Truth, Blood and Fashion, Andrew Graham-Dixon in The Art of Germany on TV a few years ago described the German character by listing four couplets:
1. Passion & precision,
2. Craftsmanship & The impulsive gesture,
3. A love of nature & A love of the machine, and
4. A need for escape & A desire for control.
Each of these traits rang true for me. I thought Donner und blitzen! - which (with Achtung!) was my sum total of German learned from war comics. [Incidentally, this elementary expression is a mixture of German and Dutch – which I’m told is my paternal grandfather’s side.] But are those traits all in my genes from Luther and before? Somehow meshing with the Irish blarney or whatever other characters lurk there from my mother's side?
Or is it all smoke and mirrors – you take from it what you want? So what would a list of four opposing couplets look like? How about:
1. Coolness & Inexactness
2. Ineptitude & Cautious
3. Uncaring & Luddite
4. Stuck & Powerlessness
Not very inspiring, are they? I shouldn’t think many would want those on their CV. Perhaps it’s not the qualities then in the original list that are important but their selection in the first place. How does one define oneself?
My own life by Art and Science – it always has been. George Braque said “Art is meant to disturb, Science reassure”, but don’t both seek truth, whatever that is. All painters know that perspective changes with viewpoint. I think it was Cezanne who said, “Just by shifting my position a few centimetres, I would compose a completely different picture.” Or words to that effect.
An artist has to be true to oneself but also to some universality. Popularly, art is seen as more concerned with the former, and science with the latter. For me, both are fundamental: it’s not so much sitting on a fence as striding back and forth across a stream.
But there’s a confounding variable in all this, which obeys but one rule. It beguiles and seduces like a siren voice: it is wonderful, inevitable and dangerous. It is called Fashion. The wonderful and lamented Robert Hughes memorably wrote and filmed The Shock of the New; his thesis was spot on but he was insistent that just because something was new didn’t make it necessarily good or worthwhile.
There is plenty of new rubbish – the bin men collect it every week.
The crime writer Frances Fyfield, who has some of my paintings, gave these words to one of her characters, “I hate newness for its own sake … I loathe the deception hidden in new things,” (Trial by Fire, 1990). This nails it; one must be suspicious of newness for its own sake - that which seeks to deceive. Gee-whiz ideas are two a penny; you dream them up in a pub with a mate or over coffee.
“Where did you get that idea?” “In a pub. Ha ha!” I once had this response to a genuine enquiry of a film director; maybe it was true but to transform a good idea into Art requires intellect, perseverance, technique, hard work, reflection, genuine creativity, empiricism and something else utterly personal and altogether more intangible: a Quest for Truth.
I’ve just come back from looking at Rembrandt in London, so Truth has been uppermost in my mind. I’d like to write more about that next time.