I wish to thank all of those who accepted my invitation to visit my new web site. The response was far beyond my expectations. There has been an increase of 937% in visitors in the month of January, of which 70% are from Italy and 20% from the United Kingdom. The rating of the site has soared. There were 12 visits from a small town in Scotland alone in one day!
We are lucky as practising artists to live in a period when we can communicate with our work all over the world without leaving projects in progress in the studio. The ivory tower is now wired up and there is an aerial on the roof! The physical contact may be limited to those few occasions each year when the actual paintings together with the artist can be encountered for brief periods in shows. This does not mean that I am not looking forward to my next retrospective in July 2015.
Once again thank you to you all.
4th February 2015
Extract from book "Childhood Shapes" by John Picking
To paint for over fifty years, avoiding distractions, with a one-track mind, one may be considered to be mad. Which is worse being a mad painter or being a mad artist, given that they may be two different things? Probably being an artist, although I am quite proud of how I became one.
When I won a travelling scholarship to paint for a year in any country in the world, I chose Spain. It seemed a good idea to take out a health insurance policy so I asked for advice. My old teacher at Wigan School of Art suggested I go to see his friend Mr. Gregson, an insurance broker who dealt with various insurance companies.
'Mm,' said Mr. Gregson, when I arrived in his office, 'Spain! That could be difficult. I think we'd better try Lloyds. They take on anything!' He took my details and I said goodbye. A week later a letter arrived from him:
Dear Mr. Picking,
I am sorry to inform you that Lloyds have decided not to accept our insurance proposal due to the
fact that you are an artist.
Although by that time I had two diplomas in painting it was the first time anyone had called me an artist! I felt proud of myself and that letter. It was better than any diploma! Insurance companies are very astute in their judgments. They take everything into account. I almost felt the letter deserved framing! Being put on the level of syphilitic Gauguin, drunken Utrillo, alcoholic Modigliani or mad Van Gogh, put me in good company indeed! I set out for Spain, painted for a year in perfect health and returned feeling I had consolidated my new title. Lloyds had even made me save money!
What is the activity of painting for me? Is it an incurable disease? I can’t stop the flow of canvases. They are too many. Thank goodness some of them have been painted over or taken away. If not, by now I would need an attic as long as Paradise Farm’s shippen to store them. They are of all colours and sizes. To me they seem to be in a great confusion of styles. They are like that because I am an unrepentant eclectic.
I was consoled in this by reading a recent biography of John Piper. The following review for the book of the achievements of Piper showed that his eclecticism helped to define him as ‘quintessentially modern’.
John Piper was an extraordinarily prolific artist in many media, his fertile career stretching over six decades and involving him in many changes of style. Having been an abstract painter in the 1930s, he became best known for his landscapes and architectural scenes in a romantic style. This core interest, in the English and Welsh landscape and the built environment, developed in him a sensibility that took in almost everything, from gin palaces to painted quoins, from ruined cottages to country houses, from Victorian shop fronts to what is nowadays called industrial archaeology. He was torn between the pleasures of an abstract language liberated from time and place and those embedded in the locale, in buildings, geography, and history. Today, this expansive contradictoriness seems quintessentially modern, his divided response finding an echo in our own ambivalence towards modernity.
Over the years I have experienced the same ambivalence between figurative and abstract painting, sometimes mixed together on the same canvas. A serious case of Schizophrenia! As the art critic of the Scotsman, Goodsir Smith said after seeing one of my shows: ‘…This is interesting work by what jargon would call “a divided mind” – and who has not one?’
After I had studied the history of painting, I couldn’t throw it in the bucket as Picasso suggested. I can’t help it, it’s a sign of our times. Picasso contradicted himself in part. He did a variation on Velasquez’s Las Meninas and I have fallen into the same trap. An image created by another painter may become an obsession. No one is immune. No one is completely original. Van Gogh copied Millet and Francis Bacon copied Van Gogh. Gauguin stayed with Vincent and painted in the manner of Vincent while Vincent imitated Gauguin. Guttuso was a great admirer of Picasso, so when I did my variation on his L’Ucceria, in the Palermo market of the title, I put Guttuso with his red sweater and cigarette, selling a Picasso!
