Fra Angelico, Saint Nicholas Calms a Tempest at Sea and The Miracle of the Grain, ca. 1437, tempera on panel, 14 x 24 inches
A few days ago, I read a post on Sophie Munns's blog which included a short piece from Sue Hubbard called "Blue Sky Thinking". In it she argued that art was not simply expressing your creativity, but about mourning and loss, "transformed into art through the arduous creative process". I had an almost visceral reaction to this, feeling it to be too negative a view of artistic motivation. But perhaps what she was trying to say was something like this, from Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark:
what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself, ––life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose?If I look at the work of Fra Angelico, a fifteenth century artist who was also a Dominican friar, I feel moved by the beautifully depicted narratives in his predella panels. My feeling is mainly aesthetic, but far removed from our modern sensibilities, Fra Angelico was using his talent in the service of God, his altarpieces being objects of reverence and contemplation.
India, Provincial Mughal, Sohni Swims to Meet her Lover Mahinwal, ca. 1775-80, opaque watercolor on paper, 9 11/16 x 13 7/8 inches
The traditions of manuscript painting in Europe and India and Persia are varied, with both religious and secular imagery. This stunning example of Mughal painting is like the Fra Angelico in its storytelling. Visual art becomes a physical embodiment of the word, written or verbal, as in this Punjabi folk tale.
Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953, gouache on paper, cut and pasted on white paper, 9 feet 4 3/4 inches x 9 feet 5 inches
What the artists, often anonymous, felt about the making of their work is unknown to me. In the 20th century we have more words from artists. A wonderful statement from Matisse, about his first experience with painting when 20 years old and recuperating from acute appendicitis:
When I started to paint, I felt transported into a kind of paradise...In everyday life, I was usually bored and vexed by the things that people were always telling me I must do. Starting to paint, I felt gloriously free, quiet and alone.This comes to the essence of the question for me: how it feels to be making art. No matter what first draws us into art making––a favorite teacher; being a social outsider; feeling unhappy; a beloved book, painting, film––there is something in it that keeps us going. Matisse embarked on an entirely new way of working at the end of his long life, producing radiantly alive cut paper works.
With de Kooning's work, as with that of Matisse, I feel in the presence of an intensely physical engagement with paint; I believe that this sensuality must be part of their attachment to the making of art, as the actual process of mixing and applying color is an activity difficult to give up. de Kooning kept working through illness at the end of his life.
So now to my motivation, and yours if you'd like to comment on this: the word describing the feeling that I've had foremost in my mind this week is pleasure, a deep sense of joy and satisfaction in the process of making, even in the sometime struggle to get a work right. I love the silky surface of the vellum and the feel of paint sliding across it. I love the rich translucent color of the egg tempera paint, its ease of handling, its crisp rendering of detail. The intense focus on a small work brings me into another world, a place of color and form and light. I love seeing this new thing I've made; if I judge it a success, it feels weighty and real and beautiful. I hope that others will like the work, but I realize now that this is not a paramount consideration. For the past year, after being represented by a commercial gallery in New York City for over 30 years, I've been without a gallery; there is no certainty that I will exhibit the work I am doing. I now know that this doesn't matter; it is the process of working that is essential, that takes me both inside myself and out into an intense engagement with the visual world.