Oh Caravaggio 500 years later you knock the stuffing out of me.
I deal in modern art right, 20thcentury stuff and although I have always respected the old masters. I do see the workmanship and the skills that some of the masters had, as a dying art. I was amazed by Frederic Lord Leighton’s exhibition at the RA some years ago. His Athlete Wrestling a Python at the Walker Art Gallery here in Liverpool has to be one of my all time favourite sculptures, despite it being late 19th century.The Leighton exhibition was viewed the same day as the Cézanne expo, at; perhaps if my memory serves me right, the Tate, it was a long time ago. There was no comparism in my opinion. One was a master the other was an experimentalist. The way the master made a piece of velvet feel as if it was soft to touch, whereas a terracotta urn had a dryness, his painted marble had a feel that you could walk your feet over to cool them down. Such skill comes along only so often.
I understand all of the articles written about Cézanne but I don’t feel it.
A rolling stone really does gather moss. Though I do respect the opinions of people who are employed to write about art, most of them are too clever to be able to really understand. How can someone who can’t even emulsion a wall talk about real skill.
I always think, ‘what are the qualifications needed to paragraph art, and what do some of those entrusted with the purveyors of the pleasures of art really know’.
I blame some writers for building up bad workmanship and calling it modern art, when really it is just poor workmanship.
I often recall, watching an Open University programme late one night when I was a kid, I must have been 11. It was about the painting of a religious icon. I was fascinated with Lapis Lazuli and how it was more expensive than gold and how it was used to adorn religious art in medieval times. How it came from Afghanistan and how it was coveted as a piece of mercurial magic that was the symbol of the robe of the Virgin Mary. I am not that religious but some small slither of symbolism planted a seed in my mind. Why do we worship art?
The questions keep coming and have never stopped asking, and now I find myself with more questions, and the more I answer the more are asked.
I had been on a boat trip that left Liverpool Ireland. The first port of call was Cobh (pronounced Cove).Cobh was the last stopping place of the Titanic and its tourism was based around that fact. There was a Titanic bar that had closed, apparently it hadn’t gone down too well…….it went bust.
Cobh has a monument that had been erected to another maritime disaster, the sinking of the Lusitania, that sunk on its way to Liverpool.
A German U-Boat torpedoed it. It was one of the most tragic losses of life on the sea. It was claimed that the event is said to have shocked America to its core.
A passenger on the mini cruise had left a memento, to a relative who drowned in the disaster. A picture and a rose were laid on foot of the statue.
Up atop the hill amongst the candy coloured houses from the Cathedral the views were magnificent.
It is the closest port to Cork and I got a train into the town. There were lots of old Irish pubs and shops that look like they are in the living room of a house. I went in the art gallery to see a Paul Henry or two. There may have been a Sonia Delauney.
As usual when visiting a place I do not know I am drawn to bookshops. These are the sort of shops that feed my inquisitive mind, that allow me to explore the answers to the questions that I keep asking myself.
Here in all the hundreds of yards of shelves, sat a massive volume, beautifully photographed, a cut above the usual Taschen publications. Buy me! It seemed to be shouting to me, Buy me! The pages folded out, I love books where the photographs are not punctuated by staples.
It was the complete works of Caravaggio, in one book. It was amazing.
I had a 100 Euro note on me but it was130 and it was an expense I had not expected.
I had seen the Graham Dixon-Smith programme about one of the most captivating of characters in art history.
I had been shocked by, how someone with such talent, and raw emotion, could be tinged with a gentle temperament.
How could such a fiery character, who, it was said, would fight duals, with swords and daggers and who could thrust a stiletto as finely as he could paint a peach, be as controversial today as when he was alive?
I had let Derek Jarman’s celluloid images cloud my judgement. But still a man whose legacy lingered all these centuries later fascinated me. I knew the work of art that he created had been passed amongst kings and had survived revolutions and wars.
How could creations made with a mixture of ground up pigments, of tempura and oxides mixed with oil look so real? Like a photograph. How can I be thrown the raw emotion through a modern picture taken with a camera? Why hadn’t the paint faded? Why was the imagery so real? How could the message be as real today?
I had to buy the book and offered the shop my 100 Euro note and no more and they accepted my offer. It was a heavy book and would need a lot of time to read. I have a lot of books that I need to read. It had its own case that came with it with a handle. It is the sort of book that posers will delicately place on a coffee table to make them look clever I thought. It was a beautiful book. Should I ever read it and have I wasted 80 quid on a whim?
Sailing out of Cobh at Dusk was a remarkable event. However much you study art there is no equivalent that can beat a beautiful sunset. The town of Cobh is situated in a natural harbour the pretty houses on the hill were lit up as if by magic and the term Emerald Isle slipped into my mind as the boat slipped out of sight of the harbour.
It was a beautiful event. Not even the famous Irish painter Paul Henry would be able to capture that memory for me.
I looked around the stern of the boat at the silver surfers I thought about another night of naff entertainment on board. But there was a swell developing a gale-force wind was predicted. Though the day was calm, you could feel it building up the further out of the protection of the Harbour, to deep water, you got.
Today had been my Birthday, Thanks Mr sunset for the lovely present.