I am building my Tower of Babel full of paintings. Instead of being a painter I should have been an artist, no, sorry, a conceptual artist, closer to this century. A century and a half ago they said ‘Painting is dead’, and here I am still painting, with so many new technologies after the invention of photography, the cause of such a pronouncement. Yes, strange ideas come into my head in my dreams, but the next morning I am back in the studio starting another canvas. If it is not a disease, it is a passion. The show goes on. I remember Ronald Searle the cartoonist, saying in an interview that he hated going out in the evening because he would miss something. He was a spectator while his hand produced new drawings.
As more and more work leaves the studio, people often ask me questions about it. It is particularly difficult to answer the question What does that painting mean?" A reply I often give is that words can never explain a visual image. If it were possible it would mean that it must be some kind of literary illustration which would have been better created in a different medium. The essential visual meaning of the work may be elusive, but I am convinced that information about the background to the creation of the painting helps in understanding why it was painted. It may be less important in appreciating certain evocative qualities of the work but still it is worth trying.
Sometimes it is better not to demolish the mystery. My curiosity as a child, to understand how things worked, led me to take things to pieces. It was often impossible to reconstruct them afterwards. However, it was a necessary part of learning and that was a great gain, but one thing was lost, the mystery. As mystery is an essential ingredient in all religions, so mystery is a characteristic of great art. Not even the artist can fully explain how the work came to life. Like Pirandello's characters in search of an author, it seems that a painter's images develop their own life. Authors of novels often find that the characters they have created refuse to behave according to the writer's plot. They become three-dimensional, jump off the paper and can no longer be forced into a pre-cast mould. It is the same with forms on a canvas.
Before explaining in the first chapter how I spent my earliest days on this planet, it might be useful to think about various kinds of creative activity. I would like to try to understand the similarities and differences between one art form and another. Like taking those complicated toys to pieces I would like to unscrew the top off the human mind and discover the mechanisms that need to be in working order so that this something called art comes to life. There must be a minimum of technique in the chosen medium, then some kind of idea to make a start and last, but not least, in order to have a vocabulary of words, musical notes or pictorial forms, there must be memory. We must remember fragments of the past for a learning process to exist and like learning to walk we learn to express ourselves from past sucesses and failures.
Some people have a verbal memory. They remember detailed conversations. They can recite long poems by heart or amuse us with an unending store of jokes. A fellow student of mine in Edinburgh jumped onto the bar table during a Burns supper night and recited the long poem Tam o’ Shanter without a stammer, after four or five pints of beer! For me that kind of feat has always been impossible, with or without the beer!
I have a visual memory. I remember a face but it has no name. I remember the shape of the branches on a hawthorn tree I climbed fifty years ago. In my mind’s eye I can see the pattern of the paper border pasted below the picture rail in the Shevington Lane dining room, a room I have not entered for over fifty years.
Writers create images using words. To communicate their meaning they must use words known to others. The combination of these words will be unique, creating memorable phrases, but the structure of the writing is made up of the building blocks which are words and grammatical conventions. These words can be classified and made easily available to the writer. He can use a dictionary. It is easy to learn how the system of alphabetical order works, so it is easy to locate a word. More complex is the thesaurus which attempts to classify words in groups of related concepts. It has main categories each divided into sections, each section divided into sub-sections until we reach a group of words with similar meanings. It is necessary to help the searcher by having a general index of words in the second part. That word which is ‘on the tip of your tongue’ will come back to you when you find it via its similes.
Each verbal language has its own vocabulary. Each word in a language has a group of meanings with overlapping concepts. This means that our way of thinking, our concepts can be very much influenced or even dictated by the language in which we are thinking. In my own case I am very much aware of this. I have lived more than half of my life in Italy, my wife and daughters are Italian, we speak mostly Italian at home and I probably spend half of my time thinking in Italian. Some of the time I think in English but some of the time I think in a way which is more abstract, not connected directly with one language or the other. This is salutary. It helps to prevent too many preconceptions. It is better to have a thought and then attempt to hang the appropriate words to the concept. It may survive in a more intact state.
