art

The Foreign Bloke

a flash-fiction piece

“Minding my own business, I was; jest popped out for a drink; the missus’s sister come visiting and I can handle a woman’s company, but two in the bush, you get my drift? I always sez, it’s for a man to decide whether he wants it or no. So, I sez, I’ll go for a snifter, my sweet, and give me regards to yer sister! So, I’m enjoying my lonesome with a glass and it’s slipping down peaceful, when this chap’s come over and what if he don’t settles besides me and bends my ear over a story ‘bout this man he met in a place like this. What a peculiar sight, sez he, I’d never believe it but it were true. It wasn’t that I doubted him, nor any word he spoke, it was jest I couldn’t understand everything he said, his accent, see? He was some foreign bloke.”

(150 words)


The city of Bath has a modest art museum. Its exhibits are not exceptional but it is a gallery and it’s a good place to experience something other than work for half an hour of a lunchtime. After many visits over a long time, I get to see the paintings as you might old friends. I see their familiar sides and then they reveal other things about themselves.

I hadn’t really taken in this funny little painting before, by Rex Whistler (not to be mistaken for the guy who famously painted his mother; that was the American artist, James McNeill Whistler). I snapped it on the mobile phone, it’s easier than describing it in words but I’ll do that as well.

It shows two guys sitting at a table upon which are two quite different drinks. Judging by the glasses, they look alcoholic so we can assume they’re sitting in a bar or pub, though the view out of the window behind them suggests the room is upstairs. Maybe a private room in a pub, or an hotel bar. The signs outside the window behind them don’t appear to be in English, so which of the two men is the eponymous “Foreign Bloke“?

It soon struck me that this painting would make a good prompt for a flash-fiction piece. Actually, galleries are awash with paintings which are ambiguous enough and intriguing to be fiction prompts (rather like The Girl With The Pearl Earring – a whole novel was inspired by that one).


Rex Whistler died in action in 1944, after the Normandy landings. He was a tank commander in the Welsh Guards Armoured Divisions. He was struck by the blast of a mortar shell whilst running between his incapacitated tank and the one following behind. When they recovered his body, there wasn’t a mark on it but his neck had been broken.

During combat service, he was an unauthorised war artist, stowing his brushes in a bucket hooked on the side of the tank. There were official war artists employed as serving men in WW2. It seems a very strange assignment to me.

Rex Whistler, artist 1905 – 1944 (wiki)

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How to Approach an Exhibition

I suppose there are many ways to approach an exhibition and I can’t say whether any one is better or worse than another. All I can say is this one works for me. Galleries are a solace and a tonic. I’ll always go around, whether it’s a public gallery or a commercial one; whether it’s in a village hall, showing local amateurs’ work, or a national gallery in a capital city, I love it.

  • Take in the space as a whole. See how it has been arranged; whether it matters in which order you view individual pieces. Check the crowds; don’t follow the crowds.
  • Move around freely and let the exhibits speak to you personally. Don’t spend time with ones that don’t say anything immediately; these are probably there to speak to someone else. There will probably be a lot of works to get through and there should be at least one or two which will offer a good conversation at a glance.
  • Don’t spend a excessive time with the earliest conversations, there may be better ones ahead. Some conversations may seem worthwhile at first but appear superficial and trivial on reflection. Move along.
  • All shows require and deserve a second viewing, another turn around the exhibits. This is when you decide which work really deserves your undivided attention. Just one work maybe. Decide what it could be that attracts you to this one work more than all the others. Explore it from all sides or angles; put yourself in the picture, so to speak; imagine you are the artist, and the subject, if it is a human being; look for small details, clues to hidden perspectives.
  • Go for a coffee, lunch or a beer, and come back later, or on a different day, if practical, and strike up a relationship with your chosen piece. Own it, metaphorically speaking; relate to it. This is what it wants you to do. This is what art is about.

