Grief. Art. Writing

I was honoured to be a guest on Jane Davis’ blog yesterday. You can read it here:

I’ll be writing later this summer about the various books I’d recommend for a non-beach read, and Jane’s recent book Smash All The Windows will be among those I’ll be suggesting for immersing yourself in excellent fiction rather than sand, sea and suncream.

Ice Age Art ~ the arrival of the modern mind?

Ice Age Art ~ the arrival of the modern mind?

Last week I went to see an exhibition of Ice Age art at the British Museum:

The subtitle of the exhibition was ‘Arrival of the modern mind’ but more or less as soon as I stepped inside I questioned this. The first of the pieces were also the oldest, some forty thousand years old

I found that my reactions were of awe at the sculptures and irritation at the explanations. The irritations were simply because the small snippet of text for each artefact used both simplistic ideas and simplistic expressions; none of which does justice to the artefacts.

The idea that suddenly there was a leap of massive proportions from brutish empty-minded cavemen to exquisite primal artists annoyed me. The concept that human beings had gone from no art to fully formed and finely tuned creations is ludicrous, but in essence that was what the text in the display cases suggested. To be fair, the multimedia guides one could pay to use, and also the book that accompanies the exhibition may well go into much greater and more subtle explanations, but the impression someone would garner solely from the explanatory labels is that ‘as if by magic’ human beings learned to create art overnight.

Art of any sort is a process of long hours of practise, on top of generations of other artists’ work. All art is derivative of earlier forms. So the Ice Age art here is not the first art at all, but the first art that has survived for us to see. I imagine a great deal of early human art was ephemeral: body art, drawings in the sand, patterns with flowers, dance, song and so on.

So what made the difference? Why do we have such tangible art remaining from artists whose bones have been dust for tens of thousands of years? The answer: enforced leisure time.


This remarkable sculpture is thought to have taken around 400 hours to change a mammoth tusk into a figure that even today holds immense numinous power and visual impact:

But it cannot have simply leapt into the mind of the artist one day when he or she picked up a piece of ivory. The figure existed within the mind first, perhaps borne of legends already ancient, of myths already lost in time and drawn back for the tribe by a clever carver. Perhaps it was a familiar face, drawn on the sand in front of shelters since time immemorial. We’ll doubtless never know, but whatever it was, it mattered enough for someone to spend hundreds of hours creating it from raw ivory.

The Ice Age was a time of enforced inactivity and stillness. Long winters around the fire, with the same people, with little to break the monotony, meant that, as the saying goes, people had to make their own entertainment. You had to keep busy in some way or go mad So a project that might take all winter would be something to treasure. A reason to keep going when the snows piled higher and higher and when it felt like spring would never come.

Art is what brings hope. Whether it’s art that you can see, or art that you experience in other ways, art is what keeps us going, whether we know it or not. It may also be something that is crucial in retaining our humanity during tough times both personally and tribally. Both the creation of art and the appreciation and participation in art lift us out of the mindless fog we can easily slip into when winters literal and figurative drag on and on.

One of the pieces that moved me the most was not a depiction of a person or an animal but rather a possession. A flute crafted from the leg bone of a griffon vulture drew my eyes. It held the fine patina of an instrument polished by continual use, by perhaps generations of fingers that played tunes for others to listen to, or kept a lonely wanderer ‘s spirits up during dark cold nights. It made me wonder about its maker and its owner. Was it buried when the owner died, did it fall out of a pocket on a journey? Was it passed from generation to generation.

Art is cumulative, tribal, personal and above all, vital. Without art in our midst, civilization itself begins to crumble and vanish.

I’d like to end with a snippet of a work in progress, currently entitled Tabula Rasa. It’s something quite different from other work I have done but hopefully you will enjoy it and find it interesting.

