Friday, May 17, 2019

Material Matters

There are days when everything I see seems to me charged with meaning: messages it would be difficult for me to communicate to others, define, translate into words, but which for this very reason appear to me decisive. They are announcements or presages that concern me and the world at once: for my part, not only the external events of my existence but also what happens inside, in the depth of me; and for the world, not some particular event but the general way of being of all things. You will understand therefor my difficulty in speaking about it, except by allusion. 

Italo Calvino ' If on a winter's night a traveler' 

Without the internet connected yet in the house reading the old-fashioned way from a book is a pleasure rediscovered afresh each weekend as I transfer volumes from one set of bookshelves in Brussels to another in Bruges. Books are heavy when you carry them in a bicycle pannier - I find I have to 'weigh my words' literally before I set off.    

I turn in the circle of my days, the wheels of my bicycle turn, morning and evening, in daylight and darkness, in spring when the cherry blossom scatters its pink confetti on the ground and in autumn when the last fiery flames of golden leaves illuminate the sky. Everything turns in its cycle of living and dying, arising and ceasing endlessly. Each weekend I regain the geometry of the house; first at the broad base of it's pyramid; washing, eating, walking, sitting, reading, looking, and  then gradually mounting the pyramid to sleep under the roofs apex - where form meets formlessness - under the celestial zenith - at the breathing point of the roof and sky.

Time and space are defined by a scale and proportion and there is an underlying geometry in things-  Cezanne's cylinder, sphere and cone.

 '...treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point.' 

Letter to Emile Bernard. April 15 1905

Plato's 'solids' were associated with the elements; earth the cube, air the octahedron, water the icosahedron and fire the tetrahedra. Plato attributed the dodecahedron with arrangement of the constellations.

I recently read Spike Bucklow's 'The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science and Secrets from the Middle Ages' 
Attempting to join up artists’ theory and practice has been a lot of fun. Walking my dog around Cambridgeshire, across fields and over the nearest things to hills that the region has to offer, I saw the sun set and the stars come out, the seasons come and go, and the colours change. I attempted to familiarise myself with what CS Lewis called The Discarded Image, the poetic way that the medieval world view synthesised ‘the whole organisation of their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental model of the universe’. In the medieval world, everything had meaning, even the pigments they painted with. Guidance from the ‘discarded image’ helped me to consider artists’ materials and methods in ways that modern science could not.

Liber Divinorum Operum. Theophany of Divine Love
Hildergard Von Bingen 
'Utriusque Cosmi Historia' by Robert Fludd (1574-1637)
Rereading 'The Abyss' by Margaret Youcenar it struck me that Zeno's alchemical insights into the nature of nature and his own body and mind's participation in its processes read surprisingly like the Satipatthana Sutta's four foundations of mindfulness of the body, sensations and feelings aroused by perception and mind/consciousness and 'dhammas' or elements of the Buddhist teaching. 

' The act of thinking interested him now more than did the doubtful products of thought itself. He tried to observe himself while engaged in thinking, just as with his finger on his wrist he might have counted the pulsations of his radial artery, or beneath his ribs, the coming and going of his breath.......From the realm of the mind he came back to the denser world of substance which is contained within the limits of form. Enclosed within his room, he no longer spent his waking hours trying to acquire a more just view of the relations between things, but instead in meditation, wholly unformulated, on the nature of things.' 

Making paintings, renovating a personal dwelling are intensely physical and material activities but they are also metaphysical, concerned with realities beyond the visible and tangible world of appearances. There is a visual language and a material grammar of things. Their history, character and nature can be 'read' as they acquire meanings, both individual and collective, from their changing contexts, and accumulate associated significance. We inhabit a world in time and space in which memory and identity are forged through personal relationships to people, places and things.   

