Anton Veenstra's Textile Blog

my textile career from 1975

Peaks and troughs of creativity

US rock song from the movie Repo Man: “Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole”. PP is famous for the saying: “lesser artists borrow, great ones steal”. My last anecdote of three is by a famous writer, don’t know who: he wrote 400 words, every day of his life. Imagine some of that output, on a bad day, when the artist had the flu or was hung over. There is no way the artist could be proud of every day’s output?

But we treat everything painted or scribbled by some great men as automatically immortal; personally, I think critical appraisal is now secondary to inflated auction house prices. Were a critic to describe a painting, drawing or ceramic as not up to the mark the owner might feel that their substantial financial outlay has been compromised.

Again, in the case of PP, his blue and rose periods are achievements, alongside the depictions of the same period by Van Gogh, Manet, Seurat and Degas, the circus and nightclubs of Paris. How curious it is that when both he and his accomplice Georges Braque together discovered and developed cubism their work was often interchangeable. The Demoiselles D’Avignon and the way PP was influenced by African art is unmistakeably an achievement. Here and there are portraits by PP of his wives, but it is to Guernica that we turn to find a masterpiece that silences any critic. Here is the height not the trough; at this moment perhaps, the typical struggle to match theme and material has become an effortless process. Towards the end of his life he was looking at images by Velazquez; they are definitely stuff from the floor of somebody’s workshop; if stolen it would represent an undesirable choice.

Matisse is seen as an artist fit for the company of PP; however, his Dance of Life paintings when placed alongside the similarly titled work by Andre Derain fail to move me. A visit to the Vatican revealed a room where Matisse’s religious textiles for the chapel at Vence were held; as a textile artist I was intrigued by the fabric application Matisse made of his extraordinary cutout pieces.

For me the final word must be delivered by the curator of the Van Hogh exhibition that travelled from the Netherlands to Melbourne, Australia; asked by the presenter of the ABC The Mix how she thought Van Gogh would be viewed in a century’s time, she said that this was unknown; he might even be relegated to the storerooms of museums; he was, after all, disregarded in his lifetime.

There are any number of artists, extraordinarily famous in their day who are now disregarded. One shabby example would be the dogs, cats and draught horses of Victorian painting. Creativity has, not only peaks and troughs in an artist’s life, but during the procession of history as well.

Postscript: Speaking of the Victorians, they erroneously described the early Medieval period as the “dark ages”. In fact this moment in history was thoroughly enlightened; it made use of an extensive rhetoric to shape the language of written culture. As the axiom of the time was “there is nothing new under the sun” generally the artists made minute twists of logic and irony to ornament what had gone before. This reminds me of the movements of modernism: impressionism, expressionism and all the phases before, between, above, below. We have seen a recent re-visiting of Expressionism that shed little light on what went before; the body performance works that followed abstract expressionism have self-consciously been imitated lately. As the Renaissance followed the Medieval period, perhaps we are due for a new movement accompanying an entirely new set of world conditions, as has happened in the recent centuries; as W. B. Yeats put it, “a beast slouching towards Bethelehm to be born”.

 

 

 

Three in a Row

The tapestry exercise I set myself had distinct parameters: my small loom, built from a luggage wheelie, with corks to blunt the sharp ends; on the loom I was able to weave works of 16 cms H X W. Ebay had recently informed me there were several packets of Egyptian embroidery cottons for sale. I bought some; using a cotton warp spacing of 8 per in, I wove the cotton threads three per shed. only occasionally was there a problem as some of the threads were slightly thicker than others.

The first piece reminded me of the violently colourful works by Dutch Cobra painter Appel, that I had seen in the Netherlands last year. The second was in praise of Jawlensky, whom I greatly admire for his use of slightly abstracted form; he represents that moment when post impressionist painters are becoming aware of the exciting potential of abstraction and mechanical invention. They would later have taken their cue from Le Corbusier when he said “A house is only a machine for living in”. “Une maison est une machine a habiter”.

All three works were completed in April, May of 2017, The cotton warp is 8 per in, the weft is cotton.

