oil on linen
200 x 225 cm
Most painters with any ambition want to make a statement that will stand the test of time, ensuring their place in the history of art alongside the Great Masters. Their ‘magnum opus’ will be something of the scale of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, Velasquez’s Las Meninas, Monet’s Water Lilies or Picasso’s Guernica.
Completed a few years ago, Here We All Are was my attempt at reaching such dizzy heights. At 2 x 2.25 metres, it isn’t as big as any of the ones mentioned above, but is the biggest I could manage in the small studio I had at the time, and has the considerable advantage of being able to make its way through any standard English door, albeit on a diagonal. It took several years of planning and around a year to paint.
Having spent so long before putting brush to canvas, I thought I knew what it was all about, but it was only in hindsight that I began to understand it.
I have made my living as an illustrator and painter for over 35 years. This hasn’t always been easy. It certainly hasn’t been straightforward. Dropping out of a degree course at Liverpool College of Art to join the Moonies didn’t help. I gave them all my worldly possessions (which admittedly didn’t add up to much more than few pounds and a cheap record player) and my very heart and soul. This reckless move left my girlfriend heartbroken, my tutors perplexed and my parents devastated. Some ten years later I found myself in Japan with two small daughters and a Japanese wife, pregnant with our third.
Somehow I made it back to the UK with my sanity largely intact, and with some savings from a variety of teaching jobs. I supported my young family as a freelance illustrator while slowly developing my a career as a portrait and figure painter.
Fast forward twenty years and back to Here We All Are. It’s a painting that depicts lots of people doing lots of different things. It’s lively, dynamic, and colourful, but it’s not all sweetness and light.
As a child I was led to believe that despite the many horrors that surround us, we remain under the watchful eye of a loving, all-seeing God. As an adult I gradually realised this was all wishful thinking, and that in reality life has no intrinsic meaning. It’s a chaotic circus with no ringmaster that enthrals us with its comedy and tragedy at every turn. Here We All Are is an action-packed scene full of beauty, cruelty, kindness, anger, love, joy, sadness, grief, fun, ecstasy, madness, pain, magic, darkness, light, struggle, hope and fear, that uses every means at a painter’s disposal - perspective, rhythm, movement, colour and so on - to create an illusion of human activity frozen in time and space.
Its subject matter is people: the man and woman (and every other gender) on the street. It’s about you, me, the beggar in Mumbai, and every weird and wonderful relative that inhabits this planet we call home. Despite superficial differences, we are so much alike, and we are all in it together. We find ourselves here through no choice of our own - born without our consent and with death our only way out. We are capable of the most amazing feats of ingenuity, acrobatics, analysis, creativity, discovery and invention, and of the most wonderful acts of bravery, perseverance and kindness. We are also perpetrators of the most unspeakable cruelty imaginable.
I used to wonder what it was like to be other people. I still do. With just a little imagination, we are that young boy jumping or that old woman grieving, that angry young man cursing his luck or beating his wife. When I see the horrific things we do to one another I wonder whether we really do have anything in common, but if I am honest I know that I am quite capable of anything the worst murderers, rapists, paedophiles, fraudsters or dictators inflict on their victims.
By concentrating so much human activity into a single picture and making the figures in the foreground life-size, I have attempted to make the viewer a reluctant participant, to leave them as dazzled, confused, amazed, repelled, delighted, horrified, exhilarated and disheartened as I am by what I see and hear going on around me. Although it depicts over 500 people (and by implication many more beyond the confines of the canvas) most of them seem to be unaware of, let alone interested in, anyone else. It’s a world where we are all so self-obsessed that we have no time for anyone else, and the painting makes a silent appeal for a greater awareness of one another, and for more consideration and kindness.
Slightly left of centre is a character in a suit holding a placard inscribed with the words IS THIS IT?, a kind of everyman figure, asking the difficult questions that challenge the perceived wisdom. Like Socrates, he is a champion of free speech and open debate - the oldest, most powerful tactic in fostering critical thinking and one of the cornerstones of democracy.
So, is this it? Although we once thought that the sun went round the earth we now know the reverse is true. Scientists not only discovered that the earth goes round the sun, but argue that there may be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, that there maybe many other universes out there, that time/space can be warped, that we are composed of more bacteria than living cells and that in six billion years the sun will have burnt itself out. What we experience is definitely not the whole story, and what we perceive is not always what is really going on. We used to say seeing is believing, but this is clearly not the case. There is much more to our experience than meets the eye.
However, this is it in the sense that we only have one life. It’s not a dress rehearsal and we have just one chance to live the life we have. Simply put, we were born and we will die. These are certainties over which we have no control. Your life and mine consists of an unspecified and unknowable period of time between birth and death, so perhaps the most important question we need to ask ourselves is “What am I going to do with my time?” Put another way, “How do I want to live my life?” Because one day very soon it will all be over. It could be today, tomorrow or next week, so we need to do whatever we can to live the life we want to and not one that someone else wants for us, and to live it as fully as possible.
© David Cobley 2023
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