Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Joy and Power of Art Education

The Joy and Power of Art Education: 
the origins of the International Baccalaureate
Visual Arts programme (1)

(A little side-step from my story of A Life Painting Music)

Yes, in parallel with my own work as an artist, I spent a huge part of my life in art education - first teaching in international schools across Europe then, for fifteen years, as Chairman and Chief Examiner of the original Visual Arts programme of the International Baccalaureate, for secondary schools worldwide. I would like to share with you some of the joyous and moving experiences of that period. Obviously the students and the schools I mention must remain anonymous.
Around May 1980, as the local IB art examiner, I walked in to the final IB art exhibition of an eighteen year old student, all ready to make a critical appraisal. Within seconds, I could see that something remarkable had taken place. She asked me to sit down and insisted that I drink a small plastic cup of milk, while she explained her main art work. It was called The Milky Way: a composition comprised of plaster casts of small dolls' heads and of her own breasts, all intertwined as something like an umbilical cord. As I tried to drink what was presumably cow's milk, I realised with some emotion, that this exhibition and our interview was going to be intensely personal. The rest of her work was a series of sensitive abstract pastels of womb-like and embryonic shapes. "So what happened to you?" I asked. She told me how, against her teacher's advice, she felt compelled to give visual form to a traumatic loss and to share this with the viewers of her show. I leave you to guess the rest. I gave her a high grade for having the courage to find such an intimately personal form for her art work. She had far surpassed the requirement that IB art work had to reflect personal research and experience. I'm sure that her presentation of that exhibition was enormously therapeutic. The power of art.
This example is seriously thought-provoking, but IB students also produce works of technical excellence in joyous colour, form and joie de vivre. The ones that stick in the mind are those where the student has used his/her art as a process of exciting self-discovery. You would like to meet them today, to see how are doing.

My deep conviction was (and is) that every high school student should enjoy some form of artistic appreciation and endeavour, as an essential part of their education. This is not about becoming an artist - it's about how the self-confidence that comes from the exhilaration of artistic achievement can and does overflow into other disciplines. The experience will change their life. The aims and criteria of the current IB Visual Arts exam, somewhat modified since my day, can be found here. "The visual arts are an integral part of everyday life, permeating all levels of human creativity, expression, communication and understanding" (from the IB syllabus). Below are a few untitled examples. 
In 1975 I was asked to join the wonderful team of IB pioneers at work in Geneva. In those early days there was no real Arts Syllabus, only a hotchpotch of national exams with wildly different standards. What a challenge! My task was to create a high-quality art education syllabus with a world perspective and a respect for all cultures, a syllabus with standards that would be accepted by universities and art colleges internationally. Today, over one million students in four thousand schools worldwide enjoy the opportunities of IB schools. 

My first step was to organise an international conference of art teachers, including exemplary enlightened teachers like the Austrian-American Herb Holzinger in Vienna, the British Glyn Uzzel in Geneva, the Dutch Martin Post in South Wales and the Danish Flemming Jørgensen on Vancouver Island. I believe that you can only truly educate from personal creative experience; significantly, all of these teachers were prolific artists - their own creative activities and those of other unnamed teachers would enlighten and inspire thousands of students. Naturally, they were all to become my good friends. 

After the Second World War, there was a lot of discussion about ways in which the arts could contribute to inter-cultural understanding and world peace, but as time went by, art education theories had almost become an incestuous perpetuum mobile. Too much talk! So my question to our conference was: "What do we understand by art education from a world perspective? And how are our convictions supported by our own creative experience in visual arts?" 

We were also aided by the wisdom and experience of the late Eleanor Hipwell, former president of the International Society for Education through Art. I was later to chair conferences and give workshops for art educators and international schools in Asia, Europe, North and South America.

