Learning as comfort: Crivelli, Botticelli y perspectiva lineal

Just one of those beautiful Tuscan sunsets. April 2012. Italy.

Winter has come. Outside there’s a blue sky and it looks deceptively like summer, but a bird sits on the branch of a bush, which bobs in the breeze, and one by one picks off the red berries.

And the underfloor heating in my bedroom has sprung into life.

I collect the glass milk bottles from beside the door and chat with my grandparents a short while on the phone. My first coffee is decaffeinated, but my second isn’t. I place my bum determinedly on my chair and click to play the video which constitutes the next step of the course I’m doing. It would be surprising if I wasn’t studying something. My brain is comfortable when engaged in study. I like how my awareness feels like it’s expanding, but without that panicked style ‘must learn’ of formal education.

Learning is comforting

It used to bother me that instead of remembering facts I just stored a bunch of vague ideas in my brain, but with time I’ve become more forgiving of my inability to recall specifics. I have intelligent friends who have remarkable memories and can store endless names, dates and details in their heads with immaculate precision. I’m not like that. If I do recall details, I have to admit that they are often not accurate details. If I ever start a sentence with a statistic, you should roll your eyes in response. It will inevitably be wrong.

Sometimes though, I feel that, for me, vague ideas are more useful

What I find fulfilling is knowing of ideas and themes that allow me to listen to conversations and connecting them to my knowledge and understanding of the world. I like walking into a museum or gallery and having a sense that the material is something I’m a little familiar with – regardless of what type of museum or gallery it might be.

This time I’m taking on the world of Renaissance Art… in Spanish

As I listen to the short lecture, I scribble down the words I don’t know (arrodillarse, adecuar, afán, pliegar, la orilla…) and after it has run through, I complete the comprehension questions. These throw more words (martires) at me but I understand enough to answer the questions, and when I don’t I look the words up.

Sandro Botticelli, The Annunciation,
Robert Lehman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA (Public Domain CC0)

Thankfully, the context is one that I can understand

Even if I don’t recall dates or names, I have by now read enough art gallery walls to recognize some core characteristics in Renaissance Art. One of the three paintings in today’s video is Botticelli’s Mars and Venus which can be found in the National Gallery in London. His ‘The Annunciation’ can be found in New York, which means I can’t have seen it, although I may have seen photos. Yet something niggles at me.

I’ve seen a similar image, somewhere…

Carlo Crivelli, The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, The National Gallery, London, United Kingdom (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Eventually, after frustrated searching, I discover an artist called Carlo Crivelli. I don’t recall his name, but his painting of the annunciation hangs in the National Gallery in London and I must have seen it because the Botticelli version looks like a similar yet simplified version of the same image. The two artists were contemporaries. The more I look at it, the more I know I’ve seen it before.

Beside Crivelli’s painting, on the wall of the gallery, I believe was a detailed description of the techniques the artist had used for creating a sense of perspective. Linear perspective wasn’t something new to me; understanding its role in renaissance art was. Botticelli of course being a contemporary Italian artist was engaged in the same challenges as Crivelli and experimented with the same techniques. And such techniques were what set the early renaissance art as being different to what had come before it.

And as my toes warm on my heated carpet, I have to delight that my mind can be playful like that.

Even if next week I’ll have forgotten the painters’ names.

Theatre: Siervas o Prisoneras del Buen Pastor

From a village in the Limari Valley.
Chile, October 2019.

I went to the theatre. My friend asked if I wanted to go, and I said yes. On the way I asked what it was we were going to see. My friend didn’t know but said that it was set in a women’s prison. I considered that it might be a little violent, a tad uncomfortable. Racking my brain, the only theatrical production I could think of to base any assumption on was Chicago.

The production was nothing like Chicago.

You see, I’d missed one crucial thought that really should have passed through my brain, but didn’t. I’m in Chile. This was a Chilean production set in Chile. It was a La Serena production set in La Serena. For the poster they didn’t need to create some fake revolutionist graffiti, it currently decorates every wall in town. They stepped outside.

As I’m far from fluent in Spanish, I thought that I might have difficulty following the play. I didn’t. I understood. Not all the words perhaps, but I understood. Sometimes I fearfully felt that I knew what was being said without being certain. And I hoped I was wrong, whilst knowing I was right. As if I could excuse myself from the truth with a lack of comprehension. As if anyone can comprehend such abuse. No, even when you can relate personally, it still manages to remain indecipherable.