The kind of materials I have used have 'meanings' like these; lime and sand for mortar, stone and marble, fired clay in tiles and bricks; wood, mainly oak, and metal, iron and brass. I have especially sought out reclaimed and recycled materials with qualities of utility and endurance, the signs of both age and use as well as an inherent natural beauty, evident from patterns and textures that indicate natural cycles of growth and decay, repair and reuse over years.

This 18th century English oak dresser from Wales, Lancashire or Yorkshire, which I am currently cleaning had been covered with white emulsion paint by a previous owner. It was made with oak trees that must have been around 200 years old when they were cut down. This means they were saplings in 1550. Likewise the salvaged 18th century solid oak doors which have been used both for their original purpose and as traditional oak paneling to dry-line the hall way. I have a oak chest from around 1680 which must be made with trees that were saplings from around the time of the battle of Bosworth in 1485. The various Belgian marbles that has also been reused from salvage have a grain that reveals liquid processes of metamorphoses taking place in the earth hundreds of millions of years ago. These kind of materials age well. 

Pallassmaa says that unlike, ...'the machine made materials of today - scaleless sheets of glass, enameled metals and synthetic plastics .....Natural materials express their age, as well as the story of their origins and their history of human use. All matter exists in a continuum of time; the patina of wear adds the enriching experience of time to the materials of construction. This fear of the traces of wear and age is related to our fear of death.'

I am struck by how much 'ocularcentrism' in modern and contemporary architecture, which Juhani Pallasmaa regards as fixated on retinal, pictorial and perspective based systems of seeing, privileges the eye over over the other senses and in particular the primordial sense of touch - the mother of all the senses.  This resonates with my own intuitive approach to the house in which the tactile experience of using lime mortar to plaster the walls and tile the floors has been intensely physical and tactile.

'Construction in traditional cultures is guided by the body in the same way that a bird shapes its nest by movements of its body. Indigenous clay and mud architectures in various parts of the world seem to be born of the muscular and haptic senses more than the eye.' 

Juhani Pallasmaa's 'The Eyes Of The Skin'

Monday, March 18, 2019

Ascetic Aesthetic in Spain and Flanders

Francisco de Zurbaran. c 1638 - 16-39 St Francis Meditating 

The exhibition just opened of Spanish Baroque painting and sculpture, which I saw this weekend, features this imposing and psychologically charged painting by Zurbaran. The warm, muted colours and dramatic light and shadow, and the arching curve of the figure and counter curve of the skull hands and face in the composition add a brooding intensity to the existential dilemma it poses like an insistent question. The rich attention Zurbaran lavishes on these sensual and aesthetic qualities; the precise tactile nature of the patched robe, its weight and thickness and the subtle modelling of its surface texture, carefully rendered over the the contours of each fold with directional brush marks, is in contrast to its evident physical and symbolic embodiment of the principles Franciscan poverty and simplicity and the meditation on death.  This representation of an ascetic is also a visual essay in 17th century Spanish aesthetics- a kind of Franscican 'wabi sabi'. Derived from a traditional Japanese Buddhist approach to life Wabi Sabi expresses an inherent transient and imperfect beauty evident in natural materials, object and processes defined by a rough simplicity, modesty and austerity. 

The Zurbaran St. Francis reminds me of Velazques' famous 'Waterseller of Seville' at Apsley House painted a little earlier in 1618-22. Although not a religious painting it shares the same frugality of subject matter, a similar muted colour scheme of earth tones like raw umber, yellow ochre, stark light and shadow, realistic rendering of material surfaces and an elemental and dignified attitude to poverty and simplicity. One has the same sense of the artist's intense gaze and loving attention to very precise tactile and visual qualities of ordinary and even poor everyday objects and surfaces revealed by strong directional raking light. 

