In the summer of 1888, Paul Sérusier went to Pont-Aven to work under the mentorship of Paul Gauguin, who at the time was something of a renegade even by Impressionist standards. There Sérusier painted a small oil painting which became known as The Talisman. Sérusier is not the best known artist of his era, but this little painting ignited the transition of painting from realism to pure abstraction and became the cornerstone of the lush and mildly mystical Nabi group which included Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard.
I have never seen the original; though the painting has gained a million colour iterations in its digital lifespan, much information and feeling is still bound into this small image – the light of a summer day by the lake, the shadows and reflections of trees, the emotional authenticity and audacity of colour, a history of a radical change in Western aesthetics. Like an optical illusion, once we have seen it we can never go back to looking at images the same way.
A talisman is not a meme, though like a meme it may be shared. A talisman continues to hold embedded and layered meaning, while a meme eventually drowns in its own juices.
One of my personal talismans is a plainspoken ceramic vase thrown in the mid 20th century by an obscure, self-taught potter named Luman Kelsey, whose modest home and studio I would visit with my mother as a child. When I see this pot, I still marvel at his perennial garden complete with a real goldfish pond, the foot pedaled potter’s wheel in his tiny shed of a studio, the bright yellow dining room hung with Van Gogh-esque paintings by his wife Dorothea, a Mexican marionette with tangled strings, a hand water pump in the dark green kitchen. The work is deceptively simple, perfectly proportioned, understated and unpretentious, yet luminous and present. It has informed me of the foundations of beauty for my entire life, embodies the cultural history of my family, and continually reminds me of the importance not only of artists’ work, but of their lives.
Our human need for talismans has prevailed since the stone age and may explain the throngs of people who continue to gravitate to museums and galleries with an almost religious fervour.
Recently I was disappointed, no I must say offended, by the AGO‘s over zealous attempt to contextualize its 2015 Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit. I like my first experience of art the way I like a first kiss. No one can or should prepare or explain it for me. Ideally it is a priori. Regrettably, this exhibit was deflated by curatorial desperation, sloppily mixed metaphors and audience manipulation, a problem created by public art organizations scrambling to meet the quantifying and monetizing requirements of arts granting bodies. Basquiat’s work was relentlessly framed as the Black experience right down to the recorded voice overs of Martin Luther King (who was not a contemporary) and the extensive quotes by selected African-Americans, disregarding Basquiat’s own statement that, “I am not a black artist, I am an artist.” Basquiat’s story to me remains the exploitation of a gifted artist who brought street art into the fine art conversation, and of the cocaine fueled excesses of the 80’s, that breeding ground for the feudal political climate in which we now live. The exhibit perversely parodied the very issues Basquiat’s work spoke to so vibrantly.
Prepackaged art erodes our ability to discover talismans which point to fresh ways of understanding, even as they preserve the history and mystery of our human experience. This kind of disinformation in the art world is fodder for cynicism. Cynicism is a form of self-immolation. A talisman is enduring, truthful, communicates across cultural boundaries and histories, transcends itself. It is an antidote to that cynicism.