Marr on the art of im­mor­tal­ity

An­drew Marr al­ways wanted to be a bet­ter painter. Then he nearly died and re­alised time was run­ning out. In a mov­ing ex­tract from his new book, the broad­caster ex­plains why he is de­ter­mined, now, to make his mark on can­vas

Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS -

OUR world is beau­ti­ful; but also very bor­ing. I am writ­ing this in Florida, once an un­tamed tract of man­groves and marshy rain­for­est, full of wild­ness and sur­pris­ing beauty, but now a huge, bleak grid of turn­pikes and mo­tor­ways, end­lessly scored across with lines of con­crete and wire. Unlovely bar­rack-like build­ings and a tan­gle of ad­ver­tis­ing signs of­fer a rare splash of colour. The roads are con­gested; as cars daw­dle along­side you, you see an­gry and frus­trated faces flinch­ing at the red lights ahead. Ev­ery­body is on the move. Ev­ery­body, it seems, is anx­ious to be some­where else. Time is sliced into har­ried seg­ments.That is one per­son’s im­pres­sion of life in one place, but there is a more gen­eral point. Al­most wher­ever we are, our ex­pe­ri­ence of life is of­ten of bore­dom and frus­tra­tion. We are glued into time, the fourth di­men­sion, and

yet there is never nearly enough of it. And this, for me, is the point of art. Art helps us to stop off and re­mind our­selves that we are mak­ing but a brief visit to a beau­ti­ful world. Re­mem­ber­ing this reg­u­larly is prob­a­bly a way to be happy.

Paint­ing is a sys­tem of com­mu­ni­ca­tion with only one mes­sage, the sen­sa­tion of be­ing alive more in­tensely than nor­mal.

For around 40 years, from my early teenage years to the age of 53, I painted like this: I would take a small box or a grimy bag of tubes of gouache or oil paint, a fold­away easel and a prepre­pared board to a hill­side or a flat rock or to the side of the road. Then I would sketch out roughly what I saw in front of me, and paint it in colours. I would do this when I had a hol­i­day or over a few free days – not very of­ten. Over time and not sur­pris­ingly I be­came slightly more skilled, learned a few tricks and be­came, there­fore, more art­ful. Then I had a stroke, which paral­ysed the left-hand side of my body, and I had to give all that up.

I now recog­nise that I’ve been telling a de­ceit­ful story about what hap­pened next. I’ve said that be­cause of the prac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties of be­ing un­able to paint out­side, I was forced to start again in a stu­dio, where I could con­trol my en­vi­ron­ment. There, I was obliged to find a new way of paint­ing be­cause I didn’t want to do still lifes of flow­ers or or­anges, or in­deed nudes.

Though all of that is true enough, it leaves out the most im­por­tant thing. Af­ter com­ing close to los­ing my life, I had a more in­tense sense of how lit­tle time I had left – the “short­ness of life” thing, run­ning along­side the “beauty of life” thing. I re­alised that, more than any­thing else, I’d al­ways wanted to paint well, but that I’d put it off be­cause I was fright­ened of not be­ing good enough. Now I thought to my­self, An­drew, you’re in danger of run­ning out of time. How would you feel if you found your­self too old and sim­ply too frail to paint – and you’d never tried, not se­ri­ously? You’d never risked it?

I knew I would feel might­ily hacked off – a coward – mis­er­able. So I told my­self to get on with it. Try to paint prop­erly. That’s what I have been do­ing, and it isn’t re­ally much to do with phys­i­cal dis­abil­ity. And I have never en­joyed my­self more.

Well, en­joyed? Some­times, with my back aching and af­ter sev­eral hours of in­tense con­cen­tra­tion, I find my­self weep­ing with frus­tra­tion. Why don’t I have that in­nate un­der­stand­ing of shape and form that Kandin­sky had? Why, af­ter hours of try­ing, can’t I draw a sin­gle line with the hon­esty of Matisse? There are no an­swers be­yond the va­garies of dif­fer­ently dis­trib­uted hu­man skills and char­ac­ters. But at least I know where the gaps are.