But, I realised, if I could watch Shakespeare, and get it, although I never understand everything that’s said because the language is not my English, I could get the gist of this familiar Chilean Spanish. I did not know this story, but the Chilean story is something I’ve been wincing at again and again over the last few months. I read Chilean authors in translation and I listen to my colleagues and friends. The pain and shame in their faces when they talk about their country strangles my breath.

There is nothing comfortable about the current Chilean misery.

But telling these stories matters. Sitting on the rickety construction that served as seating, that bounced rather when someone moved, surrounded by a local audience pained by a history that many of them had lived through, I laughed and I sang.

And I watched the solemn faces in the audience and wondered what had brought these people here, what made them want to watch such a horrible tale, even a tale woven with moments of sweetness. When I told a friend afterwards, he was amazed that I had managed to find a theatrical production here in the city. It is, I’m told, a rare occurrence. La Serena, he said, lacks culture. He misses the theatre.

The conversation reminded me how valuable the theatre is, how in a country with poor public education telling stories through theatre could teach truths in a more accessible fashion if only there were more productions.

We walked home, after the show, making wishes on the stars, talking about corrupt pension schemes and Dickens-esque orphanages and I found myself thinking about the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights in Lithuania, previously known as the Genocide Victims Museum, where I’d wandered alone down in the underground prison of the old KGB headquarters in Vilnius. Until I couldn’t. Because although the corridor went on, my legs wouldn’t walk any further. I couldn’t step into any more rooms. It felt like their walls screamed at me.

And it’s like someone holds my lungs in their grubby hands and inside I feel the actress’s jerking movements, the shaking of her body and I tense. This is no ‘all that jazz’. I may be foreign and European, privileged in every sense, but as she’s acting, I’m remembering. She’s telling a story that I need to hear. We all need to hear.

Siervas o Prisoneras del Buen Pastor by Héctor Álvarez directed by Juan Diego Bonilla at Casona La Gaviota performed by the Escuela Teatropuerto, La Serena.

Some Paintings: Watercolours Spring 2019

A Spanish cherry, in watercolour, May 2019.
A Spanish cherry, in watercolour, May 2019.

Watercolour is an unforgiving medium. It demands patience, which is something I tend to remember once I’ve messed it up a bit. In the cherry above you can see a dark line on the edge of the cherry, which came about because I wanted to make the cherry darker, but wasn’t patient enough to wait for each layer to dry.

The banana has some ‘cauliflowering’ from where I failed to create a decent shadow and left too much water sitting on the page. And the artichoke has a soft blurry edge from where again I struggled to create a shadow.

All the fruit was drawn from life, but the apples, as you can possibly tell from their odd shapes, were moved from the table for dinner, and then I finished up the painting elsewhere, fruitless.

There is an obvious lack of colour theory in the single landscape picture – painted from a photo I took on an evening walk. The hills in the background ought to be cooler. The thing that looks like a stick is supposedly a path, but it doesn’t seem to sit in the grass.

The lavendar is crisp, simply because it’s from a tutorial I was following. Tutorials are good, you can learn a lot from them, although it’s also important to mix in some of your own constructions.

I have an awful lot to learn, but I feel like despite (or because of) all the mistakes, I’m making progress.

My mother’s strawberry plant, June 2019.

And on the topic of art, you might have forgotten the story of that one time I took the Nonna to an art gallery.

An Art Workshop in Rural Romania

The teenage girls hug and kiss me before I’m allowed to leave. They’re excitable, trying to outdo each other in their displays of affection. I’ve known them only a few hours, and I can count the words most of them have managed to say to me on one hand.

There’s one girl though, A, she’s eighteen, and a little more reserved. She wants to be a photographer, and she shows me some pictures on her phone, including a beautiful portrait taken by her older brother. He’s her role model.

This girl comes from a village in rural Romania. Although it’s in the school curriculum, children in rural areas rarely get to do art in school. If they want to do art, they must provide their own material, and these girls cannot afford paints. Indeed, when this series of art workshops began, the children stole the half-used tubes of acrylic paint and battered brushes. It took time for them to understand that the paints were theirs, but needed to be kept together to be used.

