Old Age and
Plain Speaking, Then and Now
Studio Notes from the night of June 6, 2008
◄ Maria Van
Oosterwick, Vanitas, mid 17C
June 6, 2008.
Why do I feel my paintings
this year are going nowhere?
This last few days of looking
at them... I said that they are "still lifes"--a few things in a finite
space--and thought to myself of the vanitas still lifes so popular in
the 17th C., images of the dying of beauty conveyed by a fading
flower and a bug, often with a mirror or a skull. The paintings all
had a message of fading and death; the objects said it and the people knew it.
Where the skull or the buggy flower were in the visual focus of the vanitas,
my paintings have a brief sentence or fragment. When 17th C. people saw the vanitas
painting they got the
message because they already knew what it was; when we 21st
C. people see the vanitas it's only a still life and art historians must tell us what it used to be
about. My 21st C. paintings
tell my messages to your face. See them once and you’ve heard it always
Is that why I think
this work of mine is
Yet, I don’t know how to make
It goes back to when I was a
student at Berkeley. It’s not painting but literature if you have words on it.
Le Journal was OK because Picasso used it as a visual motif and it was
a foreign language and no one knew what it meant anyway—and as for all those
poems and inscriptions on Chinese paintings, who in my Berkeley Art Department
milieu ever saw any of those? My professors taught and I learned that painting
is sentimental if the sentiment is more powerful than the form—a Hallmark
Valentine card is one example, another was a late 19th C. painting I
saw once of a shadowed room with a few grungy people (obviously Bohemians or
around and listening to someone in a shaft of light playing a violin. The
painting was titled “Beethoven” and was surely kitsch…unless you had been
there and remembered.
So, these works of mine now
are “literature” (you can read the words in English) and “sentimental”—unless
you have been or are there now.
Well, that’s it—there’s never
a turning back when you’ve fallen off a cliff.
Just like it was for me in the
1950’s-60’s, except then I was full of the innocent self confidence of youth,
whereas now I have sixty years of experience in the world. And as for falling
off a cliff, in youth I was so full of myself I didn’t know I was falling;
whereas now in old age I’m too weak to grab the few scraps of tree roots and
grass that stick out on the way down. (And, yes, I’m still too full of myself
to think I need them).
Same night, later...
Find my way, find my way…
How was it before? I guess
these works now are for me where the late
1960's collages were. And then there
were the 18 x 18's of
the mid 1960's, so much more complex as my mind followed the
paths until the symbols were clear in
the Beulah Land book—the poppy and the sheaf of wheat, the
sickle, the barn and the urn… and then it was on to
the cannons and pyramids
of the Carpenter Series
and the mountain of the four rivers of Paradise. I was finding the symbols of
that time of my life, and it was only after that I could perceive the
aesthetic beauty of the world and make
the Asia pastels.
But what of the time of life of old
age? It took me almost fifteen years from the phallic frenzy in the
1961 "Cock Book" folder to
the images of
the Shwe Dagon. Have I that long for this now?