There are places of the heart where one can go a thousand times and not tire of them. We all have them and it’s good to remember to go again — they reinforce our feelings and give us sustenance. One of my favorites is Brittany. This part of France, slightly off the beaten track, has not been for long out of her wooden shoes. It’s home to a race of strong men and wide-eyed women, the remnants of the Celtic arts, the religious Pardon, quaint seaside villages, Atlantic breezes and crepes as thin and delicate as lace handkerchiefs.
I guess it has something to do with the slow march of history, the lingering presence of historical artists, and the idea that you can take a lot of it in with one breath. Our family spent a summer in Pont-Aven and we shall be back this fall. In Brittany there’s a pace that an artist can handle. It’s a step back to a simpler world — a fantasy that somehow makes the artistic stroke more genuine. On the quay at Pont-Aven I have never taken so long to decide where on the canvas to put my brush.
Nearby there’s the Bois d’Amour — the woods of love — a pathway under a lattice-work of chestnuts along the River Aven, made still by her ancient mills. Gauguin and Van Gogh argued here, and with Paul Serusier and Emile Bernard climbed the narrow path up the hill to the cool and silent chapel at Tremalo where a wooden effigy gave Gauguin his inspiration for “The Yellow Christ.” This place of the heart is a hobnob with the gods of art. While I was painting under the chapel’s Calvary a woman in peasant dress and distinctive lace cap silently watched me for a while, then asked: “Are you important?” I replied that I was not. At that moment I saw it all: the love, the joy, the history, the sense of place, the sense of discovery, the way art gives a shot of humility, the simple gift and eternal value of me and everyone else — just struggling.
PS: “One must learn to be grateful for one’s own findings.” (Eugene Delacroix)
PPS: “‘Tis the gift to be simple,
‘Tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.”
(Joseph Brackett Jr.)
Esoterica: Dorothy Menpes, in her 1905 book, Brittany, says that Pont-Aven was a battlefield of creeds. She called them the Stripists, the Dottists, a sect of the Dottists called the Spottists, and the Bitumen cult, a group whose shadows slipped right off the canvas when the sun came upon them. She also reports that many Pont-Aven artists recommended indigestion as a sure route to creativity.
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
by Pamela Simpson, Woodstock, CT, USA
My favorite place of the heart is Monhegan Island, which is off the coast of Maine. I think I love the simplicity of the place. There are no cars, just a few beat-up trucks to carry luggage. It’s a working fishing village and art colony. You can visit the entire village in an afternoon and the entire island can be walked around in a day. Yet there is so much there, cliffs and rocks, crashing waves, very old seaside cottages covered in roses, wooden fishing boats and shingled fish houses. And it’s all very real, it is not a museum. The Island has a rich artistic tradition; George Bellows painted there, Edward Hopper, many well known artists have lived there and some do even now. The little library is filled with rare books about the island and the old lighthouse has a museum dedicated to its art and history. It’s a wonderful place to enjoy at the pace of a leisurely stroll.
Zero Mostel liked it
by J Baldini, Niagara Falls, NY, USA
The first letter I attempted this morning was cut short by a power outage. Why are we always so surprised when this happens? We begin to whine and plan how we will get through the next couple of hours — only to have the power go back on in a few minutes. Yet, the place dearest in my heart is an island where no electricity is the norm and I have returned to paint it again and again. The island is Monhegan and I have been lucky enough to have it as my passion for 28 years. No other place has given me the connection to the spirit of the land as this beautiful island. I return in 2 weeks to teach a workshop there and already have the 2003 workshop planned! Years ago the actor Zero Mostel came in on the same boat. Before he said hello to anyone, he stepped off the boat, got down on all fours and kissed terra firma. I said to myself “my thoughts exactly!”
Oh boy how I miss it
by Claude Courvoisier
I am French born and lived 45 years in France and amazingly only visited Brittany two years before moving to Canada, but I will never forget it. I was so in love with this part of France that I convinced my parents to move to the North West, to Sarzeau, a town at the entry of the Morbihan peninsula. When I toured Brittany in 1991 and 1992 my eye for beauty was in heaven. Not only for Pont-Aven but some places like Rochefort-en-Terre deeply moved me — every little village with my favorite flowers — hydrangeas — and the unique granite of the houses and castles literally spoke to my heart. Like you say it has something to do with history, legend, a simple life. I love every town and village in Brittany, every cathedral, church, cavalry and castle. And of course the culture and the food — oh boy how I miss those two things of my birth country. I will play catch-up in September when I go to France to visit my family.
