Showing posts with label paintings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label paintings. Show all posts

23 November 2018

Two Gentlemen of London


by Stephen Ross

As I've mentioned before, my favorite art gallery in the world is the National Portrait Gallery in London. I like it because it's full of faces. Sure, I love strolling around any art gallery, and will take an interest in any Marcel Duchamp bicycle wheel, Goya lithograph, Turner seascape, or Hockney swimming pool, but it is to the gallery of faces I've returned most often. Faces are "characters," and I'm in the business of creating characters; albeit on paper, and in words, as I can't draw to save myself.

The double portrait below (a diptych painted on vellum) caught my eye the first time I visited the NPG. It's a Tudor-era work; the costuming and the date of 1554 (it's inscribed on it) are the big giveaway. But the most immediate thing about the work is its size; it's only 100 mm tall (4 inches). It's one of the smallest oil paintings in the gallery (depending on your monitor/phone screen configuration, you may even be viewing it larger than it really is).


It's an odd painting; very simple, very small, and somewhat engaging. This is not a double portrait of two kings, two dukes, or even two wealthy merchants; the plainness of their attire, and the minimalism of the work speaks to that. But there is a discernible sense of dignity about these two gentlemen.

The man to the left holds an artist's palette, the man to the right, a lute. This says:

This is how we wish to be known: Art and Music. 

Above each of the men, finely inscribed, are lines of text. Above the artist are two lines of Latin. Above the musician are two lines of English. Unless you are fluent in Latin, you immediately head to the English:

"Strangwish, thus strangely depicted is One prisoner, for thother, hath done this/ Gerlin, hath garnisht, for his delight This woorck whiche you se, before youre sight."
The key takeaways in this humorous, punning slice of ye olde English are the words "prisoner" and "garnisht." The later is Tudor-era slang for "giving something to your prison warden to obtain the conveniences of life." So, to paraphrase the inscription: The man with the lute is Strangwish (Henry Strangways). He is a prisoner, and this "which you see before you" was done to buy a little comfort for his life.

The Latin inscription is in a different mood.

"Such was the face of Gerlach Flicke when he was a painter in the City of London. This he himself painted from a looking-glass for his dear friends. That they might have something by which to remember him after his death."
Somber, huh?

The man with the artist's palette is Gerlach Flicke, a German portrait painter known for his work in the Tudor court at London. It's a self portrait, and to paraphrase his inscription: He thought he was going to die.

Flicke and Strangways were prisoners in the Tower of London. Friends and companions, or simply comrades in captivity? We will probably never know. Strangways was a "gentleman" pirate (it was a narrow channel between pirate and privateer). History never recorded why Flicke was jailed (maybe the Queen (Mary (Bloody)) didn't like something he said on Twitter?). And neither did die. Not in the Tower, anyway. Flicke in 1558, Strangways in 1562.

Could Strangways play the lute? History didn't record that either, but as a pirate, he probably enjoyed a bit of wine, women, and song. But history did record that he wanted to steal an island from Philip II of Spain; yes, an island. I like this man. Flicke is noted, but never became notable as an artist. He is, sadly, more of a footnote. This painting is his most famous piece. It's good, but really, it's well known more because it's recognized as the first ever self portrait painted in oils in England.

And knowing the conditions it was painted in explains its starkness. I've never visited the Tower of London, and I doubt I ever will. I know way too much about the abject horrors that took place within its walls, and there are frankly better things to visit when in London.

This is how we wish to be remembered: This is all we have left. 


I am reminded of Henry Purcell's When I am laid in earth, and its haunting lyric:
"Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate."



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17 June 2014

Pictures and Words


by Stephen Ross

One of my fantasies is to be a painter. Oil on canvas. I have this vision of myself in a New York loft: A large room with a bare wooden floor, sofa, an open window with traffic sounds from the street below, open bottle of red wine, no glasses. No wall clock.

And what would I paint? People. I like a good landscape, I like a good abstract, but what moves me are paintings of people. A picture tells a thousand words, but in every face there are a million.

