“What is painting for?”
THE painter Patrick Heron said it takes 20 times longer to explain his paintings than a cursory glance can reveal. Words just don’t do it. At heart this is where Marr is taking us in this short, stimulating series of essays. He is a natural art critic. He goes head on for the subjective ideas like what is painting for? What is colour? Why is great art different to anyone else’s daubs?
Anthony Gormley suggested art is about the future, explaining to the next generation what the now felt like. Marr brings some texture of his own to these grand issues. Among other things he reminds us that not so long ago the painters’ vocation involved finding colours in clay, in the earth, in the grass and making the paints themselves before they could reach for a canvas, or at least searching out a merchant who might have shipped them in from afar. And many were hugely expensive. The chance to even see such colours was enough to merit a trip to the gallery.
In response to the digital era the artist has had to find alternatives to simple representation that anyone with a computer can do. They have to reinvent localism and uniqueness for which read the works of Damien Hirst or Sarah Lucas. There are useful asides in terms of discussions of painters some of who are well known, other less so and why he regards them as important.
He asserts that instinctively we think of yellow as warm from the sun and green as cold as in the fields. Not a point I agree with because my mind also says orange juice is cold and greens like cabbage are warm with butter for supper. But agreement is not the point. Marr opens up areas that obsess the true artist but the rest of us take for granted until they are hung in a museum or gallery. And as an enthusiastic amateur himself, he can criticize eloquently. We have come to use the word critic to mean to admonish and correct in a school masterly way but in the sense of looking at a visual art it has a much deeper implication of assessment and appreciation of the unliteral. The eyes have it.