Category Archives: Painting

Art and the age of invention

In the London art world at least, 2014 may well be remembered as the year of the old men.

Three of Europe’s most influential artists – Henri Matisse, JMW Turner and Rembrandt van Rijn – have all been honoured with major exhibitions at the capital’s Tate Modern and Tate Britain galleries, and the National Gallery.

Whether by coincidence or collusion, these three shows have focused on work produced in the artists’ later years.

But that’s not the only thread that draws them together.

For me, the most astonishing thing about all these exhibitions has been the sheer invention on display.

Cutting edge

Matisse was old and infirm when he began to create images using scissors and paper.
Matisse-The-Parakeet-and-the-Mermaid-1952

Yet his mind was quick and his hands as strong and deft as ever.

Working at an incredible speed – and often far into the night – he produced images that, in many ways, have come to define his life’s work.

His version of The Snail, which hangs in Tate Britain, is probably one of his best-known works; famous for often evoking the retort: “My five-year-old could’ve done that!”

But Matisse wasn’t five. He was a very old man, confined to bed, or at best his wheelchair, unable to see the real world around him, yet driven to create and – critically – to experiment with new techniques.

And determined, too, to fill his world with images of joyful life and playful fun, as The Parakeet and the Mermaid so aptly demonstrate.

A man gone mad

Turner was another who, in his later years, broke free from anything resembling the chains of convention – which he always railed against – and, in his sixties and seventies, produced some of the most remarkable images of his entire life.
Joseph-Mallord-William-Turner-Paintings-Whalers-Boiling-Blubber-Entangled-in-Flaw-Ice-1846
So extreme were his ideas about light, and so seemingly perverse his use of oils and watercolours, many contemporary art lovers believed he had not so much lost the plot but suffered a complete disconnect from his senses.

Today, of course, when we see a painting like Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves, which Turner produced when he was 71, we know we are looking at the work of a man who, far from being mad, was still trying to push his medium to its limit; still wanting to show us the sensations of the world rather than its mere surface.

The Dutch master

Born 169 years before Turner, and dead exactly 100 years before Matisse was even born, Rembrandt van Rijn never stopped experimenting.

How much he influenced the other two is open to question.

But, if nothing else is certain, he should have been a role model of determination and invention.

rembrandt.1661Here, in this late self-portrait, he is experimenting with the effects of light and paint on a flat surface, working with the very stuff of oil and pigment to create an image that says: “I may be old, bankrupt and out of fashion, but I’m not finished yet. See, I can still draw circles!”

If we are to take anything from these three remarkable exhibitions – and there is much to enjoy and savour in reflection – it is this: that age never diminishes the creative spirit and infirmity cannot destroy the will to communicate ideas.

Matisse, Turner and Rembrandt have not only been role models for the thousands of painters who have followed them, but also for us all.

At the end of this, the year of the old men, we should remember that vigour and imagination, skill and dexterity, truth and vision are attributes and virtues to be valued and striven for, right to the end.

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Camera or canvas? Which conveys the truth?

There’s been a lot of debate over the past week or so about the amount of money spent by the British parliament on works of art.

Many of those making the most noise have complained that the reported £250,000 handed out since the 1990s – about £10,000 a year on average, unless my math is haywire – has been taxpayer’s money.

One of the points I picked up was that, so far as the politicians’ portraits are concerned, someone believed that photographs would’ve been cheaper than paintings.

I have to say I haven’t heard such a misguided view for quite a while!

Where’s the power?

Photographs might’ve cost less but, with the exception of the memorable portrait of Winston Churchill created by Karsh of Ottawa, and perhaps one of two of Margaret Thatcher, I cannot recall any that convey the truth of any politicians’ character, personality or dynamism.

Most say no more than the average corporate mugshot taken for an annual report.

Painting, on the other hand, is a much more searching medium.

Look at this portrait of Tony Blair, for example. Tony Blair PortraitPainted by Phil Hale in 2007, it shows a parliamentarian reaching the end of his time in office, possibly exhausted by the rigours of Prime Ministerial responsibility and perhaps contemplating the winding down of one career and the start of another.

But look at it more carefully. To me it shows a side of Tony Blair that no photograph could ever capture.

Yes, he could be described as contemplative. But I think it goes much deeper than that.

Blair looks like a man full of uncertainties; a man wondering about his key political decisions and executive actions, who has doubts about the rightness of some of his choices.

What this painting also reveals to me is a man who I believe for years projected the idea of his personal certainty by constantly displaying an up-beat appearance and an almost manic enthusiasm for global politics that bordered on messianic zeal.

Not for nothing did the cartoonist, Steve Bell, light upon Blair’s one “mad” eye as his most telling characteristic!

What’s the truth?

For me, the setting, the pose, the expression – indeed, the whole painting – shows a man uncertain of his truth.

Blair was, after all, a public-school-educated leader of the Labour Party, which is something of a contradiction in itself.

He claimed to be the working man’s MP, but is known to have admired Margaret Thatcher.

He believed he had the right prescription for all Britain’s ills, but provided some catastrophic medicine that, at times, made the patient suffer even greater pain.

He was loved when he came to power and loathed by the time he left office.

Ultimately, this image seems to be that of a man asking himself: “How will I be judged?”

And I have to ask: “Could any photograph capture – and convey – that so effectively?”

I have to say I doubt it.

Photography may lay claim to be the medium that never lies, but painting searches for and finds truths that might otherwise remain hidden.

Even Tony Blair might agree with that.

A postscript

Blair always pointedly refused to sit for artists while he was in office. This portrait was commissioned towards the end of his tenure. Hugo Swire, who chaired the committee that appointed Phil Hale (a Boston-born American artist who lives in London) said at the time that he chose Hale because he was impressed by his portrait of the composer, Thomas Adès, which hangs in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery. You can see more of Hale’s work at Allen Spiegel Fine Arts. Go visit!

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