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An Interview on art, landscape and vision loss

The visit to Heide made me think a lot about issues regarding art, gender, the Australian landscape and yes, making art with vision loss.

I have spent the year painting many, many landscapes, big ones and little ones, and nearly everything has sold, so I am busy making more.

Despite a full agenda, (more on that soon), I thought I might post an excerpt from an interview I did recently for my cousin’s website.

We are an art family from way back, and my coz has a very successful art dealing business, so we had an opportunity to organize an interview based around my work. You can find the full interview at https://angelatandorifineart.com/blogs/news/art-desire-and-vision-loss-an-interview-with-erica-tandori here, but an excerpt with some of my recent work is included below…

My art and vision loss…

My first thought is that blindness itself plays no part in my art practice, (unless it is specifically about vision loss), in that it does not stop me from making work. I use every tool available to me to achieve the image that is burning in my imagination – an image or feeling that I see and feel so clearly, and that is so urgent for me to bring to fruition.

But the issue of vision for an artist is complex. During my PhD, I discovered there were many famous artists with significant vision problems. The French Impressionist Edgar Degas comes to mind because he may have had an eye disease like my own, (which is a juvenile form of macular dystrophy, known as Stargardt’s Disease). It is said he continuously bemoaned the large blind spot at the centre of his vision, never being able to ‘see the subject itself, but always looking around it’. Due to this disease, it became very difficult for him to work directly in the landscape, as macular dystrophy causes a sensitivity to light. It may have been the reason he chose interior subject matter. However, he made great works in mid and later life despite his central vision loss. The heartbreak these renowned artists must have felt, and the stigma too, which must have kept them silent on the demise of their vision can only be imagined. When I first came to art school at the VCA back in the 1980s I remember being in drawing class and suddenly realising I could no longer see the life model in front of me. Bursting into tears, I told my drawing teacher (who became a renowned Archibald prize winner in later years), that I had just recently been diagnosed with an incurable eye disease. My poor teacher sped across the quadrangle to inform the Dean of the college of my distress. I understand how shocking it is for an artist to face the potential loss of sight, as if though the soul of the artist is in the retina.

Moonrise over Westernport, 2017
Oil and Pigment on canvas on board , H 30 cm x W 40 cm

And yet it is not, for the soul of an artist, if there is such a thing, is driven by imagination and desire. Researching my PhD, I came to understand how visual perception works, and that the retina plays a very small part in this role. Instead, we create the world through our brains, constructing a considered view of the world through Individual and revolutionary processes. In that sense, my blindness does inform my art because I am more aware that my eyes don’t have that much to do with it.

Having said all that, I still have enough vision to be thrilled by colour and light, and the mood they evoke in me. Despite the loss, I’m still driven to pursue visual pleasure through the making of art.

Thoughts on sight versus vision…

The great neuroscientist Samir Zeki explains it well by saying that processes of seeing the world around us cannot be untangled from processes of understanding that world, therefore seeing is understanding. This connects with the scientists Purves and Lotto’s empirical theories of visual perception.

( See https://www.ted.com/talks/beau_lotto_optical_illusions_show_how_we_see by Lotto for a TED talk on this and https://global.oup.com/academic/product/why-we-see-what-we-do-redux-9780878935963?cc=us&lang=en&

So retinal seeing is using sensory information, which is meaningless unless we seek to understand what we are seeing, and attempting to make sense of it. I think seeing art works from a young age made me see the world in a certain way, or even want to see it in a certain way, and this becomes vision more than sight. Sometimes I have thought, “It’s an Ellioth Gruner kind of light this morning”, or “The light is so titanium white today”, or “This evening panorama seems so Glover” is nonsense of course, but denotes my way of seeing, or rather, relating to, the places around me.

But I think also to have a vision means to desire to see something in a certain way. A desire to create the world in a way that invokes meaning to the self. People have said art is a window, a framework through which we see the world. But perhaps art is more like a mirror, reflecting aspects about our understanding of the world, or a desire to see the imagined world perfectly reflecting back at us.

Despite my vision loss, and the apparent demise of colour perception which is supposed to happen with this disease, colour for me still invokes mood and intense emotion, and it is this intense emotion triggered by the images in my mind’s eye, that impels me to create the work.

The Twilight Hour, 2017
Oil and Pigment on Canvas on board h 30 cm x W 40 cm

Realism in my art…

I get those (dreamy haunted) feelings (in my) work because that’s what I get when I’m in a landscape, even though I can’t see it very well. I use photography, the camera’s eye, to capture the landscape, and just like the retina, it is only a tool, not the end in itself. In this way, maybe realism in painting could also be a tool, (just like abstraction or cubism or anything else) and is not an end in itself. Perhaps we could say that the image, the art work we’re creating, is a vehicle by which we transfer the emotion that we are trying to evoke. Maybe the stylistic effects function as a way to carry the emotions too.