We painted together all morning, creating an elaborate entrance for the festivities that mark the start of the school year.

The building we’re houses in is crumbling in places. It was once a small part of a large compound which was owned by a rich man (the main building is architecturally beautiful, albeit wrecked now). The rich man gambled the property away. Communism happened. The window frames were stolen away for fire wood, and the stone to build homes. There are decorative flowers made of sliced toilet rolls on the walls of the studio.

We pause for a break, and A invites me to accompany her to the ‘magasin’, the village shop. She explains the compound, points out the building that was once a hospital and takes care to guide me across the road. All this she does in broken English. She asks if I have a boyfriend, husband, baby. She has a boyfriend, he’s being a bit of a jerk.

We reach the shop and she buys me a bottle of water. I don’t need a bottle of water, and I feel bad for this girl who has comparatively so little buying me a drink. I can’t however say no, as I quickly realise that the entire purpose of the walk is to make sure I have something because I am a guest and this is Romania where people go out of their way to help.

Before I leave, one of the adults who speaks only a few words of England grabs me for a photo, and then makes my friend translate for her something dear to her heart. Romanians, she says, are not gypsies. She echoes a sentiment that many Romanians have stressed to me. The semi-nomadic Romani (the gypsies) and the Romanians are two distinct people. They’re physically different and culturally different, and when you’re understanding Romania you have to understand this difference.

“What sort of sculpture do you like?”

Family of Man, Barbara Hepworth, YSP

On the way to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the champagne opening of Tony Cragg’s exhibition, A Rare Category of Objects, which has taken over the underground gallery and formal gardens, the Grandfather asked me what sort of sculpture I liked.

What I don’t like

Occasionally, I find piece of art which I particularly dislike. One of my diaries is filled with half a dozen or so pages complaining about a few select pieces of art from the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). The one that stands out in my memory is a pile of Egyptian newspapers neatly stacked and weighted down with rocks in a white room. The idea of capturing something of Cairo’s street life, showing what media distribution looks like to the typical Cairo citizen and making a political statement about the freedom of the press, seemed reasonable enough to me. But I’d only a few months previously I’d been in Cairo. Egypt’s capital is not neat. It has an abundance of atmosphere. Comparatively, the well-meaning stacks of newspapers on the gallery floor looked clinical.

The only feeling I had, was of how disjointed art can be from reality.

Sculpture that feels like home

I’m a Yorkshire lass, and I’m lucky that my grandparents have always been happy to take me to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

On the hill, rolling down from the formal gardens, is Barbara Hepworth’s Family of Man. These shapes, did not look anything like a family, or human beings. They have some familiarities, as if joined on one level, but they’re shaped differently, and stand apart, as if lost in their own thoughts. They became familiar friends to me, I saw them year on year.

Now my grandparents refer to a sculpture (one of many) by Henry Moore called Mother and Child, which as a very small child I was apparently fascinated by. In fact, so fascinated that I insisted on bringing the Father to see it. By which time it was gone.

But it’s Hepworth’s Family of Man that called to me at a slightly older age and was some of the first art that struck me on an intellectual level. It was called a family, but it wasn’t anything like my family. Who was the father? Who was the mother? I wanted to know, definitively, how the pieces related, where they can from. Whether they liked one another. If they were a family, which one was most like me?

If I like it, I don’t know why I like it. All I know is that Hepworth’s family sucks in my attention.

Maybe it’s in my blood, but the appreciation of Moore and Hepworth feels ingrained. Their work, that feels so familiar, even pieces which I’ve never seen in my life, talks to me like a familiar song might soothe you.

Sculpture as touch from a distance

When I was in Pompei in the autumn, I was met by a calm face, which stared past me, in a serene peace, like an Ancient Greek sculpture, but it wasn’t carved from marble, its face was blue, not white, and some liberties had been taken with its positioning in the Roman forum.

Sculpture Igor Mitoraj
A fallen Icarus in the forum of Pomepi – sculpture by Igor Mitoraj.

Igor Mitoraj’s sculptures, huge, light, elegant, struck me with mythical enchantment that still returns when I cast my mind back.

Our social structures, deeply ingrained sense of ‘personal space’ and what is inappropriate, keeps us at a safe distance from each other most of the time. Whilst small children cling, touch and cuddle, if you’re like me, you’ll not relax to most people’s touch but tense slightly. There are very few people whom I’d be comfortable leaning up close against whilst watching a film say.

