Vincent van Gogh

"The True and the Essential" in Art by Jeannine Cook

I am still mulling over the twists and turns of Vincent Van Gogh's life as an artist, with his highly intelligent reasonings or rationalisations about each phase of his art, especially in his letters to his brother, Theo.  So much to think about because, to a greater or lesser extent, most artists can learn a great deal from Van Gogh.

There is a wonderful quote of his in Van Gogh, A Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.  Writing in mid 1889, when he was staying at the Asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, at Saint-Rémy,  Van Gogh remarked, "In the open air, one works as best one can, one fills one's canvas regardless.  Yet that is how one captures the true and the essential - the most difficult part."

Iris, Saint-Rémy,  Van Gogh, oil on canvas, 1889 (Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Iris, Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh, oil on canvas, 1889 (Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Even before Van Gogh was allowed to leave the asylum to paint further afield, he was "doing little things after nature", like these gem-like Iris.  Rather than thinking too much, he was going out to "look at a blade of grass, the branch of a fire tree, an ear of wheat, in order to calm down".  Painting as best he could, with spontaneity, and indeed, the essence of irises sings from the canvas. 

Landscape from Saint-Rémy,  oil on canvas, Van Gogh, 1889 (Image courtesy of NY Carlsberg Glyptotek)

Landscape from Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, Van Gogh, 1889 (Image courtesy of NY Carlsberg Glyptotek)

Olive Grove,  oil on canvas, Van Gogh, 1889, (Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Netherlands)

Olive Grove, oil on canvas, Van Gogh, 1889, (Image courtesy of Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Netherlands)

Green Wheat Field with Cypress,  oil on canvas, Van Gogh, 1889 (Image courtesy of Národiní Galerie, Prague)

Green Wheat Field with Cypress, oil on canvas, Van Gogh, 1889 (Image courtesy of Národiní Galerie, Prague)

These paintings show the progression of Van Gogh moving further out from the asylum, exploring the Midi landscapes, working en plein air, in heat and wind and sun, trying to capture this wide world in his new-found serenity of mind.

Mountains at Saint-Rémy,  oil on canvas, Van Gogh, 1889, (Image courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY)

Mountains at Saint-Rémy, oil on canvas, Van Gogh, 1889, (Image courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY)

During this amazingly productive time, Van Gogh had found the clarity and peace that allowed him to cast away the fetters of mind and even those of drawing with the aid of his perspective frame.  He simply worked "by feeling and by instinct", in the same way, he decided, as the ancient Egyptians had done in their creative work.

I find it interesting that this was a brief time, for Van Gogh, when order, simplicity of living, and a cloistered serenity in the asylum all fostered his creativity.  He had the peace of mind and energy to go to the heart of what he was seeing and simply paint and draw.  

Time and time again, we get reminders of how solitude and peace help artists to find the "true and the essential" in their art.  Agatha Christie found inspiration and amazing productivity in her writing at her beloved home, Greenway, near Torquay, because of the quiet peacefulness there.  Author Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote a wonderful small book in 1957, A Time to Keep Silence, about his stay at the Abbey of St. Wandrille de Fontanelle, near Rouen in France.  He had gone there to write, but found that once he had become accustomed to the silence and deep orderliness of the life of the Benedictines monks, he was filled with an energy and creativity of "limpid freshness".

We all need that solitude and order in our lives to be able to reach whatever is true and essential to us as artists. Not always so easy in our world of today.  We need seriously to organise ourselves and find the discipline to turn off phones, unplug from the computer, make space and time and serenity. But there are rewards.

Gauguin versus Van Gogh - Their Art-Making Argument by Jeannine Cook

When Paul Gauguin finally came south from Brittany to spend time with Vincent Van Gogh in the famous Yellow House in Arles in 1888, one of the many arguments that erupted between the two artists still has huge relevance for practically every artist today.

The argument boils down to the different approach to creating art. Should one work from real life, often plein air, as Van Gogh believed, or should one create art de tête, from one's head, by using prior drawings and painted studies, composed and executed in the studio, as Gauguin did?

