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'The Blue On The King's Back'

Added on 07 December 2022

I have often asked myself why the experience of looking at a photograph of a painting in a book never compares to the experience of viewing the same painting in real life?

I think the answer lies in the way our eye and brain responds emotionally to colour. When a camera records an image it is an entirely mechanical response. I have never forgotten the excitement I had as a student going down to London to view a major exhibition of Max Beckman's tryptichs. Beckman was a hero to many of us in our final year.  We had studied his painting in great detail, impressed by his assured sense of composition and masterly draughtsmanship. What took me utterly by surprise when I finally saw his paintings up close was Beckman's daring use of vivid colour. No reproduction in any art book about him ever picks this up.

I still remember the vivid slash of electric blue which centres the King's naked spine in 'Departure' making him the most imposing figure in the central panel. To me this passage of blue somehow held in check all the sombre browns and ochres so carefully arranged in the 2 wing panels. To me this visual shock to the senses is one of the main reasons I love to go to galleries and museums - to be forcibly punched in the eye by an artist who dares to use colour in a bold lyrical way. I sometimes think Van Gogh can be overlooked because he is so overexposed in the public's imagination. However on many occasions I have been simply stunned by a passage of colour in his work such as the intensely coloured detail on the ridge flashing of the Church at Anvers-sur-Dise which chimes so assuredly against the intense inky blue sky behind. Looking at no Van Gogh book gives you this intense experience.

At other times this experience can be found by the discerning viewer who is prepared to be cloaked in the atmosphere of a painting, as if wrapped in a cosy old blanket waiting for the fine essence of the painting to reveal itself. I have relished this experience and sat for an hour in front of Permeke's 'The Coffee Drinker' in (Stedelijk Museum) Amsterdam. Gradually my eyes became accustomed to the subtle shifts of rich dark colour glazes Permeke spread with such relish over his paintings surface, which only added more dignity and restraint to a simple domestic Belgian scene. Sitting with the great Rothko's in The Tate in London is an equally rewarding experience for those who are willing to let their eyes readjust to another's vision.  To me the most exciting thing about paintings is to realise that they can be viewed again and again. Each time it will say something different to the viewer depending on how the viewer feels when looking at it. The possibilities for engagement are endless. Our eyes perceive colour in a more subtle complex way than any camera ever can.


First posted 2012. Last post 15/12/2020. Updated July 2022

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