Archive for the ‘On art’ Category

When I ask my students who they regard as the world’s leading artist, they often have no idea. And most of them have never heard of Brad Holland.

Rhodesia was under sanctions in 1972, not that it bothered anybody.I first encountered the art of Brad Holland in a Playboy magazine, sold from under his counter by a Greek café owner.

As a young artist fresh from conservative South Africa, no TV, movies like Clockwork Orange and the Last Tango in Paris banned, Playboy was an Alladin’s cave of creativity and kinky fun!

Brad Holland. 3rd eye.

Brad Holland. 3rd eye.

I found an interview with Michael Crichton in which he undertook to kill himself at age 30 “because that is when we lose our creative mojo”, and then I came across a monthly feature called the “Ribald Classic”.

These pieces featured erotic stories and poems from centuries back, but it was the illustration that riveted me. Black ink drawing with what seemed to be a broken pen on bad cardboard, nervous, clumsy lines, and passages of tight pattern, often checkerboard. But the drawing..!

It was like seeing my first Klimt, long erotic contours, faces like a more virile Beardsley, and expressive but anatomically logical figure work. These were not illustrations, these visions spring directly from a tortured, delighted imagination. It was art of the highest level. That was what I thought at 27, and it is what I think now.

The next time I saw Brad Holland’s work was in a collection from the New York Times Op Ed Page. He had reinvented himself. Now he was serious political commentator with a style more reminiscent of Rembrandt’s etchings.

In the movie “Nine and a half weeks”, one sequence featured a slide show of paintings that I was convinced were by Brad Holland, although I had never seen any work by him in oils. Any way, this was, as before when I went scrounging for Playboy Magazines at the Greek in the corner shop, my excuse for seeing the movie about 12 times.

Brad Holland thinks of himself as an illustrator. He is not. All his illustration work was for editorial purposes, independently conceived. And all of it is fine art.

You can read Brad Holland’s blog here:


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Vermeer-blogI have long been intrigued by Vermeer’s talent, observation and his secrets.

What is clear to me is that he did not use a camera obscura, first because the camera obscura was in open use at the time, and not a secret; and second because the camera obscura is a toy.

Vermeer’s science is of a different magnitude altogether. It is camera obscura on steroids.. There is a painting by Vermeer in which he shows part of his equipment. In “The Music Lesson” there is a mirror over the virginal, and I have scoured that mirror for evidence. Part of me was hoping to see the artist’s easel and his feet reflected, but part of me expected to find a camera obscura.

This is that mirror, but I am at a loss to identify the reflection.

In the brilliant documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, Tim Jenison recreates the setting and the optics required to produce an image such as Vermeer did.

It is illogical to think that the perfect lettering in the lid of the virginal could have been produced in simple eyeballing observation, or even with such a crude instrument as a camera obscura. Even a modern camera could not define such perfect detail. No, the instruments used would have to be better and more accurate than our cameras, and it would have had to allow matching, not of outlines, but of colour.

Tim Jenison, though as series of brilliant insights, recreated such an instrument.

He constructed and then abandoned a camera obscura; he combined the lens of the camera with a convex focusing mirror, and than he used key device: a standard mirror. But how could such a system be developed in the 17th century, when our advanced science has been incapable of it?

Enter the second Dutch genius. Antonie van Leuwenhoek, inventor of the microscope, was Vermeer’s neighbour, friend, and collaborator. The following is an extract from a letter that Van Leeuwenhoek wrote to the Royal Society in London in 1685:

‘A week later, a needle pricked my finger, and drops of wet blood oozed out. I dabbed the red drops with a cloth, but then placed one droplet before the lens and peered in. Tiny round pomegranate red cells swirled around, their centers concave. I showed Johannes. “God is incredible,” he cried. “Even in the most minute aspects of our lives, there are miracles.” He kept gazing at the blood. “May I move the lens”? He turned and held the tiny glass sphere up to the window, then to the brick buildings on the opposite side of the canal, and then to the canal itself. Off the boats, water dripped. The light vibrated fragily, and cast a tiny spark on the wall behind him.

“I want to buy such a lens, but larger.”