What’s it re­ally about? My wife and chil­dren ask me that. They find it odd and, I’m afraid, slightly ir­ri­tat­ing when I trail off, yet again, to the paint­ing stu­dio round the cor­ner. I should be do­ing some­thing more nor­mal, like watch­ing tele­vi­sion, or eat­ing but­tered toast. “What are you do­ing it for?” they want to know.

What is this com­pul­sion to leave some­thing be­hind ... this rather pa­thetic reach­ing for some sort of im­mor­tal­ity? The in­ter­rog­a­tive ban­ter starts to have an edge to it. Paint­ing might be a rea­son­able thing to do if you are a life­long, full-time and pro­fes­sional painter who can ac­tu­ally earn a liv­ing by mak­ing pic­tures that peo­ple want. For some­body like me, who has a per­fectly good job do­ing some­thing else, it seems to smell of delu­sions of grandeur. What do I do it for?

It’s a rea­son­able ques­tion. It de­serves an an­swer. I am not com­pletely de­luded. I don’t think I am Cam­den’s Car­avag­gio, or the Pi­casso of Prim­rose Hill. I can tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween great paint­ings and the rest and I know per­fectly well that the pic­tures I make will never change the course of any­thing and may well be quickly for­got­ten just as soon as I shut up about them. I started on this jour­ney far, far too late in life. There are im­por­tant painters. I am not, and to my eter­nal re­gret, will never be.

Yet there is some­thing in­side that seems to have to fight its way out. What it feels like to be me and alive now is some­thing I want to ex­plain, and I can do so only through paint. I’m in my late 50s, not par­tic­u­larly well, and time is run­ning out.

And I know enough to see that some­times the pic­tures are suc­cess­ful as com­mu­ni­ca­tion and some­times they aren’t. The ones that work are post­cards. They are mes­sages sent out­side my im­me­di­ate cir­cle of friends and fam­ily, and even into the fu­ture. And all I re­ally want is that they stay alive.

Paint­ings don’t all live. On Mon­day, you can be putting your ev­ery­thing into a pic­ture, think­ing hard, work­ing hard, and leav­ing the stu­dio feel­ing you have made some­thing that earns its place, that’s alive. And then you come in feel­ing chirpy on Tues­day ... and the poor beast has died in the night. Yes, there are the same colours in the same places, but it’s a dry corpse. If you hung it on a wall, you couldn’t keep com­ing back to look again, ex­cept with mount­ing dis­taste and hor­ror.

The line be­tween this dead pic­ture and another pic­ture which, against all the odds, de­spite some ter­ri­ble bodg­ing and mo­ments of de­spair, seems to stay alive, is a tiny, flick­er­ing thing. It isn’t a line you can touch with your fin­ger. But it’s the fa­tal di­vi­sion be­tween tran­scen­dence and bore­dom. It’s the only thing that mat­ters. This is an edited ex­tract from A Short Book About Paint­ing by An­drew Marr, pub­lished by Quadrille on Novem­ber 2, £15

Right: What The Lob­ster Dreamed (painted in April) All art­works by An­drew Marr

Left: The White Stone And The Bat­tle At Sea March

Clean­ing Win­dows Fin­ished while he was lis­ten­ing to the Van Mor­ri­son song of the same name: “It’s ‘about’ a windy, hot, sum­mer af­ter­noon, and the colours re­fer to bright clashes and un­ex­pected jux­ta­po­si­tions as the glass swings, and in­door be­comes out­door, and vice versa.”

High­land Gar­den “I don’t claim that this is a par­tic­u­larly pro­found paint­ing, and its sub­ject is only the emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ences of be­ing out­side on a par­tic­u­lar day sur­rounded by vague thoughts of an­cient days that I couldn’t write down in words. But it’s a good ex­am­ple of the prob­lems of com­po­si­tion.”

Happy Day Marr de­scribes this land­scape, painted in south Devon in 2007, as “a sen­ti­men­tal, lazy, sec­ond­hand piece of work”.

Walk­ing Near Green­stone He thinks this paint­ing, of boggy, wet peat coun­try in Wester Ross, is bet­ter than Happy Day: “Very thin paint and very thick paint are used to con­vey my mem­o­ries of squelch and aro­matic in­sta­bil­ity,” he writes.

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