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Sunday, 29 November 2009

Sometimes the house will breathe for me, like an iron lung.

Sometimes the house will breathe for me, like an iron lung.
It happens at the panic point of some new poem,
often late at night or on a summer's evening when
the lines have grown asthmatic and the thought is numb
with fears of what the words might come to mean. It clunks
and grinds, immobilises - keeps my ebbing forms afloat.

Sometimes the house will be my ears, will listen like a bug
an agent planted long ago in these primeval hills
to eavesdrop sounds of alder, owl and adder, bat and badger, all
their worlds - more passing chatter than would keep surveillance teams
on song for years to come. It happens when the voices of
a poem drown the still small voice that gave it birth.

Sometimes the house speaks for (or to) me in an unknown tongue.
It tutts and putters like an outboard out at sea
and offers me the waves and rhythms it has found
among the deeper things that rarely come to be.
Easily mistaken for the muse herself,
it happens when I disregard her knowing words.

Sometimes the house imparts a kind of balance, like an inner ear,
tunes itself to keep in phase with thermals and horizons,
synchronizes movements with them in its posts and beams,
or eases its old bones against the cold. It shivers when
a poem's footings slide in shale - or when the lines strike out
to scale the heights, but then succumb to poesy's vertigo.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Looking for Geometry

As is my wont, even when all at sea.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Poem as Screenplay : l

Fade in from black
to forest scene
and sound of chainsaw,
thump of axe. Slow track
through undergrowth between
dense trees
towards the distant sounds
and to a clearing with a lumberjack.
He swings the final blow,
the redwood topples. Cut
to tree-top, looking down,
earth rushing up and... Cut to black.

Fade in to river scene and jam
of tree trunks piling up. Zoom in
to logs as wood made flesh and dressed
in finery of bark and twigs - Revealing
splash of camouflage! - and masks
of woodland things. [One face,
at least, to show, without disfigurement,
below the waterline - much like John Millais'
sad Ophelia.] Black boots
of military style come into shot,
prance lightly on and roll the human logs
and prod them with long poles
when they pile up, as now they do, in shot.

Pull back to show the owners of the boots:
militiamen with hand grenades,
machetes and Kalashnikovs. Quick
cutting here between men shown full-frontal,
firing, falling, falling into groups, then falling out,
and two-shots favouring in turn
the dying and the vanquisher - all played
the way that children play
"pretend" and make it up
at random as they go along.
The bodies drop and float between
the former logs (Not all the dead
are innocents!) still being rolled.
Fade out to black

Fade in to scene of river mouth with beach
and open sea beyond. Pan
to processions on the further bank,
where figures clothed in white are burying the dead
or placing mercenaries, draped in flags,
on funeral pyres. Close-up of log-cadavers
gently lowered into graves - stark contrast
to the way that they were felled. Slow mix
to view from bottom of a grave
a trunk descending slowly.

Sound of piercing screams, though slowly dying.

Slow mix to red with yellow disc intensely bright.

Cut to surf, then pan along the solar-heated beach,
past steaming rock pools, on to where
two funeral ships are burning fiercely just beyond
the shallows, and then on to where excited children
build their palaces and castles in the air -
or so it seems, with sugar candy spires
and leaning towers, their turrets born of dreams
and overflowing moats with drowning men.
Zoom in to read the tattoos on the children's backs:
"You can't blame life for death," says one,
"Death changes life - forever," says another,
"Is life or death the sucker?" asks a third,
and finally, more simply said, "My death it is that sucks!"

Fade out to grey to sounds of ululation.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Why do I not love thee well, when I am nuts on yon?

How many very beautiful objects can you think of? And how many very ugly ones? For objects read things, entities, items, doodahs, whatsits, whatever comes to mind as long as it is non-human - let's not get personal about this! Spend a couple of minutes on each and see what you come up with. Or see how long it takes to find three. Whatever suits. If you have the time to spare, do that now, before reading on.

