Postcards in the artist’s studio.

There is a white shoebox on our bookshelf in which I keep my collection of several hundred art postcards.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

I have been collecting postcards of paintings and drawings since 1975 when I was 21 years old, mostly from art museums and some from second hand bookshops and market stalls. Others were mailed to me by friends. I buy duplicates of the cards I really like – one to keep and one to write on and send. Every now and again I pull the box down, open it up and shuffle through the cards, picking out a few that appeal. The new selection gets pinned to the wall of my studio or put under a magnet on the fridge.

Sending and receiving postcards is a great pleasure to me. To write a good postcard is not always easy: you have limited words with which to communicate news, tell a joke, make an observation and send love. In fact, it is not dissimilar to the modern-day limitations of tweeting. My writing usually starts out expansive and decreases to tiny as the space diminishes, with afterthoughts marching up the edges like ants.

For Australian artists of the pre-digital age, art postcards were objects of yearning – images of a culture lodged far away, in museums across the Indian and Pacific oceans. For those who had made the pilgrimage to these places, they became souvenirs.

Photos of artists’ studios often reveal a few postcards in there somewhere, thumbtacked or taped to a wall, beside a doorjamb or next to a light switch.

The size of a postcard is set by the maximum dimensions for the standard postal charge.

They fit in the pocket or can be used as a bookmark. ‘Postcard-sized’ has become an informal unit of measure. The image on the card can change over time, from exposure to light, and accrete a patina of dirt and damage. After a while, whether I have actually seen the original painting reproduced on the card becomes less important.

The other week I went through the postcard box again and chose five cards to write about in this essay. A different week would have meant a completely different selection.

Albert Marquet (1875-1947), Naples, 1909, oil on canvas. Johannesburg Art Gallery

Albert Marquet (1875-1947), Naples, 1909, oil on canvas. Johannesburg Art Gallery

Albert Marquet is generally placed with the Fauves of the early 20th Century – Derain, Dufy and others. However, by 1909, he was moving away from brightly hued Fauvist interpretations of landscape to a more naturalistic use of colour, in this case above the luminous haze of the Bay of Naples. Marquet often painted ports: Tangier, Le Havre, Amsterdam; but I think the series he did on two trips to Naples before 1910 are his best depictions of water and the life on it. They have an exuberant energy. Marquet often put transient things into his pictures: pedestrians in a hurry, boats on the move. His paintings are about a particular day.

Arriving in a new port, Marquet and his wife would take pains to find a hotel room with a busy scene to be viewed from its window or balcony. Given its low perspective, however, I think that this picture was done at an easel, close to the shore. Marquet painted quickly, always from life, alla prima, with a thin creamy impasto.

In 1986, I visited and swam out across the Bay of Naples, from close to where I reckoned Marquet would have painted. It was a hot summer day and the outline of Vesuvius looked much as it does in the painting. People were sunbaking, eating precariously balanced picnics on the jagged rocks of the shore, listening to radios, but no-one was swimming. My girlfriend and I jumped in and crawled out through the none- too-clean harbour for a few hundred metres, then trod water in the middle of the bay. A rowboat, piloted by shirtless teenage boys paddled nearby. They called out to us and we looked up. One of the boys was standing up in the boat, making it tip towards us, holding, cupped in his hand, his erection. They rowed off laughing.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Portrait of Don Ramon Satue, 1823, 107 x 83cm. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Portrait of Don Ramon Satue, 1823, 107 x 83cm. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

This portrait by Goya (left) was stuck for years above my carpentry workbench. This bench is where I sand off paintings that I don’t like any more, so the man’s contemptuous look was appropriate. Goya’s sitter is so insouciant and self-assured, at home in his own soft skin. It has recently been discovered that this image of Don Ramón Satué, a judge, was painted on top of another portrait – a medalled military man, perhaps French, Napoleonic. It was probably politic of Goya to cover it with the portrait of a Spaniard.

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), Limestone Cliffs on the Island of Rugen, 1818, 90 x 71cm. Museum Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur, Switzerland

Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), Limestone Cliffs on the Island of Rugen, 1818, 90 x 71cm. Museum Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur, Switzerland

When the German writer Heinrich von Kleist first saw Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Monk by the Sea, he said that it felt like his eyelids had been cut off. It was a similar revelation for me when I first saw some Friedrich paintings in real life. Previously I had thought them a bit kitsch.

