Just an hour west of Beaune lies the city of Autun. Founded during the reign of the first Roman emperor Augustus, the town still bears witness to its past in the form of walls, gates and a Roman theater.
Lili and I wanted to share the old center of Autun with our travel companions, especially the Cathedral of Autun (St. Lazare’s Cathedral). It is a major example of 12th century Romanesque architecture. Above the west entrance of the church you are immediately struck by the ‘The Last Judgement’ a visually astounding sculpture that gives you a taste of the high quality of art found within.
But our tour of the church was over before it began when Jenn twisted her ankle badly while photographing outside. We got some ice from a café nearby to keep down the swelling. It was decided to go to a nearby hospital for x-rays although we were pretty convinced it wasn’t broken.
Before heading out Lili and I made a quick dash to the Rolin Museum next door specifically to visit the amazing sculpture of “Eve’ (see above) which originally was located above the north transept of the church.
But there were other treasures in store for us in Musée Rolin… before we returned to the café we discovered on the top floor an entire room filled with pastels, paintings and watercolors of Maurice Denis. Fabulous to see all these works some of which I knew but had never seen live.
We then got Jenn to the hospital where accidents caused by a sports car rally through the city and a partial strike by the hospital’s employees made the wait so long that we eventually left not having seen a doctor. It all worked out though, on our way to Lyon the following morning….
Paris elevators are small. For two Americans visiting from San Francisco they appear ridiculously small. Three people with carry-on luggage is often the max. But we managed to get the bags upstairs to my room and headed out for a quick breakfast before departing with the train later that morning for Dijon. It was wonderful to see my godson (Matt) and his wife Jenn again, I had arrived the night before with the evening Thalys from Amsterdam and we were anxious to begin our journey.
Lili was already in the country for her ceramic course near Langres and she would be driving to Dijon to meet us and our carefully planned, weeklong French adventure would finally begin. The plan was simple: to indulge ourselves with delicious food, wonderful wine, beautiful architecture and inspiring art spread between two wine regions (Burgundy and The Loire valley) and three cities, Beaune, Lyon and Amboise.
Rogier van der Weyden
For Lili and I, Beaune is synonymous with The Hospices de Beaune or Hotêl-Dieu de Beaune, a former charitable almshouse founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin as a hospital for the poor. The wooden building is remarkably well preserved and houses a remarkable piece of art: ‘The Last Judgement’ a 15th century masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden. It consists of nine painted oaken panels of which six can be closed revealing six more paintings on the reverse. An amazing structure which moves a large magnifying glass horizontally and vertically across the surface using a remote control allows the viewer to study and marvel at the paintings incredible details.
We all pretty much agreed that our first airbnb just outside Beaune was the nicest. Rolling farmlands filled with grazing cattle, a restored farmhouse with all modern conveniences. We had two excellent meals accompanied by an superb local Burgundy at a small hotel in the nearby town of Couches and our first evening was made complete when we lost our way back home after dinner and had a near collision with a marauding herd of wild boars.
Blue. Definitely blue, but mellowed, softened. Light, in feeling and in atmosphere. Rough, but not too rough, not like ‘Rotterdam’ (ROT! DAMN! A Dutch port, violent, dangerous, dock workers) and of course Elke Sommer, a sexy blonde actress from my teens, whom I always associated with Copenhagen (actually she’s German). Well, so much for the fantasies of youth…
But ‘light’ and ‘blue’ weren’t too far off. The Scandinavian countries always fascinated me and now, finally, I was going. Via a non-simultaneous house exchange with a Danish-Iranian couple who stayed here in April, they made it possible for us to visit their city in August.
They home was a penthouse in an international architecture award winning building in a trendy neighborhood called ‘Vesterbro’, rising from the ashes where the Carlsberg beer headquarters formerly was located. A beautiful home and a fascinating area.
We rented bicycles. Definitely the way to go in a large city, well, if the city happens to be as bicycle friendly as Copenhagen. Wonderful to be free to go wherever you like when you like. Our first day while stopped at an intersection, I looked to the left and was stunned to see: “Pierre Bonnard, The Memory of Color’ plastered on the side of a building not far from our place. I knew it was in London a few months earlier. I’d already seen a retrospective at the MOMA in New York in 1998, and another in Paris at the Musée d’Art Moderne in 2006 (there, a long curved wall with all four of the horizontal bath paintings. Unforgettable) so I thought: ‘I’m not flying to London just to see two canvases I haven’t seen before’.