A few months ago we bought an electric mixer for the kitchen and I started to read the slim book of instructions. I read a page but when I came to the next my first thought was that there had been a typographical error. The same instructions were repeated twice! It took me a few more seconds before I realised that the first page was in English and the second in Italian! It is interesting to ask, what was happening in my brain as I was reading?
In his book The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker dedicates a chapter to the abstract language of the brain that he calls mentalese.
Sometimes it is not easy to find any words that properly convey a thought. When we hear or read, we usually remember the gist, not the exact words, so there has to be such a thing as a gist that is not the same as a bunch of words. And if thoughts depended on words, how could a new word ever be coined? How could a child learn a word to begin with? How could translation from one language to another be possible?
In another part of the book, as a consequence of this reasoning, he denies that particular languages influence our way of thinking. I would say he is right when we are thinking abstractly but when we start thinking about what we are going to say, we are forced into transforming those thoughts into the forms used in a particular language. I do not know if Steven Pinker is bilingual or capable of thinking directly in other languages, for at this point our communication with others is compromised by the language we are forced to use, and after all, it is the communication that counts! That is why jokes are particularly difficult to translate. That is why a particular language gives a feeling of belonging to the same culture. Of course, each culture creates the words it needs and that means the concepts behind them may be different in different languages.
The more direct way of thinking abstractly is natural when I am drawing a form. The image on the paper is made up of unique shapes. When I am drawing I am thinking without words of a shape.
How can I rebel against the use of words to talk directly about the forms which make up a picture? Of course I can use diagrams. I can break down the image into its various constituents. Inspired by Bauhaus philosophy English art schools began in the 1950’s to offer Basic Design Courses. In my first year I learned to analyse a natural form such as a lupin seed pod. I used various techniques and media to bring out its linear, tonal, textural, colour and sculptural character.
Line is a great tool for the artist. It is often symbolical. My teacher James Cumming at Edinburgh said that lines in nature do not exist. He was right in a sense. He was trying to make me see as a painter. An image could be made up of brushstrokes, or today with pixels, but no lines. Nevertheless, as a structural scaffolding it is very useful, even if it gets lost under the brush. Paul Klèe was in love with the line. He took it for a walk!
I will never forget the scene in the film ‘The Picasso Mystery’ where Picasso is hidden behind a luminous white screen. Using a black marker he drew a vertical line in the centre accompanied by a single note on a guitar. The drawing seemed to grow of its own accord, first side branches that were then filled with other linear patterns and images, the music getting ever more complex till at the end it was a very complex structure. Then….amazing! The film was projected backwards! Little by little the decorations disappeared leaving a skeleton. The last notes of the guitar following the sequence perfectly to the last note, the last line.
In the natural world scientists have tried to give some order to the millions of species on the planet. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist was the first to devise a scientific method of a classification. All plants were divided into groups and sub-groups arriving in the end at a group of species. Later, up to modern times, various classifications have been formulated. They are never perfect but they serve a useful purpose. For example one system of biological hierarchy uses eight taxonomic ranks. Starting from the top they are:
In musical terms Benjamin Britten did a vocabulary of the colours of musical instruments. In his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra he used the form structure of variations on a theme. His levels of species were three: the full orchestra, sections of strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and then the individual instruments in each section. It is a masterpiece, bringing out the full potentials of each. The last part of the piece starts like the Picasso drawing, a single flute begins a fugue expanding to include one by one of the instruments we have heard. It all builds up to a grand finale with all the orchestra going full blast. What a picture!
If we compare the writer with the painter, the painter should have a dictionary of forms at his disposal. But we cannot put verbal labels to these forms. Form categories would need diagrams. Certainly at the top level (Life in the biological hierarchy) they could be divided into groups such as organic and geometric but a cell in a honeycomb which is the shape of a hexagon, where do you put it? Geometry may also be found in organic forms.
The ideograms used to write Chinese are an interesting link between our European abstract alphabetical symbols without any relation to visual images and other forms of primitive writing using pictograms. The interesting question is: how can the Chinese put their words in alphabetical order? After asking myself this question I called on my next door neighbour Tao Yi Feng, here in Northern Italy. She is Chinese and was a teacher of English at Peking University. She has explained to me that there is more than one way to put the words or concepts in order. One is to list them in order of sounds following the order of occidental alphabets. Another, that is more interesting here, is to put them in the order of how many strokes there are in an ideogram.
