Is Abstract Art Dead?

…and other casual ponders this week.

Is Abstract Art Dead?

Garden Leaves, 1955 | Patrick Heron

I’ve been recommended a Youtube channel of art tutorial videos. It’s one of my interests. The first one I saw was on composition and I inferred from what the tutor said offhand that “representational” art is the thing now – in opposition to “abstract” art.

Abstract art has had a good innings though, hasn’t it? A bit like rock music.

I once worked with a guy who said he had an art exhibition coming up. I was more than intrigued as we were all professional engineers. Keen to see his paintings, he showed me a picture of a painting another colleague had bought from him. It was an abstract; swirls of rainbow colours melding into one another. The colleague who bought it had actually commissioned it specifically for his living room; he didn’t say it went with the colour scheme and soft furnishings but you couldn’t help reading between those lines.

Though there’s not a lot wrong in abstract painting, I thought engineers lent more towards draughtsmanship in their art appreciation.

Centre aligned verse

‘O, ragged ‘edges…’

What is that about? Before blogging poetry, the only centre aligned verse I saw, or expected to see, was the doggerel or sentimental rhyme inside a greetings card. Imagine, a person possessing some poetical bent is actually employed to compose such things. Can there be a less esteemed occupation? Are there school leavers who, when interviewed by a careers tutor, express a desire to follow a path in birthday card verse writing?

I’m reminded of the scene in Cemetery Junction, when Ricky Gervais’ character tells his MIL he’s is in work: as a window cleaner!

“That’s not work,” she says, “that’s begging!”

Sorry, I digress. What is centre alignment supposed to communicate to the reader, that the poet needs them to know?

Ragged Margins

On each side we see
the ragged margins
the hedge cutter has left
this way, this morning;
his mind on higher things.

Mobile Block Editor = Better Sanity

Many WP bloggers still don’t like the New Block Editor. I didn’t get this – other than the general conservative view that the “old, tried and trusted” is like a comfort pillow. Or an opiate.

Then I looked at it on the laptop and found out the problem: it’s way over-egged for a blogger’s use.

I was in ignorance of all this having used a tablet all this time. The mobile app is a pared down version and I suspect specifically designed for the blogger.

It still needs a few workarounds but I found even the “Classic” editor needed some of those too; nothing’s perfect and there is no one-size-fits-all. What you don’t see won’t worry you. Make it easy on yourself and do it on a mobile app.

Colour me blue, or green, or anything you like.

Prof. Brian Cox’s recent documentary series, The Planets, on our solar system neighbours was brilliant though short and sweet. It’s on the iPlayer for the best part of a year so watch it if you can. It’s mind boggling and it makes me think how could there possibly be life anywhere else. As for humanoid aliens, especially ones which speak fluent English with American accents, no chance!

As I watched it n the BBC app, it threw up some other suggestions I might like and one of those is a documentary about colour. I watched two episodes and it’s okay, maybe a bit superficial scientifically but entertaining and well produced (link below).

The funny thing about colour is it probably doesn’t exist. Or, I should say, it didn’t exist until life developed eyes. And not all eyes: the earliest eye probably only distinguished between light and dark; then there are eyes which only see in monochrome shades. Even the human eye is limited, only able to detect light within the band known anthropologically as visible light. Only some critters, it is thought, see beyond that.

And even within the so-called visible light, different people see different colours. This idea came home to me this week when I was looking over a drawing with a colleague. It showed a floor plan of a building where each of the rooms was coloured corresponding to its use. A key to the side of the drawing explained what each colour meant bit there were so many room uses that some of the colours were indistinguishable at a glance.

My colleague pointed to a room and said it wasn’t clear what kind of room it was; it could, he said, be either one or other shades of green. This struck me as odd. I couldn’t determine which type of room it was either but to my eyes the colour was definitely one of the two shades of blue.

Admittedly it wasn’t lapis lazuli, more the colour of a clear morning sky with a little pollution. But it wasn’t green, no way. Or was it?

I had an odd notion that I could reproduce near enough the exact colour by mixing primaries, blue, red and yellow – pigments, not light, of course. But then the colleague would agree it was mixed perfectly, but he would still see it as green.

So, remember, when we’re visited by those little green men from outer space, they might actually be blue. Or, quite possibly to their eyes, deep x-ray-ultraviolet.

image (top): No. 61 (rust and blue) by Mark Rothko

Colour: The Spectrum of Science (BBC TV)

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).

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

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

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

We went for a tall boy and returned with a frame

I am aware of a new thing – furniture banks.

Trying to fit your old things into a new home can be like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from a different set. In our old house, I had built a wardrobe across the width of the bedroom at its far end. In our new house, we have only a small cupboard and so, as a stop gap, we googled places were we might pick up a cheap chest of drawers, ideally a “tall boy”.

A tall boy is a chest of drawers with a small footprint, usually about five to seven drawers, ideal for a spare corner of the room.

We found there was a furniture bank in a town nearby. This is a charity organisation which takes in good unwanted furniture, makes repairs and offers them to folk setting up home but unable to afford furniture. This is a great scheme but like all ventures, it needs funding – warehouse, workshop, tools, vans etc. – so the funding is acquired by selecting special pieces deemed “unsuitable” for their clients and offering these for sale to the general public.

So, we set off for the shop to see if they have a tall boy. They didn’t but it was interesting to see what they did have. Had I been in the “antiques” business, I would have been in my element. Or a curator for a furniture museum, there were pieces from all decades of style. I checked out a couple of dressing tables with drawers on both ends with a view to reconstructing it as a tall boy but, in all honesty, I don’t have the time; it would defeat the purpose of finding a stop gap in the first place.

