Still Lifes ~ The Art of Tranquillity

 

It was just one of these mornings. Lying there in bed, I felt as if my life was washing over me like a big grey wave. The murky waters were draining off, revealing bit of useless debris. My music and my writing, appeared like mere fragments. Projects scattered everywhere; unfinished poems, unsold CDs, unwritten essays. And ideas were just flying around in my head like annoying flies. There were no neat stacks of achievements piled up like thick, leather bound books with gilded letters spelling out that phrase, “a successful career”. There was no linear path steadily leading up to a golden throne – let alone camping stool – on which I could rest and observe my “kingdom”: a well sorted archive full of publications and releases, of awards and chronologically ordered press clippings.

I felt messy, insecure, depressed, a bit lonely but most of all irrelevant.

I was spending a few days in solitude at my mother’s house in the countryside. The peacefulness was very soothing but my mind can be overactive and therefore stressful at times. It was still early, so I went for a run, which always makes me feel better. Taking in the soft, luscious countryside bursting with green buds and concentrating on my repetitive breathing soothed me. Back home I had more espresso with hot milk, some toast with honey and promised myself to write for an hour before going on a little Sunday outing to the local art museum.

I drove into the village and parked the car just far enough away to enjoy a brief walk up the cobble-stoned street. The weather was beautiful; there was a light breeze, an abundance of fresh air and the sun was warming some wind-shaded spots. Cheerful little puffy white clouds hurried along a light blue sky that created a nice backdrop to the red brick of the expressionistic buildings and the dark green of the fir trees.

Out of my Head: Into the Museum

I entered the museum and my first cursory glance caught some paintings I automatically expected to be 17th century Dutch church interiors. Upon entering the exhibition however, I was astounded to see that these pictures, a few more interiors but mostly still lifes, dated from around 1968 to 2009. They were by a contemporary Dutch painter Henk Helmantel and the exhibition was to commemorate his 70th birthday.

Helmantel-Roman-glass-still-ilfe

 

What struck me wandering around, was how tranquil, focussed and simple most of the pictures were. They were mostly fairly large in format. As a viewer I had the feeling that the artist was consciously showing these objects to me, rather than permitting an intimate view of something otherwise quite private. These works were therefore less intimate than their much earlier Dutch predecessors. But the choice of objects depicted were very similar. They were all simple household items, bits of fruit and vegetables, mostly locally grown like asparagus or chestnuts. There were simple boxes, bowls and glass vases, some antique, but displayed in a consciously chosen space, in a balanced and symmetrical way and whose clear and clean lines reminded me of Danish art that emerged around the beginning of the 19th century.

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Many items depicted stemmed from the artist’s collection. But there was no highly precious or prestigious aura surrounding them. There were no exotic features or valuable items. Their value was based upon, so it seemed, on shape and colour, or their proportions. A bowl on a narrow rim, with an even cream glaze, which Helmantel had painted holding nine eggs (see above) was displayed in a glass show case what accentuated its simplicity and serenity.

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The Artist Henk Helmantel

Born in 1945 in Westeremden in Holland, which lies North of Groningen, Helmantel was raised as one of five children. His parents owned a nursery and the children helped selling their plants and flowers at the traditional local markets, like in Groningen. The story goes that on one of these trips Helmantel made his very first visits to a museum and was overly impressed by Rembrandt. From then on he collected any snippets and pictures from newspapers and magazines he could find. He was determined to become a painter, later attending the art academy in Groningen.

It became obvious to me that he was a diligent and meticulous worker, dedicated to depicting these serene objects in the most naturalistic way possible. He was obviously interested in the unique surfaces of the objects, like in the irregular iridescent glass of his collection of Roman vessels (see picture above). But at the same time, he wasn’t taking any liberties by letting a single brush stroke stand out or have an expressionistic or impressionistic character, let alone by being textural. Each stroke serves the depiction of the object in the most naturalistic and realistic way possible.

Personally, I love texture and abstraction in painting. I only recently saw a quite impressive exhibition of William Turner‘s work at the Getty museum in Los Angeles. But that afternoon, it was the clarity and focus in Helmantel’s paintings that inspired me. Even his more involved paintings are evenly and thoughtfully grouped objects. There are no coincidences. Everything is consciously arranged, which also means that each object is taken seriously within its own unique value. I told myself:

Take every piece, each poem you write, every song you sing seriously, take it for what it is!

