Archive for August, 2009

If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme

I saw this quote at an exhibition of the work of Picasso and Cezanne in Aix en Provence. You only need to think about Cezanne’s paintings of Mont St Victoire to understand this. Or think of Picasso’s re-working of the themes of other great painters…Manet, Goya, and so on.

I find this also extremely applicable in health care. A patient never has only one story to tell, because as human beings, life is not like that. Not only is every patient’s story fascinating, but I find every time I meet a patient there’s a new story to hear and explore. Truth is never single. And it’s never complete. It’s always worth taking another perspective, hearing another story, exploring from a different angle

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Chateau de Vauvenargues

Chateau de Vauvenargues

The Chateau de Vauvenargues has never been open to the public before, but for four months this summer it’s possible to visit. I went yesterday and it was wonderful. It really is in a beautiful location as I’m sure the photos above will show. It sits at the foot of Mont Saint Victoire, which Picasso never painted. He had a deeply respectful attitude towards “Monsieur Cezanne”, as he always refered to him, and that seems to have led him to steer clear of painting the mountain which not only provides the backdrop to the castle, but part of it was even included in the title deeds of the castle itself. I think that was one of the big surprises. After all, Picasso had no qualms about revisiting the works of Manet and others!

The main surprise though, was what the guide refered to as Picasso’s “spartan” choice for the interior. He left pretty much the whole interior as he found it – didn’t redecorate it (apart from painting the plaster in the bathroom with a woodland scene!) and only “upgraded” the place by installing a new bathroom and central heating. There is very little furniture in the house which certainly does give a feeling of simplicity, and the walls and ceilings are faded and peeling. I was also surprised to learn that he didn’t paint the views he could see from the windows, but that he said that when he painted here his painting became more green! You can see this is true. There’s a lot more green paint used in the works he produced here. However, the ancient links between Barcelona and Aix allowed him to explore his favourite reds and yellows and even led him to have a huge Catalan flag as the headboard for his simple double bed.

Picasso and Jacqueline are buried in front of the castle with a simple Picasso sculpture over the grave – no headstone, no words.

Sometimes it’s the simplest of experiences which are the most intense.

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Last week I stepped well out of my comfort zone. As you’ll know if you’ve browsed this blog, I am a keen photographer. However, that’s really the limit of my artistic endeavor. I have no sense of myself as an artist and drawing, painting and other creative arts feel as foreign to me as foreign languages I can’t even name do! So what led me to sign up for a two day workshop on photo-etching at the Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries? I think it was seeing some beautiful etchings for sale in the shop there and finding a leaflet advertising the course.

Well, whatever the reasons were, I signed up for it, and I thought I’d share a little bit of the experience with you so maybe you’ll be inspired to try something creative well out of your own comfort zone.

I took a few photos with me, but wasn’t at all sure what kind of photo was a good one for photo-etching. It turns out that the best prints are bitmapped ones that look very grainy or “dotty” when you look at them through a magnifying glass. Alfons, the workshop tutor, recommended I use one of my photos of rock carvings from Kilmartin. The first step was to lighten the image on a photocopier, then copy that image onto a transparency.

First etch
First etch

The copper plate to be etched is then prepared through a series of stages, involving applying a photosensitive polymer (like a thick oily bright blue paint) with a roller onto the prepared plate. The image on the transparency is then laid on the polymer-coated plate which is then exposed to UV light on a special machine (which looks like a giant photocopier!).
The exposed plate is then developed and etched through a series of soaks in different baths (there are several individual steps involved in this!), then the polymer is stripped off, and the plate polished to leave something like this …..

First etch

Then comes a VERY exciting part. The plate is inked, laid on dampened paper under woolen blankets in a printing press. A few turns of the big wheel to press the ink into the paper, and then it’s time to lift the blankets, and peel the paper off the plate to reveal the final print. (I can’t tell you just how thrilling it is to see the print emerge at the end of this process!)

First etch

It really did take a full two days to go from the photo to the print. There were nine of us in the workshop and the entire time felt fully engaged in the activity of making the print. I loved it.
I think I was very lucky to have such an enthusiastic, skilled and welcoming teacher as Alfons Bytautas from the Edinburgh Printmakers.

Not only has this workshop opened a new world to me, but I feel I’ve just discovered a part of myself I didn’t previously know existed! Seriously, you should try something creative, you’ve never done before.

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Atlantic lighting

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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Penn Reading Project

The University of Pennsylvania usually sets a book for their new students to read over the summer before term begins. It’s a way of introducing their freshmen to academic life. This year, however, they’ve set a painting to be studied instead of a book.

They’ve chosen the local artist, Thomas Eakins and his 1875 painting “The Gross Clinic”. The university has another of Eakins’ paintings in its collection – the 1889 Agnew Clinic.

I think this is a very interesting development, and I’m not aware of any other universities which set a painting for everyone to study and discuss in this way.

Which painting would you choose for all the new students at your local university to study?

I’m pretty sure one of my first choices would “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp” (which happens to be one of my all time most viewed posts!)

Any suggestions?

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the need to belong

Everyone has to deal with this paradox – how can I preserve my individuality, yet not be isolated? I think of it as a spectrum, with individuality at one end of the line, and shared membership of a group at the other. Our immune systems are designed to recognise anything that is “not me” and reject it, so our prime defence mechanism is to reject anything that we don’t recognise as consistent with our individuality. We all need a coherent sense of an individual self. We create that through the stories we tell ourselves and others. At the other end of the scale, solitary confinement is one of the worst imaginable punishments, used to control prisoners since time began. We need to belong. We need to know we are not isolated, unrecognised or unloved. I think we all juggle that paradox throughout our whole lives. It’s a dynamic. Some of us hover mainly around the individuality end of the spectrum and others hover around the group end, but we all need to satisfy both needs in our lives.

It’s this photo I took in Japan earlier this year which got me thinking about this. See how almost all the turtles are trying to crowd onto the one little rock! They need to be together! I say “almost all”, because if you look closely you’ll see one little guy out there on the right happily paddling his own way.

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Whether its due to synchronicity or something about focus, attention and awareness, I find that I often have the experience that something I’ve been reading about crops up in all kinds of places. At the moment it’s pattern-spotting. In fact, this pattern-spotting theme is a fundamental one for me. I think it’s an important part of the way I work, but sometimes it just becomes a more conscious issue. Last week I had to conduct a training session for a junior doctor about consultation technique and one of the things I mentioned was how doctors are trained to spot patterns. We do that to make a diagnosis for example (“Oh, I know what this is. This is a thyroid problem”) In parallel with this I’m reading the novel “Popco” by Scarlett Thomas (and thoroughly enjoying it by the way!), and the part I’m reading just now is about the links between code-breaking, mathematics and music – the link being patterns and the ability to spot patterns. While I was driving at the weekend I caught the end of a discussion in a programme on Radio 4 about musical scales, and Pythagoras’ view of harmony. Didn’t hear enough of it to understand what it was about, but then, last night the chapter I read in the novel explained exactly the role of Pythagoras in the connection between music and mathematics (subject of another post I feel!). How strange, isn’t it?

Here’s a photo I took recently. What I noticed here was the pattern of the flowers. I thought it looked like a constellation of stars in the sky.

flower constellation

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