What is it about Michael Sangster’s work that makes it so particularly appealing? There is technical mastery, of course: paint is handled well in these paintings, and there is a quiet confidence in the way in which the artist selects that part of a broader scene on which he will focus. That is enough to give pleasure, but there is something more here – a quality that makes this artist’s work stand out. That quality, I think, is intimacy.
Artistic intimacy is something that I find especially interesting. It is, I believe, something that is worth striving for in literature as much as in painting. In fiction, it involves the portrayal of the small-scale in such a way that the reader feels engaged in and moved by events that may be of no great moment in the larger scale of things, but that nonetheless say something important about the world. Jane Austen famously spoke of her literary canvas being a small, square, two inches of ivory; in such a tiny space might one show all of human life. Many later writers have paid heed to this, and musicians, too, have followed this advice. A composer such as Arvo Pärt, for example, is able to create intensely moving music without being loud or extravagant. The way in which one uses the notes, or the words, or the colours on the palette is what counts.
In painting, I have always been fond of the intimate interiors of the Dutch Golden Age and the school of Intimisme in France. Dutch painters excelled in the domestic interior – those wonderful paintings of people standing or sitting in rooms, caught in the light from a window, allow artists such as de Hooch and Vermeer to admit us to scenes of tranquillity and reflection that we can gaze upon for hours. Bonnard and Vuillard do much the same thing. These are calm paintings – paintings that help us to look upon our surroundings with acceptance and love.
Now we come to Michael Sangster. Look at these paintings – in particular at these still-lifes. What distinguishes them, I feel, is their peacefulness. They are not angry or unresolved paintings – quite the opposite. They are paintings that invite us to cherish what we see. It seems to me that what the artist is doing here is to capture harmony and, through that harmony, beauty. These paintings, indeed, are beautiful.
And that, I think, is a most important feature of the work of this artist. I adhere to the perhaps rather unfashionable view that the pursuit of beauty is one of the great goals of all art – whether it be the visual arts, music or literature. I think we need to remind ourselves that the appreciation of beauty – in whatever form it manifests itself – has a moral dimension. The beauty captured in Michael Sangster’s quite lovely study of a chair, plate and bird, says an awful lot about our world and how we should cherish it.
I came across this artist’s work entirely by chance. I have a modest personal collection which includes a corner in which there hang two Vuillards and a Bonnard. That is where I am placing him. That is where I think he belongs and where I feel over the years to come he will flourish and grow.
Alexander McCall Smith