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To Paint is to Love Again, Part 6: Living with Paintings

Damian Elwes, Francis Bacon’s Studio from the Arist Studio series, 2019, gouache on board | Image via Unit London (fair use)

When you are an artist, paintings are your children. You give birth to them, you shape them, you look after them, and there comes a day when they leave your studio. “The pity of it is that so few of us are privileged to live with our paintings”, wrote Henry Miller. Personally, I’m not sure I share his sentiment in the sense of living with paintings as finished pieces, proudly displayed on a wall. In fact, I rarely hang my own paintings these days. For one, I’m likely to be staring at them wondering how else they could have been executed and that perhaps I could still do a bit more work on the background (this reminds me of my aunt, a talented watercolourist specialising in flowers, who struggled with finishing a painting, and when one would arrive at her place to pick up the commissioned work, she’d still be sitting at the table, adding “final touches”, unable to stop despite the customer standing over her and tapping his foot impatiently). Secondly, I like to keep my mind clear when I’m working on new ideas, and having certain works in sight means my mind is filling up with imagery that has already been expressed in a way that I’m not inclined to repeat. Having said that, I’m often happy to take out selected paintings as references for something I’m working on but having them permanently on the wall would feel a bit too imposing.

In fact, this sort of selective viewing is a very interesting process. I enjoy taking my paintings out of storage after a long time of not seeing them, and observing what kind of feelings they evoke in me. Sometimes I feel like doing more work on a seemingly finished painting (and often I do!), and sometimes there’s a pang of nostalgia and the feeling of sadness in the light of parting with a particular work.

But living with paintings can also mean living with works-in-progress, which happens if the studio is in the same place where the artist lives. So-called house studios are not infrequent among artists, the most famous one being of course the legendary 7 Reece Mews where Francis Bacon lived and worked for thirty-one years until he died in 1992. The flat comprised three rooms: a kitchen (with a bath), a small bedroom which doubled as a living-room, and a room dedicated entirely to painting, which was so messy and dirty that Jean Ward, the artist’s cleaning lady, once said that she expected all the clutter to one day “start moving with cockroaches“. Bacon, however, felt perfectly content in the mess: “I feel at home in this chaos because chaos suggests images to me. … I think it may be a spur to create order.”

Six years after his death, in 1998, 7 Reece Mews was carefully dismantled by a team of archaeologists and transported in its entirety to Dublin, Bacon’s home city which he never returned to having left it at the age of seventeen. The Dublin studio was reassembled as a permanent installation in the city’s Hugh Lane Gallery with everything, including every piece of rubbish and dust, placed exactly as Bacon left it.

Just like the place where an artist creates his work can very much influence the process of painting (and, as Austin Kleon argues in his article, messy studios are good for coming up with ideas: “While [Marie] Kondo’s tips can work wonders on your sock drawer or your kitchen pantry, I have serious doubts about their usefulness to artists”), the place where paintings are viewed has a fundamental role in how we experience it.

Henry Miller wrote that “in a gallery or museum, one’s paintings never create quite the same effect as in a private home. They become self-conscious knowing that they are going to be analyzed and criticized beyond endurance”. For me, this is not so much the case of “self-consciousness” but the distance one feels to the work which one is often forbidden from getting too close to. And there’s the question of spatial design, lighting and potential presence of other works and objects, which all affect the perception of our work.

For this reason, I must say I’m not a fan of group shows — unless they’re very well curated by a curator who takes great care to bring together works that work well as a collection under a specific theme. Unfortunately, in my experience, this rarely happens, even in large institutions. Most of the time, group shows seem to me like randomly and haphazardly created collections of works that have nothing to do with each other, and their juxtaposition often weakens them. Besides the problem of randomness, there’s the issue of placing artworks in a space. I’ve seen exhibitions where it seemed like the curator (or the artists themselves, as there are plenty of shows organised by art communities) tried to fit as many works as possible into the room. The result was a tacky kaleidoscope of objects competing for one’s attention. And if there is a good piece among low-quality ones, chances are it won’t get noticed in such a cluttered environment.

This is the reason I’m not keen on participating in group exhibitions. Unless I can be certain of quality — both of the works that will be exhibited as well as the quality of spatial arrangement and art direction of the whole event — I don’t want to take part in that. I’ve turned down a number of invitations because I’d rather have few exhibitions where my work is well displayed, than take part in lots of low-quality shows as some artists do. It’s an entirely subjective view and I respect artists who are keen on promotion, but it’s just not for me.

