The aim is not to reconstitute an anecdotal fact but to constitute a pictorial fact.
George Braque, Thoughts on Painting, 1917
This is now the third, in hopefully, what will be a long and open-ended series of exhibitions that Matthew Draper might continue to present at Lemon Street Gallery. As the artist demonstrates yet again, his work continues to be of a highly alluring nature. Engaging with Draper’s absorbing pastel pictures, the most immediate response is one of fascination and wonder at the atmospherically shrouded scenes and elusive experiences portrayed. These are all subtly suggested by protean images that seem to be there, and yet, not there at the same time. Magically, such images somehow appear to be ‘real’, and simultaneously, are of the stuff that dreams, and fading memories, are made.
So what kind of artist is Matthew Draper? Some might be inclined to place his highly evocative visual poetics within the romantic mode, but the contention argued in this essay is that, first and foremost, he is a modern landscapist. Yet, because he is working at the beginning of the twenty first century – and over a hundred years later than a pioneer modernist like Braque, Draper’s take on modernism is very different in emphasis, if not in kind, from his predecessor. Not surprisingly, we find in Braque’s Thoughts on Painting an extremely radical position, where the artist wishes to make a clear, and decisive, break with the art of the past. The great cubist passionately desires to free painting from the long established tyranny of pictorial illusionism – the ‘reconstitute of anecdotal fact’. In its place the challenging modernist aims to move the artist’s concern, and the viewer’s interest, away from empathic identification with outside subject matter to critical scrutiny of internal process of picture making. Having such an attitude, many might anticipate that the logical development would ultimately lead to full pictorial autonomy in form of abstraction. Interestingly, and significantly, neither Braque, nor Draper for that matter, chose not to follow that particular path of pictorial expression. Crucially for both artists a tangible external subject – be it a bowl of fruit or a rocky promontory, is vitally necessary for their figurative interpretation of their initial source of inspiration.
So what then is modern about Matthew Draper’s art? Certainly not his regularly selected subject matter – storm-tossed seascapes from around the Cornish rugged coastline or flickering nocturnal views of Falmouth harbour for instance. Yet neither were the preferred subjects of Braque, Picasso, or Matisse ‘modern’ for that matter. They all avoided modernity like the plague in their art. In fact it was always traditional still lives, studio nudes and anonymous portraits that were the focus of their analytical attention. It could however be argued that Draper’s evocatively suggested images have much more emotional emphasis, and nostalgic involvement, than found in the ‘cooler’ work of these earlier modern masters. That of course in the end, is a matter of opinion. Yet it always needs to be kept in mind that a work of art, regardless of how ‘expressive’ it may appear to be, has no thoughts or feeling in itself. At most it acts a complex medium, through which the empathic viewer can experience a range of critical, and emotional, reactions. Thus, our heightened All works are pastel on paper involvement with any appealing art work – such as these sublime images of Matthew Draper for instance, always in the end, lies with ourselves, and not with the stars which we might find in the artist’s picture – to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
To test Draper’s artistic credentials as a modernist it might however, be more fruitful to shift our attention away from subject content – crucially important as that might be to the appeal of the works in this exhibition, and look more closely at the manner in which the artist treats that subject matter. On initial acquaintance at least, one might think that Draper’s pastels are as far removed from cubist painting as one could possibly imagine. Not so! Using, admittedly very different techniques, both Draper and the cubists share the same pictorial strategy of veiling and revealing their subjects to the viewer’s gaze. In a cubist still life for instance, through the dense layers of facetted shapes there will always be glimpses and traces of recognisable fragmented objects – be it a handle of a jug, or the stringed sound hole of the ubiquitous guitar. Likewise, when one peers into the misty distances of Draper’s seascapes, after much optical searching, one is always rewarded by the suggestion of an identifiable presence, such as the crumbling air shaft of an abandoned tin mine, or the almost submerged Brisons rocks lashed by the surrounding tumultuous seas. The strong appeal of both of these types of pictures lies in their power to lure the viewer into the compositional games which the artists sets up to intrigue and stimulate what Gombrich called the ‘beholder’s share’. It is this elaborate and tantalising process of leaving visual hints and pictorial clues scattered throughout the constructed image which holds and delights our attentive involvement – whether it be found in the work of Braque or Draper.
So how is Matthew Draper’s pastel art a ‘pictorial fact’? The manner in which he physically and technically makes his art is undoubtedly related to the distinctive methods of modernist practice. Right from the outset in the middle of the nineteenth century modern art aimed to draw critical attention to the manner in which a work of art was actually made. Manet and the Impressionists for example, wished to challenge the academic obsession with ‘finish’, where optical access to the material reality of the ‘painting’ was denied because it was painstakingly hidden behind the immaculate image of the ‘picture’. By contrast, through the modernist movement, paint was allowed to come out of the closet in the form of heavy impasto on brightly coloured canvases. Unsurprisingly, with every radical innovation, each subsequent generation needs to go one step beyond that achieved by their predecessors. Thus, by the early twentieth century the cubists were further emphasising the material factuality of their practice with the introduction of collage into their carefully constructed compositions.
Draper’s preferred medium of pastel has a complex relation to this particular aspect of modern art practice. The academies had little time for pastel, regarding it as an insignificant vehicle for mere decorative art, and thus, more appropriate to delicate feminine sensibilities. That of course, was before Degas got his hands on it! He single-handedly revolutionised the use and status of pastel, through the manner in which he expanded the range of stunning pictorial effects that it could achieve. And a century on Draper is still seeking to extend the potential of pastel. In using this particular method of image making the artist clearly draws attention to the technical methods involved, which are of a very direct, tactile character. Thus his pictures are openly shown to be physical objects – sheets of roughly cut paper strenuously covered in layer upon layer of worked and re-worked coloured chalks. Undoubtedly each of these beautifully crafted works is a ‘pictorial fact’ which has also been miraculously transformed into a visionary experience for the viewer, through the creative power of the artist’s poetic imagination.
Finally, we need to turn to the modernist concept of the ‘serial’, and see how it is utilised in the art of Matthew Draper. In the history of modern art this widespread practice of working in serial form goes back to at least to the end of the nineteenth century, with for example, Monet’s great series on various subjects like Rouen Cathedral, as well as, Whistler’s Nocturnes or Cezanne’s endless engagements with his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. The serial strategy of accumulative engagement with the motif enabled modern artists to shift from the earlier objective, pseudo-scientific approach of the realists and early impressionists, to one which was much more personal and subjective in inclination. Now innovative artists were inclined to concentrate their attentions, not only on the processes of transformation within the subjects themselves, but also, attempt to record the optical and somatic impact that these continuous shifts and changes made on their own perceptions and sensitivities. Matthew Draper’s art is clearly a continuation and expansion of this particular aspect of the modernist enterprise. Like his modern landscape predecessors he too closely identifies with, and immerses himself in, his recurring subjects – especially, as with this present exhibition, the constantly changing scenes and variable moods of the Cornish coastline.
In the end however, what holds Draper’s work together as a coherent whole is not these recurrent subjects in themselves, but the consistent attitude and dedicated approach which the artist maintains as he constantly seeks to express his evolving and ever-developing relationship with the phenomenal experiences that permeated and haunt his pictorial world. Examining this new body of work a perceptive person should instinctively sense an underlying unity of purpose and approach on the part of the artist. Certainly each individual picture stands independently for itself and subtly contrasts with the rest. Yet the exhibition as a whole expands to demonstrate a continuity of common concerns and stylistic interpretations which are the hallmarks of what we like to call – the art of Matthew Draper.
Publication published by the Lemon Street Gallery to
accompany the exhibition
£15.oo including P&P