Do you like going around galleries, or museums – how do they work for you?

A Thing About Little Museums

If you ever find yourself in Gloucestershire and close to Stroud – pronounced with an “ow” and not as someone out-of-town recently said, with an “oo” – go and visit the Museum in the Park.

I’ve been living within easy reach of it for almost thirty years and have just paid it my first visit. I found out it was there only very recently, and the reason I went is because the Gloucestershire Printmakers’ Co-operative, in which I’ve been a lowly student on two past occasions, is staging a small exhibition.

It’s a nice gallery space. It looks purpose built being an extension to the main building, the former Stratford House, one time home of a family of local brewers. The original house, now passed into public ownership along with the surrounding grounds known as Stratford Park, contains a permanent museum. In essence, it is a museum of local history, though quite recent history, from late 1800s, I’d say, to the mid twentieth century.

Part of it is dedicated to the author, Laurie Lee, of Cider With Rosie fame. He was from the village of Slad, which is just up the road. Every so often, a passage from that autobiography is read out from an audio book. It’s an old voice and could possibly be the author himself. You can listen to it, as I did, sitting on a convenient chair placed in front of a grim, black cast iron kitchen stove surrounded by old fashioned kitchen paraphernalia, ornaments and books, as Laurie Lee’s mum might have done on a Winter’s evening, or the two contentious, old-aged spinsters, in their cottage next door.

The best thing for me about local museums, tucked away on the fringes of small towns, is – no crowds! Go into any one of London’s famous museums – of in any City, I imagine – and you’ll get what I mean. It doesn’t really matter to me what they’re exhibiting, the fact that you find yourself alone, wandering around the exhibits, allows for an intimate, almost illicit, sense of experience, like being a nosey parker or an intruder. I can’t resist touching and opening things I probably shouldn’t, whereas, in busier museums, I’d have to be content with just staring at stuff and making do with reading the informative plaques.

It was pissing down with rain, as it has been all June, and this stopped me exploring the Park. I think it’s a pity: when it was a family residence, they planted an arboretum which is now a small plantation of very grand trees, dominated by imposingly huge cedars and tall firs, and a curving path which leads down to a lake, originally a fish pond, presumably for supplying the house kitchens with fresh trout or carp.

The grounds look very well kept and also contain public tennis courts, lawn bowling greens and an indoor sports complex. So, Stratford Park – remember it if you’re ever down that way.

Well done, Stroud.


images (click to enlarge):

1 & 2; opposite corners of the gallery space.

3; view of outside courtyard from inside the entrance hall.

Stratford Park (wikipedia)

Museum in the Park

The Woman in the Park

a flash-fiction piece

John Singer Sargent became the much sought after society portraitist of his time though, in middle-age, having gained some fame and a little wealth, he grew increasingly wearisome of this work. He was, in spirit, a man of the plein-air style of painting and seldom ventured out without a small box of watercolours and paper on which to sketch whatever, or whomever, took his liking.

And so he found himself on a balmy afternoon in late May, strolling through one of the city’s most popular parks when he came across a young lady, reading within the shade of a plane tree.

So engrossed in her book was she that it seemed his approach had gone unnoticed, and so he stepped a little back from the path and secreted himself behind a myrtle bush where, having made himself comfortable, prepared his paints for a sketch.

He had made satisfactory progress and was at the point of introducing some dark, tonal shadows when his attention was drawn to the slow approach of a dandy gentleman, swinging an ebony cane. Not wishing to invite a scene, Sargent put down his brush and hid his work beneath his coat. The gentleman eventually passed and in doing so, the two strangers nodded a cordial greeting. Sargent was about to renew his sketch when the other man swiftly turned on his heels and raised his cane in the painter’s direction.

“Good Lord,” said the man, “Are you not the painter, John Singer Sargent?!”

“That I am,” replied Sargent in a modest voice.

The young woman, startled by their voices, turned to face them.