From that first meeting, two decisions would generate the characteristic form of the new IB examination. Firstly, students would have to produce Research Workbooks of their studio experiments and their related studies of the arts across cultures. Secondly, they would put on a Solo exhibition of original works that would be assessed by a visiting examiner during an interview. My first questions to the student would usually be "What do you think is your best piece of work?" Then, "what do you think is your weakest work?" "Why?" "Show me your research". Right away, you got into a discussion that would reveal knowledge, technical skills, understanding and self evaluation. I could leaf through each personal Research Workbook and discuss the discoveries, interesting failures and development of the finished works, as we walked round. The local teachers (listening in the wings) would often say to me afterwards "she/he never told me half of this!" It was often a mutually wonderful experience, whether they were talented or less so. Alas, alas, this feature of the examination has since been eliminated.
One talented student confronted me with an apparently chaotic display of photographs, scattered over the floor and walls. They all had pieces torn out of them or were mutilated and I was asked to walk on some of them. I tried not to be prejudiced, to ignore the conventional expectation of a well-arranged exhibition and to figure out how to start. So I asked her "what's your theme?" She said "The fragmentation of memory". Right away, she had me on my toes with her highly intelligent thesis on this phenomenon, including reference to family issues and the influence of time on our aesthetic preferences. After a stimulating discussion, I asked her what she was going to study. It was philosophy, at Oxford. Wow!

Another surprise came after an intelligent tour of a girl's lovely paintings with a variety of gorgeous colours. Obviously art college material, I thought. But she informed me that she wanted to become a police-woman! I could barely suppress my groans. Actually many students redirect their evident artistic creativity to become successful in science, business, filmmaking, industry and so on. 

Some work was crazy and chaotic, yet revealed intelligent creative uses of materials. A girl asked me to walk into her show blindfold. Hey, wait a minute - this is about visual art! She wanted me to feel the materials and textures of her hanging works before I viewed them.

A major challenge for me and my team was to develop criteria that would put aside personal taste and that would respect multi-cultural art forms and traditions. How often do I hear that old complaint "I didn't choose art because I couldn't draw", assuming that art is only for those who can. I insisted that students should be encouraged to discover their abilities in photography, architectural design, ceramics, textile design (fashion), sculpture, graphic design, multi-media installations and other options that don't depend on drawing skills. For example, some of the greatest art works of Asia are ceramic pots, sculptures and woodblock prints.

The traditional narrow Western perspective on what "qualifies" as art needed to be fundamentally replaced with a cross-cultural perspective on the world through a wide-angle lens. We originally called the programme "Art and Design", to encourage multi-dimensional experiments of all sorts. The result was often startlingly adventurous work worthy of the studios of any art college. 

Part Two next time. My thanks to all the students whose work illustrated this blog.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Serendipity: Mirga, Norman and Čiurlionis

Mirga, Norman and Čiurlionis

Last week's short vacation in Vilnius, Lithuania turned out to be a series of serendipitous adventures. It was actually a vacation with a dream, to finally visit the M.K.Čiurlionis National Museum of Art in Kaunas and soak up the musical vibes of the original paintings of an artist who was also a prodigious musician, poet, philosopher, activist and much more. He saw mystic symbols in nature and his paintings became more and more abstract as he included patterns and symbols of sound, as it were visual equivalents of his music. For this visionary composer the two disciplines naturally overlapped - a man after my own heart. He said "I am completely immersed in counterpoint. I see the entire world as a great symphony and people as notes". Sadly, he died in 1911 at the age of only thirty-five. He became a national cultural icon.
As soon as our charming hostess at the Cosy Old Vilnius apartment heard that I "paint music", she exclaimed: "Čiurlionis!". Then, when I told her that I was doing research for a performance in 2018 of his symphonic poem The Sea (Jüra) with a certain Lithuanian conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, she virtually leapt into the air - clearly a great fan. Would I mind if she alert the media?

The following morning I get a call from Labas rytas, Lietuva (aka LRT Television Good Morning Lithuania), asking if I would interrupt my vacation for an interview in the Vilnius Čiurlionis House. And could their cameraman also follow me round the Kaunas Museum to shoot my reactions to the paintings? Oh - they only have 100,000 viewers and would I mind if they dub my voice into Lithuanian? What the hell, I've always wanted to speak fluent Lithuanian.
On arrival at the House, I bump into the Director, the eminent pianist and teacher Rokas Zubovas who tells me that that he is the great-grandson of Čiurlionis. He shows us the tiny room that the artist/musician rented for a while with Sofija, the mother-to-be of his grandfather and says with a sense of wonderment: "I wouldn't be standing here if it weren't for certain er, creative activity in this room." He is now devoted to the international promotion of the work of his great-grandfather and I feel a real mutual warmth. My interviewer really understood what I'm about and she asked me what I think Čiurlionis would say, if he saw me sitting in his house with his score in my hands, talking about my own lifetime dedicated to bringing art and music together. Struggling to control my emotion, I say that I think we would hug each other like brothers. I wish he could see me performing The Sea with Mirga.
Yet another happy coincidence was that Mirga's dad Romualdas Gražinis happened to be conducting an lovely outdoor choral concert in the beautiful park of the Pushkin Museum. Such energy! Such flexible hands and body language! Who does that remind me of?

