-----The Metaphysics of Paint
-------------------for Leon Morrocco
There is a sacredness to light
but only as it glances off
the surfaces, the depths, of things —
the sea, the moored boats upon it,
a wall, the peeling door
--------that opens beyond it,
a melon, a lemon, an orange,
a palm frond, a buttock, a rose.
What is most worth knowing of light
is how it molds & colors things,
-----breaks upon them
into shards, & splashes, & planes,
composes their configurations.
Light is like silence, like God.
-----The purpose of words
---------is to praise silence
-----the purpose of paint
---------is to praise light.
------------© Rafael Jesús González 2008
--------------Metafísica de la pintura
-----------------------------a Leon Morrocco
Hay algo sacro en la luz
pero solamente cuando se refleja
en la superficie, la profundidad, de las cosas —
el mar, los barcos en amarre sobre él,
un muro, la puerta escarapelada
-----------que se abre más allá,
un melón, un limón, una naranja,
una rama de palma, una nalga, una rosa.
Lo que más vale saber de la luz
es como moldea y colora las cosas,
-----se quiebra en ellas
en pedazos y salpicones y planos,
compone sus configuraciones.
La luz es como el silencio, como Dios.
-----El propósito de las palabras
----------es para alabar al silencio;
-----el propósito de la pintura
----------es para alabar a la luz.
------------© Rafael Jesús González 2008
One day early February of 1965 in Athens, where I found myself traveling on a fellowship, a friend in the Uruguayan Embassy, Lucila Romero called to ask whether I minded if two newly arrived Uruguayans joined us for dinner. When we met Julín Jáuregui, an architecture student, and his cousin María José Morandi, with them was another man they had met on the boat to Pireus, a crazy Scot artist on a grant to paint on the island of Mikanos, they said, named Leon. Of olive complexion, with a high forehead, hooked nose, black mustache and beard, he did not conform to my idea of a Scot, but what struck me were his merry eyes, easy smile, and infectious laugh. It was love at first sight.
The four of us, Julín, María José, Leon, and I, became instant friends and spent a short and intensely joyous week together carousing in the tavernas, careening down narrow streets at 2:00 o’clock in the morning in appropriated grocers’ carts, the four of us sneaking into my hotel room because they had missed curfew at the youth hostel, watching sunrise from a hill turn the Acropolis a rosy pink, and generally consuming large quantities of resina. Julín, María José, and I decided to travel in Italy and Spain together and I promised Leon to visit him that spring.
In May, just before my return to teaching at the University of Oregon, I visited Leon in Edinburgh where I also met his future wife Jean whose English beauty not a little intimidated me (and does still.) On my leaving, Leon gave me a large ink drawing of a building undergoing demolition. It is entirely in black and sepia tones, a strong work but such as one can now hardly imagine to be a Leon Morrocco, so morose and brooding is it, so murky in color.
As the years went by, my friendship with Leon and Jean grew through letters, and, in 1970, I returned to Europe and visited them in Glasgow where he was Lecturer in Painting at the Glasgow School of Art. While there, I sat for him for a fine portrait in charcoal and chalk, “The Poet as Intense Young Man.” (Leon won the Latimer Award that year and exhibited the portrait at the Royal Scottish Academy and in 1971 brought it as a gift when they visited me in California; it was reproduced on the cover of my book of poetry El Hacedor de Juegos/The Maker of Games published in 1977.) From that visit to Glasgow, I have a small study of moored boats in oil on particle-board painted after his sojourn in Mikanos. Though the colors lack the cleanness, the clarity we have come to expect in a Leon Morrocco work, there is evidence of things to come, a sense of light and its refraction, its play upon things.
In the thirty-three years of our friendship, I also became friends with Leon’s father Alberto and his mother Vera, and on brief, intermittent and occasional visits in Scotland, England, California, Australia, I saw Leon’s and Jean’s sons Pier-Paolo and Theo grow and consider myself their friend as well. And my love of Leon’s art became hardly divorceable from my love for the man, so much is it a reflection of him.
Over the years, I have seen Leon’s pallette become ever cleaner, clearer, luminescent. Here lies the essence of Leon’s art: his utter joy in and obsession with forms and the light upon them. One might say that in his paintings, forms become mere excuses for surfaces upon which light can play. And play it does, with full abandon. Leon’s is a gifted eye that can discern nuances of color that escape the untrained eye. This minute discernment of the subtleties of color allows him to play it as a musician might improvise with sounds, always in the most brilliant registers. He is audacious in their combinations, playing ultramarine blues against turquoises and underscoring them with magentas, rose madder, mandarin orange; striking a Prussian blue with an alizarin crimson, counterpointing it with a cadmium yellow. Then he poises colors of such intense vibrancy against others of incredible delicacy, tenderness. He invents or discovers colors, shades, tints, hues too subtle yet to be named. But never do his experiments with color result in cacophony as they could so easily do. The eye continually is amazed at the tricks of his pallet; in his hands color has texture, an immensely rich texture. Of Italian descent, Leon finds his inspiration in the environs of the Mediterranean and logically so, for one must transcend the muted light of the British Isles to achieve the vibrant colors of his paintings, gouaches, pastels. Even his vivid still lifes of fruit, drapery, crockery, cutlery and musical instruments done in Glasgow or London seem foreign in spirit to those parts.