Now I'll stick my neck out and suggest that you found the beautiful thingummyjigs much easier to come by. Further, I'll warrant that your characters for the ugly attribution are most likely to be works of art or architecture, and that your lovelies are natural objects or works of engineering. Of course, I'm on a hiding to nothing here, and your ugly customers could well be creatures of a nasty disposition or countenance or both, but then again, some of the nastiest are actually very beautiful - viruses, etc. And if I am wrong, I remain unrepentant.

No sooner had I posted my most recent effort on What is art? - The Blind Men and the Elephant than I decided to watch the first in the BBC 2's new Saturday evening series What is Beauty, which I had recorded. As I watched it began to occur to me that perhaps I should follow my art post with one on beauty, the two ideas being so intertwined. Almost synonymous, you might think. Even so, it might have got no further than the passing thought, had not two comment on the post suggested the same thing. And so I turned my thoughts more seriously towards such a post.

And almost the first thing that occurred to me was how very much easier it was (for me) to think of very beautiful objects than very ugly ones. Maybe it is a reflection of how privileged we are in the West, for ugly things and awful environments certainly abound in the world, but I still think that, taking the world as a whole, they are probably outnumbered by those we might designate as beautiful. I do recall a conversation with my first boss (a fill-in job between school and college), a disagreement about Darwin and his Origin of the Species. He had given an example of something or other, and I thoughtlessly replied (something like) Ah, but you're talking about a very beautiful flower!.
He came straight back with And do you know of any ugly ones? A silly, rather trivial remark to have stuck in the memory for such a length of time, especially when I can no longer recall the rest of the argument, but stuck it has, and it seems to have coloured my thinking to some extent. To such an extent, in fact, that at times I'm not even sure that there is ugly.
There is frightening, disturbing, alien, unattractive, repulsive, hideous and many another, some of them terms which seem synonymous with ugly, but about ugly I remain unconvinced. Think of a slum scene, for example. We would unhesitatingly call it ugly, though it might well be that its repulsiveness derives from the horrors associated with it, rather than from a purely visual effect. I think how there was a time when all these adjectives would have been applied to somewhere like The Lake District. No one then saw beauty in woods and mountains, not until the Romantic poets and others saw it first. Before that, anything that smacked of wilderness was a dark place of great danger to be avoided at all costs. Everything about it was hideous in the extreme. Of course, all these concepts are subjective as are, for example, colour: your magenta, viridian and rose madder are probably nothing like mine, though we shall never know for sure.

So what is this thing we call beauty? Or would it perhaps be easier to turn our attention first to ugliness? I had thought to do so, but in a sense maybe ugliness is just an absence of beauty the way darkness is not an attribute in itself but an absence of light. Matthew Collins, the presenter of What is Beauty, detailed what he saw as different forms of beauty. He picked out the beauty of nature, of people (are they not part of nature?), light, spontaneity, the beauty of Contemporary Art galleries (an interesting theory of his own was that where once the exhibits in a gallery were beautiful and would special-up their environment, now they have no need of beauty and so all over the country the most stunningly beautiful galleries are being provided to special-up the works!) and others.

I think I see it more simply. First of all, it seems likely that beauty as we perceive it - all beauty - is an off-shoot of the sexual drive. As such it would have bestowed great evolutionary benefit by encouraging the passing on of good genes. The degree to which the emotions associated with the perception of beauty became applied, first to artefacts and symbols (most probably) and later to objects of other kinds would have been dependent on our developing intellect, as was - and is - the case with all the emotions. It is intellect that differentiates and decides which emotion is felt: a small man punches me and the emotion I feel is anger; a man bigger than me hits me and what I feel is fear. There is also a cultural element, of course.

It does seem that there are certain configurations of line that are perceived by our brains as inherently beautiful and others that have a negative charge. In my art school days a number of us were commissioned to paint some murals in a large mental hospital. One student produced a scene of boats on a beach. A psychiatrist came each day to check that there were no masts crossing the horizon - a configuration, he maintained, that would have had a negative effect on the mental stability of some of his patients. It is likely that other configurations, of shape, colour, proportion, texture and so forth, have their own contributions to make in one direction or the other.

