Uploading one of my digital images so a friend can see it. The image was started in Twisted Brush, worked up further in Painter and finished off in Photoshop. The name of the image is New Day and is one of those images that never needs any explaining. Although it is not obvious, the inspiration is at least partially in Gauguin's painting Nevermore.
It doesn't need pagan spirits in an exotic land to find the universal feeling of vulnerability that is at the heart of this idea. It is especially pleasing when the idea and the feeling come through so clearly in the finished image. It is just a moment in time, but one never to forget.
Gatherr is back! When Tumblr was a newborn and microblogging as a term had barely been thought of I had Gatherr.com a Tumblr based scrapbook of interesting cultural stuff. Unlike many in the Tumblr universe I tended to write original content rather than just reblog. But then along came Facebook and Twitter and all my other blogs plus the 2008 downturn put me into survival mode. It was too much to keep up with.
After 5 years I posted again on Gatherr. I am proud of the story about Bill Traylor who was born a slave in the US. Without education he spent his life in the grind of survival and the indignities brought on by rampant prejudices. It wasn't easy being a black man in the American south.
One can only imagine the many people who looked into his eyes and failed to see that long after slavery was abolished that circumstance of birth had chained his inner world and prevented him from living his dreams.
Bill Traylor dreamed of being an artist but it wasn't until he was 85 years old that he was finally able to start painting. He may have been untrained but the poetry of his vision was revealed in those last 10 years of his life. It is a very special privilege to be able to see Bill Traylor's artwork. Except for the luck that another artist discovered Traylor drawing in a street the artwork might never have been preserved. The incredible story is in Gatherr.com
Writing new posts in Gatherr or here has reminded me how much life has changed since Bill Traylor's day. I don't romanticize the simplicity of the past for the very reason that Traylor had a simple life but because of the color of his skin his life was not a wonderful one. I hear middle class white people talk about how fabulous life was in the past. They find it difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that it wasn't such a great time if you weren't white, or had a mental illness, or were gay, or believed in a different god, or any of the myriad human conditions that were swept into the never-never world of oppression back then. No, life, back then was not nice and safe for all the Bill Traylor's of that world.
Today we do things in a somewhat different way. The internet has made it increasingly difficult for those who want to enslave others. Revolutions abound as people seek to overthrow past shackles and even in the lands of the free people like Julian Assange or Edward wage a new kind of vigilante justice against government secrecy. It is debatable as to whether or not these efforts improve anything, but it cannot be denied that in the computer age it is hard to hide truth from the human community.
Yet as much as we challenge authority and remove shackles made of steel most of us are very good at putting shackles of another kind on ourselves. That takes many forms but for increasing numbers of people it takes the form of a self imposed bondage to the demands of the internet.
Sometimes it is referred to as computer addiction and given the propensity of humans to all manner of serious addictive behavior there is little doubt that addiction plays a role in many cases. I find it a far too simplistic explanation however as it doesn't account for those who are shackled to their computer for work reasons and would happily walk away without a hint of withdrawal if given the opportunity.
Whether an addictive compulsion or the needs of earning a living or some other cause is ultimately moot. Whatever the reason for it the demands of the internet have become an overwhelming burden for increasing numbers of people. We are seemingly one tweet away from madness.
While I hesitate to use the word burden for myself as I love the world of the computer, I do find the many demands of the internet to be hard to keep up with. There are just too many social networks, too many blog and web site services for any one person to effectively use all of them and yet in an age where the traditional means of consuming culture has fractured into a myriad different internet experiences there is a need for an artist to dabble in a wide variety of ways of presenting their creative vision. To focus on just one is problematic because services flourish and then decline and disappear with disturbing regularity. The only certainty is uncertainty. The iArtist has to be a quick mover.
There is one certainty that cannot be ignored and that is that the old way of the artist hiding away from reality in a studio without connection to the world has vanished. The days of rich patrons and living in Bohemian enclaves is long past. The internet for bad or good has become the human condition. Like the wheel or fire it is one of those transforming inventions that once discovered can never be discarded. The human need to connect with people is so fundamental that having created the idea of networking minds across the planet we will never again be able to survive without it. All the cultural changes it is bringing at lightning speed seems to be bringing collateral damage all over the world but paradoxically is also allowing people to flower like never before. The internet is bigger than all of us, big enough to have plenty of corners that we can call our own.
I hate the way the story of art is more about mythologies than it is about the paint on the palette. All too often the elites tend to buy into one story because it fits into an annointed narrative, while other wonderful artists can be overlooked. Now that Egon Schiele is lauded widely it is easy to forget that for most of the 20th century it was more a case of Egon Who? Like with Schiele, Tamara de Lempicka is having a second life as her paintings are being rediscovered by the current generation.
