf. I tried not to look - and it is a very small shelf, easily overlooked. It was not to be, however, for jumping up and down and waving to me, crying in aloud and plaintive voice, Here I am! was Alice Oswald's Weeds and Wild Flowers. Now I don't think I've breathed a word of this before, but I fell in love with Alice when she published Dart, the source to mouth journey of the river of the same name. She is in my opinion, quite simply, wonderful - and my tip for the next English-speaking poet to receive the Nobel Laureateship, though, realistically, not anytime soon. I have had it on several good authorities lately that blog readers are turned off by book reviews, so before this becomes one of those and you reach for the mouse button, let me advise that if you do not know Alice and have not yet included her in your library, you must certainly make one of her books your next purchase. Including the two already mentioned, there are five from which to choose. The other three are: The Thing in the Gap-stone Stile, Woods etc and A Sleepwalk on the Severn.
So now to the review, if by such a term it may be graced.

Weeds and Wild Flowers is beautifully presented and contains not just Alice Oswald's poems but also etchings and drawings by Jessica Greenman. These are not... but heck, let Alice Oswald tell you in her own words, for they drip beauty.

Weeds and Wild Flowers, which grew out of a number of conversations with Jessica Greenman, is not an illustrated book. It is two separate books, a book of etchings and a book of poems, shuffled together. What connects them both is their contention that flowers are recognisably ourselves elsewhere; but whereas the etchings express that thought dynamically in the postures of the pictures, the poems make fun of it, using the names of flowers to summon up the flora of the psyche. My hope is that the experience of reading and looking at the book will be a slightly unsettling pleasure, like walking through a garden at night, when the plants come right up to the edges of their names and then beyond them. It is not, for that reason, a reliable guide to wild flowers, though it may be a reliable record of someone's wild or wayside selves.

My own personal feeling is that this is not her best production, but that is to compare it with the very best there is. To illustrate her remarks above concerning ourselves in the flowers, let me give you the opening lines from the first poem in the book:-

Stinking Goose-foot

Stinking Goose-foot has grown human.
It could happen to anyone.

He has no bath.
Keeps his socks in a bag
that he hangs on a nail by the door.

And his wife in the earth.

In the wet season, in the wasteground,
poking around with a spade, you'll see him
put slugs in a bag.
Which he pops in his mouth.

And this is her in slightly different vein:-


once I was half flower, half self,
that invisible self whose absence inhabits mirrors,
that invisible flower that is always inwardly
groping up through us, a kind of outswelling weakness,
yes once I was half frail, half glittering,
continually emerging from the store of the self itself,

And describing Dock:-

Red-veined Dock

Knock knock
knock knock
dear red-veined
feeler of glands
with your soap-sweet hands

Hopefully, that will have given you enough of a taster to leave you wanting more. It is, I have no hesitation in saying, a book full of delights - not least of which are the gorgeous etchings.


P.S. I still need that dictionary.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Summer Solstice : Stonehenge

Behind the lightness of the dance and song,
beneath its glad frivolity there run
the deeper voices of the standing stones,
more ancient than the ancient ones we've come
to celebrate. A foreign tongue, the words
unknown, their genius still moves us, far
beyond the language that they use. The tone
is one of gravitas. Where now the fun?

These sentinels of deep thought shake our age,
reprove it for its lack of mental care.
This field was theirs four thousand years before -
with them still moulded in their mountainside.

The Druids came and did their thing, as we
do ours. We are the interlopers now,
not worshippers, but weighers, reckoners
and calculators, adders-up supreme.

What should we calculate in these old fields?
Can we survive? And: We who love the sun
and fear it too, in ways they never knew,
would we, could we but find their ancient words,
be wise as they? Light-heartedly, our love
affair with what they knew - with what we think
they knew - goes on. Its what we cannot grasp
of them that grasps us by the balls. (Strange, how
women find instinctive understanding.)

