Art and artists: building a vocabulary

I have no background in art history and, despite an A level and a Foundation year under my belt, no useful knowledge of artists or how to discuss their work. This makes looking at art and commenting on it a dismally unrewarding activity at the best of times, but in an academic context I have nothing but parrot phrases which is no good at all.

I’m in art rehab. My tutor is feeding me artists to look at and, critically, a reason to look; the way the edges blend, the spaces between things, the textures and volumes. My job is to build first a recognition memory – images or names I can pick out from a range of others – and then an ability to recall without prompts art and artists for reasons I’ve aggregated around them. I understand the neuropsychology of it; it’s about getting a piece of information lodged somewhere in my brain and gradually sticking more information to it until it becomes the nexus of connections to other more disparate parts. That kind of proliferation is what underpins recall – many triggers leading to the same place and the more often they’re activated, like a well-trodden path, the quicker the travel.

I also have a crib sheet on how to talk about art which was shared in our Drawing Facebook group by someone I’ll credit if I can track them down. It seems to be aimed at GCSE candidates but it’s unattributed. [WRITING-ABOUT-ARTISTS-2-copy]. Under a series of headings, it prompts closer examination of the piece in pursuit of answers to questions such as who the artist is, where they’re from, and what sort of art they’ve made. Contextual stuff that helps with appreciation of where they might be coming from and what their work means, generally, to them, and also to us as viewers. I will tread carefully around interpretation though. Too often I see speculation, often couched in psychological terms (and what is it about artists and writers getting so involved with psychoanalysis when it has no demonstrable validity?) about the artist’s intent with no opportunity for the artist to either confirm or deny. One writer did after reading endless ‘accounts’ of her mood, relationships and goodness knows what else to explain the blue curtains. She said, ‘I just like blue.’ Sometimes, as Freud is reputed to have said, a cigar is just a cigar.

I will speculate though; I’ve been a professional speculator for many years, helping people in therapy to think about what might be driving their prevailing distresses. This was always in the context of exploration; queries not statements, no pronouncements or being right. I’ll be trying to take that with me when I look at art and write about what seems to be going on in a piece, given the artist, the era, the politics, and the zeitgeist.

Maggi Hambling

I’m going to start with Maggi Hambling whose work I first came across via the unlikely source of a radio DJ. Maryanne Hobbs is a BBC 6 Music presenter who knows her stuff and interviewed Hambling last November. From image searches, I was surprised to hear Hambling’s rather cut glass voice which, to me, didn’t fit at all with the fierce and somewhat shambolic woman of the photos. With either a cigarette or a drink in her hand or nearby, she has the look of someone who’s been demolished and then put back together by a grunge artist. She speaks with passion which is an over-used expression but it’s hard to find another for her description of ‘painting the storm inside’ with reference to her pictures of the sea. All of the ones I’ve seen are wild and full of kinetic energy as if still in motion and about to spill out. This one is shown in a clip from BBC Suffolk’s now archived page which talks about Hambling’s relationship with the county:


There’s also her portrait of Amy Winehouse whose voice first drew Hambling before Winehouse’s death consolidated the tragedy of her. In several versions, she represents Winehouse as a wall of water. This screen clip is from a 2014 BBC article accessed 6th April 2019. She uses oils and sees them as a mobile and pliable medium that she can keep going back to change.

wall of water

What do I make of her? As a contemporary (she’s only slightly older than me), we grew up subject to the same post-war environment, but her accent suggests we shared very little of our social experience. She was privately educated and I wasn’t, although Suffolk was arguably as remote and disconnected as Yorkshire from the ‘happening’ centres of London at the time we both reached young adulthood. She seems angry but while it’s hard to see why, it isn’t too hard to ‘see’ that expressed in her work. Maybe there was a powerlessness in her life that is ripped away in her paintings. The sea is always powerful and it cares not at all for us.

Hambling’s Wikipedia page. accessed 6th April 2019.

Egon Schiele

I first came across him via a documentary (Dangerous Desires BBC2 November 30th 2018) and immediately a number of conflicting thoughts hit me. First, I love the simplicity of the marks and lines he makes; second, I really don’t like his subject matter, his obsession with his own body, the nakedness and apparent exploitation of his female models; and particularly his involvement with children. My third thought was an the overriding sense of a disturbed and troubled young man working out his turmoil in public exhibitions that often seemed to verge on exhibitionism.

Schiele’s Wiki page suggests an insular figure with poor social skills and, if we’re going to be kind, loose boundaries:

To those around him, Schiele was regarded as a strange child. Shy and reserved, he did poorly at school except in athletics and drawing,[3] and was usually in classes made up of younger pupils. He also displayed incestuous tendencies towards his younger sister Gertrude (who was known as Gerti), and his father, well aware of Egon’s behaviour, was once forced to break down the door of a locked room that Egon and Gerti were in to see what they were doing.

If we were to be more clinical though, Schiele’s behaviour towards women – who were mostly young girls, was at best disordered and at times paedophilic.

In 1910, Schiele began experimenting with nudes and within a year a definitive style featuring emaciated, sickly-coloured figures, often with strong sexual overtones.

Despite Schiele’s family connections in Krumau, he and his lover were driven out of the town by the residents, who strongly disapproved of their lifestyle, including his alleged employment of the town’s teenage girls as models.

Schiele’s way of life aroused much animosity among the town’s inhabitants, and in April 1912 he was arrested for seducing a young girl below the age of consent.

Remarkably, he seems to have spent time in prison not for the abuse of the young girl but for his pictures, described as ‘pornographic’. I find that disturbing but, in context of the period, not very surprising. Schiele, talented as he seems to have been, is not someone I can admire but I would have been intrigued to evaluate him clinically as there are so many signs of complex disturbance that, today, may have been treatable. Whether or not he would have wished these to be resolved is another matter. It’s also the case that some people find what they view as their strengths can be flattened along with the unwanted symptoms and so they choose to tolerate the symptoms. What’s definitely true is that Schiele would not now be permitted the lifestyle of sexual abuse and exploitation which is what he seemed to prefer.

Five things to know: Egon Schiele. The Tate (Liverpool) accessed 13th April 2019.

In the interests of economy of effort and the fact that replication is such an unproductive use of time, for the time being, I’ll be updating this post in one place (my Drawing blog) and linking to it from here.

3 thoughts on “Art and artists: building a vocabulary

  1. I like your style discussing your journey of discovering of art. What was disappointing was that it felt like it was an unchosen assignment. Rathered I had hoped you had found a work that touched you deeply in a mysterious way, and the discussion would be about unpacking the mystery.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re absolutely right about the lack of personal involvement in the art work itself, it’s because at the moment I don’t have any. For now, I’m making a list, albeit an elaborate one, of artists that have come to my attention and stayed there for some reason. In Hambling’s case it was entirely down to Maryanne Hobbs whose expressiveness in the kind of music she plays resonates with me, and who is articulate on many other levels too. She rates Hambling so I took an interest too – education by contagion! How I feel about pieces of art may come later although expressing it may not after years of necessary constraint in the context of the therapeutic relationship.

    Making this list is not an assignment though, it’s an active choice, albeit one I would never have contemplated if I weren’t embarking on a course that’s revealed this yawning gap. The hook for me will always, in the first instance, be the person and how they came to be the architect of their own careers. Whether or not I’ll be able to speak about their work in the way you describe I really don’t know, although I do know I can be exercised by socio-political and psychological elements so maybe that’s a start.

    Thank you for commenting, I really appreciate your taking the time. Also that you like my writing style, that’s always nice to hear 🙂


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