Oh, You’ve Got Blue Eyes. Oh, You’ve Got Grey Eyes.
Amy – Blue
Colours can seem dull when people are melancholy – the world appearing washed-out when looked at through sore eyes.
I went to the Marlene Dumas exhibition at Tate Modern and it was the artist’s palette of blues and greys that lingered the longest. What should I make of this? Maybe I was in the perfect low mood for sad colours – people get the blues; a grey day is a gloomy day.
Apparently there’s something about depression that reduces a person’s visual contrast, making colours feel less bright or affecting. For some, however, a fragile mental state can be productive. Artist Roberta Payne describes her ‘outsider’ creations as the ‘strange, often beautiful art of schizophrenia.’
During acute episodes Payne obeyed ‘alien creatures as large as galaxies’ while creating an intricate nanosphere, that would fold ‘into itself, again and again.’
The painter and musician Daniel Johnston – the epitome of outsider artist – sings of the incomprehension that his creativity provokes in some.
Eventually it was a ‘problem’ that gained Johnston a revered cult status, captured and sealed in The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the film of his life and work.
Death Becomes Her
At the Dumas exhibition an aura rises from the face of a woman crying glass tears.She’s like a Fritz Lang showgirl heroine, or a haunted soul from Blue Velvet. Dumas covers the canvas with strong, fluent strokes of thick paint. Death Becomes Her unspools with meanings: about paint and painting, modes of representation,feminism, art and film history, expressionism, looking.
Dumas makes art primed for dissection and analysis. She’s a possible missing link between Cindy Sherman and Gerhard Richter. Like Richter, she made an image of the corpse of Ulrike Meinhof. The co-founder of the radical 70s Red Army Faction died in 1976, in a West German prison awaiting trial for murder. Dumas’ portrait of Meinhof is called Stern, after the German news magazine that first published the photo of Meinhof’s corpse.
Dead by Richter
Stern by Dumas
Dumas paints images of heroes and villains, from Alan Turing and Amy Winehouse (see ‘Amy – Blue’ at the top), through Phil Spector, to Osama bin Laden. When foreign artists address contemporary matters it feels engaged, necessary and iconic; often when Brit artists do the same, it feels blatant and crass.
Nevertheless, the politics of our times will, inevitably, make the art ephemeral, if the here and now is all that the artist has going for them. You don’t want to end up as just a ‘shrug of eternity’ as Koestler writes at the end of Darkness at Noon Dumas’ modish nod to Barthes by using the title Death of the Author is a detail compared to the power and gravity of the painting it refers to. Dumas makes art with presence, but also depth; painting that exists powerfully for now, as well as down the years.
After several minutes, I turned away from the woman with glass tears and glanced into the next room, to see another woman suspended in space and time.
This time the woman was naked and semi-immersed in water. From the middle distance the water was alluring. I thought of warm summer nights. (I’d been at the exhibition a while and was thirsty.) I didn’t think of danger, or of drowning – I expected the woman to lift her head at some point, rub the water from her eyes, and smile at the artist, and me.
I guess I saw the woman’s naked back and was reminded of the fact that it’s nice to be with someone; and that sometimes it’s difficult when you’re not.
I never go to films by myself at night. But I’ll happily do so in the afternoon. Because then you are clawing back time, from work or duty, and making a gift of it to yourself. And sitting alone in the dark, looking at a bright screen, has a rebellious, indulgent vibe. But evenings at the cinemas, like sunshine on a Sunday, is very different – these are often social things, and being alone with them feels awkward.
I was queuing for tickets in a cinema foyer a few years ago on Valentine’s Day. The queue was formed almost entirely of couples, including me and Vela (ex no 2). But the woman in front of us was by herself. She asked for one ticket. The cashier replied, two. She said no, loudly, ticket for one. The cashier, habituated to only serving couples, still didn’t hear and tried to sell the woman two seats for the film. She had to say it once again, very loud and clear, for all to know, that she was by herself on Valentine’s Day.