Friday, 19 June 2009


I thought this might be an apt post to follow my poem on the ecology of the redwood forest canopy: out for a wander with my camera recently, I came upon this scene of mystery. It was in an area where the undergrowth is managed, was cut back, almost to a non-existence last year, though you'd not think so now. As can be seen from the photographs, a silver birch has been snapped off a few feet from the ground. A broken section of a silver birch trunk is leaning against a third tree. But what really took my eye was a second section of silver birch trunk, also clearly broken-off (as opposed to sawn or axed, for example), perched vertically, and very precariously, on a branch of the third tree. Neither of these sections, I think, could have come from the broken trunk still in the earth as they are both thicker than it. Neither could I find any other broken silver birch trees. The first reaction was to think that maybe some local lads had been having a lark, but there was no sign that the vegetation, thick around that particular tree, had been trampled or otherwise disturbed. Thinking of the likely weight of the elevated trunk section also seemed to argue that larking was an unlikely cause. Maybe, I conjectured, the said trunk had been tossed there by a fugitive from the Highland Games... but then I thought: just one way to resolve this, that lot from blogland are all more imaginative than I. So, any suggestions?

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

400 Feet Above Your Head

Lie on your back among those giant redwoods if you can,
or failing that amid wild Caledonian pines,
then turn your lazy gaze towards the canopy's green shade,
catch with your dazzled eye the filtered sun still streaming
though fuzzy now, a kind of blinding haze.
You're looking at, although you will not see, the world's
last untouched wilderness.
A small boy in his dreams might climb like fabled Jack,
the tallest tree,
to find, not monsters, no colossus, but an Eden unalloyed,
familiar as any on the ground... and yet these beetles seem
to have a different dress code from the ones he's known;
these ants have never ruined an alfresco meal -
they're not the type;
for this is nature taking a new road, exploring What-if?
variations on her ancient themes.
All this the small boy might assimilate - yet not
be conscious of the pearls he's chanced upon.

And if you fall asleep on that soft debris, let it be, for
will not compete with this: here roam vast herds that only
birds have seen,
here geckos dart from dark organic caves in moonlit forays
for their prey
and grey mud sirens squelch the aerial ooze in search of

Small lakes and bogs there are where trunks branch out
in threes or fours,
or those same hollows hold a metre's depth of soil -
unearthly compost,
out of which come pygmy tribes of rowan, mountain ash or oak,
concealed from you, for nursed in deep parental crooks
in lordly boughs
or piggy-backed on those great shoulders high above the
Nor will you see their Palace of Versailles - its fine facade
for long an untried thought,
its rooms cool tents of Bedouin richness carpeted with moss.
Soft furnishings of matted ferns, webs, mesh
and mucous membranes that the minibeasts have left,
line everywhere the unbuilt walls; large deadwood sculptures,
carved by unseen hands, are set among the flowers;
and from the hollow branches tumble fruits to tempt a guest:
bog whortleberry, grape, red current and the rest,
along with bold-hued fungi, peas, grey lichen, beans and
lentils - richness
far beyond what you might once have dreamed or guessed.

There's nothing in this pristine world of what you might
Here species show their other sides, swap lifestyles for a
Who would have thought to find such widespread colonies
of red gilled bugs and water boatmen high among the leaves?
But now we've found them... ah, how can we leave them
We take our bows and arrows, fire our ropes
and calmly walk the smoothest trunks to those high balconies..

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Mirror, mirror on the wall...

Okay, I know it's for the birds, that it doesn't mean a tinker's cuss, but at the end I got drawn into it despite myself. Back on the 8th June The Times got to the end of its long-running poll to find out who, by popular consent, is or was the greatest artist of The Twentieth Century - and not as I originally typed, of all time. Even so, a bit like trying to establish which is the greatest fruit or vegetable. I treated it with all the disdain it deserved for the whole 16 weeks that it took to run its course. But then, when all the 1.4 million votes had been counted and the final results were known, I caved in. (What is it about our natures that succumbs to the competitive element despite our best endeavours, even where it is patently inappropriate?) Nothing should have surprised me about the competition (sorry, poll!)of course - with the possible exception of Picasso not coming first - for with so many of all shades of outlook casting their votes there was bound to be a great mix and levelling. And there was - and Picasso did come first! And Paul Cézanne came second. Almost as much a foregone conclusion as the first place, I thought. No surprises so far. But then:-

  • Third place went to Gustav Klimt, master of the Art Nouveau and supposedly with major share holdings in manufacturers of gold leaf. How could the good burgers of Britain who voted in such numbers for Cezanne and Monet (fourth) have voted for Klimt. The answer is, of course, they didn't. It was another lot.

