Poised between fact and fiction

Pomegranate, the symbol of Granada (A5 Faber-Castell coloured pencils 2017)

I’ve just finished a remarkable book, The Moor’s Last Stand: How Seven Centuries of Muslim Rule in Spain Came to an End by Elizabeth Drayson. I read it extremely slowly, not only to savour the elegance of the writing, but because I simply didn’t want to reach the end.

It tells the story of the twenty third and final Muslim king of Granada, Abu Abdallah Muhammad XI, known as Boabdil. It’s a tale of intrigue, betrayal, cruelty, bravery and broken promises, based, we’re told, on considerable new research but with novelistic touches that bring Boabdil’s story vividly to life.

The eighth-century Muslim invasion of Spain began a period of cultural magnificence and political stabilty in the country: in Cordoba, for example, there were street lights, paving and over seventy well-stocked libraries by the tenth century, a time when London languished amid narrow, muddy, unlit streets. Anyone who has visited the Alhambra in Granada will need little convincing of the artistic triumph of Muslim architecture in Spain.

Boabdil is a controversial figure still. In Elizabeth Drayson’s account of his life he emerges as a man of integrity and honour, yet another recent author describes him as “the ludicrous Boabdil…[who] would bear down on Granada with the full weight of his fear and vulgarity”. Ultimately he was betrayed by the duplicity and corruption of his own family and the ambition and insincerity of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.

The city of Granada had to wait several hundred years before a statue was erected in his honour in 1997 – even then somewhat half-heartedly:

Today, in almost exactly the same place in Granada where Boabdil handed the keys of the city to King Ferdinand, a pair of life-sized bronze statues stand in a flower bed in a small gravelled park surrounded by towering blocks of flats. The park is well off the beaten tourist track, close to a large modern conference centre, and bears no sign or indication of who the statues represent. Their out-of-the-way location and understated tribute and homage belie the historical importance of their subject. In this encounter amid roses and pomegranate trees, a bearded man wearing a turban sits on a throne looking down sadly at a young woman, her head lowered in humility as she offers him a rose…The young woman represents Granada, who offers Boabdil a rose as a symbol of love and in the hope of forgiveness. There is no previous public monument to acknowledge the expulsion, or even the presence, of the Moors who were so fundamental to the city’s historical memory…Its message of love and reconciliation marks a special moment in the evolution of the perception of Boabdil. [pp-140-141]

My image this week is a pomegranate which, along with quinces, is one of my favourite subjects. It is also the symbol of Granada, a city of majestic beauty with, as we learn from Dr Drayson’s thoughtful book, a violent and poignant history.

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Facts and wonder

A Garden in a Grid (A4 collaged painted papers 2014)

What do you do if you feel you’re following the wrong path through life but haven’t the courage or the financial security to retrace your steps to the point where you took the false turning?

If you’re an author or an artist or a musician, how do you react if your writing, paintings or compositions don’t live up to what you see or hear in your mind?

Suppose you were to declare a passion for someone, but that person couldn’t – however much they cared for you – return your feelings to the same extent?

The novelist, Sebastian Barry, asked in The Temporary Gentleman, “Does wonder have any dominion over facts, in the end?” In the context of the novel, these words have a specific meaning. Removed from their context they provide an interesting way to view pedicaments such as the ones described above.

If we take ‘wonder’ to be our ideal – that one-man show at the Gagosian in New York, proud of every piece hanging on those expensive walls, our partner of choice at our side during the private view followed by a quiet dinner for two at Pearl‘s after the event (“Sorry, Larry, we’ve got something lined up for later…”) – what determines the distance between that and the facts of our existence? Is it just talent? Luck, opportunity, chance? Setting aside self-help platitudes, can believing in a desired outcome influence the facts as they stand this morning?

Of all the painters I admire, Cy Twombly is perhaps the one that divides opinion the most. I find much of his work both exciting and moving, yet others see him as a charlatan who fools the gullible into believing they’re looking at something profound. Yet whatever we think, Twombly had faith in his own vision and how it developed over the years; also, influential dealers and collectors – some of whom, you’ll be surprised to hear, are only in it for the money – were prepared to gamble their reputations on a large canvas with two smears of yellow oil paint and a badly-written quote from the Aeneid scrawled across it. Like his work or not, Cy lived the ‘wonder’.

Perhaps the important factor is belief. Had we believed sufficiently in ourselves at that decisive moment we might not have taken an ill-judged turning at the crossroads; perhaps the gap between the music we hear in our heads and the notes on the stave is down to our belief in the piece; perhaps our potential lover turns us down because in our heart of hearts we know that we are unable to provide what he or she needs? Twombly’s teachers, fellow artists and, crucially, he himself believed in what he was doing; he sold those controversial paintings, married the beautiful Luisa Tatiana Franchetti and lived in elegant style in Rome for the rest of his days.

