Ponderings on understanding art

A friend told me the other day she had looked at the image of my print from all directions but couldn’t understand it.  It made me think.

First of all, do I understand it?

Sometimes the art I make is so intuitive, especially when I’m printmaking, that I may not be really clear why I like it or even what it’s about!
All I do know is, where it began. So, first of all, here’s the print again. All things counter -matted

 

And here’s where it began.

sketchbook page
The tulip was drawn twice on the left, at different angles and then the main lines picked out and refined.

Basically, it’s a stylised tulip flower with splayed leaves, simplified for the purpose of printing with stencils. My original plan was a composite print made up of quadrants and I made a couple of those, but when you’ve used a stencil on top of wet ink, it picks up the ink on its reverse.  It is just too tempting to use that by printing the piece on another, or even the same sheet of paper, with the inky side down. This reverses its position and starts a whole new creative process!  Before this stem was yellow, (see below), it was used as a stencil to block out purple.  Printed in reverse in became a purple stem.  Instead of printing it on a clean sheet, I printed it over a print that hadn’t worked very well and, with the addition of some other inky stencils, some using drier ink or less pressure, the image began to take shape. I liked the balance of colour and shape, so it was a ‘keeper’.  Obviously someone else liked it, too!

 

dav
one quadrant of the composite print showing the stem part.

So, knowing where it came from might help, but it could be that knowing too much can spoil it since it might not say ‘tulip’ or ‘spring flowers’ to you!

Appreciating art, whether it is abstract or not, has to do with feeling as much as seeing.  I asked my neighbours what prompted them to buy works of art and the universal response was, ‘because I like it!’

 

One of my neighbours described for me a painting she had bought many years ago, ‘because she liked it’. Words such as ‘it reminded me’, ‘it looked like…’, ‘the colours were nice’, didn’t really describe the image.  They were her feelings about it, the memories or associations it evoked.  You see, liking a piece of art really has little to do with what it depicts.

I have a shelf full of ‘art books’, literally hundreds of reproductions of famous art-works. My journey into art began with books borrowed from the library.  Reading the background helped me see that there was more to abstract art than meets the eye.  Yes, that is what I meant to say!

At college, I was introduced to the work of Abstract Expressionist artists such as Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Cy Twombly and Willem de Kooning in reproduction.  We looked at images of their work and learned a bit about the purposes and origins of the movement.  Rothko I could live with and liked some of his colour combos, colour being ‘my thing’. The others I wasn’t so sure about and Pollock I wrote off altogether. Years later, I went to  the Abstract Expressionist exhibition at the Royal Academy.  I walked into the rotunda and was stunned.  It was wall-to-wall, floor to ceiling (because that’s how big they are) Rothko’s. I stood in awe, dazed by the intensity of colour but also the intensity of feeling.  It was as though the paint came off the canvas and enveloped me. I didn’t want to leave.  But there were other things to see.  Wending my way round the exhibition, I found the de Koonings underwhelming compared to their reproductions I had seen.  Then I came to a wall of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.  I was going to walk quickly past, giving them a cursory glance.  After all, these weren’t real art were they? But I kept getting drawn to one here, another there.  There was more depth in them than I expected. They are quite measured in the application of those seemingly random drops.  They seemed to be saying something.  I still wouldn’t necessarily want to live with one, but now it is because of the disturbing feelings they provoke rather than because I don’t like them or understand them.  Rothko and Pollock were both influenced by Scientology which suggests that everything is spiritual and so, like Wassily Kandinsky they were concerned with the spiritual in art. The image was nothing if it did not embody and invoke feeling.

This is true of all forms of artistic expression.  I remember being overwhelmed when I first saw one of Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’ in the flesh. I realised that he wasn’t just depicting flowers in his garden.  He was trying to convey to us how they made him feel.  Music, too, has the power to transcend the notes on the page.  A youthful member of our congregation brought tears as she played her cello for us in Church on Sunday.  I felt the Spirit because she did, too, and so had the composer.  Art is a powerful thing.  That is why it has been used, or misused, as propaganda throughout the last century and before.

So I think I have two messages here.  One is obviously, don’t write off an unfamiliar form of art without letting it ‘speak’ to you in person.  The other is, don’t write off your own artistic endeavours, be they drawing or playing the piano, because they are not perfect reproductions of your subject or score. The more important question is, ‘Do they say something about you? Do they share the way you feel about the thing you are depicting or performing?’  Doesn’t look like a dog?  Don’t worry. Sometimes even a dog doesn’t look like a dog, especially when it’s really excited by something!

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