Back to Oxford Exhibition - general introduction
Substance of introductory remarks given at the opening of an exhibition of my paintings at Wolfson College, Oxford, Sunday 7th February 2010
I believe its unusual for the artists themselves to speak at their openings, at least at any length. Normally you try to find other people willing to say nice things about you. My problem though is that there are things I want said that I couldn't expect anyone else to say. Two reasons for that: first I want to make certain claims that are so enormous and exaggerated I couldn't possibly expect anyone else to make them on my behalf; and secondly I want to say things that are so modest and self-effacing that if anyone else were to say them I would probably take offence.
The explanation for this apparent contradiction is simple. The large claims are being made for the school of which I am part; the more modest claims refer to my own particular contribution.
I have presented myself as a member of a school first of all in the title of the exhibition - Continuing Cubism - and secondly in giving a room to other artists who are one way or another also part of the school. I am of course referring to the school of Albert Gleizes. I don't have the time or inclination at this moment to give a full historical account of who Gleizes was, what his role in Cubism was, what were his relations, or lack of relations, with Picasso and Braque etc - I want to go straight to the point. Cubism broke with the laws of perspective which had provided the structural basis of painting for the previous 500 years from the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century. There were many reasons why the artists wanted to do this - the most important that they were aware of at the time was probably the desire to incorporate mobility and time into their work, and I will return to this. But it still leaves the question - why was the discontent with the static nature of representational painting so intense at that particular moment in time?
Gleizes's reply to this question was developed over a long period but expressed most clearly in his essays Art and Religion and Art and Science (my translations of these have been published by Francis Boutle publishers). He argued that the collapse of the idea of form that had developed in the Renaissance marked a collapse in the Renaissance view of the world, of what is called Humanism - which he understood as the position of the human person as observer of a reality external to herself. The equivalent in painting was the painting that copies the appearances of nature, ie painting that is about something other than itself.
A DECORATIVE ART
Instead of copying the appearances of nature or trying to express an idea, which could probably be better expressed in prose, Gleizes saw painting as a particular human ACT, which, like any other craft, had its own laws and principles. There was nothing new in this. For most of human history painting had been understood simply as a means of decorating a given space. In our time the 'abstract', 'non-representational', 'non-figurative', 'non-objective' artists had put themselves unnecessarily at a disadvantage in rejecting - and with such impressive indignation - the idea that theirs was a 'decorative' art.
There is a little history behind this observation. The year 1925 saw the opening in Paris of the great Exhibition of Decorative Arts which has given us the term 'Art Deco'. The influence of Cubism was widely recognised and some of the critics who had been hostile to Cubism announced triumphantly that it had now found its proper place in the scheme of things. It was a merely decorative art. The great bulk of the Cubists (many of whom were at that time collapsing back into a classical-figurative mode of painting) took this as an insult. Two notable exceptions were Gleizes and his friend Robert Delaunay who argued that the fact that a superficial adaptation of Cubism was proving so suitable for a popular decorative art was a proof of its strength.
Decoration is a matter of taking a given space and raising it to the level of human being. It is thus a more accurate mirror of what we are as human beings - what we recognise as corresponding to what we are - than any portrait which only shows us certain superficial external appearances, however much these may be interpreted by the 'genius' of the artist. To think that decoration is frivolous is to have a frivolous idea of what it is to be human - it is a mark of humanism at the end of its tether.
Speaking in a very summary manner we can say that Gleizes started in the Cubist period with the desire for a realist art, an art which would record something of the enormity of the modern world leading to the need, common to both Cubists and Futurists, to incorporate movement and time as obviously important realities. This eventually became a recognition that space and time - stability/mobility - are functions of our own human being and that despite the apparently static nature of a painting we can be launched into mobility through the eye following one thing leading to another in the painting. Hence the two terms which for Gleizes correspond to stability and mobility in the practise of painting - translation (the organisation of space) and rotation (the entry into a movement which is necessarily circular, returning on itself, otherwise it would go outside the canvas and thereby come to a halt). The interaction between these two functions produces a third mode of being which is the overall form of the work analogous to the overall form of our human being - which can be very crudely summarised as the sum total of our actions - what we ARE or what we are becoming - the whole shape of our lives, the form outside time or space in which we enter Eternity.
Space - time - eternity, corresponding to the tripartite Greek philosophical division adopted by the early Christian fathers; body - soul - spirit. Stability - mobility - rhythm/form.