There may always be a distance between the facts and the wonder, between what is and what could be. As I’ve mentioned before, perhaps that’s what drives us on. If we feel we’re on the wrong road the answer may not be to go back, but to find a way forward to where we need to be given where we are now rather than where we were ten years ago. After all, there’s no choice about that: we cannot go back.

I can’t provide answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this post. I’m also aware that this is not the most fully realised piece I’ve posted: I’m still working through it. However I’m fairly certain that belief has a great deal to do with those questions.

What do you think?

A note on the image: As those of you who follow my Instagram feed will already know, the image is made up of pieces cut from a couple of unsuccessful flower paintings and repurposed. I’m grateful to Jacob for the title.

A note on Sebastian Barry: Barry is a beautiful writer, as this will demonstrate: “We are in the great belly of the whale of what happens, we mistook the darkness for a pleasant night-time, and the phosphorescent plankton swimming there for stars.” However, his stories and his plot turns can be desperately sad and I advise caution when reading his novels in public. Last week I found myself on a plane bound for Frankfurt surrounded by international businesspeople. I was approaching the end of The Temporary Gentlemen when something unexpectedly tragic happened to one of the characters. Fighting back my emotions, I became aware of someone standing next to me and I looked up to see a Lufthansa stewardess. “Käse oder Salami?” she asked, a sandwich in each hand.

Ships that pass

Head Over Heels (A4 mixed media with collage 2017)

This isn’t a blog about my life but some background is necessary to this, I feel.

When I was a teenager I was in love most of the time. I nourished myself on a rich diet of Romantic poetry – Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, those boys – and Pre-Raphaelite painting (lots of women staring wistfully at pomegranates). Teenage girls, it seemed, allowed you just enough of themselves to break your adolescent heart, or they were aloof, hanging out with the cool boys.

One reasonably constant object of my teenage desires was Veronique Smith*. Her exotic name – French mother and English father perhaps ? – was only the start of it. She played the violin, she read poetry, she was shy in a way that only self-assured people can affect, she knew about things I didn’t comprehend, she drank red wine.

Veronique and I would often meet at parties. When she walked towards me the angels sang and surrounded us with clouds of joy. We’d talk about this and that. I would look her in the eye to try and keep her engaged or watch her beautiful lips moving as she spoke. I was conscious of the imperfections of my skin and wished I’d worn something different. All too soon she moved on and left with one of the cool boys while the angels wept tears of frustration.

Life went on, I moved to London, and then, during a visit ‘home’ before I left England for a twenty year spell in Europe, I bumped into a mutual friend of mine and Veronique’s from those earlier years. I asked how she was. Married and expecting her second child, said the friend. Of course, she was never meant to be alone for more than a few moments at a time.

A mischievous look came into the eyes of our mutual friend. “You know something,” she said, “Veronique had such a thing about you. She thought you were adorable – but you never asked her out.” Clouds covered the sun, leaves fell from the summer trees, the angels stared at each other and shrugged their heavenly shoulders.

So here’s the love boy, head over heels for the object of his teenage passion, scattering pieces of his heart around him as he turns in confusion and indecision. If only I could reach back down the years and give my younger self some fatherly advice. Follow your heart, I’d tell him: it may not always lead you where you want to go, it may not always be the best choice for you or those around you, but at least you’ll live your life to the full and it’ll rarely be dull – it’ll ring to a glorious music that you’ll never forget.

Veronique Smith wasn’t her real name, of course.*

 

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The Blue Dress

The Blue Dress (A2 pastel and charcoal on paper 2017)

I can’t judge from personal experience, of course, but I imagine that during these summer days a blue linen dress is a wonderful thing. It certainly is to draw.

Following my Seawhite course last week, a portrait I’ve had in mind for a few weeks has changed somewhat in the planning. This pastel drawing of a blue dress is an essential element in the composition and I wanted it to be larger and looser than originally conceived. It has, I flatter myself, some of the feel of Jim Dine’s bathrobes about it if Dine were to entrust his work to a much less talented studio assistant.

I posted this on Instagram last week and it has attracted a positive response which, along with my own feelings after the Seawhite workshop, encourages me to continue with this looser approach. I used about eight different blues from four different pastel manufacturers in this, plus a couple of reds and greens to bring the blue alive, and every one of those off-white Unison pastels I can’t resist whenever I go into Cornelissen in London ‘just to look around’.

So this is the dress. Once I have the opportunity to photograph the subject of this portrait and consider some other elements in the composition I can move ahead. In the meantime consider this an element in a work in progress, larger and looser than before.

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