A visit to an artist’s studio

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How many times we’ve ended becalmed among the roads across the fens, that all look the same, straight as parallel rifle shots on the map but rising and falling like sea-swells when you are on them. This time we arrive without getting lost but don’t recognise the car parked by the outbuilding that used to be our friend’s studio. I want to read something into the colours of these cars, the old mustard-coloured Mercedes, or now a sleeker one in grey-blue, as if they’d been chosen like the colours in her paintings.

I had been looking forward to seeing Bette Spektorov’s paintings in a big exhibition in Cambridge in 2017.  Then she called it off.  So the only way to see the work of this artist, now in her eighties and unwilling, or in some way unable to show, was to visit her studio, which is why on that weekend in October my wife and I were back again in the Lincolnshire fens where Spektorov has lived for forty years.

What I had not expected was that, though welcoming and ready to talk about the paintings on the walls of the rambling old vicarage, she was not willing or perhaps able to go into the studio where the rest of her paintings were collected.  It was as if an iron door had come down, she said: she couldn’t go with me, and I was on my own, without a guide.

There were paintings everywhere, frozen in place like the inhabitants of the castle where a spell has fallen, stacked on chairs and against the walls, obstructed by easels and little tables loaded with tubes of paint, while underfoot, sticks of pastel were being ground into the concrete. I could see a few paintings mounted on the walls, but I couldn’t get to them over the piles that blocked the way.

Through the most distressing circumstances I was prevented from finding out anything about the paintings except what I could see: their intentions, their sequence, even their names–all were now hidden.  Thrown off stride by what I didn’t know, I didn’t notice for the longest time what a wonderfully phantasmagoric way this would be of seeing the painter’s whole life as an artist unfolding before me at once.

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I started in the furthest corner of the space—was it a desire for at least a hint of method, or desperation in the face of confusion? The big picture I fixed on was like an explosion, a rich burst of colour that was at the same time shattered by strong vertical lines which broke the surface into five divisions, like a recall of the old idea of the triptych that made one thing out of three separate parts. Here motifs were repeated from one section to the next, like characters who reappear in successive scenes, but they bumped against each other and both of them were cropped. The divisions didn’t occur logically but interrupted what was taking place, as if parts of the intended scene had been swallowed up, as by a curtain hanging in folds that took no thought of what parts of the design might be lost.

This was a functional explanation of the feeling of compression you got from the picture, which seemed to show you only a fraction of what it had to say. Here I first wondered if Kandinsky weren’t just as strong an influence as the artist’s favourite painter Matisse. Kandinsky’s work of 1909-13 provided close parallels to all the swirling tale-material that had been set loose by the initial explosion which put this picture in motion.

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Next to it was one superficially similar—divided by vertical lines—but not actually much like it at all. Here the red lines traced through blue made weaker divisions and resembled plant-stems, which undercut the force of separation.

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This one is part of a series that teaches me what blue means to this artist. It is something you sink into and are enveloped by, a colour for submitting to, and I found that the longer I looked the more compelling this trellis of flower-forms became, full of slippages and elements being swallowed up.

4 DSC03725.jpgThe next blue picture is one it’s hard to get an unobstructed view of, one which looked much bluer to the eye than it did to the camera, one that has a bouquet at the centre like one of the onion-domed towers in Kandinsky’s canvases of 1910, architecture not flowers, from a Symbolist fairy tale. A duskiness in the blue, not visible to the camera, plays a big part in making this an unfathomable picture. As I stare, it turns from an orchard into a hierarchical grouping of three divinities in ascending form. There’s a ritualised order hiding here: pattern has become a spiritual fact, and an icon has materialised out of flower-shapes.

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I turn for relief from the sequence of powerful blue pictures to a small one on an ochre ground with bold forms like Japanese characters, or just as much the forms of plants as calligraphy. This one is drastically pared down, with bold shapes and only four colours. The yellow which seems a brightening in the ochre, and a subtlety in the overarching starkness, isn’t really there, but only a reflection on the glass.

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Among a jumble on the floor is one where Matisse’s parentage is most obvious, a picture made of pictures, a languorously sloping armchair in one, lemons in another. This is a canvas you would certainly include if you were doing a complete anatomy of all of this artist’s types and stages. It interests me now for another reason, because of what is peeking out from behind it, which I didn’t pay attention to then, but only later, like a clue in a detective story that no one sees the first time around. It’s a painting that will matter later but is only a sliver now.

