The Intensity of Size - Big or Small in Art by Jeannine Cook

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When I went to see the Richard Diebenkorn survey at the Royal Academy in London recently, I found it interesting but was surprised at my lack of excitement at seeing most of the work. The Ocean Park series on display were, of course, the most lyrical, but again, I was reminded of an internal conversation I frequently have with myself. Does a really big canvas manage to convey the intensity of the artist's passion? Or does the sheer size become, in many cases, a path to dilution of that excitement and energy? If you have to go on labouring day after day to paint huge surfaces, do you run out of steam? Of course, it is not always the case by any means - think of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when Michelangelo laboured day after day in the most difficult of physical positions and conditions, and yet he achieved a power and impact of work that reverberates for every viewer.

Nonetheless, not every artist is a Michelangelo. And in the case of Richard Diebenkorn, I personally found that all his large canvases began to lack intensity. My reaction to these works was unexpectedly reinforced by three small paintings hung amongst the Ocean Park canvases.

They were three equally abstract works, painted on small cigar box covers. He used the cigar box cover paintings as gifts to friends, apparently, and my feeling was that these were the true gems in the exhibition. They were the perfect epitome of "small is beautiful". As  Sarah C. Bancroft, curator of one Diebenkorn museum exhibition observes in the catalogue essay, they “capture one’s attention from across the room and command an expanse of wall space disproportionate to their actual size.”

Richard Diebenkorn, Cigar Box Lid #4, 1976. Oil on wood, 8-3⁄8 x 7-1⁄8". The Grant Family Collection. © The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn.

Lyrical, free, certainly intense, but utterly lovely - they just sang. The more one explores the work Diebenkorn did in this small format, on cigar box lids, the more delightful and intimate the body of work becomes. Perhaps Diebenkorn felt liberated in this small format - he was not constrained by acres of canvas, nor the demands of gallery settings and collectors demanding impressive pieces. He could just create small delights that are intimate in scale, where his true sense of colour and the fitness of abstraction could be married to an acute sense of human celebration of life.

Cigar Box Lid #5

Richard Diebenkorn, Cigar Box Lid #6, oil on wood, 1979

As Diebenkorn himself observed, "The idea is to get everything right — it’s not just color or form or space or line — it’s everything all at once."  He certainly achieved that for me in the cigar box lid paintings.

The three large rooms of the Royal Academy's Diebenkorn exhibition were distilled down to these three small pieces, for me. In a funny way, they helped me feel more reassured about my own art - my frequent choice of small format in metalpoint drawings was strangely validated. I was grateful to Diebenkorn for that, but most of all, for three paintings that still sing to me weeks after seeing them.

Tiny Images, Vast Scenes by Jeannine Cook

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Peder Balke is not the name of an artist that readily springs to mind, yet he is now considered the pre-eminent Norwegian artist of the 19th century. His landscapes and especially seascapes, highly unusual in their techniques, are now justly celebrated. I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of his paintings at the National Gallery, having seen a smaller one of his work in the same rooms four years ago. Balke lived from 1804-1887, started out as a full-time painter and then had to turn to other ways of earning his living. Nonetheless, he continued to paint, for his own pleasure, experimenting and using paints in ways that heralded modern expressionism. He travelled to the North Cape in Norway, an area of dramatic coastlines and radiantly strange light of the Arctic Circle. These scenes continued to influence him many years later. He did not always paint specific scenes, but used the moods and impressions of nature, often in almost abstract fashion, to convey the majesty, mystery, solitude and power of the natural world.

 

The Old Bridge, Oil on panel, Peder Balke

Seascape c. 1860, oil on canvas mounted on panel, Peder Balke

While the larger paintings on display in the National Gallery exhibition were impressive, especially the highly atmospheric ones of Northern scenes, done in the 1870s, the ones that fascinate me are the tiny ones. They pack a punch, almost in a visceral way.

Stormy Sea, oil on panel, Peder Balke

Stormy Sea, oil on cardboard, Peder Balke (Image courtesy of Drammens Museum)

10 x 12 cm, 8 x 10 cm, 12 x 16 cm - they are indeed small, mostly blacks and white, seascapes and some landscapes of glaciers or waterfalls, often almost abstracts. They are not small, however, when it comes to impact. Their effect is perhaps more powerful than that of many of the larger paintings he did. Perhaps my love of monochromatic works leads me to them, but to me, they are stunning in their big voices coming from very small rectangles of oil on cardboard or oil on board.

Northern Lights, 1870s, Peder Balke

Norther Lights over Coastal Landscape, c. 1870, oil on panel, Peder Balke

Peder Balke

Sun breaking through the Clouds at Vardohus, 1860-1870s, oil on panel, Private Collection

The Tempest, oil on panel, Peder Balke

Seascape, Peder Balke

I wonder if other people find them as arresting as I do?

"A-ha" Moments in Exhibitions by Jeannine Cook

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Do you ever experience a wonderful moment when you see something in an exhibition, it suddenly resonates and explains some connection, or gives an unexpected insight into something else? I love those moments. I had a few such instances during my exhibition "orgy" in London recently. The first one came as I was marvelling at Goya's drawings in the superb "Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album" at The Courtauld Gallery. This exhibition was the first reconstruction of the dispersed 23 drawings from Francisco Goya's so-called Album D, "Witches and Old Women, produced during the wonderfully productive last decade of his life, together with other related drawings and prints.

The exhibition was riveting in every way - Goya's economy of drawing, his powers of depicting human emotions in their most raw and dramatic forms, his mordant commentaries on human foibles, all so simply done on small sheets of paper, in shades of ink - oh heavens! The scholarly work done that permits the reconstruction of this album, in a coherent and likely order of drawings, was also most fascinating and impressive.

Then, in the works accompanying the 23 drawings, there was a brush and brown ink drawing from Album B, Estas Brujas lo diran (Those Witches will tell).

 

Estas Brujas lo diran,  Francisco Goya, brush & brown ink, (image courtesy of Prado Museum, Madrid)

I was so astonished. The line from Goya ran straight and true to Egon Schiele's Self Portraits. Goya's drawing is a haunting image of a naked old witch devouring snakes. Egon Schiele's Self-Portraits tell of equally disturbing solitary states of mind.

Self-Portrait, Egon Schiele,, 1912 (Image courtesy of Leopold Museum)

Egon Schiele, Self Portrait, 1915

Both artists are fluid in their lines, their vigorous treatment of wet and dry passages of drawing media. Did Schiele know of Goya's drawing in the Prado? Or was it just happenstance, the result of two gifted draughtsmen's states of mind?

Another "aha" moment for me that stands out in my memory was when I was looking at one of several unusual Claude Monet paintings in "Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market" at the National Gallery. In the gallery showing works by Monet that Durand-Ruel had exhibited in a pioneering monographic show in 1883, , there was an arresting painting of two apple tarts or galettes on wicker platters, Les Galettes, painted in 1882 and in a private collection today.

Les Galettes, 1882, oil on canvas, Claude Monet, Private Collection

Its vigour and brio of treatment, its golds and yellows and close-cropped composition all take one straight to Vincent Van Gogh and his sunflowers or even a study of humble fishes, or bloaters. Did he see Monet's study of the Galettes - he most probably did, as he produced the first studies of cut sunflower heads some five years later.