But I’m always happy to have my paintings hanging in someone’s home. Unlike in galleries, where the work is seen within a short frame of time, paintings at home can be looked at, analysed and rediscovered endlessly. John Berger, the famous English art critic, wrote about the beauty of living with paintings in a charming article in the 1954 edition of House & Garden on buying art:

Secondly, there is the pleasure – which can never be got in any gallery or museum – of actually living with paintings: of looking at them deliberately, when you happen to be in the right mood, of catching them out of the corner of your eye as you move past them, of noticing how they change in different lights and from different viewpoints; of speculating about the artist’s exact intentions, of growing familiar with them and, so, looking for what you expect, yet also discovering something new and unexpected; of suddenly finding a scene or event in everyday life, leaping vividly out at you, just because it reminds you of one of your own pictures.

Berger also advises on how to go about the process of acquiring a painting (which “gives a house ‘personality”), emphasising that it should be bought for itself, not for the room, or as an investment. And in order to achieve the latter, he suggests choosing works by lesser-known artists which “offer a better opportunity for learning about one’s own taste, because they cut across any snob-values or the prejudice of reputation.”

Furniture and appliances make a house. Art makes a home.

Susanne Valadon’s home recreated at Musée de Montmartre in Paris | Photo by Gold Colored Fox

Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 6: Living with paintings

To get up at the crack of dawn in order to take a peek at the watercolors one did the day before or even a few hours before is like stealing a look at the beloved while she sleeps. The thrill is even greater if one is forced to draw back the curtains. How they glow in the cold light of early dawn. Another hour or two, and they will already have lost some of their gleam and sparkle. Coming on them by surprise this way, they give the impression of having slept all night with their eyes open. Is there any writer who rouses himself at daybreak in order to read the pages of his manuscript? Perish the thought.

Another thrill, almost as great as catching the sleeper awake, is to see one’s work matted and framed. Suddenly, the paintings assume another fuller, richer character. Properly dressed, they are now ready to visit the queen or any high dignitary. Comes the problem, how and where to show them to full advantage. There never is enough walled space, alas. Only once in my life did I have the pleasure of seeing a cluster of my watercolors hanging side by side in one room. They were most handsomely decked out, too, I must say. It took my breath away. But, one may ask, didn’t you ever have an exhibit? Yes, a number of them. But in a gallery or museum, one’s paintings never create quite the same effect as in a private home. They become self-conscious knowing that they are going to be analyzed and criticized beyond endurance.

Often I have toyed with the thought of erecting a covered gallery from the living quarters below to the studio above where I work, which means traversing a flight of steps through the garden. Tripping back and forth, protected from the elements, I would thus have the added pleasure of glancing at my own work. Undoubtedly, it would improve my writing, improve my appetite, improve my domestic relations and my intercourse with the neighbors. It might even lead to installing a private chapel in the garden a la Utrillo, where each day at dawn or twilight, I would offer up a prayer to the matters, the lakes, the cobalts, the alizarins, the chromes and the oxides, or intone a sound to the memory of Paul Klee, John Marin, the immortal Turner, or the beloved Douanier Rousseau. The pity of it is that so few of us are privileged to live with our paintings. Either they have to be shelved in a closet or given away. One is lucky if now and then he can sell one for a song. Think what it would mean to be able to reveal the work of a lifetime at will.

Which reminds me that no matter how small the room he occupied, Reichel always had at least a dozen of his watercolors on the walls. The moment you stepped into his room, you were at home. They greeted you like old friends. What’s more, the younger ones never jostled the older ones. Each kept his place, his true demeanor is longueur d’onde.

Notes:

The house in Le Vésinet was first inhabited by sculptor Antoine Bourdelle who died in 1919, and in 1937 it was bought by Maurice Utrillo and his wife Lucie Valore. The couple named it “La Bonne Lucie” and lived there for 17 years. Utrillo produced a significant number of works there, including set design for Charpentier’s Louise staged at the Opera Comique in 1948. There is a plaque above the entrance bearing the painter’s name.

Cover image: Damian Elwes, Francis Bacon’s Studio from the Arist Studio series, 2019, gouache on board, image via Unit London (fair use)

To see more beautiful photographs of Susanne Valadon’s home recreated at Musée de Montmartre in Paris, please visit Gold Colored Fox blog.

Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 5: The Wonder of Colour

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