Beyond these there are attributes that are seen as inherently beautiful, symmetry being an important one. Again, a symmetrical face is often a pointer for good genes. (I would like to point out here that my markedly asymmetrical head is the exception that proves the rule.) Repetition - as in the reiterations of a fractal, in a simple repeating pattern or a texture - is another.

My apologies for leaving out details of the images. In order of appearance, they are:-

A Francis Bacon portrait.
The Rape by Magritte.
Two holiday snaps of Norway,
The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini
and a work by Odilon Redon.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

The Blind Men and the Elephant.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he;
" 'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

Is art, do you think, like love: something that we recognise for what it is when we run into it, but deucedly hard to define? Or is it more like religion: we know, within limits, what it is, and what it is supposed to do, but not where it comes from - except that it has something to do with the very oldest part of our brain and its now long-forgotten, mystic past?

I ask the questions after reading an article by Richard Eyre in which he addresses these questions. Or to speak more accurately, he recently gave a speech at the opening of a new theatre at The Cheltenham Ladies College, an edited version of which was published in The Independent. Understandably, the first half of his speech - or at least, the edited version of it - was devoted to the theatre and was in large part autobiographical. But then he weighed in with: Why do we need theatre? In fact, why do we need the arts? and a little later: But what do we mean by "art"? A simple enough question, one which we perhaps should ask ourselves with some regularity. He then proceeded to outline his definition and began to carry me along with him, mentally nodding in assent at the points he was raising.

First of all, though, what it is like: passionate, complex, mysterious, thrilling; and then what it does: tells us the truth about ourselves, helps us to fit the disparate pieces of the world together, helps us to try to make form out of chaos; and then, finally, what it must and must not be: has to be ambitious, not satisfied with wanting to please, has to struggle against mediocrity, aspire to be excellent, must have form, there has to be complexity, there must be mystery, must be serious, can't be trivial,there has to be an element of pleasure, of sensual enjoyment (though, unusually, there was no actual mention of beauty), there has to be a moral sense...

Nothing there to disagree with, but as I read on, I found my mental nods turning to frowns of concern. I was reading some sort of creed, it was becoming too prescriptive. Now, I'm adding a can't of my own: for me, art cannot be prescriptive. But I still had a problem: I agreed with the individual points he was making (mostly), but not in the context in which he was making them. Not in answer to the question What is art? For me, he was answering some other question. He seemed more on the right track, though, when he began to speak of art as something that gives form to life and to the world in which we live. And then again when he credited it with the ability to give the world and its threats and bullying ways a human scale. So much in politics, technology, science and human relationships is mega these days, and seemingly beyond our emotional resources to tackle. Art can step in at that point. By its fruits shall you know it. But art is a very complex elephant indeed, with many trunks and tusks and tails etc, and it is his use of the imperative that worries me. Too many musts. If he had said art must be or do at least one of these... but the implication was that it had to be comprehensive.

And then somewhere into my thinking there floated the matter of Sir Andrew Motion and his poem An Equal Voice, written and published (in The Guardian) as a tribute to the war veterans for Armistice Day. The poem was well received until Ben Shephard, who had spent ten years collecting the reminiscences of veterans for his book A War of Nerves accused Motion of plagiarism, of having lifted 17 passages from his book and stitched them together to produce his poem.

The following were given as an example:-

First, this from A War of Nerves:
"War from behind the lines is a dizzying jumble. Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust reports..."
"marching men with grimy faces and shining eyes..."
"bloody clothes and leggings lying outside the door of a field hospital..."
"I have been in the front line so long, seen many things..."

Then this from Andrew Motion's An Equal Voice:
"War from behind the lines is a dizzy jumble. Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry as dust reports..."
"marching men with sweat-stained faces and shining eyes..."
"bloody clothes and leggings outside the canvas door of a field hospital..."
"I have been away too long and seen too many things..."

