An extra post this week because today is #SelfieArtDay, curated and conducted by Teresa Robeson over at One Good Thing.
Whether or not you think this is a good thing, it is more or less how I see myself at the moment: a little tired, maybe, but amused and baffled by life’s twists and turns, and interested in more things than I can keep up with. When my partner, Sarah, saw this she asked, “Why do you draw yourself like that?” which was perhaps her kind and generous way of implying it wasn’t such a good likeness. However, it has enough similarities for me to post it as a self-portrait on this month’s #SelfieArtDay.
I’ll always be grateful to Peter Kemp – one of my teachers when I was a literature student (he later became Fiction Editor of the Sunday Times) – for introducing me to the work of Henry James, who died a hundred years ago on February 28th.
Apart from Peter and Colm Toibín, I don’t know anyone who reads Henry James for pleasure. This, to me, is baffling. There is a wonderful arc of discovery and development from his early novellas, such as Daisy Miller and The Europeans, to his beautiful, nuanced masterpiece, The Portrait of a Lady.
There is so much to admire in Portrait, such as this: “She dropped her secret sadness into the silence of lonely places, where its very modern quality detached itself and grew objective, so that as she sat in a sun-warmed angle on a winter’s day…she could almost smile at it and think of its smallness.” Mindfulness, 1881.
This rather Expressionist portrait of James is based on three sources: John Singer Sargent’s masterly portrait of the writer at 70, a photograph of James with his brother, William; and a rather cruel drawing by Edward Gorey in a book called Instant Lives. Despite – or perhaps because of – his towering genius, James was a conflicted figure: not least about his sexuality (whatever it might have been).
So celebrate the passing of genius a century ago and treat yourself to a nicely-bound edition of The Portrait of a Lady. You won’t regret the investment. I’ll leave you with an anonymous poem from a postcard I bought from Henry James’ house in Rye, which I’ve carried with me through numerous moves over the past thirty years:
Mao Zedong sent thousands of workers to occupy [Beijing’s Quinhua] campus and quell the violence, declaring that the working class, rather than the students, would direct the next stage of the revolution. A week later, the Pakistani foreign minister visited Beijing and presented Chairman Mao with a basket of mangoes.
For some reason, Mao didn’t eat the mangoes himself but sent them on to the workers at Qinghua, sparking a nationwide passion for the fruit. The gift was interpreted as an act of selflessness and mangoes became synonymous with the Chairman and a symbol of his love for the People. The BBC site continues:
The Communist Party’s propaganda department quickly set to work creating thousands of mango-themed cotton fabrics and domestic goods. Floats with giant papier-mâché mangoes dominated the National Day Parade in 1968. Armed peasants even fought over a black and white copy of a photograph of a mango.
I can’t claim that my pastel drawing of this wonderful fruit has any totemic value. Its colours made it a natural subject. As with these figs:
Unfortunately there’s no evidence that Fidel Castro did anything with figs other than, perhaps, eat them (I confess, it just made a good title for this post). It’s an intriguing thought, however, that regimes of all political persuasions might find a fruit that everyone could rally round, one that could quell violence and restore harmony. The noble quince springs to mind, for example.
I fear it’ll take more than fruit to stop the madness that surrounds us in some parts of the world at the moment, however.
About eighty years separate this photograph of my Mother, taken around 1936 when she was 18, and this drawing, hastily completed as she concentrated on her newspaper last Saturday afternoon:
In between she had two children, lived through the war that brought with it many personal tragedies, suffered a betrayal by one of her two brothers, and moved into – and later out of – her dream house. She outlived her brothers and her five sisters and nursed her husband – my Father – through his only serious illness (which eventually killed him) – all etched in the lines on her face.
It’s probably about 75% accurate as a portrait: what I couldn’t capture is her humour. Despite everything that life has thrown at her she has a wonderful sense of the ridiculous, so much so that it was difficult to detect the onset of her dementia five or six years ago. Now that reality is something of a sliding scale for her, the disappointments of her life have largely fallen away leaving intact her ability to laugh.
Although she sometimes feels alone, or tired, or lost – despite being supported in her own home by a network of carers and daily visits by my brother – how wonderful to approach one’s 98th birthday with laughter and amusement!
I’ve recycled an awful lot of watercolour and pastel paper these past couple of weeks.
Perhaps it’s the weather or the time of year, but inspiration has been thin on the ground. Last week I tried a pastel drawing of a celeriac on a pale background, thinking the combination of whites, off whites, pale yellows and pale greys might produce something interesting. It didn’t. That might work if you’re Basil Blackshaw or Aubrey Levinthal , but not for me. At least not now.