A religious believer can of course understand 'Eternity' in terms of eternal life, but the question of what we are, the overall form we assume which is other than our external appearance or any particular action in time, is a fact of our everyday life, something we have to take into account whatever we might or might not believe.
Now if you look around at the paintings on display you may feel this is a rather pretentious or pompous way of talking about what is after all a rather modest pictorial achievement. So I want to say a few words about my own role in the overall story.
THE ABC OF PAINTING
I went to France in 1987 to work with the potter Genevieve Dalban (some of her work can be seen in the display case in the room devoted to Gleizes and his associates). I quickly found myself in the middle of a heated controversy which had been going on for years in the Gleizes circle. There were those - mostly painters - who said, well, Gleizes had gone through a number of stages of development and there was no point in repeating him, going over territory that had already been covered. We should start where he left off. Gleizes died soon after he had launched into a period of free-flowing arabesques and that was the research that needed to be continued.
On the other hand there were those - or more accurately perhaps there was Genevieve - who argued that it was impossible to launch into the apparent freedom of the late art without mastering the ABC of the early stages - the organisation of space and the process of transition from the statism of the plane surface to the mobility of line. Genevieve was quite happy to admit the possibility of going further than Gleizes - she often quoted him saying 'I have opened a door, its up to you to go further'. But as every Renaissance painter after Uccello had to master the ABC of the perspective system so everyone who agreed that Gleizes pointed the way forward had to master the ABC of translation/rotation. Beginning with the most elementary manipulation of the basic proportions of the space to be filled with paint. Which was usually a rectangle, but whatever the overall shape the vertical and horizontal orientations are so basic to our human nature that they had to be taken into account. And this can be seen in the case of those highly reputed non-figurative artists whose work is entirely confined to them - Mondrian, Albers, Rothko and, most recently, Sean Scully.
However, when I got down to working with Genevieve I found that she was in fact constantly prodding me - and her other pupils - to go further. For example an elementary organisation of planes will draw the eye to a centre. But the eye then stops. It needs to be drawn out again, back to the periphery, thus establishing a continual movement in and out, like breathing. I would try to do this still using planes but with a different succession of colours. Genevieve on the other hand would use 'accents' - little touches of colour skilfully placed which could prepare the way for an evolution into line and arabesque.
It was disheartening. I would be happy producing some fairly prosaic but more or less harmonious structure, then Genevieve would sit down beside me and add the accents and the whole thing would begin to come to life. And that would lead her to another stage and another stage again. Yet somehow when I attempted it myself it didn't have quite the same effect.
A SLOW LEARNER
In the event I was very taken with writing and researching my book on Gleizes and did not spend nearly as much time on the painting as I would have liked. The work I did with Genevieve could for the most part be torn up except for what it tells me about the many challenges that still have to be confronted. It was only when I made a firm decision to go much slower than she would have wanted that I began to produce work I thought might be worthy of being exhibited and sold. It is a more extreme version of the point Genevieve was making. The ABC of the initial organisation of space is indispensable and it isn't easy. One could complain that Gleizes himself and his earliest associates - Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett - always on the look out for exotic and interesting shapes - jumped over it too quickly.
Comparing what I have done with the material in the first room (chastely averting your gaze from the works by Firpo and Dubois which are not really part of the same research) there is an obvious contrast between my work which is essentially rectilinear and theirs which is largely curvilinear. My work only represents the most elementary stages - the organisation of the space on the basis of the vertical and horizontal and the beginning of a disequilibrium, of a movement in time, through the inclination of the planes to the right and to the left. If I manage to have another exhibition, who knows? accents may begin to appear, and perhaps even curves and eventually perhaps even the odd arabesque. At any rate I have a programme mapped out for me which will keep me occupied for the rest of my days.
And this slowness does not at all worry me. The term 'arabesque' of course refers to characteristics associated with Muslim art, chiefly calligraphy. But the earliest form of post Qu'ranic calligraphy is Kufic, based on an arrangement of straight - vertical and horizontal - lines. That was the springboard for everything else. It renders everything else possible and comprehensible. And the eventual development of the freer more 'arabesque' forms of calligraphy such as Nasta'liq did not at all eliminate Kufic, still particularly well adapted to the needs of architecture.
The upshot of all that is that this is a painting that shouldn't and perhaps didn't need any explanation. The explanation only seems to be necessary because there are so many different rival and contradictory ideas around of what painting is. I feel a need to show where I stand. Mine is a 'merely decorative' painting. But it is decoration with attitude, based on the understanding that 'mere decoration' is a profoundly important human act.