Wesley Pepper – portrait of an engaged artist

I believe in people, art, poetry, music, creativity and love … my art is an interaction between me and my surroundings.” – Wesley Pepper

What is the meaning of art in the South Africa of the 21st Century? Wesley Pepper is answering that question by doing art, not theorising about it.

The Johannesburg-based artist was born in Kimberley in the Northern Cape

“Dark skin” – a drawing by Wesley Pepper which was included in a collection of poetry by local writers

Province of South Africa in July 1978. He studied art, majoring in oil painting and drawing, at the Free State Technicon in neighbouring Bloemfontein before moving to Port Elizabeth where he studied computer graphics at a Further Education and Training (FET) college, before moving on to Cape Town.

After a short stay back in Kimberley where he was active in an arts-and-crafts collective Pepper moved to Johannesburg in 2002.

I sold a piece within five hours of arriving here,” he says with characteristic enthusiasm.

A concern that Pepper expresses is about the commercialisation of art: “People look at the price tag before they look at the work.”

He would like with his art to challenge the conservative world-views of many South African communities with regard to art, the conservatism of blue suits and ties!

“We are a beautiful concept” – drawing by Wesley Pepper

The challenge Pepper makes is through his engagement, through postering and workshopping, through involvement with other artists, musicians and writers.

“I call my art ‘open spaces’ coz exactly of that, I involve myself in various spaces and my art is about what I experience,” says Pepper.

Together with local writers Pepper has produced three collections of poetry for which he has provided art works. He has also facilitated creativity workshops and been involved with artists’ collectives.

“I love organising people,” he says.

The collective with which he is currently involved is planning a large exhibition for 2013 – which he says will take art out of the gallery and into the street.

I asked Pepper about his views on what constitutes art, on what an artist is. His

“Hair” – drawing by Wesley Pepper

reply: “An artist (according to me) is someone who is conscious about their creativity and has the talent to ‘make art’ and make a living off it.”

“As an artist you are measured by your work and hopefully my work made a statement and that’s what defines me.”



Aimez-vous Picasso?

Picasso. Image via Wikipedia

Modern Art – do you dig it?

Much has been written about modern art. Many people seem not to really like it, claiming that they don’t understand it, or that it’s ugly. Now I know one’s taste in art is a very personal thing. And people can become very defensive about their tastes – in art and everything else they can have tastes about!

This article is just to say, hey, what we like is often about what we know, and knowing a bit more about modern art might just open our eyes and our minds to some great experiences – tactile, visual and emotional.

Modern art has a long history now, and over that history looms the larger-than-life figure of the man from Spain with those piercing, almost hypnotic eyes, Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso, known to the world simply as Picasso.

To me Picasso is the Beethoven of modern art. I know, I know – wrong era, wrong style, etc., etc.

Let me try to explain why I say this. Beethoven was really sui generis , one of a kind, although in a way all composed music since Beethoven, at least until the start of the 20th Century, is judged on his terms and against his towering work. In a similar way Picasso, for all his many faults and his wide range of styles, remains the gold standard for modern art.

Beethoven did not start all of the musical styles which followed him, neither did Picasso start all the artistic styles which followed him, but without these two great artists the history of musical and artistic expression would have been very different. In fact it is impossible to imagine music, at least that genre which is mistakenly called “classical” for want of a better shorthand term, without the brooding figure of Beethoven.

Likewise modern art would not have been what it was without the sometimes puckish, sometimes brooding, always fascinating figure of Picasso.

“Everyone wants to understand art. Why don’t we try to understand the song of a bird? Why do we love the night, the flowers, everything around us, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting, people think they have to understand. If only they would realize above all that an artist works of necessity, that he himself is only an insignificant part of the world, and that no more importance should be attached to him than to plenty of other things which please us in the world though we can’t explain them; people who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.” – Picasso

Another reason why Picasso is like Beethoven for me is that everything he did, however trivial or unimportant it might seem, had the quality of rightness, as if the way Picasso did it was the only way it could be done.

