Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On 'Sentimental Education'



L-R: Flaubert, Monet, Manet, Pissarro

I’m reading Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education” for at least the third time, at the same time as I’m reading a book called “The Private Lives of the Impressionists”, which is a very readable and well-researched account of the relationships between Manet, Monet, Pissaro, et al. So my head is filled with the people and the material reality of Paris from the 1840s to the 1870s. Both books are so vivid in their recreation of a specific time and place that it has the effect of making mid-nineteenth century Paris seem at times more real than the time in which I actually live. The second book is a mild antidote to the first, too. Flaubert’s book is a mercilessly ironic dissection of a bourgeois society obsessed with accumulation, pleasure and power, the exaltation of the personal whim above altruism, and a restless desire for sensation which renders everything sour and dissatisfying as soon as it is achieved. The education of the emotions (“sentiments” in French) received by Frederic Moreau is the cynical realization that all of a young man’s hopes for love, success and fulfillment can end in bitterness, regret, and disappointment.


This pessimism is partly why I like it. The central relationship between Frederic and Madame Arnoux, in which a young man falls in love with an older married woman and longs for a relationship with her which is never quite fulfilled—this is something that I relate to personally (that’s all I’ll say on that). But we can all recognize something of ourselves and even our own world in the Paris of Flaubert’s early manhood. More, the tone of the novel reveals a discomforting version of how all lives might be lived: as a succession of vivid events that, upon reflection, don’t amount to much.

Flaubert hated the bourgeois culture that had produced him, and “Sentimental Education” teems with all the matter, the things, the stuff produced by that society, and the shallow obsessions and trivializing of feelings that accompanies them. There’s hardly a character in the novel who isn’t diminished in some way. There’s Frederic, whose life consists of veering from one contradictory extreme to another, one day trying to be a painter, the next a law student, later a minister of state; falling in love with Madame Arnoux, then the courtesan Rosanette, then Madame Dambreuse, each of whom is cast in a light that shows their limitations, too; the political firebrand Senecal and his friends, whose plotting and philosophizing is shown to be so much posturing; Arnoux and Dambreuse, representatives of a merchant class that turns everything into a commodity, including people and relationships. The cruelest strokes are reserved for those who demean art in this way—art, Flaubert’s refuge from the relentless tide of materialism. There’s the hack artist Pellerin, who ends as a photographer to the rich, and there’s Arnoux again, who moves from being a patron of the arts to a bankrupt manufacturer of china, and who only ever uses the arts as a means to enrich himself or wield influence over other men. From a purely social point of view, Flaubert was one of the first great writers to satirize the effect of industrialism on the life of a city in a way that resounds today. After all, most of the things that I’ve just talked about could apply to our own world.


Was there no hope, then, and is there no hope? Well, that’s why it’s pleasant to think of Manet and friends, just a few decades later. Despite the derision of the public, and their inability to find a stable income from their work until well into the 1870s, Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Degas and Cezanne (who wasn’t an Impressionist but who was in their circle until he went to the south) 
 managed to go on making work and pursuing their visual discoveries without falling into despair. And if we think that our political problems are uniquely terrible, consider the world in which Monet grew up. From Monet’s birth in the 1840s until the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874, Paris was swept by several waves of civil unrest, invasion, and revolution: from the upheavals of 1848, invasion by the Prussians in 1870, and the devastation in the wake of the Paris Commune in 1871, when many of the great buildings of central Paris such as the Tuileries, the Hotel de Ville, and the Louvre, were severely damaged, and when some 40,000 communards were either executed or deported.

Through all of this political upheaval, Monet et al struggled to make a living, but they survived. It’s remarkable how unstable were their fortunes for the rest of the 1870s, with really only Manet and Renoir having had dependable sources of income. Monet was forever in debt, forever moving nearer to Paris, then away from Paris, going on a good run with some series of paintings, only to see his income dry up again, always aware of the need to make money to support his family. The so-called Impressionists only started to make decent money from their work after it became popular outside France, particularly in the United States. The same thing happened, incidentally, to the Cubists, whose fortunes depended on a few German and Russian collectors until after World War I. Despite the dangerous politics and the uncertain finances of their lives, they pursued their craft—a lesson to those of us who suffer similar Flaubertian moments of doubt as to the worth of art in a world consumed by market values.

On approaching art galleries


One of the most difficult things as an artist is getting a commercial gallery to show your work. I remember when I was living in London, and sent my slides to a gallery in the west end somewhere. The gallery was in Kensington, or Chelsea, one of those very well-heeled areas of the city populated by rich people with lots of dosh to spare. Having my paintings available through that kind of gallery would be rather nice, I thought.

A few weeks after I sent the slides, I got a call from the gallery asking me to bring some paintings over for them to look at. The day arrived, and I put about four paintings, 30” by 20” in size, in the back of the car and drove across London. I arrived, carried the paintings in, said ‘hello’ to the person at the desk. I told him who I was, and he introduced himself as the person who had spoken to me on the phone. He said that he liked what he had seen in the slides, but he just needed to get his gallery partner in to look at the work.

