The art that made me: Aida Tomescu
Image: Aida Tomescu. Photo: Jedd Cooney
In The art that made me, artists discuss works in the Art Gallery of NSW collection that either inspire, influence or simply delight them. This selection by Aida Tomescu is the first in the series and first appeared in Look – the Gallery’s members magazine.
Romanian-born, Sydney-based Tomescu is a previous winner of the Sulman, Wynne and Dobell prizes. The Gallery has more than 20 of her works in the collection.
‘Sometimes we expect a painting to explain too much, we expect it to conclude,’ she said in 2009, not long after the Gallery acquired her painting Aqua alta. ‘You want it to be alive, to stay open, until it reaches a point where nothing feels arbitrary anymore.’
That’s certainly the case with the artworks she has selected here.
‘Lucian Freud once said that he returned to the paintings in the National Gallery in London to remind himself of what he already knew,’ Tomescu says.
‘There is a silent moment in all great paintings when we experience the absolute total intelligence in the work through which everything comes together. Paintings need to be experienced and they need time to be experienced. Walking past them will never do.’
I can never go past Cézanne. It doesn’t matter what Cézanne you bring to me, it will have everything. He has proven to be one of my most repeated and enduring fascinations. No wonder that Cubism was possible after him. His work promised all that was to come.
Picasso felt that it was the anxiety in Cézanne that interests us. By this I’ve always understood the anxiety that comes from the questioning of the locations of forms in space: where is everything to be located? Under what conditions can everything exist?
There is an intensity in Cézanne. It comes from proximity. Things get so close that they ignite each other. He constantly shifts every element in the work, unsettles the balance. Here the overall structure is echoed in every detail. It is the sign of all great paintings, because the structure is arrived at from the work. There is an intelligence in his painting through which everything comes together. The construction of his work is always more apparent because it is restrained.
The protagonists in Cézanne don’t take kindly to description. They allow themselves to change personalities, are willing to take on a new identity, to ‘lose their heads’ in this work. They stay open. I am coming to realise more and more that this is perhaps what has always attracted me to his work from very early on: the openness. There is unity, tremendous clarity, yet all forms stay open, freed from description.
In 1984, during my first years in Australia, the AGNSW brought out a Philip Guston exhibition Philip Guston: the late works. It made such an impression on me.
Guston moved into a new figuration in his later paintings, a new language, a fusion between all stages of his work. And this, in turn, creates a new form, creates new identities. It could only have come from a painter’s late work when all the skills were at his finger tips. After having worked through everything, it could only have come at the end. He puts his paints on, then scrapes them off in order to conceive the image. His characters remain ambiguous; they lean into one another and create a new entity.
Forms that appear clear and identifiable, like the reclining bottles, quickly dissolve into riddles. The fist, present in so many of his late works, relaxes here and we have the playful characters of the fingers parading at the top of the painting. Is this the film director arranging his cast?
I liked Fairweather the instant I set eyes on his work in the AGNSW when I arrived here in 1980. They did everything I wanted painting to do.
His work has a measure of mystery and a light all of its own, a different kind of light. It comes from experience, from a knowing. He builds his painting from the ground up, like a cathedral. I would always gravitate towards his work or come especially to see them.
And the scale is fascinating. Nothing feels confined by the small dimensions.
With all the drips and splatters, precision may not be a word that instantly comes to mind, yet precise they become, precise in the connections they spark within the image, precise in the correspondence between layers.
Notice how he edits his black calligraphic characters, how a film of white allows them to recede, to take few steps back. Films of white readjust everything throughout, form transitions, give us the greys and the spaces in between.
And it really interests me how a rich colour like red steps into the role of an open space.
In front of a painting such as this we begin to become aware of a fluid, unfixed and unfixing other structure hovering in the painting. And I can return to it endlessly, because the spaces we enter here keep readjusting as we look, never settle into one fixed form; there is no settlement, no final stop, the only thing the eye can hope for is a pause.
I've always responded to the touch of charcoal and pastel in the hands of Degas. I often look out for his drawing when in the Gallery.
The touch of the charcoal makes it so immediate, yet simultaneously there is a distance. This is a private scene and it remains private, there is never a feeling of an audience that might look in.
I like how the exposed areas of paper, like the bathtub, acquire form and volume. Like in Cezanne, the blank space carries fullness and weight. He treats body and tub with equal emphasis. Our eye moves freely everywhere. He activates the entire surface.
Degas wanted to be 'illustrious and unknown'. His figures achieved this. He favoured anonymity. He favoured anonymous subjects, their face turned away, not to take away from the main protagonist - the body, the action of the body.
He focuses his attention on the action of the figure, and is not taken in by any details. Everything, every emphasis, the dark layering of charcoal, serves this action. Nothing is used descriptively.
There is a sense of silence and stillness in this work in spite of all the turbulence that obviously went into its making. All the incidents, including the drips of paint are an integral part of the structure of the work. Nothing is arbitrary.
Tuckson's painting appears grandly simple, free from all acts of routine, yet it is precise and complex in the very subtle configuration that develops across the surface.
I am interested in painting that is not a matter of additions, where a unified presence develops and everything appears to have happened at once. The openings, empty spaces in the work allow for a pause, a delay in the reading of the image. They also concentrate the inner energy of the painting. Like with Fairweather, a glow comes from within the painting. Another kind of light.
The work is born out of an economy of energy and a rigorous critical intelligence in spite of its very spontaneous and explosive appearance.