On being and change

Walter Pach in his 1938 book Queer thing, Painting remembers the famous artists he met as a young man traveling in Europe.  One of those artists was Henri Matisse.  He has an insightful vignette of Matisse:

Matisse’s fundamental belief is that there is no such thing as essential change.  Appearances change, men learn certain things (we were speaking of the early work of Cezanne as compared with his late painting), but the man is the same, and it is the man that counts.  He showed me his first picture, a thing he did in the small town he came from, and at a time when he had never met an artist.  A book had given him certain rules for composing still-life objects into a design, had told him what colors to buy, and the effects of their combination.  His result was an “old fashioned” imitation of a bit of nature.  The canvas remained at his home until after his father’s death, when it came to him with other household effects.

“Shall I tell you what I thought when I got that picture again, after thirty years without seeing it?  Well, I felt a discouragement such as I have rarely known.  It seemed as if I had not made one step of progress.  Every quality I have ever obtained is in that canvas, at least in embryo.  And when people speak of certain arts as primitive, they simply show their insensitiveness to the grand expression in such work; if they saw that, they would realize that the form and color were perfect in their relationship to the idea of the race….”

My drawing above, made with memories of Matisse, this drawing of my daughter when she was little, is so like other things I made in the deeper past, like things I made at my beginning.  I have felt Matisse’s sadness too, when I realized that things I make now are so much like the way I began.  Somehow I thought that learning would be utterly transformative.  But to believe that your early works will not resemble your later work is like believing that your old face will not resemble your youth.

It is as though you looked at your face in a mirror and expected it, somehow, to be someone else’s face.

Painting is a Mirror

All an artists’ works are a series.  Monet only made patent what all true art had implied.  And Delacroix had expressed the idea when he noted that the painter paints himself, his own soul.  In that lies the unity.  I have seen many interconnections in an artist’s works that owes nothing to the current fashion for multiples.  I’ve seen people organize space in parallel ways over different canvases.  I’ve seen the same activity take place in my pictures. 

Sometimes the effect is subtle.  It reflects unconscious impulses.  It demonstrates something about how your mind organizes its thoughts. 

Whenever a real break comes, one that causes you to organize things differently – now that ought to provoke one’s curiosity!  Do I now think differently?  Am I somehow changed?  And perhaps I wasn’t even aware….

Finding your inner will o’the wisp

I find myself pursuing the same themes over and over.  They come in many guises.  Sometimes they are subjects as in my koi pictures.  When I did my first few paintings of koi, I thought I was doing something brand new, but over time I began to notice that “fish” were a part of my artwork from a very early date.  They were just less numerous in my apprentice days.  (I’ve become a more adept fisher-person, though I have yet to experience  my Hemingway-esque  “one that got away” moment.)

Currently I’m still doing flower painting — or all kinds of studies-for-flower paintings.  (Why must I always be doings “studies for”? — another mystery for the psychologist’s couch where I am both patient and doctor.)  I find that my flower paintings are not like some of the flower paintings I see other artists do.  Other artist have rather more respect for actual flowers than I do.  Me, I seem to be positively mesmerized by just the shape of the bunch itself.  How do I know this?  I see it here:

This is a photograph I took of an image on the label of a Snapple Bottle.  Is a snappy image on this Snapple bottle, don’t you think?  I was playing with my daughter’s camera and its high-resolution micro feature and needed something to photograph so I grabbed a random object that was near at hand — or so I supposed.  But there it is again, that “bunch” shape that so often comprises the form of the bouquet in my flower paintings.  I seek these things out evidently: these shapes that are a little like the canopy of certain species of trees. 

Don’t know if it’s important for artists to discover their personal inward visual obsessions or whether discovering them has any impact at all upon making art.  But I’ve gotta tell you, that scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind has always resonated with me.

Did I mention that I always eat all my broccoli.  Why it’s practically my favorite vegetable.  Would somebody pass the mashed potatoes, please?

Self Portrait-ing

It’s hard to really know people, and that fact, I think, applies as much to oneself as to others.  It’s hard to know who you are, and it’s sensible and not narcissistic to occasionally inquire into the nature of one’s self.

The means of mirror gazing are many.  For artists the self-portrait is one means. 

Naturally just as one witnesses different aspects of other people, just in that way it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to discover that one finds different facets to oneself.

And you can portray yourself in different ways.  And why not deliberately seek to know these other aspects of the self?  Or if one only stumbles upon them, that too is knowledge….

Recapitulation/ a theme and variations


I keep painting the same picture over and over.  And I don’t even know I’m doing it.  Here’s an instance.  I discovered quite by accident, as I was photographing one painting (posted earlier) that another painting, portraying an entirely different subject, looks rather like it.

Here details of both paintings with their edges juxtaposed.

In moments like these you realize that the meanings of paintings go deep indeed.  The forms as well as the content reveal aspects of the self.

Would you know thyself?  Take up a paint brush.