The Secret Diary of an Art Writer, aged 44 & 1/2

Another art writer once said to me: no one wants to be an art writer Megan. I laughed because for me it was true. Art writing has been an accidental vocation. I attended Elam School of Fine Arts and graduated in 1998 when I was in my early twenties. When I started out at Elam I thought I’d be a painter, but I quickly learned I didn’t have the chops for it, and instead I became a very short-lived video artist. Just as well given that video ended up being quite a short-lived medium.

Like life – art writing  – is what happens when you’re making other plans.

The first artists I wrote about were my peers – like the photographer Yvonne Todd, the first winner of the Walters prize in 2002 – who I showed at a little gallery called Fiat Lux that I ran on Hobson Street in Auckland at the turn of the century.

Once I started writing about art, I kept going, because no one asked me to stop. Instead, I got asked to write about more artists. I was young so I simply wrote what I thought. I got asked to write about the Frida Kahlo exhibition Viva La Vida that toured to Wellington art gallery in 2000. I hadn’t even seen the show but I wrote about it anyway. This is what I said about Frida when I was 26: “Kahlo’s paintings operate as a visual chronicle of her internal landscape, a surreal and often perverse kind of Dear Diary entry…”

Now, I can’t help but wonder if that sentence more aptly describes my writing process.

I went on to say: “It is nearly impossible to think of one of Kahlo’s paintings without an image of her face gazing back at you in confrontation. …Kahlo created her identity from her crises…where or rather who would she have been without them?

Good questions, in retrospect ones that more or less apply to us all.

Why I thought it was okay to just publish what I thought I am not quite sure. Just saying what I think troubles me a lot more now – a good twenty-plus years on. Being honest seems much more riddled with problems. Like what right do I have? Am I right? How do I write about an exhibition without using the word ‘comprised’…as in, the exhibition was comprised of painted pebbles lying on the floor…

For me, the word comprised is like the crocs of art writing, too comfortable to slip into.

I’ve ended up writing mainly about quite avant-garde work if that’s still a term we can use in 2019. There is no shortage of investment in ideas in contemporary art – ideas – and preferably the biggest most intellectual ones – are what the whole scene runs on, thrives on and feeds on. I’d say ideas sometimes more than images, though of course, they are not mutually exclusive.

Today, I’m going to tell you three short stories from my life in art writing. Every story constellates around a specific artwork. Each story is honest. And you will probably know the artworks too.

Story One: Blue Phase

One of my first memories of a famous artwork is a Blue Phase Picasso painting called Madonna and Child by the Sea. It was painted in 1902. The mother in the picture holds her baby swaddled against her chest, but also a bright red flower in her hand. In the background, the sea, the prow of a boat.

I always thought it was dank and depressing, something my mother had chosen from an op shop like the Salvation Army. The mother and child looked like they needed some salvation. So did we. I used to watch out the window when Mum walked down the road to get a packet of cigarettes each night. We’d recently left my half-brother and his father and rented this small flat on Rathgar Road in Auckland opposite an orchard.

Picasso said, “To draw you must close your eyes and sing.”

I turned on the radio and listened to Orchard Road, a plaintive 80s pop song by Leo Sayer. “When are you going to come back…” I’d look out at the orchard in winter and the trees looked like they were waiting for Picasso or someone like him to recognise their architecture and make them sing. Or maybe just for my mother to walk back home with her packet of Benson & Hedges Gold.

“People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.” According to the Internet, that’s another quote by Pablo Picasso. Although I hardly think it sounds like him.

But if it is Picasso I can’t help but think he must have meant a tree on Orchard Road.

What I remember best about the Blue Phase Madonna and Child by the Sea is that when my little brother came to stay, Mum had to turn the picture around to face the wall. It scared him.

Some critics say Picasso’s Blue Phase is sentimental and too heavily symbolic, I say they don’t know the half of it.

It wasn’t until later in high school that I learned the print was a Picasso; I was shocked. My mum actually had quite good taste.

Story Two: A Room with a View

In my teenage years, Mum and I lived in a little granny flat above an old people’s home where she worked as the night nurse. The talismans of that time were two Taschen posters: one was of Monet’s Poppy Field painted in 1873. Another of a Renoir. Of the pair I preferred Monet. Not sure what that says about me. More romantic or less?