  • Marcel Duchamp slipped into fifth place between Monet and Henri Matisse (sixth): same explanation as above? I don't think so, no. Duchamp has his place for good and cogent reasons. Even so I was surprised to see him achieveing it.

  • Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning and Piet Mondrian, all squeezed in (7th to 10th) before Paul Gauguin , number eleven. Yup, didn't altogether disapprove of that, but still slightly surprised.

  • Mark Rothko at 28 just pipped Edward Hopper.

  • Lucien Freud at 30 (tagged "Britain's Greatest Living Artist"?) was 4 places ahead of David Hockney.

  • Good to see a photographer (Cartier-Bresson) in at 35, though surely if he'd been a painter he would have been higher?

  • Henry Moore at 49 demonstrated just how far he has slipped out of fashion.

  • Ditto Tracey Emin at at 52 and Damien Hurst at 53.

  • Marc Chagall at 71 was disappointing.

Full results with information about the top 200 artists can be found here

(The paintings are, in order, by: Monet, Hockney, de Kooning and Hopper.)

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Is there a work of art that you admire, perhaps even love, that initially you could not take to, were put off, perhaps by some quite extraneous matter? (And among extraneous matters I would include subject matter, for I have long believed - thought I believed - that the subject of a work of art was not a valid platform from which to praise or decry it, love or hate it; that what mattered was what the artist made of it, how he treated it, transformed it perhaps.) I ask because Simon Armitage recently presented a programme for BBC4 on the background to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was a fascinating programme, disappointingly lacking in quotes from his own translation, but really making the poem come alive and setting it reveaingly in its historical and geographical context. It is only recently that I have been able to approach the book with any great pleasure and Armitage has certainly taken me further along that road. For years - decades! - I was put off by all that le Morte d'Arthur stuff at school. Camelot and the Round Table, codes of Chivalry, maidens in distress, dragons and what-not, all that lumber was a big red road sign saying No Entry!.

But there was one further difficulty: the opening scene. Had I ever surmounted all that magic and romance to summoon a modicum of interest, enough perhaps to get a few juices running, that opening would have blown it clean out the window. What happens is that the knights are all assembled at their Camelot gaff when the door crashes open and in rides The Green Knight. He issues a challenge to any of them willing to accept it: he will allow that knight to cut off his head if in a year's time he will seek him out and allow him to return the compliment. As always, it's a youngster who rises to such a preposterous challenge and cuts off The Green Knight's head. The youngster is Sir Gawain. The head rolls across the floor, the knights kicking it to help it on its way, but The Green Knight goes after it, picks it up, replaces it and rides off, reminding Sir Gawain of his promise as he does so. It took me a few decades to get past that one! (Interestingly though, Simon Armitage suggested a theory concerning this: that it might have been based on the legend of St Winifred's Well at Woolaston, Shropshire - well within the area in which this story is set. Winefride was the daughter of a Welsh nobleman, Tyfid ap Eiludd. Her suitor, Caradog, beheaded her when she announced her intention of becoming a nun. The head rolled downhill and where it came to rest there appeared a spring of clear water, which was later found to have healing properties - and is still visited for their sake. Her maternal uncle and a Saint Beuno managed to replace the head and restore her to life.)

