The story begins about 40 years ago with a postcard that I found on a trip to Europe.
The photograph is of a very small portion of one of the grand and richly decorated portals. It is a piece of the doorway that is devoted to scenes from the life of Mary, the mother of Christ. What you see is the sculptor's depiction of the Visitation. What's happening is Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth when both were pregnant; Mary, with Jesus, and Elizabeth, with John the Baptist. This religious scene has been presented over and over again by artists. Western and Eastern Christianity revere the image. One could teach a pretty thorough course in art history by doing a review of the different ways this scene has been presented. Many images are quite elaborate, especially in Renaissance and Byzantine depictions. Yet it is the simplicity of this one that stopped me in my tracks. There is a quietness between Mary and Elizabeth, a lovely display of caring and concern, and an intriguing sense of possibility. They are quiet, yes; but you know these two women are thinking some pretty big thoughts.
I put the postcard in my special box for art images.
I found Picasso's Woman in White, 1923. He did it during what we now call his Neoclassical period. my favorite in the amazingly creative artist's long career. I don't now remember the details of my discovery of this painting up close and in person but it probably happened in a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (click here for more info). I loved this painting for its simplicity, dignity, and strength. It struck me that Picasso had done all he needed to do to convey the beauty of this person. No more was needed but these lovely lines and subtle color. I knew I could look at this image forever.
The card has sat beside the Chartres postcard and many, many others for a very long time in my special box. I have often gone through the box and remembered where I was when I discovered each image and thought about how they mattered in the present.
Chapter Three in this painting story moves us ahead nearly 40 years, into a time when painting is my full time activity. Chapter Three also brings another painter, a contemporary painter, onto the scene.
Last spring, as I did my usual review of the contents of my box, the Visitation and Picasso cards jumped out together from my box. They called to me to attend to them together, side by side. The idea struck me to make a painting from the photograph of Chartres and to do the painting as Picasso in his neoclassical period might have done it. Now, why would I who usually dislikes working from photographs, and who has never thought about painting like Picasso feel so compelled by this idea? I am sure part of the answer involves my encounter with the painter, Ophrah Shemesh, and her theory of painting (click here for her website). I have a box, Ophrah has large binders. Her large binders are chock full of images of beautiful paintings across the centuries. As she flips through the plastic sleeves that hold the reproductions of artists from Giotto to Cy Twombly, Ophrah points out what she thinks makes for true, authentic painting, whatever the century. It has to do with the artists' recognition of the importance of drawing but also the difference between drawing and painting; the artists' giving himself and herself over to the painting; respect for the canvas as a two dimensional grid; and more than can be detailed here (I hope Ophrah writes a book about her ideas). Ophrah returns often to Picasso's Neoclassical paintings to make her point. Why would I not want to try my hand at this way of painting with one of my favorite images?
And here is what I came up with. This painting is quite unlike anything I have done before.
The new painting gave me two gifts. It was an opportunity to capture something of the power of these two women who had gained the attention of so many prior artists. I think my take on the scene links Mary and Elizabeth to other pairs of women, and what happens between women, in ways that matter. And it was a chance to try out my version of Picasso's way of working. Along with exercising those painting skills that Ophrah so values, it also let me take good advantage of Picasso's advice that the painter needs only to paint one eye. His idea helped me not to worry so much about Elizabeth's missing piece.
I don't know where this painting will lead me in future paintings. I doubt that it is the final word. There is a resonance for me in this work that can't be ignored. And I like that I can take a photograph of it to put in my box and at the same time, enjoy the "real thing" on my studio wall.