“The men make bold figures of reindeer, wolf and whale from their scraps of bone, antler and firewood, and I watch carefully their craft. They seem to be freeing the creature locked inside the solid substances, finding clues to what lies within, and then whittling and carving till the shape becomes evident to everyone. They must sharpen their knives at times for the bone and antler especially are harder than they look. My guardian’s son sees me watching and decides to show me how to carve, taking my hands and directing them. I am still weaker than I ought to be, but I learn the techniques and when I find a piece of knotted root among the firewood, I can see within it a shape.

It takes me some weeks to free that figure from within the hard old root, and once I have found that shape and refined the lines, the sight of it brings a whistle of admiration from both the men.

You have the right sight, girl,” says the younger man. “That came out well. Now you must polish and finish it.”

They show me how to smooth the wood by rubbing it with sand, finer and finer until the grain begins to gleam. Then I must rub it with a mixture of fat and charcoal to darken it so that the wood appears ebony black and shines slightly. The figure is small enough to hold and almost cover with one hand, a kneeling woman, her head bowed and her hair falling in an arc over half her face. When it is completely finished, and every inch is polished to a soft black shine, the family admire it.

That is beautiful,” sighs my guardian.

I place it in her hands, and I bow my head so that my hair falls as that of the statue does.

It is yours then, Mother,” I say and when I lift my head again I see the glitter of falling tears.

I will cherish it,” she says and after an awkward moment of throat clearing, we all begin with our tasks of settling down for the night. There are dogs to let out, reindeer to be tended. But as I climb into my sleeping skins, I see that the figurine has been placed in the niche at the back of the cave where my guardian keeps a light burning even when we all sleep. The light dances on the soft sheen of the burnished wood and as I fall asleep I see that somehow out of that unnoticed root I had carved a facsimile of my own form.”


That Mona Lisa Smile and Stendhal Syndrome

That Mona Lisa Smile and Stendhal Syndrome


A few weeks ago I got to finally visit the Louvre in Paris. A word of warning: this is the second biggest museum in the world. Even knowing this didn’t not prepare me for the sheer scale of the place. It is ENORMOUS. Unbelievably big. I’ve walked round the outside of it several times but it never sank in how huge it is. With this in mind, we planned to go to one exhibit first and see how much time we had after that. I’m glad we made this decision because by the time we’d corralled the group and walked what felt like about a mile (it may actually have been close to this) we were running out of time.

The exhibit was of course the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. We walked past countless works of breathtakingly amazing art. I had to stop even glancing around me. I’m somewhat prone to Stendhal syndrome, that psychosomatic disorder where a person becomes totally overwhelmed by beauty to the extent they can faint or become otherwise incapacitated. So I focused on just getting us all to the painting.

I’m afraid I was underwhelmed. This is the most famous painting in the world:

It’s quite dull, behind bulletproof glass and a horde of people snapping away. To me, it had no atmosphere except that which the long walk and expectation created. It didn’t overwhelm me, even though I was primed to be knocked over. Worth billions itself and worth billions more through related merchandising, I just thought, “Meh!” and turned away. Call me a Phillistine if you like but it did nothing for me.

Later that evening, I finally had my portrait sketched at the artists’ square at Montmartre. The artists were doing good business and one offered to do mine for just 20 euros; I glanced at his work and decided to sit. Everyone agreed that he’d done astounding work for just fifteen minutes sketching.

Art and beauty are very subjective things but I’d rather appreciate something for its appeal to me than be swept along with the hype.


The Pyramids of the Louvre

Under this arch, a young man played the flute so hauntingly I dug out my purse and put a few euros in his hat…

It’s astounding the detail you miss by just marching on, eyes ahead.

Parisians were ambivalent about the Pyramids but seem to be happy with them now. But then Napoleon had a real obession with Egypt so maybe it’s in keeping after all…

Sunlight sparkled on the clear shallow water and made it unbearably inviting on a hot, hot day…

Excuse the pasty white pins!

Note the rows of shoes…..