Andrew Motion's reply was that "all real artists are magpies". Be that as it may, it did open up in my mind the whole question of found art and how it is reconciled with whatever definition, explicit or implicit, you have for the act of art-making and its outcomes. Of course, we could say the same for any one of scores, perhaps hundreds, of art's various genres. If, with Richard Eyre, you believe that art to be art must demonstrate a mastery of some supreme skill, then you may have to rule out found art. Unless you are prepared to argue that the ability to see a poem in, say, a passage of prose, is sufficient skill in itself.

There is, I believe, nothing to beat going back to basics at such times, and for me basics often means child art or primitive art. I don't believe I have ever met a child who was worried about what art was for. The purpose of pretty much every other man-made thing in the universe worries them - but not art. So I go back to Raymond. I do believe I have blogged about Raymond before - though I may have called him by a different name. Raymond, though, was his name.. Raymond was eight years old, or thereabouts, backward (illiterate), but bright. He was in what these days we would call the Special Needs class, but was then known as the Remedial class. I was a brand new teacher fresh out of college, the last person on the staff who should have been given that group (because the least experienced), but the only one to volunteer. By such considerations are the fates of the innocent decided. It was a Friday morning (I think!) and our first lesson was science. I had to introduce them to the latest theory about how the universe came into being - not what you're thinking, for back then it was Continuous Creation. (A pupil once asked me if I was alive in the Stone Age. More than that: I go back to before The Big Bang!) The lesson concluded and it was time to troop into the hall for assembly. There the head gave us all the Creation of the world from The Book of Genesis. Raymond was becoming distressed. Following on from assembly we had a short choosing period. Raymond asked if he could have two large sheets of drawing paper. I agreed. He taped them together, then turned them over and began to paint. He didn't have long, didn't need long. Very soon he had a fantastic landscape covering the sheets. There were mountains, rivers, a valley, trees, a sun in the sky, stars - and two moons. In the valley were two figures, a small figure pointing up at one of the moons and a large figure looming over him and with his arm stretched out towards him, palm uppermost. His distress was evaporating markedly as he worked.

Tell me about it, I said. The little man, I was told, was Adam. He was pointing at one of the moons. (The Russians had, only a day or two before, launched their first Sputnik.) Adam was saying to God: See, I put that one up there! So I asked him what God had to say to that and was told: He said, "And I just made this little spider. Now beat that!" The consensus of opinion on the staff and elsewhere was that the dialogue could not have been Raymond's own. He had probably heard it somewhere. At home, maybe. Or at church. He'd picked it up somewhere. Yes, he probably had, but in my book he had processed it and made it his own. Yes, all true artists are magpies, but it's what you do with the stolen milk bottle tops that counts - and that may depend on why you stole them in the first place.

Have I answered the question? Have I defined what is art? No, I don't believe I have - and I'm not sure that I could, not to my own satisfaction. I have simply given an example of what I believe to have been a piece of art by anyone's standard, adult or child.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Glass Room

When Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall won this year's Booker Prize, by all accounts so convincingly and deservedly (for I have not yet read it, though I am about to put that right), there arose a persistent rumour that the judges had unofficially placed Simon Mawer's Glass Room in second place. It caused some commentators to raise again the question of whether it wouldn't be better in future to split the prize money in to three and award first, second and third prizes. (And interestingly enough, I was reading only a couple of days ago that the French equivalent to our Booker awards the winner a cheque for a measly ten euro. The award is no less coveted, it seems.)

It so happens that I had The Glass Room in my to read pile and took it with me recently for my holiday reading. It's a cliche I know, but I genuinely could not put it down - not for long at any rate.

The focus for the story is pre-war Czechoslovakia, though it begins in Venice where Liesel and Viktor Landauer (of Landauer car fame and wealth) are on honeymoon and where they meet and become friendly with a stranger by the name of von Abt, who proves to be an internationally regarded architect. Viktor suggests that von Abt might like to design a house for them. The suggestion excites von Abt and both men become enthused by his idea of a house of the future. "Ever since man came out of the cave he has been building caves around him, he cried. Building caves! But I wish to take man out of the cave and float him in the air. I wish to give him a glass space to inhabit."

Glass space, Glassraum. It was the first time Liesel had heard the expression..

