Tag Archives: art

The desire to connect

I’ve been re-reading a book, “What Makes Us Tick?” by Hugh Mackay (Hachette, 2010). Here are a few favourite quotes from chapter 4, “The desire to connect”:

“The Russian literary critic, Viktor Shklovsky, wrote that ‘art exists that one might recover the sensations of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.’ ”

“ ‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us,’ Franz Kafka once wrote to a friend. He was talking about reading, but the metaphor can be extended to our experience of any art form, and works even better when we apply it to our own creative output. Once we embark on the creative process, we may find we are connecting with ourselves in ways that surprise us. ‘Where did that come from?’ might well be a sign that we’ve cracked the frozen sea within us.”

“If we only consume and never create, there’s every chance we’ll become jaded in our responses to the arts, increasingly hard to please, too worried about the ‘meaning’ and ‘value’ of the work. Create something yourself and such questions either dissolve or evolve into a more sympathetic appreciation of the power of the arts to connect us to ourselves.”

Art appreciation at the World Esperanto Congress

The program for the World Esperanto Congress in Lille has been published but, unfortunately, the “Congress Theme” sessions lack details. So, I want to announce that “Congress Theme 2” (Monday, 11:15–13:45) will include two lectures by Franz-Georg Rössler – about architecture (towers) and music – and a lecture by me. Mine will be “Art-appreciation for everyone”. Summary: “For many people, appreciating art is hard. This presentation will explore some of the obstacles to the understanding and enjoyment of art, myths and half-truths about art – for example, ‘Everything is subjective.’ It will also offer ways to find your own authentic responses to art.”

The dangers of assumption

Many years ago, when I worked for the Art Gallery of New South Wales, I ran a travelling art service called “Onsight”*. I took art exhibitions to people for whom a visit to the Gallery would be difficult or impossible, for example, to prisons, hospitals and nursing homes. One day, I visited a nursing home in a northern beaches suburb of Sydney. I set up the exhibition and then spoke with some residents about the artworks. After lunch, a nurse pushed a very old, fragile woman in a wheelchair into the room. Despite the fact that the woman did not look up at the paintings, I approached and began to speak. Almost immediately the nurse said to me, ‘Don’t worry about her, she’s out of it.’ I wondered, then why did she bring the woman in! I said to the nurse, ‘I’d be happy to push her for a while; have a break.’ So she thanked me and left.

I pushed the wheelchair and tried to talk to the old woman about the paintings, but I soon learned that she either didn’t understand anything, or else was not at all interested in art. So I said to her, ‘It looks like art isn’t your ”thing”. So, what does interest you?’ I didn’t expect an answer but after a short pause she said, ‘Oh, hang-gliding, abseiling, bungee-jumping…” I was momentarily silent with amazement, and thought, ‘Is she really joking with me?’ But her humour intrigued me, so I asked some more. I learned that she was the second woman in New South Wales to pilot a plane! So, she probably did those other things, too.

Now I understood: Here was a woman who previously had a very exciting, active life, but now had very little freedom and mobility. I was not at all surprised that she wasn’t interested in the paintings. No matter; I was happy instead to listen to stories about her amazing adventures. After about twenty minutes, when it was almost time for the nurse to return, the woman looked at the paintings, and one in particular. ‘I like that one,’ she said.

Then the nurse came back. It was time for the old woman to go back to her room.

Afterwards, I thought about what had happened. If I had assumed – because the woman originally showed no interest in art – that talking with her was not worthwhile, I would never have learned about her amazing life. And she would not have enjoyed (even if only slightly) one of the paintings. I wonder if the nurse ever discovered that I was actually able to communicate with the “mental incompetent” despite her advice.

* “Onsight”: a playful hybrid of the words “onsite” and “on sight”

Three short talks for “Art on screen”

Poster: A girl with a pearl earringOver the next few months I will be introducing three art-related films at Avoca Beach Picture Theatre with three different 20-minute talks on art appreciation:

Monday, 2 March, 11.30am: A girl with a pearl earring and other treasures from the Mauritshuis Museum Netherlands
My talk will focus on the paintings of Vermeer and other artists in the Mauritshuis.

Monday, 20 April, 11.30am: Vincent van Gogh – a new way of seeing (from the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam)
In my talk I will try to get behind the legend of the ‘tortured genius’ and see the art of Van Gogh with fresh eyes.

Monday, 1 June, 11.30am: The Impressionists (from the Musée du Luxembourg Paris, National Gallery London and Philadelphia Museum of Art)
My talk will focus on the significance of the French Impressionists, how they changed the course of art forever.