The Belgian art collector and designer Axel Vervoordt, who also appreciates the quality of light on different natural surfaces, has explained his philosophy of 'Wabi' in many articles and books. Writing in the New York Times Style Magazine in 2014 in an article entitled, 'The Luxury of Humility', David Netto quotes him below: 

The costs of achieving this kind of minimalism are eye-watering, and seemingly inconsistent with its mission of aesthetic humility. He explains that this is a kind of luxury for a select few: “The Emperor of Japan had a wabi garden. Wabi is for people who already have a lot.” 
It is a 'rich' paradox that poverty and simplicity should cost so much time and effort but then; 'there is more simplicity in a man who drinks champagne on impulse than eats grape nuts on principle' 

Monday, January 7, 2019

Painting the Fugitive Image


Painting the Fugitive Image

Alan Mitchell

The Greene Gallery in the VPAC
St John’s International School
Waterloo, Belgium.

Opening/ Vernissage
18th January 2019
From 4-6pm
‘Ars Longa, Vita Brevis’

In Greco-Roman antiquity creating illusions of depth on flat surfaces by painting trompe l’oeil was a source of fascination and wonder to viewers. The painter seemed, through the alchemy of materials, craft and qualities of light and colour, to be able to capture a mirrored reflection of visible appearances that resembled an almost tangible reality. Somehow, as if by magic, the image preserved the fleeting moment, whether it was the freshness of a young face or the bloom of flowers or fruit, and fixed it, sometimes for generations, giving it the illusion of permanence if not actual immortality.

The work of art- the image itself- was of course made of materials that were subject to change and decay. Paint on plaster, wood, paper, clay and even stone are fleeting and fugitive and ultimately fall apart, fade, break or become fragmented, lost or destroyed. The ephemeral, transient and impermanent nature of these ancient civilizations was itself a subject of art from the Renaissance till the 19th century and fragments of broken statuary and the overgrown ruins of once powerful empires were subjects for Romantic and Neo-Classical artists which contained important philosophical and moral insights considered worthy of contemplation by later generations. ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.’

The invention of photography in the early 19th century enabled artists to fix with greater scientific accuracy and new technological skills the fleeting moment and this in turn supplemented and informed the artist’s eye altering the focus of painting and perhaps even its traditional illusionist function. In the 20th century film and photography have created evermore convincing mirrors of reality until today we are surrounded by a veritable electronic and digital ‘hall of mirrors’ that includes holograms of sound and light that can create illusions of existing things and aspects of our lost past in seemingly solid reality.

My painting is concerned with the ephemeral nature of pictorial illusion as well as the nature of the reality depicted. It is an elegy to the fragile surfaces on which illusions exist as simulacra. Using collage as an integral part of the process I work from direct observation in oil paint, acrylic and mixed media on paper, board or canvas. Evoking the tradition of trompe l’oeil I try to find a melancholy beauty and poetry in the transitory nature of small things; fragments of photographic images, torn or crumpled paper, butterfly wings, a shell or a feather. I search for the gap between reality and illusion in the forgotten or ignored margins of the paper, the frayed edge of the image where the picture meets the frame, in the neglected corners of the room, offstage behind the scenery after the performance rather than in the full glare of the theatrical spectacle.  

If, as Kepler says, vision itself is a picture, then understanding the nature of pictorial illusions is key to understanding reality itself.  

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said that things in their true nature and illusions are of the same basic substance. Could painting therefor be a useful tool for contemplating the ultimate as well as the conditional nature of reality? I will leave the viewer to decide for themselves.

Alan Mitchell 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Good Book ?

And if you can't shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk. 

Try not to degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social events and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.  

As Much As You Can. C.P Cavafy.

(Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

I recently read Penelope Fitzgerald 'The Bookshop'. This book seems to be about about the private interior life of reading and the public life of action and social interaction in the central character of Florence Green, a childless, middle aged widow who opens a bookshop in the remote and isolated town of  Hardborough. ( 'hard' by name and 'hard' by nature it turns out). Like the poem above the book expresses how the inner life needs to be protected and how it can be compromised and indeed degraded by contact with the outer world.  