Two Cut Sunflowers, Vincent Van Gogh, 1887,  oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of Kunstmuseum, Bern)

Two Cut Sunflowers, oil on canvas, 1887. Vincent Van Gogh (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Bloaters on a Piece of Yellow Paper, oil on canvas, 1889, Vincent Van Gogh

The third moment of fascination for me was in the same Impressionist exhibition, again a Monet painting done in 1875, The Coal Carriers. Monet had seen workers unloading coal for the Clichy gasworks from the train from Argenteuil to Paris, and painted this work partly from memory.

The Coal Carriers, oil on canvas. Claude Monet, c. 1875 (Image courtesy of the Musee d'Orsay, Paris)

The rhythmic placement of the men on the gangplanks, the silhouettes and dark colours somehow reminded me of many of the Japanese ukiyo-e prints, their rhythms and cropped views. Monet was an avid admirer of the new wave of Japanese prints coming in to Paris at that time.

Twilight Moon at Ryogoku Bridge from series Famous Views of the Eastern Capital,  Utagawa Hiroshige

Utagawa Hiroshige: Twilight View of the Snow-clad Ryogoku Bridge

I love these moments when you can link up artists, influences and inspirations. They validate one's own endeavours as an artist as you study and view other artists' works, not to copy, but to use as pathways to grow and spread wings.

Delirium of Art Exhibitions by Jeannine Cook

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My problem with a visit to London is that it is never long enough! There is always another exhibition that beckons or a concert that demands to be heard. Nonetheless, there is a distinct delirium in the dizzying number of art exhibitions that I managed to see. There is always the vast diversity of size and type of exhibition from which to choose. The huge and fascinating "Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market" at the National Gallery is currently one extreme. The other is a really interesting and diverse small exhibition, "Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West".

This show, "Cotton to Gold" was a delight from beginning to end, not least because of where it is exhibited. Two Temple Place is a relatively new exhibition venue, along the Victoria Embankment, on the Thames, in front of the amazing Law Courts complex. A small but seriously over the top  neo-Gothic building, it was built as an office for the first Viscount Astor, William Waldorf, in the 1890s. Lavish beyond belief in details and embellishments, it was a statement of power and wealth seldom equalled today. The building alone, now the home of The Bulldog Trust, is well worth a visit, quite apart from any exhibition put on during the winter months.

Two Temple Place, London. Central Hall

Two Temple Place, London. Main Hall-Office

"Cotton to Gold" was a show curated from the collections of three small museums in the British North West, collections that had been donated by very wealthy private citizens in the late 19th/early 20th century. These men had made their money in Lancashire's booming textile industry. Not only did they collect with a passion, but they were also serious local philanthropists, supporting social and cultural institutions.

Mosaic Panel with two sulphur-crested cockatoos attributed to Joseph Briggs, c. 1908, favrile glass in bronze tray, Briggs Collectiob, Haworth Art Gallery

The collections from which this show was curated ranged hugely. Early icons from Greece, Russia and the Eastern Mediterranean; Greek and Roman coins; superb Japanese ukiyo-e prints (pictures of the floating world); cuneiform tablets, manuscripts and books that traced the history of writing from 4000 years ago until the 20th century; carved ivories, J.M.W. Turner watercolours; John Everett Millais' life drawings; work from the largest public collection of  Tiffany glass in Europe; even beetles and Peruvian funerary objects. It was a mind-stretching but really fascinating selection. There was something to interest everyone, in essence.

Book of Hours, 13th century, Paris, parchment, from Robert Edward Hart Collection, Blackburn Museum

Some of the early illuminated manuscripts collected by Robert Edward Hart were exquisite, while others from 15th or 18th century Persia fascinated by their elegance.

Detail, Book of Hours, early 16th century, possibly Rouen, parchment, Hart Collection, Blackburn Museum

Missal written by Johannes de Berlandia, c. 1400, Lombardy, parchment, Hart Collection, Blackburn Museum

Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazul, Dala'il al-khayrut, (Guide to Goodness), 18th century, Persia/Iran. Robert Edward Hart Collection, Blackburn Museum

Nizanni Ganjavi, Khamsa (Quintet), late 15th century, Persia/Iran, Hart Collection, Blackburn Museum

Early printed books showed the straddle between printing and hand illustrations, then printing predominated completely. There were early copies of names that resonate - Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Montaigne or Swift... It made one stretch back into one's early education, a rather humbling affair!

This exhibition reminded me that an exhibition conceived on a very human scale and with such a diversity of content is often unusual today. Nonetheless, it was a delicious and memorable set of collections woven together for everyone's delight. The exhibition runs until 19th April, 2015 ... well worth a saunter along the Victoria Embankment beneath the huge plane trees until you reach Two Temple Place.

The Symbolism of Words by Jeannine Cook

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When I first came to Mallorca, Spain, so many years ago, it was still during Franco's regime. The Balearic Islands were officially forbidden from speaking their own regional language, Mallorquin, and they certainly were not allowed to have any symbol like a regional hymn. Balearic Islands, Spain

Palma de Mallorca

Slowly, slowly, over the years after Franco died and Spain became a democracy and part of the European Union, the Balearics regained their identifying characteristics. One of the most beautiful aspects, I have always thought, was the song that is now termed the hymn of Mallorca, La Balanguera.

La Balanguera

The poem that gave rise to this hymn was written by Joan Alcover i Maspons, as a children's poem that combined whimsy, beauty and instructional philosophy for their life ahead. The poem was put to very lyrical music written by the Catalan composer, Amadeo Vives, and in 1996, the appropriate governmental body, the Consell de Mallorca, declared it to be the island's official hymn.

La Balanguera music

I have always known, of course, its Mallorcan or Spanish versions, loving it when I hear its melodies sung or even hummed.  I recently found an English version translated by Dr. George Giri and published in the Majorcan Daily Bulletin.

Its words contain enough quiet wisdom that I think they bespeak a beauty worth considering.

The spinning wheel’s mysterious treadler Like a spider its subtle art Reels away her flaxen distaff Into yarn that holds our life Thus the spinner treadles On and on And spins her yarn.

Turning glances backward Sees the shadows of the past And the coming springtime Hides the seeds of things to come Knowing that the roots are growing And new roots are taking hold Thus the sinner treadles on and on And spins her yarn.

Hopes that hold traditions Weave a banner for the young Like a veil for future marriage Locks of silver and gold Which are spun into our youth But with age are nearly gone Thus the spinner treadles on and on And spins her yarn.

The Spanish version is just as lyrical in feel.

La Balanguera misteriosa (del francés "boulangère": panadera), como una araña de arte sutil, vacía que vacía la rueca, de nuestra vida saca el hilo. Como una parca que bien cavila, tejiendo la tela para el mañana. La Balanguera hila, hila, la Balanguera hilará.

Girando la vista hacia atrás vigila las sombras del abolengo, y de la nueva primavera sabe donde se esconde la semilla. Sabe que la cepa más trepa cuanto más profundo puede arraigar. La Balanguera hila, hila la Balanguera hilará.

De tradiciones y de esperanzas teje la bandera para la juventud como quien hace un velo de bodas con cabellos de oro y plata de la infancia que trepa de la vejez que se va La Balanguera hila, hila, la Balanguera hilará.