(Name withheld by request)
Regarding the letter about the profiteering dealer — I have a query. Almost all of the galleries in my part of the world only deal with paintings on consignment. There is only one gallery that I know of that buys the work outright. They then routinely mark it up 400% — justifying it by saying that they carry the full risk on whether or not it sells. Any thoughts? They have approached me and I’m of two minds — half tempted by money in my pocket — especially in the ‘off season’ — and half anxious about the idea.
(RG note) There are several reasons why artists should not deal with galleries who want to buy art for cash. One is that these galleries are in the “low balling” business which means that they attract and take advantage of artists who are short of funds. Secondly, by taking control of an artist’s work they are free to profiteer at an artist’s expense, or worse, sell stuff off at lower prices than other dealers in order to generate cash for themselves. For an artist it’s all a matter of losing control. You don’t want to do that. Artists, in conjunction with solid dealers, need to manage a timely progression of price increases. I’ve always found a satisfaction in knowing works belong to me until the time a collector pays for them. This way I can walk into a gallery and get my stuff back, tear it up, burn it, or send it to another dealer who is doing a better job. One other thing — all of the dealers who have tried to buy my paintings for cash are now no longer in business—the reason being that they gradually filled their gallery with owned works that did not sell. Surprisingly, this kind of gallery owner — one who says he’s putting his money where his mouth is — often has remarkably poor economic judgement.
Van Gogh myth
by Loraine Wellman
I thought it was interesting that Van Gogh should again be mentioned as “unsuccessful in his time.” I think most of us bought into that story, perhaps with the influence of “Lust for Life.” I have been reading a book that puts a different slant on the story. Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, by Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger, Taschen, 2001. Among other things, it shows the “other versions” of the famous paintings we always see. Van Gogh certainly was not the most stable person, but he was achieving quite a lot of recognition as well as respect from fellow artists. He probably would have sold more paintings had he not tended to give them away to anyone who admired them. He did, however, have the gloomy philosophy that whatever good happened had to be balance by something bad — paid back, we might say. p.676: “Like so much else in the 19th century, the idea of the suffering artist had its strongest roots in Romanticism, the era van Gogh drew most freely upon in constructing his own worldview.” The authors say that there is no evidence that “Wheat Field with Crows” was his last painting — since he wrote about it as: “Wheat Field Under Clouded Sky” — “I almost believe that these pictures will communicate to you what I am unable to put into words: the health and vigour I see in country life.” He became somewhat obsessed over the prices realized over the paintings of Millet — and the fact that prices went up after an artist’s death. p. 684: “Art was the preeminent principle of his life, taking full and all-powerful possession of him. The individual was a servant of Art and had to bow to the force of things that were loftier that the individual life (in his view). Schiller had written that life was not the greatest good, and since Rousseau’s Nouvelle Heloise and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, suicide had repeatedly been in fashion, particularly among young people. The rationale behind it remained pretty constant: Individual existence was valueless, and what mattered was to be exalted into the lofty heights of the Idea, leaving one’s physical self behind, as it were. Van Gogh considered his own efforts unworthy: Art was great, his own creations paltry. In contemplating suicide, his fatal attraction was the keener because of his sense of the discrepancy between ideal greatness and his own tiny achievement. This, of course, was a typically Romantic tension; and van Gogh, in this respect a child of his materialist times, took to thinking in terms of payment. These terms were associated with a nagging self-reproach for having founded no family and fathered no children. The upshot was, in a word, that van Gogh decided to kill himself in order to bequeath to Theo, and above all his godson, a treasure trove of paintings that could only increase in value after his death. If he himself was no longer alive, thought Vincent, he would at least live in his art. This may well be the solution to the puzzle of the suffering artist’s desperate gunshot. And perhaps its very banality accounts for its exclusion from criticism of van Gogh.”
(RG note) Vincent was one of the most successful artists of all time. Most of it happened after he had turned in his brushes. If he had felt he deserved and needed financial success badly enough while he was still painting he should have engaged other dealers besides his brother Theo.
