Saturday, August 29, 2009

I don’t know much about art but…

You might expect me to be fond of still lifes because I love irony and still lifes are, after all, pictures of dead things.

However, I don’t like them much. Sure the bouquets of flowers are beautiful, but I can do without the shotgunned hare or pheasant flopped on the table beside them. It’s all so…messy.

And while I can admire much about abstract paintings, what I really like are pictures that tell a story. Girl with a Pearl Earring. The Gleaners.  The Running of the Goats.

And I like landscapes. I guess it’s because, even without people, they let me imagine that there is a story. Or their beauty strums an emotional chord that makes me want to be in the middle of them, canoeing through a red and gold autumn in Algonquin Park or feeling the sun beat on the back of my neck as I stroll past a field of sunflowers in the south of France.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of art this year. My dad has had three shows, along with other members of the Victoria Sketch Club, and there’s a fourth coming up this fall. He, my sister, my husband and I went the Vancouver Art Gallery and got an eyeful of Vermeers and other Dutch Masters. Last weekend a former journalism student of mine, Penny Rogers, had photographs in an exhibition along with other artists working in glass, watercolour, and acrylics.

Then last night I watched a TV show about visual storytelling. The narrator, Dr. Nigel Spivey, explained that four thousand years ago Gilgamesh knew that his people wanted a hero so he had scribes write about him performing legendary feats. Then an Assyrian king took storytelling to the next level and inserted himself in almost every scene of the action as sculptors carved images of him stoically fighting lions and vanquishing enemies. The next big leap came from the ancient Greeks, who ensured that even marble characters displayed their emotions.

Dr. Spivey went on to say that the people who really pulled it all together, storytelling-wise, were the original Australians. For tens of thousands of years, long before the Greeks and even Gilgamesh, they’ve been painting characters that everyone in their society recognizes. (Can you say archetype?) Then, in a brilliant stroke that wasn’t replicated for millennia, they set their tales to music. With percussion and didgeridoo they created a context for the story, hooked the audience’s emotions, and to this day are still sweeping them along for the whole ride.

I’m not a visual storyteller like they are, although I do strive to spin words into images in my readers’ minds. However, if I could set this blog to music, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Alas, I’d have to go with Nancy White’s Procrastination Rag. Writing always makes me want to clean, too.  


  1. Hi Rachel,
    I was pulled away from your article when my mind flew to your comment that 'still life was pictures of dead things'. Isn't it interesting that what we call 'still life' is really 'still death'. Yet, I can think of many wonderful moments that ARE "still life" a baby sleeping, a child reading a book, an elderly person at rest on a bench. Yes, there can be wonderful moments that I call still life.

  2. "wonderful moments that ARE "still life" a baby sleeping, a child reading a book, an elderly person at rest"

    Very true, Heather. And these can be magical moments to see.

    I wish there was another, truer, name for the other kind of still life.

  3. I love modern art, and the Guggenheim Museum was one of the highlights of a trip to New York City a couple of years ago. For me, paintings like Marc Chagall’s Paris Through the Window doesn’t so much tell as story as it invites the viewer to create one. Although according to the description on the Gug’s website, “Chagall, however, refused literal interpretations of his paintings, and it is perhaps best to think of them as lyrical evocations, similar to the allusive plastic poetry of the artist’s friends Blaise Cendrars (who named this canvas) and Guillaume Apollinaire.”