I Know What I Like

In which The Author doesn’t know about Art

One of the few subjects I haven’t written about in this blog over the years is Art.There’s a good reason for that.
Apart from visiting a couple of exhibitions of work by friends, the time I met Brian Eno in London (but that’s another story!), and the day Martin H. and I stumbled into an exhibition by Sir Peter Blake (see Starless and Bible Black), my involvement with the world of Art has been pretty minimal.
This is partly because I have no artistic ability whatsoever. At least I made a stab at learning to play the guitar before giving it up as a bad job. That entitles me to comment on music, in my opinion. Art, though, was a complete washout from the start.
At school, I parted company with Art as a subject as soon as I possibly could. To demonstrate exactly how piss-poor I am at putting lines on paper, I once came 33rd in the internal exam – and there were only 31 of us in the fucking class. Having said that, I later went on to piss the Maths O Level and do A Level Pure Maths. Unlike our Art teacher, presumably.
During my second first year at university, we had a lecture on children’s drawings. As part of the session, Gareth M. asked us to draw a house, a horse and a man.
My friend Siân D., who was sitting next to me, drew an elaborate mansion with substantial grounds. I drew something that looked like the opening titles of Play School circa 1973:
My ‘horse’ and ‘man’ efforts were even worse, believe me!
Gareth came around the room, looking at our masterpieces in turn. When he saw my laughable attempts at realism, he (understandably) laughed.
‘You draw like a five year old.’
I replied, ‘Gareth, that’s the highest praise anyone’s ever given one of my drawings.’ Then I told my ‘Coming 33rd in Art’ story, and everyone else laughed.
My schoolboy frustration and anger at not being to draw the simplest object has long since evaporated. I’ve learnt to accept the fact that I have no ability in this area, and moved on. Art and I parted company over three decades ago by mutual agreement, and hardly ever miss each other.
I’ve got a number of friends, like Alwyn, Ceri, Kathleen, Marian, Liz the Good Twin, Pam B., and Martin H., who effortlessly demonstrate extreme skills with pencils, a brush, pens, or (nowadays) a graphics tablet or image rendering software. Other friends of mine have an innate talent for playing musical instruments. Some of them (sickeningly) can do both. I admire their expertise in the same way you’d admire a performance by a great actor. Of course I envy them their gifts, too, but that’s just natural. You have to know your own limitations. I discovered mine over thirty years ago.
I could spend a thousand words raging about my shortcomings in these areas, in the style of Stephen Fry’s beautiful tirade against his tin ear in Moab is My Washpot. But I’m not going to. I can wield a camera with half-decent results, and that’s good enough for me.
Having said all this, I’m not a complete philistine. I appreciate a good painting, but I have to be able to see what it’s meant to be. However, during the twentieth century the visual arts largely went down the road of abstractionism, or (worse still), what Kim Howells memorably described as ‘conceptual bullshit’.
I tried reading Robert Hughes’ famous study of modern art The Shock of the New many years ago. I almost followed his line of argument from Impressionism up to and including Post-Expressionism. I started to get bogged down when he reached Abstract Expressionism, and gave up entirely when he got to a pile of bricks (Carl Andre’s famous ‘sculpture’ Equivalent VIII). I freely admit that I just can’t see the point of it at all.
When Rhian and I were at the V&A last year, we were able to see the famous Raphael cartoons. They, to my mind, represent truly great painting – huge, ambitious, hyper-real, and memorable. There’s no doubt in my mind that Raphael was a genius, and his paintings have endured simply because they’re stupendous works of art. (Like Leonardo’s cartoon, though, they weren’t especially funny…)
I’ve decided to write this entry for a couple of reasons. Jeremy Vine has a semi-regular feature on his Radio 2 show called ‘My Favourite Painting’. A listener nominates a work of art, then comes on the phone and explains why s/he loves it so much. (It doesn’t make for great radio, naturally, but the pictures in question are on the BBC website so that you can check them out for yourself.)