Leonard Bernstein, writing about Beethoven, could have been writing about Picasso, in my view. Just change a word here or there and the following passage could, mutatis mutandis, be applied to Picasso:

“The real function of form is to take us on a varied and complicated half-hour journey of continuous symphonic progress. To do this, the composer must have his inner road map. He must have the ability to know what the next destination will be – in other words, what the next note has to be to convey a sense of rightness, a sense that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can happen at that precise instant. As we have said, Beethoven could do this better than anyone, but he also struggled with all his force in the doing.” Form Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music, 1960. (Emphasis in the original)

The eye of the hawk; the cunning of the alchemist

Picasso created some 22 000 works (more than 16 500 of these have been catalogued and are viewable on the magnificent On-Line Picasso Project, http://picasso.csdl.tamu.edu/picasso/), some of which were sublime, others pretty tacky. They range from delicate, almost wistful drawings of birds and Don Quixote to what is arguably the most powerful anti-war statement in modern art, possibly in all art: the massive mural Guernica, expressing Picasso’s horror at the bombing of the little Spanish town by planes of the German Condor Legion under the command of Lt. Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the infamous “Red Baron” of the First World War.

Picasso was born in Malaga in October 1881 and died in France in 1973. From his earliest days he was a great draftsman, following initially in the footsteps of his painter father Don Jose, who taught at the local School of Fine Arts and Crafts. By the time Picasso was 13, his father acknowledged young Pablo’s superiority as an artist and handed over to his son all his brushes, paints and palette.

In an interview published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1957, the journalist Carlton Lake responded to Picasso’s saying that “I don’t paint pictures in the hope that people will understand them,” by asking the artist if he thought critics and others who tried to explain art were performing a useless function.

Picasso responded with a vigorous “no”: “The critic or any intermediary must build a bridge people can walk over to join the artist.”

I guess I’m trying to build a bridge like that, because Picasso is so important to me and I would like others to understand him and appreciate him. What I think Picasso meant by building a bridge is for the critic or whoever, not to try to explain Picasso, but maybe to explain what Picasso means to them. Indeed it is presumptuous for one who is not even an artist to try to explain a great artist’s work.

In the same interview Picasso said: “Perhaps it would be better if all critics were poets and wrote poetry instead of pedantry.”

So I’m going to try to be a poet and share my feelings about the great man, feelings that have meant much to me over the years.

The Three Musicians (1921)

One of the first of his paintings which grabbed my attention was one of the two famous “Three Musicians”, a cubist painting from the so-called “synthetic cubism” style, painted 1921. I saw this work (in reproduction only, unfortunately!) in a small book about Picasso which my brother Chris brought home one university vac. It grabbed me because I reacted immediately to the mysterious feeling of the painting. What was that strange figure to the right of the painting? He seemed to overshadow the other two and yet I couldn’t decide whether or not I liked him. There was something ominous, something brooding about him, and yet the colours and composition were pleasing, even light-hearted. What was going on here?

I loved especially the way the pages of music looked, the blue and white background with the black notes.

Saltimbanques (Full title: La famille de saltimbanques (Les bateleurs)) painted in 1905

The next painting that I loved was the Saltimbanques (Full title: La famille de saltimbanques (Les bateleurs))painted in 1905. This group of circus people just moved me – it had to do with the colouration, those pale muddy colours with the contrasting reds and blues, the static feel of the image which made it feel to me somehow sad, nostalgic for something I didn’t know. They just looked and felt right to me, as though they just should be like that.

And yet the painting also had a feeling of mystery for me – what was the story behind this picture, who were these people and what held them together, apart from the frame of the picture? Two things in particular fascinated me – the little girl with her basket and the almost transparent classical-looking jar at the right knee of the seated woman. And why was she seated when all the other figures in the painting are standing?

Then I started reading about Picasso living in the squalid tenement known as Le Bateau-Lavoir (the laundry-boat). And so many other artists as well, whose names I was coming to know through reading about Picasso. I became aware also of the periods of Picasso’s art – the Blue, Rose, Cubist and neo-classical, to mention some of the labels that have been applied to his art.

Bull’s Head (1943)

Picasso used a sometimes bewildering variety of styles throughout his career, now figurative showing a clarity of line which has been compared with that fine master of line Ingres, to a total abstraction or what has been called by some a deformation. The great Picasso expert and critic Roland Penrose (in The Sculpture of Picasso, 1967) wrote that Picasso “has always been willing to probe our complacency about the identity of an object by showing that in certain circumstances it can mean something surprisingly different from the accepted interpretation.” So that ordinary, everyday objects can take on a wholly different aspect and meaning. Picasso used a bicycle saddle and handlebars to create a bull’s head (Tête de taureau) in 1942/3, making it impossible for me ever since to see either the bicycle components or a real bull’s head without seeing the other.