The plaque near my café commemorates the former music school of the great violinist Jascha Heifetz, and as I stroll through the tiny streets to the location of the destroyed Great Synagogue of Vilna, I marvel at this tiny country that survived such horrible genocide, such a tormented history, yet for so many years has produced such a rich kaleidoscopic culture.  

As a portrait artist, I couldn't help noticing the typical Lithuanian profile, the sharp triangular nose - a determined nose that knows where it's going, as demonstrated when they walk straight at you on the street. They seldom give way, yet on a personal level exude such enthusiasm and friendliness.

Watch this space for more on the serendipity of how I met the CBSO Music Director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla in Birmingham and together conceived a plan to perform kinetic painting in my birthplace to a great work by a composer from her birthplace.

The exact CBSO performance date in the 2018/19 Season at Symphony Hall Birmingham will be fixed soon. I'll keep my Lithuanian friends posted on the date of the TV broadcast on LRT.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

My show at the Met

From The Met to the Washington Opera

Sounds grand, doesn't it? New York's Lincoln Center - the centre of the cultural world, you might say. But 2001 saw just a modest exhibition of a selection of my paintings and prints of famous musicians in the The Gallery at Lincoln Center. It was actually tucked away with gift shops and such-like underneath the Metropolitan Opera House on the way to the car park. Everybody passes by to get to their car, right? Even Maestro James Levine popped in, looked at my paintings and exclaimed "Hey, I know all these people! Drop by any time if you want to sketch during our rehearsals".
The Metropolitan Opera Guild had entitled my show Center Stage! (which seemed to me a bit over the top) and timed it to coincide with the Gala celebrating Plácido Domingo's 60th birthday, so they could use my first painting of him on the programme cover. On reflection, I feel now that the painting is a bit stiff, but there was more to come.
Plácido Domingo I. (detail)
I had painted some of the big names in opera (Jessye Norman, Cecilia Bartoli, Gergiev, Georg Solti, Pavarotti, José Carreras, Kiri Te Kanawa, not to mention Maestro Kurt Masur at the N.Y. Phil next door, Yo-Yo Ma etc., so surely this was a prime spot to exhibit. The opening was crowded and everybody was buying the beautiful catalogue (which should have been a signal to tone down my expectations of major sales). Drinks and snacks were seized by both invited guests and party-crashers, straight off the street. What can you do? I understand you can eat quite well from the opening nights of exhibitions.
The calm before the storm
With Cathie Curran Gamble and Connie McPhee Curran

Then there was an elegant after-party hosted by my dear late friend Catherine Curran Gamble. A lover of all the arts, Cathie had been extraordinarily generous to me, ever since her daughter Constance Curran had been one of my students at Aiglon College in Switzerland - actually the best student I ever had. Cathie had a breathtaking art collection in her Park Avenue apartment; she would host a reception in my honour when I was in town and she commissioned me to paint her daughter and grandchildren. Catherine was an eminent philanthropist and patron of the arts and education, daughter of Sidney Gamble (the grandson of the co-founder of Procter & Gamble). He had travelled widely as a sociologist in China between 1918 and 1932 and made an extraordinary photographic documentation of life in China long before the revolution. Cathie (who was born in China) later discovered a huge collection of his original photographic glass plates in an attic and facilitated an exhibition of the prints that were showed in China and elsewhere. They can now be seen in the Duke University Sidney D. Gamble Collection.
I shall never forget the kind friendship of Cathie and her family.
Constance Curran McPhee, Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This gown is probably at least 100 years old.

The exhibition didn't sell well. After so much effort I was terribly disappointed, in debt and stuck with a load of excellent framed fine art prints. Happily another dear old friend and benefactor Karen Free Royce came to my rescue. She arranged to have the lot transported and put in storage in her basement in Connecticut, until I could collect my wits and eventually ship the stuff home.

