THE ART OF PAINTING ACCORDING TO BERNARD HESLIN
WITH ADUMBRATIONS FROM STEVEN MENDOZA 02/09/2007 08:24 PM
Steven’s articulation of a conversation with Bernard Heslin in his studio
Painting as an art more than mere illustration or decoration is essentially, like all arts, a process in which the artist, having prepared, then opens himself to the spontaneous emergence of a formulation he could never have contrived consciously. Thus he is able to advance our understanding of what it is to be human and to express the human condition immediately as we now experience the world. Many artists hold that this process also advances the art of painting and to some extent we have seen a historical development. On the other hand, some of this history has been a recovery of what has been lost as well as an advance. We saw this in a very contrived way with the Pre-Raphaelites. We saw it in a much freer and more “painterly” way with Picasso’s revolutionary response to an art which we may properly call primitive but which sets a standard of expression and realisation from which art repeatedly falls away in decadent, sterilised, mannered, precision.
What makes an artist important is not that he advances art in the way that a scientist advances science but that he produces work that we learn from, that moves us, that makes us morally and cognitively better, that reveals something to us. In the course of doing this he is likely to find that he has worked in a new way which brings to a synthesis the dialectic of his training, experience and knowledge of art history;- but innovation for its own sake is vapid.
The content of painting is essentially symbolic. The motifs the artist arrives at in his preparation have an initial significance for him from which he departs in the act of painting into an unknown which may develop the theme inspiring the motif or may turn out to represent the material in a way the artist had never expected. It is this liberation of the unconscious which makes painting exhilarating for the painter and the viewer. But here the unconscious does not mean the suppressed material of psychoanalysis but the potential of the mind emerging from the inchoate into the expressed. Thus the artist may look at his work with the same discovery as the viewer or he may see in it what he sought to put there. Or, more often, he may see how the work shows how, in the next painting, he might get closer to the elusive understanding he apprehends.
A hospital trolley, for instance, works in hierarchy of levels of symbolism from the suffering of the patient entering a casualty department on to the trolley upon which we are abandoned, untreated and unattended in a corridor by a health service we do not want to pay for until it is too late. And the symbolism continues hierarchically through the helplessness of all of us in one way or another as we lie metaphorically, on our trolleys, helpless because we are members of an oppressed minority, because we are poor and ignorant, because we are materialists who cannot bear the uncertainty of reality, because finally, even when we have the power to make others helpless, putting them on trolleys, finally we are mortal and our wealth and power do not protect us from, suffering, sickness and death. The artist may take up the motif as an expression of this only to find in his own work more than he appreciated he had undertaken. Wisdom is not what we know but what is revealed to us if we can bear the limitation of ourselves and the uncertainty of our knowledge.