Alychamps , Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas, Private collection

Alychamps, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas, Private collection

Alyschamps,Arles,  Paul Gauguin ,  1888, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of Musée d'Orsay)

Alyschamps,Arles, Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of Musée d'Orsay)

These two paintings were among the initial salvos in this argument between the two artists.  Gauguin chose Les Alyschamps as a destination for painting, a place that Van Gogh had not talked of during his earlier seven months in Arles.  It had  been a necropolis since  Roman times, and over the centuries had evolved into a sacred burying ground, before having a railway track put through and the tombs destroyed.  By the 1880s, Arles' city government had transformed the debris into an allée with trees and gardens, a rendez vous for lovers and parading city dwellers.

As the days went past, Van Gogh and Gauguin continued to be more at odds than not, as is vividly detailed in the superb book,Van Gogh: A Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. As they write, "Vincent wanted to paint: Gauguin wanted to draw.  Vincent wanted to rush into the countryside at the first opportunity: Gauguin demanded a "period of incubation" - a month at least - to wander about, sketching and "learning the essence" of the place.  Vincent loved to paint en  plein air; Gauguin preferred to work indoors.  He saw their expeditions as fact-finding missions, opportunities to gather sketches - "documents" he called them - that he could synthesize into tableaux in the calm and reflection of the studio. Vincent championed spontaneity and serendipity; Gauguin constructed his images slowly and methodically, trying out forms and blocking in colours.  Vincent flung himself at the canvas headlong with a loaded brush and fierce intent: Gauguin built up his surfaces in tranquil sessions of careful brushstrokes." (pp.671-72).

The Night Café,  Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas (Image courtesy of the Yale University art Gallery, New Haven)

The Night Café, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, oil on canvas (Image courtesy of the Yale University art Gallery, New Haven)

Night Café at Arles (Mme.Ginoux),  Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of Pushkin Museum, Moscow)

Night Café at Arles (Mme.Ginoux), Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of Pushkin Museum, Moscow)

Earlier that year, Vincent Van Gogh had lugged his heavy easel into the all-night Café de la Gare in Arles, for three nights in a row, to paint its garish "clashes and contrasts", human and material.  Later, in the deadly psychological warfare that had broken out between Gauguin and Van Gogh, Gauguin drew a study of the wife of the Café's owner, Madame Ginoux.  Behind her in the painting he then did, he changed the viewpoint of Van Gogh's  café scene, inserting images cherished by Van Gogh, but he produced in essence a close evocation of Van Gogh's Café.  However, Gauguin created this imagined café scene in the studio, not in the Café de la Gare.

Pure imagination, arbitrary colour, invented compositions versus "surrendering myself to nature" as Van Gogh preferred to do, celebrating "the things that exist", as Vincent's brother, Theo, once observed; that remained the tussle between them.  There were many ramifications to this contrasting way of creating art, but part of Van Gogh's difficulty was often with the depiction of human figures.  He needed models in front of him to be able to grapple with the human form, and even then with difficulty.  He felt uncomfortable with the "more mysterious character" of the imagined scene.

During a rainy spell, Gauguin challenged Van Gogh to paint a scene from memory that Van Gogh ironically had described vividly to him a short time before.  He had told Gauguin how the vineyards at the base of Montmajour, past which they were walking, had looked a few weeks previously, during grape harvest.  He had told of the workers, the vivid colours and how these women had looked in the intense, autumnal sun. 

The Red Vineyard at Arles,  Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, oil, on canvas (Image courtesy of the Puskin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)

The Red Vineyard at Arles, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888, oil, on canvas (Image courtesy of the Puskin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)

Grape Harvest at Arles , Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, (image courtesy of the Ordrupgaard Collection, Copenhagen)

Grape Harvest at Arles, Paul Gauguin, 1888, oil on canvas, (image courtesy of the Ordrupgaard Collection, Copenhagen)

Van Gogh used old drawings and relied on his knowledge of field workers.  By contrast, Gauguin reverted to the labourers of Brittany, not those of Provence, and with his enigmatic composition and depiction of the the two introverted figures, he raises more questions than gives answers.  His painting was a far cry from Van Gogh's more predictable, if a little awkward, painting of the grape harvest.

Van Gogh soon gave the de tête version of art another try.  He was triggered by family letters and waves of nostalgia to travel back mentally to his childhood home in Etten, Holland.  He imagines the two ladies he depicts might be his mother and his sister; he uses compositional tricks Gauguin used to wind through the canvas, leading the viewer to Midi cypress trees and the brilliantly hued gardens his mother used to cultivate.