I’ve had a quick look, and there are six pictures on display. They all seem to be fairly old-fashioned (conventional) representational paintings. Mr Vine’s own nomination is Las Meninas by Velasquez. There’s a John Singer Sargent, a Renoir, a Stubbs, and (perhaps surprisingly) a David Hockney. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is in there, but that’s the most avant-garde of the six. I don’t know whether the idea’s run out of steam, but they’re the only ones currently on the BBC website.
I think I’m right in saying that (so far) nobody has nominated anything by Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, or any other abstract artist. I’m not even sure whether anyone’s suggested works by Picasso or Dalí yet. David Hockney alone represents the twentieth century. (I suppose I must have missed the features about Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville.)
It could just be that the public is naturally conservative (with a small c) when it comes to artistic trends. I’m sure I read somewhere that Britain’s most commercially successful artists are Beryl Cook and Jack Vettriano – who are hardly at the cutting edge of the avant-garde. Then again, I’ve never heard anything by Schönberg, Stockhausen or Steve Reich on Your Hundred Best Tunes. We seem to instinctively shy away from anything that’s too challenging, too unfamiliar.
Maybe, though, the real extremes of modern art/music/theatre are just like the Emperor’s New Clothes. The cognoscenti rave about them, while everyone else (the uninitiated) realises that there’s nothing much to be impressed by.
That was the impression I got on Saturday night, listening to a three-hour programme on BBC 4Extra about surrealism and comedy. It was presented by two people I’ve never heard of before. Their terribly laboured links were symptomatic of the continuity style the station seems to have adopted over the past eighteen months or so. Maybe they were trying to be surreal. They certainly weren’t funny.
There were – of course – extracts from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (most of the Argument sketch, and a brief clip from another sketch) which have been played to death.
There was a fairly recent item presented by Terry Jones, about Le Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris. It has presented the same two plays by the Romanian absurdist Eugène Ionesco every night – except Sundays and public holidays – since 16 February 1957. (It beat The Mousetrap into the record books some time ago.)
There was a half-hour’s worth of ‘edited highlights’ of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer presenting a show on Radio 1. If I needed a disincentive to ever tune into the BBC’s premier yoof station, that was it.
The presenters interviewed one of the guys from The Mighty Boosh, too. They left me completely cold. I admit that I did laugh a couple of times, but mainly when they were playing some clips from Kenny Everett’s radio show, broadcast way back in the early 1970s.
Hearteningly, they name-checked Vivian Stanshall and Syd Barrett. Their music could definitely be classified as surreal, if only because they were close to insanity a lot of the time. During the piece on Le Théâtre de la Huchette, they played a clip of an avant-garde French jazz combo, which reminded me of very early Gong (see Leaving No Turn Unstoned). Daevid Allen gravitated to France after leaving The Soft Machine. Perhaps the unfortunate Syd Barrett should also have relocated to Paris, where this sort of thing seems to have made its spiritual home since before the Great War. His ill-fated solo career might have taken a whole different path.
However, the rest of the three hours’ content (to me, anyway) simply wasn’t funny, or clever, or surreal.
Because I’m not sure that surreal is synonymous with simply ‘silly’, as the 4Extra people seemed to think. Surrealism is a whole subset of art, drawing on the Freudian theory of dreams and the unconscious, the Dadaists, the absurdists, primitivism, the poetry and art of psychiatric patients, nursery rhymes, cut-ups, and a whole host of unconventional ways of juxtaposing symbols and ideas. It isn’t just talking what appears to be dope-addled shit into a radio microphone for five minutes.
Surrealism in Art covers many bases, too. I know Salvador Dalí is generally accepted as the master of the surreal, but I’d like to nominate another painter as my personal champion of the waking dreamscape. The Belgian artist René Magritte (1898-1967) may not be as well known as Dalí, but his distinctive style has influenced everything from book jacket designs to advertising campaigns.
I first (knowingly) came across Magritte’s work in about 1989, on the Penguin edition of John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing. (It was one of the set texts when I was working in Blackwells, so I got to see it a lot!) The front cover featured this mysterious painting:
La clef des songes (The Key of Dreams), 1936
That, I think, was my first conscious encounter with Magritte. I realised later that OMNI magazine had reproduced a couple of his paintings to accompany short stories in the early 80s, but they obviously hadn’t registered with me at the time.