Whoa! Was I ever wrong. The exhibition was presented in the Glyptoteket Museum and at least a third of the works in this show were new to me. Together with Matisse and Diebenkorn, Bonnard holds a warm place in my heart. Once again I was motivated, inspired and thrilled by his use of color and composition.
Although I often regard the texts of curators as needless attachments to an exhibition meant to highlight their own knowledge and writing skills rather than allowing the viewer his/her own visual experience, the catalogue for the show was filled with fascinating information regarding Bonnard’s personal life, habits and working methods.
No, not the state. The Museum of Modern Art, just an hour train ride outside of Copenhagen. Beautifully located on the sea, a large portion of the space was given to a major exhibition of the work of the contemporary Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. In a career spanning some 30 years, we were treated to the results of her outrageous, funny, visually stunning experiments in video imagery. When you enter an exhibition through a garden adorned with her piece: ‘Used Underwear’, yes, literally 50 or more pairs of men’s and women’s used underwear dangling from the trees around you, it’s certain you are about to experience something different and original.
I’ve a tendency to roll my eyes at this sort of thing, but perhaps because I didn’t know what to expect and owing to my general lightness of mood I was able to let go of judging whether or not this was ‘Serious Art’ and allowed myself to be dazzled, amazed and entertained.
Louisiana is definitely a must for anyone traveling to Copenhagen for the first time or anytime.
Go with the flow
When I went back to work the next day the movement felt choppy. It didn’t have the calligraphic flow across the surface I wanted. Where was the kink in the cable?
It seemed the three ‘figures’ in the middle weren’t doing their job, they weren’t moving the eye properly from left to right. So, reluctantly I replaced them with three new figures that had a solid identity but provided a rhythm that moved the viewer along.
Yes, now it was working….
But there were still unresolved problems. The legs for instance, what role were they playing? And the large backpack on the far right. Necessary? Working for me? Or working against me?
Too crowded. Too heavy. Lighten it up. Redesign number 5. Remove number 6. Lose the backpack.
My first impressions as my workday begins again.
I’m consciously fighting the urge to describe, to delineate, to explain. The entire surface must be a whole, one piece. It has to hit you at once, all together. Like a poem that baffles but also delights and intrigues. I don’t want the viewer to KNOW what they are looking at. I want them to ENJOY what they are looking at. Feel it before they understand it.
I like it.
Let it be….
Yeah right, ‘Let it be’….
I got stuck for 6 months.
I loved the surface I’d created, the mood, where it was going, but I couldn’t leave it there. It was too sketchy. The right side was unresolved.
So I looked at more photos, drawings, made new drawings until I finally found a way. But I was very unsure, hesitant.
Finally I removed and inserted the new figures and slowly I began to feel the whole once more. When I work on such a large piece I wonder if composing a symphony is something similar? How to hold on to a big idea when so many individual sections need to be completed and yet constantly relate back to that one idea?
At a certain point, if it goes well, I stop talking at the painting and begin to take dictation. The painting starts to inform you. I listened closely and finally I was done.
My now dear departed friend, the painter Ed Baynard and I were headed to breakfast together years ago on 57th street in New York and we happened to pass a newsstand where an article on the front page of the New York Times caught his eye: “Oh my God, Alice died.” He exclaimed. (referring to the American abstract painter Agnes Martin) “Did you know her?” I asked. “Yes, when I first arrived in New York I was her studio assistant” “Oh really? What was she like?” “She was very quiet and I didn’t dare question her about her painting although one day I screwed up my courage and did. I asked: ‘Alice, where do you get your inspiration from?’ She looked at me oddly, as if I sought an answer that didn’t need answering. ‘Well, I just do what the voices tell me to do!’ she replied.”
Don’t paint the photo
‘Don’t paint the photo, PAINT THE REASON WHY YOU TOOK THE PHOTO’
This sentence is written down and posted on the wall of my back studio (my ‘idea factory’) where I produce the studies and play with the ideas that eventually lead to a painting.
