Myopia, nearsightedness, is a visual defect in which distant objects appear blurred because their images are focused in front of the retina rather than on it. A more serious defect than myopia, however, would be small-mindedness.
I voluntarily got entangled briefly in a discussion on the merits of British artist Howard Hodgkin, in which I found myself somewhat reluctantly coming to Mr. Hodgkin’s defense. Some readers know I can be curmudgeonly where “modern art” is concerned, and though I like Mr. Hodgkin’s paintings, I did wonder if it was worth the bother to defend him, after I had been so cruel to harmless Ellworth Kelly. And given that people simply like what they like, the defense seemed like it would be (and was) an exercise in futility.
Nevertheless, the buzz about Hodgkin prompted me to revisit a book that contains some of the artist’s own words about his art, and I always find his erudition totally charming and insightful. So, armed with that, I was prompted to think some more about Degas, Hodgkin’s hero and mine. Of Degas, Hodgkin writes, “His technique is amazingly inventive, but surely without conscious virtuosity; it was a search for a language of maximum directness and simplicity….” He says further, “There is a tradition equating marks in nature and marks made by an artist which goes back to Leonardo and his blotchy wall, to Hercules Seghers, Turner, etc. But there is something of a painter’s philosopher’s stone about the mark which is itself a final pictorial statement, and something representational in itself, and also emotionally expressive. Degas looked for different ways of making these marks all his life and kept finding new solutions.”
I decided I’d try looking at Degas through Hodgkin’s painting (in my way). Got the books out and set up to copy. On a whim, I took off my glasses — thinking of the eye problems attributed to Degas in his later years.
You see, my glasses are laying there to the left. And I’ve got Degas’s Dancers (Toledo Museum) and my notebook, and the Howard Hodgkin book open to two of his paintings, and Jennifer Bartlett snuck in as well at the top with pages from In the Garden. The remote control is nearby so I can listen to Maria Rita.
Emboldened by Hodgkin’s abstraction and my own myopia, I just had at it for an hour or so. To treat (a few) of the details of the faces in the Degas, I had to press my nose right up to the image.
And it was more of these quick days of pretending that oil pastel is paint.
I don’t wish to be too hard on narrow minded folks, though, for then I must reprimand myself, and furthermore I think sometimes we need our prejudices when they serve a purpose. And artists especially sometimes dearly need their prejudice, what with the world being such an awfully, achingly big place ….