Magritte’s influence had even featured on advertising billboards in London while I was there in the mid-1980s. The Greater London Council was threatened with abolition, and had mounted a campaign to warn Londoners of what would happen if it disappeared. One of them featured a full-face view of a suit and a bowler hat, but where the man’s face should have been, there was a brick wall instead. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was almost pure Magritte.
La Grande Guerre (The Great War), 1964
La Grande Guerre (The Great War), 1964
The bowler-hatted man, often with his face obscured or with no face at all, is one of the recurring themes in Magritte’s art and features in a series of paintings dating from his late period. Magritte himself was often photographed wearing this trademark headgear.
My next encounter with Magritte came when I was reading Douglas R. Hofstadter’s landmark book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An eternal golden braid, also while working in Blackwells. Prof. Hofstadter devoted several pages to a discussion of Magritte’s art, and especially The Key of Dreams, The Use of Words, and other variations on this theme.
L'usage de la parole I (The Use of Words I), 1928-9
L’usage de la parole I (The Use of Words I), 1928-9
This is a classic example of what philosophers of language call the ‘use-mention distinction’: of course it isn’t a pipe, it’s a painting of a pipe!
Kurt Gödel’s great 1933 breakthrough in mathematical logic is one of the three threads which Prof. Hofstadter entwines in his huge and fascinating book. It was based on the realisation that mathematical statements could be encoded as numbers and then operated upon as numbers. By breaking down this use-mention distinction, it was therefore possible to modify logical expressions by logical operations. Alan Turing’s work took this idea further, devising a theoretical machine which was capably of modifying its own instruction set while following that same instruction set. I’m using that machine now. So are you.
Magritte was also exploring – and blurring – the distinction between levels of meaning in some of his paintings. (As Robert Anton Wilson was fond of saying, ‘the map is not the territory; the menu is not the meal’.)
Prof. Hofstadter’s analysis of Magritte’s work inspired me to learn more about him. As a result, I bought my first ever art book: Suzi Gablik’s monograph on Magritte, in Thames & Hudson’s very affordable World of Art series.
While I was looking through it I realised that I’d seen a fair number of his paintings before, without ever realising it. The GLC poster I remembered from my student days suddenly made sense. So did the cover of the Pan paperback edition of Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex:
La clef de champs (The Key to the Fields), 1936
La clef de champs (The Key to the Fields), 1936


Some 25 years after I first discovered him, I still think Magritte is the one Surrealist painter whose work I have a chance of understanding. Dalí was technically brilliant, of course, but I’ve always found his dreamscapes too unreal for my liking. Max Ernst’s paintings fall into a similar category. (Jasmin from Stuttgart introduced me to Ernst; in return, I introduced her to Magritte.) I’ve always felt as though they were trying too hard to be challenging and confrontational.
That’s not to say that Magritte’s work is comforting. Far from it – some of his paintings are extremely shocking, like this 1945 version of Le viol:
Le viol (The Rape), 1945
Le viol (The Rape), 1945
The female nude also features in a number of disturbing paintings entitled Le magie noire; is the statue becoming human, or is the woman slowly petrifying?
Le magie noire (Black Magic), 1934
Le magie noire (Black Magic), 1934
When Magritte isn’t subverting our ideas of the body, he’s playing with our preconceived ideas of what imaginary creatures would look like. Take the mermaid, for example – every Disney fan knows a mermaid is half woman and half fish. Only in Magritte’s world would this conventional interpretation be turned literally upside-down.
L'invention collective (Collective Invention), 1953
L’invention collective (Collective Invention), 1953
As a rule, though, Magritte’s visions of the unconscious world are usually far less self-consciously bizarre. He doesn’t aim to shock (often!), and his chance meetings of mundane objects and anonymous people seem to be much more like the dreams I experience myself.
