Standing in front of a painting in the Telfair Museum in Savannah, long years ago, I fell into conversation with another lady who was contemplating the same picture. Today, she is one of my dearest friends, even though we don’t now see each other that often as geography separates us.
This was one of the first instances when I understood, as a newly-fledged artist, what a potentially magical carpet a love of art can be. Since then, I realise, most of the friends I have made have been through art.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote that “depth of friendship does not depend on length of acquaintance.” True, as often artists are busy, solitary people and time spent with other people is often a sacrifice. Yet we all need to exchange ideas, enthusiasms, dreams and practical experience with other artists, as well as with the world beyond art. When one is lucky enough to spend time at an artist residence, for instance, there are sometimes fellow residents who may make even a stray remark that leads one off into another world, a new optic; almost immediately one knows that that person is a potential friend, and indeed that often proves to be the case as time passes.
Moving in artistic circles of course makes friendships easier, even given the diversity of approach to creating art. The most rewarding friends are those with whom “there is much agreement, much disputation, and yet more personal liking” as George Eliot wisely remarked. I am constantly humbled and fascinated by the talents and insights of artists whom I meet, yet of course, there are aspects that one does not agree with. At the end of the day, such frank exchanges are the basis of a friendship. You learn, you share, you respect and you begin to cherish.
In our mobile world, the rosary of friendships can span the globe, but at least technology today enables us to remain in contact and implicitly celebrate the other person. I believe firmly, as a lover of gardens and flowers, that friends (and marriages) need tending with the same attentive empathy and imagination as the natural world. You learn to know when a plant needs water, sunlight, shade. A friend needs the human equivalent just as much. And, of course, ideally, you should receive the same in return. That give and take is the hallmark of friendship, whether it is for a short time in your life span or for much longer. Again, our gypsy lives today often dictate that we move out of one context to another, where the previous friendships slowly fade and new ones take their place. Nonetheless, the special ones endure and perhaps the gift of each day is celebrating a friendship in a way that lifts one’s heart.
Art looms importantly as a shared love between my friends and me, I have found. I have often wondered what particular chemistry operates when two people find they are in some way passionate about the same work of art. You only have to spend time in any museum to recognise that some artists have created a work that resonates down the centuries, with viewers from all walks of life. Rembrandt, Hieronymus Bosch, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Velasquez, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, even the anonymous rupestrian artists of some 30,000 odd years ago in Grotte Chauvet - they all elicit excitement, comments and thoughts shared between friends.
The other part of that equation is the relationship between the artist and model, for instance, as the art is created. Rembrandt and his wife, Saskia, were probably friends as well as husband and wife. There is a wonderful etching, the only one, in which Rembrandt portrays himself with his bride of two years; it is thought to illustrate the idea that ‘love brings forth art’.
Many Renaissance artists are thought to have used friends and lovers as their models. Think of Tommaso de Cavalieri, much loved by Michelangelo, who remained his friend for 32 years and was with the 89-year-old artist on his death bed.
Even the painting, illustrated, by Henri Fatin-Latour, A Studio at Les Batignolles, records fast friendships and alliances (mostly against the art critics and hostile public of the day) amongst artists and writers whose names are now household names – Manet (in whose studio the painting is placed), his portrait subject, poet Zacharie Astruc, Renoir, Monet, Bazille, Zola and others.
Another aspect of art and friendship which I find fascinating is collaborative work. Obviously, this spans a huge gamut of possibilities, but think, for instance, of what must have gone on millennia ago in all the caves where artists worked on paintings deep inside dark, often damp caves. They must have had to trust each other as they made their tortuous way into the caves, taking their ground pigments, possibly bones and other tools with which to paint and draw. These amazing endeavours, loaded with significance such that we can only guess at today, must have been the result of shared beliefs, friendships, passions. Think of the frequency around the world of hands, stencilled in different fashions, as rock art. Men, women, children all worked together on these hand paintings – one can imagine the conversations between them all as they worked in the flickering light.
Those conversations between humans who lived together in early caves in close, small units – and thus had to have been friends as well as family members - have been going on, we know, for a very long time. Again, imagine the talk as someone traced a “hash tag” in ochre on a small stone in Blombos Cave, the famous cave east of Cape Town, South Africa. That “art” dates from 73,000 years ago.
Even learning of such a find is a way to link to artist friends to share the fact, and thus sustain and nourish life. I love to share these fascinations, and other artists reciprocate so often. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was so accurate when he observed that “the world is round so that friendship may encircle it”.