Tamara de lempicka has always had her loyal band of admirers (I count myself as one of them) but the greatness of her creative achievements has also been undercut by an art mythology that placed the steps to abstraction as the journey to take notice of and a mere portraitist like Lempicka would be regarded in the best light as a creative side road or at worst sneeringly regarded as artistic fluff.
Double Standards In Art History
It didn't help that lempicka was the first female art superstar. She lived her life of glamor as if it was a canvas to be painted with a flamboyant hand. In an age that valued compliant and moral wives Lempicka chose to be very different. The dazzle of her high society lifestyle was always surrounded by scandalous stories. it was almost expected for the male artists of her time to be a superstar, and have a history of dubious morality, but no female artist before her had had that level of audacity. How dare she!
For a male artist to be gay barely raises a mention, it is as if sexual experimentation is expected for the male creative person. Reviews of exhibitions by David Hockney or Andy Warhol do not focus on sexuality at the expense of discussion of the artwork. Why should Lempicka be treated any differently?
The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same
Even in today's more liberated times reviews of her Paris retrospective seem to discuss her lesbian notoriety as much as the pictures. This seems such a disservice. The importance of Lempicka's many female painting subjects is less whether or not the artist lusts for the sitter than in the sensuality which the artist conveys to the viewer. Sometimes I think that artist's biographies should be left at home when looking at pictures because the pictures need to be simply allowed to speak their language of brushstrokes without gossip getting in the road.
The Artist As A Strong And Confident Woman
To me Lempicka's iconic self portrait 'Tamara In A Green Bugatti' sums up all that is important to know about her - here is a modern woman with the strength and talent to paint her own way and to do it with confidence and style. Whether in her painting or her beguiling self portrait drawing she has nothing to prove. Her talent is up there with the best and her work is worthy of our full attention.
Tamara de Lempicka Self Portrait drawing
Tamara de Lempicka Paris Retrospective
The Pinacotheque in Paris is hosting a retrospective of Lempicka's work until the 8th of September. It is one of those times when I wish I could be in Paris. Unfortunately Paris is almost exactly half a planet away from Sydney and an artist's income doesn't allow for journeys around the world. It is a frustration for an artist not to be able to see so much of the world's great art. We tend to learn from the artists we most respect. Reproductions in books are a pale shadow of the real thing. Only up close can we see the subtle marks that give us an understanding of what the artist was doing and the thought processes that brought the artwork to fruition.
I have been lucky in my life because I have had the privilege of seeing fifty of Rembrandt's paintings up close but I have only ever seen one Lempicka. I know how big an effect those Rembrandt's have had on my art technique and insight. Sadly I will probably never have the chance of finding out just how much effect the wonderful Tamara de Lempicka might have on my art. For now Tamara can only live for me in my dreams.
Gypsy Nights by Tony Johansen digital painting 2013
Gypsy Nights is a digital image painted in Photoshop. It started life from my need to create an image that I could use on my Twitter profile. My first inspiration was the paintings and etchings of Gypsy's dancing by John Singer Sargent and Lionel Lindsay from a hundred years ago. I then found a painting from the 19th century depicting a daytime scene of a Gypsy woman dancing for a local lord which formed the actual starting point. For my picture I wanted a fire, more people, and a caravan
Even though it is a hundred years later I remember many nights under the stars with a campfire raging and caravans gathered around the edge. I have spent many years living in caravans. For a Gypsy it is the most natural thing in the world and it is the living in houses that seems a bit strange. As a result the sort of scene depicted here is very real to me.
Gypsy Dance by Lionel Lindsay (Australian) Etching 1919
This is my journey as an artist, the context within which my creative world thrives.
There was a time when all an artist did was paint or sculpt, mostly for powerful people who used art to cement their place in religion and history. Now we make art for reasons of our heart. That feels better but it sure don't pay the bills and being an artist is as much struggle as it is joy.
Now we have the internet and the artist is free to connect with people outside the bubble that culture becomes when elites control it.
This digital flux mixes inside me with my Romani Gypsy heritage. I experience a cultural soup full of rarely combined flavors. I have traditions reaching back into time that speak to me every day and are as real to me as the technological here and now.
Opportunities online and in software are matched by new problems. Some see it as a crazy art world that bears little similarity to what comes out of an oil paint tube. The computer is a creative medium that calls into question the traditional ideas about what it means to be an artist.
I love the new ideas. I love that you and I are sharing the journey that is life for an artist in the early 21st century. Thank you for coming with me these few steps.