Set in the late 1950s the book charts her renovation of 'the old house', a damp, dilapidated and neglected property, and her realisation of a dream driven by the direct and painful experience of love and death, (Eros/Thanatos)  The loss of her devoted husband in the war and the recollection of their shared passion for reading and books is the internal engine that gives her the courage and energy to outface the opposition she encounters, including a resident poltergeist, as she sets up both bookshop and takes up residence in the old house she has bought.  

The character of Mrs. Gamart, an upper-class woman of power and influence in this small backwater, who wants to use the old house as an arts centre, and is driven by malice and envy to oust Florence from her bookshop and destroy her by cunning and devious means, is matched by the character of Mr. Brundish.  He lives in splendid, if somewhat lonely isolation in the oldest house in the town, and offers genuine and noble support to the project from beginning to end. It is to him that Florence goes when she wants advice about whether to sell Vladimir Nabakov's controversial book 'Lolita', asking him, 'is it a good book ?'  His subsequent sudden death from a heart attack, as he returns from defending Florence by confronting and challenging Mrs. Gamart, marks the rapid unraveling of her bookshop venture and her ultimate failure in Hardborough, as she finds herself bereft of all support, even from those she has trusted and relied on most for help. 

''Everyman, I will be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side'' -- the words of the medieval morality play are inscribed encouragingly on the bookmarkers in the two old Everyman volumes, a Ruskin and a Bunyan, which are all Florence has left when she's been run out of town, alone, homeless, shopless and nigh on bookless. And one's heart is stopped at the ironic gap between the good old words and the awful present reality, sobered yet once more at this potently slim novel's indictment of small-time Little Englandism successfully doing its philistine worst.  

(Valentine Cunningham  in the New York Times)  

Having read the book about a month ago I was surprised to see it had been made into a film and went to see it.  The biggest difference it seemed to me was the ending. The book is much bleaker and offers little in the way of moral certainty or final resolution whereas the film provides both in abundance. 

What criteria can we use to define a 'good' book or indeed a 'good' life ? Are aesthetic, ethics or truth  significant?  Is outward popularity and commercial success compatible with or at the expense of inner contentment or satisfaction?  Are goodness in life and art the same thing ? 

 Absence, loss and the recollection of desire are powerful stimuli to artistic creation in the poetry of C.P Cavafy.

Try to keep them, poet, 
those erotic visions of yours,
however few of them can be stilled.
 put them half hidden in your lines.
Try to hold them, poet,
when they come alive in your mind
at night, or in the brightness of noon.

When They Come Alive.  C.P Cavafy.

(Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

The Simon Lee Gallery says this about the work of Claudio Parmiggiani, whose work was included in the exhibition 'Beyond Borders' which I saw recently with students at the Boghossian Foundation at the Villa Empain. This remarkable Art Deco building itself seems to be 'a house of memory and dreams', a corporeal repository of both lost and recollected pasts, spanning much of the 20th century. It almost derelict when it was bought and renovated by the current owners.

The work of Italian artist Claudio Parmiggiani is concerned with themes of absence, the inevitable passage of time, fragmentation and silence. Deeply personal meditations on life and death, the power of reflection and feelings of the sacred are realised in concrete objects, photographic and painted images, and in his signature, 'Delocazione'. Inaugurated in 1970, these haunting works use powder, soot and fire to create shadows and imprints on paper and board, resulting in a sense of absence while at the same time making manifest an unmistakable human presence, tangible, yet not corporeal. 

1997. 78.03 Claudio Parmiggiani. Delocazione. 
My own effort to explore ideas about the passage of time, loss and absence in the corporeality of an oil painted illusion can be seen below in this painting in oil on board from the series 'Fugitive Images'.

Fugitive 5. Oil on Board. 
Five daily Buddhist recollections.

1. I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid ageing. 

 2. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness. 

 3. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death. 

 4. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me. 

 5. I am the owner of my actions, heir of my actions, actions are the womb (from which I have sprung), actions are my relations, actions are my protection. Whatever actions I do, good or bad, of these I shall become the heir. 