An art gallery is an acceptable place to be single. But watching couples share the experience, holding hands and exchanging insights, can feel a bit lonesome. If it’s a man and a woman, the men will often make jokes, while the women generally spend longer contemplating the art.
Vela didn’t like exhibitions. The only time she went to a gallery with me, I lured her with the promise of lunch in the restaurant upstairs. She told me the next day that the pictures gave her a headache, but I think it was all that wine with the meal.
I once took my mum to the Tate. She looked disapprovingly at some abstracts, and a few bits of sculpture; but mostly sat in each room and watched the people go by. A group of female art students were doing sketches, and my mum was fascinated by their young bohemian clothes and make-up, and their bright, young confidence.
From time to time I offer my son tongue-in-cheek advice on being a man. Worldly, suave stuff: like tips on when it is acceptable to wear brown brogues; how to mix a martini; or where to meet girls. I’ve been telling him since he was about seven that art galleries and libraries are where you want to go if you want to meet girls. He used to say, yuck, when I told him this. But last time he thought about it and asked if I was being serious, and was it actually true.
About 2% of women have a genetic quirk allowing them to see in excess of100 million colours, which is ten times more colours than the rest of us get to see. I wonder if they realise. Maybe this is why there are so many women in galleries. But, without these privileged few to see these many, many extra shades of grey, would the colours actually still exist? I’m already worried I don’t see colour very well, and might also be getting them muddled up. The recent mass confusion over the colour of a dress was a relief – seems like it’s not just me who struggles.
Regardless of my doubts and limitations, colour – and its representation in painting – matters more to me now than it used to. Perhaps it’s something to do with age; although I’m not sure how that works.
The Only Blonde in the World
But all the years that I looked, and didn’t really see, have left my critical tools under-developed. I stumble when talking about art. I can be easily led, and too quickly impressed. The first time I saw the work of Pauline Boty I was immediately gripped. I saw The Only Blonde in the World at Tate Britain, and just stopped and stared. I wanted to find out more about the artist. I discovered that Boty had a short and tragic life, which probably should’ve been turned into a film by now. (As surely must happen with the memoirs of Jenny Diski.)
In my excitement, I sent links to people of Boty’s paintings. And then there was an article in the London Review of Books, and a retrospective show, and then more mentions here and there as briefly her reputation seemed to flare again.
But then I saw a BBC documentary about women and Pop Art, and realised that Boty was possibly a minor player, and her lovely bright works started to pale a little in comparison to the paintings of her contemporaries.
Idelle Weber began her career as an artist in late 1950s America, where she was repeatedly kicked back by the New York art world, bluntly advised by gallery owners, agents and male artists that women and art did not mix. Munchkins I, II & III (1964), depicts a systemised and distant male elite.
all the Mad Men
In Belgium Evelyne Axell was making erotic pop art and going by the androgynous handle of Axell in order to get wall space.
In New York Marisol was doing Pop Art sculpture influenced by pre-Columbian artefacts.
Rosalyn Drexler started out as a wrestler. But by the mid 60s she was turning out moody, dayglo paintings, with titles like Kiss Me, Stupid, or Dangerous Liaison – disturbing pulp fictions alluding to dark secrets, violence and crime.
Love and Violence
All these amazing women artists, with great colours, ideas, and viewpoints, and all largely forgotten or written out of the story of art.
To suddenly, belatedly find these painters you didn’t know existed, makes you wonder what else you’ve been missing. If only you’d known more, sooner. Found out more, earlier. Really put your back into looking around and learning.
But maybe we just have to wait until we’re ready, and accept that some things only grow towards us over time. For life can wear you down, it tenderises you, until you start to feel the ache of recognition, where previously there was only a curious nonchalance.
