Eleanor Brooks

Notes towards the second installment of my Daumier Project.

Dear Andrew, I have had so many family visitors in the last few months it has not been possible to work consistently. However I have made some notes of the various random thoughts that have been floating through my head to be considered before I commit myself to start on a final piece, a physical piece.

Religion abandoned, the Religious sense, buried deep.  Is it only a residue of my Catholic upbringing, or an inevitable, universal human response to the magical mystery tour that is life? Why is there anything rather than nothing? Why is it as it is? Could it be otherwise?
If things are as they are because of some inevitable constitutional or developmental part of nature then who are we to protest? Yet the child's protest, "But it’s NOT FAIR." is that not just as inevitable, an inevitable universal human response?  And therefore just as legitimate?
The religious sense, the impulse to worship, seems to be a response to the big picture and is an acceptance of the way things are. (Shouldn’t we even be grateful?)                                                Protest is a response to the deplorable detail. And does the detail have to be as it is for the big picture to function? And does that mean that in the end I should approve rather than protest? Approve all the shitty detail, all the poverty and dirt, all the torture and suffering, all the frustration?               Of course I don’t have to approve, but I may have to put up with, and not really disapprove. I don’t profess to be a philosopher so I don’t have to reject a paradoxical proposition. Good!
Frustration?  Does it rate as a torture? Yes. And a big unrecognised component of many people's character. Even In the best imaginable world I believe frustration would still torment some people. Isn’t that why we do Art?  Actually in the best imaginable world everybody would do Art, some sort of Art. Crime is some people’s Art.

  1. Occupation with death.
  2. Sensuality.
  3. Tension.
  4. Irony.  (the modern ingredient.)
  5. Wit and play
  6. The ephemeral and chance.
  7. Hope.  10% of hope to make the tragic endurable.

Searching among my chaotic papers for a half remembered quote from George Orwell about the need to restore the religious sense but without the formal doctrinal bit, I failed to find it but came across an old letter, I quote “Also like you I feel such sorrow and despair at all that’s going on in the world.” I looked at the date on the letter, Jan 2004. But it could as well have been any day before or since. I also came across a poem I had copied out from Evgenia Ginzburg’s book about her time in a Soviet Gulag, “Into the Whirlwind.”

                 Good to sleep,
                 Better to be a stone,
                 Best, in our age of shame and terror
                 Not to live or feel.
                 Don’t touch me,
                 Don’t dare wake me up.       The author was Michaelangelo.

I must remember that every era has its age or ages of terror, some more spectacularly than others.
Daumier lived through a period of political chaos. He deals with the large news-worthy events in his newspaper cartoons. But he doesn’t only attack the powerful, one of his many drawings, set in a courtroom, shows a lawyer who has just succeeded in getting his client acquitted. He is having his pocket picked by his incorrigible client. He, Daumier also did a great little series of spoof illustrations of the story of Ulysses and his return home to Penelope; reducing the glory, giving the hero and heroine ordinary timeworn bodies and wrinkled faces. Its nice to think he did manage to amuse himself sometimes despite the daily grind of the job. (It is a relentless grind, sometimes six drawings a week to order, somebody else’s order that you may not quite agree with.)

Well there’s Picasso with Guernica of course. In some ways it is very like a cartoon, very graphic, and he doesn’t use colour.
Then there are the German expressionists, post W.W.1. They cry out with colour, as does Munch.
Michaelangelo and Donatello, (The Slave, and Donatello’s Weeping Women, a bas relief which can be seen in the V. & A.)
Our own W.W.2. painters of course, bleak and bitter rather than terrifying. Still accepting to some extent, still finding beauty in the scene. I did see a W.W.2. picture once which made me shudder, it was by a little known artist, French. You could tell he had actually been there, in the trenches ,suffered the un-speakable multiple fears, pains, agonies of mind and body that went on for years all expressed and personified in the painting of a huge rat, nailed out, crucified on the canvas.

But there is no-one to equal Goya. Even his picnics and festivals are frightening any way.
His horrors of war etchings like “I Saw This” or “What More Can One DO?” are of course famous.
But there is a little pinkish painting in the National Gallery in London which is both beautiful and terrifying; a man pegged out in the sun in the town square in what is politely called a “stress” position. Even when he is not dealing with terrors there is a frightening presence about his work.
I think the Chapman brothers have faced the possible horrors of life at its sad and dirty worst, but nowthey are part of the establishment which is what happens to punks and other protesters in a prosperous and securely established democracy. I attach some illustrations to my text, the last oneby Silvio Marchand, a young French artist, is an eloquent contemporary protest against that very problem; a sculpture of the thrown brick that does not break the window of the establishment building, because the establishment has learnt to be flexible.

It seems my ‘Notes Towards...’ have turned into a bit of writing which really says most of what I want to say, can I leave the writing as it is now and try to get on to the making part? One more topic I want to tackle in writing; my own difficulties with conceptual art, more of that another day

