What about "If"?

After reading the July 21 post in which we mentioned the great French artist, Paul Gauguin, someone asked if I could comment on Gauguin’s leaving his wife and children “to go out and paint”. What is one going to say?

If Paul Gauguin had not left his wife Mette and family (he was a successful stockbroker and Sunday painter), the world would never have heard of Gauguin. No artwork, no place amongst the French Masters. No meeting with Vincent van Gogh, or putting the life and culture of French Polynesia on the map.
This brings back memories of when I was a young boy (about 75 years ago). From school we all had a mini-blackboard to scribble on with chalk, and a real sponge to clean it.
My grandfather was a master diamond cleaver and also a diamond facetter, and a wise man. He asked me to put some zeros on the blackboard, turning it sideways so I could fit in lots of them, resulting in those egg-like, half O’s we make at such an age.
Now, my boy, what number is that? I mumbled “I don’t know, Opa, we have not learned that yet”. Then grandfather asked, “Now, put the number “1” in front of all those zeroes. What is the number now, my boy?” I whispered, “Don’t know, Opa. Is it a big number?
Yes, it is”, he replied, “very big! You see, Henri, composers (he loved music) and all the great artists are represented by that lonely number One.
There you have it. Just by placing that number one in front of all those zeroes, it becomes a huge figure - - representing the Human Family which in turn benefits from the ‘lonely ones’ for evermore.
If Paul Gauguin would have never left his family . . . ? We know the answer.


Precious jewelry, anyone?

Although artist and lecturer in residence on the two early circumnavigations in the '70s, we were given full passenger status and mingled with the passengers. In a previous post I told you about a "merry widow" from Brooklyn.
There was another widow aboard this sailing. She reminded me of an “Annie Get Your Gun” character. Every day without fail she’d be the first person in the bar. There she would sit, covered in diamonds and other precious gems, imbibing vodka. Sometimes she’d ask Natasha (who was the youngest passenger, at 24) and me to join her for cocktails. One day Natasha complimented her on her remarkable jewelry (diamonds, rubies and emeralds). She quickly smiled and said, “Why don’t you take one or two? They’re covered by insurance.” We pretended we didn’t hear her.
Soon after this she was worrying about what to give her son for his thirtieth birthday. Earlier on she’d told us that she owned one of the major American football teams, but hated the board meetings and whoopla involved. So, I said half-jokingly, “Why not give your son the football team?” To our surprise she winked and said, “What a great idea, Henry, I’ll do that.” She strode off to see the radio officer (this was long before email) and sent a wire with news of the birthday gift.
Another passenger we’d gotten to know and become fond of was “The Major”, as we called him. He could have walked straight out of a story by W. Somerset Maugham. The Major travelled with a valet, and would often invite us to his suite along with a few other guests before dinner. We exchanged stories; he was interested to hear my father was a diamond-facetter and that Natasha and I were knowledgeable about precious stones.
The Major was a corpulent fellow well into his ‘80s, but loved to eye the pretty Norwegian stewardesses and flirted with Natasha. (We were delighted to meet him again the following year on a second circumnavigation, by which time he was in a wheelchair and had a new valet). He lived in Switzerland and also owned race horses in Bahamas. On the last day of the voyage The Major invited us to visit him next time we were in Europe.

Two years later we happened to be on a Eurail train odyssey, and made arrangements to visit The Major. At the Swiss train station, his chauffeur picked us up in a Silver Cloud Rolls Royce and took us directly to The Major’s home for ‘luncheon’. During this delightful meal, The Major turned to Natasha with a twinkle in his eye and told her, “I own a jewelry store here. I’d like you to run it, and I may end up giving it to you. Henri seems to know alot about precious stones, so it would work out perfectly; you'd never wind up in a poor house. Here again, we were tempted about jewelry, this time a whole jewelry store. We said to him, “A kind offer, we’ll think about it.” (We learned a year later that he went ‘over the horizon’.)


It's not easy being green

Yesterday during my stroll along the seawalk, I joined an elderly couple sitting on a bench looking over Juan de Fuca Strait. Mind you, I’m not a spring chicken either, at almost 79.
Anyway, they had just completed an adventurous road trip to the Far North. They were depressed about the glaciers melting, and the plight of the polar bears. They asked, why are we all so slow in doing something about it? Now the bees are also disappearing, they said, What’s happening?

