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Around about seventy-five

January 15, 2014

Funny thing about life, you really don’t recognize its worth until you’ve used most of it up. Take me. I have just passed seventy-five and I am only now beginning to figure it out. All of my life I have had this interest in art, no, it really is an interest in beauty, and art, good art, that is, and there is precious little of that. Art is a window, a glance, into the nature of beauty. I have spent my entire life in pursuit of beauty. It has been a perpetual carousel ride always reaching for the brass ring and never quite grasping it. Not that I am sorry. It has been interesting and there have been highs as well as lows. I should go back to the beginning. My life, like most, has not been exceptional. I was born in southern California, but spent most of my youth around San Francisco and the Bay Area. My first two years of high school, however, were spent in England where my father was working for an American company that was doing an engineering project for a British oil company. Certainly those two years changed my life and are responsible for what I am or am not today. Now this is a story about art and not about me, but it is hard to do one without the other.

I should mention one other thing. My sight. I was about as nearsighted as you can be. Before my cataract operation a few years ago, I would, without my glasses, walk into walls. I have always had a morbid fear of going blind. Indeed, years ago I suffered a detached retina in my then ‘good’ eye and came within hours of totally losing sight in that eye were it not an emergency operation by an exceptionally skilled eye surgeon. As it was I lost thirty percent of my vision in that eye. So I have always thought that I had better see things while I could. I viewed myself as a sort of collector. A collector of visions that I could store just in case I needed them at some later date. Early on I saw art as magic. It appeared to me as a child as a method of living vicariously off the talents of others. How wonderful it was for a nearsighted little boy with thick glasses to look at reproductions of paintings in books. When I looked into the eyes of a sitter in a portrait they looked back at me and told me, silently, their story. Landscapes opened wide vistas of places that I had never been and could perhaps never go. In my world of imagination I was never laughed at, as I was in real life, I was part of the picture; I was in the picture. If this sounds like escapism—it was, but what better place to be? Did I say that I was left-handed? This further added to my feeling of being different. Not only couldn’t I see, I wrote, awkwardly with the wrong hand, nor could I spell very well. The words just didn’t seem to want to stand still for me. Dyslectic? Probably, but they didn’t use the word much in the early 40’s when I started school. Two things that I could do well as a child, I could draw and I could talk. Boy, I could talk a blue streak and big words too, only I couldn’t spell them.

Then into my little world came Europe and a chance to see those pictures for real and to see some of those places that I had so firmly fixed in my mind. I would like to say that I was disappointed, but, to my great joy, the real thing was, well, the real thing. In reality the only two places that I saw then were London and Paris. We lived just outside of London, in Surrey, and we visited Paris twice, but that was quite enough to change my life forever. Those pictures in books turned out to be painted by real people who lived, loved, and died. They, the paintings that is, were much nicer in person than in books. You could touch them (only when the guards weren’t looking) and the colour was certainly different from the books. Some of the paintings were big, real big, and, others were much smaller than I had imagined, but big, it turned out, wasn’t necessarily better. These revelations happened to me between 1952 and 1954 and, the beauty of it was, that this was before art galleries and museums were so damn popular that you can’t see the pictures for the people, nor were there ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that turned staid museums into carnival sites so I could have my pleasures in relative solitude. My elitism came at an early age. I never saw painting as for everyman, not to mention every woman, I knew from the start that the appreciation of painting was very different than real life. I saw it as a secret language from artist to viewer. You need not be rich to be this type of elite, only responsive to the language. I was thankful that the rich generally made it possible for the artists to do their work and thankful that the state somehow got hold of the work and put in it to places where I could see it for free. It is a pity that today most galleries and museums are no longer free and a kid of today would have a hard and expensive time spending as much time looking at pictures.

It is a good idea to start young if you are going to love art. Look how easily children pick up a language. In no time a all a young child placed in new country speaks the language as well as a native speaker and without a trace of accent while an adult, in the same situation, if they can learn the language at all, invariability ends up with an awful accent. The language of art is no different. The problem is that society, at least ours, is generally blind to this language. This is a world of words. One person’s dog is another’s chien or hund. These animals look remarkably alike in paintings regardless of where they were painted. I am not convinced, however, that art is a universal language. Dutch painting is Dutch painting as is French painting French, regardless of canine content, but it is possible to have a pretty good understanding of both Dutch and French painting without understanding their written languages because painting the world over does have much in common.

Let’s go back to me as a boy coming into contact for the first time with great art. Here I go being an elitist again because, by great art, I mean art in the Western European tradition. After all it was 1952 and Post Modernism was some years off and I was thirteen or fourteen at the time. So, here I was in the National Gallery in London. It was quiet, dusty, and I was quite alone. On top of all of this I really didn’t know a hell of a lot about art except that I was keen to learn, but I was in the candy store with a nickel in my pocket. Where do you start? There are thousands of pictures in the gallery most by people I have never heard of. A good place to start is to find pictures you like. It really doesn’t matter if you are nine years old or ninety years old or if you are an expert or someone in the gallery for the first time—view with your eyes and feel with your heart. My taste at this time was rather saccharine, but it was mine and probably more honest than it is now after two degrees and thirty-seven odd years teaching the subject.