On the left is a page from a monolingual Chinese dictionary and another from a Chinese/English dictionary showing combinations using the ideogram hùi. I like the form of hùi, it is a peaceful static form, a square within a square like Homage to a Square by Albers. It is a general concept of enclosure which, when in combination forms associated words like the groups in our Thesaurus.
A study of Egyptian hieroglyphics offers another example of a vocabulary of symbols with various visual references. The first part of the book The Rosetta Stone by Robert Solé and Dominique Valbelle offers a fascinating account of the long process of their decipherment. It took many years to arrive at the discovery of how the ancient Egyptians combined visual symbols with other more abstract symbols representing sounds in their spoken language.
These considerations are useful in understanding the differences between verbal language and the visual language of painting. In European languages the symbols and sounds have little to do with the concepts they represent. Everything depends on having learned the abstract connections. If the writer uses words in a certain combination, he can reach the level of poetry, even in his prose. An image in words is created in the mind’s eye and each reader will have his own idea. Words stimulate fantasies. A novel or a radio play creates a space in one’s mind.
I remember once listening to a BBC radio play. Two people enter a building with many floors. They climb the stairs, floor by floor and on a landing enter a room. Up to this point, listening to their conversation, everything seems normal and acceptable because we imagine the surrounding spaces. But the writer has not told us about those spaces. In fact he has played a trick on us. In the play they do not exist. The couple discover, like being in a dream, that, when they can see the outside of the building, there is only a staircase with one room attached to it suspended in an empty space! We have so many preconceptions created by previous experiences which dictate our comprehension of the world. We can make mistakes. This writer, in a surrealist way, showed us how we can be tricked.
The painter’s space is out there, before the eye but it penetrates via the optic nerve and its greatest potential tool is colour. The human eye can distinguish between 7 and 10 million colours which in itself is more than the number of existing English words. Each of those could be in combination with other parameters such as texture when we try to categorise a form or a brushstroke. That is before we even begin talking about shapes!
Our dictionary of forms would have to be multi-dimensional. The project seems to get more and more difficult.
Deep in our visual memory are embedded single forms which can have various verbal labels. They have the same configuration of lines or contours but in everyday life, in the adult world of necessities and survival techniques, they have nothing in common. One could be a loaf of bread, the other a stone.
In the painting The Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dalì there are two forms which are very similar. One is seen as a crouching figure, the other as a hand holding an egg, but in a dictionary of forms they would be on the same page.
Summing up, I have not managed to use forms to explain other forms. I have been forced to use a particular verbal language I know, English. So unhappily I must return to words. We could say this book is a result of that failure! It had to be written using a keyboard connected to a computer, not painted with a brush.
So, let us try again. " What does that painting mean?" Why do I paint the forms I paint? How do I chose something I want to paint? It is only now that I begin to see where it all comes from. I have wondered why certain forms appeal to me and why I keep repeating them. They still haunt my dreams, appear automatically in my drawings and I desperately try to paint them out of my systemby putting them on canvas over and over again. These images are the painter’s obsessions. All painters have them. Just think how many times Munch painted The Cry or Monet his water lilies.
Art historians and critics write monographs on painters or long aesthetic descriptions of individual paintings but few approach the question why the painter finds certain forms more significant than others. They follow the painter’s background and influences helping us to understand his training and development but rarely can they arrive at an explanation in visual terms. The explanations remain literary, a verbal parody, for after all, they are writers.
This is not a book about child psychology or problems in adults traceable to infancy. I am not a psychologist. I am a painter. But I must admit that, the further I go forward, the more I realise how much what I am painting has origins in my distant past. The structures which act as support for my images have always been there and have always been used subconsciously in my work. It is just that it took me all this time to see what was going onto the canvas. Not that it is necessary that the painter should be able explain his subconscious motifs. Here I attempt to explain images. It is not easy using words, but by linking a memory and explaining its visual aspect I hope to get nearer to answering the questions I am asked about why my paintings look like they do. In this first part of my autobiography it would be ideal to have thousands of photographs of forms from my childhood with nothing more than short labels in words, but unfortunately these photos do not exist. Even though my father was a keen photographer, his interests were mostly in other fields. Of course I cannot go back in time to find the right images and photograph them for myself. I have to be content with illustrating this piece of writing with a few remaining fragments, verbal descriptions plus similar things from more recent times.