I could feel the jumble in my head and the doubtfulness that tortures every artist more or less frequently being soothed. I kept thinking,

Stick to what you do, and do it with dedication, clarity and consciousness!

 

Simplify and focus!

 

Henk Helmantel

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(c) Frances Livings, 2015

 

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The Pomegranate ~ On Finding Poetry

 

Pomegranates open and still closed pomegranate seeds costume woman sitting old painting

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.

~ John F. Kennedy

In the quiet of a virgin morning, it feels right to sit with feet in warm slippers and a cup of hot steamy coffee in hand, and languidly let memories and fragments of ideas drift through the labyrinths of my brain. These are golden times, namely, when my monkey-mind is still asleep – maybe simply exhausted from so much chattering, poking and teasing. I can experience the same state of mind in the still of a night, when the dogs, like the day, are curled up to little furry donuts, quietly snoring away.

This is why I find that being in the flow of concentrated and productive writing is a lot like meditation.

As a musical poet and as a songwriter, I very much favour writing short pieces, like lyrics, poems or short stories. They allow me to zoom in on very concise experiences or emotions. Anaïs Nin, the French-born novelist, passionate eroticist and short story writer, who gained international fame with her journals stated:

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

A lot of the time this is true; no matter in which genre. A painter will experience a landscape by looking at it and re-experience it though his interpretation of it. I would like to add however, that writing also enables me to experience things I didn’t know had impacted me – any Freudian oriented analyst will like this statement because it illustrates how much slumbers in the sub-conscience.

The American Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Levine uses poetry as an elevating medium:

I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life—or at least the part my work played in it—I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.

Foreign Findings like Fallen Fruit…

Whenever I allow myself the quiet time of reflexion, the results are sometimes unexpected: Foreign findings lying there like fallen fruit; ripened, unharvested pomegranates ready to be picked up, weighed in ones hand; their shape, colour, texture inspected, broken open and their inner jewels eventually coaxed into essays, songs or poems. The American poet Robert Frost described his process of writing poetry in a similar way: He said that a poem […] begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” This process is what I would like to call finding poetry.

Golden-Pomegranate-by-Illumne-gleaming-Isla-candle-square
Pomegranate candle in brass vessel by Ilume for Anthropologie, 2014

In terms of its reception, the Literature Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz claims that a poem not only demands this utmost focus from the writer but also from the reader – “reading a poem is, after all, always an exercise in attention” he writes. Alas, these moments are rare. Especially with the omnipresence of social media, the constant flood of mostly irrelevant emails and endless to-do lists, it is often very difficult to achieve the amount of necessary focus. Without even leaving our work space we become the distracted virtual flâneur, scrambling and scrolling through endless pages, filling our minds with digital clutter.

But secretly, we all know that often these emails, messages, pages and social media sites offer a convenient escape from the tormenting, growing pains of a piece and to some extent much needed social contact. Because it is definitely not a myth that writing is a very lonely and sometimes frustrating process. Often, towards the afternoon my head often starts to resemble a scrap yard filled with piles of debris of the day – admittedly to some extent self-inflicted.

Most writers write because they have to write. But it takes courage to follow your own musings, to hope for the pomegranate in meditation. Discipline to sit through the editing process is another necessity. Which is why the American writer Ernest Hemingway recommends bluntly: “Write drunk and edit sober”.

I have always written, but at the beginning, when I started dedicating more and more time and energy to my personal writing I would ask myself in dark moments, which purpose did it really serve? My education was in academic writing which always gave me something exterior to focus on and therefore to hold on to – whether it was a painting or a building. These were functional pieces of writing that served exhibitions or guided tours. But starring at a pomegranate doesn’t always feel like the most useful, economically wise, socially valuable or practical thing to do. Which is why dedicating oneself to these seemingly superfluous musings can be scary for multiple reasons.

What happens when we surrender to these doubts of “usefulness” and abandon these creative musings? The Novelist Hubert Selby Jr. writes in his foreword to Requiem for a Dream “Certainly not everyone will experience this torment but enough do and have no idea what is wrong.” Furthermore he asks:

What happens if I turn my back on my Vision and spend my time and my energy getting the stuff of the American Dream? I become agitated, uncomfortable in my own skin, because the guilt of abandoning my Self/self, of deserting my Vision, forces me to apologize for my existence, to need to prove myself by approaching life as if it’s a competition. I have to keep getting stuff in an attempt to appease and satisfy that vague sense of discontent that worms its way through me.