As you might have guessed, the house becomes the hub of the story. There was such a house, though how much of the story is based upon the people and events associated with it, is difficult to guess. In the story the house becomes a metaphor, indeed a series of shifting metaphors. At first it stands for the optimism with which the story's three main protagonists regard the future. The two men particularly, have no doubt that the new style of house will breed a new way of thinking and living. The house will prove to be Abt's great masterpiece with travertine floors and an internal wall of onyx in a room composed entirely of glass. In such a house the way a man thinks and lives will become more open and transparent, more honest, more worthy.

By the time the plans arrive Liesel is pregnant. Viktor explains them to his wife: "He wants to build a steel frame. Apparently there will be no load-bearing walls at all, just the whole thing hung on a steel frame. And where the uprights pass through the interior he is proposing to clad them in chrome. Gladzsend, he calls it. Shining. Hard steel rendered as translucent as water." Viktor pulls a letter from his pocket and reads: "Steel will be as translucent as water. Light will be as solid as walls and walls as transparent as air." But before the baby is born Viktor is having an affair with a woman called Kata whom he met by chance in a park, she asking him for a light.

So where does that leave the great metaphor which is the house? There is irony now in talk of honesty, transparency and openness. Over the course of the story the house will become a metaphor for other concepts (tranquility, illusion, dream), for these are the dark days before W.W.II, and although Liesel is Aryan, Viktor is Jewish and they have to flee, leaving the house which has come to mean so much to them. Before that moment arrives however, the pressure of external events causes Kata to be taken on to look after the young child, much against the wishes of Viktor who has considerable anxieties about the move. However, Viktor arranging papers for her to allow her to accompany them, initially to Switzerland. Sadly, she does not make it across the border.

There follows a confused period in which the house is first confiscated and then changes hands and purpose several times. For a while the Nazis have it for their own particular brand of research - into racial characteristics. It becomes a clinic and a refuge for handicapped children. Viktor's one time chauffeur becomes a self-appointed janitor with eyes on the black market. Then comes the cold war and, eventually, the collapse of Communism clearing the way for the return of the family - but a very changed family. Doctor Tomas, who had run the clinic, had had a firm belief that the past is an illusion. He had also shared (unofficially) the glass room with a girl called Zdenka, letting her hold her dance classes there, in return for which she would dance for him, and for him alone, each evening. Tomas had found it very disturbing that the Glass Room possessed a past, that it had not always been this sterile gymnasium, this fish tank in which Zdenka danced for him, this room of glass and quiet." Dr Tomas had maintained that there is no such thing as time. Past and future are both illusions. There is only a continuous present.

The author includes an Afterword, which for me threw further light on the metaphor and on his thinking, though I think I would have preferred to read it first. I am therefore including it, almost entire. He writes:-

The title of this book, The Glass Room, needs some explanation.It is, as is clear, a translation of the original German - Der Glasraum. Raum is, of course, "room". Yet this is not the room of English, the Zimmer of our holidays, with double bed, wardrobe and writing desk beneath a print of some precipitous Alpine valley. Within the confines of the Germanic "room" there is room for so much more. Raum is an expansive word. It is spacious, vague, precise, conceptual, literal, all those things. From the capacity of the coffee cup in one's hand, to the room one is sitting in to sip from it, to the district of the city in which the cafe itself stands, to the very void above our heads, outer space, der Weltraum. There is room to move in raum.

So: The Glass Space, perhaps; or The Glass Volume; or The Glass Zone. whichever way you please. Poetry is what is lost in translation, as Robert Frost so memorably said. So we do our best with this sorry and thankless task, aware that we will be condemned for trying and condemned for not trying. Take it as you please: The Glass Room; der Glasraum.

So have I any quibbles, regrets, carping comments? Well, certainly nothing that is more than nit-picking. There was not much in the way of character development that I could see, and that is something I look for in a novel, but it is something for which this particular story offers very little in the way of opportunity. People disappear for years and come back changed, it is true, but the change occurs off stage, not in front of the reader. There is, though, one exception: you might say that the house, der Glasraum, is the chief protagonist, and we do watch its character change and develop considerably.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Haiku (somewhat calmer) moments from the deep.

