Favourite painting

November 4, 2011

I’d be as hard pressed to choose a favourite painting as a favourite book, but for today’s exercise let’s say it’s this:

Tom Thomson’s 1915 Northern River. I worked at a small museum of (mostly) Canadian art for a few years in university, and enjoyed learning about everything and looking at our pieces and reading about artists and viewing other works by the artists and all of that. But I never really felt like I “got” the Group of Seven. I understood it as some sort of mythical Canadian wilderness, but it didn’t apply to anything I had seen.

And then I made a first memorable trip to the Algonquin Park area. And I saw places that looked exactly like these paintings. And went to Algoma, and Lake Huron, and saw places that looked like those paintings. And I finally understood what was being evoked. And now I love it.

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Guilty post

September 24, 2009

I feel incredibly guilty for not having posted anything in a while. I’ve still been reading, and have lots to say, but it will have to continue to wait ;  the new house is still not unpacked. But I came across this tidbit today.

From a letter from Christopher Pratt’s mother to her son:

“Christopher,

…none of this being an artist will come easily for you. You take it all too seriously. Being an artist is no more important or special than being a businessman or a carpenter…a nurse, a doctor, or a fisherman. It’s just another thing that people do. Like everything, some do it better than others, and you will be one of them…but life is more important than art…always remember that. And don’t talk about ‘art’ all the time.”

This morning I took a couple hours and finally saw the movie Pollock, from 2001, produced, directed by and starring Ed Harris as the artist and Marcia Gay Harden as Pollock’s wife, and an artist in her own right, Lee Krasner. It was an excellent movie, and it also got me thinking about something I ponder over every once in a while.

First, though, I should talk about my experience with Pollock’s work. When the movie came out, there were all kinds of articles in magazines and things like that, and I remember being entirely unimpressed. I don’t need my art to be directly representational, but it just didn’t speak to me, at least in that medium.

The next year I went to an Impressionist exhibit at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and they’re the stewards of a large Pollock work, right from the middle of his most innovative and widely-known phase, with the drip-painting and such.

And I stood there, confronted by that painting, and was struck by the energy and emotion of the work, which was something that had never come across in any magazine.

Back to the movie. One thing to mention is how it depicts Pollock and his personal relationships. I’m always sad yet grateful for the women who support artistic men (and the other way around, although that doesn’t seem to happen as often) – Krasner was successful and intelligent, and who knows what she could have done if she wasn’t in that position (which she chose, obviously). Who knows what Pollock would have done without her. It’s hard to say. Maybe all there is to say is that marriage is strange. And hard. And wonderful.

But also, the movie made me rethink abstractionism. Seeing the work in person had already convinced me of its efficacy, of the success of a work being about the act of painting rather than, necessarily, the result. Not that its creation is happenstance, or by accident – in the movie, Pollock says he “denies the accident.”

It was also about the artistic expression of the subconscious being as valuable as conscious expression; early on in the film, when Krasner mentions the idea of painting from life, Pollock retorts, “I am life”, and then, later, tells an interviewer that “painters do not have to go to a source outside themselves.”

What made the painting I saw successful, to me, was how it showed and shared the painter’s energy and emotion, even if it was a very subconscious and personal effort.

I had an instructor that talked about “the sister arts” : visual art, poetry, music. And another that said that great poetry must be great thought, great feeling, great expression.

But these ideas bring me back to my feelings and thoughts on abstractionism. If it is a conscious (rather than subconscious) expression, say, something like the work Lawren Harris began later in his career, is that great thought enough? I mean, obviously the desire to communicate and create is always a conscious one, even if not one at all understood. But what of works that seem to be created solely for their creator? Where others have difficulty finding meaning or communication at all? And I don’t mean that we can “relate” to them (I hate that idea as a grounds for criticism or enjoyment), but only that both the experience and the expression are so personal that they can’t be experienced by outsiders at all?

In the movie Pollock talks to interviewers about people looking at his paintings and needing to “leave all their stuff behind. Just look. You don’t need to know the meaning of a flowerbed, or want to take it apart.” And I found, that once I experienced the painting and took it on its own terms and the terms of its creation, I did love it and could understand it.

But I’ve read some poetry, and not just confessional poetry, with which I cannot come to terms like that. Great thought…perhaps, it’s hard to know. Great feeling, I’m sure. Great expression…well, again, I feel like cultural work is created because of our desire to communicate, and if it can’t, something’s gone wrong, somewhere a connection has been lost.

The film, and all these related ideas, left me with one final question that I’m sure I’ll never resolve (and I like questions like that): is an absolute philosophy, absolutely and truly lived, even possible? It seems much too difficult for a person to bear, an absolute idea.