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Instead, I’m diverted in another direction, toward a blizzard of dots, seen very slantwise.  It caught my eye by its raucousness, but when you looked harder, it wasn’t just a blizzard of dots but a tree in blossom radiating streamers of dots which formed an aura, while a fractured section to the right was like a picture of the pile-up in the studio. When this painting was fully extracted, the pile-up loomed less large. When it was seen head-on, the picture’s proportions changed. I was altogether disconcerted by how pictures changed with the time of day or what they happened to sit next to. Kenneth Clark said hanging pictures was his favourite activity, in which you are always finding things in them which weren’t visible before.

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My next discoveries were favourites of mine that Spektorov didn’t seem to have much time for. I saw them both standing on end, where it was easy to guess the right orientation with one of them, not so obvious with the other, one of the excitements of the visit, testing pictures in different orientations. I remembered that Kandinsky was given a crucial push toward abstraction by seeing a painting upside down in his studio.

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The first of the discoveries was a Biblical scene or a tense moment in an opera, in which a bearded man waves a sword over a baby dangling from his other hand. I had finally stumbled on a narrative, in rapid, careless, confident strokes, a kind of cartoon of a serious subject. I had to disentangle it from a hysterical princess in pastel who looked vaguely familiar (something by Vrubel?) for a reason I would later discover. When I mentioned the narrative subject to the artist (I still hadn’t worked out whether it was classical or Biblical) she said ‘it must be one of my Poussins’. So I looked it up and only then realised that one of the main characters was missing and would have filled the big purple void on the left, King Solomon and his throne. But perhaps he wouldn’t, for Spektorov has pared down and focused the story.

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The other discovery was a more like a wild Kandinsky when seen on its side than when it was right side up, with a mêlée of forms and a big patch of khaki-chartreuse. Both these paintings had introduced a new set of colours that I looked around for more of.

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I often circled back and paged through stacks I hadn’t got to the bottom of before. Now something made me pull out a big picture buried deep in a pile, where I’d caught a glimpse of unfamiliar colours and big blurry forms. In fact, it wasn’t until the next day that I got a really good look at it, an occasion when my wife and Bette broke the taboo and came too. I loved the rich and dusky colours that didn’t bear down or weigh on you, the combination of looseness and density, the way forms seemed about to solidify, hinting briefly at large figures or truncated cones in a monumental landscape, then dispersed again. Even the heaviest elements seem to float, full of possibility, and little is fixed. Here for once the title is scrawled on the back, and fits with the idea of loosening one’s hold—‘Come what may’.

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The picture with a name formed a satisfying conclusion to a memorable visit to the studio, but the paintings seem doomed to remain lost in the fens. What will become of them? In her frustration the artist even talks of throwing them onto a bonfire.  A friend who is an unusually sensitive photographer has offered to help archive them, which would be a first step toward getting them shown in the kind of sympathetic setting that they richly deserve.

Bette Spektorov’s work is important for its instinctive rapport with colour as a way of being in the world, and for setting an example of throwing oneself fearlessly into the visible world in its fullest, most saturated intensity.  Her exuberant mêlée of forms depicts a world constantly breaking down and re-forming in fresh shapes, drawing impartially on plant structures, fabric patterns or key moments in the history of art, and blurring old boundaries between the world and the self.

 

Simon Schama Civilisations, episode 1

A disconcerting start, Schama talking about civilisation as collective memory while aerial images flash by of ancient public spaces in desert landscapes. Is it a version of that trick of modern cinema, a bit of the action before the film remembers to introduce itself? There’s a noticeable urgency in Schama’s voice and in a few seconds we see why.

Now come shocking images of a temple blown up with explosives and men taking sledgehammers to statues in a museum. Then the story of the guardian of the site at Palmyra who wouldn’t tell where the antiquities were hidden and details of his gruesome death. In rushed hindsight the disorienting plunge into the material at the beginning seems a brilliant stroke, and Palmyra will cast its shadow over all that follows: civilisation’s survival is precarious, and all civilisations come to an end. The episode at Palmyra can stand as an allegory or emblem of that.

Then we’re off looking for beginnings at the tip of Africa where our species first appeared, finding them in a small lump of iron-rich red ochre, on which is inscribed a repeating pattern from 70 thousand years ago, which Schama insists, against the archaeologists, is the first stirring of the impulse to make new forms that drives all art.