What got me into the story, then? The seduction scene! (Wouldn't you know?) Sir Gawain has many adventures on his quest to find The Green Knight. He roams the borderlands between England and Wales - something even the bravest knights would have hesitated to do in those days - and for a time he takes refuge in a castle he comes upon. The owner, Lord Bertilak, is about to begin three-days of hunting, but offers hospitality, as he must. Before leaving, however, he strikes a bargain with Sir Gawain: he will give Gawain everything he wins on the hunt, if when he returns, Sir Gawain will give him in return everything he has won in the castle during his absence. As Armitage says in the programme: seems easy, no reason not to agree. Sir Gawain is resting in the usual four-poster bed, when Lady Bertilak creeps into the room intent upon seducing him. He resists her advances, doing no more than return a single kiss which she gives him, but what the poet does is to cleverly intercut scenes from the attempted seduction with others from the hunt. What the descriptions from the hunt imply in terms of what is supposed to be taking place in the bedroom is clear enough, certainly they leave the reader in no doubt of what was in the poet's mind. It is a perfect film script, using cinematographic devices, but written centuries before the first camera was even thought of. Lord Bertilak returns and gives Gawain the spoils of the hunt. Gawain gives him the kiss he has won from Lady Bertilak, without divulging its source. The following day it is two kisses and on the third day, three. This time Lady Bertilak also gives Gawain a green silk girdle, which she says will protect him from all physical harm. He keeps the girdle for himself and does not pass it on to Lord Bertilak.

The next day Garwain leaves to resume his quest to find The Green Knight and comes upon him in a Green Chapel, sharpening his axe. Garwain bends over to receive the fatal blow, but the knight delivers only a soft stroke which does no more than bruise his neck and leave a small scar. The Green Knight then reveals himself as Lord Bertilak. The entire game had been the creation of Morgan le Fay, Arthur's sister and nemesis. Garwain returns to Camelot wearing the girdle as a badge of shame for not having been able to keep his promise. (A knight who failed to keep his pledge would be regarded as little better than an outlaw.) Arthur decrees that henceforth all his knights will wear a green sash in recognition of Gawain's adventure.

So what, apart from the story, do we know about the poem? Not the poet. He is unknown, but would have been a contemporary of Chaucer, writing in Middle English. There is no title, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one that has been given to it by common consent over the years. There are four parts to the poem, all of which are very strong on alliteration. Armitage has made it a priority to retain the alliteration, though that has not always been the case in the past. He spoke in the programme of it being the warp and weft holding the poem together, without which it is so many loose threads. Interestingly, he was able to find local dialect-speakers who still use or understand many of the Middle English words from the manuscript, an example being grollocking, meaning the removal of the intestines etc from a slaughtered animal.

Here, then, a couple of extracts from the 1999 translation by Paul Deane.

First, part of the description of The Green Knight from on his arrival atCamelot (Book 1)

He was got up in green from head to heel:
a tunic worn tight, tucked to his ribs;
and a rich cloak cast over it, covered inside
with a fine fur lining, fitted and sewn
with ermine trim that stood out in contrast
from his hair where his hood lay folded flat;
and handsome hose of the same green hue
which clung to his calves, with clustered spurs
of bright gold; beneath them striped embroidered silk
above his bare shanks, for he rode shoeless.
His clothes were all kindled with a clear light like emeralds:
His belt buckles sparkled, and bright stones were set
in rich rows arranged up and down
himself and his saddle. Worked in the silk
were too many trifles to tell the half of:
embroidered birds, butterflies, and other things

in a gaudy glory of green and inlaid gold.
And the bit and bridle, the breastplate on the horse,
and all its tackle were trimmed with green enamel,
even the saddlestraps, the stirrups on which he stood,
and the bows of his saddle with its billowing skirts
which glimmered and glinted with green jewels.
The stallion that bore him was the best of its breed
it was plain,
a green horse great and strong,
that sidled, danced and strained,
but the bridle-braid led it along,
turning as it was trained.

And now some lines from the third section: the attempted seduction.