This painting (left) of a ravine between cliffs by the sea, Chalk Cliffs on Rugen, is like a scene from an 18th century novel. It was painted just after Friedrich’s honeymoon to that region. I jokingly call it ‘where’s the ball gone’, but in fact I‘m sure the woman in the red dress has lost her bonnet, blown down between the cliffs and the man crouched on the grass, dressed in blue, is contemplating its retrieval. The third figure, a male in a floppy hat, seems disconnected from the small drama to his left and stares out to sea, watching the two white sails.

The composition is a sort of tunnel, the ocean, gestalt-like, could be a mountain if the picture were to be inverted. he figures in Friedrich’s art nearly always stare away from the viewer into the world of the painting which seems to have its own inner glow.

After losing his mother early, Friedrich, aged 13, saw his younger brother drown, falling through the ice on a lake. He had a reputation later in life for being a melancholic loner. Yet there is a contemporary account from his years in Dresden, around 1808, that says he was good company, humorous and kind. It relates how the artist used to let local children come into his studio to watch him paint. One little girl kept asking him for a picture, and so he gave her some of his pencil drawings. Later he asked her what she had done with them and she replied that she used them ‘to wrap her things in’.

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), La Folle, 72 x 58cm. Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon

Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), La Folle, 72 x 58cm. Musée des Beaux Arts, Lyon

Théodore Géricault, famous for his dramatic canvas, Raft of the Medusa, died young as the result of three riding accidents. He was fascinated by the macabre. Near the end of his final illness he had the surgeons set up a mirror so he could observe them excising a malignant tumour from the base of his spine. He claimed that viewing his own anatomy helped him cope with the pain.

After his mental breakdown in 1819, Géricault painted 10 studies of people with different types of madness. He apparently gifted them to a Doctor Georget, who had cared for him. It was a time when the French were at the forefront of an effort to improve the treatment of the mentally ill. Five of the portraits in this series have been lost, but five were discovered in an attic in Baden Baden, 40 years after they were painted. They were amongst the artist’s last oil paintings. This portrait (sometimes entitled, Monomania of Envy and sometimes The Hyena), is so direct; free from any anxiety about style or the desire to please either the viewer or the sitter. Those fierce red-rimmed eyes, peering sideways, are difficult to forget.

Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), Portrait d’un viellard et de son petit-fils, Musee de Louvre, Paris

Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), Portrait d’un viellard et de son petit-fils, Musee de Louvre, Paris

I know little about Ghirlandaio, but I think this painting, An Old Man and His Grandson, is one of the great double portraits. The child, his vision unpolluted, sees only a familiar kindness in the face of his grandfather. The man’s nose is deformed with a growth, due to the condition Rhynophyma, and there are thick black hairs sprouting from his forehead and down the bridge of his nose. It looks almost as if someone has hacked lines into the paint with a knife, such is their jagged proliferation. There is a melancholy smile of appreciation on the face of the old man, as though he fears that soon, under the influence of peers, his grandson will revile him; or that soon he himself will die and never see this boy grow into a man.

Look forward to Tom Carment’s book entitled Seven Walks – Cape Leeuwin to Bundeena, on sale mid-November.

EXHIBITIONS

Paintings and Drawings 2011-14  
25 November – 20 December
Kings Street Gallery

Dobell Australian Drawing Biennial 2014
21 November 2014 – 25 January 2015
The Art Gallery of New South Wales

www.tomcarment.com 

One Comment

  1. Glenis Gray
    Posted October 22, 2014 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    This was a real pleasure to read Tom !
    My postcard collecting habit began as a student in the early seventies in much the same way as yours
    Love that you included one of C.D.Friedrichs

One Trackback

  1. […] Carment is showing a suite of 128 watercolours and drawings called From Cape Leeuwin to Kings Cross; this is a partial reference to his book Seven Walks — Cape Leeuwin to Bundeena, to which he contributed essays and watercolours, and Michael Wee photographs, out this month from Roc-Hin publishing. Carment’s trifecta is completed with his one man show, Paintings & Drawings 2011-14, opening at King Street Gallery on William, 177 William Street, Darlinghurst, on November 25. Tom writes as well as he paints; check out this profile, focused on his postcard collection. […]

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