Upajjhatthana Sutta

Friday, September 21, 2018

Jigsaw Puzzle

It was a small house, and the whole point was its simplicity, as he'd known it would be, the very act of construction tempered by a longing to have next to nothing. Not much money, according to Iffy, a house for one artist built by another, both fired up with ideas about space, form economy, something mystical as well as technical in Orban's soul.

The Sparsholt Affair. Alan Hollinghurst

The exhibition of Luc De Meyer's work 'Tussen kruipend mos' (between creeping moss)which opened on Sunday afternoon at the Pinsart Gallery in the Genthof featured a series of drawings and collections of disparate fragmentary objects set into three dimensional spaces resembled small scale rooms or set designs. The subtle muted colours and carefully nuanced relationships between forms and spaces in these small 'wonder-kammern' created interesting and mysterious resonances within each assemblage of curios objects and the Pinsart gallery space itself, which appeared like a larger 'cabinet of curiosities' old and new. The stream of time and tide that  dislodges objects from their original context and dislocates them in time and space into new and often startling configurations was evoked in sensitive and whimsical visual compositions. 

It made me think of the ever changing compositions in the terrace in the house - a kind of outside/inside room or box viewed  from the windows of the kitchen or living room -which seems to balance between order and chaos throughout the ever changing seasons and processes of breaking down and building up which are such integral parts of the dynamic and organic aging and renovation processes of a house  

Working in the terrace on the giant jigsaw puzzle of recycled old bricks with their pink-ochres and bleached creamy whites is hard work but very satisfying. The weather is still good and the blue sky and golden brown beach and chestnut leaves complement the space. I find almost the same colours, forms and processes here as in the work in the gallery. Art and Life have no discernible line of separation. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Beeswax and Books

Before the summer holiday Patrick and I constructed bookshelves in the alcoves either side of the fireplace based on rough designs and measurements. With a simple plinth and cornice and a few coats of white paint far from reducing the size of the room they seem to increase the space, especially with the hidden illumination behind the cornice, and give a better sense of scale and proportion to the room. The rhythm of the shelving creates a counterpoint to the rhythm of the ceiling beams and the horizontal lines of the plinth and cornice follow and carry over the lines of the window sills and mantle piece. They are ready to be filled slowly with the accumulation of books which has built up over the years. I am already imagining evenings in front of the fire in the depth of winter in the company of favorite writers, the act of reading requiring both quiet and comfort, one interior space supporting another. 


Upstairs I was finally able to give the new oak floorboards a stain of colour and coat beeswax This was physical hard work but one job at least that smelled nice - at least to my sense of smell. I first had to stain the boards to the right colour using a mixture of turpentine and burnt umber oil paint and then when this was dry a coat of of beeswax and turpentine. Finally the plinth was attached and painted white.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Panel painting and the interior life .......part 1

Interior space, physical and psychological, are clearly connected and the last few months have found me making wood paneled window shutters, fitted bookcases with Patrick's help, and completing the interior spaces of rooms in the house as well as experimenting with wood, rabbit skin size, gesso, clay bole, gold leaf, egg tempera and oil paint in an attempt to recreate the materials and processes involved in making and painting a Medieval or early Renaissance wood panel. The purpose behind copying these paintings is to learn the technique with the intention of adapting it to my own original creative development of collage /painting ideas that I began working on when I first started this blog. At that time I was making work like the oil painting below which attempts to play with the space, real and illusory both inside and outside the real and painted frames, and evokes the torn paper and other surfaces, real and representational, on which images are made by photographic or other painted and printed means, revealing in a fixed form their fragile and transitory states.

