Andrew Graham-Dixon

Living With Art by Geoff Harrison

How are we supposed to appreciate art?  It may seem a dumb question, but art historians and critics tend to tie themselves into knots sometimes when answering it.  It is the belief of many commentators that society has got it wrong by focusing on the technical elements of a work of art, or its provenance or its historical context.

Sure, these issues are important, but what we are not encouraged to do is to connect up works of art with the trials and aspirations of our daily lives.  “It is quickly deemed vulgar, even repugnant, to seek personal solace, encouragement, enlightenment or hope from high culture” ALAIN De BOTTON. To put it simply, we are not encouraged to appreciate art as a means of instruction on how to live and die well.

The art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon remarked that the paintings of Howard Hodgkin were a rebuttal to the dry academic puritanism of much art criticism these days that can’t relate to a work of art until it’s been reduced to a set of abstract concepts.  I recall having an art teacher at RMIT who was embarrassed by the display of emotion in art.

Elliott Erwitt, His first wife and their child, New York, 1953

Elliott Erwitt, His first wife and their child, New York, 1953

Photographer Elliott Erwitt was born to Russian Jewish parents in Paris in 1928, and as the war clouds loomed, his family emigrated to America.  He felt being an émigré helped him in his job – being an outsider looking in.  He is regarded as a humanist and humourist.

Eve Arnold, Divorce In Moscow 1966

Eve Arnold, Divorce In Moscow 1966

Eve Arnold’s photograph could be considered a modern day version of those moralizing images that characterised Christian paintings of the past.  In a secular world and with considerable skill, Arnold brings us face to face with the consequences of letting ourselves and others down.

Jessica Todd Harper, The Agony In The Kitchen 2012

Jessica Todd Harper, The Agony In The Kitchen 2012

This photo was specifically commissioned for the book Art As Therapy, written by Alain De Botton and John Armstrong.  The rationale of this exercise is that art should start serving our psychological needs as effectively as it served theological and state needs for centuries.  We are asked here to consider what impact viewing this image might have on a couple whose own relationship is going through some difficulties.  They may realise that other people have the same sorrows and troubles as they have.  They may connect with something that is universal and unashamed.  They are not robbed of their dignity but are learning the deepest truths about being human.

Rogier Van Der Weyden, Descent From The Cross, circa 1438

Rogier Van Der Weyden, Descent From The Cross, circa 1438

Even in a secular world it is still possible to feel the emotion pouring out of this painting.  It transcends the perhaps narrow Christian context to touch the viewer in ways many other paintings of that era can’t.  It is a technical masterpiece for sure, but its psychological power goes far beyond.

Emotion In Art by Geoff Harrison

While studying art at RMIT University in the 1990’s I felt a not-so-subtle pressure to steer clear of sentimentality and emotional subject matter in my art practice.   I’m not sure why emotion was so frowned upon, a sign of the times perhaps but there was a clear preference for dry, conceptual work.

Thus I often felt alienated at university, and I do recall a presentation given by one of the lecturers who was most adverse to emotion in art.  It soon became clear to me that she was in denial – almost in denial of life, so I formed the opinion that this issue of emotion was her problem, not mine.


I was reminded of all this when viewing Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 1996 series “A History Of British Art” on DVD.  He argues that because of their intense colour and blatant sensuality, Howard Hodgkin’s paintings (above) have met with an uneasy response in Britain.  He describes Hodgkin’s work as a rebuttal to puritanism, especially to that intellectual puritanism which is embarrassed by pleasure or any form of strong emotion and are only comfortable with pictures once they’ve been reduced to a set of abstract ideas.  He describes Hodgkin’s work as expressing a language of emotion, a language of the body.


And for some reason, a drawing by Vincent Van Gogh, made early in his career, also came to mind.  The subject is Sien, one of his early mistresses who was a pregnant prostitute.  You can see the emotion pouring out of this work.  How put-upon I would have been producing a work like this at RMIT, regardless of the technical skill it may have embodied.

then and now 4 copy.jpg

I need to be moved in some way by a scene before I will paint it.  The aim always is to create a mood which allows the viewer to enter the scene and absorb the atmosphere in there.

Cardiac Surgeon Inspired By Art by Geoff Harrison

In his series “The Secret Of Drawing”, art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon discusses with prominent British heart surgeon Francis Wells the significance of the anatomical drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci . Wells has used the drawings of Da Vinci to assist him in developing new ways of repairing damaged hearts.

Francis Wells

Francis Wells

Wells uses drawing to not only help him prepare for the details of a heart operation, he produces small drawings on paper using the blood from the chest cavity to give a “replay” of the procedure to his team.

Leonardo was fascinated by how the mitral valve closes and produced a glass bulb in the shape of an aorta and pumped water through it. He put grass seeds in the water so he could trace it’s movement. Through his drawings, Leonardo developed the worlds first artificial heart valve. All this in 1513, when he he had no one to talk to, there was no heart surgery or meaningful medicine, and to most people it wouldn’t have made any sense.


These experiments of Leonardo, and the drawings he produced from them have enabled Wells to work out how to restore the normal opening and closing of the mitral valve.

Francis Wells describes Leonardo as a flat out original thinker and a genius. He has spent many years studying the anatomical drawings of Leonardo and encourages significant interaction between artists and scientists.