Communicating accurately as art

I stated boldly at the weekend that you can communicate an idea or concept accurately, clearly and in its purist form if the writing is good enough. I hit resistance - the challenge was that the choice of any word over another immediately warps and colours what you are trying to communicate. This is a common counter; it’s not the first time I’ve had this conversation. But perhaps we were both on the same side, but had different ideas of what there is to communicate.

We are what we communicate

I am not arguing for the existence of universal truths. Writers and artists are not prophets for external, objective realities.

Rather, I happily accept and enjoy the fact that we all have a ‘filter’ that colours everything we absorb. You might receive the same input as a million other people, but how you process it will be unique to you. And how that moment feels will be unique to you as well. It is what results from this filtering that I believe you can then accurately communicate to others.

You can translate what only makes sense to you - that distinct idea, moment or feeling - into words, pictures or sounds, in such a way that others can then experience what had previously only existed for you. Whether through words, paint, song or any other expression, an otherwise private ‘something’ can take on a brief moment of independent existence.

This goes back to the descriptor that I adopted many years ago: an absorber and disseminator. I take what I encounter; I process it through my own lens and landscape and then disseminate the results out to the world. The hope is that others will then experience that perception; it will hit them in a state of purity before it is then absorbed and transmuted by their own distinctive interior.

Great art is a moment of pure communication

This moment: the spark, the touch, when ‘something’ passes from one to another as intended, is rare and incredible. The words ‘spark’ or ‘shard’ reveal the brevity, the fragility, but also the potential power that such pure moments of communication can have. I like those words.

Such a moment can exist in two ways. The first is a momentary flash: a recognition, a light, an illumination. The other is a silent, more reassuring experience. You are not aware of the moment while in it, but you know it has happened. You have felt or experienced something, understood it completely, and it happened peacefully, beautifully, perfectly.

Not all artists work to this purpose. There is more than one form of creative greatness and I admire many of them. But to me, there is something special about those who can meet you, for a fleeting second, in that precise space in between their internal world and yours.

A case in point

This post was originally going to be about the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern. It was an exciting cultural thing that I encountered and wanted to share. But following my conversation at the weekend, I realised he was a perfect example of this notion of ‘perfect communication’ that I hold so dear.

Bonnard was a colourist and painted almost exclusively from memory, aiming to capture the “spirit of a moment”. He wasn’t looking to replicate something external, but rather the feeling of being and seeing the way he did when confronted by that external vision or moment.

I’ve been to a number of exhibitions over the last few years, and greatly enjoyed most of them, but it’s not so often that I feel I’ve really understood something, connected and been communicated with in a way where I feel I know what the artist was trying to convey. Certainly I’ve not felt it so consistently through an entire lifetime of paintings as I did with Pierre Bonnard.

Pierre Bonnard and the spirit of a moment


Dining Room in the Country, 1913, puts you at that table as Pierre. You feel the warmth of the afternoon sun, the blue hue on the door, blanched by the outside brightness. The glowing pink walls of the interior seem as if they are being fed by the sunlight pouring in and the little kitten poking his head above the table from the chair opposite makes it personal, specific.

Summer, 1917, uses retina-shrieking greens and blues, the exact kind of blinding vibrancy that you get in the peak of summer and which make your vision take on a yellow-green hue. The vegetation looks so thick it’s insulating the naked bathers in the park with its density, making them even hotter. You know that feeling, in the peak of summer, where any object, anything near or around you makes you feel claustrophobic. It’s like everything is blocking the breeze and stifling your air. The stunning colours of the day, the state of total relaxation and the stifling heat all swirl in a single experience. Bonnard captures his experience and communicates it accurately.

The repeated paintings of his partner, bathing or in the process of ablutions are tender and beautiful. Some are sexualised, but not in an objectifying way. Rather, in a way that lets you see her the way he sees her, the beauty he sees and the feelings that evoked for him. It’s part a study of a human form, part love, part sex, part the moving, physical representation of an entire person who he lives with, knows intimately and shares an existence with.

And The Garden, 1936 is endlessly fascinating. I stared and stared at it. You could spot little birds, tangles of flowers, overlapping life and vegetation. It’s so full, but as with the others, it puts you there, you know what you’re smelling, what you’re feeling – emotionally and physically, what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing. It’s a beautiful communication of an entire experience as held by an individual and translated for others, for that brief moment, to inhabit.

What am I trying to communicate?

What is all this to say? That striving to take what you see, hear, feel in your mind and finding a way to externalise it so that it retains meaning, so that it becomes something others can understand and absorb in the same way you experienced it, is to me one of the highest forms of art. And that to me is accurate communication.

Billy Connolly put it so well in his recent BBC documentary (which I heartily recommend):

Someone who can paint an emotion is an important person, and it’s an important thing he’s doing, on the human scale…

The art has been a great thing for me because sometimes I don’t know what it is, there’s an abstract side to it that I love and I’m proud of that side of me, that I’ve got that abstract out of my head and on to paper. I don’t know what it is but I think that’s what pleases me most about it. It’s a mystery and it’s good for you. It’s like being about to draw something like an emotion, because nobody knows what it looks like, but if you do it right, people get the same buzz from it as you did."