It takes courage to be an artist. According to the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, artists, “are committed to a completely ‘unpractical’ activity.” Czeslav Milosz writes: “Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still life […] they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artists, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.”

Art is mostly free of purpose when it comes directly from the heart. This is basically what the French expression ‘l’art pour l’art‘ means. It expresses a philosophy that the intrinsic value of art, and the only “true” art, is divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function. So to dedicate time and energy to my musical poetry or to a whole solo album with my own song material meant to dedicate time to myself. To see and describe my interior as the “painting” or a building and to deeply examine these constructions of thoughts and emotions – it was to take myself seriously, my inner truth.

Frances Livings © 2013

How to Cut a Pomegranate by Imtiaz Dharker

I wanted to share this poem by another writer, Imtiaz Dharker, because it so beautifully illustrates why historically many cultures have been enamoured by this fruit. Pomegranates are texturally quite wondrous when broken open because of their contrasting insides and outside. They have juicy, jewel-like, and very vulnerable seeds inside a hard and protective husk. The piece also has many references to its long and lasting cultural history and symbolism, like fertility. Imtiaz Dharker is a Pakistan-born British poet, artist and documentary filmmaker. She has won the Queen’s Gold Medal for her English poetry. Dharker was born in Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan to Pakistani parents.

‘Never,’ said my father,
‘Never cut a pomegranate
through the heart. It will weep blood.
Treat it delicately, with respect.

Just slit the upper skin across four quarters.
This is a magic fruit,
so when you split it open, be prepared
for the jewels of the world to tumble out,
more precious than garnets,
more lustrous than rubies,
lit as if from inside.
Each jewel contains a living seed.
Separate one crystal.
Hold it up to catch the light.
Inside is a whole universe.
No common jewel can give you this.’

Afterwards, I tried to make necklaces
of pomegranate seeds.
The juice spurted out, bright crimson,
and stained my fingers, then my mouth.

I didn’t mind. The juice tasted of gardens
I had never seen, voluptuous
with myrtle, lemon, jasmine,
and alive with parrots’ wings.

The pomegranate reminded me
that somewhere I had another home.

 

© Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009
Abbey Ryan, Pomegranate in Early Morning Light, 2009

 

© Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006
Henk Helmantel, Stilllebenkomposition mit Hommage an Kees Stoop (detail), 2006

 

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@ Frances Livings

The Mystery of Unicorns

One of my latest findings on a day trip to the wildlife and holiday resort Catalina Island, California, was a long spiraling sea shell. It felt somehow magical when I weighed it in the palm of my hand. Its spiraling shape, the shimmering tones of cream, redbrown and white somehow reminded me of unicorn horns.

As a child I had been an avid reader of the Narnia Chronicles by the novelist C. S. Lewis (1898 – 1963), in which unicorns were characterized as both beautiful and very noble and honorable creatures.

The unicorn is a powerful symbol of good in early pagan mythology. Almost all images of unicorns depict a white horse of slender build, with a single large, pointed and spiraling horn projecting from their forehead.

I asked myself how contemporary artists were exploring this topic, whether this magical creature is still associated with fairytales and the mystical landscapes of King Arthur in Britain and Cornwall…

 

Damien Hirst, The Dream, 2008.

Damien Hirst first shot to fame with his “shark tank”. But the image of the beloved mystical figure, the unicorn (he used a real white foal) in formaldehyde is somewhat sad.

Damien Hirst, The Dream, 2008

“The Dream” belonged to a highly publicized (and criticized) auction of 233 works by the contemporary artist Damien Hirst in 2008. Nearly 20,000 people visited Sotheby’s New Bond Street premises to see what looked like a polished retrospective. With the Sotheby auction called “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” the artist sidestepped the traditional gallery system to sell works directly through an auction house for the second time.

Ben Hopper, Unicorn Girl (from the series Naked Girls with Masks), 2010

Ben Hopper is an Israel-born London-based commercial and fine art photographer. His work includes scenery, movement, and mood. He primarily photographs conceptual fashion, portraits of dancers, circus artists, musicians, and risqué nudes. His latest series, Naked Girls with Masks, falls squarely into the last category. Naked Girls with Masks, the series from which this photograph stems, was previewed at the underground London group art exhibition ACT ART 8 in July 2010.

Camomile Hixon, Missing Unicorn, New York 2010