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By HELGA OLSSON
ART TIMES Mar, 2004
As an artist I must relate to my times. Like the stock market, the artist/shaman is the leading indicator of change and direction in the cultural environment of our thoughts. But the unprovoked attack at New Yorks Twin Towers on 9/11 has changed my world and has instead provoked a new deep analysis of it. Our enemies see us as a heathen society, bent on reshaping the world in our image, bringing our sense of violence, greed, vulgarity and corporate dishonesty, in short, our glaring weaknesses, too close to their borders. They want to have us protect our women from evil and from the male world by enshrouding them in black, deprive us of our freedom, even if it was for open and unexpurgated licentiousness, and to inflict upon us their religion.
This war of terrorism has changed the battlefield as well. It has unleashed our armies to fight against unseen insurgents, and it has squared us off against our former European allies, as it has brought hatred and divisiveness to our own political arena. We argue at haute voix as the yearly homicide rates of our brutal cities surpass our losses on Iraqi soil. We acknowledge in utter disbelief the ineffectual powers of the United Nations to come to the rescue of hundreds of thousands of beleaguered peoples, including Iraq. Our humane organizations are failing our own people, as the morés of our culture slide ever deeper into a morass of non ethical depravity, ones which we nevertheless are duty bound to uphold.
When I first started to express myself on canvas, I had to ask myself, what is it that society needs from me? How can I make a change? How can I stimulate a redirection, or indeed a renaissance of values? Kenneth Clark makes it an oft-repeated point in his remarkable book "Civilization," that renaissance is usually brought about by ten or so artists at the appropriate time. Again and again, these few artists, architects, writers, thinkers, speak to the void, to the chaos, to the disruption of good by evil, with the tools of ideas and insights that will heal and restore confidence in an overwhelmed world. This creates the cyclical nature of artistic expression.
When I looked closely at the art that has "inspired " us recently, I saw that many things were missing from it. Many basic things. Former centuries looked back to the Greeks for a renewed sense of perfection, for a new inspiration, for a forgotten truth, or greatness. A purity of line, an exact sense of proportions, an excellent rendering. They found in the Greek heritage the simple mathematical concepts of the circle, the triangle and the square. It was like a glorious return to what was basic. And they expounded on it.
For me, the absence of sunlight mattered in a painting. Add to that an absence of form and draughtsmanship, an eye pleasing quality of virtuosity, that can so inspire, and a well-balanced, non-chaotic tableau that speaks to calm and serenity.
I chose to allow myself to challenge the Still Life. What had happened to this ancient genre? Could it be brought into our world in a new way? Could it help our troubled folks to find an oasis of sanity?
I studied the still lifes of the past. The actual contents of most still lifes remain the same. Flowers, fruits, tools of the trade, kitchen items, whatever we are using on an average day, were recorded. I saw the utter love of painting reflected in the chandelier hanging above Arnolfini and his betrothed in Van Eycks amazing painting, the headdress on his brides hair took my breath away. Botticellis three Graces dance to the purest rhythms of spring, without moral corruption. Ghibertis sculptural panels on the Baptistry doors in Florence have brought nothing but admiration to the refinement of art for all time.
And so I set my still lifes in the early afternoon sun and watched them wrap themselves in the power of light and shadow. I sought objects that were reflective and visually difficult to render. I placed them into a composition that simply "splashed out" from the canvas as if to say, "hey there, here I am!" I found every-day objects that could sparkle with the imagination and at the same time could, if all went well, imbue the observer with the curative thought that all is good in this small spot.
And then I began to paint. It did not take long for me to feel the joy of the paint coming off the end of the brush. It was meant to be this way, I thought. My satin cloth taunted me with challenge, the change of plane shadow on the eggs, the brocaded cloth, had to be handled with care, otherwise they would miscue. My pewter pitcher, the one I had found in a curio shop in Westwood, had to show its age and its ability to mirror its surroundings, the apples, green yet ripe, had to be so fresh and inviting-looking that someone would develop an appetite for one. The shadows themselves had to be of the right value, with enough light to be able to paint within their contours.
Had I gone for the money, I would have splashed and splattered onto the canvas, which is so fetching and rewarding a craft in today's artistic output. I would not have had to think about composition or values, or correctness of any kind. Or even of colors. I could have covered a huge canvas with red and frizzed the edges and voila... "How much will this bring in?"
My belief remains the same now that I have a whole bunch of new paintings to look at. I think we need to return to better values, not just better artistic ones. We need to step back and see what was good, not what has sold the best. We need to pass on the craft of painting and seeing and inspiring, to our children, so that they will know how serious a matter this is, and so that they will be inspired to look for excellence in their lives. We need to be people of quality and enduring character, not just ostentatiously rich and greedy before we die. We need to believe in something uplifting and confirming of the best that is possible in the human psyche.
Im not saying that my still lifes have achieved all these goals, but I sure gave it a good shot.
(Helga Olsson, artist and author of A German Family and currently writing another book, The Artist lives in Closter, NJ.)
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