Ladies of Arles (Memories of the Garden at Etten), Vincent Van Gogh,  oil on canvas, 1888, (Image courtesy of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)

Ladies of Arles (Memories of the Garden at Etten), Vincent Van Gogh, oil on canvas, 1888, (Image courtesy of the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)

Old Women of Arles,  Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1888, (Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Old Women of Arles, Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1888, (Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Once more, the two men created such different works - hardly surprising, however.  Again and again, as the days passed in The Yellow House,  the tensions flared between the two men. One painting in particular that Gauguin did of Van Gogh sums up his ability to go for the jugular... and how poisonous the atmosphere had become between the two protagonists.

Vincent Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers,  Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1888, (Image courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

Vincent Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers, Paul Gauguin, oil on canvas, 1888, (Image courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

The rows and temporary amnesties eventually only ended when Gauguin left Arles and precipitated the famous ear-slicing episode that everyone remembers about Vincent Van Gogh. 

Yet those same issues - how to create art, no matter of what description, persist to this day.  Most of us oscillate between the two camps, sometimes working from real life, often en plein air.  At other times, imagined compositions, mosaics of different images placed together to create messages, images, ideas, predominate in our work.  The head versus the eye - every artist knows the argument.

Perhaps Van Gogh's remark in a letter to Theo sums up the situation we all know about: "In spite of himself and in spite of me, Gauguin has more or less proved to me that it is time I was varying my work a little."  In other words, be open to experimentation and change.

Van Gogh's Draughtsman's Fist by Jeannine Cook

I am not sure that I made the best choice of reading material as I sat in hospital rooms with my husband for the past weeks, but nonetheless, I was glad to read the book.  Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have written a masterful biography, Van Gogh, The Life. Detailed, thoughtful and exhaustive, it brings to life every twist and eddy of Van Gogh's complex and tortured life.

I had never before thought deeply about how much mental illness and dysfunction there was in the entire Van Gogh family.  It was sobering to learn of it all and to measure just how amazing his creativity was, in spite of or despite all the incredible hurdles he faced in his short life.

For a start, given his astonishingly individualistic fashion of drawing towards the end of his life, masterpieces that are so readily recognisable, it is instructive to remember how much difficulty he had with draughtsmanship.  He worked and worked at drawing and tracing, redrawing and reworking, using his cumbersome perspective frame to deal with perspectives that otherwise daunted him completely.

Some of his early, painfully drawn works are worlds away from later work.

Diggers in Torn-up Street,   The Hague , pencil, April 1882 (Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, The Netherlands)

Diggers in Torn-up Street, The Hague, pencil, April 1882 (Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, The Netherlands)

Sorrow , April 1882, chalk on paper

Sorrow, April 1882, chalk on paper

This famous image of his mistress, Sien Hoornik, is one of a large number of versions of the drawing that he traced and retraced, working at its awkwardness, distilling its essence.

Head of a Peasant Woman Bareheaded, Nuenen , Dec-Jan 1884-85 (Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, The Netherlands)

Head of a Peasant Woman Bareheaded, Nuenen, Dec-Jan 1884-85 (Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, The Netherlands)

Landscape with Willows and Sun shining through the Clouds,  Nuenen , mid March 1884, ink (Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Landscape with Willows and Sun shining through the Clouds,  Nuenen, mid March 1884, ink (Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Van Gogh always seemed to gravitate to the ugly and exaggerated in human types when he was working in the North, partly because he had great trouble in obtaining live models who would consent to pose for him.  He was far more comfortable with nature, which he knew intimately and loved all his life.

Writing to his brother Theo, he once said, "I really have a draughtsman's fist, and I ask you, have I ever doubted or hesitated or wavered since the day I began to draw? I think you know quite well that I pushed on, and of course I gradually grew stronger in the battle." The later drawings bore out his statement - his mature drawings are amazing in their mark-making, organisation and frenetic energy.