So this book is about a question and an answer: Why do I find certain forms, colours and shapes significant? – and the reply: – very often because I first saw them when I was a child. The context of these forms is usually different. The oval dome I painted in a Sicilian cemetery when I was 35 is the same form as the glass dome that covered the 18th century skeleton clock which stood on the window sill of our hall in the house where I spent the first sixteen years of my life. The particular combination of colours may strike a resonant chord in my memory when I use them on canvas. They are the same colours as a set of building blocks I played with in nursery school. This does not mean that the same thing may happen in the mind of some observers of the painting, but others may have childhood memories with similar resonances. This leads them to that strong feeling of déjà vu.
I hope not to fall into the same error as Sigmund Freud when he spoke of the form of a hidden bird in Leonardo's Virgin and Child with Saint Anne. In the drapery around the Virgin he noted its similarity to the form of a vulture. Leonardo wrote an account of a childhood experience, of being visited while in his cradle by a bird of prey. But because of an error in translation from the Italian, Freud developed a theory showing how this vulture shape was embedded deep in Leonardo's subconscious mind and reappeared in the Virgin’s skirt. Unfortunately Leonardo wrote using the word nibbio meaning kite, a bird with a completely different shape from that in the painting. This was a mistake caused by bad translation. Things like this should not happen when it is the painter himself who makes the comparisons.
Henry Moore once refused to read a voluminous book on his work as a sculptor written by a psychologist. He was afraid that if he understood why he sculpted, he would stop working. He was obsessed by the mother and child theme and it has often been suggested by adherents to the Freudian School that he was trying to return to the womb. I am not trying to cure phobias or find psychological reasons for some character deviation. The motivation is different and recognising the origin of much of my imagery is not going to stop me painting. In fact, the more I discover these links from the past, the more projects, new ideas and drawings accumulate waiting to develop into future paintings. I will never be able to paint them all.
John Fowles, in Writers Talking says:
'I think all artists are probably made in their first two or three years. I take a neo-Freudian view on this. The theory I more or less accept is one called Symbolic Loss and Repair. In very simple terms, as an infant you're wounded or deprived in some way you can't understand, but so deeply that you have to spend the rest of your life repairing it by painting pictures or writing or whatever it is.
The theorists think that the wound must be an infancy experience; but with me it was also caused by the fact that as a child I didn't at all like Leigh-on-Sea and the life we lived there.'
As I liked Shevington the loss in my case might have been the long absences of my Dad while he was a soldier or the frustration of not having had an electric train set! I had a very loving relationship with both parents and village life seemed perfect. The objects I adored may not have returned my love, but then my worn-out teddy bear seems to deny that. Perhaps there can be no general theory why we have to write or paint something out of our system.
In the first days of the Art Teacher’s course at Goldsmith’ College we were asked by our tutor Seonaid Robertson to write a piece about our own childhood and adolescence. She was probably hoping for ‘scoops’ for her next book after the success of Rose Garden and Labyrinth, but it was a useful exercise. Trying to understand our own development could help us deal with that of other children.
I have worked with children at various times in various places and once I was asked to do a project the organiser had named ‘We are all Artists!’. These eight-year-olds were indeed incredibly creative. I can understand Picasso’s envy of children’s art. If I can modify John Fowles’s assertion, perhaps we could say that artists are children who have never grown up. Adolescence is often a disaster in the way a new consciousness of one’s inadequacies puts the creative instinct in crisis. If this did not happen in my case I would like to think it is because I have remained one of Picasso’s children.
