17. The Silver Thread
When I was in advertising I was exposed to a profusion of visual images almost every day. We processed pictures in every shape and form - photographs, illustrations, air-brush art, paintings, sketches and film - and yet there was the one that I can still vividly recall as it stood head and shoulders above the rest. It was a striking colour photograph showing a section of dirty sidewalk in a part of town that could only be described as the wrong side of the tracks. Through one of the concrete squares was a small crack out of which grew the most beautiful deep-red poppy I have ever seen in my life. The headline below the photograph read: 'Persistence Pays Off.' The impression made by that photograph has stayed with me for decades. It does not come as a surprise to me that today I paint mainly poppies in my still-lifes.
In her book 'The Story of Painting' Sister Wendy Beckett wrote:
"A work of art is great to the extent that to encounter it is to be changed."
When I read this I was reminded of the time when a friend, Rose Korber, who is one of South Africa's foremost art consultants, told me that when she visited the galleries abroad for the first time and witnessed the original works of the great artists she stood before the paintings and wept. Likewise I was reminded of the opening scene in the movie 'Basquiat' where the young artist Jean-Michael Basquiat stood next to his mother as they viewed Picasso's 'Guernica'. Matilde Basquiat was overcome with emotion and cried.
When I see an artwork that I really like... well, the world just stops whether I am in a gallery, a studio, a restaurant or a fish and chips shop! As the piece enters the window of my world I am its owner and I feel an inexplicable link with the artist who created it. For a short while I am elevated to a higher level of appreciation as I witness what could be described as visual poetry. If Mark Rothko had described this situation he probably would have called it an experience enjoyed by the "eyes of the feeling." You don't need to 'understand' the artwork - what for? You simply let it flow over you, like that sensation when you sink into a hot foamy bath after a heavy day..
Here's Pablo Picasso's feeling on the matter:
"Understand! What the devil has it to do with understanding? Since when has a picture been a mathematical proof? It's not there to explain - explain what - but to awaken feeling in the heart of the person looking at it. A work of art must not be something that leaves a man unmoved, something he passes by with a casual glance. It has to make him react, feel strongly, start creating too, if only in his imagination. He must be jerked out of his torpor..."