MadonnaThe choice at the National Gallery ranges from Fra Angelico to Francisco de Zurbaran. While they have a particularly rich collection of Italian Renaissance paintings many of which are from what I call the Bambino School. I found it difficult, even at fourteen years old, to take the subject matter of these paintings seriously. Raphael’s (1483—1520) very small Madonna and Child with the Infant Baptist is good illustration of the problem. While he has never been a favourite of mine, Raphael was certainly a fine painter. Typically, in this sort of painting, the Christ child (and in this example, the Baptist as a child as well) is presented as a miniature adult and the Virgin in a plastic Barbie Doll fashion. The subject is a means to an end. Artists painted pictures to order, be they religious pictures or portraits of notable citizens. This is not to suggest that Raphael, or any other Italian artist of the period, did this picture with tongue in cheek and laughed all the way to the bank. I am certain that there were artists who had firm and conventional religious beliefs as I am equally sure that there were artists who could care less if they painted a nude or the Virgin Mary as long as they were painting and getting paid. We tend to forget that while genius was recognized in a few artists during the Renaissance, painting was a trade, even a union job. You paid your dues by completing a long apprenticeship with an established artist, or master, eventually painting your own ‘masterpiece’ and were admitted to the guild as a master craftsman.

I did spend a lot of time in front of this Raphael, and other paintings of his in the collection because he is one of the best known artists in history and I figured there had to be good reasons. Many people know the name Raphael even if they have never seen one of his works. To understand why he is a great artist I needed to look no further than his painting of Pope Julius II. Here was quality, not that I counted myself as a connoisseur at the time. In this remarkable picture the sitter, a very old man, does not look at us, but appears to be lost in thought as if contemplating his own mortality. Corny take? I don’t think so. Julius II was the warrior pope, the pope who commissioned Michelangelo to do the frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. He was a man whom I am quite sure did not take thoughts of his own mortality very easily. It well may be a mug’s game to second guess what was in the mind of an artist or his sitter especially those dead for hundreds of years. It’s not very fashionable these days to talk about meaning in pictures in the way that I describe Raphael’s painting of Julius II. One should properly do a post-modern take or formal analysis. My description echoes Victorian sentimentality–looking for noble meaning in noble pictures. I guess that I am guilty, but there are greater sins.Pope_Julius_II

What makes one painting better than another? Why is Raphael a better painter than a host of other artists of the same period? Two qualities stand out that he shares with other great artists. One, there is generally some bit of originality in the work and, second, a great painter is almost always just technically a better artist. I am very guarded here because it is dangerous to say that anything is always true. There are great artists who are not very original and others who are not technically great, however, you can be sure that any great artist will be outstanding in one of these areas. Let me get this off my chest at the start. I do not believe that taste in art is totally subjective and that one person’s opinion is as good as another’s. A majority of the qualities that make a work of art great are objective and can be categorized. You would not ask your butcher’s opinion on whether or not you were ill nor would you want him to perform major surgery on your person based on his opinion. You would be happy, however, to ask him about various cuts of meat and how to lard a roast. Ill informed opinion on art is just that, ill informed, and it is likely, at last analysis, to be wrong. I can temper all of this by stating that in the Middle Ages the barber and the surgeon were likely to be the same person, but one can assume that a hair cut was a lot safer than surgery.

There are large measures of both qualities, originality and technical competence, that separate great art from the commonplace to be seen in Raphael’s portrait of Julius II. I knew it intuitively as a child when I first saw the work that it was something special and my intuition has been reinforced by what I now know as an adult. I have already commented on the unusual composition. The sitter is placed diagonally to the picture frame rather than perpendicular to it which is the more usual practice. The sitter looks not at the viewer, but at someplace over the viewer’s right shoulder. There is a powerful psychological content. All of these qualities can be called originality. Technically Raphael was a boy wonder doing absolutely amazing paintings by the age of twenty such as the portrait of Angelo Doni (Florence). His use of colour is quite outstanding as is his brushwork; both of these qualities are self-evident in the Julius II portrait.

I have gone on at some length about Raphael and he is a painter that I really don’t like that much, however, he is certainly a great artist of the first rank. My liking him or not liking him has little do to with it. There is always the possibility of recognizing a great art work without liking it. The liking of a work of art is the subjective part while the greatness is objective part of the equation. I never apologize for my taste, however, I should temper this with the fact that my taste is forever changing. At any given point in my life, my taste is my taste and I am stuck with it. To look at art is to learn and I have learned something from every work that I have seen be when I was fourteen or fifty.

I have come to the conclusion that I am firmly mired in the past. This does not make me a reactionary but it does reflect on my doubts about the inevitability of progress in art or, for that matter, anything else. The mantra that every day, in every way, we are getting better and better does not stand up to the lessons of history. The ups and downs of human progress are well documented—golden ages followed by dark ones, civilization replaced by barbarism, the banquet years of the belle époque followed by the horrors of the First World War and the list goes on. It is not possible to go back, bridges have already been burnt. We march towards our own decline like every other civilization has in the past, convinced somehow that we can avoid the mistakes that other societies made. If all of this sounds rather grim let me assure you that it is. I have used art, in particular painting and drawing, as an escape from reality. In art one can see the genius of the human condition. Through art I can see the things that people can make with no more than their hands and that, most wonderful of all things, is human imagination. Escape is not a bad thing as long as I recognize what it is I am escaping from and my reasons for my flight.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Thursday, January 9, 2014.

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