Street in Saintes-Maries,  June 1888, reed pen and ink on paper

Street in Saintes-Maries, June 1888, reed pen and ink on paper

The Zouave , June 1888, pen and ink

The Zouave, June 1888, pen and ink

The rock of Montmajour with pine trees , 1888. (Image courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

The rock of Montmajour with pine trees, 1888. (Image courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

Starry Night , June 1889, pen and ink (Image courtesy of the Museum of Architecture, Moscow)

Starry Night, June 1889, pen and ink (Image courtesy of the Museum of Architecture, Moscow)

Tree and bushes in the garden of the asylum , May-June,1889. (Image courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) 

Tree and bushes in the garden of the asylum, May-June,1889. (Image courtesy of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam) 

Olive Trees in a Mountain Landscape,  June 1889, pen and ink

Olive Trees in a Mountain Landscape, June 1889, pen and ink

For any artist aspiring to draw in whatever fashion, Vincent Van Gogh is an example of sheer dogged persistence and courage. He teaches us all that we can evolve, refine our artistic voice, strengthen our skills and achieve a powerful, individualistic "draughtsman's fist" that allows others to relate to what we are trying to say.

Patterns of Nature by Jeannine Cook

I am finding that patterns are becoming more and more fascinating to me as I function as an artist.  I suppose I have always had a love of nature's order and patterning - in seed pods, striationson tree bark, flower petals and leaves, in the way shadows fall on surfaces, how rocks are distinctively formed, how sands get ridged and shaped by water or wind. 

Patterns in the Sand

Patterns in the Sand

Now, however, I am more and more aware of the amazing power of patterns - in life in general and in art in particular.  Take a look at a fascinating website on the Fibonacci Numbers and see how marvellous all these patterns are.

 Romanesque cross between broccoli and cauliflower

 Romanesque cross between broccoli and cauliflower

I think my newfound passion for drawing in metalpoint on a black ground has fuelled my interest in patterns, for somehow this medium seems to lend itself readily to the seeming abstraction of patterns.  Living as I do in beautiful natural surroundings also helps me suddenly see new patterns which excite and inspire. Artists of all stripes seem to respond to the diversity of nature's patterns, from draughtsmen to photographers.

M.C. Escher’s 1938 woodcut entitled “Sky and Water 1”

M.C. Escher’s 1938 woodcut entitled “Sky and Water 1”

My small drawings of nature's patterns are often of tree bark and wood grains.

Jacaranda bark - silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Jacaranda bark - silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Rings of Time: Wood grains - silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Rings of Time: Wood grains - silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Eucalyptus bark - silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Eucalyptus bark - silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

The rewards of looking closely and attentively at nature to see these myriad complex and magical patterns are endless.  History is full of artists who have found patterns to be a wonderful source of creativity - just think of Van Gogh, for a start!

Detail of Vincent Van Gogh's  Starry Night , 1889, Image courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Detail of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, 1889, Image courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Creating Art: Staring until your Eyes Pop by Jeannine Cook

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait,  1889, Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Vincent Van Gogh,Self-Portrait, 1889, Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Author Simon Schamaused this wonderful phrase about Vincent Van Gogh, in his book, "The Power of Art".Schama talked of Van Gogh seeking to create art that was imbued with the "visionary radiance" that previous generations of artists had found in Christianity.  To achieve this source of light and inspiration that could reach out to fellow men, Van Gogh's approach was painting with "blood and blisters and staring until your eyes popped" (my emphasis).

Even though Van Gogh did not necessarily follow the time-honoured rules of perspective, colour usage or subject-matter, he sought to give his art a different, more open view of life that embraced nature in all its aspects.  His pulsating interpretations of trees, fields, and flowers show powers of observation that amaze. Catching the clouds, the light, the motion of the wheat, or, in the Olive Grove below, the silvery dance and form of the olive trees - all that requires great, tenacious powers, first of observation, then of organisation and simplification.

Wheat Field with Cypresses, Van Gogh, 1889, Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wheat Field with Cypresses, Van Gogh, 1889, Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Olive Grove, Van Gogh, 1889

Olive Grove, Van Gogh, 1889

Every artist, especially those working with aspects of the world around him or her, knows that observation is key to understanding and thus depicting a subject.  It does not necessarily have to  be a realistic depiction either, just as in Van Gogh's case.  Nonetheless, staring and staring at your subject always brings rewards; you keep noticing fresh aspects, you learn how things interlock, how things work, where the light falls, how shadows shape things. In this month's Artist's Magazine,for instance, in an article on still life artist Eric Wert, he is quoted as spending long hours "trying to get to the reality of a particular element.  'But once all the data are there that makes something look real,' he says, ' I step back and let it become its own creature, develop its own personality.  I'm open to what the subject can start to tell me.' "

