A few years ago, when I was offered a small show at Black Swan Arts in Frome, I decided not to gather together my past glories but to create a collection of entirely new pictures, painted especially for the exhibition. I was going to paint one hundred of them, in fact; there would be no theme or restrictions on content, except that they were all to be the same size and painted in the same medium – acrylic. Each painting would be fairly small at only 12 inches square, but even so, with art classes and painting holidays to run, it was clear that I’d be putting myself under a lot of pressure and that I would have to eat, live, breath and sleep my art.
György Sebők, the great pianist and mentor, after listening to a student’s performance, told him that he could tell from his playing that he loved music. “But,” said Sebők, “that is not enough; you have to be music.” Once that happens, he continued, then you need never concern yourself about hitting a wrong note again, for if you are music, then every note must be the right one!
The brilliant, Swiss German artist and pedagogue, Paul Klee made a similar remark after an epiphanic trip to Tunisia:
“Colour possesses me. I don’t have to pursue it. It will possess me always, I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour: Colour and I are one. I am a painter.”
Whatever you think of the paintings of Francis Bacon, just a glimpse into his studio should be enough to convince you that he was art. Painting was a constant in his life. It was the norm, as it was for Vincent Van Gogh, traipsing every day with his easel, across the fields near Arles, producing eighty masterpieces during the last year of his life, or Lucien Freud, working right up until the day he died, with his paints and easel at the foot of his bed. David Hockney is a successful and wealthy man, well past retirement age, who can do as he pleases any day of the week, yet chooses to shut himself away in his studio in L.A., painting. Like Klee, these people are all possessed. For them, art isn’t a spare time activity at a once-a-week art class and perhaps, when we fully appreciate this, we may begin to feel a little less frustrated by the fact our own paintings pale into insignificance beside theirs.
Commitment to one’s art may take enormous courage. For Braque and Picasso to abandon the fashionable styles of the day for their dour, analytical, ochre, grey and black cubist work was a leap in the dark. At the time, they would have had no way of knowing that their break with fashion would be so fruitful.
“Au fond, ma seule maîtresse, c’est la musique.” Maurice Ravel
Commitment to one’s art may require a sacrifice, too. The French composer, Maurice Ravel, frequented bordellos and occasionally consorted with street walkers, but never married:
“You see, an artist has to be very careful when he wants to marry someone, because an artist never realizes his capacity for making his companion miserable. He’s obsessed by his creative work and by the problems it poses. He lives a bit like a daydreamer and it’s no joke for the woman he lives with.”
Biographies of the famous abound with the caution that any artist who is committed to their art is no respecter of others and their needs. The Dada artist, Kurt Schwitters’ ‘Merzbau,’ was a kind of walk-in collage of grottos and columns which grew and grew until it reached the ceiling of his studio home, whereupon, Schwitters summarily evicted the tenants upstairs so that he could continue to build.
My own latest commitment, is to a roll of canvas, 10 metres long which I unroll every week and lather with paint. Rather than 100 different pictures, I’m now working on one giant one with a single theme. At the snail’s pace I’m painting, it may be a long time before I succeed, or indeed, an equally long time before I fail.
To view a short film about my 100 paintings project, Image Wall, click here.