Toying with a duff idea

Aware of a looming exhibition in September, devoted to still-lifes, I was in my usual New Year blues - devoid of ideas. My 'Starts' had deserted me. These began as a devotion to St. Art, and became my 'Starts' – an idea bank where anything lurks that either grabs my attention visually, or is interesting intellectually. This might be literary or scientific – the latter increasingly less so these days.

The visual Starts have never let me down before, and normally Nature provides all the stimulation I need. Well, it would, wouldn't it, because nature is everything. I rather believe that there is no such thing as a purely 'abstract' painting, in the sense that it has no reference to human experience. Even a work that might loosely be said to be from the “Explosion in a paint factory” school of art obeys certain natural laws. Not understanding laws doesn't mean they don't exist, just that we don't understand them.

Anyway, in the germination process, an image – either a photograph, drawing or another work of art – can set up a re-imagining of this in the studio; perhaps some natural phenomenon will spawn a re-creation. Or it might be the sight - maybe no more than a glimpse - of a person (usually female, but that's a subject for another day) that will set me off trying to recreate it with a live model. Other times it is a literary source, perhaps even the line of a poem, a lyric in a song, or an overheard remark.

However, the new year found me lagging. 2015 had been difficult (if I'm honest, most years seem to be difficult). But I'd been concentrating on still-lifes and actually feeling quite relaxed, for it was months away and I already had a number of works – including some old ones which I was revisiting. But as 2016 rolled in I felt increasingly bereft, and desperate to be working. There was nothing there. The natural world seemed bleak and uninviting – it wasn't of course but so it seemed at the time.

Mij, as so often happens, came to my rescue, suggesting I work on some toys of Isabelle's, my 2 year old grand-daughter. This seemed a good idea and I rapidly set up a random composition of some chunky brightly painted wooden vehicles overseen by a knitted teddy bear to provide a bridge from inanimate to ‘figure’. This was January 3rd. Five weeks later after an increasingly perplexing struggle, I abandoned the idea.

Prove me wrong, why don’t you, but I can’t think of a good original painting which has children’s toys as its main jumping off point (not counting the purely illustrative of course). Why should this be? Eventually, after much head scratching, I came to this conclusion, which I offer for your consideration and possible amusement. In a nutshell: just as much as a child is not to be messed or interfered with, no more perhaps are his or her most precious possessions. I found it impossible to wrestle with and shape these precious objects into my own image without it becoming a violation.

Why then, for example, do not Chaim Soutine’s paintings of actual children seem ‘wrong’? And indeed, paintings of adults, distorted and wrangled to some perceived identification of character or self-image, why are not they also ‘beyond the pale’?

Chaim Soutine (1853-1943), Child, Oil on linoleum

Chaim Soutine (1853-1943), Child, Oil on linoleum

To me, there is something inviolate about a child’s world. All my interpretations just got farther away from the essence, from the charm of the objects. They refused to be manipulated into something else, something adult. The last of my ‘finished’ attempts, when cropped into abstracted images, weren’t too bad but nothing like what I had wanted.

This idea might have been ‘duff’ in my execution of it, but it gave me much to think about. I wonder if it has you?

These are just three details of a failed painting.

Detail of failed painting



Detail of failed painting


Detail of failed painting

Christina Bonnett
- 14 September 2017 at 01:08pm

As ever, you raise many questions and much food for thought. The thoughts become all jumbled up but one came to the fore -

Perhaps the toys will allow themselves to be painted arranged as Isabelle leaves them (to tell their own story), rather than as you arrange them?
- 14 September 2017 at 01:09pm

Fair point, I wish I was clever enough get into the mind of a three year old child. I'm sure Picasso could, and did, in a sense.

For me, a painting is to quite a large degree autobiographical... to be more than illustrative.

Isabelle leaves everything in chaos all over the place, and Mij tidies up like the Virgo she is. And I'm not letting her (izzie) loose in the studio.!
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