Emotion In Art by Geoff Harrison

While studying art at RMIT University in the 1990’s I felt a not-so-subtle pressure to steer clear of sentimentality and emotional subject matter in my art practice.   I’m not sure why emotion was so frowned upon, a sign of the times perhaps but there was a clear preference for dry, conceptual work.

Thus I often felt alienated at university, and I do recall a presentation given by one of the lecturers who was most adverse to emotion in art.  It soon became clear to me that she was in denial – almost in denial of life, so I formed the opinion that this issue of emotion was her problem, not mine.


I was reminded of all this when viewing Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 1996 series “A History Of British Art” on DVD.  He argues that because of their intense colour and blatant sensuality, Howard Hodgkin’s paintings (above) have met with an uneasy response in Britain.  He describes Hodgkin’s work as a rebuttal to puritanism, especially to that intellectual puritanism which is embarrassed by pleasure or any form of strong emotion and are only comfortable with pictures once they’ve been reduced to a set of abstract ideas.  He describes Hodgkin’s work as expressing a language of emotion, a language of the body.


And for some reason, a drawing by Vincent Van Gogh, made early in his career, also came to mind.  The subject is Sien, one of his early mistresses who was a pregnant prostitute.  You can see the emotion pouring out of this work.  How put-upon I would have been producing a work like this at RMIT, regardless of the technical skill it may have embodied.

then and now 4 copy.jpg

I need to be moved in some way by a scene before I will paint it.  The aim always is to create a mood which allows the viewer to enter the scene and absorb the atmosphere in there.

Nadia - The Autistic Child Who Could Draw Like Picasso by Geoff Harrison

The story of Nadia Chomyn (1967 - 2015) is remarkable. Born to Ukrainian parents who moved to England in the 1960’s , she was diagnosed as severely autistic.  She needed help dressing and feeding and was unable to effectively communicate and yet from the age of 3 was able to draw superbly.  She broke all the accepted rules of the development of graphic representation in children.  That is, she never went through the usual childlike stage of scribble, stick figures etc and was able to draw seemingly without motivation.

Nadia Chomyn 2.jpg

Once finished she would push the drawing away or draw over it.  Her drawings raised questions about the relationship between the conscious and instinctive mind.  She was at her most productive between the ages of 3 & 9 and when her drawings were published in 1977, they created quite a stir.  She came to the notice of the renowned neurologist Oliver Sachs and her remarkable talent is still frequently cited in textbooks on developmental psychology.


Her inspiration seems to have come mainly from picture books, especially the Ladybird series, whose pictures were often based on photographic images.  Her drawings show a clear understanding of single point perspective, overlapping and the correct use of proportion.  Throughout this period, she was very passive and totally unresponsive to social engagement.

Nadia Chomyn.jpg

From about the age of 9, Nadia gradually lost the ability to draw realistically and eventually her drawing ceased completely. Whilst there have been other autistic artists and savants identified and studied over the years, none have shown such a prodigious talent at such a young age.

 “As yet there is no single explanatory theory for her prodigious talent. But, without question, Nadia’s drawings introduced many psychologists to the conundrum that is autism.” THE GUARDIAN

Sources: The Guardian

: The Secret of Drawing - BBC 4

Cardiac Surgeon Inspired By Art by Geoff Harrison

In his series “The Secret Of Drawing”, art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon discusses with prominent British heart surgeon Francis Wells the significance of the anatomical drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci . Wells has used the drawings of Da Vinci to assist him in developing new ways of repairing damaged hearts.

Francis Wells

Francis Wells

Wells uses drawing to not only help him prepare for the details of a heart operation, he produces small drawings on paper using the blood from the chest cavity to give a “replay” of the procedure to his team.

Leonardo was fascinated by how the mitral valve closes and produced a glass bulb in the shape of an aorta and pumped water through it. He put grass seeds in the water so he could trace it’s movement. Through his drawings, Leonardo developed the worlds first artificial heart valve. All this in 1513, when he he had no one to talk to, there was no heart surgery or meaningful medicine, and to most people it wouldn’t have made any sense.


These experiments of Leonardo, and the drawings he produced from them have enabled Wells to work out how to restore the normal opening and closing of the mitral valve.

Francis Wells describes Leonardo as a flat out original thinker and a genius. He has spent many years studying the anatomical drawings of Leonardo and encourages significant interaction between artists and scientists.