He stared at the reflection on the wall. “I am yet not sure.” I gave him the name of the glass grinder in Leiden.’

Many people think that we are on a pinnacle of civilisation, that our modern age has some genius that other times lacked. I believe the contrary. That our modern value is materialism. That the true genius of all ages belonged to Plato and Pythagoras, and Da Vinci, and Vermeer, and Mozart, and John Ruskin.

It was Mozart who said: ‘Love, love, love alone, is genius.’



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A landscape by Frans Oerder

Vincent van Gogh had a younger brother, Cor.

Cornelius van Gogh moved to the Transvaal Republic in 1890 to work on the railway from Pretoria to Mozambique. When The Boer war broke out he joined as an ambulance driver. Cor was captured by the British, he fell ill and died in a field hospital in Brandfort in 1900. His grave is unmarked.

Serving in the Boer forces with him was one of Holland’s best artists. Frans Oerder came to the Transvaal in 1890, and worked on the same railway line as Cor van Gogh. In 1899 he joined the Boer forces as official war artist, and today many of his drawings and paintings are in South African museums.

After the war Oerder went back to Holland where he became one of the world’s most famous still life artists. He returned to South Africa until his death in 1944.

I have long had a fantasy of locating Cor van Gogh’s house in South Africa, and doing a careful search of it, attics and cellars. Imagine finding a painting by his brother Vincent! Or even a drawing, or a letter… But this is something that can only be done by many people, particularly the ones living in some of these old railway houses. If anybody should find such a treasure, please let me know!

Vincent died in 1890, the same year that Cor van Gogh and Frans Oerder moved to South Africa. Vincent was a great letter-writer, and his older brother Theo kept most of the ones he received. It seems to me more than just likely that he also wrote to Cornelis.

So get your Indiana Jones hats and start dusting off those old shoeboxes full of letters.

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Do you idealise?Venus. Bouguereau

Inside every artist, there is an inner conflict between the ideal and the real. We either paint the ideal woman or this specific woman; the ideal horse or this specific horse; the ideal setting or this specific setting.

Any picture done from imagination is necessarily “ideal”, so it is essentially when we work from life, that the question of realism or idealisation arises. The artist paints a model in Victorian dress, relaxing in a chair. Right next to her, balanced on a box, is an electrical heater. Do you paint the heater, or ignore it?

As an artist, I am concerned, even obsessed with two things, beauty and truth. Also I love working from life, as much as I do working from imagination. The question, as always, is what is truth? In the case of our Victorian model, there are two truths, documentary truth and narrative truth. When we tell a story, nobody is concerned with factual truth, rather, we look for a consistency, an inner and inescapable logic with a set of laws as inviolable as nature’s.

I love to paint a scene such as this both ways. In the one case the painting might be titled “the model”, and in the other, “reverie”. Both are equally valid, equally true.

Something interesting happened in antiquity. Greek art was always ideal. The concept was explored by Plato, who believed that apart from any real horse, there is also an ideal horse. This ideal horse is not the “perfect” horse, rather, it is the concept of horseness, donkeyness, nagness, and this is the way the Greek artist approached his subject, often not a man, but a god (Apollo), not a woman, but a goddess (Venus). By Roman times the world had become materialistic, and we see sculptures, not of gods, but of men, Ceasars, and senators. Ugly, ugly men, venal and power-seeking, much like our present day tycoons.

Realism tends toward photo-realism. Even artists who might not trace and copy photographs, aspire towards the perfect likeness of the material object. It values a shallow, brutal correctness above beauty. On the other hand, ideal art deals with concepts; concepts such as beauty, harmony, rhythm, musicality, luminosity, atmosphere. The danger is that it can turn its back on truth, and stoop to flatter its sitter. This, of course, is not idealist art, it is simple falsehood.

Beauty, Keats said, is truth; truth beauty.

The truth in a painting is in its rendering of light, of colour, of atmosphere; not of objects. This, when painting from life, so the cold photographic style of painting is always false, because it is without feeling, without sympathy; anaesthetised art, from the brutish art of Rome to the vicious flayings of Freud. And sympathetic contemplative work is always clothed in beauty, because founded in truth – nature seen through a temperament.

