For the second week running I was struggling with an acrylic painting.
These multi-coloured radishes on their off-white plate, with a lightly-chequered cloth in the background, were going well. I tried the top third of the painting in sap green, then yellow ochre, and neither looked right. It was time to take a break and put together a lasagne for supper.
I was stirring the bechamel sauce, listening to a wonderful piece of music by Anna Meredith (Blackfriars) on the radio and gazing at a collage by a dear friend of ours, Sarah Banbery, which hangs near the stove. Collage, that was the answer.
As the lasagne baked I added the page of Spanish text taken from a damaged book I use for such things, painted over it with white acrylic, added some lines in pastel, and the picture was done.
The ways of creativity are often unfathomable, I find. Thanks to Anna Meredith’s meditative piece for strings and the rhythmic stirring of a sauce, I entered the relaxed frame of mind to be inspired by Sarah’s collage.
I bought some wonderful red and yellow pears from the supermarket and began what I thought would be a loose, somewhat abstract acrylic painting. I began with the pen and ink drawing below, which would be a framework over which the colour would wander freely.
As soon as I started painting I began to feel inhibited: I was keeping the colour within the lines, there was no abandoned application of colour – it became a rather tame, if stylised, painting of some pears.
It’s a long journey from the mind to the hand. It takes a left at confidence, slows to a crawl around daring, reverses awkwardly into imagination and finally ends up parking badly at judgement.
‘Merce Cunningham is, without doubt, the world’s greatest living choreographer,’ wrote John O’Mahony some years ago in the Guardian, ‘His name stands alongside Martha Graham and George Balanchine in the pantheon of mercurial figures that transformed twentieth-century dance.’
Cunningham (1919-2009) was also the life partner of another leading creative figure, the composer and artist, John Cage. Both men were careful to maintain their privacy, notes Peter Dickinson in his book of interviews about the latter, CageTalk:
What is significant is the stroke of fortune that brought them together…and eventually gave them most of a lifetime together. Cage needed dancers and support from other arts at a time when the musical world would not take him seriously; Cunningham needed a promoter. Cage turned to Zen and chance [especially the I-Ching] at a time of great personal crisis but he also had Cunningham, and together they transformed both dance and music. [CageTalk, p.55-6]
I’ve had this photograph of Merce Cunningham in a folder of people and things to draw for some years. Look at that remarkable face under that astonishing hair-do. There is a life well-lived in those folds and lines. I’ve tried before to capture his ‘gaze’ – as Emily Ball has it – including that slightly wayward left eye, but here it finally seems to have worked.
For the past few weeks I’ve been following an online Sketchbook Skool course called Polishing. It’s a useful way to pull yourself out of your comfort zone.
The exercise for the second week was an urban sketching project with Dutch illustrator, Koosje Koene. At the time I was in Germany where it was raining steadily and I didn’t really feel like venturing out. In an old album I found an image of a house on an Amsterdam canal that was actually four small photographs pasted together to produce a strangely disorienting perspective.
I took the original photographs one Saturday afternoon in winter on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam. I’d always intended to draw the building and retain the stretched perspective so, more than thirty years later, here it is. It captures a moment when my then girlfriend – later my wife, later still my ex-wife – put her foot in something rather unwelcome. In those days it was risky not looking where you were putting your feet in Amsterdam.
Cultural history is littered with examples of men falling for women with similar artistic ambitions but who, as the wedding day approached, suggested their future wives may want to leave the work of being the family genius to them. Gustav Mahler, for example, insisted that his wife Alma cease composing when they married. It wasn’t until some years later, when Alma began an affair with the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, and sought advice from Sigmund Freud, that Mahler realised that perhaps he’d been unreasonable and helped Alma orchestrate and promote her songs.
In Olivia Laing‘s compelling and revealing book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, we encounter the sad story of Josephine Niveson. Jo, as she was known, was ‘tiny and tempestuous: a talkative, hot-tempered, sociable woman…doggedly making her way as an artist’ when she met Edward Hopper. After they married, Laing writes, ‘her own career, previously much fought for, much defended, dwindled away to almost nothing’. She became Hopper’s business manager and muse, posing for most of the usherettes, waitresses and pensive women sitting on beds in their underwear that populate Hopper’s paintings.
A model, yes; a rival, no. The other reason Jo’s career foundered is that her husband was profoundly opposed to its existence. Edward didn’t just fail to support Jo’s painting, but rather worked actively to discourage it, mocking and denigrating the few things she did manage to produce, and acting with great creativity and malice to limit the conditions in which she might paint. [The Lonely City, p.37]
Little of Jo Hopper’s work survives. Her husband left her everything, asking that she bequeath his art to the Whitney Museum.
After his death, she donated both his and the majority of her own artistic estates to the museum, even though she’d felt from the moment of her marriage that she’d been the victim of a boycott by the curators there…After her death, the Whitney discarded all her paintings, perhaps because of their calibre and perhaps because of the systematic undervaluing of women’s art against which she’d railed so bitterly in her own life. [The Lonely City, p.39]
I illustrate this post – somewhat ironically – with two drawings from Ed Cooper‘s inspirational life drawing classes earlier this year. Being a model is one area where women have had little trouble carving a niche through the ages. The subject of these drawings, Blue King, is a highly creative woman in her own right and an active participant in the process, making life class a true partnership between the tutor, the model and the person drawing.
I have to wonder what we’re missing when women’s creative contributions are repeatedly consigned to drawers, cupboards, attics or – in the case of Jo Hopper’s work – the refuse bins outside the back of the Whitney Museum.