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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Seven

October 2, 2013

10 August 2013

Six days had passed since our last sitting although Stephen and I had seen each other and talked every day. We generally had dinner together along with Sophie, his wife; he was at my usual Wednesday night gathering over wine and cheese and there was the matter of the big blowout for my seventy-fifth birthday on the 5th of August. The other issue that held us up was the weather. We need sunshine and it had rained for days on end.

VH drawing 2“I just want to draw today,” Stephen said. He had brought a large sheet of paper taped to a drawing board. “I like to work from drawings,” he said, “They tell me more than photographs.” We had talked about this before and we had agreed not to use photographs for my portrait just as I had agreed to work from notes and not record our conversations. We wanted to keep it old school out of a sense of plain curmudgeonliness. “The secret of drawing is not to think about it,” he said as he started to work. “Yes, I know,” I said, “it has got to be second nature, automatic.” I went on my usual bit about the lack of drawing skill being taught in art schools which is a favourite hobbyhorse of mine. Stephen agreed, “A lot of today’s artists couldn’t draw their way out of a box.” He was looking at me very intently as he drew. “I need the luxury of time. I need to take my fucking time.” I asked him about old master drawings, which we both admire. “How can you tell the difference between genius and competence?” “You can tell. There is an ease to genius that the only competent lack,” he replied. “Mind you, many competent old master artists were pretty good,” I said, “they did a lot of drawing and were well trained.”

“There is plenty of confusion between the terms modern and contemporary art,” I said. “Yes, I agree, modern art goes back a long time and a lot of modern artists were well trained and could draw well.” “Where do you think we lost it, the ability to draw well?” I said. “I think that we lost skill when art schools started putting more emphasis on theory than practice.” “It goes back two or three generations of teachers many of whom never learned much skill, like drawing, themselves and hence are hard pressed to teach it,” I said. “We both know that art is more than skill,” Stephen said, “but knowing how to do something well sure makes it easier.” We have often engaged in this chicken and egg argument over the summer, even if we were both on the same side, the question always boiled down to what was more important, content or technique? The truth is there will always be good art being done and there has always plenty of bad art to go around. Defining the good stuff is the big question.

“You know, I would rather talk about being a painter rather than an artist,” I said, “The term ‘artist‘ is used too easily.” “You are right. Every second year art student thinks they are an artist when clearly they aren’t,” Stephen replied. “It’s the bigger world that makes someone as artist, the public, the critics, and the galleries,” I said. “And they aren’t always right,” he said. “History, is about the only judge and I am not sure about that,” I said. “I would be happy if we just got rid of the term art,” he said. “You are not the first to think along those terms.” We continued along this line for some time talking about how the term art has been debased where everything is art; the art of cooking, driving, fashion and any other noun that can be prefaced with an additive. “This is getting depressing. Let’s have a coffee and talk about something else,” Stephen said.

With coffee in hand, I said, “How about Germany? How long where you there?” “Six months, the first time in 03 and five months more in total in three other trips in 05, 07 and 11. It certainly changed my life.” “It was mostly in Berlin, wasn’t it?” “Yes, a very exciting place, but it’s changing now.” I asked what impressed him most. “German art both past and present,” he said. “It’s a very different place which results in a very different art which effected my art,” he continued. I told him that I would have thought that German Romantic landscape painting along the lines of Casper David Friedrich must have impressed him. It did me when I first had the chance to see it in Germany many years ago. “Of course, it was impressive. Totally different from the landscape painting in New Brunswick that I was used to. There is a drama in his paintings that is lacking here,” he said, “but there is lots of other German and northern painting that is impressive.”

“Give me some examples,” I said. “Somebody, I really like is Zorn (Anders Zorn 1860-1920), strictly speaking, he is not German, but Swedish. Great portrait artist rather like Sargent,” Stephen said. This was an artist I liked as well, but not well known outside of Sweden although there are good examples of his work in Boston and he did portrait of three US presidents. “Of course, there are the German Expressionists like Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brülke,” he said. “I could go to the museums every day and learn something new.” “Seeing stuff in the flesh certainly makes a difference,” I said. “And you are seeing it in its own social context which is a big difference,” he added. “Berlin must have been one hell of a place during the hay days of the Weimar Republic,” I said. “Yes, and a great place to read about it is Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodby to Berlin.” “I think we missed something by not being able to be in Berlin or Paris in the run up to World War II,” I added. “Always knew I was born at the wrong time,” he said. “I would have loved to have been Hemingway in Paris at that time. Short sentences, long drinks and hot and cold running romances,” I said.

It was back to reality, as we started the sitting again. “Where were we?” Stephen asked. “About to make me immortal, I hope.” “I go with what I got,” was his less than hopeful response. “I hope I can use these drawings in the end to help me with a larger painting,” he said. It was our idea that this project would end with a large portrait, but there was a doubt that it could be done over the summer. So the idea transpired that Stephen would do a number of oil sketches, some drawings and using them make a cartoon that would be transferred to a larger canvas before he left Sackville at the beginning of September, but even that was a tall order given the slow nature of the work. I also thought that I could go to Fredericton a couple of times during the fall to sit for the finished product.

VH drawing1He had started another drawing. Again the idea was to establish lights and darks. “Do you think the history of art is linear or chaotic,” I asked. “Linear,” he answered. “That’s not what you said the other day.” “I feel free to contradict myself,” Stephen said. Of course, I am full of contradictions myself, but I wasn’t about to tell Stephen that. “I think that it is circular edging on chaos. Actually, it’s more like a Möbius strip, going around forever turning back on itself,” I said. “That’s an interesting idea,” he said, “rather like a trap that we can’t get out of.” “Exactly. Think about it. In time and space everything that has existed, still exists and everything that will exist, exists,” I said. “So what goes around, comes around,” he said. I felt that, perhaps, we were solving the mystery of the Universe and that it might be good time to stop and get ourselves a stiff drink. “I am taking myself too seriously. Let’s go to Ducky’s (our local bar),” I said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Tuesday, 1 October, 2013.

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