I am thinking about the importance of sketches. And in that spirit, I will post this in an hour, regardless of what state its in.
A week or so ago I was in white room full of almost silent, mostly middle aged, mostly white people. I was staring at some brush strokes on a very old piece of paper(?). Heart racing. This was one of JWM Turner’s ‘studies’ of waves and a distant horizon. After he died, hundreds of unfinished pieces were found in his studio. While he worked up his masterpieces, he would experiment. He could be freer outside of the pressures of genius and patron’s expectations. It seems obvious to me that not only were these experimental sketches vital to his polished masterpieces, but that with a few exceptions – Snow Storm is indescribably brilliant – the sketches contained more life. Looking at the simple brush strokes, I could start to imagine his thought process. Could join the dots between human effort and the sea spray he was trying to invoke. In the masterpieces, this humanity is hidden. He wanted us to think he was a magician genius, set apart from us mere mortals.
Maybe this is why I became a teacher not an artist. I am not interested in playing along with the myth of genius. I am only interested in tearing it down.
Virginia Woolf shared JW’s passion for sketching. When writing her most conventional novel Night and Day, partly as a way to contain the chaos of the war swirling round her, she worked on essays and short stories that freed up her thinking. She gathered up those fragments later to write one of my favourite books of all time, itself a collection of fragments of observation, gathered together to form a great sweep of life.
Virginia had a way of exposing her character’s unexamined thoughts, usually extrapolated from her own. JW had a way of painting living things to life in just a couple of brush strokes. These tiny examinations made possible the grand scale and impact of their context but also, if you look twice, give us a chance to see through the show.
Oliver Burkeman reminded us in the Guardian the other day that everyone is totally just winging it, all the time. He quotes Action for Happiness saying “one of the biggest causes of misery is the way we chronically compare our insides with other people’s outsides”.
JW didn’t manage to throw away the last batch of his thousands of hard won experiments and mistakes before he died, allowing us to see some of his insides, stripped of the (equally hard won I’m sure) magic tricks he’s famous for – and love him all the more for it. Through her stories, essays, letters and diaries, we can piece together how Virginia wrote her own swirling insides into her masterpeices. How all she did was look hard, ask questions, then write with unflinching care.
Oooh I think I’m finished. With 22 minutes to spare. See ellie, its not so hard.
I’ll take my spare minutes to do some referencing…
I saw Late Turner – Painting Set Free at Tate Britain in London. GO SEE if you can, its on till Jan 25th 2015. Anything I wrote about him here was learnt in that exhibition. There is a book to accompany the exhibition that I almost bought but didn’t.
I just read Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris. That, a talk by Ali Smith at the Portrait Gallery called ‘Getting Virginia Woolf’s Goat’, and the exhibition Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision all helped gather these threads together. As did working on getting over my inverted snobbery that held me back from fully declaring my love for that particular posh woman.
Ok times up. Screw harvard 😉