Penrose continues in the same paragraph: “With the eye of a hawk and the cunning of an alchemist, Picasso assembled a series of important sculptures made from a rich variety of objects collected from beaches and rubbish dumps. Apart from their aesthetic values they induce a metaphysical enjoyment that is not far distant from the doubt and disquiet provoked by Hieronymus Bosch.”

The effect of the radical changes brought about by World War One

Another artist brought to mind by this kind of assemblage of artefacts not normally thought of as “artistic” which we find in both the painting and the sculpture of Picasso is that great poet Thomas Stearns Eliot who similarly brought many different things together to create his art, notably the poem which so dramatically, so eloquently and “rightly” captures the zeitgeist of the first half of the 20th Century, “The Wasteland.”

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) – the painting which ushered in the cubist style

Critic Mary Karr points out how this poem expressed the way technological advances, particularly in warfare as seen in the First World War, “heaped lifestyle changes on the Western world more radical, perhaps, than written history ever recorded” (in The Wasteland and Other Writings, 2002).

Karr points out that these cultural shifts and revolutions have a deep effect on the art of the time: “So expect a text as fragmented as a clattering, bouncy ride through London or New York must’ve been; a text disorientating as a modern battle was to the soldiers of the Great War. The poem’s made of bits and overlays, snatches of speech and song – various dictions and noises and tones. Just as cities were.”

Picasso, like Eliot, Beethoven and even Bosch, was a person very much of his times and so his art accurately reflects those times, and his struggles to come to terms with them. As anyone with any sensitivity must struggle with what is going on around them.

What makes an artist great, whether Beethoven or Eliot or Bosch, is the authenticity that they achieve in responding to the world around them, how honest and vulnerable they are. And Picasso is totally himself, can never be other than he is. And this shows in every line he draws, every spot of colour he applies, every bronze or clay shape he creates.

Which is not to say that he doesn’t at times play with his audience. Obviously he has a sense of humour which comes through – who would have thought of a toy car as the head of a baboon (La guenon et son petit)? And yet how right that is now that Picasso has done it!

The last word from the master

For me the fascination of Picasso is in much more than his obvious skill as painter and sculptor – it is in how, with his constant changes and sometimes grotesque juxtapositions of objects and ideas, he constantly keeps the viewer awake. As Karr said of Eliot, he “meant above all to keep the reader riveted to the text and concentratedly alive.” Picasso seems always to be saying to the viewer, “Don’t be taken in or seduced by what you see – think about it and make something of it for yourself.” Anything less in art is dishonest. Or as he said himself, rather concisely: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

Appropriately, I think, the last word belongs to the great man himself:

“The different styles I have been using in my art must not be seen as an evolution, or as steps towards an unknown ideal of painting. Everything I have ever made was made for the present and with the hope that it would always remain in the present. I have never had time for the idea of searching. Whenever I wanted to express something, I did so without thinking of the past or the future. I have never made radically different experiments. Whenever I wanted to say something, I said it the way I believed I should. Different themes inevitably require different methods of expression. This does not imply either evolution or progress; it is a matter of following the idea one wants to express and the way in which one wants to express it.”

References and works consulted:

Bersnstein, Leonard (1960): The Joy of Music. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson

Daix, Pierre (1965): Picasso. London: Thames and Hudson

Karr, Mary (2002): The Wasteland and Other Writings. New York: The Modern Library

Lake, Carlton (1957): Picasso Speaking. The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1957 Volume 200, no. 1 (pages 35 – 41). Accessed 30 December 2008:  http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/flashbks/picasso/speak.htm

Moffat, Charles (n.d.): Pablo Picasso from http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/cubism/Pablo-Picasso.html retrieved on 30 December 2008.

Penrose, Roland (1967): The Sculpture of Picasso. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Read, Herbert (1965): A Concise History of Modern Painting. London: Thames and Hudson

Copyright Notice

The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

Falls of Halladale – a colourful ship’s story captured by Jack Spurling

The “Falls of Halladale” painted by Jack Spurling

Two mutinies, a man presumably lost overboard, two women crew members and a wreck off the coast of Australia are just some of the colourful incidents in the life of this four-masted, iron-hulled barque which was painted in 1927 by marine artist Jack Spurling.
The painting by Spurling, while spirited, gives little indication of the rather dramatic life of the ship itself, which started at Greenock on the river Clyde in Scotland in 1886, where she was built for the Falls Line of Glasgow by shipbuilders Russell and Company.
The ship was just over 2000 gross tons and had a length of 83.87 metres, a beam of 12.64 metres and a draught of 7.23 metres. Her hull was of iron and her masts and rigging of steel instead of the more usual wooden spars and hemp ropes. Another innovation included in her design was the provision of “bridges” which allowed the sailors to move in relative safety even in rough weather when seas would regularly break over the decks.
The Falls of Halladale was built to carry general cargo, a highly competitive and rather rough trade in those days.
In 1896 under the command of a seasoned sailing ship skipper Captain William Fordyce from Lerwick in Shetland made a record-breaking run from Swansea in Wales to San Francisco in California, taking only 39 days from Cape Horn to her destination, which was,