The Sri Lankan schoolgirls were an excellent case in point. Although I was able to jot down studies in my sketchbook at the scene as well note the mood, atmosphere and my own feelings and associations, I also took a lot of photos with my iPhone.
For me, using photos is a dangerous but sometimes necessary practice. Why? The photo records the visual facts and all the details like a good machine should do. But when the photos are back in my studio I realize I have not yet made any choices, I have not selected what I find important or non-essential. I haven’t yet distilled the image down to its essentials, which is what drawing is all about.
Beginning the painting
I’ve now made 50 or so drawings. I’ve entered into, become intimate with, filleted, analyzed, pulled the figures part and reassembled them. Time to affix two 110×120 cm. aluminum panels to my front studio wall and get started.
Using only rags saturated in indigo paint I move quickly across the white surface. I know my first run must be a statement.
Confident in what I have learned and yet nervous to be relying only on instinct and intuition I bolt out of the gate as a skier on a black diamond slope. A huge expanse of white looms before me.
The moment a dark is registered the response must be balanced, bold and beautiful.
Voices shout directions, encouragement, as I hurtle towards the right side, the finish line:
‘Hold the lyricism’ ‘Keep it open’ ‘Suggest, Don’t describe’ ‘Balance, Balance’
A good run.
I like it.
Actually I like it a lot.
But I won’t leave it here.
I like the placement.
The balance of dark and light is good.
Legs are not working.
The figures need to be tweaked and shifted around.
It reads like a poem for me now, a text I can’t quite decipher and yet suggests volumes.
To be continued…..
Returning home to Amsterdam, I printed a number of photos and together with the drawings I’d made in Sri Lanka, I set myself up in my back studio to begin working on composition in preparation for my first painting. As I studied and drew I became aware of a remarkable ambience in the groupings of the girls. There was a presence, a connection between them that I couldn’t quite put my finger on…
Then I understood it. They had no cell phones. They were ‘in relationship with each other’. Talking, laughing, gesticulating, lost in thought, bored or simply observing what was going on around them.
In my travels in Morocco and Tunisia I was always intrigued by the rhythmic beauty of Arabic text. Perhaps it was this appreciation that helped me to instantly perceive the girls heads and limbs as undulating text moving across the white ‘page’ of their uniforms and the wall behind.
My goal was clear: remain in touch with the visual reality that so moved me AND find a means to incorporate that into the larger compositional idea it aroused in me.
Edgar Degas has always fascinated me. When I studied at the National Academy of Design at 5th Avenue and 89th Street in New York (across from the Guggenheim Museum) I would often walk a few minutes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, donate my 5 cents (you had to donate something for admission, and the employees there got to know my face and knew I was a poor art student. They would just smile and pass me through) and head towards my favorite galleries. Often those were the rooms containing the drawings and pastels of Degas. Together with Eduard Manet, he served as a bridge connecting the classic, academic style to the ‘impressionism’ of his younger colleagues. He once remarked : “No art was ever less spontaneous than mine.” He was a fantastic draughtsman who knew his anatomy inside and out but was always looking for new compositional ideas. For instance, how he found ways to redesign the bodies of his dancers to form a flowing, lyrical whole.
His drawings helped me a lot to think in certain compositional terms and to not just simply copy the group in a specific photo onto the canvas.
To be continued….
How does an artist (myself) know a painting is finished? How do I begin a painting? What are the decisions made during the process? In an ongoing series the reader will journey with me during the creative process. From inspiration, through deliberation, consternation, hesitation, a lot of perspiration and finally culmination.
The painting above entitled ‘Sri Lankan schoolgirls nr. 3’ will be our subject. It is painted on two aluminum panels and has a total size of 110×220 cms. I have been painting on aluminum for a little over a year now and I enjoy the hard surface that ‘pushes back’ rather than ‘giving way’ such as with stretched linen.
Upstate New York studio
Actually, working on such a surface began in the late ’90’s when my studio was in upstate NY and I painted for both the Borzo Gallery in Holland and the Dillon Gallery in Soho, NYC. I was constantly stretching, unstretching, rolling or restretching the canvases depending on whether they would be trucked to New York or shipped in tubes to The Netherlands. For expediency I began to tape the linen to large wooden boards, deciding later how to prepare the painting based on its destination. I began to take a liking to this surface and in my current Amsterdam studio I found that aluminum panels met my needs and demands.