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Abstraction

Even before my recent trip to the Netherlands I was interested in the Cobra art movement. It was ironic to see in the Dutch embassy in Bondi Junction recently, while renewing my passport, a poster of a Cobra exhibition at the AGNSW in 2014 (?). In the Netherlands I managed to see works presumably too fragile to travel, such as a painted wooden column by Appel about refugee children. The paintings were furiously, vigorously energetic and colourful. But my attraction to them was that they were a natural descendant from Derain and Jawlensky, who, admittedly broke the ground, leading away from realism and impressionism towards using colour to express emotion; and we all know where that ends!

The moment in Jawlensky’s work, even its equivalent moment for Kandinsky, when the artist has not quite relinquished his hold on realism and turned to abstraction, as in Kandinsky’s last paintings, point the way inexorably to Appel and his colleagues.

Part of my attraction to these artists is that they explain the possibility of progressions of shapes, ones that suggest realism, but not quite: the various methods of doing so, too, are of interest.

My latest work, just finished, Hello Mr Appel, Dutch art movement leader: 16 cms H X W, cotton warp 8 per in,. cotton, linen, synthetic wefts.

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Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale, a gay, UK author, whose novels are redolent with superbly crafted prose and delicately sensitive constructions of character; both of whom generously lend the fiction their lavender, recently wrote A Perfectly Good Man (2012). It is the picaresque tale of a religious cleric and a teacher dubiously charged with rape, whose paths intertwine. Another of the novel’s characters is called Dorothy (gift of god).

I bought the novel years ago but baulked at the phrase ‘paedophilia’, not another story like that, thought I. My own life contained enough of that.So the novel went unread until now.

Both men are punished by social opinion; the cleric manages to deflect local condemnation, (no details, spoiler alert). He gives a sermon about the resurrection, quoting Dorothy Sayers’ account of Lazarus describing life after death as being the moment of glimpsing the “beautiful and terrible” front of a tapestry while the living must content themselves with seeing only the tangle of knotted threads at its rear.

Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey inhabited a world of panelled houses hung with large scale Flemish tapestries, by and large ignored. Unless I have forgotten some action behind the wall hanging, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Polonius is stabbed through the ‘arras’. One might picture a tapestry making such an impact in Sayers’ or Wimsey’s world.

I was struck, from my career of weaving tapestry for 40 years how we spurn, as it were, the tapestry’s reverse and fixate on the perfect front; though the reverse is a necessary chaos, it plays its role in the completed image.

Variations on a Theme

Back in the 1980’s I wove a series of double portraits of men in amorous embrace, in flagrante delicto; that is, a gay political statement since a gay couple walking hand in hand in public is in itself conspicuous. I re-visited one of the series and its cartoon or behind loom drawing, after I’d recently spent a fortnight in Haarlem and a week in London. I found the cartoon juicy with promise. Below are the three works I wove as a sequence, one leading into the next with inexorable logic.

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As a point of reference I add a self portrait I wove or rather completed before the above.

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For God, Queen and Country

My dad fought as part of the Dutch army policing, maintaining law and order, or as we described her in the hippy 70’s Laura Norda, in Batavia or Indonesia as it is now known. He was born a Calvinist but religion soon loosened its hold on his psyche. So, his military reality was for Queen and country, as he bitterly, sarcastically described it. We, his children, were raised Catholics by our Slovenian mum. That involved exposure to the Church Militant, not to mention the paedophilia of our local priest.

I can think of no better way to be prepared for conscription to fight in the Vietnam War; I was called up on my 20th birthday. The current government was conservative; its greasy political motto was All the Way with L. B. J. When it was replaced by Labor, led by the heroic and legendary Geoff Whitlam, he immediately ordered the withdrawal of Australian troops and any blokes currently being processed by the conscription system were allowed to choose whether they wanted to join the troops overseas. I turned up for the humiliating medical examination. (In high school we had such an event for joining the cadets; I was accused of looking at the bloke behind me, or having a perve.) Here, the doctor was obligated to ask me whether I wanted to join the Australian troops O/S. I declined, saying I felt I was emotionally incompatible. which proved prophetic, given the number of returned servicemen who committed suicide. The doctor was genuinely shocked by my comment; perhaps he expected a pro forma response.