Captain Fordyce

as reported by the San Francisco Call of 24 January 1896, “equal to steamer time.”
On that same trip a seaman, Charles Anderson, reported for duty when the ship sailed, but was somewhat inebriated and on the first watch call the next day was missing. It was presumed that he had during the night gone up to the forecastle and been washed overboard.
In March 1899 the Falls of Halladale sailed from Tacoma in Washington State bound for Cape Town and the crew mutinied, claiming they had been “Shanghaied” but after about five hours the men went to work and the ship was under sail for South Africa.
On route to South Africa more incidents occurred – first the mate was washed into the scuppers by a large wave and suffered a broken collar-bone and a dislocated shoulder; then four of the crew became ill.

The ship sailed from Hamburg, Germany, in June 1900 with the two women in the crew. They were Capt Fordyce’s wife, who was 58 at the time, and her daughter Jeanie who was at the time in her 20s. They were signed on as “Purser” and “Assistant Purser” with wages of one shilling a month. They apparently spent much of the two years they were aboard the ship doing needlework!
On 25 July 1903 the ship, now under the command of Captain D.W. Thomson, sailed from Liverpool with a cargo of pig iron, salt, soda and some general merchandise, according to the San Francisco Call of 14 March 1904. The ship ran into rough weather in September 1903 off the islands of Diego Ramirez south west of the notorious Cape Horn. The weather continued foul for three weeks and they struggled to round the Cape.
At last in January 1904 they made land at Invercargil in New Zealand by which time the crew was becoming mutinous. Eight crew members, under the leadership of on Thomas Mooney, had to be put in irons and, after the ship had received fresh water and supplies from the shore, anchor was weighed and they set sail once more for San Francisco.
To the newspaper Capt Thomson said of this experience: “I have been going to sea for a great many years and this was one of the most tempestuous voyages I have ever experienced. The storms off Cape Horn were of terrible violence and for three weeks we were almost practically at the mercy of the terrible succession of hurricanes we ran into. Of course the vessel must have suffered from the terrific strain she was labouring under, and from the terrible seas that kept pounding on her decks. It is impossible for me to state anything about the cargo, but naturally it must be more or less in a damaged condition. We have a quantity of salt in sacks on board and this, of course, has suffered. The soda must also be damaged. The experience at Invercargil was a bitter one, and it was a hard fight for me to keen the crew in order.”

People from the nearby town of Peterborough came out to see the wreck of the Falls of Halladale. Image via Wikipedia.

Unfortunately for Capt Thomson an even more bitter experience was to befall him two years later. On 14 November 1908 Thomson, on a voyage from New York to Melbourne, Australia, estimated he was safely off the coast of Victoria but could not verify his position due to heavy fog. By the time the fog lifted he could see he was much too close inshore but it was too late to do anything about it and the ship ran onto the rocks under full sail.
All 29 crew members were able to get ashore, but there was no hope of salvaging the cargo and the ship sat on the rocks with all sails still set, becoming a sight for the residents of near-by Peterborough. They would come out to picnic on the hills above the wreck, which has since been declared a historic wreck site.
Capt Thomson was charged by a Court of Marine Inquiry in Melbourne which found him guilty of gross misconduct and imposed a small fine and suspended his master’s ticket for six months.
A sad end indeed for a colourful ship.
The painting is in oils on canvas laid on board and measures 86.4 cm. x 106.7 cm.

Tall ships and a short skirt – the maritime paintings of Jack Spurling

Jack Spurling was the pilot who sailed many a pretty clipper ship through memory straits and anchored her again before the eyes of those who knew her best and loved her most.” – from the Sydney Morning Herald of 30 September 1933: obituary of Jack Spurling written by “Redgum”.

Born John Robert Charles Spurling on 12 December 1870 he preferred to be known simply as “Jack”.

Spurling’s painting of his first berth as a seaman – the sailing ship “Astoria”

As a youngster he haunted the London’s East India Docks at Blackwall near his parent’s home where he sketched the ships he saw there.