Hymns always reflect the optic of the region or nation that has them. The gentle yet fatalistic recognition of life's realities inherent in La Balanguera is very congruent with the sense of long history and solid self-identity with which this island faces the invasion of visitors and potential foreign residents over the years. I love this feeling of deep-seated culture that underpins Mallorcan life in so many instances, especially away from the tourist centres.

In essence, La Balanguera tells of the art of living. An interesting choice for a hymn...

Mind-stretching Art by Jeannine Cook

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I knew it was important to see. But the weather forecast was for snow, sleet, rain and high winds. And it was a long drive... Nonetheless, I went.

Where? Well, to one of the really important caves for prehistoric art in the Pyrenees in South France. To Niaux Cave, to be exact, in Niaux, south of Foix, the centre of the Ariège district.

In a way, the stage is well set for the interior of the two-kilometer long series of interlocking caves by the dramatic Corten steel building-cum-sculpture which marks today's entrance to the cave. Massimiliano Fuksas' architecture is somehow as wild and fanciful as any imaginary creature that could emerge from the caves.

After a long, wet tramp into the dramatic galleries of the cave, lit only by each person's individual torch issued to us, I began to have the sensation of inexorably walking backwards in time. First this was helped by all the graffiti on the walls, signatures of earlier visitors dating back as far as 1602.

Grotte de Niaux, early visitor's graffiti

Then came wall marking far earlier than that - red and black dots and lines, early man's geometrical marks.

Grotte de Niaux, rock panel of signs

We penetrated further and further into the ample, swooping roofed galleries that had been sculpted by water over millennia. It was quiet and mysterious. Only the sound of footsteps, the occasional splosh as someone stepped into one of the numerous large puddles, and the dancing beams of light catching the sparkle of minerals on the tumultuous ceilings...

Then suddenly our soft-spoken, knowledgeable young French guide stopped by a large flat rock. She asked us to turn off our flashlights and put them on the rock. Total silent darkness, as each of us wondered what happened next.

We were told to follow a stainless steel railing with our hands as the guide's light led us along. Another pause. Then she switched on a powerful white light, training it on the cave wall. Perhaps the children in the group expressed our emotions best - they simply gasped and shrieked, "Chouette!" - "Cool!".

Before us was the first complex grouping of black drawings - interlocking bison, horses,deer, even an exquisitely stippled ibex. Outlines, some use of the rock wall contours, a sureness of line and touch that was fresh, sophisticated and powerful, totally arresting. Animals depicted in silhouette, the bison with lances sometimes in their flanks, all represented with amazing accuracy and knowledge.

Grotte de Niaux, Salon Noir, horses

Grotte de Niaux, Salon Noir, superimposed bison and a horse

Grotte de Niaux, Przewalski horse

Grotte de Niaux, horse

As we moved slowly round the Salon Noir, with the light shone brilliantly and briefly on each panel, followed by darkness once more, the "ceremony" of viewing became more and more an incantation, an altering of one's sense of the here and now. Evocations were made of the different interpretations of these works of art, buried so far in the depths of the earth, - religious, symbolic, shamanistic... We shall never know for certain, but the ensemble of animals, symbols and signs seems to represent views of worlds beyond the Magdalenians' daily lives, worlds where society's problems were thus resolved and in which harmony was restored.

Grotte de Niaux, Salon Noir, ibex

Grotte de Niaux, Salon Noir, bison

Trying to enter the mind of those far-off Magdalenians is not easy. With such fluidity and knowledge of form, they were drawing these astonishing images on the rough walls of Niaux 14,000 years ago for the most part, or incising images on the floors of the caves. Nonetheless, I found another fact to be even more mind-bending. One series of bison drawings, on the other side of the Salon Noir to the main groups, is apparently dated to about 13,000 years ago. In other words, a thousand years later, other artists drew very similar groups of images. In the light of flickering flares...

Grotte de Niaux, Salon Noir, panel 6, bison and ibex

Something even more astounding was then softly explained by our guide. Apparently there is a very similar series of drawings in the Grotte Chauvet, miles away in the Ardèche region of France, that resembles those in Niaux. The one important fact that required endless verification and ultimate confirmation: the Grotte Chauvet drawings were done at least 14,000 years previously.

To think that our ancestors could echo the same images and approach to creating drawings of bison and other animals 14,000 years later... without any of our present means of recording images by paper, camera, scanner, whatever... It is almost beyond comprehension.

For me, this was the summum of mind-stretching dislocation about the power and importance of art, whatever its ultimate meaning for those who created it and viewed it in those quiet natural cathedrals beneath the earth.

I was more than glad I had made that snowy trip through the Pyrenees!

Elegant Simplicity by Jeannine Cook

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So often this happens in life: you go to see one place or thing, and what ends up being the special highlight is not at all the object of your visit. Fate intervenes! This happened to me again when I went to see the famed cathedral of Saint-Bertrand de Comminges in the French Pyrenees. Yes, the great structure, first raised in 1073 near the site of a Roman city Lugdunum Convenarum, is impressive. It soon changed from its Romanesque beginnings to being a far more elaborate Gothic pilgrimage centre in the late 13th century,, adopting the name of its famed bishop, Bertrand de Got, Bishop of Comminges. Its interior is dominated by an amazing choir and sixty-six stalls, a marvel of carved portraits and scenes in oak, all designed so that the pilgrims visiting St. Bertrand's tomb would not interfere with the daily offices of the canons attached to the cathedral.  But another delight awaited me after I explored the cathedral and surrounding small hill town.

Saint-Just de Valcabrère, Haute Garonne, France

A short distance away, below the Roman ruins and St. Bertrand de Comminges itself is the hamlet of Valcabrère.  Down a small plane tree-lined road through the fields lies a gem - Saint-Just de Valcabrère. A small Romanesque church, dominated by a sturdy but perfectly proportioned  square bell tower crowned with a pyramid tiled roof, it is intimately linked to its cemetery by the simple portal through which one enters the 11th century church.

Golden stone, perfect Romanesque arches, a sense of quiet and peace, simplicity everywhere - I was mesmerised.  I have always loved Romanesque architecture and have often meandered through France to visit churches of this era, but Saint-Just de Valcabrère is one of the loveliest examples I have seen.  The entrance is so restrained in the carved details, St. Etienne who was martyred in Alcala de Henares, Spain, on 6th August, 304 AD, during the terrible persecutions imposed by Diocletian.  He is accompanied by two Spanish martyred priests in the outer carvings.

St-Just de  Valcabrere, entrance to church from cemetery

Saint-Just de Valcabrère, entrance, side column

Saint-Just de Valcabrère, entrance, side column

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Saint-Just de Valcabrère, entrance, side column capital

I was strangely lucky in the timing of my finding Saint-Just: as I arrived, I found all the little roads approaching the church jammed with cars and people walking to the entrance.  The bell began slowly to toll - so I knew it had to be for a funeral.  I joined the mourners and entered the totally packed church just as the priest was beginning the service.  Again, perfectly proportioned golden arches, a sense of intimacy and timelessness, despite all the people.  The altar in white marble is perhaps the most elaborate aspect of the interior, but it seemed totally appropriate. At the far end of the church from the altar, where normally one enters a church, there is an imposing organ, played beautifully when I was there.

