To Paint is to Love Again, Part 8: Finding Inspiration

Chaim Soutine, The Capuchin Convent at Céret, circa 1920, private collection | Image via Pinterest (fair use)

There are many questions artists are repeatedly asked. Following “What kind of artist are you?” (which I elaborated on in my previous post), another frequently asked one is “Where do you get your ideas from?”. And my usual response to that is: from everywhere. Finding inspiration happens pretty much anywhere, without a deliberate effort on my part. I don’t so much look for ideas as ideas find me. I respond strongly to visual imagery — from other artists’ work to random internet images — but I’m also very much inspired by people I see on the streets, by colours, and music. Music triggers emotions which are the base of all my work. Even though my paintings are not an illustration of anything specific, they’re an expression of certain emotions and of my relentless preoccupation with the human being. In that sense, I’m very far from the Jackson Pollock-style of painting, i.e. random creation of forms that may later be given some meaning. There’s always an emotion, a thought, an image that drives my work.

Another thing people tend to get curious about, besides the type of art the artist does and their source of inspiration, is whether painters paint from life. It is an interesting phenomena, actually, that something which for centuries was pretty much the default, in the 20th century became an option, as artists started incorporating photography into their work. If we look at Francis Bacon (whose studio I mention in an earlier post), there’s a whole book, Incunabula, dedicated to the references he was using when painting. In a conversation with Michel Archimbaud in 1991, Bacon said:

since the invention of photography, painting really has changed completely. We no longer have the same reasons for painting as before. The problem is that each generation has to find its own way of working. You see here in my studio, there are these photographs scattered about the floor, all damaged. I’ve used them to paint portraits of friends, and then kept them. It’s easier for me to work from these records than from the people themselves, that way I can work alone and feel much freer. When I work, I don’t want to see anyone, not even models. These photographs were my aide-mémoire, they helped me to convey certain features, certain details.

The way I see it, painters fall into three categories: those who (predominantly) paint from life (en plein air), those who paint entirely from imagination, and those who use photographic references in their painting process. In the third category, there are those who, like Bacon, use photos as triggers of ideas, and whose final pieces often have little to do with the original photograph they were using. And there are those who copy the photograph, which not only doesn’t offer any real value but also means they’re breaking the law, if the photo is copyrighted, which happens surprisingly often, especially in the world of so-called auction painters.

In that regard, I’m mostly in the third category. I consume a lot of visual material, such as fine art, photography, and film, and it serves me both as inspiration for ideas as well as technical reference. Besides taking photos of myself, I search for photographs of people who can replace models and I use them as reference for anatomy (I mostly use old black and white found photographs, the grittier and blurrier, the better). I find having real models pose for me both impractical and awkward, as I work in spurts and having someone sit within a specific time frame would be restricting. I also like to build on a certain feeling or situation I see in an image, and bring it into my own world of ideas. In that sense, I’m close to Bacon’s way of working, with the main difference being that in the age of digital imagery, my floor is not cluttered with printed material.

The art of painting is an art of looking at the familiar, the ordinary and the ugly, and finding uniqueness and beauty in what we see. If one practises looking, then anything can become the subject for a great painting. But of course, some sights provide more visual stimuli than others, more striking colour combinations, shapes, light and shadow play. Henry Miller talks about Paris “or any French town or village” as a place of tremendous inspiration for painters. I’m lucky to have visited France only a few weeks ago, spending a delightful week with my friends in their 300 year-old house in the Occitanie region. The “patina of life lived”, as Miller beautifully described it, is palpable everywhere. In the city of Cajarc, some of the houses are from the 12th century. A small auberge frequented by local farmers, where a 5-course meal comes at the price of one cocktail in a Parisian bar, where wine pours river, and men’s loo is in the form of a single urinal mounted on the outside wall of the restaurant, you can’t help thinking that any minute Victor Hugo is going to walk through the door. Hundreds of cows grazing blissfully on green hills, trees bending under the weight of plums, greengages, figs, apples, and walnuts, medieval towns built into cliffsides with cascades of little paved lanes and Gothic façades, red brick, grey limestone and ochre-coloured sandstone, and many other colours shining in the Mediterranean sun — yes, France is indeed a feast for the eyes. André Breton, father of the Surrealist movement, who in 1950 came to the adorable little town of Saint Cirq Lapopie and bought a house for his summer residence, said of the place: “Here, I’ve ceased wishing myself elsewhere”.