“And you are painting this young lady, I see?” continued the man, swinging the cane in her direction now.

“Evidently,” Sargent sighed.

The woman blushed, which put Sargent in mind of rose madder; a useful pigment; he had run short, he noticed…

The woman, to his dismay, had gathered up her few belongings all too quickly and, without the slightest glance, hurried away in the direction of the South gate. The stranger stood still, watching her departure and when she could no longer be discerned from the others in the park, he said,

“Well, well, I do hope I haven’t spoilt the occasion, old chap. Fancy, though – John Singer Sargent – so pleased to have made your acquaintance, sir. And now I’m afraid I must dash. No rest for the wicked!”

And with that said, the man swung himself around and sauntered off, leisurely swinging his cane.

Sargent would meet the gentleman again, on occasions and purely by chance, and with each subsequent meeting, the gentleman would acknowledge their acquaintance with added determinism and, if he was ever in company, would imply he had known Sargent for many years. As for the young woman, Sargent never set eyes on her again.

(470 words)


written for The Haunted Wordsmith Prompt – April 29th.

The American painter, John Singer Sargent, is one of my favourite artists though more for his society portraiture than anything else. He possessed an exceptional talent, in particular with the women sitters, for suggesting in their pose and expression, something hidden, almost scandalous. Of course, he was accused of this whilst working in Paris and so moved to London. I did read how he grew tired of society portraits and preferred landscape painting “plein-air” but it wasn’t nearly as lucrative.

The above story is fictional. It is the first time I’ve come across this painting, “Resting” (watercolour, 1880-90 – Joseph F. McCrindle Collection).

Perspective

I don’t believe anyone isn’t familiar with the scene in the Irish comedy series, Father Ted. It’s in the episode where the three priests are holidaying in a caravan in a field during inclement weather, so they are stuck indoors. In the brilliant scene, Father Ted is sat across the table from the young dimwit, Father Dougal, and on the table is a toy set of plastic farmyard animals.

The scene opens with Ted picking up two toy cows and he says to Dougal,

Okay, one last time. These…,” showing Dougal the cows, “are small,”

then gesturing to the window, he continues, “but the ones out there…are far away.” Then deliberately more slowly, he hammers it home,

Small. Far away.”

And Dougal’s face says he simply doesn’t get it. And for a long time neither did artists, this illusion of perspective. Even today, artists make mistakes in perspective.


Technical drawing was probably my favourite class in school because a lot of the tricks involved in drawing geometry absolutely fascinated me, and this included the way to do a perspective representation using vanishing points, or VPs, and projection lines. Of course, revealing the working out – these points and lines – isn’t often desirable but I think it looks beautiful, probably because it shows an understanding.

An important benefit of practicing drawing and fine art, and even photography providing it’s not done carelessly and superficially, is the way it encourages the practitioner to see things accurately, and to notice things in relationship with other things.

And it doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve got this germ inside your mind, I think it expands into other aspects of life: abstract thought, philosophy, innovation and generally understanding of most things. Everyone ought to try a little perspective representation, once in a while.


inspired by and written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge #83 – “Perspective”.

image: from The Book of Perspective by Jan Vredeman de Vries, (1604)

Here’s that scene from Father Ted,

If Our Books Disappear

As a Kindle shopper, I hadn’t been aware of the fate of Microsoft’s ebook store. Apparently, the company have decided to pull the plug on it due to its lack of profitability. If and when this happens, any books purchased through this shop will disappear. It’ll be like a virtual book burning session and there’s nothing those customers can do.

It’s worth some consideration, if you’re an ebook buyer, or whether you buy any virtual product, that what you are actually buying is not an object to own, in perpetuity, but a licence or permit to use that thing, maybe for an unspecified period. As long as you know this, I can’t see much wrong with it; you pay your money and you take your choice.