I do not like the term 'inspiration'. In the practical world of artistic activity a more useful word is 'selection', for I see myself as the artist bombarded by a mass of images and visual structures which encircle me like the flying images of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. The only way to reach or to aspire to a more peaceful state of equilibrium is to catch these phantoms and pin them down on paper or canvas. This is a time-consuming occupation and time is limited. There is no time to stand motionless before a white canvas waiting for inspiration. I have to get on with the job of 'painting out of my system' the things that, like a recurrent nightmare leave me no peace of mind. I doubt whether these aggressive creatures will ever leave me in peace, allowing me to finish 'painting out' all of them.
Childhood sensation and experience are different from those of an adult. We adults are aware of the five senses as distinct channels which deliver a message or memory in the form of an image, a sound, a taste, etc. The capacity to distinguish an experience in terms of the separate senses develops very slowly. In a young child, a sensation is a combination of stimuli from the senses which cannot be separated. In retrospect, as an adult, it is inevitable that to recreate that exact sensation is impossible. In some cases I have made an attempt to recreate these feelings by including descriptions which are more than the simply visual. Smells, tastes, tactile sensations and sounds may be part of the image.
Associations of a very individualistic nature often remain with us for the rest of our lives. These are illogical connections linking an experience using one sense to that using another. They may have their origins in a misconception created in childhood, like the story of the paper knife my uncle Sydney gave me. (see chapter 2). As an adult I can sense a smell, a taste in my mouth or a sound which strikes some deep chord in my memory, recreating an image. The imprint of that mixture is very personal and I know it is meaningless to others.
In recent experiments attempting to repristinate a lost sense by connecting apparatus directly to the appropriate part of the brain or in other experiments involving the reconnection of broken ends of the spinal chord, it has been demonstrated that the young brain is even capable of re-educating a part of the brain previously used for a different function. Like the main body of clusters of memory in a computer, the same cells in a chip can be used for a variety of programmes.
Both visual language and verbal language have their limitations. Some of these are necessary. Verbal language is by no means a universal way of communicating. There are more or less 2,700 languages in the world and tens of thousands of dialects. Even when a language like English spreads as an international language, local forms of it develop and there is a tendency for it to be incomprehensible to English-speaking people from a different part of the world.
Verbal language has to be a simplification of reality. One word must be able to cover thousands of situations or categories of experience and it is this fact that makes it a useful tool.
The word 'chair' refers to a set of millions of visual experiences, forms and colours. Their variety is almost infinite with little in common except that they derive from a series of objects which have a common function: they are used for sitting on. From a painter's point of view, this function may or may not have relevance to the main message of the work. He does not need to have a concise dictionary of forms. There is no practical need for that. A new word needs to have its meaning explained with a definition. A new form is unique and cannot be categorised. A dominant shape or form in a painting may be a negative form, a space between objects, a shadow which covers a group of objects or fragments of objects and spaces. Or there may be a significance in the similarity of two forms with different sources, like the metamorphoses of Arcimboldo or Dalì.
Of course visual language is also not so universal as many media people would have us think. We may see actions, things, gestures on a television screen without understanding their fundamental meaning. Without the same linguistic or cultural background it may be impossible to give a correct interpretation of what we see. But like harmonious sounds in music, certain arrangements of shapes and colours can give satisfaction for their own sake. We do not always need to know a complete history of their origins. When Rauschenberg or Mimmo Rotella did their paintings and collages of bill hoardings, we could appreciate the mysterious impact of the imagery without needing to recognise the full text and figures of the original posters.
A human figure in a painting may be central to the meaning of a painting. In religious subjects there is an iconography which helps the faithful to know which particular saint is represented. For example, a painting shows a woman holding a dish in which there are two eyes. Being an informed Christian, one would know that the picture represents Saint Lucia, the virgin martyr of Syracuse. But, from an aesthetic point of view, this central meaning to the painting has little to do with its painterly quality and expressiveness. Not all paintings in churches have been painted by Raffaels or Leonardos.
In a completely different kind of painting, the human figure may go almost unnoticed. In certain paintings by Bonnard, a woman or part of a woman may be hardly distinguishable from the furniture in the room. The painting has a subject which has little to do with the figure and objects but a dam lot to do with colour!
