Thursday, October 18, 2012
However I did want to write a few lines about our recent trip to England and France. Last month my wife and I decided to take the opportunity to visit England, where my wife's brother is currently living and working, and use that as a chance to see as much of London as possible - as well as to pay a quick visit Paris for a few days.
When it comes to art, I am a little firm in believing that you haven't even begun to get a taste for the greatest art out there, until you have been to Europe. So much of the legacy of the greatest art ever made can be found in France, England, Italy, Germany, Spain, and countless other locations on the continent. As a student in Aix-en Provence, France in 1996 I was fortunate enough to be able to both see many of the works of the great Impressionist masters that I so adored, and to also see many of the places they painted. As my friend, the artist Jean-Claude Quilici remarked in an interview - many of the places where the greatest artists painted have hardly changed. Many of the villages, for example, in southern France, where Van Gogh, Cezanne, and others worked - many of them have been altered very little with the passage of time. So it presents the unique opportunity for an artist to both look at the best European works, and see the places where they are made.
Foremost in my mind, always, is Paris. Paris has been a nexus for world art for a very long time. It was the mecca of the Impressionist movement. And though many artists didn't live in Paris itself, the city was a source of both inspiration and exhibition opportunities, and was ringed with towns and villages that artists called home.
For me, coming back to Paris in 2012 was especially sweet. In 1996 I visited the city twice, pretty much taking the opportunity to see as many galleries and museums as possible. And also to meet up with my friend Jean-Claude Quilici. I was 20 years old then, a boy from small town North Carolina. Now I am 37, with a wife and son and another son on the way - and with an art career I could scarcely have imagined during those days when I haunted the Louvre and Musee d'Orsay back in 1996. I was pleased to find, on a personal note, that it was not as hard as I thought it was to speak French as well as I did back then. I remembered probably 88% of what I knew while I was living there, and got many compliments on how well I spoke. I probably shock people there because the feeling you get from the French is that they don't expect ANY American to speak French. It's always a pleasant surprise for them.
However during three days in Paris and the remainder of our days in London, I was reminded very directly why the act of pilgrimage isn't just a religious act - artists too, I think, must show a certain devotion to knowing their roots, and wherever possible, must go to the places where great works are, and where they were inspired. Though I am a self-taught artist, I have always thought that it is very important that you learn from the best. So rather than worry about some somebody who is a passing fad - I have always told myself, if you are going to be a painter, go learn from Monet, Manet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Quilici, Gary Ernest Smith, Vlaminck, Derain, Cassatt, and many others. Start at the top and try to tap into the best.
At one point during this trip my wife and I went to take our 3 year old son to the restroom at the Musee d'Orsay, and in order to get back to the place where you can start your visit, you had to pass through the rooms that were stacked wall to wall with all the great masters of Impressionism. We walked right up to Manet's "Luncheon on the Grass" and I told my wife "If you can catch a glance, look around you. You are looking at the best of the best."
London also was not to be missed, and there were indeed some wonderful artistic gems to be found there. We visited the National Gallery, which also had an exceptional display of impressionist work - and I caught glances of other amazing works during our hurried visit there. One of Van Gogh's original "Sunflowers" is there, and when we walked in the door I was carrying our 3 year old son Liam - and Liam pointed to Van Gogh's Sunflowers and said "That painting looks like one of your paintings da da!" (He calls me 'da da' instead of dad) I've gotten some nice compliments on my work through the years; this one might have been one of the best.
Another gem which is a little off the beaten path is the Courtauld Gallery. This gallery touts itself as one of the finest small art museums in the world, and I think that title is WELL earned. You will find such masterworks there at Manet's "Bar at the Folie Bergere", which was the last large Manet completed at the end of his life. Van Gogh's self portrait with a bandaged ear was there also - which was very touching. I told my wife that it was quite something than Vincent wanted to document even one of the worst moments...the self-inflicted mutilation of his ear. He was so unsparing in his artistic view - even of himself. It made me think of Monet painting his wife Camille on her deathbed.
So yes, if you believe in doing great work, or that you want to attempt to - you have to see the masters of Europe. If you have to, see them at the best big-city gallery you can make it to, even in your own country. (Here in the states, galleries like the National Gallery in Washington DC, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Met in New York come to mind) But if you can see those great works, and get the added uplift of walking those same cobblestone streets and enjoying making those footprints - your work and your life will ever be the wiser for it. Mine sure is....