By DAVID CAVE
Last month, the University of the West Indies concluded its celebrations of Caribbean Nobel Laureates with a celebratory four-day academic conference at the St Augustine campus in honour of Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureate for Literature, 1992. Amidst the fervour of the conference entitled “Interlocking Basins of a Globe” (Jan 12-15), a small exhibition of Walcott’s art was held at the Office of the Principal.
Encountering the painter’s side of this literary giant inside the principal’s office was evoked all the joy of a surprising and rare delight.
While many are familiar with Walcott as an renowned essayist, dramatist and poet, his pursuits in the field of visual arts remain relatively unknown and unacknowledged by the mass media and general public. The eighteen paintings on display were trademark Walcott in the technical skill and attention to detail for which Walcott’s poetry. Which just goes to show the fundamental nature of Walcott’s approach to expression.
Perhaps the lack of public attention to Walcott’s paintings is deliberate on the painter’s part. These works seem to capture Walcott’s moments of calm and quiet throughout the years. The subject matter of the paintings is primarily nature scenes. Most seemed to have been created directly from observation, capturing the light and mood of a private time in a well-balanced style that is sufficiently detailed to convey the verisimilitude of a specific time although the artist’s delicate treatment of paint does not allow the viewer to get lost in the details. There is also an adequate degree of gesture which Walcott uses to extend the mood of tranquillity and solitude to the observer.
Walcott’s daughter, Anna Walcott-Hardy, who was on hand to discuss the art, emphasised the personal nature of the work, pointing to such pieces as “At the Gate, Petit Valley, Trinidad” (circa 1981) as a factual depiction of her in school uniform to the right side of the image. The two largest pieces of the exhibition, “Horses at Sunrise” (c. 2001) and “Country Fete” (c. 2001) were, however, imaginative compositions- which, until disclosed by Hardy-Walcott, the viewer would not have deduced given the detail that seemed to have come from observation.
Walcott’s visual art, like his poetry, demands a keen and observant eye that looks beyond the obvious. One notable detail of the works on display is Walcott’s attention to shadows. Equally important is the shade of unseen elements beyond the painting which can be so vivid that the viewer might walk away believing they were in the painting.
The Walcott exhibition also contained a few odd paintings that do not fit into the mould of the nature scene. In addition to the two largest imaginary pieces, “Horses at Sunrise” and “Country Fete” there are also two story boards created in water colour and ink of Walcott’s famous play “Ti Jean and Brothers”. One of the most discreet yet notable painting of the exhibition is the “Coconut Trees” scene by Walcott’s father, Warwick Walcott. This last piece suggests that Derek Walcott’s affinity to art goes back a long way, and has always been integral to his life.
Despite its small size and low-keyed nature, this short exhibition (Jan 13-15) offered a valuable glimpse into the complex and multi-faceted artist that is Derek Walcott. The exquisite execution of the work also makes a point that this Nobel Laureate still has a lot to offer the Caribbean.
For having given us this glimpse in Walcott’s world, the UWI and the general public owes a great debt to his family Margaret Walcott, Anna Walcott Hardy and Elizabeth Walcott Hackshaw.