Coming soon: Paris scams and beggars’ tricks.

Blue Waterlilies by Monet


Blue Water Lilies by Monet

I didn’t get very far in the Impressionists’ Gallery at the Musee d’Orsay. I think I was generally overwhelmed by it all; I was still pretty quiet inside after the catacombs and I found I was shrinking away from the beauty on show. I found a seat and sat and wrote about the Degas picture and found that slowly calmed me, much as I imagined the combing of her hair calmed the red head in the picture.

I wandered round, feeling lost and in need of a quiet haven of peace and found it in the Monet room.

I was unprepared for the sheer power of the paintings. I knew most of them from birthday cards and posters but they had never had the punch of the real ones.

The Blue water lilies drew me in and kept me. I wanted to find a deck chair and sit and watch for dragonflies and for fish rising to the surface. I could smell the river smell, sweet and dank at the same time with a green scent of the grass on the banks crushed beneath my dress. The light was going, and I was waiting for the first stars to emerge in the navy blue sky. Somewhere close by a blackbird began tuning up for his evening serenade.

I came to myself, standing open-mouthed amid a bustle of multi-national tourists and was back in the dust and heat of a sweltering Paris afternoon with only the prospect of a ride on the Metro and another busy evening to look forward to.

Later, riding round Paris by night on the coach, giving a commentary that no one seemed to listen to, I let my mind return to the cool blue lake and the blooming lilies and felt that calm and peace return, long enough to get me back to the hotel and into bed. My blue nightlight soothed me to sleep, overheated and exhausted as I was, and as I slid uneasily into sleep, the blackbird sang somewhere close by in my mind and I slid below the surface of the water and was at peace.

Femme se Coiffant

  Femme se Coiffant (woman combing her hair)

Extract from my journal 2nd July 2010

I’m sitting in the Degas room, contemplating a painting: Femme se coiffant. The semi-naked figure is combing very long dark red hair that must reach her hips. It’s texture is slightly rough, a little like the tail of a horse and her intent in restoring smoothness to her tresses hums through every line of the painting. You can feel the concentration even though you can’t see her face. There’s a powerful feeling as if in smoothing her hair she is smoothing her feelings, as if her emotions are being brought to order as she tames her hair. I imagine her as a fiery, temper-filled person, brimming with passion and vitality and a zest for life. It’s hard to remember that these luscious thick tresses only a few years from this will have been slowly to grey, to thin and become pale and lifeless, and that voluptuous body will have perhaps run to fat as middle-age ensues, or shrunken as old age withers her flesh. And harder still to remember that she’s a century dead now, the red hair and her strong bones turned to dust and lost. Only the painting remains of that moment in an unknown woman’s life. Her name, I do not know, but after the catacombs I am reminded that my flesh too is mortal and only my work will remain after my body is gone.

Light gleams on the hair or perhaps she has combed macassar oil into it to give it shine. She holds the mass of her hair in one hand and draws the comb down the length of it. You can feel the pressure of the comb until finally in a long slow movement it gives and the comb pulls through.”

I was entirely overwhelmed by the Impressionist gallery at the Musée D’Orsay,  which was my next stopping point after the catacombs. Coming hard on the heels of my musings on mortality, this picture(it’s actually done with pastels) caught my eye for a number of reasons. My own hair is almost this long and similar texture and I had a sense of fellowship with the woman combing it. I also work very occasionally as a life model and one thing that has always struck me doing that is that it is the work of the artist that is remembered and praised, not the courage of the model. Often the model remains unknown; many never even draw my face.

But this girl and her artist are long dead and yet, something of their essence remains to those who wish to touch and experience it. I hope to do the same one day.

next- waterlilies by Monet: not what I expected.  



