August 2, 2011

Nostalgia as Inspiration

When I visit the Jersey shore, childhood memories come bubbling up: the delicious honeysuckle whose nectar my father taught us to sip...

The library of my youthful summers; one summer in particular stays with me, which I spent combing the stacks for any and every book on myths of different cultures...

The homes with porches filled with summer furniture, a table set aside for a picture puzzle for rainy days. All these things and more touch my heart. In his novel Ignorance, Milan Kundera explores the concept of nostalgia, and how it affects those who left their homes in Czechoslovakia with the takeover of the communists and their feeling about return in 1989. In his second chapter he writes "The Greek word for 'return' is nostos. Algos means 'suffering'. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return." A simpler definition might be a "longing for home". The word nostalgia, which I think expresses a beautiful feeling, has been diminished and belittled by being associated with the excessively sentimental.

Chinese Maple, Catskill, N.Y., 1981, oil on canvas, 14 x 28 inches.

My earliest exhibited work consisted of paintings of domestic architecture, which allowed me to balance the strong planar geometries with architectural details. When I began doing this series I thought of it in those abstract terms, not considering the emotional coloring that comes with lived-in houses. After some time, though, I realized that my childhood summers at the shore had a tremendous influence on my choice of subject matter: my parents would take us on drives to look at houses in towns around Bradley Beach, where they were likely to be large and beautiful. From a young age I was taught to notice and admire the domestic architecture of small towns.

Home from School, Unadilla Forks, N.Y., 1985, oil on canvas, 22 x 50 inches.

As years passed, I began to include the landscape around houses and outbuildings, and my focus slowly shifted to the agricultural landscape and then to its implements. But I believe that my nostalgia, my sweet feeling, for the architecture of summer was a powerful force in my early painting choices. Have any of you been inspired by your "longing for home"?


  1. what a sensitive & beautiful post, Altoon. you present the positive side of nostalgia - not the side that blinds one to the present and desires only familiar comfort... I myself have no 'longings for home' but this morning hearing on the radio a Chopin piano piece I remembered, vividly, my dad playing it with gusto, fiercely - and I knew the piece by heart because of this, and I felt gratitude for all of it - for the invention of the piano, for Chopin, for my dad, for the radio....

  2. I am almost always drawn outside. Nature is what gives me joy.

  3. So interesting to see your paintings as part of your past. Much insight in your posts. Well done, as are your architectural paintings.

  4. Thank you for the comments rappel and Lisa and Maggie.
    and rappel, what an amazing moment, hearing the Chopin and remembering your father; thanks for writing about it.

  5. So many of our greatest landscape painters were painting their childhood home landscape - Corot (who slept in his childhood bed as an adult) Courbet, Conatable- so they could go back and paint their childhood magic feeling.

  6. Sam, thanks so much for that information; I didn't know that those artists returned to their childhood places.