Sculpture Tony Cragg
Tony Cragg, Points of View, 2013

And yet, it’s this sense of touch I feel when I see such a sculpture as Igor Mitoraj’s colossal characters of mythology. Tony Cragg’s wooden sculptures are similar. They invite you to touch and explore their shapes, but you’re forced to do it from a distance, in your head. They create a sense of longing, an echo of loneliness.

What sort of sculpture do I like?

Sculpture that, whether in a conscious or subconscious way, makes some sort of connection with me. It can be completely abstract, or it can be representative of something or someone specific. I can’t say this sort of sculpture or that sort of sculpture. There’s no definitive answer.

All I can say is that now, in this moment, that sculpture in front of me connects, or doesn’t connect.

And even then, even when I feel a connection with a piece of work, I might not know if I like it.

Take, not sculpture, but the well-known ‘Weeping Woman’ painting by Picasso. It makes a deep connection with me, but it reminds me of feelings which although not pleasant or comfortable, are significant and meaningful to me. I like that it talks to me, but it doesn’t mean I like how it makes me feel.

Art is complex, it has to be, because the messages it tries to show are complex.

What sculpture do you like?

Picasso and I

I paid a visit to the Picasso museum in Malaga

He’s not everyone’s favourite artist, but he’s cast a spell upon me. He doesn’t tell you what exactly is going on in his paintings, he makes you work. You can’t just look at a Picasso and think, what is this? A man’s face? He’s got a weird nose and what’s up with his deformed eyes? Next painting.

It’s easy to quickly make many assumptions about what it is we’re looking at, first impressions are given excessive weight because they’re all we have. At least in the beginning. We draw conclusions without knowing we’re doing it, every day, all the time.

I watch them. The people listening to their audio-guide about one painting, whilst walking the length of the gallery staring at the other paintings as they go. I’m sorry, but this isn’t how to get your money’s worth from an art gallery, especially one with paintings as potentially powerful as Picasso’s are. You have to put the work in.

It’s like going to the opera wearing earplugs

There’s one particular picture that resonates with me, but I’m not sure why. I stare at is so long my audio-guide gives up. It resets back to start and asks me to select a language. Some paintings are too painful to look at for too long, others I stare at wide-eyed, grinning like a small child given a chocolate ice-cream with sprinkles and a flake. I already have the feelings. The paintings just act as a map showing me how to feel. All I have to do is be there, with my mind in the present and without too much prior judgement.

I need that map. Sometimes I keep everything I feel so carefully walled in I get stuck trying to decipher how I actually feel.

Picasso’s paintings take you stage through stage of different aspects of emotion

Each one shows you something different about yourself.

How did I learn to stop and look like this? I know that my parents and grandparents taking me to galleries when I was small certainly helped. A little part is schooling, a practical understanding that there are different artists communicating the same messages of love and hurt but through different mediums, different techniques and different perspectives. Life drawing teaches you to focus on what it is that you really see, not just what you believe you see. I know that if I spend two hours staring at the same scene, I’ll see it differently to if you just take a quick glance.

And then there’s my paintings. When I’m just creating with no purpose other than the compulsion to do so, I find myself creating something that tells me more about how I feel that I had been willing to admit.

Other people use music or stories

Yet despite taking the time to wait for a picture to talk to me, when the face is animate, when it’s a real person I’m looking at, my immediate assumptions dictate everything. I leap to conclusions and pretend to myself that I understand, which might well be a useful survival instinct, but when you’ve passed the ‘is this person intending to do me harm’ stage of analysis, these quick conclusions begin doing more harm than good.

Left long enough they begone ingrained as beliefs

It’s impossible to understand all that a person’s face is fighting to tell and hide. You can live with them for many years, and still be stunned by how they behave. The Mother, for example, left my car radio on loud when I collected her from the station one afternoon recently. I would have bet a whole week of washing up on her turning it down. I was wrong.

Picasso can make the simplest construct of a few lines and some bright colours appear to have depth. It isn’t a false depth. It isn’t an illusion. People really aren’t all they appear at first sight. If you want to see depth, you have to be patient, even if it means eventually having to ask for help because your audio guide got bored.