Painting purge

by Helen Barker

So often we forget the power that can be found in the emotional responses we have to a painting, we worry that to fall in love with a Monet, to adore a Cezanne or to be taken aback by a Picasso would render us weak, channelled through the tunnel of art’s expectant marketing ploys and captured at our most unthinking. In fact, communal joy over well-known works is very liberating – to share a moment with many yet retain a sense of deep personal relationship in that moment of looking is uniquely human. And to embrace that moment, know it for what it is, take from it what has been given to us and use it as fuel in the daily walk of life is, surely,  a mark of emotional intelligence.

I went to the Courtauld Gallery recently for what felt like a guilty pleasure – to immerse my eyes in the paintings that inspired me as a child. As I walked around the gallery I had a sudden urge to abandon all personal awareness and write down my immediate responses to these images. I allowed myself to be un-edited in my notebook, scribbling away without fear of sounding clichéd, naive or immature. Things I so often fear when writing from the heart. And, in a bid to set my soul free from the shackles of the critical gaze that years of art education has bestowed on me, I would like to share some of the sentences that escaped me that day. Because sometimes we have to let ourselves be seen in order to see. 

Cezanne. Colour is dealt like a hand of cards – a sequence of tones. A royal flush. Blues, greens, yellows. An undertone of pink in a pale leafy green cloth. Blue caught on the outer edge of a red apple. Perspective leans toward you like a bridge coming into view – un-ending and un-avoidable, something along which you must travel. In ‘Still life with plaster cupid’, light hits the centre of the sculpture with a bold thud and dissipates across the rest of the room.

Renoir feels like too much ice-cream. Faces lure you in and emotion blends into the background of the walls.

Monet’s ‘Antibes’ IS the mediterranean! Sun, sky, sea saltiness on the tongue. I can hear the shore lapping at the rough rocky edges of the canvas itself. Colour brighter than a star. Branches moving in the breeze of the brush strokes, purple hills clinging to the distance. Cloth turned to air.

Manet’s work is gruff, stark pale naked flesh sits in the frame with green grubby foliage pushing its way around the edges of the picture. It’s great to get up close to these pictures and feel the brush strokes on your face. It’s great to see the human hand behind the idols we have made of these images

Degas’ painting in thinned down oil depicts a woman sat, engulfed in shadow by a window. Her head is framed by patches of light and the walls are rusty-red.

Picasso’s ‘Child with a dove’ is thick and beautiful. Colours are heavy like comic book traumas. An image so complete it is hard to look at.

Van Gogh’s ‘Peach trees in bloom’ – what looks like a blue sky is strewn with horizontal rows of coloured lines. In ‘Self portrait with a bandaged ear’ he underlines his chin in blue and his eyes are green and clouded. Yellows on the verge of turning sour make me nauseous. I am deceived by the bold and joyful nature of such playful colour. I barely see the lurid light in which they sit.

Gauguin, ‘Haymaking’, great sweeps of yellow and simplified form. A landscape in portrait form. If the landscape were made of rain and rain were made of colour, this is what it would look like.

Paula Modersohn-Becker – ‘Portrait of a girl’ is painted with so much paint it has become a solid three-dimensional form. Strong but quiet, this work has an inner peace that holds me steady. Eyes are soft, kind and yet they do not yield to the onlooker but remain confident in their inner gaze. I think that this might be more of a self-portrait.