Price for each session:
Adults: $23
Seniors: $19

The ink-painter: a story

XU Dalun, Orchid 1809

Narrator: Once upon a time in China there was a skilful painter in ink, especially famous for his depictions of flowers, which were sold for very high prices. He had a friend. One day the artist and his friend were talking.

Painter: You’ve been a great friend to me for many years. I‘m going to paint you a picture and give it to you.

Friend: Really?

Painter: Yes, of course. What would you like a painting of?

Friend: Flowers, of course.

Painter: OK, flowers it will be.

Friend: Thanks. I’m so excited.

Painter: Don’t mention it.

Narrator: A week passed and the friend wondered when the promised painting would be ready, but he said nothing. Another week passed and still no painting. Then, after a month had passed, the friend asked the artist:

Friend: Sorry, I don’t mean to complain, but do you remember the painting you promised me?

Painter: Oh, of course. I’ve been working on it since I promised it. How long has it been? Three weeks?

Friend: One month.

Painter: One month, eh?

Friend: Yeah, but it doesn’t matter. Finish it when it’s finished. Don’t rush.

Narrator: But in his heart, the friend was indeed impatient. Another month passed – still no painting. Two more months passed. Finally, a total of six months passed. The friend could not restrain himself. He visited the painter at his house.

Friend: Hi. I was just wondering if the painting was finished.

Painter: Nearly, nearly. In fact, I think I can finish it while you wait. Stay here; I’ll be back.

Narrator: The painter went into another room and came back a minute later with some paper, a brush, an ink stick, a stone block and some water. He set himself up at a small, low table. He dripped some water onto the stone block and rubbed it with the ink stick until black ink appeared. Then, he dipped his brush into the ink and held it over the paper. He paused for a moment… and began to paint. His hand, and the brush, moved quickly and skillfully. In less than two minutes an image of an orchid appeared on the paper. It was a masterpiece.

Painter: Here’s your picture.

Friend (amazed): Thank you. But, but… you kept me waiting for six months for me to receive the finished picture, but you’ve done it in less than a minute! Why? I don’t understand.

Painter: Follow me.

Narrator: The painter led his friend into another room, his workshop. There, on the big work-table and on each wall were paintings, hundreds and hundreds of paintings, and each one was an image of an orchid.

Painter: Each painting took me two or three minutes to paint, but none was good enough to give to you. But I felt that today I would be ready, that I could paint the picture that I wanted to give you.

Narrator: So, the question is, how long did the creation of the final painting take? Less than two minutes or six months? Or even, the whole life of the painter until then? Truly, an artist cannot create his or her thousandth artwork without finished 999 works of art beforehand.

Image: XU Dalun (Ĉinio) Orchid 1809. Gift de Mr Sydney Cooper 1962. Collection of Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, Australia
View on the AGNSW website >>

Space: a virtual exhibition

Eliza Gillett Culliford, Spring In New Brighton, Canterbury, 1909. Collection Christchurch Art Gallery

I just remembered an exhibition I created on the My Gallery section of the Christchurch Art Gallery website a few years back: Space

Here’s the introduction:

Artists use various techniques to describe, or give the illusion of, three-dimensional space. Artists also sometimes deliberately try to deny the illusion of space. This set of artworks gives some examples.

The importance of “emptiness” in art (and music)

Left: Johannes Vermeer, ‘Woman reading a letter’ c. 1663
Right: Pieter de Hooch, ‘Interior with women beside a linen cupboard’ 1663
(both from Riksmuseum)

Painting by Vermeer Painting by de Hooch

I just listened to Lang Lang playing Robert Schumann, Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op. 15: No. 7, Träumerei (Daydream) (listen to an excerpt) and I was amazed of the expressive power of the pauses in the score, extended beautifully and sensitively by Lang Lang. It made me think of the art of Vermeer. Why is Vermeer so much more famous than, say, de Hooch, his contemporary, who also painted scenes of everyday domestic life? Look at the paintings above. Both artists excel at realism. Both paintings have interesting historical details and each one suggests a story behind the frozen moment. But, compared to Vermeer’s painting, de Hooch’s appears too cluttered. Vermeer’s, on the other hand, gives us adequate spaces for our eyes to rest, to contemplate the proportions and relationships between colours, textures and so on.

Similarly, when I listen to Schumann’s Träumerei, each time there is a rest (sometimes quite long), in my mind I hear the echoes of the music I have already heard. It is a wonderful example of the collaboration between composer and listener; or, in the case of Vermeer, between artist and viewer.