by Dr Edward Winters
In the following remarks, I take drawing to be a very broad activity – roughly the same as the making of a visual image in some material form or other.
Cathy Somerville draws. I first met Catharine in West Sussex five or six years ago. A few of us were standing or sitting around outside her studio at tea-time on a balmy summer’s afternoon. I was playing with a partially deflated football, trying to remember how I had controlled it years ago when I used to play on Sunday mornings – very badly and for the third or fourth eleven. I was half fantasising about some game I might have played whilst at the same time contributing or listening to a loose conversation aimlessly drifting in and out of ribaldry. We were sipping wine, as I recall; and the chatter and the chuckling were relaxed and heady. Some of the other artists were doodling as they pulled on their wine, sucking as its flavour moved to the fore; and then the mind gets back out into the chatter again. It was then I noticed Cathy drawing. Drawing is not doodling. She was looking intently – with concentration – as she laughed away merrily at some reckless comment even as she drew. It suddenly struck me: this is what she does. I’m no footballer and so my fantasies remain indulgent –Just as doodling is indulgent; enjoyable but ultimately a waste of time. But Cathy draws. It is not a profession. It is a vocation. And her work testifies to this observation. Vocations determine the lives of priests, philosophers, poets, pianists, painters and pamphleteers; each of whom has no choice but to heed the call to obedience.
That is a point I wanted to make at the outset. The second point is more general. What is so important about drawing for fine art? To this question I shall recommend a controversial answer. But I shall need to come to that answer obliquely. Drawing, with pencil, pastel or paint, is doing something. It is an intentional activity. Moreover, and here comes the controversy, the activity is best characterised as the contrivance of correspondences. There are two ways in which correspondences are to be found in visual art. The first is representation – as when a series of simple ink lines is contrived to correspond to a face. Think of Matisse heads. And the other is when the surface of the paper or prepared canvas stands outwardly to an inner feeling. Think now of de Kooning’s women; or of the sombre colour-field paintings of Rothko. These two sorts of correspondence build on natural propensities. On the one hand, we have all played, as children, picking out faces in clouds; or, as Leonardo advised his students, seeing in the damp stains on the walls of their digs, great sea battles. On the other hand we look out into a field and see there a broken tree. The melancholia we entertain as we look is felt as something like ‘power laid waste’. In each case, part of our natural environment, the cloud or the tree, is appropriated for, recruited to, our task. And this environmental feature is used as a substratum, upon which is projected representational or expressive content. The mind fixes the face onto the cloud, or it imbues a scene with emotion. In each case the experience undertaken is imaginative.
I can look at a photograph, as might an immigration officer when he looks back and forth between a passport photograph and its holder to see if the record is accurate. And I can look at nature as standing outwardly to inner feelings. But when I look at a drawing or painting, I look at an image that has been intentionally brought into being with all the contextual knowledge that the history of a medium affords. These are ‘hand-made’ images. I see the painting as having been contrived to offer representational and/or expressive correspondences. So, the making of a painting – you might say ‘the painting of a painting’ – is a matter of the greatest importance in considering the appropriate aesthetic response to a work of art.
With these resources in mind, let us now turn to some of the pictures in this exhibition, Into The Wild. What would it take for us to think of trees as participants in some dance? We would have to think of their movement, their swaying and twisting, as internally generated. We would have to think of them as internally animated rather than as externally pushed and shoved by gust and squall. We know they are not so moved but we can imagine them as having personal standing; and that imaginative project permits their presence as characters in a landscape. Thus the tree rooted alone can dance in a rhythm all its own, but can never leave its solitary station. Thinking of a tree as minded elicits empathy as we regard its loneliness. In turn this reinvigorates our thinking of ourselves – as when a drunken man sways and twists but dare not but keep both feet planted. He looks to us as stubborn and as forsaken as Somerville’s tree on Lizard Island as it dances alone. A world opens up to us in which metaphor develops its own impetus. So that the painting of the animated tree is moved by the brush of the painter in swoops and waves of the hand that are made by the artist to be internalised by the spectator who regards her part as collaborative interpretation.
The painting of paintings takes up the notion of landscape as metaphor, pointing us toward correspondences that serve to make artistic sense of the world in which we find ourselves. That artistic sense is different in kind from the truths we search for in science. Trees do not dance and sky over water is not melancholic. Only through art can we see ourselves as belonging in a world in which these imaginary empathies tell ‘truths’ about our condition. Being called to paint is a form of witness. The observation of an artist like Catharine, calls upon a developed sensitivity. Being imaginary, it develops a view onto the world. This, I am sure, is what is historically meant by an ‘artist’s vision’.
And now, looking at these paintings as the carefully drafted compositions of winter scenes intended to be seen as inner landscapes, we feel ourselves persuaded by the vision of the self as a solitary wanderer through the wilderness we must accept as our spiritual home. Into the Wild. It is a beautiful collection of work.