Then a brilliant link via red ochre to the cave at Altamira 7000 miles away in Spain where the same pigment is blown and painted onto walls to represent animals mythical to us but familiar to the first visitors to this place. We’ve been in the cave for a while marveling at more animals and imprints of human hands when we stumble on someone like one of the hired hermits in 18th century English gardens. He’s a scientist from the University of Huddersfield, weirdly illuminated by his computer screen and studying the cave’s echoes because he believes the paintings were originally accompanied by music. Now a brief concert of prehistoric music played on bull-roarers and hollow bird-bones.

Picasso is one of the modern artists who have praised their earliest predecessors, and Schama draws a thrilling parallel between Picasso’s bulls, almost a primitive obsession of his, and the drawings in the caves. This outlandish comparison is sprung on us through the evidence of our eyes—the resemblance between the two bulls is uncanny, and this sudden glimpse of the continuity of art creates something like religious awe.

Now we move to little objects, a lion man from Germany, a tiny woman’s head in bone (birth of the idea of beauty, Schama says, but that was already there among the animals), a scene of combat on almost microscopic scale on a gemstone found recently at a new excavation somewhere in Greece. This object is hard to see, hard to grasp the whole of, and all the more magical for this trick of slipping away.

I think it was at about this point that we begin to jump more promiscuously from culture to culture. The photography at Petra does a marvelous job of putting you there, showing crevasses from just above and deep inside, perfectly keyed to Schama’s words about the improbability of such elaborate culture in this place. He has great fun conjuring up the luxury resort built on the trade in expensive perfumes and attracting the different races of the region.

We also make a stop in China at a recently uncovered site which yields a forest of bronze heads of various sizes, grotesque and strangely compelling with their huge, wedge-shaped eyes. All in all, there is such a flood of impressions, such a trove of marvelous objects never seen before, that it would be impossible to give a coherent account without watching the whole pageant again. The effect is magical, magical and unencompassable, and ought to waken the most jaded palate and worn out eyes.

I was thrilled by my first viewing of this and hesitate to mention what didn’t seem exactly right to me. I was brought up on Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which I am watching alongside the new Civilisations, a name I thought trendy until I got a taste of how gigantically wide the new vision is; that exhilarating scope justifies the ‘s’, also necessary in a practical way to keep the two series straight. In anticipation I imagined Schama following the new normal for presenters, crowding the objects they talk about, walking breathlessly along while reciting carefully crafted text, whispering when pretending to respect some creature nearby, waving their arms, talking about their excitement or how lucky we are to have gotten into this exclusive location. Worst of all, standing in front of the work we came to see.

It was a great relief to find Simon Schama behaving more like Kenneth Clark than current presenters, as someone in awe of what he is talking about, not in chummy familiarity with it. His gestures weren’t the exaggerated dumb-show you sometimes get and are probably just what he would do if he were lecturing. But in the presence of the things themselves, I don’t need for presenters to supply animated movement, distracting me from the painting or building. Mostly Schama was not getting in the way, except when he stood behind the glass case the lion-man was in, so that you saw the sculpture and the much larger man behind, like a reflection in a mirror. This work is not humanised by measuring it against a visitor; it is momentarily degraded.

The choice of unfamiliar sites instead of old standbys, Altamira instead of Lascaux, Calakmul instead of Palenque, is invigorating and wakes one up. The sense of cultural production as part the rest of life, workers in Chinese fields, old Mayans and present Mayans in the same territory, both anchors and widens our view. Is it fanciful to think that Civilisations has learned from BBC nature programmes?

The first programme bodes extremely well for the series, which can be as inspiring in its different way as its predecessor. And yet… will there continue to be such studied avoidance of the most wonderful sites of all? Lascaux is far richer than the others and one of its marvels, the ‘Chinese pony’ did seem to flit quickly across the screen. In the course of writing that sentence it occurred to me that Lascaux has been so ravaged by visitors’ breath that only a replica is now shown, and that Palenque or Tikal which I would put in place of Chalakmul, are over-visited already. Still, the very best that these cultures have done is what got us interested in them in the first place. Leaving that out runs the risk of removing the soul from the body.

Since then I’ve seen Schama’s second programme, where the sequence of examples is even more eccentric and reaches a nadir of dull Dutch ordinariness with Jan van Goyen, whom Schama apologises for and then dwells on. The episode is redeemed in the end by Ansel Adams, whose luminous photos of Yosemite can support the unexpected weight Schama loads them with, leaving us in his debt again.