Les objets familiers (Familiar Objects), 1927-8
Les objets familiers (Familiar Objects), 1927-8
I don’t remember my dreams as often I’d like to, because some of them would make fantastic science fiction stories (or even episodes of Doctor Who), but they do feature recurring themes and places.
In the same way, Magritte’s work often features unexplained juxtapositions of unrelated objects. In addition, the same objects recur many times, as in his series entitled Le jockey perdu:
Le jockey perdu (The Lost Jockey), 1940
Le jockey perdu (The Lost Jockey), 1940
This is the sort of dream world I can relate to from my own experiences. I don’t claim to be an expert on Magritte’s work by any means. Sometimes I think I admire his technical ability more than his finished paintings. In fact, I find some of them to be rather childish (yeah, I know – ironic, isn’t it?) Instead, his work appeals to me precisely because of its repetitive nature. Like my own recurring dreams, his use of the same symbols in varying combinations hint at the deep underlying structures and seldom-used connections in the unconscious mind.
The one painting of Magritte’s which I’ve highlighted here was drawn to my attention in Gödel, Escher Bach. If I were to nominate ‘my favourite painting’ for Jeremy Vine’s show, I think it would be this one.
La condition humaine I (The Human Condition I), 1933
La condition humaine I (The Human Condition I), 1933
The painting on the easel has perfectly captured the exterior world on the artist’s canvas. It’s a scene which any landscape artist would be proud of. But there’s another layer of meaning here: the artist’s work is itself only part of a wider picture, captured by a second observer.
And the scene on the artist’s canvas is just a snapshot, a slice of Spacetime translated into two dimensions. By the time the first brush stroke has dried, the world outside the window has changed.
The Impressionists realised this, and their paintings attempted to capture constantly shifting light and shade, and the movements and transitions of their subjects. Impressionism was a direct response to the rise of photography, which put conventional landscapes and portraits within the reach of everyone’s ability. Whereas everyone could have a single slice of Spacetime, only the painter could show the constant flux of the Real World.
But in Magritte’s world, not only has the view through the window changed in the time it’s taken the artist to paint it. There’s an almost seamless transition between the edge of the painting and the view outside. It’s almost seamless because that’s the way that we, too, perceive the world. By the time I hit the ‘Publish’ button on this blog, the people around will have changed. The conversations in the background won’t be the same. Our five-sense world is constantly in flux, and by the time our brains have processed the data flooding in from all sides, the outside world has moved on.
The human brain, like the painter, is unable to truly capture the fluidity of the world. All that we can do is try and make sense of an ever-changing series of snapshots, discrete slices of Spacetime, and hope that our mental representations are as close to the Real World’ as possible. And that’s the human condition in a nutshell, isn’t it?
There’s another possible angle on The Human Condition which this painting demonstrates, too. Presumably Magritte himself could be depicted at work on his canvas, adding yet more distance between the world outside the window and the end-user of the painting. Could we even paint someone in a gallery, admiring the painting? How many levels could we introduce between the outside world and the viewer of the scene? Just how far down the rabbit hole do we have to go before we actually reach the Real World?
Robert Anton Wilson recalled accidentally catching a play on television, in which the actors were performing an extremely naturalistic script. He watched it for a few minutes, quite engrossed. A few minutes later one of the actors stumbled over a line.
A voice off screen shouted ‘Cut! Take five!’, and everyone relaxed. Some of the crew came into shot, the make-up people hurried on to the set, the director stepped up and discussed the scene, and so forth.
This all went on for a few minutes until, halfway through a sentence, one of the people stopped talking. A voice off stage shouted, ‘Cut! Take five!’
The screen faded to black and the credits rolled.
Wilson said that, if the same thing had happened a few more times, it would have been analogous to the Buddhist idea of ‘awakening’.
To me, at least, Magritte’s painting is the visual equivalent of this TV play, and probably the closest visual interpretation I’ve found to ‘awakening’. I nominate it as my favourite painting, and I also nominate Rene Magritte as the only surrealist whose paintings really work for me. After all, I may not know about Art, but I know what I like.

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