Portrait of the Artist

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Visiting the Laura Knight exhibition at the Laing, I was struck once again with artist-envy:  the direct presentation of ‘the world of things’ so much more possible for the painter than the poet.  Her portraits are striking and strong, but also suggest a wistfulness, the sense of more happening below the surface, something essentially human that we all share.

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The show includes drawings, preparatory sketches for the larger paintings – a reminder that such persuasive images don’t just appear by magic.  Like a poem that goes through many drafts before it finds its final form, to appear effortless a portrait might need hours, days of behind-the-scenes work. Laura Knight’s painting of the munitions worker Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring took three weeks’ careful research on the factory floor.

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People as a rule, most of us, we glance, we don’t see, don’t look.  And I think it is the artist, who is a true artist, who looks to see and understand the marvel of the universe.

Dame Laura Knight

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 The fact is, as soon as you start with words, you’re locked into a debate, forced to take a position with respect to others, confirming or rebutting what has been said before.  Nothing you say stands alone or is complete in the present: it has its roots in the past and pushes feelers into the future.  And as we grow heated, marking out our corner, staking our claim, we stop noticing the breath on the lips, the tension in our fingers, the pressure of the ground under our toes, the tick of time in the blood.

From Teach Us To Stand Still by Tim Parks (Vintage 2011)

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To help heal the persistent rift between idea and reality, mind and body, I enjoy reading (and writing) poems that don’t let us forget the physical.  Isn’t it only by keeping our feet firmly on the ground that we are able to soar?  Last week I heard this poem read at a funeral.  It had helped the friend reading it’s mother to die.  It’s still in the air, helping those of us left behind to live, and remember what our bodies are made of.

What the Body Says

 

I was born here, and

I belong here, and

I will never leave.

 

The blue heron’s

gray smoke will flow over me for years

and the wind will decide all directions

until I am safely and entirely something else.

 

I am thinking this, this winter morning

of transformation,

Of course

I wonder about the mystery

that is surely up there in starry space

and how some part of me will go there at last.

 

But I am talking now

of the way the body speaks,

and the wind, that keeps saying,

firmly, lovingly:

a little while and then this body

will be stone;

then it will be water;

then it will be air.

 

Mary Oliver

 

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One thought on “Portrait of the Artist

  1. robin moss says:

    I too recently saw this marvellous exhibition– many of the paintings have this hyper real quality that seem to take you to some heightened state of perception- a true magical realism….both truly of this world and at the same time beyond it.

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