Saint-Just de Valcabrère, interior, looking towards the organ at the back of the church

I did not linger too long as people were still arriving and every chair in the church was required.  So I slipped away,  amazed and grateful at my wonderful magical moments.  It is not every day that one happens on such elegant, beautiful simplicity.

Rediscovering Charlotte Salomon by Jeannine Cook

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One of the wonderful things about spending time at an artist residency is being able to alternate between trying to create art and reading about other artists. It is a luxury to do so, and I am savouring it at a beautiful and peaceful retreat nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, Bordeneuve, in Betchat, Ariège. I am a firm believer in the eddying delights of chance, especially when it comes to happening upon books. Once again, Lady Luck led me to a book, "Charlotte" by David Foenkinos, published last year by Gallimard and which won the 2014 Prix Renaudot and Prix Goncourt des Lycéens.

It is a fictionalised account of the life of Charlotte Salomon, the young German Jewish artist who fled to France during World War II and there was finally killed in Auschwitz in 1943. Written in verse, it is an arresting account of the intertwining of the author's fascination for this artist with the account of her young life.

Self-Portrait, Charlotte Salomon, gouache, (image courtesy of the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, National Jewish Museum, Amsterdam)

Life? or Theatre?, Charlotte Salomon, 1940-42, gouache,(Image courtesy of the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Jewish Arts Museum, Amsterdam)

What did young girls do during the War?  Charlotte Salomon, gouache, (image courtesy of the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, National Jewish Museum, Amsterdam)

I knew of Charlotte Salomon and her haunting, passionate paintings, but this book made me go back and look more closely at images of her work. As the Nazis tightened their noose on the Jews, life - everyday, intellectual, professional and cultural - became increasingly impossible, but Charlotte's prominent physician father and diva singer step-mother refused to leave Berlin. So Charlotte eventually took refuge in art, her passion and her solace.

Life? or Theatre?, Charlotte Salomon, gouache, (image courtesy of the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, National Jewish Museum, Amsterdam)

From there, her life grew more complex, more dangerous. Once she had fled to France, leaving behind her family and a man with whom she had fallen passionately in love, she shut herself up in a hotel room in Villefranche for two years.  There she created a vast body of work autobiographical in nature, almost operatic in form, with dialogue, images, commentary, musical cues, all vivid in colour and content. Pregnant and in mortal danger, she eventually entrusted her art to her physician, knowing that she only had a short time to live.  She gave him a simple, stark explanation, "This is my whole life".

Life? or Theatre?, Charlotte Salomon, gouache, (image courtesy of the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, National Jewish Museum, Amsterdam)

Life? or Theatre?, Charlotte Salomon, gouache, (image courtesy of the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, National Jewish Museum, Amsterdam)

Kristallnacht, Charlotte Salomon, gouache, (image courtesy of the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, National Jewish Museum, Amsterdam)

Life? or Theatre?, Charlotte Salomon, gouache, (image courtesy of the Charlotte Salomon Foundation, National Jewish Museum, Amsterdam)

Eventually in 1961, her work, Life? or Theatre?: A Play with Music, was exhibited for the first time. The exhibit and accompanying catalogue spread the word about her inventive, passionate art. Now there is a new surge of interest after David Foenkinos' book has been published. I am glad I have been reminded of this courageous, highly original and driven artist who only lived twenty-six years...

Technical Artistry by Jeannine Cook

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As I sat entranced, listening to a wonderful performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, I began to think about the parallels between a musician's dexterity of hand and that of a visual artist drawing or painting. Rosa Torres Pardo, the young pianist, was playing with the Baleares Symphony Orchestra. Slender and unaffected, she had an amazing power and delicacy of touch on the keyboard. Her command of the keys was sure and exquisitely balanced, her fingers performing a wonderful ballet up and down the long stretch of keys.

RosaTorres-Pardo, pianist

Meanwhile, the Orchestra's violinists, violoncellos, brass, percussionists... all demonstrated their skill of hands and arms in similar fashion. Phillippe Bender was conducting and his hands were part of this same fascination I was experiencing as I found the parallels with visual artists.

Pianist Rebecca Davis

Violinist Hilary Hahn

Orchestra conductor Philippe Bender

When you draw in silver or goldpoint, for example, you need to have an exactness, a sensitivity of touch, an understanding of how to move your hand as you make the marks to obtain the desired result. Just like striking a piano key in a certain fashion to obtain the desired sound, or drawing your bow across a violin...

Drawing Hands, M. C.  Escher (1948)

Painting, in oils, acrylics, watercolours... the brush strokes or palette knife's motion all make different effects and renderings on paper or canvas. It is all in the motion of the arm and use of the fingers - the touch, in essence.

 Parshat-Veetchanan- Silverpoint Drawing, Sherry-Camhy

Carol Prusa drawing her Dome sprhere in acrylic, silverpoint,  silver leaf (image courtesy of the artist)

Finding unity in our creative endeavours always delights me. Every working artist celebrates the passion that inspires and moves him or her. With our arms, hands and fingers as universal tools in these creations, developing dexterity and command of technical vocabularies is an ever-important part of being an artist. No wonder every musician, ballet dancer, visual artist, conductor... practices and practices to improve as an artist.

The Stilling Voice of Art amid the Hurly Burly of Airports by Jeannine Cook

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I am always surprised by the sudden shock of rounding a corner in a busy airport and finding a moment of centering peace. It does not happen often, but when it does, it makes the travelling more bearable in today's abrasive airports.

It happened recently to me again. Atlanta's relentlessly busy, noisy airport had offered a few moments of quiet amid the pounding feet, with an exhibition of children's art on the walls of the international flight concourse E. The voices of these paintings sang of hope and joy, a contrast to the often intent and stressed faces of fellow travellers.

The really lovely moments of peace from art came in Madrid, an airport which has grown organically and offers many versions of art from different building phases of the airport. Even ceilings are well designed, as shown in Perec's lovely photo taken in Terminal 4 that opens this blog post.

Las Tres Damas de Barajas  sculpture by Manolo Valdes, Adolfo Suarez Barajas Airport, Madrid

One huge merit of the airport is that there are no public announcements and the universal quiet is already a balm. Add to that the art, especially in some of the VIP lounges. It is quietly elegant in voice. You turn a corner and there is a collection of modern prints, discreet and well presented. Their effect stills and composes. You suddenly find the energy to go on with your trip, renewed in some subtle, indefinable way.

As you press on to the gate for your next flight, little prayers of thanks to those artists float up to the skies. Art - of so many different descriptions - fills our lives with richness and healing. It gives me hope for safe landings.

We have been Around a Long Time as Artists! by Jeannine Cook

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What a perfect beginning to the New Year! If I ever doubted that, as an artist, I am following a very ancient and venerable tradition, I had fascinating confirmation that I - and every other artist in the world - follow in extraordinarily ancient footsteps.

I read today that a mussel shell, found over a hundred years ago in Java, Indonesia, but recently re-examined, was apparently decorated by our hominid ancestors, Homo erectus, at least 430,000 years ago. No wonder the press was agog in early December, onwards.