I invite the reader to google the Rolling Stones’ video clip for Gimme Shelter; it is accompanied by images of the Vietnam War. In one version of the song are 2 sequences showing Vietnamese Buddhist monks self immolating. I am at a loss to how someone could manage such an act of protest. Presumably it was love of country, also that any other life worthless.

Which brings me to the current day and the inexplicable reality of the suicide bomber. Ok, approximately from the 1970’s there was the Palestinian Liberation Organisation; I do not remember whether their events were planned to end in suicide? Today, the number of heroic, naive youth, by their manifestos seem to believe in the righteousness of their cause. The writer/journalist John Pilger has described US/UK/Australian military activity in Arabic lands as inexplicable destruction involving inforgivable loss of innocent lives, as western colonialism. Opinionated journalists like Emma Albarici, during interviews with Moslem spokespersons, insist on a particularly skewed dialogue. For me, the so called radicalation needs to be better explained. Nor does it relate to some frivolous reward in an Islamic conjured heaven; although, the Church Militant has historically pertained to the 3 religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As POTUS Donald Trump said recently, nobody is innocent.

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The Complexity of Bill Henson

A wonderful ABC TV presenter Virginia Trioli interviewed the art photographer Bill Henson for the 7.30 show tonight. She quoted Turnbull and Rudd when the latter was PM and NSW police seized photographs of underage girls. Rudd described the work as disgusting and disturbing; Turnbull meanwhile owned several of Henson’s works and said that the police behaviour was pre-emptive and a travestry against free speech and the right to create art without fear of censorship.

Meanwhile, Trioli also interviewed the young woman, Henson’s favourite model, now studying dance in Berlin, who had been 13 when the photos were taken. Asked how she had felt during the sessions she replied that she had felt no trauma. She continues to be on good social terms with the artist as do his other models.

The world of Henson is moody and destitute; as the artist describes it, not necessarily a part of everyday reality, but blurred and granular. Trioli summed up her reaction to the photographs: they asked of her to hold two conflicting experiences in her mind simultaneously, that the images were beautiful and deeply disturbing.

My friend who studies Fine Arts remarked that some images could easily have been close-ups of Caravaggio’s paintings, see below. I thought that while the western world was ruled by a Christian hagiography certain extreme experiences could be extensions of that myth structure. For instance, how would people express their feelings during the Black Death or plagues, or during battles and conflicts, except as references to the Church Militant?

Conversely, now that our lives are lived in a multi-culture there is no single, central mythological system. Yes, we had certain subversive means to describe our reactions to the Aids crisis; however it was scarcely effective, certainly not universally appreciated.

 

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Duo Re-interpreted

After a recent 3 week visit to Haarlem and London I came home and tidied some boxes in storage. There, I found the cartoon for a tapestry completed in the mid 1980’s which seemed to me to have so much energy still that I decided it deserved to be re-interpreted. You decide how the project worked out.

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Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe 2 tapestries differ in technique; the latter is completed in my recent interlock method, while the first one was woven with slits that were sewn together later, in some places resulting in a wobbly join. The original work showed combinations of colours that were the spontaneous expression of an earlier time. A friend of mine who recently completed an art course quoted his anatomy teacher saying paint twelve versions of a theme; Van Gogh after all completed half a dozen or so sunflower paintings.

By Moonlight0029_35mm slidesThis photo was scanned by Remba Imaging. www.remba.com.auAs can be seen from the other two depictions, the weaving of a couple is the last of a series, a fiction or fantasy of surf lifesavers, built on my experience of a beach on the Sunshine Coast. Taken there by my bro-in-law, I was enthusiastically invited to join a group of surfers. Art. after all, follows life? Or vice versa? After all the fiction in which I lived at the time was The Lost Boys By William S. Burroughs, and its feminist equivalent, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word For World is Forest.

