Magazine article The Spectator

Inspired Madness of the Artist

Magazine article The Spectator

Inspired Madness of the Artist

Article excerpt

The average man sitting on the Tube, according to Gilbert of Gilbert & George, sees nothing but breasts. Now, that may underestimate the range of interests of the average man (though it is entirely consistent with the stratagems used by mass-circulation newspapers to attract his attention). As for G&G, on the contrary, they find `ideas blow up' in their brains -- not very nice ones, some people say. But then, as they are proud to acknowledge, they are `mad, crazy artists'.

Artists are not, perhaps, the same as you and I. They make unexpected connections. William Blake remarked that where you might see the sun as a disc, something like a guinea, he saw a host of angels crying holy, holy, holy (so obviously ideas blew up in his mind too). And artists are aware of, and interested in, different things. While the average man is preoccupied with mammary glands, house prices, the time of his next appointment or whatever, an artist may be concerned, for example, with shadows.

That is what the American painter Ellsworth Kelly pointed out to me when I asked him a few years ago where the ideas for his pictures came from. `Look in the corner of the room,' he said, `between the blind, the ceiling and the end of the wall. There's something interesting going on there.' And there indeed, when it was pointed out, was a miniature Ellsworth Kelly - although most of us would find it hard to detect the origins of his paintings, which look like large, simple, geometric abstractions.

John Constable, about whose work I was writing last week, famously expressed his love of `the sound of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brick work'. `These scenes,' he added, `made me a painter, and I am grateful.' Nowadays, of course, it is commonplace to be soppy about rotten riverside planks and willows.

Carpark loads of people go especially to the Stour Valley on the borders of Essex and Suffolk to see exactly the same type of slimy posts once spotted by the artist. Even larger, in fact intolerable numbers of travellers arrive at Giverny in order to share Monet's once equally recondite preoccupation with the surface of lily ponds. But in each case, the artist saw it first.

It was the contention of the late Patrick Heron that everything was first seen by artists, and only afterwards were the rest of us able to notice it. Last summer in central Italy, for example, I spent a good deal of time admiring the view from the house in which we were staying, especially when the sun was sinking beyond the wooded slopes of the hills. It's just like a Claude, I would say to myself. But would I have been so admiring if Claude hadn't seen it before me?

Conversely, when an artist first draws attention to something not previously noticed, or thought of interest, it is not uncommon to be outraged. `Take that nasty green thing away,' a member of an early-19th-century Royal Academy hanging committee is said to have remarked on being confronted with a Constable. This man was under the impression that landscapes - or, at any rate, paintings of them - should be brown, that being the colour of a mellow Claude, covered in a nice haze of yellowed varnish.

This little story brings out the distinction between an artist and, say, a painter. …

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