I do believe that art is as important to the human psyche and physical body as air is, as oxygen, as water. And alas, because it’s not something we can quantify reliably, we tend to think art is a luxury.

Art is not a luxury. The artist is so necessary in our lives. The artist explains to us, or at least asks the questions which must be asked. And when there’s a question asked, there’s an answer somewhere. I don’t believe a question can be asked which doesn’t have an answer somewhere in the universe. That’s what the artist is supposed to do, to liberate us from our ignorance

Maya Angelou

Earlier this week I spent a day in London visiting two art exhibitions. Vincent van Gogh’s self-portraits at the Courtauld Gallery in the morning. Then Walter Sickert at Tate Britain in the afternoon.

Van Gogh was a prolific self-portrait painter. He produced thirty-five in the last four years of his life. Those paintings almost chart his final descent into a complete mental collapse. And the selection of those paintings on display at the Courtauld well captures that.

When standing in the middle of one of the gallery rooms surrounded by Vincents, you cannot avoid the unflinching gaze of those vivid green eyes. Then, you move forward, and inches close to a single portrait, you are eye to eye with Vincent. What do you see? Pain, passion, anxiety, fear? Is that Vincent’s, or are those green eyes reflecting yours?

Van Gogh felt portrait painting was the highest form of art and was sceptical of photographs. In his self-portraits, he did not seek a photographic likeness but something of the soul,

“I myself still find photographs frightful and don’t like to have any, especially not of people whom I know and love.”

On another occasion, saying, “it isn’t easy to paint oneself … one seeks a deeper likeness than that of the photographer”

Van Gogh wished to capture through the paintings of himself the inner portrait. The him, in him. He used different painting techniques, poses, and clothes. Yet, that which stays consistent is his eyes and their penetrating gaze.

In none of the portraits did I see joy or comfort. I saw a struggle. I saw angst. In some, I saw despair. But, in all, I saw talent, expression and feeling. They moved me. That is what great art does. It touches the you, in you. And when you look into Vincent’s eyes, maybe you begin to understand better the ‘who’ you might be.

My viewing of the self-portraits over, I, of course, paid my respects to Suzon. Those who know me well, know that I always take the opportunity to look upon her enigmatic countenance when in the Courtauld.

It was then to Tate Britain. I enjoyed my walk there. London’s streets were busy, but I don’t mind busy. I learned long ago the swerve and dodge; one needs to slide past tourists. And after my walk, it was to ‘The Morpeth Arms’ near the Tate. To rest my legs and quench my thirst with a pint of Young’s Special.

Walter Sickert was and remains today something of a controversial artist. I know far less of him than I do van Gogh. It was for that reason, I wanted to see the exhibition at the Tate.

Sickert was born in Munich, and the first part of the exhibition was some of his self-portraits (fewer than Vincent’s). Here I heard the quote of the day by another gallery visitor who, in cut-glass received pronunciation, uttered, “I didn’t realise he was German. He doesn’t look like a German, does he?”

Anyway, back to Walter. His early career was as an actor, and then he took up painting in his twenties. That said, his love of the theatre remained. So many of his earlier works capture the performers of that genre vividly. And in them, the influence of Degas is evident.

Walter then dabbled with portrait painting before moving to landscapes, many of which are urban landscapes. I recognised one. A church in Venice close to where I stayed around one hundred years after his painting of it.

Sickert’s painting of nudes and the Camden Murders series I found the most disturbing part of the exhibition. I can appreciate that he wished to move away from the stylised view of the naked female body. And his portrayals are frank in that regard. The issue is that they portray women of limited means who pose not through choice but for income. The women also hold poses of submission. Invariably in those scenes when a man is present, that man is fully clothed.

Sickert’s nudes influenced Bacon (of whom the exhibition includes a piece) and Freud. Still, I confess they made me feel uncomfortable.

By the 1930s, Sickert had moved to paint from topical photographs. He felt that the monochrome photos of the time were ‘flat’.

Sickert (and he was not alone amongst artists) used a type of lens that allowed him to view a photograph as a projection that he could sketch and then scale up. I admit that his painting in colour, of what were black and white photographs, does add vitality to the subject. I guess he was an early exponent of the ‘colourisation’ of images that one sees today produced through the benefits of digitisation.

I cannot finish this piece without a comment on those who take photos at art exhibitions. I must ask why? Whether it’s food in restaurants, paintings and photographs in galleries, or action at sports events. Why do we take a picture rather than simply enjoy the experience?

Unless taken for artistic purposes or as a family memento, most photographs simply confirm that we were ‘there’. A good friend of mine once said our lives have become a series of photos in which we don’t appear one day.

To me, looking at an artwork is about feeling and personal interaction. Does this piece move me or not? What might this piece say to me, about me, of me?

To then take a photo of it seems pointless. That photo won’t add to the personal interaction. That sensation will come from my memory. If I do need a physical reminder, I can revisit the painting. If that’s impracticable, I’ll look it up on the internet. Yes, seeing a photo or picture etc, ‘in the flesh’ moves me more, but seeing an image recorded elsewhere can rekindle that feeling.

So, to the individual at the Sickert exhibition who went from painting to painting snapping away without pause, I ask why? How did taking a photograph of one picture and then scurrying onto the next offer you any fulfilment? What engagement did you feel? What emotions did those paintings stir?

The photographs are evidence you were there. But were you? Yes, you were present in the room, but did you feel the presence of the room? Will those photographs say anything to you when you scroll through them?

In art, we can find ourselves, but we need to be looking at that art. And not through a viewfinder.

Anyway, diatribe over. Vincent Self-portraits and Walter Sickert are two quite different, but evocative exhibitions and I would recommend both. But leave your camera at home.



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