Sea swell and gentle roll,
but in the on-board swimming pool,
a giant tsunami.

From the sea, the sun's glare.
The wake of an inflatable
drives shards of darkness to its heart.

Small tugs nudge a massive vessel
into leaving its safe haven
for the open sea.

Thick smoke to starboard...
as if the crew had need
to simulate disaster!

Night orchard now, the sea's
white blossoms brush the windows.
Unseen branches jar the glass.

White horses crest the waves.
Behind them, riderless,
dark troughs for chariots.

Inclement weather.
Lifeboat drill is held indoors.
Boat 2 is in the lounge.

A midnight roll.
My tumbler and its contents
have joined me in the bed.

Another swell, but this one
merely shifts the distribution
of my weight from shoe to shoe.

In mimicry of pilot fish
gulls' shadows swim before
dark porpoise-shapes.

Deafening, the noise
a cable makes. For sure
an anchor chain could make no more.

Friday, 6 November 2009


Well, finally I did disappear (see Going, going, gone 20/10/09). We disappeared, Doreen and I, more in the way we had hoped and less in the way that I'd feared. We had, long ago, I can now reveal, booked ourselves on a cruise to coincide with the refurbishing and alterations to chez nous. The reason that I would not speak of it before was a fear amounting almost to a certainty that it would not take place. Almost from the time we booked it, we each had a series of health issues any one of wish could have put the kibosh on the holiday. I told myself it would not happen ad quietly hoped that it would. Other events overtook us which began to seem like omens. And then a few days before we were due to sail, the ship, docking in Manhattan, had a disagreement with a concrete bollard and came off second-best. The trip seemed off, then on, then off and eventually on but delayed a day or two. It was in fact delayed two days

And so finally we left the house to the tender mercies of the decorators, electricians and others, to make our way to Southampton, to the Saga Ruby. We had cruised before , but on her sister ship, the Saga Rose. Two very rough days in the channel and across the Bay of Biscay left us wondering what perversity in our natures had led us to choose to cross Biscay at the end of October. (A word of advise: don't.) On the second day we ordered toast and coffee from room service. The ship decided at that point to do a double skip sideways. The tray sailed through the air and crashed to the floor. It gave a whole new meaning to the phrase half a cup of coffee. Not one piece of crockery escaped. The wind by then was gale force 8/9.

As if to compensate us for the rigours of those two days, The Mediterranean gave us ten glorious days of sunshine and cloudless skies, at times a little too hot.

At Cadiz we were taken to a winery and treated to a display of genuine Flamenco Dancing. The dancing was breathtaking. Partly, no doubt, because we were inches from the stage and had just finished the first tasting. I took numerous photographs - you can imaging - which no doubt would not have been technically brilliant, though far superior to those I took after the second tasting. Unfortunately, the memory card developed a fault (nothing to do with the tasting, I assure you!) and I have been unable to access them. Does any good soul out there know of a method to retrieve such images?

The sting was in the tail, though: returning across Biscay, the wind a mere force 7, but the sea feeling much rougher than the previous 8/9, Doreen was quite ill and had to spend all of Tuesday in bed. The final (nearly!) "highlight" came at 4 am when we were hit by a huge wave (shades of Hokusai!) which lifted the bows of the ship (where, as it so happened, yours truly was sleeping), stopping it dead in its tracks and doing - we were told - a great deal of damage around the ship. Not, though, to yours truly, the worst that happened to us was that a larg(ish) and very heavy safe mounted just below eye-level in one of the wardrobes crashed through the doors of said wardrobe and landed upside down inches from the foot of my bed - and feet, of course! It quite woke me up.

Other highlights were meeting up with the Saga Rose on its last journey and a day of celebrations beginning with a church service, led by Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and culminating in a spectacular firework display.

We made it home on Wednesday. The workmen had long gone, the boxes and the innumerable layers of dust were undisturbed. For the most part they remain so. I still feel like a monk, but now in a cardboard cell.