Monet showed Poppy Field to the public at the first Impressionist exhibition held in the photographer Nadar’s disused studio in 1874. Now one of the world’s most famous paintings, it conjures up the vibrant atmosphere of a stroll through the fields on a summer’s day.

Yes, but for me, it is also very reminiscent of the Merchant Ivory film A Room With a View (1985). A Room with A View was set in Italy and Monet’s poppies were painted in France, but they were both romantic and rustic and had a big scene set in a field. A Room with A View is based on the E.M. Forester novel but the film starred the actress Helena Bonham Carter and her on-screen love interest Julian Sands, who me and my best friend Nicola thought was a ‘spunk’.

After seeing A Room with A View, I always felt the impressionistic dab of the woman in Monet’s poppy field could have been the young Helena Bonham Carter if you squinted hard enough. Apparently, it’s actually Monet’s wife, Camille, and his son, but I think he wouldn’t mind a little artistic license, especially for a fan.

“My wish is to stay always like this, living quietly in a corner of nature,” Monet said. His wish came true. In the granny flat, the poster was above the fireplace. Out the window poplar trees and Lake Rotorua. It was a dappled beautiful scene from nature, so I hope Monet would have approved.

“Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand as if it were necessary to understand when it is only necessary to love.”

What a beautiful thing to say, Monet, you old charmer. You stole our hearts and gave us a room with a view.

Story Three: Sunflowers

In that same granny flat, I got into my first critical discussion.

It happened at the dinner table. Above it, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

My uncle who worked on a farm in Te Kauwhata was visiting.

He looked at Van Gogh and I could tell he didn’t like what he could see.

“Why is it any good?” he asked.

“It’s Van Gogh,” I replied. Taschen had taught me well. I knew things my uncle – a shearer – would never know. He knew things I could only hope I never found out.

I felt that the evidence in favour of Van Gogh was straight forward. How could the sunflowers be any more sunflowery or any more Van Goghey for that matter? And also they were so big and bulbous. So turbulent. “Well they’re original,” I said. “No one else could have done them.”

“They’re not that good.”

My uncle was arguing technique. He wanted Van Gogh to be a photorealist.

I looked back at the sunflowers and began to have some doubts….then a petal dropped. Those who demand absolute realism will always want to see something else. I totally failed to persuade my Uncle of Van Gogh’s genius. But the afternoon has stayed with me, I suppose as a preliminary introduction to a life in criticism. My own and other peoples.

It was also a taste of how Van Gogh must have felt. In 1890 another painter from Brussels bristled at having to be in a show with him.

And Van Gogh actually painted several sunflower pictures. Some were done in the Yellow House in Arles. Later that was where he severed his ear. All the better not to hear the shearer or his criticism.

There were theories as to why yellow dominated Van Gogh’s painting in that period – too much absinthe was one of them.

One picture sold before he died. If only Van Gogh could see himself on a tea towel now: what on earth would he say?

“I put my heart and my soul into my work and have lost my mind in the process.”

I know exactly how he feels.

At this juncture, I just want to show a sunflower photograph by Yvonne Todd that I’ve always liked. The Guttural Flower seems like a Feminist companion piece to Van Gogh’s sunflowers. Todd too knows how to mine colour – that oblique beige – to produce a sense of unease. The young woman looks like that sunflower could swallow her whole.

The moral of these three stories is that I started out in art where many of us start out: with the – flawed and corrupt – notion of genius. Like the notion of beauty, it’s hard to shake. For a long while, I was very disappointed not to be a genius. (I still am disappointed.) I was also very disappointed not to be an extremely beautiful woman, it would have been such a tactical advantage, especially as an art critic. Sometimes I like to imagine what my life as a New Zealand art writer would be like if I looked like the actress Eva Mendes. I think I’d get more gigs. Maybe I’d even be considered a genius. I imagine myself in Eva’s body walking into an exhibition and finding it comprised of smiling faces.  Yet most of the time I don’t have much cause to think about genius as an art writer – but it still stirs its paintbrush in my subconscious every now and then and tugs at my ear.

Where do ideas come from? The ideas that seem to arrive so fully formed they swallow you whole? Images that become icons then sometimes even posters and tea towels and then they really do belong to us all.