July 24, 2019

The Notebook

On June 1st I lost my notebook. I didn’t actually realise I’d lost it until the next day when I found something in a book that I wanted to write down as I thought it relevant to my work, something Alex Katz had said about his work and something somebody else had said about it. They were respectively:

“I like to make an image that’s so simple you can’t avoid it and so complicated you can’t figure it out.”

‘They are beautiful paintings because they don’t mean anything.’

I opened my notebook about halfway through looking for a blank page. There wasn’t one, instead I read:

Come to it unassumedly, surface first described as, (back before,) “It was a big canvas, five metres by three, all planned out, though parts of it were still hardly developed beyond the rough stage…”

Too similar to Dejeuner sur l’herbe.

What? I wondered. I hadn’t written that. I guess that in instances like these the first instinct is always disbelief and I looked around me, the seemingly primal instinct of someone confused. I wonder did people do this before hidden-camera television shows or only since then. I flicked through the book, all the pages were written in the same hand but it wasn’t mine and I realised that this wasn’t my notebook. It was identical though, a turquoise Banner A6 hardback notebook, it even had a red rubber band around it as mine did, the type you see on the pavement, shed by postmen on their route. I flicked back to the inside cover to see if a name was written there. It did and read:

Ben Manrose

If found please make use of.

I thought back to the day before when I’d stupidly left my bag unzipped when I left the house and after walking about a mile things had toppled out as I’d crossed the road. I turned when I heard the clatter of oil paints on the road to see an old drunk, his arm shaking like a sewing machine, stooping to help me. I gratefully accepted his help and we piled my belongings back into my bag, the last of which was my notebook. Had we picked up the wrong notebook? Had he swapped them? I thought back to his dirty denim shirt, a tattoo creeping under the ragged cuff as he handed my things to me. His craggy smile and the baffled eyes of someone half-cut at ten in the morning. He seemed an unlikely perpetrator of such subterfuge. I flicked through the book, not really paying attention to what was written there. I was hoping that there would be a number and that somehow, implausibly, Ben Manrose would have my notebook and we could swap them, as if we owned identical rucksacks and had picked the wrong ones off the baggage carousel at an airport.

The only record I have of my notebook is a painting I did of it and a photograph of the notebook with that painting. I did it just because I had three objects of roughly commensurate size: A6. The notebook, a piece of rubber I’d found while out walking and a piece of wood I’d also found while walking, but on a different occasion. This was a couple of months ago and I went on to paint other more defined collections, but nothing that satisfied me as much as this initial piece, there was something beautiful and poignant about the senselessness of this collection.

In my studio practice I was now lost. I didn’t know what to paint and my notebook, with all the notes pertaining to my paintings was gone. In lieu of having anything else to do and because I appreciated the symmetry of the act I painted the book I had just found: Manrose’s notebook.

The next day I started reading the notebook. I realised it was the notebook of a painter as it had similar annotations to my own. Notes such as:

Insane Green = Lemon Yellow, Cad Yell Hue, Viridian.

Top corner re-use orange from N.T.I.

These jottings were interspersed with other longer passages. It was obvious from these notes that Manrose was engaged in a similar struggle to me, trying to make good paintings. He had gone further than just the formulas of colours and I reckoned he was looking for a method or pattern within painting. The notebook could roughly be split in two halves. The first started with the scribbled phrase;

Books: If you make up a painting what would it look like?

The passage I stumbled across to begin with belonged under this heading; there Manrose had been talking about Zola, but there were a number of excerpts like this. Manrose had found the passages in books where paintings were mentioned, fictional paintings that is. I saw the appeal; if a writer could make up a painting, any painting, what would it look like. I decided that I would read the same books as Manrose, in the hope of getting a handle on my own painting practice. I went to the library to see which of them they had. There were records for two, the Zola and The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac. Sadly and perhaps fittingly the latter was listed as ‘missing’… I smiled at the irony and withdrew The Masterpiece by Zola.

It was obvious straight away what Manrose had been talking about when he said it was too close to the Manet painting. It was impossible to read a description of it without picturing Dejeuner sur l’herbe.

