The Beauty And Grace Of Order
CHARMIAN LEONARD'S mother was English. Her father was Greek. She takes the mix to heart as an artist. She looks for a balance between order and emotion, between ``structure'' in a painting and the inspiration that is its necessary and compelling force.
``Structure alone will be brittle,'' she observes. As for emotion, she strongly feels the need to keep it in check. Although she loves music, for example, she does not like becoming what she calls ``a sponge'' to it, just letting it take her over.
Looking at her paintings, it is immediately apparent that color - the interplay, placing, and values of colors - is of vital importance to her. Yet she also talks of the great importance of drawing - of line, that is, underlying a painting. Color without line, without delineation and incisive differentiation of one area from another, asks for collapse or even chaos.
``I generally don't paint chaos,'' she remarks brusquely. ``I let others who are good at it do it. Why waste my time on it?''
Her paintings have a light but certain touch. They seem to come directly from confident decisions spontaneously taken. There is very little fuss in them, no evidence of laborious cogitation. But their simplicity is not naive, and at their best, this artist's works achieve something of the classicality she admires in natural phenomena like the sea or man-made phenomena of consummate ``rightness'' like the Parthenon. The painting of the sea, shown here, was made from the attic window of her house in St. Ives, Cornwall, England. The Parthenon was painted on one of her frequent visits to Greece.
Of the Parthenon she says, ``I've seen it many times. It is so subtle in its combination of the geometric and the organic. It has nothing extraneous. Nothing can be taken from it or added to it. It is out of this world on its own terms.''
The same balance of precision and naturalness that she perceives in the Parthenon, and the way it ``grows from the Acropolis'' rather than ``being planted on it as an architect might do from a design on a board,'' is what she aims for in her painting. This great Greek temple ``grows from a beautiful site.'' And her paintings, which she paints on the spot and almost never makes away from their subject, also grow from a beautiful site or sight. The subjects from which her paintings stem are chosen out of love. She believes in ``idealistic values that are out of date,'' she says, and adds: ``But I don't care.''
``I am in awe at the precision that underlies everything. I look for order and precision, the evidence of universal intelligence. Not a rigid order, but a wonderful order. Look at the tides; consider each wave. Each wave is different and yet it flows within itself. Obvious things! Look at the stars, at any flower, and see the order - an innate order everywhere. If you drop sugar on the ground, because of gravity, you'll have order.''
What may not be instantly apparent from Charmian Leonard's paintings, because of their lucid immediacy and freedom from pretension, is that they are the work of an artist who has undergone considerable training. She attended art school in London as a young woman, both part- and full-time, for seven years. But while such a degree of schooling in many cases leads to stylistic slickness, for Leonard it is no more than a necessary grounding. Her attitude toward skill is telling: ``I never allow myself to do something just because my skill is there. I won't paint a thing just because I can do it. I paint it because I love it.'' The display of mere skill leads to paintings ``as dead as a dodo.''
She feels strongly that art needs what she calls ``a motive,'' something more than ``ego.'' This motive must come from a kind of usefulness. Or from religion. It cannot be ``just done as a splash.'' Her preference for certain kinds of art or for particular artists indicates something of what she means by ``motive.'' She points to Giotto as an artist of notable truth and honesty - ``with a motive.'' Mondrian's early seascapes and dunescapes strike her as coming from a vigorous affection. Aboriginal art is not ``just about being clever'' - it has a reason for being made.
The same, she believes, must have been true about stone-age cave painting. It must have come from necessity. On the other hand, it was a need over and above mere questions of subsistence. She points out that ``cave man only had to kill gazelles and make a pot - but he still bothered to decorate his walls.'' Usefulness does not only imply basic practicality.
IT would seem that Charmian Leonard's idea of a useful motive for art means that art should not be remote, abstract, or merely public. Art belongs in the home and is part of daily life. It can contribute to the vitality and agreeableness of home in more than a decorative way.
Although Leonard by no means carries a feminist banner in her art, she tentatively proposes the notion that while men ``are more likely to intellectualize,'' women ``use things'' and think of their art as ``useful.'' She has never made abstract paintings. ``My work is an immediate response to and use of what I see.''
Leonard does not make paintings for museums. ``I can't see any point in it. People don't live in museums.'' So both in their size and intention, her paintings are meant to hang on domestic walls. Looking at art in a museum tends to be cursory. ``Living with a painting, your eye contemplates it; it wanders round it and finds things.'' Her husband used to say that the house ``felt dead'' if her paintings were off the walls and away at an exhibition.
One extension of her art, and of the kind of hot and cold colors in her sea paintings - ``cold and hot blues, yellow with pink, colors with a bite'' as she describes them - is in large and long knitted scarves. Although she talks consistently of ``usefulness,'' these scarves seem to be something more than neck-warmers. One friend has even hung a Charmian Leonard scarf on his wall as a mural.
By treating the scarf as a painting, it is likely that its owner sees in it the changing colors and moods of the sea - its vastness, space, order, and ``eternity-feeling,'' in the artist's words - the same qualities that one can discover in her paintings of the sea. In either case, she has translated the harmonies and ``accord'' she looks for in nature into a different medium, into an art form over which she can exert complete control. She never allows her art ``to be dictated to,'' she says, by the subject she is looking at. Her art is a way of presenting in her own terms the order she loves to look for and find in the world around her.