Another time one needs to stare, stare and stare some more is during life drawing.  As soon as an artist begins to draw from a live model, the conversation begins between eyes, hand and the model. The subtleties of light on skin, the delicacy of muscles in tension or at rest, the twist of limbs or torso only reinforce the need to look and understand.  Only with that understanding comes the freedom then to simplify, edit and create works that are powerful.  Take but one example - Rembrandt:

Constantijn Daniel van Renesse, , Rembrandt and his Pupils drawing from a Nude Model.  c. 1650, Image courtesy of Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

Constantijn Daniel van Renesse,, Rembrandt and his Pupils drawing from a Nude Model. c. 1650, Image courtesy of Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt

Rembrandt,  Study of Female Nude seen from the Back,  1630-34, Image courtesy of the Courtauld Institute, London

Rembrandt, Study of Female Nude seen from the Back, 1630-34, Image courtesy of the Courtauld Institute, London

In other words, as the old English saying goes - "Open your peepers"! Your art will thank you.

"Enchantment" by Jeannine Cook

Some while ago, I received an e-mail from Guy Kawasaki, of Alltop.com, asking if I would like to review his latest book, "Enchantment", prior to its launch on March 8th, 2011. I agreed to do so, because, as an artist, I was interested to see what I might learn from the book, given that its subtitle is "The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds and Actions".

enchantment.jpg

 

As I read through this relatively slender and very accessible book, replete with lists of suggested actions and real life stories to illustrate Guy's points, I had to chuckle. At one point in the book, in the chapter on "How to launch", Guy discusses the virtues of planting "many seeds". Given that the Internet has changed the traditional approaches to marketing upside down, he advises that one should "embrace the nobodies", because "anyone who understands and embraces your cause and wants to spread the word is worthy of your attention". He was carrying out his own modus operandi exactly when he asked me to review the book!

Nonetheless, I think this book, "Enchantment" can teach - or remind - every artist about a number of important aspects of his/her profession. As in many other ventures, art is ultimately about a conversation, a mutual acceptance and understanding, a shared passion about work that an artist creates in some medium. The more that artist can reach out to find a receptive, appreciative audience, the more successful he or she can be, not only in financial terms but in personal fulfilment. Accepting others, meeting people and maintaining frequent personal contact are pathways Guy advocates in this book. Achieving trustworthiness through what is known as noblesse oblige or a "Mensch" in the full Yiddish sense of the word, along with honesty, integrity and generosity, is another of the chapters in "Enchantment": vital conduct for a successful artist.

There are some examples of how to connect with one's potential audience/public which illustrate how memorably to explain why one creates a piece of art, and how it can connect with the viewer. Let's face it - most people love learning the "back story" about any piece of art and the artist's reasons for making it. Early in the book, Guy quotes Vincent van Gogh saying "You have first to experience what you want to express." If you can communicate your passion and knowledge about your artwork, people are far more receptive to it because they have embraced, to a degree, that creative act.

Guy also makes a wonderful case for how to get a potential collector first to acquire a small piece of art, which often leads to later sales of bigger work. As he later says, "Enchanters don't sell products, services or companies. Enchanters sell their dreams for a better future - cooler social interactions, a cleaner environment, a heart-stirring driving experience, or the future of publishing." Art is quintessentially about selling dreams. Guy elaborates cogently on how to sell those dreams.

The last major portion of "Enchantment" is a very useful commentary on the merits of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the Web in general in terms of using this technology to achieve successful enchantment. Any artist would find useful comments in this section. Guy's Facebook page for the book carries out his own advice. Indeed, he is offering his previous book for free with "Enchantment" until midnight tonight as another "enchanting" action.

Guy Kawasaki enthusiastically makes a case for walking a path to success - professionally and personally - that is honourable, proactive, imaginative but above all that contributes to making our world a better place. He even provides interest and delight - indeed enchantment - when he creates an origami  butterfly to put on the book's cover.

Artists and Gardens by Jeannine Cook

Now that the weather has cooled a little and rain has revived the garden, it is time to start thinking of planning and planting the garden once more. Inspired by a recent wonderful Coastal Wildscapes symposium on planting native species to restore biodiversity in one's surroundings and gardens, I have been doing a lot of "mental placement" of perennials and shrubs that I purchased.

