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.

The limits of your longing

Caroline's Flowers blog

Caroline’s Bouquet (21 cms x 29.7 cms pastel on Rembrandt pastel paper 2017)

Last week I heard and read two contrasting attitudes to growing older.

First was an interview with the late Roger Moore’s publisher, Michael O’Mara, talking about a book that the actor had delivered shortly before his death. It was a “humorous meditation on old age”, O’Mara explained, and he read a passage in which Moore goes into a coffee shop and works himself up into a lather because all he wants is a simple black coffee.

Secondly, on the Quaker educationalist and writer’s Facebook page, Parker J Palmer reproduced a poem by Rilke which “urges us to live life to the fullest, fearing no danger and ‘flaring up like flame’.”

“Go to the limits of your longing,” Rilke writes, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror./ Just keep going. No feeling is final…Nearby is the country they call life…Give me your hand.”

There’s so much going on in those lines. Essentially, though, the poem urges an engagement, as Palmer says, “to take life-giving risks as opportunity arises”.

For those of us in middle age engaged in creative activity – this is a blog about drawing and painting so I’m afraid all trains will stop at this station – the lessons here are clear. Let’s look again at the Japanese master, Hokusai: both his wives and two of his children predeceased him, he was struck by lightning, suffered a stroke in his 60s which required him to relearn his art, he had scarcely any food when he produced his masterwork Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, and five years before his death a studio fire destroyed all his work. Hokusai lived until he was 89. His last words were “If heaven will afford me five more years of life then I’ll manage to become a true artist.”

So what’s it to be? Pushing on to the “limits of your longing”, feeling your life crackling with “beauty and terror”, forever striving to become “a true artist”, or standing in your beige slacks in Cafe Nero ranting about the names of the coffee?

This week’s image celebrates my dear friend and colleague, Caroline Palmer (no relation to Parker J), who, after 25 years as an editor of medieval history and literature books, is having her achievement honoured by some of the academics she’s published over this time. One sent her a lavish bouquet of flowers of irresistable colour combinations and tonal qualities, which she kindly allowed me to babysit over this holiday weekend. As a woman and an editor very much in her prime, no doubt she’ll continue to publish young scholars and established academics for many years to come. I wish her more beauty than terror along the way.

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Into Autumn

sunflowers-2016-blog

Sunflowers (30cms x 40cms pastel 2016)

So that’s probably it for summer: the evenings have acquired a chill edge as soon as the sun drops behind the trees; the gardens and hedges have that exhausted, end-of-the-season look about them.

Last week a neighbour placed a pot containing an extravagant sunflower by her front door, its big bright face a last celebration of summer colours before the winter comes. I was inspired by this to try an abstract pastel drawing of the three sunflowers wilting in a vase in our hallway, something a little more free-form – perhaps in the spirit of Joan Mitchell (woefully under-represented at the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism show, I thought).

In the end though, these chaps came out looking more art deco than New York School, perhaps with a memory of 1960s curtain fabric. I’m not sure how successful this was: perhaps acrylic or even watercolour would have been a better choice of medium than pastel, like this from a few years ago:

sunflower

or this one from Kate Osborne. Anyway, I offer it as a reminder of the summer just passed before the season of fallen leaves, quinces and russets.

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Muddled Buddleia

Butterfly Bush blog

Buddleia (A5, watercolour and ink on Hahnemuehle paper, 2016)

I’m not a fan of painting flowers. Even the most skilled watercolourists end up with something that looks like a botanical illustration, I find – often losing that elusive beauty of the flower in nature. I always want to paint them like Stanley Bielen or Lisa Breslow but lack the courage to be that loose. Reducing something as complex as a flower to broad brush strokes must be immensely satisfying, and very effective as we see from Bielen’s pictures. Push it further still and you can end up with a painting that is more or less abstract, as in Debora Stewart’s work.

Alas I wasn’t feeling that brave, or that innovative, on Sunday and ended up with something that was neither realistic nor abstract. However, my ever-supportive partner liked the result – without my prompting her! – so here is my somewhat muddled Buddleia.

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Enter Spring

Magnolia blog

Magnolia Flowers (21 cms x 29 cms acrylic and pencil, 2016)

“Every year, there’s a day when Spring suddenly stops being a tease and goes the whole hog,” wrote naturalist Simon Barnes in the Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago, “And, of course, it’s ravishing: the light turns an unabashed gold, the sun offers actual warmth, chiffchaffs arrive from the Mediterranean to pour down their twin-syllabled song from the canopy – all at once the world is abuzz.”

Here in East Anglia we don’t do winters well. There’s rarely snow and our mild sea climate denies us those crisp, bright winter mornings that I remember from my northern childhood. For us, winter is a sustained and oppressive greyness, amplified by our big skies which press down upon us like a felt blanket. It’s a relief to see the back of it when spring arrives.

Our neighbours have a magnolia tree which I’ve come to see as Spring’s over-eager messenger. Earlier and earlier it starts to bud, sometimes so early that we often wonder if a frost will damage it, but a few weeks later those buds turn into lovely white ragged flowers, like torn strips of paper or discarded handkerchiefs, and then you know that spring is close at hand.

Narcissi blog

Narcissi (42 cms x 60 cms pastel and pencil 2016)

Daffodils are so much a part of the British spring that’s it’s odd to remember that they’re not native flowers at all, but originally southern European, possibly Greek. They were introduced to northern gardens by Dutch bulb traders. Now they’re everywhere: not only in gardens, but surrounding public buildings, scattered through woodlands and even brightening up roundabouts along with discarded plastic bottles and home-made signs wishing someone a happy 50th birthday.

Bees are already in evidence, especially those plump bumble bees woozily searching for a place to nest and give birth to a whole new colony. There are fewer each year however, and our dismal government has ensured this trend will continue by authorising the use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Whether it’s straightforward stupidity or some slavish commitment to a free market economy the result is the same – a spring with ever fewer bees to polinate the plants and trees that not only brighten our days but make our world habitable.