Visual art is a particularly ambiguous and inclusive form of human expression. Images can bridge gaps that language, time, and geography create. To a certain extent, visual art is about the universality of human experience in a way few other forms are. Yet it is also a highly individualized experience; after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it is very rare that two people see exactly the same thing in any one painting, photograph, or sculpture. Based on our unique life experiences, a piece can be a scathing commentary on the history of male patriarchy or a pastoral scene of natural bliss, highlighting the natural world’s supremacy to man. Neither of these interpretations is wrong – for visual art, there is no wrong interpretation. There is what the artist intended, of course, but what most artists intend is simply to evoke an emotion or response from their audience; and most good art does just that.
From a very young age, the art of Jack Vettriano evoked such a response from me. I can’t remember where I saw my first piece of his, but I do remember which piece it was. The iconic, and almost inescapable, “Dance Me to the End of Love”. I was enraptured by the depths of his colors, the fantastic, yet grounded scene he put forth of couples, each pair very much alone, but as a whole, grouped like competing ballroom dancers, swirling through a misty, moonlit plain of indiscernible space, ground shimmering like the beaches after a tide. It was so simple and yet, to me, endlessly fascinating for the simple fact that you cannot see the couples’ faces. I wanted to know if they were afraid, or excited, or in love, or angry – what did this dance mean to them, dancing to the end of love?
I purchased a full book of Vettriano’s art some years later and examined his body of work like a detective looking for clues to a puzzle I did not yet understand. Some of his work shocked me. Some excited me. Some even repelled me. But I couldn’t look away. I was intrigued by the non-judgmental nature of his work – looking at his pieces was like looking through not the eye of a person, but the eye of a camera; he only captured, did not comment, or censure, or praise, presenting things as they occurred, not as he wished they had or hadn’t. His models were not all the swan-like, elegant dancers I had first seen. They were sharp faced women with trailing cigarettes, groups of faceless, foreboding men, human bodies portrayed as realistically as possible, almost brush-made photographs of real people. In other artists’ hands, the people and situations he gave expression too would have seem monstrous – decadent, cruel, inhumane shapes upon canvas.
But under his care, these figures were beautiful. That is what kept me coming back to the book. I would take it out and look through its pages with bated breath. Vettriano’s work was the first to teach me that beauty, both in the physical and spiritual sense, is subjective. Even the most unpleasant situation can yield artistic results when handled correctly – beastly figures could communicate a universal and humanistic feeling of awe and wonder. We may want to look away, may even know we should look away; but we do not.
The paintings of Jack Vettriano inspire me to use my words like a camera; to distance myself from what I am portraying, to leave my own commentary out of it, and let the actions and people I am creating speak for themselves. I have often been surprised by what they say and how other people react to them. There is a genuineness born from this detached perspective that encourages others to look deeper, look closer, and consequently feel more fully than they would otherwise.
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