 

Mussel shell with zigzag patterns from Java, dated between 540,000 and 430,000 years old

Yes, 430,000 yeas ago! Someone engraved zigzags like an "M", a couple of parallel lines and a reversed "N" shape on the mussel shell. Another shell found had a deliberately sharpened edge that was polished to serve as a cutting tool. So abstract art and even symbols apparently existed many, many thousands of years before Homo sapiens made his/her appearance and made engravings in South Africa.

430,000 year old mussel shell,  Trinil pseudodon, closeup

 

Engraved zigzag patterns found on mussel shell, dated to at least 430,000 years ago, from Java

I think this is the perfect inspiration to salute the New Year. We go back a very long way as artists, and that liberates each of us to do what sings in our hearts and impels us to create.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Serendipitious Thoughts by Jeannine Cook

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Every artist knows the magic of an idea suddenly hitting when least expected. Often these serendipitous thoughts form the basis on which to create, often something new and adventurous. They help push out new creative frontiers and make one think in different ways. Sometimes it is an idea that reaffirms a direction on which one is embarked already. Other times, it awakens curiosity and  suggests new lines of investigation. Let me give an example.

My fascination with silverpoint drawing led me, just recently, to marvel at a displayed copy of the huge and wonderful St. John's Bible. This work of art and devotion was created by a team of artists and theological scholars at the Benedictine St. John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Central Minnesota, under the leadership of Donald Jackson, Scribe to Her Majesty's Crown Office at the House of Lords in London. Fulfilling a life-long dream of creating a modern illuminated Bible, linking ancient spiritual texts with the 21st century world, he was eventually commissioned in 1998 to create the St. John's Bible. Its final lines were penned in 2011. The resultant, magnificent creation, 2 feet by three when the Bible is open, is written by hand on vellum, with 160 illuminations, each one of which is absolutely mesmerizing.  These are just  some samples to incite you, I hope, to look at more of them and see them in real life if you get the chance.

First Page,  Gospel according to St. Matthew, St John's Bible, Donald Jackson

 

    The Creation, Genesis I, Opening Page, St John's Bible, Donald Jackson with contribution by Chris Tomlin (Image courtesy of St. Hubert.org) Psalm 107, Book V Frontespiece, St. John's Bible, Donald Jackson with Sally Mae Joseph scribe (Image courtesy of St. Hubert.org)

 

Revelation - Valley of Dry Bones, St. John's Bible, Donald Jackson

 

The Ten Commandments, St. John's Bible, Thomas Ingmire artist

I loved looking at the amazing illuminations on display, but behind my fascination lay two questions: Did the artists draw the illuminations out in silverpoint before they painted them with tempera and inlaid gold leaf, as happened in medieval times? And did Mr. Jackson lay out lines on which to write his text with leadpoint, as did the early monks?

Elisha  and the Six Miracles, St. John's Bible, Donald Jackson in collaboration with Aidan Hart

 

I was able to ascertain that no, neither silverpoint nor leadpoint were used in this creation of the St. John's Bible.

So that made me wonder about other frontiers... Now I need to find out about some other amazing creations - the extraordinary portolan charts and nautical maps created in the 14th century by the preeminent Mallorcan map makers, among whom Abraham Cresques and his son, Jehuda, were the most renowned. Since all those early, early maps arose from the monastic tradition of illuminated manuscripts and were often created contemporaneously to the Books of Hours and other sacred works, I suspect that indeed metalpoint came into use during the maps' creation.  But I need to hunt further to confirm that...

Catalan Atlas, 1375, Abraham and Jehuda Cresques, (Image courtesy of  Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

 

Europe -Mediterranean portion, Catalan Atlas

 

Detail, Catalan Atlas, 1375  (Image courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

 

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1389 Mappamundi, Jehuda Cresques, comissioned by Juan I of Aragon

When you gaze at these complex works of science and beauty, the 14th century equivalent of Google Maps for the seamen of that time, large charts created painstakingly on vellum, it is with the same amazement as I experienced with the St. John's Bible. But now I need to find out if those artists drew their illustrations and lines with metalpoint...

There was something else connected to the St. John's Bible that helped reaffirm ideas that are rummaging around my head for future art projects. The Mission Statement included on the label describing the copy of St. John's Bible on display had a pithy list of actions that are the perfect springboard for serendipitous ideas. Some of them are:

Ignite Imagination Revive Tradition Discover History Foster the Arts Give Voice

All wonderful thoughts of how to go on exploring metalpoint drawing, a medium of antiquity equal to the early medieval religious bibles, of exactitude for exploration of aspects of the natural world and, at the same time, a medium of wonderful possibilities for today's artistic voices.

Creativity by Jeannine Cook

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Everyone uses the word. Everyone feels that intuitively, they know what "creativity" means. Everyone also knows that it is a highly desirable quality to possess. Yet the definition of creativity is not so easy. The Oxford English Dictionary succinctly puts it as "The use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness." Wikipedia gets broader in concepts: "' the production of novel, useful products' (Mumford, 2003, p. 110). Creativity can also be defined 'as the process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile' or 'characterized by originality and expressiveness and imaginative'." The article goes on to add that there are countless other versions of definitions.

Of course, in the art arena, creativity is deemed indispensable if the artist is in any way to be successful. Yet, as we all know, there are so many versions of artistic expression that most are considered creative only by a few viewers. Only the truly exceptional are heralded by most people, and until very recently, the culture of each country also played a part in the degree of appreciation of the work created.

What set me off thinking about the concept of creativity was a wonderful expression I read in a marvellous new book, "The Churchill Factor" by Boris Johnson (Mayor of London Boris Johnson). Discussing Winston Churchill's amazing abilities, particularly in the World War II period, Johnson says, "he (Churchill) also had the zigzag streak of lightning in the brain that makes for creativity."

It is so often just that aspect, the "zigzag streak of lightning in the brain", that allows for unorthodox approaches, solutions that come out of left field, images configured in a wholly novel way, vivid writing that none else has achieved...

In art, for instance, every generation has had truly creative people who have broken out of the mould and done things differently. The Renaissance was full of artists - think, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Durer, Titian.,... - developing linear perspective, depicting landscape in naturalistic fashion, executing portraits of people in realistic fashion, modelling with light and shade. Later generations perfected oil painting, shifted the focus of Western art to Mannerism - such as Tintoretto or El Greco.  Then the Baroque artists flourished, like Caraveggio, Rubens or Rembrandt, and on the artists marched. Look at some samples of the different ways artists worked down the centuries.

Virgin of the Rocks, 1483-1486, Leonardo_da_Vinci_- (Image courtesy of the Louvre)

Bacchus and Ariadne, Titian, 1520-23, (Image courtesy of The National Gallery, London)

St. Martin and the Beggar, 1597-99, oil on canvas, El Greco, (Image courtesy of the Widener Collection, National Gallery, Washington)

Portrait of Susanna Lunden(?) ('Le Chapeau de Paille') probably 1622-5, Peter Paul Rubens, (Image courtesy of the National Gallery, London)

By the 19th century, art needed some more innovatively creative artists and the Impressionists came to the fore, with Manet, Monet, Renoir and Pissarro leading the way. Creativity certainly flourished with Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne, as they laid the groundwork for 20th century artists to find entirely new paths to follow in creating art in tune with their tumultuous century.

