**Is an artist his work?**
If you understand your pictures, do you understand yourself? Well, it’s worth finding out.
So I forage among my old paintings to discover what I really am. Well, I’m 82 now and trying to look over the shoulder of the youngish man I was half a century ago. It’s all in the past you see. Apart from a few political posters in the marching years I haven’t painted anything except our old veranda.
Already I’ve learned one thing. I was damned careless. Much of my work isn’t dated or signed and my intention for a perfectly chronological catalogue looks dashed.
Yet already I excuse myself. Completing a picture doesn’t mean it’s finished. A good idea can be almost occult in dodging you. It takes several paintings, a series like the blows of a hammer that drive home a nail. My archive is a series of series so to speak with spasmodic holidays to paint Beethoven or Hamlet or indulge in ‘Dreams of Galilee’ or ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan who nearly wrote a masterpiece but came unstuck in America.
But in a series one picture chases the next off the easel so you don’t bother to date or sign it but reserve that ritual for the last member of the series. Then of course another series is chasing the first and this enthusiasm makes you forget to sign all of the pictures in the previous one.
It teaches me something else. Such carelessness over dates and signatures suggests how compulsive my art was all those years ago. When you are driven it seems perfectly natural at the time. I never stopped to analyse my work nor was there anyone around to do it for me. But that was my choice. I wasn’t a recluse per se. But for my art I stood sentinel for years. All that mattered was to produce paintings. Stack them safely for whatever lay ahead without the slightest thought of what that was or might be.
I wonder today if it was a kind of Romanticism which viewed art as its own reward for those blessed by a mysterious gift of sorts and nothing else mattering much. One notion did lurk at the time. That the promotion of art (your own or anybody else’s) was the worst of all rat races to the truly creative mind.
The first of what I’m beginning to think of as a linked series was called ‘Mother and Child’. I suppose my cosmic insecurity drew me back to that. It convinced me how important composition is to a picture.
I have a mother clutching her baby in a bleak landscape. The sky is racy and I’m aghast. She might get blown away. It fails me…
I try another, parting the mother from the child. Mother takes up the East in the frame, baby the West. Mother gestures with a rosy red apple I’ve painted into the picture. Baby is a bit older, her tiny spine allows her to sit upright on the green sward. Will they blow away? No, parted mother and child have staked the land between them. It’s a miracle.
Typing this, a book falls off the shelf above my desk. I open it at random (which is my habit) and scan what comes to my gaze. It reads:
‘All is mortal. Only the mother is destined to immortality. And when the mother is no longer among the living she leaves a memory which no one has yet dared to sully. The memory of the mother nourishes in us a compassion which is like the ocean, and the measureless ocean feeds the rivers that dissect the universe.’ Isaac Babel (1920)