Nov. 14th. I was brought up in a very Roman Catholic way, house decorated with copies of Renaissance paintings and large gloomy prints of ‘la Divina Comedia’. Fish on Friday, confession on Saturday, mass and communion on Sunday. Outings to castles, churches and cathedrals as entertainment, plus the occasional visit to the local county town gallery when there was something special on. Then at convent boarding school a diet of Ruskin both in English and Art History lessons. Aesthetics, morality and faith all bundled together. Luckily there were chinks in the armour and not much money so escape was possible. Escape to the armed services, leave in London, fun, night clubs and the National Gallery where they showed a run-of the-mill collection and just one major master piece at a time. I went with my sister who left me standing in front of Michaelangelo’s unfinished painting of Madonna and Child with St. John and Angels and found me still standing mesmerised in front of it an hour and a half later. The sensuality of the paint and of the skin, of the line and of the leg and the fold and fall of drapery. And of course the limited tonal changes expressing so much. It was the formal qualities that seduced and entranced me. The meaning of a picture did not especially interest me, perhaps because I knew most of the stories whether Christian or Classical my curiosity was not aroused. Whatever the cause, the idea of calling something Art because it expressed an idea or a life experience when displayed alongside a verbal explanation; that repelled me. I have worked on my ignorance since and know now that it is better not to try to estimate any work of art without seeing the original ‘ in the flesh’. Like trying to test a jam without tasting it. The verbal explanations offered are often esoteric and just infuriating or pretentious. The best pieces work without explanation, Wei wei’s ‘Sunflower Seeds’ (Tate Modern, two or three years ago) spoke to me without any words.                                              

The point is: ‘Le Fardeau,’ doesn’t need any words in any language and if I want to remake it I want to do it with the same means as he used and that I normally try to use, that is to portray in the flesh, in the material aspect a fellow human being or other piece of nature. I tend to avoid idealistic subject matter having failed spectacularly in the past. So I must either paint something I have actually seen or put together out of different elements that I have seen at various times. Of course if I do it in a different medium, 3D, plaque or possibly a rag doll figure I could be more straight forward.  We’ll see. Ow, I feel terribly exposed now.

Honoré Daumier. “Le Faudeau.” The Heavy Burden. 1850–1860. Oil on panel. 39.7 x 32.2 cm

Collection: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Post May 2015:

Honoré Daumier. “Le Faudeau.” The Heavy Burden. 1850–1860. Oil on panel. 39.7 x 32.2 cm
Collection: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

DAUMIER NOTEBOOK , Dec.2014-----------------------------------------

I can’t now remember why I knew the Daumier painting, “Le Faudeau.” was in the national collection at Cardiff.  I was not aware of having seen it there but the moment I read the proposal for our present project it leapt to mind as the work I would like to re-interpret and re-make. That’s not very interesting, what is interesting is that I had remembered it wrongly.  Vividly but wrongly. I was sure the woman in the picture had a child tucked under her arm and was hurrying away from some scene of danger.

I have often wished that I was a political cartoonist or that I could at least sometimes do a work that was politically committed.  I feel full of protest at all the usual injustices of  life . ”The insolence of office, the oppressor’s wrong...etc” and yet I never do anything to oppose those wrongs.     Painting is not a good vehicle for protest, it is most glorious when it is celebrating something beautiful. It is very out of fashion to aim for something beautiful these days, perhaps that is because it seems almost frivolous in the face of the horrors we know exist around us, every day and nearly everywhere.

I understand how compromised I am, a tube of good cadmium red or yellow costs enough to feed a family for a week in a refugee camp. With thoughts like that in my mental baggage it’s easy to see how attractive Daumier’s basic use of paint would be to me.  Earth colours, large simplified areas of light and dark with few tonal variations deliver the emotional content economically and with a sense of urgency.

Yet in the end it is because of the aesthetic qualities in his work that Daumier stands out as of lasting value among cartoonists.                                                                                                                                                                                                        

The other aspect of Daumier’s work that I would happily be influenced by is his modelling technique. There are two small relief plaques in the “D’Orsey” . The figures,  a line of refugees, emerge from the clay in a wonderfully organic way. I always intended to do a piece of work of that sort, in his footsteps.

His relief style is modern, almost cubist. Compare the plaques with the baptistry doors in Florence by Ghiberti; there the background is very low relief almost like a drawing on a flat ground and the figures are like little dolls stuck on top.

Daumier welds the figures with the background, the figures EMERGE  from the background.  As they do indeed in many of his paintings. In fact many of the paintings might have been done with sloppy clay, smeared and dragged into an image. Painting with mud, the poor man’s paint. The cave man’s paint.

The little laundress hurrying home with her heavy burden is more fully emerged than most. There are six or seven versions of this painting, I prefer the Cardiff one. The others seem to show the signs of the difficulties Daumier had with painting, for three years he struggled to make his living as a painter rather than as a journalist-cartoonist. He failed and had to go back to journalism.

Whether it was done first or last our Cardiff one seems spontaneous and easy, a quick little sketch of something he has seen. It is the innocent vision of someone in love with life, not using his images to portray what he hates but to express what he loves, what makes him happy. But also someone who has seen a fellow human being one day and understood her problems with his experienced compassion.  He admires her. His empathy shows, the way she is using her hip to help support the weight of the basket, that basket is very heavy. She is brave with the commonplace bravery of the millions who have to get up every morning and go to work, and determined, she does what she has to do to live, and she’s a good mother, she trusts her child to keep up with her. The child is intent on doing so. Neither of them is critical.

Daumier was critical as well as compassionate, he was imprisoned at the age of 24 for being on the wrong side in one of that era’s endless twists of political chance.  He can be savage and ugly, where he hates. That’s fine when his villains are the epitome of callous and corrupt power, lawyers and their political and military masters. (When they are liberated women, bluestockings and suffragettes the drawings make him seem to be a typical male chauvinist pig, part of the problem. Oh dear!)

Well my laundress is fleeing from poverty, her enemy is faceless. Her background looms over her, thick and threatening; she has to get the washing done and dried before she and her child will eat again.

I want to do a piece of work that protests but does not add to the squalor.  I hope I will get the backup I need to do it partly from my chosen painting and partly from the  fact of being engaged in this project. 

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