Monday, June 13, 2011

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cow

Back when canvases and art supplies were expensive, even some of the guys now termed “Old Masters” were in the habit of picking up paintings one way or another- perhaps from a dead relative with a collection of ugly still-lifes of fruit, or a neighbour who had just needed to swap something for a meal- and used these as the backgrounds to new paintings.

Rather than compromise the surface underneath, a new artwork would be smeared on with sable brushes and paint-stained thumbs, until the un-blank canvas would come alive with a vision made real.

Sometimes it would happen in reverse- a struggling painter would hand over a painting he’d never quite convinced himself was worth hanging onto in exchange for some gin, or wine, or a place to sleep when the wine was all gone. And the new owner would pass the painting on until it fell into the hands of an eager artist needing somewhere to splash his paintworld.

And so it would continue, until centuries after the artist had slipped into either obscurity or comfortable retirement, and an art enthusiast would, by virtue of the painting’s age alone, decide to have it restored. Maybe he needed to inflate his insurance, or impress a relative who was drawing up a will.

The art restorer would bring the old painting to life, attempting to recreate the vibrant colours and moody shadows of the original. A slip of his fingers, or perhaps a keen eye which spent so much time staring at a surface would reveal that there was an another artwork underneath. The excitement which this could prompt was palpable- what if an undiscovered masterpiece lay beneath?

Difficult decisions had to be made: Sacrifice the new in favour of the old, when in fact, the older painting may be nothing at all, or simply carry on adding as much value as he could to a rather plain, but antique artwork.

Just a thought, really.

Do we scrape away at the new to get to the old, suspecting that there’s value in the past? Surely we’d have to scrape right down to a time of innocence again- when all the layers of hurt, learning and struggle had been pared away, and we were once again children?

And, having scraped away, would there be nothing left of value anyway?

Or, do we look at what we are at face value, take a deep breath, and take up a newer, brighter palette, and bravely add an entirely new dimension on top of a flawed substrate?

Or, more confusingly, do all the layers of each period of our lives all add up to the uppermost layer, and will attempting to remove them destroy the integrity of what we are?

I’ll go with a combination. Not forget the past, which is full of lessons and value, but never settle for the last layer. There’s always a new angle, fresh idea or creative movement. Use what has gone before to inform the future. Yesterday’s masterpieces are tomorrow's strangely shaped cows, in the world of art.

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