It’s not easy to be green”, sang Kermit the Frog. Looking at the state of our home planet Earth, you can say that again. It’s also not easy, or so it seems, to keep the green. Sadly the “Administration” (funny name for a world power) of our neighbours has done zip over the past eight years to protect the environment, the animals and plants, far from it. Only fossil fuels matter, dead plants from the far-away past. Oil is numero uno on the agenda. (But soon, it will be the end of an era, i.e. end of an error.)
Not only the Administration of our southern neighbour, but right here at home we have a copycat administration. The wicks of world leaders could use some trimming, there is more
soot than light present. Politicians belong to the tribe of the never-wrong. Should they be opposed, a screen will go up, then they let the world know with high-powered rhetoric, their denials for all to hear. But then, greed and morality are seldom on speaking terms. That’s the way things are! Is it truly ignorance? There’s a difference between ignorance and plain old stupidity.
And the effects, we all have to live with nowadays. When there is something wrong with our lungs, we go to the doctor.
Yet, when trees are removed at an alarming and grand scale, there’s no stopping them. Are trees not the lungs of the Earth, or so we’re told? So, if we’re pilfering, are we not hurting those lungs? Will the grinding mill of nature’s timelessness prevail, in spite of us, the spoiler? Let’s hope so!


Sail on, no matter what

On our first circumnavigation by ship in 1974 (the one I dreamed up, the Enrichment program, and where I was artist in residence), we were just three weeks into a 4 month voyage when one of the passengers had a heart attack right beside the swimming pool.
The ship’s doctor was on the scene quickly and tried to save the gentleman’s life, but he died. Of course the passenger’s wife was shocked. She was from Brooklyn and I remember her clearly.
(This all happened not far from Papeete, Tahiti where the great French artist Paul Gauguin spent some time, immortalizing 'French Polynesia', its culture and people.)The widow now had to decide what to do with her beloved. In the old days, captains had authority to do burials at sea, but in the ‘70s this was no longer permitted. Everyone assumed the widow would disembark at the next port, along with her late husband.However, she stayed on. Not only did she stay on the ship, but it wasn’t too long before she had a great time, and put the Merry Widow of Franz Lehar in the shadow. And what about her husband? The passengers all thought he had been taken off the ship and transported back to family in Brooklyn.Since I was artist in residence, we were privy to some things which the regular passengers didn’t know. What happened was she’d arranged to have him put in the ‘cooler’ near the ship’s hospital. Gradually the news spread, it’s impossible to keep something like that quiet on a ship. When asked ‘why’, she replied, “We saved for twenty years to come on this trip, and I am going all the way around the world. He’s still with me, isn’t he? And I know he would have wanted me to have a good time.” Can’t blame her. What was she going to do, abandon this once-in-a-lifetime experience? Something Sir Alfred Hitchcock would have enjoyed.


What is Real or Not Real in Art

Yesterday the annual Moss Street “Paint In” took place here in Victoria. Some 115 artists, professional and amateurs participated in this colourful event. The turnout was in the tens of thousands. Yours truly did not participate. The art of Pointillism tests people’s patience too much for such a venue. The idea is the artists create a new work. Interesting to note the majority were landscape, portrait and still-life genres. A few symbolist works, mostly by First Nations, and very few non-objective or abstract paintings.
This might be a good moment to ask, what is real or not real in Art. With objective paintings, the results may seem real, or realistic, because we recognize immediately flowers, people, fruit, seascapes, sky, clouds and whatnot. This gives comfort, it is familiar. And, we can judge how well the artist draws. Still, it is not ‘real’, thus it is abstract.
Years ago in the ‘60s, back in Toronto, I was a pioneer in the concept of professional artists visiting schools. Sometimes I’d do a demonstration or mix primary colours to show the kids how to create many different colours just from red, yellow and blue. Other times I’d give a slide show on various artists or movements. 

One day I featured the modern French masters and included one of Paul Cezanne’s splendid still lifes with oranges, much like the one you see here, painted around 1899.
One youngster suddenly piped up from the back of the classroom, “Yes! Them oranges look OK, but can you get orange juice out of them?” All the kids laughed, but the teacher and principal were not amused.
But I loved it. To have the endorsement from a young boy that indeed, I was on the right track to have left behind realistic and conventional art. And so it is. No matter how beautiful or real flowers look on paper or canvas, can we smell their fragrance? No matter how tempting the cool lake appears in a summer landscape, can we take a refreshing dip? It is all illusion.

Moving on to the Old Masters. What’s interesting is they all rendered paintings of Adam and Eve with navels. For example, this magnificent work you see here by Peter Paul Rubens. First off, these were models posing for the artists (not the "real" Adam and Eve), and second, Adam and Eve could not have had navels, at least according to Genesis. I wonder, why was it all the Popes and patrons who commissioned these works, never said anything. And through the centuries the critics or academics did not comment on this incongruity. See what we mean, "What is real or not real, in Art?"