Marsden Hartley

"Motifs" as Mirrors of the Artist by Jeannine Cook

During my stay at DRAWinternational in Caylus, France, I found myself with the eternal conundrum – to work en plein air or to work in the studio. Partly, in truth, the colder weather made the choice a bit easier, but nonetheless, I was constantly aware of the tug of war internally, for I love to be out in natural surroundings to try and create art.

The other side of the equation is that in the studio, conditions for working are more organized and it is easier, physically, to work, particularly in metalpoint, which tends to be slower and more demanding of time and energies.

However, at the back of my head was a quote that I had read about Monet. He wrote, “All ‘motifs’ are mirrors – or else the project of plein airisme is as shallow as Baudelaire had once argued. The painter’s transactions with the ‘motif’ have as many dimensions as his sense of self and of his place in the world.”  ("Motifs" are subjects and themes in a work of art.)

It is true that one brings to any artwork a sense of what matters, in most cases at least, and I think that when the work is done outside, perhaps the additional, often subliminal, messages are just as important. Man’s “communion” with natural surroundings underpins everything, whether or not today, we realize it.In general, ignoring nature imperils us in so many ways, as we keep finding out.

For an artist, in particular, the web and waft of nature informs every gesture, every impetus, consciously or not. Thus when an artist works outdoors, there are so many complex and often enriching issues that influence the execution of a piece of art.

The other challenge is of course that there are indeed all those other considerations. An artist has to make choices, sometimes quick choices as light changes, or the scene disappears, or whatever. How to distill what one is trying to say, how to select the most simple and hopefully impactful aspects, how to mediate between a considered, controlled choice and a much more spontaneous, perhaps less “finished” piece of art, especially a drawing. Those are other aspects of plein air work. Each of these choices means that the work becomes a mirror of that artist, his or her sense of place in the world and self-definition.

I came across a lovely example of these simple artistic choices: last autumn at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, a wonderful place, there was an exhibition of silverpoint drawings that the American artist, Marsden Hartley, did.

He travelled in the 1930s to the Bavarian Alps and there, he drew a series of silverpoint studies that captured the spare geometries of these mountains. Very simple, very direct work – Hartley was communing with those mountain landscapes.

Marsden Hartley,  Mountain Landscape with House in Foreground,   (September 16, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley, Mountain Landscape with House in Foreground,  (September 16, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley, Waxenstein,  (September 13, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley, Waxenstein,  (September 13, 1933). Silverpoint on paper. 14 7/8 x 10 5/8 in. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Gift of Michael St. Clair.

Marsden Hartley,  Mountain Landscape  , September 1933. Silverpoint on paper.

Marsden Hartley, Mountain Landscape , September 1933. Silverpoint on paper.

Travelling south from Hamburg to Garmisch-Partenkirchen,in the Bavarian Alps, Hartley apparently produced 21 of these spare distillations of the mountains. 

Hills by the Lake, #2, silverpoint on paper, 11 x 15 inches, Marsden Hartley (Image courtesy of the Ownings Gallery)

Hills by the Lake, #2, silverpoint on paper, 11 x 15 inches, Marsden Hartley (Image courtesy of the Ownings Gallery)

Marsden Hartley produced a body of work that validates Monet's observation about "motifs" or subjects being mirrors of the artist.

Every Artist has Favourite Flowers by Jeannine Cook

While on the subject of flowers in art, I realised that each artist has favourite flowers to which he or she returns again and again, whether because of colour, form, symbolism, or whatever.

You only have to think of Georgia O'Keeffe - her depictions of calla lilies are numerous. She loved their sensuous shape, their wonderful designs. In fact, she said quite a lot about painting flowers which especially applies to her Calla Lilies: " When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not." She also remarked, "I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty. " She was quite right. When you walk into a room and see one or more of her Callas paintings, they stop one in one's tracks.

Calla Lily, Mallorca, silverpoint,, Jeannine Cook artist

Calla Lily, Mallorca, silverpoint,, Jeannine Cook artist

When you look at a calla lily painting or drawing, the symbolism is also implicit: since early Roman times, callas have represented celebrations and purity, hence their use for weddings.

Calla Lilies, Palma. silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Calla Lilies, Palma. silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Although they originate in Southern Africa ( perhaps why I love them so much, being from that part of the world), they bloom well in the dark of winter and symbolised the passage of the winter solstice for the Romans. That is perhaps why they are also used so much for funerals, at the darkest time of the year. They came to Europe many centuries ago, but the first known illustration of them was apparently in 1664, when a calla lily was growing in the Royal Gardens in Paris. Since then, countless artists, from Diego Rivera to Marsden Hartley and Ellsworth Kelly, have depicted callas.

I keep returning to calla lilies myself - they seem to lend themselves to silverpoint drawings, with their high key elegance and sensuous forms. They are living sculptures.

Another flower to which I alluded in my previous post about flowers in art is the Regale Lily, favoured in paintings about the Annunciation. It too is a wonderfully elegant, perfumed lily, which keeps calling me to draw it, every time that I find it blooming in my mother's garden in Spain.

Azucena-Regale Lilies, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Azucena-Regale Lilies, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Each time one is differently inspired - perhaps the light is different, perhaps the flower is slightly different or at a different stage of opening, but whatever it is, I love to return to these lilies, both callas and regales, just to celebrate their beauty. And while I am drawing them, time stands still, and the world comes into balance. Miraculous.