It’s a dream come true to live in a place one is so fond of. If we’re not as lucky as to be in Breton’s shoes, painting can help look more charitably at our everyday environment.

Henry Miller “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 8: Finding inspiration

To come back to Paris or to any French town or village, is it any wonder that there are so many poet-painters in France? Wherever the eye falls, there is color, irregularity, whimsy, individuality, together with all the evidences of age in use, the patina of life lived. Even in the simple matter of dress, there is a marked lack of uniformity. If he pleases, a Frenchman may go out to buy his milk and bread in the morning clad in pajamas, bathrobe and carpet slippers. As for the shops, they are infinite in variety, as variegated as the proprietors themselves. As for the street itself, there one may still see the old and the bent, the crippled, the half-witted, the mutilé de la guerre, the genuinely demented, the beggars and tramps, the hucksters, the drunkards, the minstrels, the acrobats, the weightlifters. Each one has his way of speaking, walking, gesticulating, of doing his job or not doing it. Not only that, but they are pitched against a planum of colorful, dilapidated walls, windows of every size and description, archways, bridges, shaded alleys, cathedrals and antique temples, arenas, chateaux, hideous and charming monuments, strident posters and billboards, chimney pots and black rose, or pale rose and sienna rose, birdcages, awnings, vegetables piled sky high and arranged like gems, mingy cats, sad looking carts, everything imaginable and often unimaginable. All bizarre, nostalgic, thoroughly off beat. With it all and through it all, a kind of drunken equilibrium prevails, even if not on time, nor exactly to one’s satisfaction. A meandrous stew that never fails to whet the appetite of a poet or a painter. Myself, I was never able to cope with it in the aquarel, nor even in writing. It was too heartwarmingly overwhelming. To experience it was quite enough. No man, not Balzac, not Proust, not even Breton could possibly convey the whole of it.

James Ensor, Squelette arrêtant masques (Skeleton stopping the Masks), 1891, oil on canvas, 30.5×50.7cm | Image via Sotheby’s (fair use)

In general, the work of American painters makes little appeal to me. To be sure, there are charming landscapes, dazzling seascapes, now and then a barn like Georgia O’Keeffe’s, architecture galore, ranging from shacks and rabbit warrens to Egyptian Babylonian monstrosities, sombre social satires inspired by analysts progress and improvement, drippings a la Jackson Pollock, abstracts and non-intentionals; here and there a genuine primitive, but never a Rouault, a Kokoschka, a Soutine, a Utrillo, a Hiroshigi, a Pascin, a Kandinsky, an Ensor, a Seurat, a Dubuffet. Never, are never a Bonnard. What have we in the main? A few isolated figures pissing in the void. Lone wolves feeding on acorns and sunflower seeds. Ignored by the mob, despised by their neighbors. Lonesome, harried devils fretting their lives away in a pistachio dream of come Christmas come all.

To paint is to love again. And to love is to live to the fullest. But what kind of love? What sort of life can one hope to find in a vacuum cluttered with every conceivable gadget? Every conceivable moneymaker. Every last comfort. Every useless luxury? To live and love and to give expression to it in paint, one must also be a true believer. There must be something to worship, where in this broad land is the holy of holies hidden? One is only to step across the border, and one is in the land of color. Mexico seems made for the painter. What matter if ignorance and superstition abound? What matter if the people are poor? A painter finds inspiration there, despite the poverty, despite the ignorance and superstition. Wherever he casts his eye, there is subject matter for his brush. Despite the cruelty and vandalism practiced by the conquistatori and continued to this day by politicians, militaries and industrialists and in a more insidious way by the church, something vital remains, something which bespeaks a soul. It is this imperishable element which infuses even the humblest object of daily use with magnetic charm. The mended pot becomes a chalice. The youthful mother — a Madonna. The pet in a doorway — a mystic lamb. That worn, overloaded donkey staggering up the hill could well bear a savior on its back. Our Lord Jesus would look droll seated in a Cadillac, would he not?

Click here to read Henry Miller’s “To Paint is to Love Again”, Part 7: Ingres’s Violin

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