My garden has been an extension of my art and a source of my art ever since I created the garden over 25 years ago. After we built our house and learned about the aspects of living on ancient sand dunes in a sub-tropical climate, I planned out - on graph paper no less! - what plants to put where. I tried to combine the principles of garden composition and visual pleasures with the practical aspects of a huge amount of shade, sandy soil and a number of old shrubs that had been planted on the site when it was an oyster cannery. Oh - and speaking of which, I learned that planting in soil that is probably 90% oyster shells can be challenging!

Needless to say, over the years, the garden has evolved and matured, with the plants very much choosing where and how they wish to grow. For the most part, I have let nature dictate, for the results have in some ways been more harmonious than if I had adhered more to the carefully manicured look of my British gardening heritage. As a source of art, I tend to concentrate on single flowers or plants, rather than landscapes of the garden itself. Watercolours - I find - are not the easiest medium by which to convey masses of foliage and flowers. Drawings are more interesting to do.

Perhaps the most important element of the garden for my art is the actual peaceful environment it affords - a backdrop to my daily life and thus to my art-making. The constant visual stimulation and interest combine with my emotional attachment to this garden I created single-handedly. It is also the foreground frame to the marshes and saltwater creeks beyond. Together, these spaces offer tranquillity and the orderliness (most of the time!) of nature, the antidote to our ever-increasingly urbanised society.

Artists have long had deep attachments to gardens. Think of the wonderful details of flowers and animals on the frescoes in Egyptian tombs. Remember the jewel-like flowers and insects adorning monastic manuscripts from the 8th century onwards, like this 1470s Hastings Book of Hours. Artists over the centuries have travelled from medieval depictions of gardens as paradise to careful scientific examinations in modern times. Rubens was well aware of gardens as erotic playgrounds.

470s Hastings  Book of Hours

470s Hastings Book of Hours

But it was the 19th century artists who not only drew on gardens for inspiration in their art, but also themselves created their own very artistic gardens. Monet (whose 1900 painting The Garden in Flower is illustrated) is the most famous of these gardeners, with Giverny. (He had earlier been inspired and delighted when he visited glowing Mediterranean gardens, especially at Bordigher.)

The Garden in Flower, Giverny,  1900, oil on canvas, Claude Monet

The Garden in Flower, Giverny, 1900, oil on canvas, Claude Monet

Cézanne also painted and tended his Southern French garden, while Van Gogn celebrated gardens and what grew in them from his days in Holland onwards. Many of his drawings in the south of France, particularly those done during his period at St Rémy, are quite remarkable. So too are his paintings, such as this one, done in 1889,

Irises,  Vincent van Gogh,   1889, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of the Getty Center)

Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889, oil on canvas, (Image courtesy of the Getty Center)

Almond Blossom,  Vincent van Gogh, 1890, oil on canvas.(Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum)

Almond Blossom, Vincent van Gogh, 1890, oil on canvas.(Image courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum)

As the resurgence of plein air art continues, many of the artists are also celebrating gardens in their art. It is important, for as the world continues to lose natural habitats at an ever-increasing rate, we artists can play an important role in showing how beautiful, intricate and serene-making gardens and nature can be.

How much should one change one's style as an artist over time? by Jeannine Cook

I have read a couple of enthusiastic reviews of an exhibition currently showing at New York's Onassis Cultural Center entitled The Origins of El Greco, the last of which was in February's edition of ARTnews. With a subtitle of Icon Painting in Venetian Crete, the show examined El Greco's early work when he, along with a flourishing school of artists, was a Master of religious icon painting in his native Crete in the 1560s. Young Domenikos Theotokopoulos was most skilled in creating shimmering gilt surrounds and stiffly gesturing figures that were part of the Byzantine heritage of Crete.

