online: 19 january 2003
modified: 20 january 2003

17 january 2003 the art of life

Looking through a selection of art postcards at the British Museum I realise that there are very few that I actually like. Almost all of the 50 or so cards on this rotating display stand are of well known paintings or drawings that do not correspond to, or arouse in me, a positive view of life - as I see it - or notice its absence...

...I realise today that I dislike nearly all of these pictures, and nearly all of the art in the world, particularly what is fashionable. This is a new thought for me: up to now I'd thought I liked almost everything that is new - but today I realise that I don't.

Having noticed this I look carefully through the cards displayed - looking for any that I do like...

I'm surprised to find that only two pass the test: a chalk and watercolour drawing by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) of A cart passing along a winding road and a rather similar pen and brown ink drawing by Claude Lorraine - a detail of Landscape with Paris and Oenone, (1600-82).

In both of them there are many trees in leaf above pastoral scenes with horses, cows, and people going about their daily life in a landscape. What I like most is the ordinariness of these scenes and activities - and I suppose the seeming absence of message or of imposed meaning.

Looking in a classical dictionary I learn that Paris is the mythical person who was exposed when a child and brought up by shepherds. He fell in love with the nymph Oenone but then he left her for Helen of Troy. Later, when wounded by a poisoned arrow, Paris sought Oenone's aid but he died before she could give it. Tennyson's Oenone is her lament for the lover who has deserted her. I did not choose the Claude Lorraine drawing for its classical or mythical meanings but now that I know them I am fascinated by the beauty of this quiet and imaginary sadness.

Looking now at these two cards, away from the Museum, I see them mainly as drawings, not as pictures. Not as scenes of other times but as the almost magical way in which the artists have made replicas of trees and landscape and animals and people out of wavering ink lines and smudges of chalk and water colour. The marvel of being able to draw at all - and the greater marvel of being able to see what to represent and what omit or to imply, and how to do it in a way that is coherent and certain - and not to add any traces of egoistic or teacherish* message... (But, as these pastoral scenes must have been fashionable things to draw in their time, what I see as impersonal accuracy and devotion may not be free of a cultural message that no longer registers?)

Yes, these now beautiful drawings do seem to accept life as it is and (for me at least) do not narrow it to a meaning imposed by the people who drew them. Or, if they did impose meanings, I don't notice it.

After buying the cards I remembered that I prefer the sight of the people visiting a gallery to the art that they have come to look at. And also the sight of those who guard the galleries, and particulary when any of the visitors or the guards get into conversation and appear to lose consciousness of their surroundings. Their so-various movements and postures (speaking loudly of physique and personality) and their clothes (in most cases carefully chosen with a sharp eye for what is fashionable) - all these are for me such a joy to observe that I barely need, or even want, to look at the pictures!

18 january: I revisited the museum to see again what were the postcards that I rejected...

I find that they are not so different from the two I chose, many being premodern and classical - but yes, the rejected ones are nearly all pictures of some extreme state or other, chosen for its significance - for instance a dangerous fire by Turner, a drawing of the back of Michelangelo's David drawn by Raffaello Santi, A Rembrandt of yet again his own face and no other, Richard Hamilton's picture of a man's view of his own body in a bath, William Blake's and Botticelli's pictures of mythical beings...

...all these subjects are I think far from life as it is - and full of message. But there was one picture, a black and red chalk Portrait of a lady thought to be Ann Boleyn by Hans Holbein the Younger, which, despite being of a courtly person, seemed to me to portray someone's ordinary look - and so I bought it to put next to Thomas Gainsborough's A cart passing along a winding road and the detail of Claude Lorraine's Landscape with Paris and Oenone.

So what if anything did I learn from this little experience?... That I do indeed like life as it is without exaggeration or selection, that art (in the west at least) very often portrays the extreme or the abnormal, or the (anguished?) thoughts of the artist... but that there are some artists who share this liking for the ordinary, for life as it happens, and it is those whose work pleases and inspires me. Are they the ones who say yes? Yes.

And I still like new views of what exists.

*The spell checker converted teacherish to tea cherish - a two-word poem of as yet no known meaning - and thus more interesting than any of this!

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© 2002 john chris jones

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