‘It showed the sun pouring into a forest clearing, with a solid background of greenery… … Lying on the grass in the foreground, among the lush vegetation of high summer, was the naked figure of a woman… … In the background, two other nude women, one dark and one fair, were laughing and tumbling each other on the grass… …while in the foreground… …a man’s figure. He wore a plain black velvet jacket and was seated on the grass…’

It was like trying to read a novel once you’d seen the film adaptation, try as you might you can’t picture anybody but the actors as the protagonists. I guess this is why Manrose made so few notes from it. I abandoned it a little later, keener to follow the text of the notebook than the experiences of Zola’s hero, the painter Claude Lantier.

I didn’t read all the books, Manrose had been extensive in his research and I didn’t have the time or the money. Instead I made my decisions based on what I owned or what I could borrow from the library, friends or family. I used to turn up at their houses with a list: “Do you have any of these books?”. The next book I read was Moon Palace by Paul Auster. The passage in the notebook was a quote describing a series of fictive paintings:

‘The pictures he produced were raw, he said, filled with violent colours and strange, unpremeditated surges of energy, a whirl of forms and light.’

I had read this book before and I remember how intensely I wanted to see the paintings produced by Effing (the fictional painter.) This desire is not dissimilar to the way I feel when I’m working on a painting. I want to see it finished straight away. Auster manages to capture something, something of the gap between the production of a painting and not knowing what it will look like. It is experienced by the reader here but it’s as much a mystery to the artist as to the viewer and probably one of the key reasons I, and maybe others, paint.

‘He had no idea if they were ugly or beautiful, but that was probably beside the point. They were his, and they didn’t look like any other paintings he had seen before.’

I have a quote written in another, un-lost notebook, the painter Philip Guston has mentioned something similar:

‘You see, I look at my paintings, speculate about them. They baffle me, too. That’s all I’m painting for.’

I realised that through all this reading Manrose was trying to work out what a painting could or should do, perhaps a reason for painting, or more specifically a reason for painting something, a reason for his subject. Somewhere along the line he stopped. It is as if he seemingly lost interest in it or perhaps he realised he should be looking for something else. I guess this is why there is a marked change in Manrose’s writing style in the second half of the notebook. In this half he writes list, short lists. I realised that these lists were composed of books, as I had read most of them. The same books recurred quite often. Here’s the first list as an example:

Killer in the Rain

Smart Aleck Kill

The Long Goodbye

Around this time, while I was griping about the current aimlessness of my painting practice someone suggested that I should do ‘another painting like those three books,’ I probably corrected them; “actually only one is a book, one a piece of rubber, one a piece of wood.” But this flicked some switch in my mind and I took to the studio the three books in Manrose’s first list. I had them in front of me ready to paint and tried them in different formations. Eventually I settled on something similar to the standing-stones at Stonehenge and painted them.

It was the most interesting painting I had produced in years. I was dumbstruck that Manrose’s formula could have provided me with such a rich source for a painting. In these instances, when I strike some vein in my work that excites me I tend to run with it, and this is what I did. I painted the next ten ‘recipes’ quickly, all the same size, (approximately A4.) While painting I continue to read the books that Manrose referenced.

The next one I could find a copy of was Lanark by Alasdair Gray. Manrose’s notes were very brief. He had taken just one line from the whole book.

“At the studio he saw nothing in his picture but a tangle of ugly lines. He sat and stared at them till it was dark.”

I think this is because the book deals with so much more. Or maybe he just enjoyed reading it too much. Manrose only wanted to know about the creation of a painting, the moment when the artist is there in the studio caught in the instant between being unsure of what they are doing and thinking about the futility of it.

Of the stories Manrose introduced me to; the one I enjoyed most was The Unknown Masterpiece by Honore de Balzac. (After my disappointment in the library and partly because of Manrose’s emphatic underlining of some of the passages from the book, I realised that I had to read it and bought a copy.)

“Coming closer, they discerned, in one corner of the canvas, the tip of a bare foot emerging from this chaos of colours, shapes, and vague shadings, a kind of incoherent mist.”

In the story the artist Frenhofer talks about a collision between drawing and painting.