Hanging in the entrance to the vast warehouse was a framed print with a price tag of £15, discounted to £12.50 for the week. The picture was jolly in its way but the frame was a beautiful thing. I’m not good at identifying timber; it may be cherry or a type of mahogany, I really don’t know – maybe someone knowledgable can help. In the sunlight, it glowed a warm russet hue. With the glass front and a sound backing – even a good hanging cord – it was a snip. Needless to say, I bought it.

Obviously, I had to check on the print. It was a French street scene in the naive style by a French painter, Michel Delacroix. Sadly, no apparent relation to the famous Eugene Delacroix. According to his biography, he was born in 1933 and although producing work fairly prolifically in this century, his signature theme is Paris during the nazi occupation. Possibly, I think, slightly before the occupation as I can’t see any evidence of it in his paintings.

It’s quite jolly, it reminds me of L.S. Lowry’s Salford street scenes. It’s the sort of thing which should hang in doctors’ surgery waiting rooms. I am in two minds what to do with it. There’s no rush until I find an alternative subject for its frame but I think it may end up in the paper recycling bin.

image: “Fête Forain” by Michel Delacroix (click on pic to embiggen)

Portrait of the artist as a boy

Thinking about expression and expressive arts.

All art can be expressive but I could think of only three which fundamentally require external evaluation; singing, poetry and cooking. Others can be done in secret, away from the public eye, simply for one’s own enjoyment. Fun is 97% of the reason for doing it, bearing in mind I haven’t had the need to make a living by doing it, being an amateur, by definition doing it for love and just that.

It has to be said, I have no ambition for my creativity.

“What are you trying to achieve?”, asked a tutor. Though specifically about one piece of work, it made me think about all of it.

“To enjoy myself”, I would reply now.

What do we remember of creativity when we were kids? We worked freely, expressively, without much self-consciousness. Or ambition. Was it us who asked the teacher to pin our piece up on the wall, or ask our folks to put it on the fridge door? I don’t remember that at all. We worked, it was fun, and when it was done, it was done. Success or failure, if we considered those, they were just passing moments; irrelevant to the great plan. Though I doubt there was ever a great plan.

Growing up, we are told there is external value to all that we do. Often that the achievement must be monetary. I have been told I ought to frame some of my pictures, exhibit them and offer them for sale. But that work is extra work and it is not art work, so I haven’t much enthusiasm for it; no love at all.

I am an amateur. From the Latin, amator, meaning lover, and amare, meaning to love. When you look up the word amateur now, it means unpaid, unprofessional or ineptly done. It’s as if the world doesn’t appreciate love as motivation now, only money.

American Gothic

I can’t say what it is about drawing and painting portraits which holds a fascination with me. I’ve always liked them.

I saw a magazine article which delves into the identities of the sitters of some of the more famous portraits. It tickles me to find that the farmer depicted in the painting, American Gothic, was actually Grant Wood the painter’s dentist. How did that consultation go?

Okay, Mr. Wood. Just open a little wider for me.

Schay Goch, hv yvvr tht bt hvng yr ptrit dn?

What’s that, my portrait? Right, Mr. Wood, please rinse.

Ggggle-pttt! Sure! You have a great face for a subject, Doc.

Well, I’m not so sure, Mr. Wood. I mean… would I have to smile? I’m afraid I’m not a very good advertisement for dentistry.

And so it happened. The dentist’s name was Dr. Byron McKeeby and the woman in the picture was Nan Wood Graham, Wood’s sister. The pair pose in the press picture below (click to enlarge).

Although he had in mind a portrait of a father and daughter, most viewers interpreted a man and wife, and Wood was good with that. Paintings do have a life of their owwn and interpretation often overrides intent.

Is there a more obvious American portrait painting than American Gothic? It has certainly inspired a lot of reinterpretation and parodies. I have been digging through some of my old doodles with a mind to the Inktober challenge introduced to me by fellow blogger, Fresh Hell. I remembered a little guy looking like he’s roasted a sausage on a pitchfork. What has completely been erased from my mind is the cigarette carton. When did I draw that?! It seems to be in response to the blunt health warnings governments insist are put prominently on tobacco products.

I don’t smoke but I have a dark curiosity about the culture of smoking, thought it’s not as prevalent these days.

I’m guessing it comes from watching my late Grandfather who used to roll his own cigarettes and often had one stuck in his mouth whilst getting on with some task. He also wore dungarees at work, I remember. He was a great, self-taught artist to boot; always drawing, always smoking.

I miss him.

My Modern Met – 8 Sitters for Famous Portraits.

Inktober 2018

What are you trying to achieve?

Reading over that last post – because you have to, right? It might be as painful as catching sight of your reflection in a shop window or hearing your voice on playback, but how could you inflict yourself on other people without first enduring yourself yourself? – reminded me of something a previous tutor had said.

They took a look at my effort and asked me what I was trying to achieve.

Imagine attending a mathematics class, or a French language class, and the teacher asking what it was you were trying to achieve. Should art be so different?

Picasso supposedly claimed to have spent four years learning how to paint like Raphael and the rest of his days learning how to paint like a child.

People latch on to the second part, too fondly, I think, as if it’s a profound clue to success. He was having us on. The first part is closer to the truth. Picasso, the man, never painted like a child, not with his ego. He painted like a fully-formed Picasso, one who had previously learnt the fundamental skills and techniques of drawing and painting.

< Pablo Picasso possibly
seated at The Sad Café.