Cadaques - Cadogan Contemporary

This exhibition was entirely paintings from the 2005 trip to Cadaques.

Sargy Mann; The Mind’s Eye

by William Packer

(Exhibition catalogue introduction)

All painting is difficult, or at least we think it should be. Ease, facility, sleight of hand: all are to be distrusted if flaunted and celebrated for themselves alone, respected only if pushed to the limit and beyond of what they allow. It is as though it is the difficulty of itself that is to be searched out, as the only true test and measure of real achievement. Better by far a noble failure than facile success. or so we feet Painting, after all, is surely a very moral business, in which we are all Puritans.

But there again, there is difficulty and difficulty. And what greater impediment could a painter possibly face, greater surely even than manual disability or restriction, than the failure of that primary sense on which the visual artist must rely, even to decide upon where and how and with what to begin: the failure in short of the sense of sight.Yet many artists have faced and indeed overcome it, with Degas and Monet in their old age two of the most distinguished examples, for either of whom any excuse or special pleading would be unthinkable for the work they actually produced in their debility – the later sculpture of Degas: the ‘Nympheas’ of Monet. It is an important point, for, from the best of motives, a natural sympathy can all too readily cloud an honest critical appraisal. Faint praise is no praise at all. And to say as much is say no more than that Sargy Mann stands honourably in the best company.This is not the moment to embarrass him by over-fulsome comparison with such great masters, but neither does he deserve, nor would he want any special pleading. His work is what it is, to be taken on its merits, which are as considerable as they have proved consistent. But in one respect, indeed, he stands alone.

Now in his late 60s. he left Camberwell School of Art in 1964 and has been an active painter ever since. Yet for more than 30 of those years he has been suffering from a progressive deterioration in his sight, with cataracts in both eyes. that by the early 1980s left him fully blind in one eye and with but 5% peripheral vision in the other. And every painting we see here has been produced since he went totally blind at last, in the early summer of 2005.

To see so little must be to treasure whatever it is possible to see. And while one would wish so particular a training in the visual memory on no-one, artist or whomever, a training it is. Mann was a figurative painter from the start, working always by direct reference to the real and visible world, principally to the figure and the landscape, and he remained no less insistently so throughout the entire period of his partial blindness. The direct visual experience was ever the central arid determining stimulus and point to the work, for all that its final realisation would depend upon the inner that is to say the mind’s eye. And so it has remained over this past year or more.

A holiday at Cadaques, at the northern-most extremity of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, in May 2005, had supplied him with more than enough material for his next series of paintings, in the visual recollection of beachside bars and terraces. the houses glaring white in the sun, the golden beaches and the deep-blue sea. In terms of his painting, these were to prove the last images he ever actually saw, for only two days after his return, on the 30th of May, his sight finally failed altogetherThose images nevertheless were set in his mind, as he recalls. with a particular vividness. The only question, it seems, was how then to retain the idea of the painting by which to express any one of them, that even when, as he puts it. “he could still see just a bit”, would have been determined intuitively. No reason then, after overcoming a natural initial self-doubt, not to press on.

All painters develop their own working habits, meticulous or chaotic according to temperament, and inevitably, over the years. Mann has, of dire necessity, devised ploys and strategies peculiar to himself in order to cope. Clearly they stand him still in good stead. And he is quite open about them. His palette of colours has long remained the same — that deep, rich ultramarine: that fierce orange and red: those sharp greens: those gently modulated crimsons. pinks and violets: the whitest white and darkest black.With the basic pigments laid out always in the same place, any mixing is done on the canvas itself, by glazing over or stumbling one colour into anothecWhat has always been remarkable in this, and remains so now, is his subtle painterly control over each relationship of tone and colour, that recalls not just the Fauves and early Expressionists in general, but oddly enough, some of the Scottish painters of the period too -. painters such as Fergusson. Cadell and Melville.There is nothing here of chance, nothing out of place or out of key.

The compositional structure of the painting, too. within the conventions of the expressionist-colourist painter Mann is. for he is nothing if not a Colourist. is no less secure. Indeed, the larger his canvases, the more closely ordered they are: the smaller; the freer, tending closer, though never quite, towards abstraction. First he embraces, quite literally, the canvas of the moment, physically sensing its limits. imagining the image it is to carry in drawing his finger across the surface.To mark relevant distances, he sets elastic bands at intervals along his blind-man’s stick. Blobs of Blutac too, stuck along the edges or at crucial points across the surface. have proved extremely useful. So on goes the ultramarine, for example, and in his mind’s eye he sees the canvas go blue.

But a technique is only a technique, and it is the work achieved by it that matters, that must be its own justification for what it is, taken on its own terms. For these are a true painter’s paintings, and that he is now totally blind, though a remarkable and sad circumstance in itself, is not their point. And, coming into the gallery, who would know? For here is the South that we all know so well, with its the blazing sun and inviting sea, and the even more inviting shade of the bar beside the beach, quietly animated by a shadowy figure or two – for in all Mann’s work a hint of humanity, a subtle presence, is always there. It is work full of light and space, seen and deeply felt-The paintings of Bars, whether seen from inside or out, make a series in themselves. But more poignant perhaps are the paintings of streets above the beach, and of figures coming down the steps beside the house, off into town for a last stroll, perhaps, or simply standing on the terrace looking out to sea, as it were for a last time.

William Packer London. August 2006