The first sizeable monograph on my work produced here in Italy in 1991 contained a collection of writings by various critics. This left me completely dissatisfied. I do not think it helped anyone's appreciation or understanding of the work. In fact, I suspect that most readers tired after reading a few lines and jumped to looking at the illustrations. This was not what I had hoped for. I was after something simpler, less literary or philosophical but closer to the actual work, so for the new monograph which was to be published in 1994 I suggested the publishers use extracts from my diaries . At least in this way, my preoccupations at the time the painting was produced, plus the landscape or situation in which I was living, ought to help, I thought, to fill in some of the surrounding background. This seemed to be a step nearer to the work, rather than having a critic introduce a treatise on the whole of twentieth-century art where he tries to wedge little me with grandiose literary expressions into a labelled slot. I could not identify in any way with the artist that had been created in the mind of the author. My attempt to approach the interested questioner with the diary seems to have had more positive results.
In the same book there is a conversation with the Florentine critic Gianni Pozzi. He asks me questions and I give my kind of answers. This is another way of pushing art critics away from their theories and nearer the work.
Now, in this book, I am trying something a bit more ambitious along the same lines. In order to fill in much of the background never mentioned in the diaries, it seemed necessary to create something nearer an autobiography . After over fifty years of painting, I recognise only now the importance of so many of those little experiences , especially in infancy, which can explain later obsessions and enthusiasms. I can now perceive that an obsession with certain forms or combinations of colour originates in some primitive delight at the age of three, in the patterns on the dining-room carpet or in the colours of a set of building blocks .
Michelangelo said that the Flemish were ‘painters of tables’ and on reflection there must be something of the Flemish or northern spirit remaining in my work too. He meant the phrase to be derogatory, for he considered the human body to be the only subject worth his attention. As a sculptor this is understandable. Sculpted figures inhabit a real space, their background is the reality which happens to surround them. But in painting, backgrounds and foregrounds, ‘figures and grounds’ can be of equal importance. From this point of view, it may be considered one of the few weaker characteristics of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is that everything is concentrated on magnificently painted figures. The spaces between the figures filled with architectural devices, clouds, or misty, undefined landscapes are of secondary importance. They could never be included amongst those illustrations loved by Gestalt psychologists where the brain is confused into asking: ‘Which is the ground and which is the figure?’
Leonardo, on the other hand, was very interested in a scientific study of landscape elements and his backgrounds are much more a structural part of the whole. Another painting which can be considered an exception to the rules of Italian religious painting is The Tempest by Giorgione, a landscape full of allegorical mysteries, where a small figure is completely dominated by the forces of Nature.
However, generally speaking, it is far more of a northern characteristic to give prime importance to landscapes and objects. Only later, after the Renaissance period, did Italian artists such as Canaletto reduce the importance of figures; and they looked to northern painters for models.
Northern painters have the capacity to give more significance to inanimate things. They can make a portrait out of a tree or, like Sutherland, from a gorse bush on a wall. Max Ernst, touching on subconscious memories, gave significance to impressions transferred from African textile printing blocks to canvases which became his Villes. The painting The Island of the Dead by the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin has an austere, evocative atmosphere. Even though there is a small figure in the foreground the real presence is a more supernatural, mysterious one which is suggested by the shapes of the rocks and cypress trees.
I now realise what ‘significant form’ means for me. In 1913 Clive Bell wrote:
What is this quality? What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? What quality is common to Sta. Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cezanne? Only one answer seems possible — significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common to all works of visual art.
Bell used this definition to decide whether an artifact was a work of art or not. Many figurative paintings were excluded. Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, Frith’s Paddington Station and other similar works, he called illustrative and informative containing no significant forms. He prophesied that this kind of painting would be supplanted by photography.
Bell wanted to use his definition as a universal theory to define a work of art. Nuclear physicists are still struggling to find one for the Universe. The micro and the macro have still to be united.
In Bell’s day it seemed important to know whether an object was a work of art or not. Many times since, this has been challenged in many ways. Much of conceptual art would have to be excluded standing alongside Landseer and Frith. Bell only got as far as Einstein!