I lined up the paintings along one wall, and waited. Person at Desk went through a door, then came back out with someone I’ll call Important Person. What follows happened in no more than about ten seconds: Important Person came through the door, glanced at the paintings, said “Oh no, no, no: that won’t do”, turned round, and went back through the door. He didn’t introduce himself to me, or even look at me. When the door closed, Person at Desk and I were left to conclude this short meeting as best we could. To his credit, Person at Desk was clearly embarrassed. But it was also clear that a decision – a very, very quick decision – had been made, and I could only gather up the paintings and retreat in as dignified a way as I could.

Luckily, I have quite a thick skin, and survived this potentially humiliating scene without tears or drunken rage. And I have had some completely different experiences since then. A few years later, a neighbour and friend of mine in London turned out to be running the modern and impressionist sales for the Christie’s auction house. Someone who worked for her at Christie’s left to start his own gallery, and she recommended me to him. A studio visit followed, then inclusion in a group show and respectable sales of my work. A couple of years after I moved to the US, I sent out a brochure with a covering letter to over 500 galleries, museums, and curators around the country. In Chicago, where I live, I followed up by going into a couple of galleries and politely asking if they had received my brochure. In each case, they said they remembered the brochure, appreciated my “non-invasive style of follow-up”, and arranged for subsequent meetings. In the case of one gallery, they eventually said no, but in a very different way to that London gallery mentioned above. In the case of the second gallery, it led to the gallery owner taking some large pieces of work on consignment.

I don’t know if there’s a moral to the story, other than the usual one of ‘keep trying until you succeed’. I can’t say that even getting the attention of some galleries in Chicago has led to fame and riches. But at least they demonstrated that not all gallery owners are ill-mannered pigs.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On looking at old work

I've been going back through folders, looking at older work, trying to discern the threads that connect it to my current work. I looked at the first set of etchings that I made in the late 1990s, about a year after I started learning the process:



It's from a set of 10 etchings called Circe, based on the Night-town section of James Joyce's Ulysses. This print illustrates the moment when Leopold Bloom fantasises that he is being ridden around the room by the madame of a brothel. It parallels the moment in Homer's myth where Ulysses' men are transformed into pigs by the sorceress Circe.

There are a number of influences that brought this print into being. The first was a suggestion from my etching teacher, a great German artist and printmaker called Thomas Gosebruch who lives in London. After taking classes with him for a while, he suggested I put what I had learned to use by working on a series based on my favourite book. Perhaps he had in mind a famous set of his own: a version of the first chapter of Celine's Voyage au bout de la nuit, reproducing the text accompanied by a series of etchings, which was published in Paris by a renowned French publishing house.

Ulysses was the first book that came to mind. Perhaps it wasn't my favourite - only one of them - but I had read it many times, and had written an undergraduate thesis on Joyce's work as part of my English degree at Cambridge. I had been looking at Degas prints of brothel scenes, and this influenced the look of this particular print, with the naked working girls in the background, and the steaming chamber pot at the front. One thing Thomas Gosebruch liked in prints was accidental marks, so I usually tried to damage the surface of the copper plate a little before I started drawing on it, either by scratching it with a heavy file, or by dropping it face down on the floor a few times. That accounts for the little marks around the edges of the image. The rest of the image was drawn in a hard ground, proofed, aquatinted to produce the dark areas, proofed again, then I scraped white highlights into the aquatint, proofed, and finally used a drypoint needle to scratch even darker velvety black tones into certain areas.

I've done a lot of printmaking in the last ten years, but I've never done anything better than this set of Joyce prints. For the last couple of years I've been working on installations, based on memories of my childhood in an English mining town. I haven't thought about this until now, but there is a thread that connects the Joyce prints to the new work, and that is personal narrative, and combinations of word and image. There are no words in the Joyce prints, but they have their source in a literary text. My newer work, however, incorporates words as well as images, and also references to pop culture of the 1960s and 1970s. I think that in all my work, I try to embody the personal moment in a set of visual symbols.

Images from this set have been used for several covers of F Magazine, a publication dedicated mainly to novels in progress, published here in Chicago. Their website reproduces two of those covers.

Monday, December 21, 2009

On things past

Praeterita was the title of the great English writer John Ruskin's reflections on his life. In a sense we are always looking backwards at things that are now past as soon as we try to describe our experience. Ruskin's choice of the Latin word, with its archaic and somewhat grandiose feeling, was well-suited to his manner of thought and his writing. I have chosen to echo it not just from philosophical principle, but because my work involves reflections on personal narrative - mostly a childhood growing up in an English mining town in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ruskin also said that he would write "
frankly, garrulously, and at ease; speaking of what it gives me joy to remember at any length I like ... and passing in total silence things that I have no pleasure in reviewing." And Ruskin did indeed omit much of what would fascinate a modern audience (such as his unconsummated marriage to one of the Pre-Raphaelite's models). Although Ruskin would have been appalled at the contemporary desire to reveal every aspect of our selves to as large an audience as possible, those words seem to me like a good definition of how to write a blog. 

And so I end my first  - short, not very garrulous - blog posting.

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