Constantly whistling

My title this week comes from an article in the Guardian about the artist Eric Ravilious, famous for his watercolours of the Sourh Downs. I went to see an exhibition of his more commercial works on Wednesday 16th October  at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. (It’s on until 8th December, well worth a look – and that section of the gallery is free.)

The night before I’d been to see Neil Gaiman read Fortunately the Milk in London.  he  was asked by tweet where he gets his creative energy from. I’m paraphrasing so it’s not exact but his response was that he enjoys creating.

I should have expected that. It comes over in his exuberance and his mad hair.

Now for the connection with a somewhat obscure artist of the 1930s, whose work is instantly recognisable, distinct and for me a source of delight.

In the exhibition, you can see how  Eric Ravilious made little everyday things like letter heads cheerful. His playfulness comes through in the artwork.

And it isn’t just appealing subjects like arcades.

He gives even life in submarines a certain jauntiness. Some of that stems perhaps from his personality – see The Guardian article – yet I suspect something more than just lightness of touch.

There’s more to why he engages contemporary viewers. A sense of ‘interestedness’ in his work. That he took time to observe and delight in the particular. To see specific details in almost anything that set it apart.

An example might make what I mean clearer.

He produced the delightful illustrations in 1938 for ‘High Street’ – a book for children about shops.(A plea to Mainstone Press who publish lovely books including collections of Ravilious’s work – please could they redo this one in a format a poor writer can afford!)

They are in some ways generic – typical of all shop fronts. I would guess a woman from Kyoto could look at them and see something recognisable. Yet they each have exact and carefully rendered differences apart from the obvious names and articles for sale. He hasn’t done a visual copy-and-paste. He’s looked for interesting bits to put in.

I would imagine they come from lots of sketchbooks – and that the finished works  are a mixture rather than an exact reproduction of any one real scene.

I see that as a metaphor for good, enjoyable writing. We look for the specific and the interesting to give life to our work. We get a buzz from observing and then assembling all these snippets and sketches in pleasing forms. Same as any creator, I suppose.

And I think of the era in which he was creating. Of how he was lost at sea near Iceland in September 1942. He wasn’t making superficially jolly work in easy circumstances.

A Ravilious woodcut showing the Long Man of Wilmington – and Taurus.

That’s what the best of creativity does: it finds and produces beauty wherever we are. It brings hope.That has to be a source of joy.

Facing the Truth

Today, 3rd September 2011, I went toPallant House Art Gallery’s Open Day. This was an ‘artist’s date’ to use Julia Cameron’s term. Having reached the end of the first draft of my novel for the MA, my inspirational well was bone-dry.

I needed to make the most of it, so I took my time and explored David Jones’ Xtension exhibition and other artists’ work. The thing which struck me was the unashamed truthfulness of the best artworks. In ‘Icarus in Brighton’ there are beautiful nymphs or goddesses, the pier, the fallen young man – and a coke can. This ‘outsider artist’ showed what he saw in his mind’s eye.

I compared the ships of the naive artist Alfred Wallis with the other works of the St Ives artists represented in the collection.For me, his work has an unselfconscious strength. He wasn’t looking over his shoulder, wondering what critics might think. He created. That’s all.

I coughed up my £2.50 and went to see the Frida Kahlo & Diego Riviera Exhibition. I loved how Frida painted her own moustache with the same care as the lace round her neckline. She showed faces with warts, scabs, pouts and unplucked eyebrows.

Her husband said it all:

‘She tears open her heart and her chest to tell the biological truth about what she feels.’

As a writer, I aspire to such honesty, such ‘telling it as it is’. I think of Rembrandt’s later portraits – who would not aim for such truthfulness of compassion?

So that is my justification for observing closely a family drama played out in a cafe. I noted down the expressions, the phrases and the actions in order to convey emotions truthfully as I see them. I shamelessly dissected what was going on, remaining uninvolved and dispassionate ( I recall Kahlo trained to be a doctor). The point of such apparently callous behaviour is to get at the truth.

Squeamishness in a surgeon is something to be overcome – and I think it is also in a writer.