Traditional Pen & Ink. Landscape with watercolour.

November 11, 2011

A4-sized approx, Winsor & Newton watercolour washes with Staetdler Fineliner 03 penwork.

Completely bushwhacked by university exams, but took in a fortnightly pen & ink class anyway. Following on from work I’ve thrown up in previous posts, we are working on landscapes. In preparing for the class, I brought along three newspaper photos of Australian bushland and shacks/country retreats. I also got myself three watercolour brushes (a rigger for flexible fine lines, a chisel-edge since I’d since it at work so effectively with straight-line architectural renders and a mop brush for backgrounds) – this was my first formal watercolour lesson ever.

The others worked on an exemplar of an American hut in a snowscape, but I went off on my own tangent, as the teacher has come to expect. Plonking the “barn” smack in the middle was a mistake, but I went with it. This was all about experimenting with splashing paint about, at times pulling back the colour. I will do the same thing again on 190gsm watercolour paper, but today’s was done on plain 110gsm cartridge.

I’m surprised how much pre-planning and forethought is involved. Building up each layer of paint is a lot slower than I’d imagined. It looks flexible and volatile, but turns out not to be, given time passing while layers dry. Surely watercolour is the most confected of painting mediums or styles?  The trees at right seemed almost to have been done by someone else. I am probably ready to look more closely, or emulate/copy, some of Donald Friend’s pen-and-wash work.

The frenetic quality of today’s watercolour comes from exhaustion following university exams as well as responding inwardly to “The Slap” and “Dead Europe”. Following each episode of the television version of Christos Tsiolkas’ “The Slap” (and re-reading each chapter prior to its showing every Thursday night), I’m halfway through reading “Dead Europe”. I’m still waiting for it to turn nasty, since we are moving down the circles of Hell. So far, it’s a realistic portrayal of Europe. Anyone with family connections to Mediterranean Europe will simply nod in empathy. While strong stuff (but no stronger than a Grimms fairy tale), I’ve found the “circles” devoted to Greece, Italy and Czechoslovakia gritty but not disturbing. As a Sydney reader, I find Tsiolkas deeply rooted in Melbourne. Parts are very mannered, compared to the more abject cruelty and horror of Sydney. It is, of course, mandatory reading for anyone with family connections in Europe, or anyone whose spiritual home is in Europe.

Tsiolkas speaks to one half of Australia, the European ‘half’ but it will mean nothing to the Asian ‘half’. My Asian colleagues – refugees from Asian wars, obsessed with contemporary politics and poverty in Vietnam or Burma – look at me with completely blank expressions when I talk about things European: the Jewish state, World War II and the Holocaust, German occupation of Europe, let alone civil wars or revolutions or people power in any individual country like Greece or England or Italy. I expect in another 20 or 30 years, an Australian Vietnamese Tsiolkas will arise and tell us similar stories from another part of the world as it links to Australia, talking of their parents as Tsiolkas portrays Manoli – the end of the lives of the first generation migrants. It’s still early days, though I see its beginnings in the comedians behind “Fear of a Brown Planet”.

Anyone interested in human rights or social justice, or the social usefulness of art, will get a lot out of “Dead Europe”. Perhaps it is all the more gripping for me at the moment given the unfolding eurozone financial crisis and the end of the “berlusconismo” and the fact that Italy’s social fabric now has to off to be mended and renewed. It may be too late – in cinema, “Her Whole Life Ahead” shows a contemporary Italy quite different from the Berlusconi production of “Mediterraneo”. All the more gripping for me too having recently seen more Greekness portrayed in Richard Mills’ opera, “Love of The Nightingale”.

I appeciate the discussion of activism and aesthetics throughout the novel (Athens, Megalo Houri, Venice’s ghetto, Sal Mineo and the private exhibition by the RMIT photography student having visited the factory). Hardly a day goes by when I seriously question the purposes of urban sketching. Are artists condemned to see, observe, witness, record? I notice Australian journalists don’t witness and record any more – they are “over that” and now embed themselves in politics, become players and game-changers in their own right. As rich 1%ers, they, like radio shock jocks, see themselves as little different from their political colleagues, emboldened by their salaries which outstrip those of the lawmakers, reinforced by their own “focus groups” which tell them what’s what in the nation. But in my own little head, urban sketching has to be something more than well-heeled artists travelling to exotic places, a 1% being watched by a curious 99%. It has to be more than Charm School – more than Margaret Olley or Donald Friend.

As for “The Slap”, television has watered down many aspects of the novel and has upgraded a lot of the John Howard-era issues to a post-Kevin Rudd era. Political correctness is in constant flux so I can appreciate why something like this needs to be freshened up, made relevant to contemporary audiences. It’s done all the time in opera and theatre, so why not television? The lack of any worthy, meritorious characters is very depressing of course, but the bravura involved in accurate representing modern Australian characters is breathtaking and makes up for that – it’s interesting that “Crownies” immediately follows “The Slap”, equally depressing in terms of the circus known as the Law, but much more Charm School in character portrayal. In his interview by Jennifer Byrne (or was it Geraldine Doogue?) Tsiolkas hinted at Richie – the last episode, still some weeks off -being the only possessor of a true moral compass in his social network. It will be interesting to see how television embraces his drug experiences, or perhaps that will be metamorphosed (in the Ovidian sense) into that contemporary issue, binge drinking. How will they portray his links to Nick and Lenin?  How will the events surrounding Bill Henson’s photography colour the representation of Richie’s cohorts? I found Geraldine Doogue’s question about his work spending too much time and effort on sex quite the “wrong” question: a better question would have been the link between drugs, spiritual refuge and spiritual knowledge. But I find many critics and reviewers can’t come to the basics of Tsiolkas’ writing; some stupidly review “The Slap” at the same indicating they haven’t even read “Loaded”. And why not situate Tsiolkas’ chapter on Aisha (the Bangkok conference and the Bali holiday) in the literature devoted  to Australians in Bali? How does Tsiolkas’ Venice link to that of Robert Dessaix’ “Night Letters” and “Corfu”? Time for me to read some Seferis, some Loukakis… and next week the final assault in university exams on Vergian verismo and social justice in “I Malavoglia”, feminism in Driss Chraibi and portrayals of the Other in 1940s Quebec portrayed in short stories by Roch Carrier.

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