In the UK, at least, ownership of anything and everything is a relatively new social concept. I remember as a small boy, almost everyone rented their TV and music systems, a lot of household stuff was on hire-purchase (colloquially referred to as the never never because you paid but never owned it). My parents were the first in our extended family to own their home – through a 25 year mortgage deal, mind – and everyone thought they were odd, or even mad. Renting and hiring was the norm.

Getting back to books – and thinking about music, too – there is this idea of owning a collection, something which I had mindlessly fallen into as well. I think the craziness of it first surfaced when a colleague explained how he had fallen out with his partner after commandeering the second bedroom of their small, two-bed apartment and had installed wall to wall, floor to ceiling shelving to house his record collection. He had amassed many thousands, apparently. I asked if he actually listened to them all regularly and he said, of course! I doubted that: knowing my own habits and then doing the maths, there hardly seemed enough hours left in a lifetime to indulge in that level of listening, and that supposes that we won’t be seduced by any later offerings by artists and the industry.

It’s exactly so with books but worse. Reading a book is a lot more demanding, intensive and time consuming than listening to a record. While a favourite album might be on repeat playlist for a year, how many books do we return to that often? Of all the books I have reread, probably fewer than six had retained the impression of the first read. Quite a number had felt diminished, knowing the plot, the characters and the ideas within.

Not wishing to decorate my home with expansive shelves of records and books – I much prefer paintings and other images; and space! Let’s hear it for a clutter free existence – we found most of our unread books and unheard music had been confined to packing boxes under the beds or in closets, out of sight, out of mind. We took the step to cull most of it, offering them to charity shops and other collectors, keeping back a small number which we considered having special qualities, but even these rarely get looked at or listened to.

With music, it’s more convenient to pick something from an online platform, I never feel I have to own it to enjoy it. With books, I often find good literature on offer for less than a couple of quid each. There seems to be no end to these offers and I am in danger of collecting a virtual library of more books than I have time left to read. I’m not expecting it to disappear before I do but if it does, I think I’ve had my money’s worth. Owning stuff is not so important to me now, as long as I have access to books, music and art some other way, that’s fine. I understand the deal.


When this ebook store closes, your books disappear too (BBC News)

The Abstract Truth

I had watched a clip featuring the late British art critic, Brian Sewell, in a discussion about abstract paintings. I got the impression he wasn’t overly impressed by abstract art but, after a pause in the conversation, he said something like,

“Well, any painting is an abstract, really.”

I can’t explain what he meant not having had, as he had, an education in the fine arts. While I can have a good guess at identifying an abstract work for what it is, I can’t tell you what makes any other work not an abstract, especially if the clues aren’t obvious.

But I was thinking, after writing a piece of flash fiction, whether, in a similar observation to abstract painting, all writing is fiction.

Or at least a version of it.


image: “Composition VIII” by Wassily Kandinsky

Flash Fiction Challenge: Chisel

In France one year, from a bricolage, I bought a set of five chisels. I had been attracted by their quality: fine wooden handles and blades of well-tempered steel.

I had completed a three month woodworking course in England and became familiar with the tangible poetry of a keen tool paring the grain of good timber. There is also the art of maintaining their sharpness, an almost therapeutic process of grinding, by hand, across carborundum. It may be considered Zen-like, if I were that way inclined. It is a small act of grace, but a powerful one.

(99 words)


written for the Carrot Ranch Literary Community writing prompt – “Chisel”

“In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a chisel. Use chisel as a noun or a verb. Think about what might be chiselled, who is chiselling. Be the chisel. Go where the prompt leads!”

Labels are for luggage

Thinking about the previous post, Willem de Kooning’s aversion to being labelled inspires me to write about my own disregard for labelling. Honestly, I don’t know my abstract expressionism from plain, old abstractionism. I read a book by the late and erudite art critic, Brian Sewell, in which he said, all paintings are abstracts, really. I had a tutor once who explained how impressionism was coined as it was known as a preliminary stage in traditional painting techniques and not, as I thought (and still do to be honest), a sense of something being seen concisely without the need for ansolute realism. But why should we care? Shouldn’t we either like something or not, and to hell with whatever school the thing belongs to?