Despite this apparent failure, I later got a fax from a fan of Plácido Domingo's who had seen my show. She not only wanted my fine art prints of the "Three Tenors", but commissioned me to make a new painting of Plácido. She was a patron of the Washington National Opera, where Plácido was at that time Music Director, so I proposed a painting of him as conductor. She arranged for me to sit in the orchestra pit, while Domingo was rehearsing Carmen. As he coaxed this production into shape, he couldn’t help singing all the parts of a work that he knew intimately. Plácido’s expression radiated encouragement and a real understanding of the needs of his soloists.

My watercolour places him on a diagonal rising from bottom left to top right, at the heart of the action, a surge of energy reaching up to the stage. Dominated by the plush reds of the auditorium, my splashy red-brown paint-strokes might be seen as the dynamic bow movements of the strings, or a hint of the earthy passion and bloody drama about to take place on stage.
My patron flew me to Washington D.C., (where I had a suite right opposite the offices of the Watergate scandal) to show her my one metre square watercolour. She burst into tears. Yes! So far so good.
Then, back-stage at the Opera, all ready for a performance, Plácido took time to view the watercolour himself. He just beamed, made some very kind comments and insisted on adding his own signature. However, my wash of watercolour to show the flow of movement rising from bottom left across his pants and shirt didn't sit well with his wife. She said: "But it looks as though his fly is open." Not intentional of course, but wives notice those things. Good thing I had my paints with me. You are now looking at the adjusted "respectable" version. My sponsor's architect got a phone call to please re-model the north wall of her summer home, to give this work centre stage. And the final highlight of that Washington trip was to bump into the world's great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in my hotel. I had painted him in 1991 and it was big hugs all round! All's well that ends well.

It all seems so long ago. Reflecting on these adventures on the eve of my eighty-fourth birthday, I feel so fortunate and blessed - enriched in the best sense of the word.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017


Remembering Yaltah Menuhin

Yaltah died on June 9th, sixteen years ago. She was named after the Crimean resort, her mother's birthplace. An exceptionally talented woman full of humour, wisdom and poetic musicality, the pianist Yaltah Menuhin grew up in the shadow of her brother, the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin and of her sister the pianist Hephzibah Menuhin. Rudolf Serkin, who taught both sisters the piano as small girls, thought Yaltah the more talented. But as "only" the little sister she was at a disadvantage - her tyrannical parents would not allow her to detract from the brilliant career of her brother. (How often has this happened to excellent female musicians!). Nevertheless she played internationally until just before her death. We met in the sixties at the Gstaad Menuhin Festival. Much has been written about the extraordinary multicultural lives of the Menuhin trio, their travels and adventures - I couldn't even begin to summarise it.

Yaltah said of this rather serious oil painting: "You have painted the burdens of my race". But I rather think that it reflects the burden of my unhappy marriage in 1971. In those years I was still clinging to a visual likeness, afraid to disturb it with the vibes that I was certainly getting from the music. The dynamic Yaltah deserved something much more lively, so I resolved to do something about this. But I was still searching for a style, a way to paint movement without entirely abandoning the visual impression, as so often trying to compromise. Then in 1972 my marriage broke up. My free brushwork and colour in the second painting shows you what happened to my style!
Yaltah's hands and eyes suggest her intensity, the colours her emotions, but the fact that the mouth is almost invisible can only be explained by my experiments in portraits of that period to paint something more than just a conventional portrait, giving some features more emphasis than others - not always effectively, I'm afraid. But it's an early work, painted with my newfound lease on life. Her fingers do the talking.

So on Friday June 9th., I shall reflect with love on Yaltah's kindness to me and encouragement with my work, when I was going through difficult times. Her understanding came from her own lifetime of frustrations and disappointments, yet she was happy. She was a romantic and wrote a poem every day in one of the many languages in which she was fluent. She generously found ways to bring creative people together, as did her siblings. We maintained an affectionate correspondence until shortly before her death in 2001, her letters and cards always decorated with a little flower or improvised design in her favourite colours, azure blue and purple. Whenever possible she dressed colourfully, in later years with a headband around her long flowing golden hair turned grey, somewhat resembling a crazy priestess or a hippy. She played with an infectious exuberance, with a joie de vivre that is unforgettable.
Her monogram: Yaltah Menuhin-Ryce.

Here's the link to the lovely informative website dedicated to her memory by Iain and Charlotte PhillipsYaltah Menuhin.