Around the same period when I was painting a bird’s nest over a reclining figure, I painted these shoes over something that was pale green. The earlier color shows beneath the salmon colored cloth.
I was studying Van Gogh, and I painted not only bird’s nests after his example, but also shoes. Again, I felt qualms about emulating another artist so closely. Yet these shoes are also so plainly products of my imagination and not Van Gogh’s. So sometimes, you see, you must simply trust yourself.
I read this Hemingway quote today about emulation:
“Y.C.: Listen. There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done. The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men ….
Mice: But reading all the good writers might discourage you.
Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.”
[Originally from By Line: Ernest Hemingway, pp. 217-218. Taken here from Ernest Heimingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips, ed., Scribner’s; NY, 1984: p. 93]
When I painted these shoes, I remember I understood them as being a portrait of the shoe’s owner as well as a kind of self-portrait. I was also very interested in painting the space between one edge of the shoe’s opening and the other. The empty air seemed to me as much a subject as anything else in this picture, and I was fascinated by it. I wanted to make it seem very much that the air was inside the picture, and that this should not just be a question of appearances. And the ways that the shoe laces fell, the beauty of the lines they described — something that is charged with meaning by gravity and chance — these were also qualities I studied in it.
It turned out to be a very pensive moment. Van Gogh was a hero to me, someone whose works gave me reason to believe that art was worth striving after, even against odds. Hemingway’s idea of “beating” the old dead guys is a peculiarly male approach to an idea, but essentially I agree with him. If knowing the great works that preceed you discourages you, then you should be discouraged — for those things are your teachers.
This might seem odd commentary coming from me, to those who’ve read this blog before. I try to encourage, but these are not contradictory gestures. Even Hemingway doesn’t tell the “discouraged” writer to give up. Such discouragement in one who wants the prize has to be overcome. What Hemingway is really counseling is courage.
I had all sorts of qualms when I painted this, but I painted it anyway. And that was my courage.
[Top of the post: A pair of shoes, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas, c. 1988]