First Person

Learning to Be a Painter

At the time when I first tried to be a full-time professional painter—and make some kind of viable living from doing so—the whole matter seemed simpler and less unnecessarily complex than it does today. One major reason for this was that a substantial private market still existed for visual art, much as it did then, say, for high-class studio pottery. How precisely to survive as a painter seemed challenging but not impossible.

In Cornwall, where I lived, a coterie of semi-established and even entrenched artists existed locally, ranging from Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon to Bryan Wynter, Roger Hilton, Terry Frost and Karl Weschke. Some had fought with distinction in the Second World War—in Weschke’s case on the opposing side. Bernard Leach and other outstanding potters thronged the area, which also attracted a poet of the calibre of W.S. Graham.

Property and rentals were extraordinarily cheap and a raft of purpose-built studios existed from a previous generation of artists, notably from the so-called Newlyn School, which began life roughly eighty years earlier. The whole area in the extreme west of Cornwall briefly offered an almost unimaginable idyll, even attracting such a relentlessly urban artist in thought and deed as Francis Bacon.

I listened and observed without coming then to any ground-breaking conclusions, but early in 1962 I moved to the other side of the Penrith Peninsula where I managed to share the rent of a magnificent purpose-built studio on a pig farm. This had belonged once to Stanhope Forbes, arguably the finest painter of the Newlyn School. The studio lay at the top of a long, steep hill, at the bottom of which I then lived. Through great good fortune I managed to buy a powerful German motor scooter cheaply from an unfortunate local fisherman who had fallen off it on his first day of ownership and hurt himself. His wife compelled him to sell it.

By strapping a drawing-board behind me and fixing a folding music-stand to the handlebars I created, in effect, a form of potential mobile art-school “donkey”. Generally in the late afternoons I took off and explored every remote lane I knew, however obscure, in search of little-known viewpoints. I was filled then with many of the same sensations I had experienced as a teenager when cycling to and from the studio of my original mentor. At times these moments seemed like the transmission of daydreams. On one occasion I climbed a tree, sketch-pad in hand, and drew from above a small flock of sheep which had circled its base, as the foundation for what I hoped would be a very unusual painting.

By then I had a gallery to represent me in London and luckily sold quite a large batch of such work to an American collector. But the real satisfaction I gained from such art was always inherent. There is nothing more important than this for an artist. No one can take it away.

So much has gone horribly wrong with visual art since those distant-seeming days in almost every country that what I describe here probably sounds like some kind of dream. I went to see all the major exhibitions I could in London but did not truly identify with anything I then saw—least of all from my contemporaries. Looking at a small landscape from this era which I rediscovered the other day I instantly identified a feeling, rather than a way of painting, which still seems just as valid more than half a century on. At the very beginning of 1963, which saw terrible snow in Britain for months on end, I set off with a friend in a tough little car for a protracted spell in Spain. Our route once we had escaped from the icy grip of British roads by simply not giving up took in Paris, Arcachon, Burgos, Madrid, Granada and the Andalusian hill village of Mijas where many years later I played tennis at a ranch Lew Hoad had established. In those days a rented villa plus gardener cost about $20 a month.

By 1963 the Spanish Civil War was twenty-five years distant and although Franco still ruled, Spain was psychologically so utterly unlike anywhere I then knew that I felt permanently like a stranger. For years the arguments surrounding art had come to seem to me rhetorical and often pointless but Spain had a reality about it which was somehow beyond mere words. I have since visited probably thirty different countries but at that point I knew only Britain, Germany and France at all well. Spain seemed poverty-stricken by comparison with France and the condition even of main roads often verged on the terrifying. A visit to Ronda, scene of wonderful pre-war paintings by David Bomberg, was along a road so nightmarish that I well believed a friend who told me his sister had had to be heavily sedated and driven out from there in the hours of darkness.

In an anthology of mine published by Connor Court in 2016, Culture at Crisis Point, I explained a permanent change in outlook which happened to me in Madrid early in 1963.

Until then I had tended to accept the widespread view that contemporary artistic practice was somehow simply our present-day “equivalent” of that of the major historic eras which preceded it. Thus, however different it might be in appearance, this notion maintained that the art of Mark Rothko, say, or Jackson Pollock—two artists who were venerated especially back in 1963—was simply our contemporary “equivalent” of the art of masters of the past such as Velazquez and Goya. But a major stumbling block was that it resolutely refused to look or to seem “equivalent”. How, for example, could an artist with Rothko’s working methods even begin to comment on the horrors of human conflict in the way Goya had done so forcefully in his unforgettable series of etchings The Disasters of War?