It seems that sensibility, receptivity, time and opportunity have mingled, or reconfigured, to leave me staring at a Henry Moore and feeling moved at the force and weight of his work – where for a long, long time, all I could see were large hunks of stone.
we are family
In my early 20s I travelled round Europe on a train for a month. Me and ex no 1. We saw lots of art, but I was often bored. One afternoon in a cold brown church in theCannaregio quarter of Venice, while ex no 1 gazed at another Madonna and Child, out the corner of my eyeI saw a statue move.
I quickly turned towards the sculpture of John the Baptist, to see its stone face twitch. The silk grey marble running between the figure’s upper lip and lower cheek actually moved. Three times.And then it stopped twitching, and the figure returned to stone.
I had sunstroke that holiday. Maybe I hallucinated the moving statue. I told ex no 1, but she thought I was being silly. We left the church, to find the sky had turned purple, and I put my foot in a piece of dog shit as we looked for a cheap place to eat dinner. In the night there was a violent Adriatic storm.
The moving statue enticed me to look more closely at the work itself. I could see that the sculptor had made something brilliant and with a life-like detail that was almost preternatural. And for a few minutes at least I was no longer bored. (I’d like to say the sculptor was Sansovino, but I’m not certain.) The John the Baptist I saw in Venice was great, but not as good as the marble miracle below. This is by Bernini and is godlike. Is there anything out there better than this?
The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini
A closer look. Remember, this is marble.
The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini (detail)
That strange day in Venice happened mid way through our trip round the continent. The tour also included museum stops in Vienna, Padua, Naples and Rome, and more long hot afternoons looking at Renaissance paintings. But though I saw a heap of Madonna and Child, they never worked for me and only felt beautiful as remote pieces of history.
It was only many years later that I grasped the real meaning and therefore the emotional force of what I’d been looking at.
Last summer I first heard of the idea of Accidental Renaissance – that many contemporary images start to resemble Renaissance art when looked at in a certain way. That there are neo-masterpieces all around us, if only one has the eyes to see. A good exampleis the sports photo from 2008, in which the Chelsea player Frank Lampard is captured celebrating scoring a crucial goal just a few days after the death of his mother. The simple narrative is that Lampard has endured grief and now his sporting triumph has released him from the pain. That Lampard has suffered and now he has risen, with his able team mates, Drogba and Carvalho, holding him as he’s removed from the cross, his face lit with an almost celestial glow. It is an intriguing way of locating beauty in moments and places we don’t always expect to find them. The idea also had a personal meaning. I looked at Lampard and remembered back to several years before, and my own private accidental renaissance, when I finally unlocked the meaning of the Madonna and Child. By now it was many years since the trip to Venice and I was a father. One afternoon, on a day trip into town with J and his mother, we went into one of the royal parks, and it was warm and we were sitting in a quiet spot, and J was showing his mum a custom Lego minifigure and explaining how he’d modified the character. He was about seven at the time, I think. She was listening and stroking his hair. He was standing in front of her, leaning back into her body, and she had her head tilted towards J’s face, which was aglow, and she was about to smile at him. And all of this, and the sunlight, and the blue sky, and the fold in the red fabric of her dress, momentarily became an iconic composition from a religious painting.
Madonna and Child, Giovanni Bellini
It was Madonna and Child.
And now I could see it, where all those years ago it escaped me. Now I saw into the heart of Bellini’s Madonna and Child. The Madonna gazes sadly at her beloved child with the knowledge of human pain. The composition of Madonna and Child carries a presentiment of the pieta – when years later Mary cradles the dead body of Jesus – and the grim realisation that although she gave her son life, ultimately she cannot protect him from death. It’s not simply that Madonna knows that the baby Jesus will die, but the knowing that all baby boys and girls will die – valar morghulis – and that no mother, or father, can stop this from happening. My mother couldn’t stop any of it from happening. And these painful, powerful meanings are why we look. And why we go to galleries and churches. And why this woman wanted one last visit to the Rijksmuseum.