Redgum” in the Obituary quoted above mentions an incident when the young Spurling, always “nosing” around the ships in the docks, was asked by the captain of the ship “Mermerus”, Captain Cole, what he was doing.

Spurling replied, “I like to watch the men at their work. Some day, sir, I hope to go to sea.”

Captain Cole allegedly told Spurling to “keep away from ships, for, as sure as God made little apples, they will get you.”

Luckily the young Spurling did not take the captain’s advice and a few years later went to sea aboard the “Astoria” bound for the East.

In Singapore Spurling fell from a yard arm and sustained injuries which necessitated a long stay in hospital and when he was discharged he joined the Devitt and Moore company, eventually gaining his second mate’s ticket. He then joined the Blue Anchor line as a second mate and did service in steamships in the colonial trade.

After some seven years at sea Spurling left to join the theatre where he was kept busy in the musicals of impresario and theatre owner George Edwardes, who in turn worked with Richard D’Oyly Carte and the famous light opera composers Gilbert and Sullivan.

Advertisement in “Blue Peter” for the Spurling prints. Annotations by my late father Murray McGregor who was passionate about ship recognition.

His paintings came to the attention of the editor of the shipping journal Blue Peter, Frederick Hook, who placed several in the magazine where they attracted a great deal of favourable reaction from readers. Hook then commissioned Spurling to contribute more paintings for the journal, which also proved extremely popular, so that the journal in the 1930s offered 77 of Spurling’s paintings as “artistically mounted, ready for framing” colour prints at two shillings each.

The most famous and popular of the tall ships were the tea and wool clippers which Spurling painted with unparalleled skill. Indeed he was renowned for being exceedingly accurate in his depictions of the riggings of these ships.

The editor of the Blue Peter offered a reward to anyone who could fault the rigging on one of Spurling’s paintings – the reward was never paid.

Two of the most famous ships painted by Spurling were the “Thermopylae” and the “Cutty Sark”. “Thermopylae” was built in Aberdeen, Scotland, and launched in 1868. She was built for the Aberdeen White Star Line and was designed to be very fast in order to get tea from China to London in as short a time as possible for her owner, George Thompson. Getting the tea from China to London quickly was good business and turned a tidy profit for the owners of tea clippers.

A rival of George Thompson was the former sea captain turned ship owner John “Jock” Willis who wanted a ship to beat the “Thermopylae”. He got marine architect Hercules Linton of Glasgow to design a ship to beat “Thermopylae”. This ship was to become one of the most famous sailing ships of all time and was launched in November 1869 and christened the “Cutty Sark”.

Spurling’s 1924 painting of “Thermopylae”. “The picture shows ‘Thermopylae’ sheeting home the fore lower topgallant sail in a strong breeze” (from the “Blue Peter” caption to this picture).

Nannie chased Tam on his horse Maggie but only managed to pull Maggie’s tail off. The ship “Cutty Sark” was designed to pull the tail off the “Thermopylae”!

These two famous ships were engaged in a famous race from Shanghai to London in 1872 – actually the only time they were to race each other.

The “Thermopylae” got to London first as the “Cutty Sark” lost her rudder and had to go into Table Bay for repairs which took 13 days. However, she reached London just six days after “Thermopylae” and was declared the winner because of the speed which she had achieved – some 17.5 knots.

Spurling, apart from the accuracy with which he painted the rigging of the tall ships, was also able to create a sense of drama in his paintings, especially in his treatment of the sea in various conditions.

As “Redgum” wrote in his obituary of Spurling: “Only the groans of the ships and the howl of the gales beat him. Whatever could be drawn he would set down.”

Apart from his treatment of the sea – which is always superb – his paintings usually have some intriguing details like the clothing of the sailors or a flock of seagulls whirling around the stern of a tall ship at full speed with all sails set.

Spurling’s painting of the “Cutty Sark”

By the time he died on the last day of May 1933 – or as “Redgum” put it rather poetically, “dropped below the horizon a little before nightfall” – Spurling had a reputation among people who love ships and the sea somewhat akin to that of his near-contemporary and fellow seaman John Masefield who was to become, after some time spent (though much less than that spent by Spurling) “before the mast”, the Poet Laureate of Britain and who’s poem “Sea Fever” is well known:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.”

 I imagine that Spurling, at the end of his life, would have appreciated the last two lines of the poem: “And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.”

He certainly told many a “merry yarn” in his wonderfully evocative paintings of ships and the sea.