The dead lie quiet and watchful here, I think,
Beneath the waving wildflowers
And tall grasses bleached blonde
By intermittent summer sun.
A lady lies here, or a kind man maybe;
War-like in weapons only
But quiet in heart and mind.
The other dead, dust alone remaining,
Resent the relentless tread
Of dull and careless feet
That wear the crown of the barrow bald
And lay bare the chalky soil
In an uncertain stony path.
The great stones, a glance away,
Command the attention of the dull throng
Caught up in automatic wonder
Walking the stony circus round and round
While here, unheeded, the real ancestors lie.


Working instinctively

I like to draw and paint a bit; sketch this and that, dabble with clays and so on.  I’ve put a few things on here and also at cafe crem but I’m fully aware I’m not much good in the grand scheme of things. I’m often too aware of an image in my head of what I want the finished creation to look like to actually focus on what I am doing and just draw.

The last couple of days I have done a few drawings that have contained rather more than I expected. The first I was sitting in the garden, mostly alone but for the bees and for a short while with my daughter. I let myself work without much conscious thought at all, making instinctive decisions rather than logical ones. I was pretty stunned by the results. The picture drew itself. Then yesterday I was out on an excursion with students to a local stately home and while sitting outside the Maze, I started drawing the trees and shrubs I could see from where I sat. I worked differently; using logical though rather than instinct. I didn’t bother finishing the picture. A little later, I found a rather lovely bench in a kind of pergola affair and there I started again, this time using a charcoal pencil and letting the pencil have a life of its own. The results were again substantially better than when I took control. Looking at the picture now, I can see where my conscious mind woke up and took control and said, “hang on a minute, that’s a wall there; draw it like a wall. That’s a yew tree; make it look like a few tree,” and where my hand and my eye just got on with sketching.

I’ve learned something quite useful here; my conscious mind can be a bit of a fussbudget and a control freak.

I wonder if I can manage to find it something useful to do (like my tax returns) while I get back into some writing, or whether I need it fully alert and active when I write fiction.

This merits an experiment…

Tree Mandala



I had a time some years back where I experimented drawing mandalas; well, sort of mandalas. I would meditate for a while and then begin to draw. I’m not an artist at all, and doing these drawings was about freeing something inside me, rather than trying to capture an image or scene. I’d been thinking about trees, obviously, and their place in my life, when I did this mandala.

I used the same design to paint on a medicine shield that now hangs in my study.  I know it doesn’t look like any tree on earth, but then it wasn’t intended to!

Thief of Time?




The above picture is of the new clock at  Corpus Christi college in Cambridge. I quote a new’s report to explain the clock a little:

“The masterpiece, introduced by famed cosmologist Stephen Hawking, challenges all preconceptions about telling time. It has no hands or digital numbers and it is specially designed to run in erratic fashion, slowing down and speeding up from time to time.

Inventor John Taylor used his own money to build the clock as a tribute to John Harrison, the Englishman who in 1725 invented the grasshopper escapement, a mechanical device that helps regulate a clock’s movement.

Making a visual pun on the grasshopper image, Taylor created a demonic version of the insect to top the gold-plated clock where it devours time.”

The clock was “opened” in September but I’ve not been to Cambridge since the summer.

I rather liked this clock because I couldn’t tell the time! Time ticks away and I end up feeling guilty because of the amount of it I seem to waste, just doing nothing, watching the sky, watching the flowers grow, listening to silence and the birds. Each day passes and I chide myself that I have done nothing. And then I get angry with myself for that chiding.

Time is a concept that is a modern one. Early man divided the year into seasons, and that was enough. Now we divide it into milliseconds and even that is not enough.

I want to step out of time and stop worrying: worrying about whether I am doing enough. I want to allow myself to be idle and lazy and not be angry with myself.

You see, the greatest ideas and thoughts in my life have emerged in the still moments between frenetic activity, and if I don’t slow down and cherish those idle moments, the inspirations will vanish without me ever seeing them and understanding them.

“Slow down, you move too fast, you gotta make the morning last”, is a great mantra, and I’m going to try and make it MY mantra today. What about you?