Tahitian Woman with a Flower, Paul Gauguin, 1891 (Image courtesy of NY Carlsberg Glyptotek)

Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (c. 1887), Paul Cezanne, (Image courtesy of Courtauld Institute of Art)

Perhaps another aspect of creativity as it zigzags through the human brain is that it very often has, as a springboard, the social and cultural context of the time. To me, creativity is partly a spontaneous phenomenon arising in some wonderfully imaginative human mind, but it is also like a seed that has been planted in soil fertile and well watered enough for the seed to germinate, grow and flourish so that others see and appreciate it.

Only when Churchill was at the helm during World War II could his multifaceted creativity flower so successfully as he led his country out of peril and to victory in 1945. In the artistic world, the Leonardo da Vincis, Titians or El Grecos needed the powerful patrons of the land and Church to enable to give successful expression to their creative skills.

Later artists have had a harder time finding patrons and supporters to allow them to create and to live decently, a situation known to most artists at one point or another... And does creativity flourish as fully and successfully when the artist is worrying about the next meal or the next rent payment? In every field, from art to architecture to engineering or technology, the same considerations pertain - how to ensure the optimum conditions so that human creativity can flourish. In truth, our collective future depends in large part on that zigzag flash of creativity in the human brain.

Five Images a Day by Jeannine Cook

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Every artist is told - practice, practice, practice. But it is not always easy to do this, since life tends sometimes to get in the way. So finding a way to keep doing art is always important but nonetheless often challenging. However, I listened with interest to an interview done on NPR a couple of days ago by Rachel Martin. She was talking to famed photographer David Hume Kennerly about his new adventures with his iPhone 5 which he used as a camera. Having pared down his equipment to this one "camera", he set out to photograph the world around him in a very simple fashion, returning to basics of observation and curiosity.  The resultant book, "David Hume Kennerly On The iPhone: Secrets And Tips From A Pulitzer Prize-winning Photographer", has just come out.

David Hume Kennerly

He set himself the challenge of going out into his neighbourhood and taking at least five photographs a day, trying to look at the familiar and perhaps even the trivial around him in a new fashion. It was a way to sharpen his skills and extend his powers of seeing. In other words, it was the perfect example of practice, practice, practice to improve as an artist.  It was, as he described, his "photo fitness workout".

The parallel I made, as I listened to Mr. Kennerly talking - and remember, this is a revered photographer and Pulitzer prize winner talking - was the advice to go out with a simple, small drawing book and drawing tool. As a visual artist, I have always considered drawing to be the basis of understanding whatever it is that I am seeing in the world around me.

It takes seconds to make marks on a drawing book page - but whatever you are drawing then "belongs" to you. You know it, understand it better, remember it. It has become an integral part of you by the actions of mark making as your eye, brain and hand interact to record that simple object or sight.  Countless artists, down the ages, have done this.

Page from sketchbook, (image courtesy of the British Museum)

sketchbook, (image courtesy of the British Museum)

sketchbook, (image courtesy of the British Museum)

Having absorbed the image, it is then easier to edit and strengthen it, transmute it to something else,.. In other words, you can create art. Just as Mr. Kennerly created art through his simple medium of the iPhone, so each of us can use the image captured as the springboard to something else. Or just use the moment as a "limbering up", an exercice to keep eye/brain/hand coordination and skills.  Just look at what Turner did in his wonderful sketchbooks.

Joseph Mallard William Turner, 1831 sketch. (Image courtesy of Tate Britain)

A Tower, 1831,  Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 (Image courtesy of Tate Britain)

Study of a Tree, with a Line of Trees Beyond,  circa 1789,  Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775-1851 (Image courtesy of Tate Britain)

Sketch of an Interior; Also, a Renaissance Church Tower, circa 1831, Joseph Mallord William Turner  (Image courtesy of Tate Britain)

The Blue Rigi, 1844, watercolour, Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775-1851, (Image courtesy of   Tate Britain)

The Channel Sketchbook, c. 1845, watercolour, Joseph  Mallord William Turner (Image courtesy of Tate Britain)

Five quick drawings a day - a diary of one's voyage through life as you look around you, a record of moments of fascination and interest. And a way of remembering each day that your passion in life revolves around art.

Not a bad bargain to make. David Hume Kennerly's example is a wonderful one to follow for us all, in whatever version of art-making.

Evaluating Art by Jeannine Cook

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Changing gears from producing art to matting and framing art for exhibitions is always a bit of a wrench, I find. I don't know if others find it to be so. First of all, of course, it depends on what the exhibition is to be about, and where the show is to be held. An exhibition in a museum is different from one in a gallery where your art is for sale, and the choice of artwork to exhibit will correspondingly be different. Not of less quality, nonetheless. Any professional artist will always try to put the best work out for exhibition, no matter where.

However, deciding on what the "best work" is can be an interesting exercice. I think any artist is always excited about the latest work done, and hopes and believes that it is better than previous work. Nonetheless, I have privately decided that whenever possible, it is good to put the art just completed aside for a while, so that I can then come back to it with a fresh eye. Only then can I have any distance and can better evaluate its merits and/or defects.  I sometimes feel a little like the meandering salt water rivers entering the coastal Georgia marshes, such as I painted once.

A Day at Julienton. watercolour, artist Jeannine Cook

I am in the throes of trying to do just such an "agonising reappraisal" of work I had put away in a drawer, all carefully stored in mylar envelopes for the metalpoints and acid-free tissue leaving for the watercolours. First of all, I needed to sort through to try to make a coherent ensemble for a solo exhibition I am holding in January-February at the new gallery for Glynn Visual Arts on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Having selected out some art, then comes the more critical, eagle-eyed time. And that is the hard part!

March at Butler Island, graphite, artist Jeannine Cook

Having winnowed again, the resultant selection has to be matched up with types of mats - 4 ply or 8 ply museum mats. Next come their shades of white and cream (I tend to be super conservative in mat colours, trying to let the artwork speak for itself...). Then what type of frame, what colour of moulding? So many decisions. And all part of the evaluation process because until the artwork on paper is matted, glazed and framed, you really do not know how it will finally look.

So I scratch my head a lot, turn the artwork upside down, walk away from it, come close to it. I play light on it (especially for metalpoint drawings because the metals shimmer when you catch them in the correct light and really come alive...). I fiddle with mats, mouldings, skin my fingers screwing and unscrewing moulding pieces... Such fun!

Cedar Lines. gold-silverpoint, artist Jeannine Cook

At the end of this whole evaluation process, which I suspect is familiar, in some form or another, to every artist, one just hopes that the result is an interesting, uplifting ensemble of art that appeals to the public.

Stay tuned for January's news!

Wisdom from Dame Barbara Hepworth by Jeannine Cook

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When I re-read a lecture that British sculptor, Dame Barbara Hepworth gave about 1953 to a group of surgeons, it seemed well worth repeating (courtesy of the Bowness, Hepworth Estate). Barbara Hepworth was a very good draughtswoman, and as a result of her daughter, Sarah, spending time in hospital in 1944, she became close friends with Norman Capener, a surgeon who treated Sarah at the Princess Elizabeth Orthopaedic Hospital in Exeter .  He invited her to be present in operating theatres in Exeter and at the London Clinic, during surgical procedures, so that she could draw different scenes of the operations.  As a result, she produced, between 1947-49,  nearly 80 drawings of operating rooms in pencil, chalk, ink and oil paint on board. She became fascinated by the similarities between surgeons and artists, particularly with the rhythmic motions of hands.