The Fugitive Image: No 4.  Oil on Panel.  30x40cm

 Clearly the use of devotional images was an important aspect of developing an 'interior life' of the spirit through the imaginative use of icons and iconography and as an aid to framing states of mind conducive to and as a focus for contemplation and meditation in the Christian tradition. The material nature of these images was an important part of their power to make 'incarnate' ideas and despite their inanimate state they were often attributed with agency. Their age and survival, often in a damaged state, is part of their appeal and continuing power. The larger panel I have chosen to reconstruct is the one below by the Master of the Codex of St George in the Metropolitan Museum. 

Apart from these practical experiments research has included examining at first hand examples of gilded panel painting in tempera and oil paint including this wonderful panel by Simone Martine at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool which I have always loved since I first saw it as a young boy. I especially identified with this picture because Simone Martini with great psychological perception perfectly communicates the human relationship and the situation - parents reasoning with a difficult adolescent. It is interesting that like the painting I am copying for the larger of the two panel's this was also painted in Avignon in the 14th century. 

Apart from careful reading of Cennino Cennini famous "Il Libro dell'arte", which gives detailed instructions to the panel painter about how to prepare the gesso and add the gold leaf and paint in egg tempera,  I have an old copy of A.P Laurie's, 'The painters methods and materials' from school days,  and have also followed D.V Thompson's 'Materials and techniques of medieval painting' and 'The practice of tempera painting material and methods'. Using authentic traditional pigments and materials from Kramer the German paint manufactures who still manufacture true ultramarine blue from Lapis Lazuli, I am able to follow closely the processes involved. I have also been carefully studying the examples of students reconstructions of early panel painting on the   Hamilton Kerr Institute  website. 

The small panel based on an early 15th century Flemish Madonna and Child in oil paint below has been a trial run for various techniques which I am refining on the larger panel including water gilding. The practical method of experimenting with both the materials and techniques by actually reconstructing the whole process is from an artist's point of view essential to understanding the works on their own terms and not just as theoretical ideas that are read about in books. Cennino Cennini writes as one craftsman to another not as a sociologist or academic. 
Laying the gold using a gilders tip and water size and alcohol liquor on top of the sanded clay bole
gilders 'leather' cushion and knife

Stages in making the panel below

Animal glue melted down to glue the wooden panel and moldings together 
Bain Marie to melt the rabbit skin glue to size the panel and glue the linen to the surface. 

gluing the wooden molding to the panel 

sizing the wooden panel with rabbit skin glue

gluing the linen to the panel with size 

The first layer of very fine gesso made from rabbit skin size and calcium carbonate.
Carefully filing and modeling the corners
Sanding back the many layers of gesso that build up. 

Scraping back the surface to make it very smooth like ivory

Tracing the image and transferring to the surface 
The faint lines of the transferred design
Working up the under-painted tonal image using Indian ink and brush 

Painting four layers of clay bole to prepare the surface for water gilding

water gilding and burnishing with a agate burnisher 

Completing the under-painting to work out tonal balance prior to painting the colours with egg tempera 

Clearly this is still a work in progress.......meanwhile elsewhere ............

I have been preparing other panels in wood and paint to model the light and colour of the living room as it filters in through the windows at the front. As the cost of having traditional shutters was expensive I decided to measure up the panels I needed and make them myself. I used some thin plywood sheets cut to size with wooden moldings glued and nailed together, gaps and holes filled with some wood filler and sanded down before being painted with several layers of satin white and attached together with several small brass hinges. Having white paneled shutters, like adding gold to a painted panel, helps to reflect and increase light in the space, especially since the old glass in the front windows is slightly rose tinted. I had to make eight paneled hinged window shutters in all. The windows like the wooden painted panels frame the transition from interior to exterior space and vis-versa and are an important part of the atmosphere of the room. Opening and closing them in the morning and evening is a daily ritual, a necessity event that mediates the ever changing cycles of natural and artificial light and sensitizes one to these profoundly ordinary phenomena.

Shutters snugly mounted into the window frame and aligned to the newly fitted bookshelves.  
Adding gold leaf by water-gilding and burnishing with a mounter agate stone