I used to be married to an artist – and a reasonably successful one, in his day, i.e. he made enough money from it to support us. This may be why I was attracted to this particular prompt – although I think not. I certainly admired him, greatly. I admired his gift, which he himself failed to appreciate. He had wanted to go into the Royal Air Force and always claimed his mother forced him to go to art school – a striking reversal of the usual parental pattern! Whether she knew it or not (suspect not – she wasn’t all that bright) she was saving him from himself. He would not have survived the Air Force. “Differently wired”, we were two of a kind in our need to create, but also in our social vulnerabilities. Both of us had managed to touch down on the wrong planet. I knew it the minute my spaceship sank into the soft dust of post-War suburban England – he didn’t. He maybe does, now. Time teaches us all.
I got used to living in a fug of turpentine and white spirit; thought nothing of stepping over a giant frame, corner-cramped while the adhesive was setting. I expected the spare room to be full of paintbrushes in watery jam-jars. He wore out an entire set of brushes for each painting, and a painting could take six weeks to complete. I went with him to the ship’s chandler’s to buy canvas. I absorbed stuff. Like fugitive red. Did you know that red is usually the first colour to fade? It goes to brown, and then yellow. It fugits, or flees, as in tempus fugit.
I learned about his subjects, too, which tended to be mechanical – steam engines, aeroplanes, ploughing engines. He had a genius for machinery – capturing the spirit of it. And winter landscapes, I remember – black, skeleton trees and snow-filled skies. Not so good at human beings, but then human beings weren’t interesting. He liked the way things worked, the way they fitted together. He once designed a mould for the tyre of a model traction engine he was making in his spare time. Mould-designing, as far as I can tell, involves visualising a complex something, in reverse, in your head. And keeping it there while you commit it to paper. The firm who were going to cast the tyres offered him a job. He was an engineer, basically, and a musician. Art was the profitable sideline! I came home from work in my lunch-break one day and he used up the whole hour explaining to me how torque applied to helicopter rotor blades. I can’t say I understood, but at least I acquired a new word, and how to spell it.
But, as usual, I digress. Being around him for all those years taught me quite a lot about painting as a process, about genius and obsession, but I didn’t learn a lot about art. He wasn’t at all interested in Art-with-a-capital-A as he called it. If anyone asked his opinion of one of their paintings he had an all-purpose, meaningless response – Interesting. He believe that painting was a craft – something anyone could learn how to do – and that if a painting required any kind of explanation, it was because the artist had failed to communicate. I tend to apply this to writing, too. Writing is a process of catching the elusive and the ephemeral and making it visceral.
And it’s that word – visceral – that seems to apply to Office in a Small City (1953) by the American artist Edward Hopper. I’m not a great one for staring at paintings in galleries. I’ve tried it a few times, with more cultured friends but I tend to get backache, and bored. But Edward Hopper’s paintings – all of them – just grab me by the throat and shake me. They creep me out, they frighten me, they make me want to cry. I often discover I cannot look away from an Edward Hopper painting – particularly this one. I am fascinated by it, drawn into it. I want to weep for those people, in their aloneness, and yet breathe with them that cold, empty air they are breathing, gaze down those long, strangely-lit perspectives and know what they are knowing. But hey, it’s impossible to convey one art-form via another. As easy to describe The Lark Ascending in words. Nothing describes it. It is itself.
I can only say, it’s the way this room is so high, and windowless, apparently. It’s as if any minute he will launch himself into the air and swoop down across the city, this gazing man. It’s as if he longs for what he sees, as he stares straight ahead. I can’t see it, but I can imagine it. Why is he alone in the office? Why is everything so massive, and he so small? What time of day is it? Why does the way the light falls on those slab-like walls make me think of the end of the world? Some kind of Last Man on Earth or Last Day Ever. And yet it’s peaceful.
Looking at that painting I become that man, in his rolled-up shirtsleeves in 1950-something, pinned behind that vast desk, present in body but not in mind, focussed on that cloud-free, ultramarine sky. Being in the painting is unbearably painful, so lonely, and yet exhilarating. It’s a kind of waiting for flight.