Reading Bell’s article in Art I was struck by another passage demonstrating something within my own experience:
You will notice that people who cannot feel pure aesthetic emotions remember pictures by their subjects; whereas people who can, as often as not, have no idea what the subject of a picture is. They have never noticed the representative element, and so when they discuss pictures they talk about the shapes of forms and the relations and quantities of colours. Often they can tell by the quality of a single line whether or not a man is a good artist. They are concerned only with lines and colours, their relations and quantities and qualities; but from these they win an emotion more profound and far more sublime than any that can be given by the description of facts and ideas.
It has happened to me many times that I did not notice the subject of a painting. In 1961, for example, I had developed a passion for early Flemish painting. I travelled round Holland and Belgium and visited many galleries and museums. Two years later this same obsession took me to the Prado in Madrid. I would stare for hours at certain works. I did many drawings, some of the composition, some of details such as the folds in the drapery. I remember doing several drawings from that strange mass of drapery flowing behind the back of Bosch’s Saint Christopher. At the time
I hardly ever noticed whether the subject was a Madonna of a wedding feast of peasants. The forms were enough for me. They were ‘significant’.
I cannot be so presumptuous as to think that there are universally significant forms in my own paintings. All I can say is that my intention here, in this book, is to attempt to show how and why certain forms are significant for me!
These forms seem to originate mainly in a recognition of similar structures assimilated during childhood and coloured indelibly by an imagination which is the natural gift of all children. The child's visual experience is direct, without preconceptions or abstractions. Based on immediate stimuli involving all the senses, not just vision, it is absorbed and becomes part of his basic visual vocabulary. I think Rudolf Arnheim got it right when he wrote:
'The mental life of children is intimately bound up with their sensory experience. To the young mind, things are what they look like, sound like, move like, or smell like. If the child's mind contains any non-perceptual concepts at all, they must be very few, and their influence on pictorial representation can only be negligible. But even if the child had non-perceptual concepts of roundness, straightness, or symmetry—and who is willing to tell us the stuff such concepts might be made of?—how would they be translated into visual shape?'
I think this helps us to understand just how much these early visual experiences influence our preferences for certain forms and shapes instead of others and how they are not derived from any abstract preconception of groups of shapes having a single label. Because all the senses are involved, these images may be connected with positive or negative sensations. If, at the time the child sees a pattern or shape, he perceives an obnoxious smell or feels a negative tactile phenomenon such as itching or pricking, it is quite possible there will be associations around the memory of that shape that will be negative.
As John Bowlby has shown, the first three years of life are decisive in a child's development. A child needs to be surrounded by motherly affection to develop a stable personality. They say 'love is blind' but love is really necessary, blind or not. A young child needs a surrounding atmosphere conducive to a positive interpretation of sensory experience. Given these circumstances, so many happy memories and images will remain to enrich an adult life.
I have no intentions to write a psychological analysis of my experiences. The facts of time, place, family, friends, teachers, landscapes, memories of books, exhibitions and paintings will be used to create the backcloth to an account of various memorable experiences of visual forms. I will limit myself to trying to show these visual links by delving into childhood memories. For this reason, it seemed useful to include some family history at the beginning. It can be skipped over if desired. Certainly it could never be used to prove that the artistic traits are in my DNA. Painting is not a genetically transmitted disease! But someone might discover something of relevance or interest. One Italian critic, very proud of his theories, felt that the fact that Thomas Cole , founder of the Hudson River School of painters, was born in Bolton (near Wigan) in 1801 was relevant in explaining my neo-classical landscape tendencies, so who knows? Was the landscape of the Industrial Revolution an Arcadia in disguise?
The first part of the book is connected more closely with a correct chronological order. But later this gives way to a grouping of places, persons, activities and objects
This volume stops where my art school education begins. From the day I first climbed the steps of the entrance to Wigan and District Mining and Technical College and then proceeded to the top floor to start my course at the School of Art, my expectations changed. Having little natural talent for drawing, I had only my enthusiasm and determination to carry me forward. Now everything around me became possible subjects for drawing. Obsessions would return later, on my first trip to Cornwall. For a start anything could help to improve observation of the world around me. Selection was also postponed to a later date. It would take me two years of hard work and study to reach an ordinary level of competence, more years of painting to reach the point where I could contemplate the idea of being not only an art teacher but also a serious painter. Childhood seemed a lifetime away and its embedded images would only come to the surface many years later.