Adoration of the Magi, Domenikos Theotokopoulos (later known as El Greco), 1565-67, painted on part of an old chest, (Image courtesy of the Benaki Museum,Athens)

Adoration of the Magi, Domenikos Theotokopoulos (later known as El Greco), 1565-67, painted on part of an old chest, (Image courtesy of the Benaki Museum,Athens)

It is hard to credit that these early paintings are done by the same artist whom we know as El Greco, the artist whose elongated figures, clothed in strangely coloured garments, twist in religious fervour beneath dramatic skies. Ascetic-looking men with long faces gaze skyward with clasped hands of piety, while impossibly long-limbed men writhe and contort through the paintings. This later El Greco was, as a review of this exhibition by The New York Times' Holland Cotter observed, the result of "an ambitious career on the move" with Venice and later Spain his sources of patronage and success. By the time El Greco died in 1614, his style of painting had evolved radically from a strict medieval icon tradition to an expressionistic approach that embraced light, movement, colour, passion.

The Baptism of Christ, c. 1614, El Greco, (Image courtesy of Museo  Fundacion Lerma, Hospital de Tavera, Toledo)

The Baptism of Christ, c. 1614, El Greco, (Image courtesy of Museo  Fundacion Lerma, Hospital de Tavera, Toledo)

This account of the El Greco exhibition made me reflect on the problem-cum-challenge we all face as artists: how to evolve and grow, and yet remain true to ourselves? The examples of artists who have changed their styles over time are innumerable - Picasso is a salient example, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet, and so many others. But in our times of emphasis on marketing and branding, when presenting ourselves to the world as artists, how important is it to have consistency?

There is always the temptation for a successful artist, selling well in one type of art or with one approach and subject, to stay in that idiom, and if a gallery is involved, often there is more pressure to stay in the successful lane. Yet we should all be striving to grow as artists, and by definition, that means change and, hopefully, improvement. Sometimes, repetition of one type of art, one subject or medium, allows for a more profound and rewarding exploration. Yet repetition can become boring and a dead end.

There is also another message, I think, in the El Greco or Picasso examples of evolution as artists. That is that we must believe in ourselves as artists and dare to grow and change, even if it means abandoning a successful style and pathway in one's artistic career. Radical change takes courage. Artist Sharon Knettell, writing in the March 2010 issue of The Artist's Magazine, explained that she gets much of her inspiration for paintings while meditating and remarked, "I think meditation makes you fearless. You have to go to the point where your ideas scare and challenge you" (my emphasis).

I believe that point is when you dare to change your style because that inner voice tells you to take the next step in changing and evolving as an artist. What does anyone else think?

Guess what - the 'flu and art don't mix! by Jeannine Cook

Well, I seem to be following the general fashion at present, coughing my heart out and trying to recover from 'flu that was over-generously shared in a plane returning from Europe last week

What got me interested as I began slightly to revive - or at least stop sleeping all the time - was how effectively the creative side of me, or even the interest in art, had been temporarily extinguished. That led me to reflect on the ramifications of all the artists' lives affected by some form of illness, physical or mental. I decided first and foremost that it is a testimony to the courage of so many of those famous people that despite, or in spite of, everything, they continued, and created marvellous work. Van Gogh comes readily to mind, with all the anguish and tribulations he experienced. Even when he was apparently being treated for epilepsy, he created the work Starry Night which shows the possible side-effects of the digitalis treatment. Perhaps another most daunting situation must have been the blurring of vision that so many older artists experienced with cataracts forming.

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh,, 1889, (Image courtesy of MOMA, New York)

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh,, 1889, (Image courtesy of MOMA, New York)

Perhaps another most daunting situation must have been the blurring of vision that so many older artists experienced with cataracts forming.

The Japanese Footbridge, 1920-22, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of MOMA, New York)

The Japanese Footbridge, 1920-22, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of MOMA, New York)

It is interesting that we become more aware of this with Monet's later paintings; he was among the earlier artists to advocate working outdoors en plein air. The sunlight exacted its price. (It is thus a reminder to all of us artists who work outside - shade your eyes as much as possible from the sun.)

An interesting thought evolves from a lot of the examples of artists in previous generations working under daunting physical and mental conditions: many of their conditions can now be detected and alleviated, if not cured. Would we all be the poorer, collectively, if they had not had to push through these handicaps? A fascinating TimesonLine article examines these issues - well worth a read. despite being written some while ago.

