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Martin Dean In Conversation With Oscar Zarate

8 June 2023

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Oscar Zarate’s latest graphic novel – Thomas Girtin: The Forgotten Painter – leads the reader through the story of a 19th-century artistic prodigy, born into a London charged with the passionate exhortations of Romanticism, and soon to be rocked by the incendiary influence of the French Revolution. He grew up as a close acquaintance of J.M.W. Turner, and Turner himself conceded that Girtin possessed a talent that surpassed even his own. But this is no conventional biography, since Zarate interweaves the story of Girtin’s short life with that of a group of friends in the modern day, who attend the same art class and themselves come to learn about this “forgotten painter”. Zarate suggests the many ways in which art and the sublime touch our everyday lives and by doing so, bring about various kinds of resolution. I began my conversation with Oscar by asking about the many connections and resolutions his book traces, between past and present, across time and among friends. 

Oscar Zarate: The artist is the one who tries to make connections. The language you use to express yourself has the possibility to make a connection. When you get involved in a piece of fiction, it is always about someone trying to resolve something, and as the writer you can connect with them on that journey, and engage with how that character is going to find resolution. You can get involved with the character, and find they have something to tell you. It’s a conversation with somebody else. When this occurs the connection between the artist and the viewer occurs.
 When I would go to the museum’s prints department and ask for an appointment to see Girtin’s watercolours, they would put the work in front of me, then leave me alone in the room. That’s a unique experience. Being there, by yourself with the work, you really feel that you can get involved, get engaged, and have that conversation with the artist.

Martin Dean: What was it about Girtin that first captivated you, and motivated you to write about him?

OZ: I just think he’s incredible, all the different stages he goes through as an artist in such a short time. As a young person he was very interesting because he enlisted as a republican, supported the French revolution, and even had his hair cut short like the Jacobins. He lived in Covent Garden when it was London’s first bohemian district. It would have been very stimulating to be there at that particular time. He began working as a draughtsman in his teens, working on what his patrons told him to, but gradually he began to be interested in nature.
 One of the things about Girtin for me is the attentiveness he had towards nature, to the sensuality of it. So he moved from being a draughtsman to being an artist, and he became one of the early Romantic painters. I think his painting of Bamburgh Castle is one of the best Romantic paintings ever made. (The painting of Bamburgh Castle is depicted on p155 of the graphic novel.)

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MD: In both Girtin’s day, and the modern day, in your book, art frequently comes into contact with politics. What do you think about the relationship of art to politics?

OZ: Everything is connected. I think whatever you do, you are telling the story of where you are, and that will also be the story of your political position. We’re shaped by our surroundings – by the geography, the culture, the social, political and economic situation. For the first ten years, maybe, it’s your parents that shape you, but then it’s what’s happening around you. You make certain decisions, and choices, and it shows in your work. Then you can choose to be active in politics or not, but everything you do is political. I don’t think there are explicit political messages in Girtin’s work. I think mostly he paints what is in front of him and I wonder what’s behind what he paints. For the Romantic writers, too, the political impulse is implicit, not explicit.
 One of the things that really interested me about Girtin was his relationship with his patrons. All the artists had patrons, and the buyers were the extremely wealthy, and the extremely wealthy were often horrendous human beings. They could be quite demanding and abusive. Artists would be paid to depict these people’s castles, their houses, the land they owned. Girtin was getting very fed up with his patrons, and gradually he started using a go-between to deal with them, so he didn’t have to talk to them.

In the last year of his life, he stopped accepting commissions entirely, and said, “I’m going to paint what I want!” I thought that was an admirable position to take because it was a pact with poverty. But he wanted to paint his England, after having to paint a vision of power, how the wealthy lived. I think the first painting that showed his new path, was The White House at Chelsea. (The painting of The White House at Chelsea is depicted on p312 of the graphic novel.)

MD: In the graphic novel, there’s a very memorable conversation in the prints department of the Tate Britain between an ageing Turner and his memory of Girtin, long after Girtin’s death. Where Girtin asks Turner, “Do you remember saying if I’d lived you’d have starved to death?” Tell me more about that.

OZ: I’m glad you mention that part. When this imagined encounter came to me, I was so happy. In some ways that conversation was one I imagined when I would sit alone with Girtin’s work. I think that Girtin was one of the few people Turner acknowledged as a talent that rivalled his own. He didn’t acknowledge anybody else. He wasn’t generally worried about competition. But he knew how good Girtin was, since they were both young draughtsmen together. Girtin was someone who knew what he wanted from his work.
 While I don’t think they ever really cultivated a friendship, I think Turner knew he owed Girtin, and that if Girtin had lived, Turner might not have achieved the success that he did, and would have had a rival for patronage.

MD: One scene sees Sarah, one of your modern characters, remembering a conversation with her friend, who tells her that her art requires 100 per cent commitment, complete sacrifice of oneself to the cause. Do you think that self-doubt, fear around authenticity, fear around one’s own dedication, can destroy one’s artistic potential, or feed it?

OZ: I think that situation happens when you start losing the conversation with what you are doing. You start listening to other things. When you do the work, you have to have a conversation, a relationship with the work. After you think you’ve finished, you have to stay with it because the work is going to say something back. At that point, something new that might surprise you happens. And with Sarah, she forgot to have a conversation with her work. She made a fatal mistake as an artist and she compared her work to her friend’s. When you compare like that you lose yourself. There’s a quote from Van Gogh in the book. It says, “If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”
 When you work with your own material, every day is difficult. You have a lot of history behind you, other writers and painters. It’s a battle. Sometimes the battles paralyse you, you think it’s better to quit, or do something else. You want the work you are doing to tell you things that you can’t answer yourself. Sometimes when you’re creating fiction, the characters can tell you things about yourself and the things you were going through in the story that were hidden. It’s as if the characters speak to you. 

MD: Do you find your characters live on in your mind? Are you thinking about them when you’re not writing about them?

OZ: I wonder now what will happen with them! When I work I never put an ending, I think endings are Hollywood stuff. For me, endings are irrelevant. A piece of art brings the way a dilemma is going to be resolved. But by the time it is resolved, another dilemma comes along. This is what is interesting about life: it is about resolving dilemmas, and the quality of how you do it. But there are no endings.

MD: What is it about the graphic novel form that appeals to you?

OZ: It’s the concentration of different forces in small frames, the pictures, the words, the background, and the question of how you resolve each frame. Does this picture need this word? Do the words need this picture? There’s something about the language of it, the sequence of frames, and what is going to happen on the next page. I just love it. I can say whatever I want to say within that language. 

MD: Tell us about what it’s like to work in watercolour. What attracts you to it?

OZ: That you walk on a tightrope, it all depends how much water you use, how much colour. Then when you have an idea, the way the water runs might not let you execute it, but it creates something else that’s interesting. Sometimes you’re very surprised, sometimes you’re very frustrated, because it’s not what you intended. But that’s what I like. You’re walking on eggshells to concentrate.

MD: Did you learn anything from Girtin in the process of writing the book?

OZ: Sometimes, looking at his work, it made me feel a little bit… It’s the attentiveness, the way he looks. That’s what I do, as an artist: I look. But when I look at his work, he didn’t miss anything. As an observer, he is just incredible.

Thomas Girtin: The Forgotten Painter is available here 🎨