The Hands, 1948, oil & pencil on panel, Barbara Hepworth, (Image courtesy of Bristol Museum and Art Gallery)

Concentration of Hands II, 1948, Barbara Hepworth, (Image courtesy of Bowness, Hepworth Estate)

She wrote, after being in the operating theatre in Exeter, "I expected that I should dislike it; but from the moment when I entered the operating theatre I became completely absorbed by two things: first, the co-ordination between human beings all dedicated to the saving of a life, and the way that unity of idea and purpose dictated a perfection of concentration, movement, and gesture, and secondly by the way this special grace (grace of mind and body), induces a spontaneous space composition, an articulated and animated kind of abstract sculpture very close to what I had been seeking in my own work."

Prelude II, Barbara Hepworth,Bowness, Hepworth estate (Image courtesy of Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

In her c.1953 lecture, she reiterated this unity of idea and purpose.

"There is, it seems to me, a very close affinity between the work and approach both of physicians and surgeons, and painters and sculptors. In both professions, we have a vocation and we cannot escape the consequences of it.

"The medical profession, as a whole, seeks to restore and to maintain the beauty and grace of the human mind and body; and, it seems to me, whatever illness a doctor sees before him, he never loses sight of the ideal, or state of perfection, of the human mind and body and spirit towards which he is working.

Tibia Graft, Barbara Hepworth, Hepworth Wakefield,(Image courtesy of Bowness, Hepworth Estate)

Prevision,Barbara Hepworth, Bowness,Hepworth Estate (Image courtesy of The British Council)

"The artist, in his sphere, seeks to make concrete ideas of beauty which are spiritually affirmative, and which, if he succeeds, become a link in the long chain of human endeavor which enriches man's vitality and understanding, helping him to surmount his difficulties and gain a deeper respect for life.

Concourse 2, 1948, oil & pencil on pine board, Barbara Hepworth, (Image courtesy of the Royal College of Surgeons of England)

Concentration of Hands II, 1948, Barbara Hepworth, (Image courtesy of Bowness, Hepworth Estate)

Fenestration of the Ear, Bowness, Barbara Hepworth, Hepworth Estate; (c) Sir Alan Bowness (Image courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries)

(c) Sir Alan Bowness; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

"The abstract artist is one who is predominantly interested in the basic principles and unifying structures of things, rather than in the particular scene or figure before him..."

theatre Group III, Barbara hepworth, (Image courtesy of Manchester City Galleries)

Joaquín Sorolla and the Sea – Part II by Jeannine Cook

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My last blog post was on Joaquín Sorolla's approach to plein air painting, after I saw the CaixaForum exhibition, "The Colour of the Sea" in Palma de Mallorca. His "Colour Notes" are so fresh and searching, so bold and gestural, that I sometimes felt that the resultant paintings, in which this carefully observed material was incorporated, lost a little in impact. Nonetheless, the exhibition shows beautifully how Sorolla, set up on the beach in very practical painting fashion, was ever-intent on capturing the endless changes of the seascapes. His meticulous studies of the different hues of blue, for instance, show his passion for capturing the limpid colours of the sea, the play of light on the waves or on bodies in the water, their diversity of tone. Yes, he was basing all his art on Nature, in a realistic fashion, but he certainly was breaking down what he saw into the most abstract of shapes and compositions.

Young Yachtsman, 1909, oil on canvas, oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Sea and Rocks, Javea, 1900, oil on canvas, oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

The Sea,  (Javea), 1905,  oil on cardboard,  Joaquín sorolla,  (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Look, for instance, at the Young Swimmers. Their skin underwater becomes a shimmer of alabasters floating in this energy-filled abstraction of green ripples and dancing light.

Swimmers (Javea), oil on canvas, 1905, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Another canvas that interested me in the flattening of the perspective is Marie at the Beach. As in other paintings he did of contrejour light on cliff tops, Sorolla flattened out the distances: the sea below is virtually on the same plane as Maria, because one senses his total fascination with the sea and its restless play of light and foam.

Marie on the Beach,  (Biarritz), 1906, oil on canvas, JoaSwimmers (Javea), oil on canvas, 1905, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)     Swimmers (Javea), oil on canvas, 1905, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

The translucence of white fabric, seen contrajour against the sea, is another of his favourite subjects. Just out of the Sea demonstrates this marvellously; it is all about that luminous, undulating light blowing in the wind, contrasting with the glowing solidity of the mother and small boy, all rendered tangy in the salt air and the susurration of the turquoise sea.

Just out of the Sea, 1915, oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

The marine landscapes are all about luminosity, distance being dissolved into pure colour. Sky and sea are his fascinations, his challenges.  No wonder he stated, ""I could not paint at all if I had to paint slowly. Every effect is so transient, it must be rapidly painted.”

Mar de Zarauz, 1910, oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Breakwater, San Sebastian, oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

His 1919 works done at Cabo San Vincente in Mallorca are pure colour hymns. No wonder he is loved by so many for these celebrations of the sea, one of Spain's greatest beauties in his lifetime.  We are lucky that he recorded his country's coastal scenes before they were transformed by 20th century mass tourism.

Cabo San Vicente, Mallorca, 1919, oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Esmeraldas de la Cala San Vicente, 1919, oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Una Barca en la Cala de San Vicente, 1919, oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Helena en Cala San Vicente, 1919, oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

 

 

Joaquín Sorolla and the Sea - Part I by Jeannine Cook

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An exhibition, "Sorolla: The Colour of the Sea" has just come to Palma de Mallorca via the CaixaForum, having travelled to various cities in Spain in larger or smaller version. The paintings and oil on board studies have been lent by the Sorolla Museum in Madrid. They reflect Joaquín Sorolla's passion for the sea, despite the fact he was not born at the coast. They also testify to his enormous skill in working en plein air, at great speed, trying to be faithful to the every-changing light, the restless sea in all its moods and the feel of the place in which he was painting.

 Rocas de San Esteban, Asturias, 1903,  oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Rocas de San Esteban, Asturias, 1903, oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Sorolla commented, "Me sería imposible pintar despacio al aire libre. No hay nada inmóvil en lo que nos rodea. El mar se riza a cada instante, la nube se deforma, al mudar de sitio… pero aunque todo estuviera petrificado y fijo, bastaría que se moviera el sol, lo que hace de continuo para dar diverso aspecto a las cosas… Hay que pintar de prisa porque cuanto se pierde, fugaz que no vuelve a encontrarse!”. Roughly translated, Sorolla said that it was impossible for him to paint slowly en plein air. Nothing stays still around us. The sea ripples continuously, clouds change their form as they move...and even if everything were totally still, even cast in stone, everything would still change in aspect because the sun moves all the time. You have to paint quickly because so much gets lost, some much is fleeting and will never return.

Any artist who has worked outdoors knows exactly what Sorolla was talking about.