All these things are the conduit of emotion from artist to viewer, who also participates in the art creation. Am I haunted by the landscape? Yes, the transience of light and time, and of those who have painted the landscape in the past. I’m thinking here of that astounding painting by David Davies, Moonrise, 1894. https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/5474/ What an astonishing painting. There, that’s the difference between seeing and vision! And even between realism and poetry!

Mt relationship to painting and eye disease..

My future as an artist looked grim at the time of my diagnosis. The eye specialists could not tell me how blind I would become, exactly when that would happen, or what the world would look like with diminished vision. They said leave art school, go learn touch typing.

But my relationship to painting and to art has changed significantly, particularly through the process of researching vision loss. It has been quite profound to discover that there is no scientific instruments on this earth that can convey how visual loss appears from the perspective of the patient, other than the patient and artist conveying that experience through art.

No medical expert, no computer, can tell me what I do and do not see, and how I see through my vision loss. So when the doctor said to me, “leave art school, give up, it’s no use”, I should not have listened. I should have recorded my own diminishing vision through my art.

Over the Golden Hill, 2017
Oil and Pigment on canvas on board 3H 0 cm x W 40 cm

But I did not know that at the time of diagnosis, I did not know how important art could be to exploring the world of vision loss, until I began my PhD. Now I see very clearly that art has a significant contribution to make to cross disciplinary research, to medicine and science. I have realised that there is no better language on earth, no better research tool or method of investigating the experience of vision loss other than through the very visual language of art.

If you take a look at the TED talk cited above, Lotto talks about how we use vision as humans and how we use colour to try to make sense of things in the world. It is a very evolutionary thing. As artists, we are also scientists, exploring the behaviour of colour, light and form to make sense of the world.

There have been instances where artists have lost their vision and continued painting, so the relationship to painting does not necessarily change despite vision loss. Why is this so? Why haven’t some people stopped painting despite almost total loss of vision? See in particular the British artist Sargy Mann http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33109430

Experiences of the body in the world…

Yes, I have found instincts and feelings predominate as my sight diminishes.
To return to the theme of art as a mirror, painting becomes a safe place where I see the world clearly, where there is beauty, colour, light and drama, a world created not through the diseased retina, but through a desire to escape it.

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Power and Presence at Heide Museum of Modern Art

The Garden at Heide, Monoprint, Pigment, Acrylic on Arches 88 paper W 6 inches x H 8 inches
The Garden at Heide
Monoprint, Pigment, Acrylic on Arches 88 paper
W 6 inches x H 8 inches, Copyright Erica Tandori 2016

A few weeks ago, my eldest daughter announced “Mum, why don’t we go to Heide Gallery this morning?”

For those who don’t know, Heide Museum of Modern Art, located in Melbourne’s leafy north eastern suburb of Bulleen, was home to one of Australian art’s power couples of the past century, John and Sunday Reed. Heide is considered an important cultural institution in Australian art.

(See the Heide website https://www.heide.com.au

It was here that some well-known Australian artists and writers of the mid 20th century came together to discuss art and life, and where Sidney Nolan conceived his famous Ned Kelly series of paintings. No doubt, the old weatherboard house, nestled amongst the gums and large oak tree, also harboured a good deal of scandal, and thoughts of visiting the house fills me with disquiet, as if though the former occupants will still be there, and, engaged in heated conversation, will look up at me as if to say, “Who are you and what are you doing in our house?”

(Sounds like they were pretty busy up the bush in those days!) See Modern Love: The Lives of John & Sunday Reed by Kendrah Morgan and Leslie Harding reviewed by Sydney Morning Herald  September 2015

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/heide-founders-john-and-sunday-reeds-love-entanglements-revealed-in-new-book-20150915-gjn2ke.html

But on this glorious Melbourne day, with the sky a most perfect blue, and the air still and warm, it was not just scandal I was thinking of. It had been many years since I had ventured to Heide as part of a tour with my art school, and I wanted to touch base with this iconic home and gallery. So we took off, water bottles and snacks in hand, along the freeway to Bulleen.

The gallery has certainly come a long way. The old house where the Reeds had lived, was still there, in perfect order. But now new and modern facilities have sprung up on the grounds of the suburban home, complete with a separate modern gallery, orange grove, gardens, paths, a cafe and sculpture park.

I could not believe our good fortune, for today an exhibition featuring the Modernist female artists, American Georgia O’Keeffe, and the Australians Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith, was under way, and crowds were already gathering in the air-conditioned foyer.

But there was also action downstairs in the female toilets, And I must mention this incident because it was highly amusing.

I was waiting for my turn in the bathroom and wondering why the door took so long to open. After some time, an elegantly dressed woman emerged from the cubicle, wringing her hands. She came towards me, presenting her outstretched fingers to my nose.

“Smell this”, she exclaimed, “They have the most beautiful hand cream here”. And indeed, they did.  No wonder this lady had taken so long in the toilet, for it was truly a well appointed, modern, tasteful, most stylish cubicle, the kind of space one could linger in, and worry about nothing but playing with the bottles of exquisite hand soaps and creams.

