Looking At The Past To Defy The PresentSaturday, October 23, 2010
Repeatedly I am asked to explain how my painting evolved. To me there is no past or future in art. If a work cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.
1923, Pablo Picasso in an interview with artist and dealer Marius Zayas, when defending his controversial practice of working simultaneously in Cubist and naturalist styles
In the 80s and 90s I went to alternative scene rock concerts with my friend designer Ian Bateson. In my ignorance I would tell him that I liked the group we were listening to. His usual answer always upset me, “Alex it’s been done before and its been done better. These chaps are derivative.” I would show Bateson some of my recent photographs that I was particularly proud of. He would look at them (almost in a perfunctory manner) and simply say, “It’s been done before.” For years I was never able to find some sort of counter statement to shut him up. For a while I stopped showing him my photographs.
|Édouard Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863|
It was sometime in the late 90s that it must have hit me in the middle of the night. I suddenly knew. I showed Bateson a nude. He looked at it and said, as expected, “It’s been done before. It’s old hat.” I looked at him (and if memory does not fail me) and I shouted at him, “But I have not done it, yet!”
It was at about this time that I began exhibiting in local galleries and I would frequent openings in galleries. Every once in a while I would see a roomful of “boring” landscape nudes. These landscape nudes are the usual product of a young or inexperienced photographer or artist who will say to you, “Have you noticed how a reclining female nude is so similar to a Sahara Desert dune?” At first I felt superior to these landscape nude artists. After all I had gone through that state in the mid 70s. But in the light of what I had told Bateson I began to understand that all of us go through predictable stages in our life as photographers and or artists. Some go through these stages slowly and some of us circumvent or skip them. Ultimately (it is my opinion) you begin with the landscape nude and you up the ante to the portrait nude. From there you might “regress” to bits and pieces of the body, not as sand dunes but as body parts that are beautiful in their own way. From parts you might flirt with bondage photography or esoteric eroticism.
|Luncheon on the Grass (after Manet) 20 February 1960|
Ultimately you are faced with pornography. I must admit that I was close to the brink and that I skirted it but in the end I understood that pornography is a personal exercise in bad taste. If one has some sort of innate idea of what is beautiful and what is in good taste one cannot do pornography. And so I never made pornography. I understood the process and I became less critical of those who had yet to proceed from the landscape nude (as we all do when boredom strikes) to the next stage. They simply had not done it yet. It was also then I understood that a recognizable personal style in photography much like in a similar one in painting had to first come from the looking at pictures by others. It came from understanding and figuring out the intention of those other artists. It came from out an out imitation and how this imitation soon led to variations when the resulting images lost some of their origins and adopted the intentions and style of the would-be-copier.
|Luncheon on the Grass (after Manet) Alex Waterhouse-Hayward|
While I never studied art or its history I have read enough, gone to enough major galleries and purchased enough books to have a middling idea of where art came from. I would almost assert that I may be fairly well versed on the subject. Of art I tell my students:
|Las Meninas, Diego de Velázquez, 1656|
When you are confronted with the most difficult element of photography, one that is almost certain to produce failure and this is a sterile studio, a gray wall, a lovely or handsome model, your camera, a light or lights and you behind the camera, nothing will happen. Nothing good will happen, unless you draw on two elements. One of them is nostalgia. I photographed not too long ago a beautiful woman with a fan. The resulting image while possibly arresting to a few (I used Hollywood lighting) was completely justifiable for me as it was based on my going to see Mexican actress Dolores del Río in 1959 in Mexico City with my mother. She had appeared in a Spanish translation stage production of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. My photograph was an exercise in personal nostalgia. It mattered to me regardless of what it might mean to anybody else. Nostalgia fueled my inspiration and my studio was not sterile anymore. In my imagination I could hear Dolores’s del Rió’s wonderful voice.
|Las Meninas (after Velázquez) 17 August 1957|
The second source of inspiration in the sterile studio is the inspiration of a work of art or artist that one might admire. A woman in profile in a photograph can have elements (if only in one’s memory) of a da Vinci Madonna. A fine b+w or even colour portrait of a person by a window can be inspired by knowledge of Vermeer or Rogier van der Weyden.
Sometime in the late 80s Vancouver Magazine art director, Chris Dahl told me he liked Irving Penn’s b+w cover portraits for Vanity Fair. “Can you imitate some of them for me?” I did to the point that Dahl told me one day, “I cannot run this, it’s too much like Irving Penn.” I was not offended in the least as understood that I could now modify Penn’s technique and adapt it to my own person needs and still make my portraits look like my own.
|Las Meninas (after Velázquez) , Alex Waterhouse-Hayward|
The irony of all the above is that the “It’s been done before” man himself, Ian Bateson recently returned from a trip to England. He visited the Tate Gallery in Liverpool and was blown away by a special Picasso show there. He brought me a book which serves to illustrate elements of the show. The book is called Picasso – Challenging the Past.
Before Bateson gave me the book we had lunch. While walking on Robson near Seymour he stopped to tell me, “Picasso says that there is no such thing as original art. It’s all been done before. It’s all derivative."
|Ingres, Grand Odalisque, 1814|
I have read the book from cover to cover and understood how little I know of Picasso. I never did know that the artist was a consummate copyist and that he copied and was inspired by the art of not only his contemporaries but by such masters as Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, Doménikos Theotokópulos, “El Greco”, Édouard Manet, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and many more. Bateson’s gift had pages and pages of Picasso's copy work, his variations and derivatives of these masters.
Of his derivative work, as explained by one of the contributors to the book, Elizabeth Cowling in the chapter called Competition and Collaboration: Picasso and the Old Masters, writes:
|Grand Odalisque, Pablo Picasso 1907|
But whichever form the ‘collaboration’ took it never involved the respectful, self-effacing submission normally associated with copying. On the contrary , as Picasso explained to André Malroux during a long discussion on the latter’s concept of the ‘Museum Without Walls’, although he lived ‘with’ the painters who mattered to him – lived ‘as much with’ them as with the people with whom he shared his life,
“I paint against the canvases that are important to me, but I paint in accord with everything that’s still missing from the Museum of yours… You’ve got to make what does not exist, what has never been made before. That’s painting: for a painter it means wrestling with painting.”
|Una Siesta en Goya (after Ingres and Goya) Alex Waterhouse-Hayward|
The final chapter of the book written by Simonetta Fraquelli is called Looking at the Past to Defy the Present: Picasso’s Painting 1946-1973.
I am certainly no Picasso, not even a portion of his shadow. But that title is enough to keep me going and I will burn midnight oil in the erstwhile sterile mind of my imagination.
And more derivative "art" follows bellow aided by Blogger's new feature of being able to put captions under my photographs.
|Igor Stravinsky by Arnold Newman|
|Rodney Graham by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward|
|Alice, Balthus 1933|
|Helen, Alex Waterhouse-Hayward|
|Franz Wynans with Rembrandt's The Art Dealer|
|Self portrait with Rembrandt's self portrait|
|Self Portrait, Leonardo da Vinci|
|Robertson Davies by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward|