People in general conform to their social group, but an artist conforms to his- or her- self. Or not: the old two-headed eagle problem. This is partly due to the nature of reality, and partly to the enlarged ego of the solo operator. But any artist who has achieved an identifiable personal way of putting things obviously doesn’t compete with anyone else – because nobody else says that in that tone of voice.
However, a scorpion of doubt lurks in this comfortable slipper, namely “Is my work self-consistent? Do these diverse pieces come across as the work of this one person?”
Creators adopt various rules and self-denying ordinances to cope with this problem. For instance, Braque would not allow himself light and shade in three dimensions, apart from the odd trompe-l’oeuil nail casting its shadow, a small pictorial joke. Or maybe he just knew he was better at two dimensions, though it is difficult to accept the moral severity of his strictures on ‘eye-fooling devices’. Perspective might be inappropriate, but can it be wicked?
Anyhow, on one side you have artists tying themselves to a rule-book for consistency, while on the other side are those artists ploughing a narrow furrow, who try to ensure that a case can be made for their variety.. Sometimes the result is almost comic, as in this statement by Morandi:
I have always concentrated on a far narrower field of subject matter than most other painters, so that the danger of repeating myself has been far greater.
I think I have avoided this danger by devoting more time and thought to planning each one of my paintings as a variation on one or other of these few themes
Dialogues: Conversations with European Artists at Mid-century, by Edward Roditi, Lund Humphries 1990 p. 107
My smile is with Morandi, not at him, since the modest objective is so beautifully achieved in his calm paintings and etchings. Another case is Lucien Freud: in a recent review of Gayford’s book about his experience as a Freud sitter, Julian Barnes writes:
..Gayford tells us that Freud’s aim was ‘to make his pictures as unalike as possible, as if they had been done by other artists.’
Heart Squasher, Julian Barnes, London Review of Books, 5 Dec. 2013, p.3 seq.’ (It’s worth the reading the whole of this fine review)
Another smile: if that’s what Freud was after, he made a duff job of it: a man whose later characteristic paint surfaces are dominating and unmistakeable. Of course he could have made his pictures unalike: he could have abandoned perspective/ flattened everything/ drawn all things by the bounding line, or revelled in pure chromaticism. But no, this is the man who said that he could not bear the idea of one of his paintings being known as ‘the blue one’. He said he painted things the colour that he saw them. Well, I see them in different colours, and anyway, reproducing the colour of the objects in the scene is not the only ambition of painting. Terry Frost, who could become totally rhapsodic about the use of pure colour in modern painting, would have been deeply shocked by the idea that you should not paint in all the colours that are available to human perception. (There can, miraculously, be other colours, but to see them you have to become an insect).
However, in spite of the attempts of some to diversify their work, the problem for those of us on this side remains that of consistency: how to ensure that our images hang together coherently. I would wish a sequence of my paintings to relate to one another like the parts of a sonata – which is, I suppose, not far from what Morandi was talking about. Oh, and that includes the ability to quote and refer, the way that Bartok inserts the little, wheezy musical-box section (or ‘barrel-organ’, as Paul Griffiths has it) in his fifth quartet, without breaking out of the coherence of the whole. But then all visual art wants to be frozen music. And again, again, who says that I as creator should be the judge of this?
The problem for us on this side is, yes, we know our own subject-matter, our tendencies, our harmonies and habits, even though, Braque says: ‘La personalité de l’artiste n’est pas faite de l’ensemble de ses tics’. (Cahiers). But personally we can be overwhelmed by the serious difference of one of our pieces from the last one – or the next one. We don’t know – we can’t know – whether they look consistent to other people, however soothingly they reassure us, or however brusquely they confirm our doubts. Are we constricting ourselves unnecessarily, and failing to make the leaps, or are we jumping all over the place in an incoherent way? We are left with the condition TS Eliot describes in East Coker: ‘every attempt/ Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure..’ True, but of course no help to us, struggling with our likenesses and dissimilarities.
ps. I have put a few recent pictures in my pictures column. Do they hang together? See for yourself. And the intrusive memory serves up the quote: “Depend upon it sir, if we do not hang together we shall surely hang separately!”
David Page 23 02 14