Inspire others, don’t make excuses for them
by John Farnsworth, Taos, New Mexico, USA
I’ve just read your (Faith Puelston’s) letter to Robert Genn and am somewhat confused. Not having seen the word “sloth” in his letter, I wonder why you would accuse him of accusing you of sloth. I alone can know what my goals and ambitions are. Therefore I alone can know whether I have reached them or fallen short. And who better than I to know the real reasons as well as the excuses if I have not reached some of them. We all try, we all have setbacks, limitations, negative influences. If one of us is willing to share his good fortune and the things he has learned during years of effort and hard work, should we not be inspired by his example, rather than anxious to tear him down? If we force him to lower himself to the condition of the most miserable among us, will any of us benefit? If we turn our backs on him, or silence him, will our burdens be less heavy? You wish Robert “the wisdom and humility to respect the legitimacy of failure in all its many disguises.” I would venture to guess that anyone who has achieved a measure of success has failed many, many times. Failure teaches us either to try something else until we get it right, or it teaches us to stop, wither, remain where we are. I would suspect that by having the wisdom and humility to respect the legitimacy of failure, Robert has learned from his failures, and gone on to improve his condition. But this is where you really have me confused: Your claim that Robert’s success “thrives on the contrast with the less impressive efforts of others” really had me baffled until I read that these lines were not written out of resentment or bitterness. Oh, really? Surely you have some successes. Are your successes built on the less impressive efforts of others? Should you go about searching for those under-achievers who are guilty of being less erudite, less successful, less fortunate than you in order to apologize to them for wallowing in the vice of smugness? Come on, Faith. Do the best you can. Be thankful for what rewards come your way. Share your successes. Inspire others, don’t make excuses for them.
by Nancy Giere, Ortonville, MN, USA
Even though I don’t respond often, I really enjoy and appreciate the Twice Weekly Letter. As an artist and business person they are invaluable. Robert may not know it, but he is doing a great service to any artist who subscribes to his letters. If an artist would allow him to be, he is an excellent mentor. Many artists have gone on before us to lay a ground-work of knowledge and experience that others can build upon, like the Masters, giving us a base to spring from. Their history is our history, no different than architecture, engineering or medicine. We learn as others go forward, and Robert has gone forward and it helps us all. I will miss the day if these letters ever stop coming, and have often wondered how he even has time to write them. It seems a true labor of love to me, not only for the artists he is inspiring, but also for the craft, for the art, for the work. It raises us all to a higher level of performance and consideration of our own work. I appreciate them all.
May I note as well the camaraderie of his letters, the comfort they bring to the isolation one often feels as an artist. He speaks a language I understand, from a heart I can run with. His intellect, his talent, his life experience, his art, they all come together to coalesce artists around the world in this digital empire called the internet. I live in a rural community in South Dakota. It is beautiful here, gorgeous. I love it. It is home. But through the letters, I am privileged to see how other artists think and consider their work from around the world. What a joy, what a camaraderie. Art is such a beautiful thing, such a lovely event, it is thrilling to me to gain comprehension on how others envelope their work and the work of others.
(RG note) The amusing and informative collection of previously unpublished remarks that subscribers have made about the Twice-Weekly Letters is at http://painterskeys.com/remarks/
by John Mullett, Australia
Unfortunately not all of us are blessed with natural talent, and really have to work in a “clinical” way. That means that I can’t just sit down at the easel and paint. I really have to do all the “measurements and stuff,” before I can start. Does that mean that I’m more of an architect than a spontaneous artist? I might add I’ve been painting/drawing for years, but never with inspired brushes. Your comments would be appreciated.
(RG note) We ought to dance with our muse in the way that gives us joy. If “measurements and stuff” are part of your joy, then go for it. This is not to say that you ought not to snap and stretch at her garter.
Unique idea for an art show
by Jay Jordan via Paula Cundiff, Kentucky, USA
Our group is planning an art show that explores the concepts of generosity in art, the idea that if an artwork truly moves a person they should be able to possess it. The plan is that all artwork exhibited is at risk of being stolen. We will have a designated security guard who will apprehend anyone he catches in the act. If a patron manages to steal a work without being caught — they get to keep the work. Should they be caught they will be subjected to a videotaped confession where they will have to speak of their motives.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
This includes Paula Timpson of East Hampton, who says, “We are where we are meant to be and inside we discover we are more ourselves.”
And Marina Morgan who reminded us of A E Housman’s poem:
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went,
And cannot go again.