He is a keen observer and his masterly, sure sketches and drawings done on the spot in the many sketch books from which he works attest to this. But his translations of them into finished paintings are selective. In his landscapes no bill-boards appear, no trucks, no cars; in his seascapes, no speed-boats, no oil-tankers, and the nearest we come to the machine is a bicycle, a boat’s propeller, a winch. The Mediterranean, the world, he paints hardly exists, exists only in fragments, instances, incidents. In fact, his might be called an iconography of incidents, even his still lifes feel like incidents. In the guest-room hangs an ink drawing of my favorite chair Leon did on one of his visits. It has a feeling of story; the homely chair has just participated in a scene; it awaits to take part in another. Incidents, effects are by definition never disconnected, but, like a cobweb, are linked to everything else and there is a potential, an implied narrative in Leon’s works.
Also in Leon’s vision there is almost an innocence, in the best meaning of the term. It ignores, not because it does not see (Leon the man is highly critical of current economics and politics), but by an act of selective and generous fancy. Seeing one of his paintings, gouaches, pastels feels like a sudden, unexpected, happy memory from childhood recalled by a smell, a taste, a sound. It has that pristine, sharp, luminous quality of a happy incident from one’s childhood, isolated, ever-new, inviolate, complete in itself. But still, it is not nostalgia with what sentiment the term carries. It is too immediate a vision for nostalgia. It is a vision recaptured and maintained, devoid of anticipation or regret. It is, in a word, pure beauty.
Perhaps this is the key to understanding Leon Morrocco and his work, for unmitigated beauty and joy is the first and final impression one receives from it. It is a celebration of the senses and of life in which time does not exist, and, if it does, it is as leisurely and long as a summer is to a child. Far from childish, Leon’s art makes us see as a child sees, with that intensity and lack of judgment, with that joyful surprise that makes everything neither ordinary nor remarkable, but ineffably there. What is impossible to overlook is that Leon sees the world, and paints it, with a great kindness, the love and kindness of the true hedonist, Epicurean if you will, for whom creation and the senses through which we perceive it are blessings to be continuously celebrated. His paintings have great generosity, a friend recently commented.
Leon doesn’t talk much about the sacred, but his work has much of the holy, as implicit in ‘whole,’ ‘health.’ It renews our vision of things and makes us see forms and colors in a pristine light as if the world were new, untainted. Today, in a culture that has for far too long divorced the sacred and the profane, it is risky to talk of the sacred in art, but sacred are the senses and sacred is what hones and pleases them, gladdening the heart. After all, contrary to the myth, we were never kicked out of paradise; we have just mucked it up royally.
Last October 1997, Leon and I met in Florence to spend a week at his parents’ summer place in Castello di Tocchi exploring Siena and some of Tuscany. We spent most of our days roaming the streets of Siena, wandering into the basilicas, lounging on the Piazza del Campo. Over bottomless glasses of red wine, we discussed the Medieval and early Renaissance masters, and philosophical questions of art, drunk, not on the wine, but on the color of the Duccios, the Lorenzettis, other masters of the Sienese School. We confirmed how much we see things similarly — and how we see things differently. After hours spent in the Pinotecca, discussing the paintings, we discovered that he and I saw different things in them. When I made reference to subtle variations in the iconography of the myriad Madonnas, I found that Leon had not seen what I saw. What he had seen was form and color, combinations of these that were like variations in a musical form, a fugue perhaps, or a jazz improvisation such as he himself likes to play. There was no question that what we had just seen was sacred art and the awe was still upon us; I read the symbols; he saw only the source, the light within and upon the things of the earth, and its celebration.
If one looks for influences on Leon Morrocco’s art, one does not have to go far. His father Alberto, too, had this vitality, humor, sensuality, kindness, generosity, respect, celebration of life. It is for these qualities that I loved Alberto and that I love my friend Leon most.
Even as I write, I glance at the little painting of beached boats that Leon gave me when I visited him and Jean last fall. It is like a little window into a world of light on this rainy day in Berkeley, California where El Niño hides our sun in gray clouds. It makes me happy, and what more may one ask of art — or of a friend — or of life?
---------------------------------------------------Berkeley, California 1998
(Leon Morrocco, Journeys and Observations;
John Martin of London Ltd.; London 1998)