The Belgian writer Georges Simenon is most famous for his series of detective novels featuring Commissaire Maigret of the Police Judiciaire in Paris, but he also wrote other books that he called his romans durs or “hard novels.” Perhaps this characterization referred to their harsh & unflinching view of life or perhaps Simenon meant that because they were grim & gritty, they could be difficult to read. Perhaps he meant both.
All of this came to mind the other day after I had finished Pier, my latest oil pastel. As usual, I signed it, then stepped back from the easel to look. Suddenly it occurred to me that Pier might not be my most appealing painting: It has a limited palette with predominately dark colors; it is tall & lanky (21×13½”) &, due to a somewhat brooding quality, it lacks charm.
Pier, I decided, is one of my “demanding paintings,” the ones that I imagine people see for the first time & wonder, “Why did she paint this?” On the other hand, I imagine that people who see my undemanding, “pleasant paintings,” the ones of peonies or tulips or stacks of stones, never ask why, even when they don’t particularly like them. Along the lines of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Rhodora – “…if eyes were made for seeing, then beauty is its own excuse for being…” – my pleasant paintings don’t require an explanation. My demanding ones do.
Pier came about because, on January 2nd of this year, Tom & I went walking on the beach in Capitola, near Santa Cruz. As we passed beneath the pier & I stopped to watch the water rush in, the thick wooden pilings reminded me of the columns of an ambulatory in a Gothic cathedral. Something about the way the light entered from the sides suggested the high windows of a clerestory. Peripheral posts slanting inward were reminiscent of flying buttresses. Reflections left by the receding waves on the packed, wet sand evoked the highly-polished marble of a cathedral floor, completing the illusion that I was being sheltered in an ancient & mysterious space. I knew immediately that this experience would result in a future painting that I would call Pier.
Providing viewers with a painting’s context doesn’t guarantee that they will like it. Hopefully, though, they will at least understand it & personally, when it comes to my demanding paintings, that’s enough for me!