One of the best places to go and see paintings of people is the National Portrait Gallery in London. The NPG has nearly 200,000 paintings in its collection, and it's a great place to lose yourself in hall after hall of faces (and history).

Alan Bennett (Tom Wood, 1993)
Tom Wood's painting of Alan Bennett hangs in the NPG (Bennett is one of my favorite playwrights), and at first glance this appears to be a conventional portrait of the man. Quickly, its element of casualness becomes apparent. It's a picture of a writer taking a break; a few minutes to collect his thoughts, a cup of tea and a brown bag.

And then you notice the power cable and plug. What has Bennett unplugged? An electric fan? A jukebox? Maybe it's symbolic. The cable extends from the viewer's point of view, so maybe Bennett's taking a break from us (i.e. he's unplugged the world). And then what exactly is concealed inside that tightly tied up brown paper bag? Lunch, or is it also perhaps symbolic of something? Secrets? Privacy?

It's a straightforward painting of a complex man and some props, but collectively they suggest the possibility of a story. If I painted, I'd definitely want to paint a story.

The Betrayal (Jack Vettriano, Circa. 2001)
You won't find anything by Jack Vettriano in the NPG (although you will find him in the National Scottish Portrait Gallery up in his native Scotland). South of the border (i.e. London), Vettriano gets bad press. Too commercial, too crass. Point in fact, I first encountered this painting on a greeting card. But so what?

Without even knowing the title, when you first see this painting you sense conflict. The man at the rear, highlighted in a background of glowing red, stares at the couple kissing in the foreground. The decor and fashions suggest a fancy club, circa. London 1950. Are the couple embracing on a dance floor? And that isn't a mere kiss, it's a full-throttle commitment. Has the man at the rear caught his lover cheating on him? He has a hand reaching inside his jacket. A gun?

When you have two or more people in a painting, you almost automatically invoke a plot. And once there's a plot in play, our mind suggests what might happen next. In this instance, a heated confrontation; it'll probably get messy. The Betrayal is like a two-dimensional piece of flash fiction.

It has to be said, of course, another viewer might glance at this painting and simply see a bored waiter staring at an amorous couple. And therein lies the fundamental difference between a written story and a painted one. A written story lays it out fairly clearly for the reader to follow. A painting only suggests and is largely open to "reader" interpretation.

The Scream (Edvard Munch, 1893)
I first encountered Edvard Munch's iconic painting The Scream in an art history book when I was in high school. The ghost-like person in the foreground is presented in a frozen moment of absolute terror. Why? Is it from fear of the two shadowy people behind? Are they after him/her for purposes of no good? Is it from fear of the blood sky (the original title for the work was "The Scream of Nature")? It could be any of these, and I could easily think up several more "plots" for this painting -- none of them cozy.

I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition of Munch lithographs a few years ago at the Waikato Museum (a modest building on the left bank of the Waikato River in Hamilton, New Zealand). Munch made several lithographs of The Scream, and even reproduced in black and white, the image chills you to the bone when you stand in front of it. And this is despite the fact the painting's impact today has been lessened, nay flattened, by its continual referencing in popular culture (children's lunchboxes, anyone?). The painting is as ubiquitous today as the Mona Lisa.

The Scream contains what I like to find in a painting (and in a story, too): character and emotion. So along with a plot, I'd definitely want to paint characters and strong emotions.

So, I guess, if I was a painter, I'd be a figurative expressionist. Throw Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper, Frida Kahlo, Munch, the Pre-Raphaelites, and a bucket of paint into a blender and then point me at a canvas.

And why am I not a painter? That's easy: I can't paint and I can't draw. I can't even render a decent stick, let alone a figure.

But wait. There's more...

The Riverboat (Eric Ross, 1997)
Declaiming my artistic abilities was originally going to be the end of this piece, but by happy coincidence, I learnt today that Crime City Central are podcasting The Riverboat this week (a story of mine that was first published last year by Spinetingler Magazine).

I mention this because the story was inspired by a picture of a riverboat painted by my father. He painted it several years ago and it's hung on my wall ever since. My story didn't create a "plot" for his painting, but used its image as the story's centerpiece.



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