Viewing and meaning

When a painting is seen in the flesh (as opposed to in reproduction) it is invariably seen in whole and experienced as a complete and self-contained object. Personally my future appreciation of that work is tied to that initial viewing. I rarely come to love a previously un-regarded painting after repeated study. I may come to appreciate technical aspects of a painting I have never previously held any great affection for, but I cannot engender that same enthusiasm that a newly seen, exciting painting can create. This is an assumption based on the experience of talking to other collectors and gallerists so for convenience sake I am taking this as generally true for most, if not all, viewers of paintings.
On this basis I choose paintings that I would consider buying. I do not consider the title, the wall-note, the investment potential, the catalogue or any enthusiastic gallery sales pitch. I either want the piece or I do not. The next, and usually deciding, matter is affordability versus desire to own. I recently walked past a small gallery/shop in the Breton city of Quimper and was stopped by a small painting in the window. I went inside and found a small room piled floor to ceiling with paintings quite clearly of only two subjects: seaside views populated by picturesque rowing boats and floral still-life paintings. Clearly the painter was pandering to two markets – all bar this one, small painting of a young girl on a bed with a flute. And it stood out, in my mind, because of its honesty. I asked about it and all the artist could say was that it was a portrait of her daughter.
In my mind, the reason for this one painting taking my attention was because of its honesty; because of its refusal to pander to a perceived market. It is relatively crude in its technique, it will probably never be worth any more than the fifty euros I paid for it, but it is simply and honestly beautiful. I know that if another painter saw it then I would lose that opportunity to own it. That was my interpretation of the painting and my need to have it.
Where is this going?
Once again I have been asked by a collector to explain the meaning of a painting; the relationship between the exhibition theme, the painting itself and its title. I have always found this particularly difficult because so much informs my work at all times through its production and I do not keep a diary of all these influences. My first worry is that if I offer an interpretation, no matter how involved, well considered and clearly expressed, that challenges the collector’s initially held ideas about the work then I am not only doing them a disservice by questioning their own interpretation, but I am potentially ignoring aspects of the work that they have found more readily than me.
I do not have all the answers to my work. If I did then I probably wouldn’t have the obsessive need to progress it. Herbert Read stated that “A work of art is not present in thought, but in feeling; it is a symbol rather than a direct statement of truth.” It is that old cliché that painting is all about the external expression of the inner processes of art and the artist, which though currently unfashionable does seem to chime inside me as bearing some nugget of truth. More importantly he follows this with “That is why the deliberate analysis of a work of art… cannot in itself lead to the pleasure to be derived from that work of art. Such pleasure is a direct communication from the work of art as a whole.”
So in refusing to any more offer in-depth interpretations of my own work I am not playing the role of misunderstood, stroppy, prima-donna – I’m just quite honestly saying that I really cannot relate all of the informing influences. From the initial idea, through the related research of others’ intellectual ideas, to the preliminary sketches, the changing technical aspects of my own painting learnt over thirty years, the influence of lessons learnt from other painters (living and dead), the music I listen to while I paint, the news I hear and the books I read.
A friend (who is blessed with the abilities to both paint and write) recently helped me with this conundrum quite succinctly. I related this problem of defining my work to collectors seeking an explanation and he just replied that if I could thoroughly express the purpose or meaning of my work in words then I would do so. But I choose to do it visually because that is the language that I naturally default to. It sounds obvious when someone else says it doesn’t it? And if you don’t trust my friend down the road there’s always Barthes in his ‘Death of the Author’ where he states that a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. I’m not a philosopher. I might be a thinker and a reader, but primarily I’m a painter.


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