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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson


Look out at the night sky and, if you are like me, be humbled and grounded by the vastness and majesty that you drink in with your eyes; be acutely and gloriously aware of the insignificance of absolutely everything that we do on this earth, in the face of the overwhelming grandeur of the universe. Van Gogh caught the monumental power of such an instant in one of his most justly famous paintings, STARRY NIGHT (1889), created during a period intense mental anguish.

STARRY NIGHT - Vincent van Gogh (1889)

There is a popular myth that the stars we see in our night sky are already dead, that they have burnt out. Though stars can and do perish, almost every star that we see is still alive. The more massive the star, the shorter is its life span. 'Our' sun, however, can continue to fuse hydrogen for some ten billion years. Some very small stars may survive for up to a trillion years.

In the face of this, our fretting about the longevity of artworks emerges as a laughable vanity. We worry and stress about archival art materials, about the risk of pigments fading, of varnish cracking, of frames falling apart; all valid concerns of course, with regard to the few generations during which a painting will be appreciated before natural disintegration inevitably intervenes, but worth putting into perspective nonetheless.

As my readers know, I have invited suggestions in a previous post , for topics suitable for future blog posts. This invitation, incidentally, still stands if any of you have ideas!

With my invitation in mind, my brother-in-law recently told me of a 1990's American comedy-drama series, "Northern Exposure” apparently something of a cult production which, as well as providing off-beat entertainment, predicted later social and lifestyle trends including that of the iPhone generation, citing “the self-affirming power of a new toy”. A fish-out-of-water story in which a New York doctor is sent to practise in rural Alaska, the scenario of Northern Exposure expands to focus on other eccentric local characters in the village.

In one episode the owner of the local bar is seen relaxing beside a painting of a cottage. Crucially, the picture is a 'painting by numbers', an abominable genre by any stretch of the imagination, though arguably less egregious than the current iniquity of AI 'art'. In the scene, the bar owner is mocked by a patron, for displaying the monstrosity on his wall. Another local, the DJ at the bar, known for his regular discourse on philosophical and intellectual subjects, wisely suggests that the painting should be burnt while - more significantly - using this pronouncement to argue that the ultimate point of the creation of Art is its eventual destruction.

Pondering on this scene and on the natural degradation of works of art as mentioned above, I began to reflect upon the significant number of artists who have sought a dramatic hastening of the process, destroying their work in gestures which, whether grand or casual, may be argued to be making way for subsequent greater glories of artistic creation. The crop is sown in the field, so to speak, it flowers, bears fruit and is harvested, after which its spent leaves and roots are ploughed back into the soil to make way for, and to nourish, a successive crop.

In my article, THE VISUAL ARTS AND PERMANENCE , I discussed a point raised by another of my readers that, for the artist, a painting may embody “an alarming degree of permanence which, once expressed, cannot be escaped”.

The British artist Banksy famously confronted this subject in 2018 when, the moment after his 2004 painting GIRL WITH BALLOON was sold at auction for $1.8 million, the canvas was witnessed by a dumbfounded house, falling through its frame and shredding. By instigating this unprecedented gesture, Banksy invited us to consider the subject of permanence in art while simultaneously adding hugely to the painting's value. The shredded version went on to sell for over $24 million.

GIRL WITH BALLOON - Banksy (2004)

The title WATER LILIES is such an iconic one in the relation to the great impressionist painter Claude Monet that we tend to think of one picture that is very familiar to us; it is easy to forget that the painting or paintings we might know best are part of an extensive series. Around two hundred and fifty Water Lily paintings by Monet exist; less well-known is that Monet slashed and destroyed at least thirty more.

More recently and over several decades, Gerhard Richter has annihilated over sixty of his canvases deemed by him to be sub-standard. After the death of Francis Bacon in 1992, one hundred or so slashed canvases were discovered at his London studio. Bacon was well-known during his lifetime for practising destruction; he admitted that many of the ruined pieces were among his best, regretting their loss.

GORILLA WITH MICROPHONES - Francis Bacon (slashed by the artist) - Collection Dublin City Gallery - copyright The Estate of Francis Bacon - DACS London

Let me finish this article on a more positive and regenerative note, by looking at two stories. Firstly, there is the account of a visit that Robert Rauschenberg made to Willem de Kooning's studio in 1953. Rauschenberg had been interested for some time in the idea of art created through erasure, experimenting with his own work to this end. He wanted, however, what he considered a more significant piece to work with, obtaining from a reluctant de Kooning a drawing which he was permitted to erase. This Rauschenberg did, over the course of a couple of months. The piece conveys an extremely touching fragility, a little like a antique photographic print that has faded beyond recognition in years of sunlight, the print now being deceased as are its subjects.

ERASED DE KOONING DRAWING - 1953. Robert Rauschenberg

The second story is of Jasper Johns, he whose lunches Andy Warhol praised so highly in one beautiful interview, when the interviewer tried unsuccessfully to encourage Warhol to comment on Johns' paintings. Over the course of several years until 1954, Jasper Johns destroyed all his work, later claiming with some regret that it had been time “to stop being an artist”. The expunging of his entire corpus, the wiping-clean of his intellectual blackboard became a creative catalyst for Johns, who experienced an artistic renaissance, beginning again from zero and going on to produce his defining work.

Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2023


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O Williams
O Williams
Jun 07, 2023

When gazing up at the universe of stars, how universal is the reassuring and grounding feeling one experiences, despite the seeming paradox: we are, in comparison, nothingness, yet we feel, deeply, ‘Something’. We somehow accept our insignificance in the context of this material world where everything changes - the Buddhist concept of ‘anicca’. Less reassuring, but perhaps also true, is the Western perspective of entropy - and everything veering toward decay and chaos. Yet within it, we feel alive to the extent we are directing our lives through our choices and our desires. Everything breaks down, everything changes, but humanity, if we choose, can grow, transform lives, bring joy and spiritual improvement - the non-material is the eternal.

Haydn Dickenson
Haydn Dickenson
Jun 08, 2023
Replying to

Beautiful and thought-provoking words. Thank you.

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