Galle Fort, Sri Lanka
A portrait of a young dutch girl painted back in 1982 who became and remained a dear friend was my link to this far away land. Together with her American husband they renovated an original dutch home there and invited Lili and I to stay. We arrived in February 2018. I had made an agreement with myself that this was a vacation with Lili and not a solo painting adventure like my 8 week trip to Italy the year before. But of course, that was not taking into account the sudden visual spectacle of 70 or more Sri Lankan schoolgirls in white dresses, white sneakers, complemented by red and pink backpacks and neckties piling out of a school building on a hot afternoon soon after we had arrived. I could hardly be expected to remain true to my vacation vows as they assembled in a row against a long, white wall; their dark, dancing legs and constantly gesticulating arms and hands forming an ever-changing calligraphic text on the white page formed by their uniforms and the schools enclosure.
I was smitten. Enraptured. Head over heels inspired. My pen, sketchbook and iPhone were recording the scene before I had time to think….
To be continued……
Colors and their relationship to each other. That was the theme of my workshop this past week, my fourth at this beautiful estate close to the city of Haarlem in The Netherlands. Forests, a small lake, fields with horses, a huge vegetable and flower garden, a large barn-like structure which served both as base camp for the students and as fallout basis for the occasional rain shower, made this an ideal location for excursions into color and composition. .
The daily sessions were originally divided into: black & white composition; composing the landscape in cool colors; composing the landscape in warm colors; composing the landscape in simple color planes and a final session which was originally conceived as a ‘putting it all together’ day but instead shifted into an indoor event. The intermittent rain showers demanded flexibility and so in addition to the sessions named above we also had a portrait sitting as well as a still life as inspiration. This abandoning of carefully laid plans is all too often reflected in the act of creating art as well. When something is not working, push it as far as it can go and be willing to let it go, hopefully initiating a new, fresh direction.
As a painter who has been working for more than fifty years, I am well aware of the struggle involved in developing a visual language that conveys your unique experience to the viewer. I implore my students to keep it simple, hammering away at the necessity of not affixing labels to what is observed: no apples, jugs, oak trees, mountains or anemones… only colors placed on a two-dimensional surface, in the right place, in the right relationship, doing the right thing.
It’s very simple once you decide to not make it difficult.
It was a nice surprise to discover an exhibition of Sean Scully soon after entering the National Gallery in London this past Monday. I was accompanied by my nephew, a bright young man who when asked if he ever looked at art answered: ‘Yeah sure, I sometimes look at art’ but confessed that his taste was rather conservative, limited pretty much to the old masters.
Looking about at the abstract paintings hanging around us, I saw it as an interesting challenge to see if I could find the language to convey my appreciation of Scully’s rectangles and stripes to him. I did my best and he seemed to listen but of course I’m not sure what he made of it all.
It reminded me of the trips I made by car between art school in Memphis TN and my home in New York in 1972-73. I would regularly stop off in Washington DC, roughly halfway on my 20 hour journey and stay a few days at St. Anselm’s Abbey where my cousin, Brother Giles, a Benedictine monk, lived and taught art history and architecture to the children of foreign diplomats. The monk’s cell I occupied was very simple, but free room and board, important to a poor art student and I genuinely enjoyed talking with my cousin and discussing his work in his attic atelier which we visited initially by candlelight, ascending the long narrow stairs behind one another. Giles using the candlelight to slowly illuminate the planes and features of some of the plaster portraits he had made of his fellow monks. He would also take me to the National Gallery and the Corcoran Museum, taking the time to deepen my art appreciation, pointing out the various works of art to me, his younger cousin.
In retrospect I realized I had learned a lot from those sessions but at the time a lot of it sailed in one ear and out the other. I was a bit insecure and defensive at that age and although his knowledge and insights were certainly impressive and left their mark, I sometimes felt he was sharing ‘his’ experience and I wanted to have my own.
So it was that I launched into my own insights and understanding of Sean Scully’s works as we walked through the show together that Monday morning. He listened attentively, but of course you never know what remarks of mine hopefully might have added something to his own interaction with the paintings. I’m very curious what my discourse on the art of Sean Scully provided him.