Of course there were others, not least the gastronomic delights, the chef's ice sculptures (shown in accompanying photographs - no more than snaps, really)and the various ports of call.

What a lovely homecoming, though, to discover that so many of you had thought it worthwhile to comment in my absence. So far beyond my expectations, that. Thank you all so much. I have posted replies, though not as personal as I would wish, time being at a premium at present with all these boxes now to unpack and much to be done before I can access my books.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Blind Trace

Back in February I re-posted a much older write-up of an exhibition I had seen of the later work of Victor Pasmore. My post was called With Eyes Tight Shut, for the images exhibited were a selection of those seen and painted by Pasmore with his eyes closed. I had known Pasmore's work many years before when he had been a very different painter and I was immensely impressed with these later works.

Maybe ten years or so before that I had developed a tremor of the arms. It is nothing nasty, a genetic thing which my father suffered from and which has begun to show itself in my brother. It was and is more nuisance than sinister. Among other inconveniences it greatly interferes with my ability to draw. After seeing the Pasmore exhibition I experimented for a while with drawings and paintings of the images that appear when I close my eyes, and I blogged about this for I was interested in comparing my own experiences with those of others. Not surprisingly perhaps, I found that there seemed to be very little conformity in the images, each person's images were as individual to them as their dreams. At the same time I flirted with a way of drawing that I had heard about in my student days, but not tried, a method that involves not looking. But other issues overtook me and I did not pursue either interest for long. Recently, I decide to try this method of drawing. It was not a serious attempt. I tried it out on a scrap of paper just before going to bed - a quiet time when I would normally have been reading or maybe watching a T.V. program I had recorded.

Then came one of those synchronicity thingies when The Guardian newspaper, produced a booklet on How to Draw which was given away with the Saturday edition of the paper. I almost did not look at it, assuming that it would consist of those cringe-making formulas for drawing horses, trees, flowers etc. A this-is-how-you-do-it treatise. Fortunately though, I did look at it - and it wasn't that at all. In fact, there was a small feast of excellent articles by established artists (innovative art tutors the book called them) and students telling - amongst other things - how they go about their drawin gs and why they do it that particular way. And yes, among these was the draw-but-don't-look idea. Indeed, there were several versions of it.

One thought I had nursed when experimenting with this was that maybe it would give my drawings a bit more life and freedom of line. It didn't - or maybe I should say that it hasn't yet, for it is early days. What it did do, though, incredibly, was circumvent the tremor. The drawings made by this method show no sign of the shaky hand syndrome that has become so noticeable in my drawings generally, to such an extent that I had almost stopped making them. This took on added interest when I read that when Chenai - one of the model students - tried out the technique his hand became exceedingly shaky. He did, though, insist that you should hold the pencil out at arm's length to draw, which I have not done.

The method, then, is simply this: that you do not look at the paper on which you are making your marks. You look continually at the subject and nothing else. I have now modified that slightly but importantly - for me, at any rate, it has proved important. I do not look at the drawing whilst I am making a mark. I will look occasionally to reposition the pen or pencil. So for example, having just finished drawing the right eye I will look at the paper for the purpose of transferring the pen to the other eye, but then look away before beginning to draw. An alternative aid I have introduced is that when beginning, say, an ear, I may use a finger of the non-drawing hand to mark the start point, so that I can return to it if need be.

The self portrait shown here is my first two attempt using the method. I used the method in its pure form - no looking whatsoever. It is rather crude, to say the least. There is none of the liveliness of line I had been hoping for, and the shape of the head is not correct, which indicates to me that my body image is not what it was - not surprisingly perhaps, for the body image is yet one more thing that deteriorates with age. (In this connection, what I mean by body image is the awareness of the position of the individual body parts in space and their relationship to each other. Can you, for example, touch finger tips behind your back at the first attempt?) So, is not a good likeness and it is not good from a drawing point of view, as a piece of art. Nevertheless, it is, as I say, early days, and I do think the method has possibilities.