Sea at Ibiza (study for Smugglers), 1919, oil on canvas, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

The exhibition showed a fair number of oil on cardboard, small studies, "Colour Notes", and for me, they were the most fascinating aspects of seeing the show. In this first blog entry on Sorolla, I will concentrate on them, as far as I am able to find decent images. First of all, you see Sorolla responding to Nature's colours and forms and seeking the fleeting approximation of the colours and light that he saw. These small rectangles of colour impressions are so abstract it is amazing, even though Sorolla was a passionate Realist.

Study of Waves, oil, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Study of Storm-tossed Sea, oil, Joaquín Sorolla (image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Study - Storm at Sea, oil, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Study - Storm at Sea, oil, Joaquín Sorolla (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Beach Study, Joaquín Sorolla, oil (image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Javea Beach, oil, Joaquín Sorolla, (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Since the sea is endlessly in motion, it is astonishing how Sorolla captures its moods and movement, particularly considering that he did not spend all his time at the coast. His early visits to the brilliantly-lit Mediterranean areas near Javea and Valencia were later contrasted with visits to the north at San Sebastian and Biarritz, with very different atmospheric and marine conditions.

Javea, oil, Joaquín Sorolla,  (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Javea, Study, oil, Joaquín Sorolla (image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Sea Study, oil,  Joaquín Sorolla,  (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Beach Study, 1906, oil on cardboard,  Joaquín Sorolla,  (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Isorllla Sea Study, oil, Joaquín Sorolla,  (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Wave Study, oil, Joaquín Sorolla,  (Image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Northern Seascape, oil, Joaquín Sorolla (image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

Beach Study, oil, Joaquín Sorolla (image courtesy of Museo Sorolla)

The studies and paintings of the sea are, to me, the most wonderful part of Sorolla's opus.  For him, of course, these studies were  the preparation for the larger finished paintings. He knew that understanding a scene, preparation and prior choice of colours all helped when it came to working on a bigger canvas.  He remarked, "The great difficulty with large canvases is that they should by right be painted as fast as a sketch. By speed only can you gain an appearance of fleeting effect. But to paint a three yard canvas with the same dispatch as one of ten inches is well-nigh impossible.”

Nonetheless,  Sorolla also knew that once he got going, all bets were off on how the painting would evolve, because the light, scene, sea... would be continually changing.  He advised, “Go to nature with no parti pris. You should not know what your picture is to look like until it is done. Just see the picture that is coming."

For him, as for every artist, especially one working en plein air, every work was a gamble. In his case, however, his gambles paid off handsomely most of the time.

Links with Past Artists by Jeannine Cook

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Every time that new findings are published about art found on the walls of caves, it seems that our links with artist ancestors get pushed back further and further in time.  In other words, artists have been among the earliest hominoids to be able to organise abstract thought and find ways to express themselves visually. The remarkable announcement, about three days ago, that an Australian-Indonesian team  has dated the ghostly outlines of human hands on the walls of Maros Cave, on the island of Sulawesi,  to 39,900 years ago, has electrified everyone.  Not only is this one of the oldest examples of a form of art (created by blowing pigment dust onto outstretched hands to create the negative outline), but it is the first proof that Europeans were not the only early artists.  Asia had its share of them too. And most likely, given time and luck, examples of this early rupestrian art will be found in Africa too.

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Nonetheless, despite the dating of these hand outlines by sampling minute layers of the minerals covering them and using the radioactive uranium in some of them to fix this date of 39,900 years, there is another earlier artistic site.  In the Panel of Hands in the El Castillo cave in northern Spain, a red dot amongst the hand outlines  has been dated to more than 40,600 years ago.

Panel of Hands, El Castillo Cave, Spain. A hand stencil has been dated to earlier than 37,300 years ago and a red disk to earlier than 40,600 years ago, (Image courtesy of Pedro Saura)

Not so long ago, at the beginning of September this year, there was another fascinating announcement, more controversial, but nonetheless pretty persuasive.  In Gorham's Cave,  Gibraltar, an abstract, almost hash-tag shaped rock engraving has been dated to about 39-40,000 years ago, but has been ascribed to Neanderthal artists.  Just like  their modern descendents,  those far-away artists were capable of creating different types of art, whatever the purpose may have been. Again, this is not the oldest rock engraving - that distinction can be claimed by a 54,000 year old engraved sliver of rock found at the important archeological site, Quneltra, in the Golan Heights, Israel.

Rock Engraving, Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar (image courtesy of Steward Finlayson, Gibraltar Museum)

These early traces of artistic endeavour keep turning up, making for mind-stretching connections if one is an artist.  It is such a fascinating link. Why did those early artists create their images of hand outlines, of amazing animals (like  the strange pig-deer, the babirusa,  from Sulawesi), of deeply incised lines in obdurate rock?  Why, too, did the artist depicting this babirusa exaggerate the animal's different  proportions and, even more rare, place it on a ground surface instead of having it float on the wall as was usually done?

Pig-deer (Babirusa), Maros Cave, Sulawesi (Image  courtesy of Maxime Albert, Griffith University, Australia)

If these artists were driven by the need to invoke spirits of their vital food sources, or signals to fellow inhabitants, or claim shelters, or whatever, they still had to get into deep, dark caves and  have enough artificial light  (fires, flares - flickering and fugitive) to see.  They also had to take in with them the pigments and tools to create the art.  They had to have the mental ability to conceive how to translate their ideas into art. That included a wonderful imagination about how to use the different characteristics and configurations of the cave walls and ceilings to the best advantage for their artistic purpose.

In other words, they are no different from every artist today, in the 21st century.  We all have to conceive of what to say in our art, how to do it, how best to get it seen by others, and - if we be so lucky - get it seen by our descendents millennia hence!

A Matter of Timing by Jeannine Cook

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  I learned long ago, by hard experience, that when working en plein air, you need to be opportunistic and aware of what is happening around you. Somehow luck and timing often are part of the artistic process!

On a windswept hilltop overlooking wide Burgundy plateaux of ploughed fields and neat vineyards, I was deep into drawing a small goldpoint.Ii was trying to be mindful of Matisse's dictum: "one must always search for the desire of the line, where it wishes to enter or where to die away." That wisdom seems so appropriate when drawing in metalpoint, with the ability of the stylus to state its own terms about energetic moments and those when it fades away to a whisper.

I suddenly became aware of the roar of a mighty behemoth of a tractor approaching. I happened to be parked at the edge of a field of barley stubble, as I had become fascinated by the random patterns of the chaff and stubble half lying, half standing after the harvest. The tractor got closer and closer.

I was just trying to decide if I had finished the drawing or not when I glanced up. The monstrous machine was heading straight for my part of the field and the farmer atop his giant tractor was looking hard at me!

I hastily moved right out the way and waved my apologies to him. He nodded, lowered his plough... and before I could count to ten, my barley stubble was no more. Instead, rich russet soil was being churned up in powerful furrows, the first move in the every-renewing cycle of life in the farming world of cereal cultivation.

Barley Stubble, Noyers, goldpoint, J. Cook artist

My timing was impeccable. There were no other fields left of cereal stubble visible anywhere. I had managed to find the last field to be ploughed. In essence, I had more than followed Matisse's idea of finding where the line wishes to enter or die away. The plough was the guiding factor! Or in other words, carpe diem works in art too!