While the lord found delight in the linden-wood,
that good man Gawain had a grand bed
where he dozed while daylight dappled the walls
and crept through the counterpanes and curtains about him.
As he drifted half-dreaming, a delicate noise
sounded softly at the door, which suddenly opened.
When he heard this he heaved his head from the sheets
and pulled a corner of the curtain carefully aside,
warily wondering what it might be.
It was the lady herself, such a lovely sight,
who closed the door carefully and quietly behind her
and bent toward the bed. Blushing the fellow
lay down and lurked there, looking asleep.
Taking step after step, she stole to the bed,
caught up the curtain and crawling inside
sat down beside him with silent motions.
A long while she lingered there to look at him waking.
The man lay unmoving for more than a while,
for his mind was bemused what to make of this
strange situation. It seemed most amazing.
But he said to himself, "It would suit far better
if I let the lady enlighten me herself."
Then he straightened and stretched and stirring toward her
he opened his eyes and acted astounded.
Then he crossed himself as if he claimed protection
from that sight --
her chin and cheeks were sweet,
blending red and white;
her voice a pleasant treat
where small lips smiled delight.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009


Ever since reaching the age of discretion I have kept this painting tucked firmly away in our deepest, darkest closet, but now, in response to the demands of many innocents, and washing my hands of all responsibility, I bring it into the light of day - the Beach Scene as mentioned in my previous post. Scroll down NOW or forever lose your peace.

A couple of things need to be said: the first is that the lines of colour change are not part of the picture. It was too large to scan in one go and the separate scans did not match perfectly in every case. Also the quality is poor, again due to the number of scans and the need to significantly reduce the size of the resulting image.

And further to that most recent post of mine, it has been a real revelation to me to discover how many folk have not found in it (apart from the right hand section) any recognisable images. It's fascinating to realise at times like that how differently we perceive visual images. My first thought was that maybe I gave the impression with my talk of the way the eye moves around the picture, that this was some sort of exercise which might be tried. If so, it was not meant that way, it was just me saying what happens when I look at it. It was me trying to analyse its hold on me. Then I thought maybe I had just made an unfortunate choice of work with which to introduce him. That thought has at least given me the opportunity to display another whilst I try to figure out if there is any more I can do. It is very small, I fear, and may not enlarge too well. If you can find a reproduction of any of his Winter Walks (1-4), they are probably Hitchens at his finest. In the meanwhile, happy looking - at the second image! It is called Winter Stage and clearly shows, I think, the extent of Cezanne's influence on him - as, indeed, to pretty well all his canvases.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Looking at a Work of Art (1)

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.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Yesterday in The Times

Two things:

1.) Each Tuesday The Times 2 publishes under the title of Modern Art Explained a work of art along with views about it expressed by readers and an Expert Verdict, this last by Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times's resident art critic. The previous week it will have published a small image of the upcoming work - and a larger one on its website - for the benefit of readers wishing to contribute. Last week the up-coming work was Fernand Leger's Les Deux Acrobates. I did not know this work, but was so impressed by it that I e-mailed a response, never having done anything of that ilk before. Surprise, surprise, they published my response - well, part of it, contriving to give the impression that I thought there was only one acrobat, not two. My fault for being too long-winded, but there you go!

Not expecting that result I had meanwhile written a poem based upon my contribution, and that being so, and seeing no good reason why I should waste it, I am hereby inflicting it on your good selves.

Les Deux Acrobates

Caught in a headlong tumble through
space, blown apart, shown here, not as
we know they must be, but as if
we see at the height of their act -
nailed together as one, but as
one breaking up, the bits flying
off, for our eyes cannot hold them
complete in one place at one time.
They tumble and spin, rotating
so quickly we see bit by bit,
one part then another - a line
of disorder that, given more
time, would build to a man - or men -
first an arm     a waist    then a head,
a hand, plus a foot    then a leg,
a part torn apart
from the others.

And filling the gaps
between fragments flash
swatches of background:
a skewer of light
snatch of a clown
hoardings and
adverts. The Big
Top's top.

2.) the other item that jumped to my notice was a review of the Richard Long exhibition at Tate Britain. - see my last post but one.

I have to confess that I am not sure about his texts as sculptures. I can accept them as art, but they do not seem to me to be sculptures. They are something else, something that grows on me with every one I read. Like much of his work the effect is cumulative, building on what has gone before - that is, on what you have seen or registered before.