I remember everything about the day: the sudden spring rain, the spongy grass, the padlocked garage door and the small key that opened it so I could see a painting that filled the back wall. The sight of The Beginnings of Love echoed the sensation I had had on first seeing Goya’s Dog Buried in Sand: here was a work of art that would be with me for life. The detritus of several months’ labour – a low bed, a table strewn with paintbrushes, rags, a camp stove, books on Goya – filled the garage/studio. The glistening painting, reeking of oil, diminished everything around it. Seeing such a forceful evocation of rushing water, of human emotions seeking their source, seemed a miraculous transubstantiation. I felt I was witnessing water turned to oil and knew I couldn’t treat this painting the way I had other works by Richard Gorman, admiring them in exhibitions, committing them to memory. I wanted to see The Beginnings of Love every day. I wanted to live with it.
At the time I was financially stretched, the painting’s price beyond reach. My thwarted desire proved instructive. The absence of The Beginnings of Love made me realize living with art that spoke to me was a necessity, not a luxury. Years later, when I saw Val des Bois in a Toronto gallery, I didn’t hesitate to arrange to pay for it monthly. For almost twenty years, I’ve had the freedom to touch the clumped green crowns of trees, have had the pleasure of seeing the jazz-like way Gorman riffs a landscape, giving trees ghost trunks so that reality and dream seem one. I never tire of seeing how he plays with the idea of near and far or how he creates a great sweep of energy in a swath of mauve sky. There are times when I stay up late at night to look and look again, drawn by the wonder of the painting’s vitality, the speed of its execution, its light.
The more I live with Val des Bois and the other Gorman paintings that have joined it, the more I appreciate their unique sense of fleetness. Recent sketches like September, By the Lake, Late Summer, small works like Gatineau River and Homage to Courbet, or the large paintings, Suntree and Deep Night, make me feel I am seeing earthly and human speed conjoined, that I am privy to a vision of beauty based on the knowledge that nothing lasts, that continuity means change. Once, while reading a poem by Amy Clampitt, I glanced from the page to look at the Gormans, and saw her line on every wall – “all that we know, that we are made of, is motion.”
The profundity of Gorman’s motion has come to me through slow accretion. I remember first being aware of it in 1982 at an exhibition of Limerick Lake paintings at Ottawa’s Galerie Anne Doran. The large black and yellow landscapes in that exhibition seemed to have been painted from the field of vision of a runner in the woods, seeing trees peripherally and centrally. I was moved by the visceral materiality of those paintings, by their call to being sentient, qualities that were heightened in images of wrapped heads inspired by Gorman seeing his own reflection at night in a cottage window and thinking of Francis Bacon’s portraits. The works from that exhibition have long been dispersed but they remain vivid in my memory as the spectral antecedents of a drawing and six etchings that hang in the bedroom. I often start my day lying in bed looking at the etchings and the life drawing of a female nude, posed in a twisted stance, her face shown in profile, her body frontally. Energetic lines create her force field. In the etchings, the force field is a strangely revealing and obliterating blot, a dense cover for couples making love. Seeing these works daily has gradually made me think of the blot as an enveloping space for human passion while intimating the entropy of the biosphere.
Over time, I’ve come to think of the blot and the human form as fused in the leitmotif of a solitary tree, fragmented or whole, that first appeared in the Orpheus series, fourteen paintings Gorman did after moving from Ottawa to Toronto and immersing himself in the poetry of Rilke. Suntree came from that series. Its “tree,” a yellow blot against a grey sky, echoes Goya’s Dog Buried in Sand. It has the same mysterious sense of a shared human fate that I responded to in Goya’s painting fifty years ago when I stood in front of it alone on a dark March day in the Prado and thought that the dog, its body trapped in sand, bathed in a strange light, was mutely yapping for us all. In Suntree the “tree/dog” is rejoicing, running free. It is an ideogram of landscape and, like imagistic poetry, its effect is large. Layered, reduced in terms of motif and palette, Suntree is weighted with the surprises of its organic growth. The great grey sky and yellow ground are shot through with underlays of brilliant reds, magentas, greens, blues, browns, bringing an awareness of a process Gorman once described to Ottawa artist, Blair Sharpe, as being what painting is essentially about: “letting the idea go through all the changes on one canvas instead of over four, five or six, letting the structure grow and change, not having an idea, ever, of what a painting will look like when it is finished, starting with only an inkling.”
I had only an inkling when I bought Suntree of its impact on my life. At first there was the sense of wonder and excitement at being able to see, at any time, a clear image of life’s quick race, and to respond, at leisure, to the challenge of finding the ways the mystery had been wrought, what had been done with a squeegee or a brush, how many layers were beneath its surface, the rigor of the palette. Then there came a time when life and art were indivisible, when having come from a hospital room where I’d seen the drawing of a final human breath, I saw that breath reinforced and ongoing in Suntree, saw Rilke’s line, “this having been earthly is lasting, beyond repeal.”
Deep Night, painted four years later, is Suntree’s dark twin. An elusive painting, capable of pooling its light into a blue/black lake of oil so the leaning tree’s slender bole rising from a tenuous base becomes almost invisible, Deep Night seems to presage the kind of death Rilke foresaw, “when a happy thing falls.” How much Deep Night has entered my life became apparent when, on a flight from Paris, I sat beside a man who told me of the unforgettable experience he had had as a student making a pilgrimage to Mont St. Michel by starting several kilometers away, before it was light. It seemed to him his body was gradually apprehending the abbey’s stone mass as he approached it. Dawn brought the architecture into focus.
I immediately resolved to make the same journey with Deep Night. Rising before dawn, I sat as far from the painting as I could, and concentrated on the familiar image of a leaning tree. All I saw was a black mass, giving me the sensation that I was in deep space. A few minutes later, this shape gave way to a tornado/whirlwind shape. Surely, I thought, my eyes are playing tricks on me. Yet, the more I concentrated and the closer I moved toward the painting, the more the shape seemed to move like a cloud, shifting, changing formation. I realized I was seeing the organic growth of the painting with a clarity I had not experienced in the six years I’d lived with it. At times, I saw white, lighter streaks moving across its central mass. Finally, a semblance of the familiar recognizable shape came into focus but with an unstable equilibrium that appeared to hinge on a suggestion of a tree’s crown in full summer foliage while the tree trunk vanished. If I looked at it from an oblique angle, this crown appeared to be a face sending its breath into the wind. At that moment, I felt, as Rodin did when he visited Chartres, that Deep Night was “wise with an intense passion.” As daylight came, I saw the painting return to the familiar image of a leaning tree with a slender bole. The white that streaked it earlier had turned the colour of slate. It’s like a person you thought you knew well, I thought, only to discover you had been blind to some fundamental trait.
This sense of renewal and discovery makes living with the Gormans an ongoing journey, deepens my understanding of what Rodin regarded as the artist’s task, “the study of nature, not imitated but heeded… revealing to his fellow beings a thousand unsuspected shades of feeling, discovering to them riches in themselves.”
Tags: Issue 77