‘Nature consists of a series of shapes that melt into one another. Strictly speaking there’s no such thing as drawing… Line is the means by which man accounts for the effect of light on objects, but in nature there are no lines – in nature everything is continuous and whole… Perhaps it’s wrong to draw a single line…’

This tension ultimately drives him insane. Or more exactly the quest for perfection in a painting drives him insane and for Frenhofer this takes root in trying to eliminate all lines from his work. He produces a work that he believes is his masterpiece:

‘I have eliminated the very notion of drawing of artificial means, and given my work the look and the actual solidity of nature.’

But the painting is the work of a madman whose failure or success is uncertain. The novella handles this tightrope beautifully and like Moon Palace touches on the lack of knowing a painter has when producing work.

I think it struck me because I had recently decided to dispense with drawing in my own work, I realised any drawing I would do was so quick, loose and vague that it was extraneous. Working only with paint meant I was responding only to painted marks and the picture seems to arrive out of itself. For me this made for a purer process but I was coming round to the idea that you should just do whatever works, as I had done with Manrose’s recipes.

So the work I was doing was painted directly onto the surface and was done from life, I began to realise that this was also important. That by no longer working directly from photographs I had won myself some freedom I didn’t know I was missing. By ‘working directly from a photograph’ I mean taking the composition directly from it. I was still using flat images but placing them at a distance, I was no longer working with a monocular perspective. The fractured viewpoint I had was being reflected in the fractured paintings I was producing, undoubtedly different to the work I had done when I would use photographs and probably better.

By this stage I had several paintings that I liked, I could put them all on the white wall of the studio and they had a logic to them, both individually and together. I liked the way that they looked recognisable but resisted further understanding. I couldn’t believe that I had produced them simply by painting books.

I liked this but I must admit to feeling a little guilty by this stage, taking so much from the notebook. I resolved that I would make up my own recipe. I still used the same books, they were lying around the studio after all, but I also introduced a mosaic tile that I had picked up in Leeds, outside a shish café that was being refurbished. As this was ‘my’ piece I decided to honour this and made it much larger; about 4 ½ ft x 3 ½ ft. My recipe then was: Tile, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, All the Chandlers, The Lazy Burglar, The Deep End, And Then You Die, War Zones, On the Road Again.

It was my best painting so far. I decided to call it ‘The Miramar’ as while I was painting it, it reminded me of a passage early in another book, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. It is a passage that always stays with me. It seemed relevant because of the lust, the structures and I liked that the word Miramar is Spanish for sea-view I think. In the book Lowry describing the walk of M. Laruelle through the ruins of a palace called the Miramar that reminds him of trysts with a former lover.

‘The broken pink pillars, in the half-light, might have been waiting to fall down on him… this place, where love had once brooded, seemed part of a nightmare. Ghosts, as at the Casino, certainly lived here… quarrelling: “No, you loved yourself, you loved your misery more than I. You did this deliberately to us.”’

I was making a book out of other books and the idea of creating a story from other stories appealed to me immensely.

I had produced some good work but I couldn’t help but think that it was so bound up by fate. So many things could have been different, and seemed to hang on happenstance. 1. That I found the notebook. 2. That I had decided to use it. 3. That I recognised the books he’d listed. Even that the paintings would have been completely different if the editions I’d owned or appropriated had had different book jackets. I could have had any copies of these books.

I thought about this and I realised that it wouldn’t have mattered. This was the key. I had just been looking for an excuse to paint something and the contents of the notebook provided that. I realised that whatever gets you painting, whatever puts you in front of a painting, whatever quiets your grubby neuroses and gurning libido long enough for you to start a painting is good enough. You should worry about the paintings once they are under way, not before. I realised that Manrose must have realised this too, the books he and I had read were interesting but they didn’t inform our paintings. He didn’t lose his notebook, he gave it away. He didn’t need it. The dedication at the start wasn’t written when he got the notebook but when he got rid of it.

I was thinking this after leaving the studio.

I left the notebook on a plastic chair at Vauxhall Cross bus station and walked home.

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  1. The Notebook (by Michael Lawton) | The Foolscap Journal

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