Rain at the Roots

Oh, the sots and thralls of lust

Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,

Sir, life upon thy cause…

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

G.M.Hopkins, Thou art indeed just.

I never did good things, I never did bad things,

I never did anything out of the blue.

David Bowie, Ashes to Ashes.

I re-played this song and became obsessed with Bowie’s use of the blue image, the note, the situation. It was how the colours sprang into life, as it were. A spear of blueness that arced into the ether and allowed other colours to trail in its wake.

(The image of blueness is Bowie’s code for his magical practice as is the physical gesture, used in the video for this song, of raising the hand above one’s head, then bowing to touch the earth. Bowie also does this  in the song Fashion and in the duet Dancing in the Street, where Mick Jagger follows his lead).

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREBlue, Feb 2017, 10 cms H X 12 cms W; cotton warp 8 pi; wool, cotton, silk, synthetic wefts. Out of the steamy, inclement weather of February 2017, this work continues my previous improvisations of both parallel and curved shapes that interlock in a dovetail manner. My intention is to create dynamic situations, abstractions, spatial play. heaven sent hi resrainfall hires

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Polytheism

During my childhood and adolescence, while religion still had a grip on my psyche, the most puzzling biblical quote for me was: “I am the lord, thy god, thou shalt have no other gods before me”. The central message of catholicism all the while had been  monotheism at the core of religion. Yet, here was a quote that seemed to suggest threatening alternatives that co-existed with Yahweh or the one true god, or whatever.

I am reliving this inculcated stuff for a reason, creaky and dusty though it may seem. A while ago, on my Facebook page, an Egyptian friend who was an archaeologist connected with the Cairo museum posted, as he often does, wonderful photo of ancient Egyptian sculpture, representations of  Egyptian deities, for instance Hathor. The sculptures were worshipful in their splendour, but when he waxed lyrical about his spiritual connection with them, as part, no doubt, of his cultural heritage, a western person took umbrage. What followed was an unpleasant outpouring of the unique importance of her one true god and so forth, who reigned supreme.

As above, I began to wonder why somebody would feel so threatened by another’s expression of belief; of course ancient Egyptian religious ritual was intensely involved with magical practice, and as such also threatening to some contemporary minds. That aside however, the cross cultural dialogue reminded me of Akhnaten and his attempt to bring monotheism to his culture, or Aten as opposed to Amun, previously reigning supreme amongst a contemporary polytheism.

There is, I believe, only so far that one can delve into another person’s culture. My local medical practitioner together with his wife run the local medical centre; they are both Christian Copts and on a shelf in the reception area are several references to their home culture: a small image of the funerary mask of Tutankhamun, and several small sculptures of Egyptian deities. One need remember that Sigmund Freud displayed on his desk rows of deities from different cultures, like ushabi gathered to restore a patient’s mental health (?)

Apart from all that, I pondered a figure central to recent catholic church history, the narrative of Saint Francis. Best shown in the movie by Franco Zeppirelli, the work looked at a lyrical spirituality which ran counter to the viciously manipulative politics of the Vatican; when Francis asked the pope to recognise his order, a cardinal seated on the sidelines whispered: ” he will speak to the poor and bring them back into the church”. When I saw the movie on its release, Francis seemed a hippy figure as opposed to the rigid establishment.

Today, the lived lyricism of Francis, like the Persian poetry of the Conference of the Birds, could arguably constitute a type of polytheism: “brother sun, sister moon” etc, etc. Yet, this was clearly not the intention of Francis; instead, there was an effortless oneness present, underlying the multiplicity of natural things. Perhaps we could extend the lesson contained in this great individual, so exemplary in his life that the most recent pope felt impelled to take his name. Francis teaches that polytheism is non-threatening; to be threatened is to imply a weakness in your belief system and possibly a tinge of racism felt against another culture.

For me, there is much potential here for exploring the harmonious co-existence of many cultures, with their differing beliefs. Ainsi soit-it, shanti.

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