For an idea of what the point of this series of posts is, please see the first post in the series.
11. Le Bec du Hoc, Grandchamp, Georges Seurat (1885)
So far I have written a great deal about paintings and photographs with which I already have a relationship, but I thought now I might say something about a work of art which I came to only recently. Being engaged in a leisurely stroll through the vast wonderland of the National Gallery once more (isn’t it lovely that it’s free? Let’s keep it that way), I passed through to the more modern rooms by accident more than by design. My habit at that gallery is usually to visit L’Ortolano, to gush over some Caravaggios, snigger at Marriage A-la-Mode by William Hogarth, and then mill around the more bonkers bits of medieval iconography before exiting as all good museum-goes do: through the gift shop. I have, for example, a positive allergy to entering the Flemish rooms.
However, the Degas and the Monets and the Seurats are gathered about not far from the main entrance/exit, and I was happily cataloguing paintings for my vast imaginary gallery of stolen art that I will have when I am a criminal mastermind, so I popped in and stumbled all the people looking at whichever version of Van Gogh’s bloody Sunflowers the National has got.
After a certain amount of thought I have in my head what it is about this painting which caught my eye. Pointilism is a strange and alienating technique which, to me at least, renders an image a lot like a grainy photograph of a memory. A sort of Instagram for an image which already exists only inside your mind, if you will. And something about the colours and the quality of like in this unassuming piece of French landscape as preserved by Seurat puts me very strongly in mind of “The Island” at St Ives (it is actually a promontory).
Sadly for anyone who is looking for analysis of this painting beyond my enjoyment of the colours and the bright summer coastal feeling it inevitably evokes, this means the rest of this entry will be not even an anecdote, but a smear of memories from a decade ago.
I am very fond of The Island, and when I was a teenager I was adamant that I was going to live on Teetotal Street, for reasons that time and, ironically, alcohol have hidden from me. One exceptionally fine summer’s day about ten or eleven years ago, my darling mother dumped me in St Ives for the day with some money for food so that she could go to a dance workshop somewhere and I wouldn’t annihilate the house with boredom remaining at home for yet another day.
It was one of the most delightful days I’ve ever spent in my own company. I had a library book (I Sing The Body Electric, relevant perhaps in light of the recent death of Ray Bradbury: it inspired me to write a short story about a man who was in love with the sea as if the sea was a person, and I believe I still have that somewhere), a sketchbook, and took a proper breakfast at a harbour cafe for over an hour. At that point in my life, the idea that I could just eat whatever I wanted and damn the cost, that I could sit in a cafe by myself and read and perhaps have a second drink if I felt like it, was new and exhilarating and, I dare say, it still is a little.
Over the course of my day I was assaulted by a seagull which nicked my Battenberg cake while I was reading on the habour wall (not so good), visited the Tate St Ives and was intrigued by the single-line drawings of an artist whose name I have since forgotten (else he’d be included too: Richard someone…), which led me to the cafe at the top of the gallery. Here I drank a pot of tea and attempted some line drawings of my own of the view from the window, which included a tiny, tiny church.
I made up my mind to visit the tiny, tiny church, and somewhere between the gallery and making my presence felt upon The Island, this turned into me scaling a semi-sheer cliff face in platform boots, a tattered black ballgown, and a corset while carrying a parasol and a bag with some books in. The sea was the same colour as this Seurat painting, the grass the same grass, and the sense of the world going on forever beyond the edge of the land was the same, too.
It’s not my belief that all works of art should trigger some personal connection in their audience: some should be meaninglessly beautiful, some should start riots, some should remind you of things, some should make you fall in love, some should make you want to destroy them. My feeling is mostly that good art results in a reaction of some sort. I never like to be indifferent to these things. And therefore, it’s reassuring that even an alien, quiet Pointilist painting of a rock outcropping on the coast can conjure up a whole happy, entirely personal and private memory. Not least because that was a day that I made pleasant, without needing anyone else at all. Similarly, the communion between artist and viewer, the art, is something that is experienced on a private level.