The walk from the studio down William Street to the city CBD is one I love at any time, but I especially love it in the rain. Tonight the rain was teeming down. There was no wind, and the rain was the sort of warmish rain that is the best. The rain was streaming past the streetlights. That is a special delight seeing the rainwater turned into a stream of cascading jewels as if it is a sparkling carnival necklace draped around the lights.
As I walked past the Cathedral the bells were peeling and that itself gained a surreal quality as deep chimes of the big bells danced it time with the rhythmic plittering and plattering of rain in the street. Even the cars join into the chorus as the normal car sounds are modified by the swishes and sloshes of the wheels in the river of water on the road surface.
Ultimately, however, the greatest joy is the colors and the lights reflected from the sidewalks and street surfaces that turn the normal street view into a work of impressionistic art. Everything looks so different. The night rain increases the contrasts so there are more darks and grays so that the colors of tail lights and traffic lights increase in intensity and then are doubled as reflections mirror an up world with a matching down world.
I hear people complain about the rain and I wonder why. Can they not see the mysterious poetry that envelops the skyscrapers in the rain, the change that overtakes them as their tops disappear into the low cloud and they become like trunks of trees in a gray forest holding the sky up. Do they not see the softening of the world that occurs like some giant Pissarro had taken his paint brush to the city.
I think it is beautiful and I love rain so much I wish it rained like this often enough to satisfy the poet in my heart. Where I grew up in North Queensland in the rainforest near Ravenshoe it rained on average 120 days a year. That is one day in three and I never tired of the misty beauty that would come into the mountains and valleys and all the inevitable results like all the waterfalls, and the emerald green color of the grass and the way everything always had a luxuriant feeling of growth. Rain in the city has a different feel to in the rainforest and is much more about light and colors. It is a creator of a different kind of magic, and I love it just as much or more.
I love rain. It is a wonderful warm experience to wake up with heavy rain on the roof. It starts as a sound as if a distant part of a dream and then the realization that the wet is outside and the sheets are dry causes a womb-like feeling of protection and safety. It doesn't happen very often so it is a mixture of familiarity with unreality.
Later I had to go to Macquarie Street to take photos to upgrade a website. On the way back I saw dozens of Sacred Ibis digging worms in the park. Photographing them lead to photographing reflections on the path and then to leaves and then to two leaves that seemed to interact with the lights and darks on the wet path in an extraordinarily beautiful way. I couldn't stop. Well, I could, but only after around 300 photos and the battery was getting low. I loved those leaves.
Walking further I discovered blue shed like constructions around two large equestrian bronze sculptures. A Japanese/German artist, Tatzu Nishi has enclosed Gilbert Bayes bronzes so that they now appear to be inside a room. My favorite is the one in the photo that looks like the horse and rider are stepping onto a bed. I know that it is a rather fashionable idea to dress up someone else's artwork to give a new appreciation from a new perspective, but this was a particularly good version of that genre. Like the rain on the roof it had a delicious unreality about it, as if it was a Magritte painting that had just come to life.
A friend of mine, a former student and a very talented painter, Ryan Daffurn has recently been in Russia and sent me a link to the work of a Russian artist he rather admired. His exact words were "there are painters, then there are painters!". I have to agree, this guy can paint - his tone, observation, color are all superb. His subjects are very simple - mostly busty nudes, and they often display a bit of humor.
I have heard some people describe his work as "its only illustration" as if that makes it somewhat unworthy to be taken seriously. I have heard the same thing said of the work of John Singer Sargent and if more people in the Anglo Saxon world knew of Joaquín Sorolla (a Spanish painter I admire and a contemporary of Sargent) I am sure I would hear the similar comments.
I never have figured out what the great difference is between us visual artists, illustrators, designers, photographers, cinematographers, musicians etc is. We are all artists. It is true that some have a particularly beautiful heart or poetic vision that we might find easier to relate to than with some other artist, and there are some who have better skills than others. In most of the arts great skill is regarded as fundamental. The more skillful a guitarist is the more we clap and cheer. It could be argued that the greater the skills, the easier it is for an artist to convey the feelings and thoughts behind the performance.
A lot of people seem to struggle with understanding what it means to be a digital artist. Sure they know that we work on the computer but apart from that they just don't understand. For people like that traditional media like paper and charcoal and oil paint and canvas are "real art" and everything else isn't quite the same. They are right you know - it isn't the same, and if anything, I look back at my time painting with paint as being a bit limited.
Mel Freedman has been coming to my sketch club for more than 10 years. He is from Glasgow and his happy Glaswegian accent and his passion for drawing are well known in the studio. This year he did the big tour of Europe and naturally did lots of drawing while there. He was happy to let me video him showing the art class his drawings from the trip and afterwards I asked him a few questions about his artistic adventures and why he draws so much. This is the result.