Baldessin/Whiteley and the curator by Geoff Harrison

Sometimes a 'curator's perspective' can lift ones appreciation of an exhibition from moderate to considerable.  Emeritus professor Sasha Grishin's talk on the Baldessin/Whiteley show at the National Gallery of Victoria (Federation Square) is a case in point.  Both Brett Whiteley and George Baldessin were born in 1939, both had difficult childhoods, both enjoyed considerable success in their respective cities; Melbourne (Baldessin) and Sydney (Whiteley), and both had relatively short careers.  Baldessin's was ended in a fatal car accident in 1978, Whiteley died in 1992, although the last decade of his life was somewhat unproductive.

Whiteley                                The Spray At Bondi    (1981)

Whiteley                                The Spray At Bondi    (1981)

I was aware of Whiteley's difficult childhood, largely the result of being sent to a boarding school at Bathurst when he was 8.  He hated every minute of it.  But I was not aware of Baldessin's.  He was born in Italy and his mother left for Australia shortly after with the intention of finding work and then bringing her family over - but the second world war intervened and George was shunted around from relative to relative, not seeing his mother again until he finally arrived in Australia at the age of 10.  They were never close. 

Baldessin         Part of his MM (Mary Magdalene) at Rue Saint Denis series  1976 

Baldessin         Part of his MM (Mary Magdalene) at Rue Saint Denis series  1976 

Both artists rejected the abstract expressionist movement of the time and focused on more figurative work.  Both of them were concerned with the human condition and the duality of human nature.  One of Whiteley's more celebrated series of paintings was based around the serial murderer John Reginald Christie in his 10 Rillington Place series.

Both artists explored themes of sexuality in an urban environment and witnessed the rapidly changing world following WW2 including the cultural upheavals of the 1960's and 70's.  Both artists were sculptors and well as 2D artists and both were strongly influenced by British artist Francis Bacon.

Whiteley                      Black - The Get Laid Totem

Whiteley                      Black - The Get Laid Totem

The highlight for Whiteley fans will probably be his 22 metre long "American Dream" which was painted in the late 1960's while he and his family were living in New York - a savage critique of life in America, which as Grishin points out, seems just as relevant today in Donald Trump's America.  Overall, a powerful exhibition.

Baldessin                               The Performer

Baldessin                               The Performer

Richard Estes & Canaletto - Birds Of A Feather? by Geoff Harrison

"Unfortunately it has been too easy for anybody to take a photograph, trace it, and make a lousy painting. Photorealism, in that sense, has been bastardized. I can sympathize with a lot of people who just reject it outright, because, like anything else, there is so much bad stuff around. I always thought of myself as a Realist painter."  RICHARD ESTES

That may be the case, but it's what Estes does with reality that fascinates me, and puts me in mind of the famous Venician artist of the Eighteenth Century, Canaletto.

On The Staten Island Ferry  (1989)               Richard Estes                         Oil On Canvas

On The Staten Island Ferry  (1989)               Richard Estes                         Oil On Canvas

Estes, along with other photorealist artists, decided to turn their backs on the gestural style of the abstract expressionist movement which was so prominent in late 60's America, and aim for a kind of hyper realism which was more descriptive of a high tech post war age.

Piazza San Marco With The Basilica    (1730)    Canaletto                  Oil On Canvas

Piazza San Marco With The Basilica    (1730)    Canaletto                  Oil On Canvas

Early on in his career, Canaletto abandoned the dark and brooding tonality of his work and produced paintings of a much higher pitch, mainly because he found a new market for his work in Venice - the English tourist.  Canaletto was famous for his use of the camera obscura which he used to produce multiple images of a scene from different vantage points.  Then he jumbled them up to come up with a scene that, in reality, didn't exist.  It was the eighteenth century's prelude to the photo montage and thus he created scenes that were far more idyllic than in reality.

Madison Square  (1994)                     Richard Estes                    Oil On Canvas

Madison Square  (1994)                     Richard Estes                    Oil On Canvas

When viewers have tried to match Estes' paintings with actual scenes around New York and elsewhere, they have found inconsistencies.  He works from multiple photos of a scene, even bisecting them, shifting elements around,  to come up with a composition that plays with perspective which can be a little disorienting.  "By creating his photorealistic montages that seem convincingly whole, Estes produces works in which there are multiple focal points. He confounds the concept of the mathematical or one-point perspective, the Renaissance invention that provided drawn and painted images with the illusion of depth. Instead, viewing a typical Estes painting feels like one is constantly changing vantage points".  THE ART STORY

London, Whitehall & the Privy Garden   (1747)             Canaletto           Oil On Canvas

London, Whitehall & the Privy Garden   (1747)             Canaletto           Oil On Canvas

When the English tourist market dried up, Canaletto decided to travel to England and produced some remarkable scenes such as the one above which was painted from Richmond House (no longer extant).