The boat was like the Mary Celeste that night it was too rocky for most of the pensioners to walk around there was the noise of glasses breaking. Worryingly the ships crew came in to the cabin to bolt down the portholes. An announcement came over the tannoy that the ship was to be diverted to Dublin, which wasn’t half bad I had been there before so I had a mental map.
Armed only with 20 euros I decided that the best place for a rainy Sunday would be the National gallery and then I realised, there within its walls, there is a Caravaggio a real one.
So I will be able to see for myself what all the fuss is about I may be disappointed and wonder what all the fuss is about. Well let’s have a look.
I have been locked in a Police station every Saturday afternoon. The Old Police Station Lark Lane. For two years come rain or shine I have been there every week in a glazed brick cell……. And it’s by choice.
In the corner of, in winter, a freezing building armed only with a handful of muddy clay, with your hands in cold water. I have practised the art of throwing pots.
Sometimes being arrested would be more fun. The frustration can be devilish.
Then other times when things go well it seems worth the effort.
I understand having served an apprenticeship as a Carpenter (the best training anyone can get) the secret of perfecting anything you want to do, to a high standard, is to put the time in.
I was told a long time ago by old crusty blokes with beards, people I had been trained in various arts by, that “its 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration”.
It’s the truth you have to work hard and put the time in nothing comes naturally, and anyone who tells you anything differently is a liar.
But carpentry experience does not take into account, art.
John Parker who runs the Lark Lane Pottery looked at me with a wry grin when I proclaimed after a week or two that I was going to do an exhibition of my work, he had heard it all before.
“I want to make my clay look like metal, like work of a French Dinandier”
“Yer what” he said, and I don’t blame him he must have seen thousands of people come through his doors over the years, all of them with different ideas on different levels.
“Start small,” he would say as I threw pot after pot that were a mess over the months using tons of his precious clay.
He would be standing there scowling, calculating how much more work he would have to do to recycle my wasted clay, that never seems to go where you want it, at first. That mud seems to have a life of its own.
But he allowed me to practise.
But I think my enthusiasm won him over and he let me practise and I recycle my own clay, which is a drain
The big incentive in getting it right, is, at least partly so you don’t have to spend ages needing the air out of soaking wet clay on a plaster bat.
Clay is a messy little bugger that gets right up your arms and all over you, so you look like you have been dragged through a lake backwards.
It is the most humbling experience. To be faced with a lump of mud.
A mass of nothing. If you had it on your clothes it is a horrible stain. Yet you have to take this inanimate object and mix in a little bit of water to make it flexible so that you can mould it, upwards, and create something of beauty. There are no prisoners with the punishment that you have to endure, in order to progress to the next stage.
To lump another pound of clay on top to suffer the frustration all over again, then when you have mastered that, another pound of clay.
It was easy for me in the past to sell the art of the potter without really understanding the true skill that is requisite in order to make something that is recognised, as a work of art, when really it is only a vessel.
Year’s back my shop was featured on Flog it, and shortly after middle-aged gentleman and his wife, having seen it came into the shop.
I am a potter he said. I did not know what that was really, even though I sold pots.
Two hours later I went to a private view at the Bluecoat Display Centre to see the work of Duncan Ross and it was he who I had been speaking to in the shop.
I wish you had told me who you were I actually have purchased retail one of your pots which is one of my cherished pieces.
I wish I could talk to him now. I asked him, if he was inspired by Dinanderie and he said he was not aware of what it was.
I recall how, I wanted to make the simplest form almost like an African primitive pot. How do you do that? Google the term African pots and the inspiration is there. But like playing jazz it’s not about studying something, it’s about feeling.
How can you feel what it is like to be an African making a pot to hold grain, or water, with the basic of tools, without a kiln, firing your vessels in a hole in the ground, with fire?
The basic elements fire, earth and water are the most primitive of all needs.
They have a challenge that is hard to quantify. Why do you want to make a pot like an African? Why do you want to make a vessel in the Minoan style, what good is that. Why did the Ancient Greek want to turn a vessel for water or wine into a work of art, into an object of beauty and very often with a narrative?
Why did our ancestors paint the caves with their quarry What is the basic primeval instinct to create? To pit your self against your materials to achieve something that is more than the sum of its parts.
Magdelaine Odondu annoyed me when I met her at the Bluecoat also for a private view. Her pots were on sale for £20,000 and were not worth, in my opinion, a fraction of that. Her manager said he had driven the prices up from $300 to $30,000. Psychology I thought. But I took these two established potters that I had met, as an inspiration, which is still a prevailing influence to what I do now in my burnished work. I leave the tool marks in where Duncan does not. I still can’t understand how he manages, mostly to create such workmanship that shows his patience. Odondu is the same her burnishing is perfect, simple shapes she can feel her heritage. I am not sure how much of that is hype. I am just beginning my journey, but the art of thinking is the hidden jewel in all good potters work. The art of being able to leave something of oneself in your work, that is an intimate connection with the recipient of your work is hard to explain.
I have destroyed more work than I have created but now, and only now, I can feel my work taking shape becoming mine, with the simplest of materials clay and a clay slip, I need to make a shape that reflects the simplest of forms. I think that the philosophy of simple materials and simple forms ties one of your hands behind your back makes it more difficult…….. And I have always liked a challenge.