These thoughts on artists' ability to transcend physical conditions and still create art tie in with another most interesting article I returned to in January's issue of ARTNews by Ann Landi, entitled "Is Beauty in the Brain of the Beholder?" I had alluded to these fascinating areas of research from another angle when I wrote on December 1st last of the ability of Art to Lift the Spirits of the Sick. This article neatly complements because it discusses some of the neuroesthetics research being carried out, learning what parts of the brain react to - say - images of artworks. There are different parts of the brain that react to colour, form or motion, while other researchers are tiptoeing into the minefields of rating artworks as beautiful, neutral or ugly, in other words, an aesthetic experience. This level of perception of satisfaction with viewing a piece of art is being applied as an experiment to which I have also previously alluded - at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where the exhibition, "Beauty and the Brain: A Neural Approach to Aesthetics" is showing from January 23rd to April 11th. People will be asked to chose a favourite version of Jean Arp's 1959 sculpture, Woman of Delos.

Well. that that remains is to get the different portions of my brain un-be'flued and then perhaps I can do something about creating art, not just thinking about it. I can't wait!

Back from Mallorca by Jeannine Cook

I can hardly believe that time does not pass at double speed when I am in Mallorca, but seeing the date of my last post here confirms that the weeks have indeed passed in due fashion. Now that I have left behind the brilliant crisp light of the autumnal Mediterranean, clean-washed and windswept, and returned to the soft golden scintillations of coastal Georgia's marshes, I have to refocus my eyes and my mind.

Palma's diversity of music, art and dance was as beguiling as ever, and there are places about which I will write more in depth. However, there was a quote I found from Vincent van Goh, writing to his brother, Theo, which somehow seemed very apt for this visit home to Mallorca. I was in a very lovely place, Son Brull, watching the light play over the mountains in the late afternoon. Above me were wondrous old gnarled olive trees, possibly some of those planted by the Romans who lived in the Pollentia area twenty-two centuries ago. There was a soft tinkling of bells as a flock of sheep drifted into sight as they slowly but deliberately climbed the terraces higher and higher to grazing up the mountain's flanks. The grey dry stone walls and the warm golden brown of the olive tree trunks served to emphasise the subtle green of the olive leaves as they shimmered in the slight breeze. Below, the last glow of pink summer oleanders warmed the foreground and caught the evening sunlight.

In the same tones of delight and wonder, Van Gogh wrote, "Ah, my dear Theo, if you could see the olive trees at this time of year – The old-silver and silver foliage greening up against the blue. And the orangeish ploughed soil. It’s something very different from what one thinks of it in the north – it’s a thing of such delicacy – so refined. It’s like the lopped willows of our Dutch meadows or the oak bushes of our dunes, that’s to say the murmur of an olive grove has something very intimate, immensely old about it. It’s too beautiful for me to dare paint it or be able to form an idea of it. The oleander – ah – it speaks of love and it’s as beautiful as Puvis de Chavannes’ Lesbos, where there were women beside the sea. But the olive tree is something else, it is, if you want to compare it to something, like Delacroix." (Ah mon cher Theo, si tu voyais les oliviers à cette epoque ci – Le feuillage vieil argent & argent verdissant contre le bleu. Et le sol labouré orangeâtre.– C’est quelque chôse de tout autre que ce qu’on en pense dans le nord – c’est d’un fin – d’un distingué.– C’est comme les saules ébranchés de nos prairies hollandaises ou les buissons de chêne de nos dunes, c.à.d. le murmure d’un verger d’oliviers a quelque chose de très intime, d’immensement vieux. C’est trop beau pour que j’ose le peindre ou puisse le concevoir. Le laurier rose – ah – cela parle amour et c’est beau comme le Lesbos de Puvis de Chavannes où il y avait les femmes au bord de la mer. Mais l’olivier c’est autre chôse, c’est si on veut le comparer a quelque chôse, du Delacroix.) Van Gogh was writing on April 28th, 1889, while he was staying in Arles.

Olive Trees, Saint-Rémy, November 1889, Vincent Van Gogh,, (Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Olive Trees, Saint-Rémy, November 1889, Vincent Van Gogh,, (Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art)

The Olive Trees, 1889, Vincent van Gogh, (Image courtesy of MOMA)

The Olive Trees, 1889, Vincent van Gogh, (Image courtesy of MOMA)

I could understand his inhibitions about trying to paint the olives - they are such extraordinary trees that they defy many attempts by artists to depict them. I have preferred to draw them in silverpoint, because of that oxidised silver green Theo talks of, but I never seem to have sufficient time to sit down and try to do them justice when I am in Mallorca. Manaña!