“The wind carried away the cottonwool
At five in the afternoon.
And the oxide scattered crystal and nickel
At five in the afternoon”. Garcia Lorca: Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias.
Canberra in winter is bitingly cold, a stark blue sky and cool grey concrete of the National Gallery seems like a world away from Spain and New York but the last couple of days I’ve felt the intensity of bullfights and the pain in painting.
Robert Motherwell : At Five in the Afternoon currently at the National Gallery is a selection of prints from the Gallery’s collection and the curator Jane Kinsman gave a talk and some insight into Motherwells practice of printmaking. The works spread across three rooms were brilliantly curated and each work was fabulous but a selection of small lithographs were simple and exquisite and captured the same emotions of the larger striking painterly works.
Some of the larger prints utilising graphics from cigarette packets reinforced that peculiar artist habit of finding inspiration in the mundane. I remember as a child enamoured with the cigarette packets we used to sell in the boat hire business, Camel and Fiesta were my favourites but later I photographed old packets a friend had in their scrapbook for painted works not realising Motherwell too was drawn by the colour and shape. Up until stumbling across John’s curious arty collection, I had tried to draw a camel packet from memory.
Motherwell’s prints incorporating imagery and my painted works, now capture a lost period. Smoking was acceptable and a filthy dangerous habit that I (for a short time) and Motherwell embraced. Packets were bright and engaging. Cigarette packaging in Australia is now a dark, dull, khaki green and the only images gangrenous limbs and health warnings. And I guess like any image, even cancerous body parts and minimalist packaging will provide some sort of inspiration for other artists down the line.
After the talk, we hit the wine and felt glad Motherwell had chosen drinking and painting over suicide. We are so much richer for his work and his immersion in the poetry of Lorca. We went back again the next day for another hit before heading home, did a swing by the Indigenous and Australian gallery and we had a choice – down the stairs or back through the exhibition?
I’D RATHER GO BY MOTHERWELL THAN A STAIRWELL.