As I stood at the basin, rubbing my hands with this adorable hand cream and smiling at the incident that had just occurred with the Elegant Lady, I looked up at the mirror and saw an amazing quote.

One of the gallery staff had stenciled a quote by Georgia O’Keeffe onto the large mirror that hung over the wash basin. It read:

“The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters”.

I had not known that today I would be seeing the work of this great painter firsthand. Georgia O’Keeffe, as I had discovered during my PhD research into art and vision loss, was a fellow macular degenerate, suffering age-related macular degeneration in later life which put a halt to her painting career.

So now that bathroom adventures were out of the way, my daughter and I ventured into the gallery itself, which was becoming very busy with sightseers.

In one room, there were many paintings by Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith, and in the other room paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe.

But I simply was not prepared for what I experienced.

It was the strangest thing, and perhaps I can describe the feeling as akin to having been fed bread and water for too long, and suddenly being presented with a massive double decker chocolate gateaux. Too much great art to feast on is like a sugar rush.

I found myself standing among many Margaret Preston paintings bearing down on me from the walls. The paintings were not necessarily large or astonishing in their subject matter. They did not have to be.

These paintings had a presence that was unbelievable. They had a power that reached across time and cultural distance. They were overwhelming in their composition and mastery.

Each painting was jostling for my undivided attention, and as they hung side by side in the room, I could not decide which one to consume first.

Grace Cossington Smith’s work was equally compelling.

It seemed as if though each painting was communicating directly to me: “this is how I draw my line, this is how I apply my colour, this is how I use my brushstrokes, this is how I show you the essence of what I see, and this is exactly how you shall see what I see”

I was struck, I must confess, by the mastery of these women painters.

What was it that made their work transcend everything, even my low vision?

Perhaps it was their unerring, unapologetic, dedication to the craft of painting, and all the elements that make a painting really work: line, form, colour, composition, … all operating together to give a painting presence.

It is not simply what one sees with the eye and diligently records, that makes a painting great. And you don’t just see a great painting with your eyes.

No, these women were trying to deeply engage me in the act of experiencing something, not just seeing it. In fact, I did not have to see these paintings perfectly, with perfect vision. These ‘things’ on the wall they had created – they were alive and eagerly, intelligently, communicating with me about their own existence.

By this stage I was already overwhelmed. The Elegant Lady had blown her mind over the hand soap, and I was having a similar experience with the Prestons and the Cossingtion Smiths.

We turned into the next room and there was a large crowd gathering around one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.

Now I was feeling  quite  dizzy and the atmospheric, ephemeral brushstrokes of the Georgia O’Keefe paintings took me into a state of anxiety. I was struggling to find a painting that had enough ground in it – something that could visually anchor me.

Georgia O’Keefe’s work is very different from the Australian modernists, and I was afraid to admit to myself that I didn’t find her paintings shown in this exhibition as compelling as the work of Preston and Cossington Smith, but feeling guilty, I tucked that thought away very quickly, reminding myself of the lovely quote on the bathroom mirror in the gallery toilet; O’Keeffe  is a great painter, and really, like  Manuel in Fawlty Towers , “I know nahting…”

(There is a little documentary on the life and work of Georgia O’ Keeffe, showing some of her amazing early charcoals and abstract paintings, and goes some way to explaining why there may have been a shift in her work after meeting Stieglitz.

See https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/about-georgia-okeeffe/

And so we wound our way through the old house that was once the home of John and Sunday Reed, where many artists of the past century had ventured to, I imagine, with bottles of wine, and good food, to talk about Life, Art and umm….other things… in Australia.

When I got home I could not stop thinking of the painters whose works I had just seen.

I opened my big book about Margaret Preston and began re-examining the images.

That night perusing my iPad I found an article written by one of my former lecturers about the exhibition I had just seen.

It was an astonishing review of the exhibition.

You can follow the link below to read it.

Making Modernism review: Australian painters Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith tower over American artist Georgia O’Keeffe November 15 2016, by Robert Nelson,

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/melbourne-arts/making-modernism-review-australian-painters-margaret-preston-and-grace-cossington-smith-tower-over-american-artist-georgia-okeeffe-20161114-gspen0.html

I think in the end I learned two things at Heide;

One is that the craft of painting should not be ignored, no matter what the latest trends.

Good technique, and a never-ending quest to keep on improving, makes for a stronger painter. The artists I saw at Heide never stopped learning and working on their craft.

Their work cuts through fashions in art like a hot knife through a slab of butter because of their mastery with paint.

The other thing I learnt was that Australia has some of the world’s greatest artists, and the rest of the world needs to know it.

Making Modernism: Georgia O’Keeffe, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith (working title)

October 2016 – February 2017

Heide Museum of Modern Art is located at : 7 Templestowe Rd, Bulleen VIC 3105. Ph: 03 9850 1500

Opening hours: Tuesday-Sunday and public holidays, 10am-5pm

 

 

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