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Beyond illustration

Hinkson’s 5 decades of art at the National Museum and Art Gallery
Published: 
Sunday, January 20, 2013
Caparo Landscape, by Jackie Hinkson.

The version of this article that originally appeared on page B38 of the Sunday Guardian on January 20, 2013, appeared to incorrectly identify the publisher of Derek Walcott's Tiepelo's Hound. The book is published by Faber and Faber. We were happy to clarify this in the corrected version published below.

 

It immediately caught my eye, in the left hand corner of the gallery: Caparo Landscape. I stood before it, moved, and then returned to the beginning of the exhibition to make my way through Jackie Hinkson’s remarkable retrospective.

 

Caparo Landscape was painted in 1985. It is a watercolour, 25x19¾”. It appears to be a straightforward painting with its three main planes of colour, a sort of olive green, taking up half the bottom half of the painting: a cane piece in central Trinidad. This contrasts with the brown burnt-earth colour of a ploughed field alongside it. The upper half is cobalt blue, streaked with white—the frequent formation of cirrus clouds we often see over Trinidad.

 

As well as colour under bright sunlight, there are the shadows. In the foreground, two small figures of sugarcane workers walk along a trace in varying shades of the olive green and the burnt-earth colour of the ploughed field.

 

For a relatively small panting, it overwhelmed me with its sense of space, light and shadow, the immensity of the world in which we live and work, as I followed the small figures on that landscape. The many crisscrossings of lines in the foreground create a sense of constriction, which is contrasted with the freedom of the sky; those swathes of white and blue.  

 

It was later confirmed for me, as I stood before another painting, and listened to Hinkson take me through his watercolour process, that the white is the white of the paper.

 

I also learnt what I have just said about the painting and the feelings it generated in me would not be part of Hinkson’s aims.  It would not be the metaphorical interpretation that would be paramount for him. It would be the composition, the balancing of light and shadow; it would be about the frequently mentioned “weight,” which is his concern in the application of paint and its effect.

 

    Some viewers might think it difficult to get beyond the figurative in Hinkson. That would be to look in the wrong way; too superficial. It is not Hinkson’s aim to illustrate.  He gets beyond illustration to that “something else” that the eye of a painter catches in the landscape or the figure.

 

This might sound perverse when we look at some of that obvious recording of architecture in his paintings: the capturing of advertisements, the standing or the sitting figure at a bus stop or in a rum shop.  It would be a mistake to see these as illustrations, or simply figurative. To see more, you have to pay attention to the process and the mediums used.

 

    Among the vast array of Hinkson’s retrospective, we have come to recognise as unmistakeably his the houses, the figures, the landscapes and the seascapes; there is a wealth of styles to appreciate and learn from.

 

 Hinkson has been painting all his life. Hinkson has been learning all his life. He has been keeping faith with painting, with watercolour as well as the other mediums he uses, oils and acrylics. The former was once an enormous challenge, the latter his chosen medium for the abrasive, harsher portraits of urban landscape. There are also his ink drawings, his pencil and crayons.     

 

    The exhibition stays up till the end of January. If you have not already got there, you are missing out on what for me was a unique cultural experience happening in Trinidad.  It teaches you about art in Trinidad over several decades, but, above all, it teaches you about an art which has its roots in one of the radical movements of European art, when artists left their studios to go out outside with their easels and paints in order to paint what they saw; to paint the ordinary. It was a movement that came to represent the great democratisation of art.

 

I kept returning to Caparo Landscape, then I would shoot off to some other corner of the gallery to examine more favourites.

 

A retrospective is a great experience, particularly if you happen to catch Jackie Hinkson in the gallery.  This is not something I usually delight in: the artist there at the ready to talk me into despair and boredom, depriving me of my freedom to look and feel.  But Hinkson is such a reticent commentator, that it is more of an intimate conversation about things you might notice, than a sermon of certainties that some other artists favour.

 

I had arrived in Port-of-Spain to launch my new novel, Light Falling on Bamboo, inspired by the paintings and the life and times of Michel Jean Cazabon. The title itself could be the title of one of Hinkson’s paintings.  I had been researching over these last five years this radical tradition in European art, and how it had affected our understanding of Cazabon’s paintings in the 19th century.

 

Much had taken place during Cazabon’s life and after since the radicalism of the pre-impressionists of the Barbizon School to which Cazabon belonged. Hinkson has learnt from all that has taken place since. What is remarkable is that he is still talking about the earliest of English watercolourists like Girtin and Cotman from the 18th and early part of the 19th century who, together with Turner and Constable, were Cazabon’s English influences.

 

Hinkson told me that when he first looked at Cazabon he found him dull. He was talking about light and colour. He was talking about himself as an artist in the first half of the 20th century. He was talking about a tension he felt when he returned with his training from Canada and Paris, a kind of crisis for the artist, trained outside the tropics with its bright natural light and the colour of its foliage, and perhaps, even more importantly, its rhythms and feel, the gestures and stances of its figures, that made him alter his methods and change his palette.  These were some of the tensions I felt that Cazabon had experienced, and which I explored in my novel.  Hinkson was experiencing them yet again with a whole host of other influences and understandings about paint, about light and shadow; finding challenges and solutions appropriate to his age, much the way Cazabon had done in his own.  

 

You must also sit and listen to Jackie Hinkson talking to Christopher Laird in a series of videoed interviews about painting and sculpture. Talk and viewing feed into each other beautifully.  

 

Jackie Hinkson’s memoir What Things are True is now available. Reading the memoir and viewing the retrospective is a unique education through an artist’s life and his life’s work.

 

I have come to notice a connection between the painting of Hinkson and the poetry of Derek Walcott.  In Walcott’s Tiepolo’s Hound, a fictional biographical poem on Camille Pissarro, there is this hymn to the ordinary that Hinkson’s work also contains:

    

          In his life’s dusk, though hand and eye grow weary,
          his concentration strengthens in its skill,

          some critics think his work is ordinary,
          but the ordinary is the miracle.

          Ordinary love and ordinary death,
          ordinary suffering, ordinary birth,

          the ordinary couplets of our breath,
          ordinary heaven, ordinary earth.

            
(Derek Walcott’s Tiepolo’s Hound, page 155. Faber and Faber.)

Lawrence Scott is the author of several prize-winning books. His latest novel Light Falling on Bamboo is published by Tindall Street Press.