Andy Warhol, Blue Poles, Charles Condor, Chris Berkman, El Greco, Francis Bacon, Heidelburg School, JMW Turner, Michael Fitzjames, Pat Barker, Robin Wallace-Crabbe, Sistine Chapel, Van Gogh, Virginia Wallace-Crabbe
I’m not big on painting. I was notably quite without talent at it when at school. We had to submit several watercolours on paper to pass Art at some point. I could manage a wash, so I did three blue sea washes each with a slightly different foreground – a desert island, desert island with palm trees, desert island with pirate treasure – and squeaked a pass.
I find walking around art galleries hard on the back and feet and tedious unless I’m in the presence of works I understand and admire – El Greco in the Prado, Impressionists wherever, Turners likewise, heroes and villains in London’s National Portrait Gallery, Francis Bacon at the Tate, and some of the Heidelberg School in Australian collections.
Abstract art leaves me cold except for ‘Blue Poles’. Similarly pop art, apart from some Andy Warhol. Religious art repels me; I’ve never been really sorry that I couldn’t see the roof of the Sistine Chapel because it was too dark for my defective eyesight.
I suppose I admire mostly what I’d call narrative art – paintings that imply or hint at or tell a human story. This is not as limiting as it might sound. Van Gogh’s self-portraits are life stories, autobiographies.
Over the years Jean and I have acquired a number of paintings from friends and by purchase when something attracted us and was affordable. We have works by Robin Wallace-Crabbe and his wife Virginia and several exquisite drawings by Michael Fitzjames – a large, detailed Punch and Judy in coloured pencil with a melange of intriguing images is a prized possession. For my 50th birthday Michael gave me a small painting on canvas stitched on a wooden frame. Physically, it reminded me of the cigar-box-top works of Charles Condor. It shows what is obviously a World War I scene with a wounded soldier being borne away on a stretcher. It is as evocative as anything by Pat Barker.
In houses we’ve owned many of these pictures have been on the walls. But now, renting, we’re restricted to whatever hanging provisions were there when we moved in and many of the things we like are stacked away.
But one painting has been on display in all of our many houses and is still. It’s large and always finds a place on a wall or a ledge above a fireplace. Almost everyone who visits and sees it for the first time comments on it. When it was visible from the street in one house a couple actually knocked on the door and asked to see it up close.
Jean bought the painting from her friend, artist Chris Berkman, in Melbourne back in the late 1960s. It shows a woman in a stylish suit, vintage 1940s, with her back to the viewer. In the foreground, his head and shoulders shown in white outline only, is a man, besuited, bespectacled, balding, hurrying away. A wire mesh frame is mounted over the painting, covering about a third of the surface.
The painting never fails to intrigue me. Who are these people? Are they acquainted? No way to tell. Have they perhaps had an argument? She is chic, he’s ordinary: perhaps they have nothing to do with each other. When I look at the painting I imagine a short story or a novella. I invent a setting and dialogue.
Sitting with my grandson the other day I asked him if he liked the painting.
‘I do,’ he said, ‘but it’s kind of weird.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘artists adopt different styles and that was this artist’s style at that time. The phase she was going through.’
‘Like Cubism and Dadaism,’ he said.
He’s eight years old. I do not despair of his generation. I hope he’ll be less philistine about painting than me.