It is once we move away from copying the still life, or the landscape, or the figure, that all art is ideal, because it all is founded in the mind, in imagination or in memory. Its light is the light of consciousness.

The great artists found a good solution to working from nature: painting with the use of studies, pencil, watercolour, even oil studies. This is the method of Turner, of Sargent, of Degas, even Michelangelo. Beauty and truth are founded in the eye and in the contemplation of the beholder.

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It was really cold on the vaporetto going home. Dreamers

I must have been tired. Leaning against the railing, I regarded a young woman in a grey cloche cap. Nothing remarkable, she was standing on the other side of the cabin; a lovely sense of peace, her eyes shaded by the rim of her cap. Regarded.. observed, contemplated, rather.

She was saying something, and then repeated it; and suddenly, belatedly, I awoke from my deep reverie. I was contemplating her as a painting, and she was talking to me, soundlessly… what are you doing?

The Victorian artist Albert Moore painted exactly this experience. In his picture, Dreamers, he shows not 3 girls, but one girl, observed, as he leads us in the contemplation of her restfulness.

This is the normal mode of regard in the studio, removed but connected, and most likely what happened in his case is that he had been painting his model for several minutes, when suddenly he became aware that her eyes were on him… very disconcerting. This, I believe, was the inspiration for this lovely picture.

I shook my head, and waved my hand over my eyes. Sorry, I was in a complete dreamstate… Thankfully she wasn’t offended, and I resisted the urge to explain that I was an artist, lost in contemplation.

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A damned decent wage.

Giambattista Tiepolo had everything. Tiepolo. the Virgin of Carmel.
So much so that his sister left him out of her will. “He has everything,” she is reputed to have said.

Talent, skills, imagination, charm; there was no end to it, and he met with early and great success. But his greatest moment came with a commission from the Carmelite Brotherhood in Venice.

In my house I have only one poster, and it is of this painting. I saw it on my first visit to Venice, at the Scuola dei Carmini. At that time I spoke not a word of Italian, but I managed to persuade the woman at the door to find me a poster of it. There are about 12 great paintings of Tiepolo in the Scuola, but this one stood. And today in the language school I found a book on 18th Century Venetian painting. I looked up Tiepolo, and this is what I found.

The Carmelite monks were onto a good thing. The Virgin Mary had appeared to one of their order in Cambridge (yes, Cambridge) and handed him two small pieces of cloth, attached to a long narrow strip, probably meant to be worn like a necklace. This, they thought, would be a good subject for a painting, and Tiepolo agreed with them.

He produced a painting of otherwordly majesty; of beauty overwhelming. The poor holy man is treated with dignity but in clearly worldly, even earthy, tones. And before him, a scene of such beauty, such luminosity of colour and light, that is unimaginable. Except to Gianbattista Tiepolo. He saw this vision. In fact he is the one ever truly to see this vision. It has only ever lived in one place; in his mind. And now, thank be to God, in this masterpiece of light and joy.

Tiepolo did not put the cloth in the hands of the Virgin. Instead he delegated its passing down to one of the angels who support her in the clouds. In spite of this, the painting, on unveiling, was greeted with applause. And more.

The gift of this piece of cloth was a shortened time in purgatory and a place in heaven on the first Saturday after death, “or as soon as possible.” (…read the small print!) So awed were the monks on seeing this painting, which, even at this time, was regarded as his greatest work, that they made him the gift of membership of their brotherhood, and incidentally a smooth road to heaven. Now that, is a decent wage for a decent piece of work.

The thing is, that Tiepolo, although no angel (look at those figures in the clouds!) had no need of a special dispensation. He had already seen the glory, known the glory of heaven, he was the one to be sainted. San Tiepolo… It has a ring, doesn’t it?

One bit of success escaped him. He was never highly regarded in France or in England, and we’ll say nothing about America. But there was one young American who saw his work every day, an artist whose work reflects the glorious viscosities and luminosities of the master, one man who can be described at the disciple of Giambattista Tiepolo. His name was John Singer Sargent.

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