It was extraordinarily cold in Madrid at the time of my visit and the welcoming warmth of the galleries of the Prado may well have been one of the factors which drew me back there late one afternoon as the light began to fade in the streets outside. The galleries themselves were deserted yet I felt a sense of strange presence as though the dead artists whose works graced the walls had summoned me back to some kind of posthumous parliament.

“If you listen attentively enough, you will learn something of great value,” a deep echoing voice seemed to say almost audibly. What I grasped in the next moment or moments remains hard to describe, but I understood that the 300 years which had passed since the death of Velazquez represented a mere blink of the cosmic eye. As a consequence I no longer felt myself to be part of the art history of any particular age but of all ages, and realised simultaneously what a great privilege that was.

Most of us are far too obsessed with our own time and are inclined to dignify it with an excessive and undeserved importance. Modernism in art had attempted to make a clean break with the past and to impose a new and radical set of values on the rest of us. Yet the great oversight it made was essentially this: truly great art of all kinds and all eras is essentially timeless. What it tells us about the human condition never becomes any less relevant or true.

In ceasing to regard myself any longer as a modernist or as someone landlocked by the twentieth century or by any of its obsessions I felt utterly liberated, free to make art in future in any way I chose. All artists who live outside totalitarian regimes are similarly free. Unfortunate circumstances such as the latter aside, any compulsion to work in this manner or that is for all artists of all kinds and at all times completely illusory. The demon of supposed artistic progress and evolution is, in fact, merely a particularly cunning disguise for the even less reputable demon of artistic fashion.

Off and on I painted for about twenty years in Cornwall but by the middle 1970s postmodernism had largely taken over from the dying excesses of late modernism. Political content had often replaced the visual but it still required a mental somersault or two to grasp the basic precepts of “conceptual” art. One of the aims was to deprive commercial dealers of tangible objects with which to trade, thus hastening the desired death of capitalism. Desired by whom?

The proliferation of utter nonsense in art eventually irritated me so much that from the end of 1974 onwards I began making notes after work each day in the studio I had built into the roof of a house in Penzance, looking out over the wonders of Mount’s Bay. A book had come out some years earlier in the USSR called The Humanism of Art by the country’s leading critic, Vladislav Zimenko. I read it in translation. Artists in the USSR generally received a much better training in technical terms than was available then in Western art schools, where subjects such as anatomy had been abandoned. My written musings eventually appeared in 1977 under the title of The Art of Self Deception. At much the same time Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word and Helene Parmelin’s Art Anti-Art: Anartism Explored were published, indicating that the sorry pass reached by our visual arts had become at last noticed internationally. In 1980 I left Cornwall and taught painting and art history for four years at Epsom School of Art. Not long afterwards I was appointed by the Spectator in London as their art critic—a role I filled for the next eleven years, covering exhibitions in a host of countries as well as at home.

I wrote some 500 articles in all, a selection of which appear in Culture at Crisis Point. Throughout my time at the Spectator I opposed everything which so-called postmodernism threw at the traditions of art as part of “The Long March Through the Institutions”, the political inspiration for which was the thinking of Antonio Gramsci and the exiled communist philosophers of the Frankfurt School who relocated to the US before the Second World War. Postmodernism has always simply been neo-Marxism in disguise, the basic aim of which is the destruction of Western democracy in toto and above all every manifestation of Christianity. To say that royalty and nobility were historically far more discerning patrons than the wielders of the public purse is an understatement but no more of one than to say the education I underwent at an Anglican boarding school seventy years ago was superior to that of almost anything available anywhere today. In the midst of the gross current global disrespect for the elderly we might recall what Titian achieved in his final twenty years before he died aged nearly ninety.

I believe that the greatest harm wrought to art in my lifetime has been the steady intrusion of public funding into the realm of all of the arts in Western countries. This is not just because I have never been a beneficiary nor because I cannot see a worthy role for such funding in the case of multiple performers—say a youth orchestra—but because the shape taken by all organisations of public servants almost inevitably becomes distorted. Not only did Lorenzo di Medici have infinitely better taste than arts councils everywhere but his subsequent influence on art was preferable to the highest degree. From the Turner Prize downwards in Britain—if any lower rung truly exists—public funding has often been ruinous for art and is almost always a denial of the wishes of original donors.

