From an article in the New York Times (October 30, 2017) about the literary critic Franco Moretti and his "distant reading" - the computer-assisted crunching of thousands of texts at a time:
... even modest-seeming results — like the finding that from 1785 to 1900 the language of the British novel steadily shifted away from words relating to moral judgment to words associated with concrete description — unsettle established ideas of literary history.
Ted Underwood, a professor at the University of Illinois who also uses computational analysis, commented:
“We tend to see literary history as a story of movements, periods, sudden revolutions,” Mr. Underwood said. “There are also these really broad, slow, massive changes that we haven’t described before.”
Another way to think about the history of visual art, too.
While preparing for a talk ('Paris, City of Art') later this month, I was looking for images of late 19th century Montmartre and came across a particularly interesting photograph of the Maquis, the area around the Butte de Montmartre. Apparently it was taken between 1887 and 1889, and shows a hillside covered in what look like allotments with huts of various sizes. This semi-rural area, whether vegetable gardens or shanty town, would be obliterated by rapid urban development in just a few years.
The composition of the photograph (in fact, cropped from a wider view, I discovered later) was arresting - the bend in the track, the huts stacked cubist-style on the hill, and at the top, a mill (the Moulin de Galette in its original location), and a long barn-like structure. But the allotments themselves also fascinated me, looking so similar to the ones just a short walk from my house in Japan, and knowing that the Maquis would soon disappear gives the ramshackle scene an extra poignancy.
I also found a number of van Gogh paintings of Montmartre, including some of the Maquis. I realized that one in his darker manner, dated 1886, depicted virtually the same view as the photograph. Areas of untended land and the absence of some structures clearly show that the painting was made before the photograph was taken, but the features common to both are virtually identical. Perhaps unreasonably, I was surprised to see how accurately van Gogh had portrayed the scene, and how he had shown those humble shacks such respect.
I think I was 16 when I painted this. I was already influenced by Cézanne, and the blocky style was my naive interpretation of his style. Even from this image, carefully Photoshopped from an old snap, it's pretty obvious that I had no idea of what he was really on about, but I think it has a certain presence. The painting (oil on hardboard) was about six feet high and for years was stored at the back of my parents' garage and went to the tip when my father died.
An extract from Oliver Sack's 'The River of Consciousness', quoted in a New York Times article today:
"It is often felt that Darwin, more than anyone, banished “meaning” from the world — in the sense of any overall divine meaning or purpose.…. [And yet] evolutionary theory provided, for many of us, a sense of deep meaning and satisfaction that belief in a divine plan had never achieved. The world that presented itself to us became a transparent surface, through which one could see the whole history of life. The idea that it could have worked out differently, that dinosaurs might still be roaming the earth or that human beings might never have evolved, was a dizzying one. It made life seem all the more precious and a wonderful, ongoing adventure."
I've just started reading Colin Wilson's 'The Outsider'. Most people my age read it in their twenties, but better late than never. A couple of things that caught my eye:
"Freedom posits free-will; that is self-evident. But Will can only operate when there is first a motive. No motive, no willing. But motive is a matter of belief; you would not want to do anything unless you believed it possible and meaningful. And belief must be belief in the existence of something; that is to say, it concerns what is real. So ultimately, freedom depends upon the real. The Outsider’s sense of unreality cuts off his freedom at the root. It is as impossible to exercise freedom in an unreal world as it is to jump while you are falling."
"… Hemingway’s early work ... is a long meditation on human vulnerability. And meditation on human vulnerability always leads to ‘religious thinking’, to Hemingway’s ‘He must find things he cannot lose’; to a development of an ethic of renunciation and discipline. It leads to a realisation that man is not a constant, unchanging being: he is one person one day, another person the next. He forgets easily, lives in the moment, seldom exert’s will-power, and even when he does, gives up the effort after a short time, or forgets his original aim and turns to something else. No wonder that poets feel such despair when they seem to catch a glimpse of some intenser state of consciousness, and know with absolute certainty that nothing they can do can hold it fast."
Some shots from a trip to Provence In 2010, with paintings by Cézanne and van Gogh.
John Keats defined Negative Capability as "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." I'll go along with that.
It's always been a mystery to me why Japanese canvas stretchers don't feature wedges for tautening a canvas, a common feature in Europe and probably the US. At last I've found the "A" range by Maruoka that does have wedges. Taut as a drum from now on.
I'm ashamed to admit that one of my online pastimes is Googling 'Roger Barnard artist'. A
recent search turned up reviews in the newly-uploaded Spectator archives of the New Generation shows in 1966 and 68. I wasn't aware of these reviews before, and discovered that they were both less than enthusiastic, and my paintings weren't mentioned at all.
From the 1966 review by Mario Amaya:
"… this latest selection of eleven painters and two sculptors chosen by Mr Robertson seems to be straining desperately to create an effect, without knowing quite why or what it is after."
A pretty accurate description of my current work, too.
And in 1968 Paul Grinke concluded his review with:
"Many people will no doubt be disappointed that there are no new names to conjure with, and not all that much new work by older hands, but the show remains both useful and enjoyable."
Well, that was something, I suppose.
These reminded me of a 'review' of the 1966 show in the now defunct Studio International magazine which was actually written beforehand by Patrick Procktor, one of the artists featured in the first NG show in 1964. I and the three other Central students had been told that Procktor would be visiting the school, and after showing him our work, we naively assumed that the article would be a standard puff piece. But no such luck. As a temporary art critic, he was refreshingly honest about all the artists, and very sparing in his praise. He wrote that my paintings were "fair examples of optical paintings, the most recent one moving towards something less mathematically regular. Where?" Fair enough, Patrick.
It wasn't all gloom, however. I remember I was mentioned favourably in a 1966 BBC broadcast of "The Critics", but I have no recording to back up my claim. And after my father died, I discovered a cutting from The Sunday Telegraph dated May 5, 1968. Edwin Mullins, the regular art critic, wrote:
"The early King "Twilight," will in time be regarded as a seminal work in British sculpture of the 1960s; and Hoyland, Barnard, and Lancaster are others for whom my respect grows." Which was nice.
In September 2015, I commented on a video on the Prager University Facebook page. You can watch the video and read my original and follow-up comments here (if you have nothing else to do).
For a couple of months after my comment appeared, there was a steady trickle of responses, mostly agreeing with me, so that was nice. Around the end of the year, the negative ones started popping up and then things went relatively quiet. For some reason, since March this year there have been more or less daily comments, a lot of them of the ‘modern art sucks’ variety. Among other things, I have been called ‘an airhead liberal’ and ‘a waste of space’.
It’s actually been quite interesting trying to articulate what I think about ‘modern’ art (not an unquestioning defence by any means), but the recent trolling has made me more wary of expressing my opinions on the Internet. This blog is different, as no one seems to read it …