Thursday, 29 November 2007

The Art of Ordinary

Beauty can be overwhelming for an artist. I was struck by a postcard that Matisse wrote to Bonnard from Tahiti, Pateete, on 6 June 1930:

« Ai vécu 20 jours dans une « île de corail » : lumière pure, air pur, couleur pure : diamant saphir émeraude turquoise. Poissons mirobolants. N’ai absolument rien fait excepté mauvaises photos. » [Quoted from the Matisse / Bonnard Correspondence 1925-1946 (Gallimard – ISBN-10: 2070722376 – in French)]

We can translate this as:

« Lived 20 days in a «coral island» : pure light, pure air, pure colour: diamond sapphire emerald turquoise. Fabulous fishes. Did absolutely nothing except bad photographs. »

Location: Mariana Arc region, Western Pacific Ocean
Credit: Pacific Ring of Fire 2004 Expedition. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration; Dr. Bob Embley, NOAA PMEL, Chief Scientist

In the case of Matisse, this beauty was not lost forever. I can see the influence of this experience years after, in Matisse’s cut out papers.

The power of the artist is to turn ordinary subjects into extra-ordinary works. I find a particular strength in everyday subjects because it is like waking-up viewers to their surrounding. You paint a building and people who have lived in town for years suddenly realise its existence. Beautiful landscapes don’t need any help from artists to get noted.

The artist faces a dilemma. New scenery brings many potential painting subjects because of its novelty. However, the lack of familiarity with the location makes it more difficult to capture the mood of a particular place. On the other hand, you live in a place for too long and you don’t see it anymore. As Picasso said: “Seeing, this is what is difficult, we are seeing sometime, rarely. We are watching without seeing.” (« Voir, c’est ça qui est difficile, on voit parfois, rarement. On regarde sans voir. » - Picasso quoted by André Verdet in his book “Picasso et ses environs”)
We need to learn to see as an artist, to see a painting in the landscape, right before our eyes.

You can develop strategies to revive the novelty in the familiar:

  • Painters will paint the same spot again years after a first attempt. They also travel to the same locations at regular intervals, learning each time a little bit more about the place while discovering it again each time.

  • Developing over time a series of works based on the same place.

  • Painting as part of a group to see how other painters capture the subject. Impressionist painters did this a lot. Cézannes and Pissarro went together to paint landscapes that Pissarro had first painted in the late 1860s.

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