Estes paintings reinvigorated the importance of craft in painting and even though his work is hyper-realistic, they are still in some way "painterly".  His work goes beyond photography.

The ABC's Token Gesture To The Arts by Geoff Harrison

Not him again!  Yes, it's him again.  Anh Do's brush with bullshit makes its return to ABC television.  As I've argued before, there must be hundreds of thousands of visual artists in this country and just one guy gets all this exposure.  Why?  So what if he is a refugee who made good.  It's time we got over it and focused attention on other artists in this country.

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What makes me sad is I can remember the days when there was very good arts coverage on the ABC and SBS.  I have the DVD's to prove it (many of them dubbed from VHS - some of the programs being THAT old.)  

I'm sure the more enlightened of you would have figured out that Anh's Brush With Fame is not about art at all, it's about the "celebrities".  The attraction of the show for the ABC is that it's cheap to make as there is no research, just a friendly chat show whilst the guy is painting and it might as well be a morning cooking show.  All very sad really and it represents a dumbing down of arts coverage on free to air TV.

The Charm (Perhaps) Of Lonely Places by Geoff Harrison

Subtract the word Perhaps and you have the title of a blog from the School Of Life.  It is argued that when we imagine a place where we are at our happiest, we often imagine being with friends or family in a cosy home, at a party, at our favourite bar or on a busy street teaming with people.

Dunolly Plains                        Oil On Canvas                            2013

Dunolly Plains                        Oil On Canvas                            2013

But a case is made for "locations that are starkly downbeat, empty, melancholic, architecturally compromised and isolated".  It's argued we may feel a deep pull to these places, to feel far more at home there than in a busy social setting. 

"We may have an instinctive sense that we are true natives of the isolated motorway diner at 11pm. Or of the open road, under a boundless sky in which a billion stars are starting to appear." It's argued that in these places, we can recover a sense of who we are by getting in contact with the disavowed sides of our character and have internal conversations which are drowned out by the chatter of our regular lives.  But that would surely depend on the histories our "disavowed sides" contain.  Would it be better to let sleeping dogs lie?

We can make plans, deal with regrets and excitements "without any pressure to be reassuring, purposeful or just (so-called) normal."   In other words, chill out.  It's also argued that the bleakness all around is a relief from the false comforts of home.  But what if "home" turned out to be not so uncomfortable after all?  Perhaps the bleakness may lead to a reassessment of "home".

"The fellow outsiders we encounter in these lonely places seem closer to offering us the true community we crave than the friends we should supposedly rely on."  I'm not so sure of this either.  I met some pretty strange souls when I moved to North-Central Victoria a few years ago. "They seem like our true brothers and sisters...."  Well, no.  Not in my experience.

"Then And Now"                       Oil On Canvas                                2018

"Then And Now"                       Oil On Canvas                                2018

I discovered during my self-imposed loneliness a few years ago that I was more gregarious than I thought.  And it took some difficult soul searching to discover this.  Perhaps the message being relayed by this blog is that we don't need an expensive holiday on a lush tropical island to gain the benefits of "chilling out"; any lonely, non-descript location will do.  Just don't over do it.

Networking And The Introvert by Geoff Harrison


I became aware of this book via another, Justin Heazlewood's "Funemployed: Life As An Artist In Australia".  In one chapter, Heazlewood discusses the challenges facing artists when it comes to networking, and he includes quotes from Cain.  She argues that in the modern era people have to prove themselves in a crowd of strangers, so qualities like magnetism and charisma become very important. Trouble is, most artists are introverts who feel at their most alive when they are in quieter, low key environments.

"It's little wonder artists find the concept of networking and self-promotion confronting, as industry demands are in direct opposition to there psychological makeup." HEAZLEWOOD    He argues the notion of the social artist is problematic on several levels.  It assumes a one-size-fits-all approach where introverts must adapt or die to an extroverted ideal.  It shifts the priority from an artist's work to their personality.

"Solitude matters", says Cain. It's where artists gain their inspiration.  I like Heazlewood's comment that artists, once the cultural beacons and outsider innovators are stripped of their context as they become high profile participants in a Big Brother chatroom.  "This peer-pressured social matrix threatens to hijack an artist's creative brain."

So is the internet the answer?  Given I've recently sold a painting online and rented another online, perhaps the answer is yes.  But only if you know how to use it.  Heazlewood describes Facebook as allowing you to experience social anxiety from the inconvenience of your bedroom.

After viewing Susan Cains TED talk, I intend to get hold of this book.