In my youth, in my corner of the world at least, there were two types of music you’d listen to (okay, three if we include classical music but this wasn’t part of youth culture). There was Pop and there was Rock. You effectively picked your camp and were judged by it. The fact that my music loving Uncle introduced me to soul music was something I didn’t reveal to my mates; it was a private indulgence.

As too was watching the Oscar Peterson Show with my mother. I don’t think she was into Jazz really but in those days there was just three tv channels and often not much on.

My taste in rock music would gravitate towards the jazz influenced artists, though I wasn’t greatly aware of jazz at the time. Electric guitars were okay but a sax, a flute, and even a rare horn solo, would turn my ear.

If the advent and brief existence of Punk had any redeeming feature, it was probably to shake up the snow globe of acceptable taste. I felt we came out of it into a music scene devoid of hard labels. Not only was it cool to like anything, it was all available to listen to.

Yet I still hear folk talking about genres in a way which makes me think of olde world cartographers inscribing their charts with the words, Beyond here there be dragons! They have made up their minds and have absolutely no interest beyond what they know and like. That’s fine but you can’t make sound judgements based solely on secondhand labelling.

Labels can be useful in hinting what to expect but that’s all. Experience is everything and by restricting yourself on hearsay and prejudice, you’re likely missing out on a lot.


image: Stack of luggages by Erwan Hesry via Unsplash.com

Four Lessons for your consideration

This article in Artsy magazine on Willem de Kooning had me thinking whether there was an equivalent in painting and drawing to “writer’s block”. Why I should make this leap – more a sidestep in reality – when the article doesn’t mention anything like it, I don’t know but thinking does that sometimes. There probably are some similarities between the creative arts.

The article deals with de Kooning’s lessons in becoming an artist. I thought I might consider these in the wider perspective of creative work. There’s a link at the end to the actual article if you want to read that.

Lesson #1: Don’t be afraid to be influenced by fellow artists’ work.

This is funny because I’m often unashamedly, and sometimes unconsciously, mimicking the work of others I admire. Sometimes I might even play around with stuff I don’t particularly admire.

I remember reading a story about Jimi Hendrix when he was seen coming out of a back street dive having gone in to see some second rate band. “Why on earth would a player of Hendrix’s standing bother watching a bad act?” He explained that even a poor player can sometimes give you a great idea about performing or songwriting. He took the influence and improved on it.

Lesson #2: Seek out glimpses of inspiration in the world around you.

This is probably the writer’s block bit. I don’t know about you but there’s always moments when I notice something interesting or inspirational. It might be a small thing, or it might be significant. It’s important to just log it in your mind – or jot a note down (I admire note takers a lot even though I rarely do this for myself).

Lesson #3: Pay attention to your desires, not the critics.

What motivates us? Yes, I think we all like a little approval, we like a little praise. Constructive criticism would be good too, providing we can handle it, though it’s not very nice; it depends where we’re at, past the tipping point of having gained self-confidence enough to brush off the nonsense stuff.

I think you have to be faithful to your desires.

Lesson #4: Embrace imperfection—even failure.

Whatever you’re into to, there ought to come an important tipping point when you realise that a mistake, far from being annoying or an embarrassing set back, is actually a real progression in learning your art. Failures make better teachers than successes. Of course, you have to look it squarely in the eyes and know why, and how to avoid it a second time, but this isn’t something you’re more likely to do with a success.

As a perfectionist myself, this has arrived later than it could have. I see perfectionism as a disorder and it still cuts deep at times but it shouldn’t hold you back.


Article: Willem de Kooning: How to be an artist (Artsy magazine)

image: The Privileged (untitled XX), 1985 by Willem de Kooning