Responsibility for running our home is shared. For years, I have taken the lead on repairs, building works and heavy gardening, while Rohan’s domain has been outings and matters cultural and social.
This blog is about two art exhibitions Rohan arranged for us to visit, one was a small collection of paintings by Milton Avery, an American artist unknown to us both; the other, the work of the French painter – Paul Cezanne.
Within days of our return from our summer holidays, Rohan had reviewed the exhibitions in London and we decided immediately that we should see Cezanne’s work at the Tate Modern. Our second choice was the exhibition of paintings by Avery at the Royal Academy of Arts. Viewing his work was a ‘must’ once Rohan discovered that he was a ‘colourist’, a style that has been a favourite of ours for years.
While Rohan and I shared many feelings about the two exhibitions, this blog deals only with my views. In this respect, how I or anyone else sees a painting is very subjective and, just as beauty is in the ‘eye’ of the beholder, so too are opinions!
We visited the two exhibitions a week apart, and by chance it was Avery’s that we saw first. Avery was born in 1885 into a poor working class family living in New York State. At sixteen he left school and spent the next fifteen years doing menial jobs to help support his family.
His interest in art developed by happenstance. After seeing an advertisement offering good wages for doing commercial lettering, he enrolled on a lettering course at night school. His teacher, who was an accomplished painter, saw something special in Avery and suggested he transfer to life drawing classes, which he did. From then on, Avery never stopped – first fitting in painting around work; later painting full time.
Although his early work was interesting, even good enough to win prizes, it was not until the 1940s when he was in his mid fifties, that his paintings became special.
About two thirds of the paintings at the Royal Academy were from that post-1940 period and they were extraordinary, indeed so captivating that I went back to see them again a few days later! Importantly, the exhibition itself felt very welcoming with the walls in each room painted in different, carefully chosen light colours that complemented, even enhanced, Avery’s pictures. (See the yellow-ochre-painted wall in the illustration).
The pictures look simple but the ingenious way he counterposes subtle and soft colours and shapes to depict people, for example (see illustration), was mesmerising. Moreover, each new painting had immediate appeal with no analysis needed. Each one was quite distinct and I repeatedly wondered how an artist could produce work for 25 years that was so lively, so contemporary, so joyous and often so amusing (he painted right up to his death in 1965 when he was eighty).
Interestingly, his work has never been identified with a particular movement. For the exhibition, however, he is associated with the colourists, but that seems to be no more than a flag of convenience!
Now to Cezanne, a celebrated ‘post-impressionist’ painter who was born in 1839 and died in 1906. His work has been known to me for years, not just because of the way he uses colour but because his approach influenced generations of artist to come.
Yes, the pictures at the exhibition were interesting, some – especially the landscapes – actually beautiful, but as I went round I was not moved, not stimulated and not inspired. Moreover, from the way this exhibition was mounted – the wall colours were drab, the lighting dark and the commentary heavy – I was made to feel I was visiting a museum of art rather than a celebratory display – how very different from my uplifting Avery visit! In keeping, by the ninth room, and there were eleven in all, I was walking past paintings, occasionally glancing but more bent on heading out for a coffee.
Comparisons between Avery and Cezanne also had a tangential dimension probably more important to me than to others. Avery’s work came out of years of hardship, struggle and poverty, with no early artistic or intellectual nurturing to count on. Cezanne, however, was from a well-to-do and financially supportive banking family which afforded him a traditional and privileged ‘classical’ education. It was at this school that he met Emile Zola who became a close friend and confident. Later, he spent a short time at an art college, but soon changed to study law (like Matisse) at his father’s insistence. Learning their different backgrounds endeared me to Avery and his work even more!
In this blog, my standpoint is that anyone can have an opinion. I have no training in art nor has painting been one of my hobbies, but when I go to galleries I soon know if the paintings appeal. Clearly, Milton Avery’s did!
The illustration is a photo of ‘Poetry Reading’ mounted on yellow ochre wall on display at the Royal Academy of Arts’exhibition ‘Milton Avery – American Colourist’. It was painted in 1957.
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Sarah, Julian, Terry, Rohan and Vivien.