With this painting I feel compelled to wonder, as I look over my shoulder, how I managed to take about half a year for one medium sized painting. It’s only 40 by 30 inches. And really it is just a whisper. There is nothing to shout at you. You might easily walk by it.
But that is precisely why I’m so proud of this work. There is a flicker across the surface and a sort of trembling quality. I spent a lot of time just thinking and undoing things to arrive at this state.
The first intimations for the painting began with Gassed by John Singer Sargent. I had an uncomfortable feeling as I stood in front of that massive anti-war painting in the Imperial war museum, south London. It depicts blind-folded soldiers from WW1 standing for ever in a line, each with a hand on the man in front. At their feet lie other soldiers in various positions of blind exhaustion. I still feel this moment in time is going on forever. Paintings do this to us.
I thought to make my own small painting along these lines. I’d lift a portion of Sargent’s composition for background and I’d foreground it with a young woman wearing a CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) logo. I wanted her to somehow haunt the work. This was how I started. My canvas became filled with charcoal marks as I thought about the Sargent painting, copying some parts in faithful appreciation.
But of course my own temperament* soon took over. My inside world bustled in and everything changed. It kept changing for months. One of the main elements which lasted through all the changes was a shaman image, his moon head being a point of entry for three of the soldiers. Their heads and shoulders were just about all that remained from the first sketch.
Incidentally the shaman was a borrowing from one of my own paintings. Manger.
And so here we have the painting and I can’t say why it took so long, except that it is part of the mystery of the way things get made. Things happen and you can’t rush the job. On some level the painting says – or at least I intend it to say – that human lives are pulled into nothingness. Whatever, I think we have to keep re-telling the story of the sadness of war because no man is an island; we all feel it. The title is – Aftermath Rag.
*temperament is not quite saying what I mean. Indeed temperament is something we are born with, yet the artist’s temperament gets honed through the years. In my case I have been painting for over 50 years. I think hard about what I do. I get excited and tend to put too much onto the canvas. For instance, in this painting there was a flute player laid in at an angle. I very much enjoyed painting his fedora. It shaded his eyes and that was in accord with the feel of the rest of the painting. But in a stern judgement, did he fit at all? It had become an “all right” painting and had passages of interest, but it didn’t sing. That’s what I have to keep working for, in a painting that is well underway. I have to find ways to make passages that are already there and waiting – I have to make connections so that those elements work in harmony and suddenly at the end, if I do it rightly, the whole thing has taken on a humming note. Nothing in this world is truly “well tempered”, but a painting can express its temperament and mine. That’s when I stop.