In its latter years, modernism—or “Late Modernism” as it was then called—became a caricature of itself not least because the mysterious phenomenon called postmodernism was already very much alive and kicking. Every university in Western countries was shortly in thrall to its endlessly negative theories on human behaviour. Political correctness, feminism, multiculturalism, racism, gender issues, post-colonialism, environmentalism, deconstructionism … the list was endless because more and more movements arose to tell our world the next thing we were all doing absolutely wrong. Only those in our universities and schools, in fact, could do anything right.

When I was a child we were principally at war with the Axis powers and fascism but by the time my own military service came up I was part of an inadequate army holding Russian communism at bay in northern Germany. I read widely on the subject of communism but no explanatory book even began to compare with The Black Book of Communism, which appeared in English in 1999 thanks to Harvard University Press. Within this massive tome you can learn the detailed histories of all the horrors under communism around the world. Want to know where all the gulags were in Bulgaria? You owe it to yourself and to our fragile world to find out.

My years with the Spectator brought some amazing experiences, at least one of which looked back to the Second World War. An amiable Swiss artist, Peter Schermuly, was seeking a catalogue essay from an English critic for a huge exhibition later that year in Wiesbaden. Nobody in Germany wanted to know about a figurative painter based in Munich.

The night before his show I was invited to a black-tie dinner at the dining hall of the artist’s principal patron in the grounds of a villa beside the Rhine. We were twelve for a dinner of unimaginable luxury. All the women had titles and I was probably the only man present without a duelling scar. Name the most famous wine you can think of. We probably sampled it.

At the top of the gable end of one wall hung a curtain to which all eyes turned at the conclusion of dinner. Slowly the curtains parted and a superb bronze bust of our host appeared, fixed to a mechanical arm. But who on earth was it by?

I listened in awe. The sculptor, who was still alive, had been responsible for the massive neo-classical figures at the Berlin Olympics—no less a figure than Arno Breker, Hitler’s favourite sculptor, who to his credit saved several French artists from the attentions of the Gestapo during the war. I think he was ninety when he made this superb bronze.

On a lecture tour of Australia I was offered a job at the country’s principal national paper, the Australian. The best part of my early experience in Australia was teaching at a series of bush camps in obscure places for societies of painters—generally in Far North Queensland.

Much of the rest has shown up my folly. On top of everything we are now all locked down. Will my wife, who is half Dutch, and I ever escape? Where we should really be is Laren in Holland. Any helpful suggestions, anyone?

7 comments
  • bendle1

    Giles Auty was a brilliant art critic and a breath of fresh air when he worked at The Australian. His account of his epiphany about the nature of art and its history (described in his article above) gives expression to the profound effect great art can have on anyone receptive to its magic. Sadly, as he points out, it is an experience denied by much of the ‘art’ inflicted upon us over the last half century. We were fortunate indeed to have him here sharing his powerful insights.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Rest in Peace, Mr Auty.

  • Daryl McCann

    Giles Auty was a greater writer whose aim was always true. The work he did for the British ‘Spectator’ in the 1980s was something of an education for me. His views about Art hold good even now.

  • Elizabeth Beare

    I read this article in Quadrant Magazine recently, and was so pleased to see Giles Auty give a run through on his artistic development in Britain and later in Australia. Especially interesting was the atelier concept in Cornwall, of artists hiving off to cheaper places where they could work in companionship with each other and exchange ideas. We had that in Australia in the 40’s and more recently in small bush groups as Giles mentions, but in general the ‘grant’ system has intervened to lessen genuine vitality. As the recent Archibald has shown, we have a very degraded art scene at present, which is what happens when left-wing politics dominate over aesthetic considerations. Giles Auty was always onto their case, offering a new sort of hope and vision to artists who want something better.

    Vale to a fine man, a teacher too, who artist’s eye called out politicisation and a lack of merit when he saw it, and who praised good works when they appeared.

  • pdc

    Lamenting the loss of a fine man and great art critic. The truth he observed and wrote must endure.

  • Tony Tea

    Hats off.

  • sulbyglen

    This is sad news indeed. His writing on art has had a great influence on my view of the art world and I was an avid reader of his columns in the Australian. Rest in Peace.

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