Stendhal Syndrome by Oliver Jeffers

I’ve been fascinated by pictures for as long as I can remember. Both by looking at them and by making them.A few paintings stand out as pivotal moments in how they influenced the way I thought and how I looked at things.

In sort of chronological order, one of the very first times I remember being totally saturated by an image was the last double page spread of ‘The Bad Tempered Lady Bird’ by Eric Carle, where, in one composition, a ladybird is seen trying to pick a fight with a blue whale. The sense of scale staggered me. I remember it now, wondering why the whale seemed so big when it was inside a book the same size as all the rest of them, when I realized it was because of the ladybird.


It was the contrast between the two. I felt like I’d learned a new trick, been let in on some kind of secret, and for about a year afterwards I drew pictures of whales and waves, making them massive by placing a small boat or a house somewhere on the page. This game continued for a while. There I’d be, drawing a normal sized person standing on some grass. But wait, no! He’d become a giant person the second I drew a bus coming up to his ankle. This fascination with sense of scale, and the negative space that it naturally provides, is still a major defining characteristic in my work. It probably always will be.

For the last several years I’ve been really interested in using figurative painting as a means to a conceptual end, rather than as an end in itself, and here two paintings in particular stand out as influential. FIrstly, ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ by Magritte. Years ago when I was first studying art appreciation, I was shown this painting. Everyone in the class thought it was cool, but I felt like I was the only one who got it rather than dismiss it as a neat gimmick. It wasn’t a pipe. It was a painting of a pipe. What was it that made us recognise it as a pipe? I hurt my head thinking about it, and about how we recognised any figurative painting as anything. At what point did they stop being blobs of paint on a flat surface, and start becoming images as real as the world around us? Looking back, I don’t think I really ‘got it’, rather than just got the psychological potential of it. I hadn’t realised I was dealing with essentially quantum mechanical problems of recognition in multiple dimensions. In thinking about it all now, my head still hurts. But I continue to think about it. And make art about it.

“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Magritte. 1928/29.

Thirdly, there are a series of paintings by the painter Mark Tansey called ‘Action Paintings’ where he portrays someone camped out as if painting a landscape or still life, but the actual subject of their painting is a car crash, or a rocket launch, and the events happening in front of them mirror exactly the painting on their easel. He showed me that painting impossibilities was entirely possible, and unlike fantasy type art where there were nothing other than impossibilities (which I was never really into) his impossibilities where subtle and based in the real world. They questioned our understanding of things, our systems for living, and that is something I have been engulfed by as a painter; using figurative painting as a way of exploring the various systems humans employ to understand our world.

“Action painting”. Mark Tansey. 1981.

When I decided that I was going to use figurative painting as a means to ask my own questions, I decided that I needed to produce pretty convincing figurative paintings for the whole idea to work. I started looking closely and technically at the work of great figurative artists to see how they did it? How did Velazquez make his hands look like that? How did Caravaggio make his light so believable? How did Sargent make something look so utterly real with so few but confident brush strokes?

“Lady Agnew of Lochnaw”. Sargent. 1892.

I started reading about these people with a whole new found respect for their work. Suddenly attempting to make paintings like these for myself, the magnitude of what these painters had done dawned on me. I could pick anyone of these paintings to mention as a specific influence, when more accurately it was the way that I began thinking about them, and seeing them as I was always supposed to that was the influence.

Detail of “Las Meninas”. Velázquez. 1656.
One of these paintings, however, has a more interesting story than the others, so that is the one I will mention. Lady Writing a Letter by Vermeer. This painting was stolen from a Stately Home in the south of Ireland a few decades ago. It disappeared for several years before turning up in a suitcase under a bed in Amsterdam about 10 years ago. When it was being severely cleaned they discovered a pinhole through the left eye of the main subject in the painting. This was enough to prove a theory one art historian had been following for some time; that Vermeer had not been using camera obscura to project his images on to canvas, but had been working out the scale and composition mathematically, putting a pin in the centre point, tying a piece of string to it and using that to measure the accuracy of his subjects and settings. A very important piece of practical art history wouldn’t be known if the painting hadn’t been nicked.

Lady Writing a Letter with maid”. Vermeer. 1670

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