Lately I’ve been getting random attacks of nostalgia – a strange feeling which seems part mental and part physical, with a bit of an achey quality to it. It made me wonder exactly what nostalgia is and how it relates to painting.
A lot of my reasons to paint something from real life seem to come from a strong feeling of nostalgia, a feeling for a particular place at a certain time. Even painting out of doors means putting moments on the canvas just after they have flitted by.
Old, golden-faded photos from the ’80s show I visited some of the landscapes round here a long time ago. Memory brought me back here to recreate them in paint, translated out of time and into something else (perhaps so I could save them?).
Is trying to immerse yourself in a painted scene an attempt to cure nostalgia? To me, a painting offers immunity from nostalgia because you can step inside it at any time.
Although looking at a photograph can feel as if you’re peering into a mirror reflecting another time, the landscape of the mind seen in a painting feels, to me, much more immediate and intense than anything frozen by a machine. Paintings have a structure and emotions that the artist provides because they were “there” and transferred everything they experienced into paint. The translation process, if successful, adds many extra notes or layers so that viewing the painting is like entering the space the painter occupied and being “there” yourself.
One of the most dramatic experiences I had of being “there” was looking at a painting by David Bomberg in an exhibition at Abbot Hall in Kendal, in 2006. It was a painting of the view at dusk from a Cornish cliff – and I felt like I was standing inside the scene. It may have helped that I had been to that same or a similar spot in the past, also at dusk, but it was odd the way the scene became “real”.
In a reversal of this there was one Bomberg picture of a Cornish scene, a valley rolling at fast pace towards the sea, which I used to be particularly fond of when I lived in Manchester, often visiting the City Art Gallery to bask in front of it. A camping trip to Cornwall resulted in a walk which passed along the same section of sparsely inhabited coastline. We became lost and began to run out of daylight and started to rush away from the sea and head up the nearest valley towards civilisation.
It was a steep climb and the sea was behind us. Suddenly a helicopter buzzed over our heads and made us turn and, as it disappeared from view, I recognised that we were scrambling up the valley from the painting. I was inside the picture I knew so well, with its tumbling painted slopes and twisting course racing down towards the waves, although I was moving against the paint, heading up towards the fields.
Recent visits to the City Art Gallery in Manchester, since its renovation and extension, have revealed that painting never seems to be on display any more.