Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Unseen Collection

The Unseen Collection 

Last Monday I enjoyed the opportunity to give a new friend a guided tour of my collection of thirty-one paintings in Symphony Hall Birmingham. Although he's a regular concert-goer, he had only seen a couple of them before. The earliest of my action-portraits of great names in classical music, all programmed to perform at Symphony Hall, were painted in 1990/91, commissioned by the first Director Andrew Jowett, now retired. The most recent in 2013.

Despite popular demand for a public exhibition of the collection and despite various proposals during the last twenty-eight years, only a privileged few occasionally get to see a handful of my works at receptions in the Director's Lounge; even less see the paintings in the back-stage corridors. There are just two on semi-public view.

Elgar's Dream, my largest watercolour ever, inspired by The Dream of Gerontius, commissioned by Robin and Jayne Cadbury and unveiled by Yehudi Menuhin in 1996, has limited access on the Level 4 Foyer while you grab your drink during the concert interval. An Elgar fan, my guest was delighted to finally get my detailed description of his favourite painting. 

My Mahler Experience can be glimpsed on the ground floor but is often cordoned off, eclipsed by the blinding bright panels of advertising in The Mall and Convention Centre. I wonder with some trepidation what will happen to these major works, when the spacious new foyer is built (see below). A radical re-hanging, presumably. An artist is often powerless to intervene, once his works have left the studio, when he discovers it with a horribly wrong frame or wall colour. Right from the beginning I was fortunate to be able to consult with the excellent Birmingham Framers Gale & Co. Ltd (Est. 1845) about the framing of this Collection.
photo: Page\Park Architects

Yes, you can now buy some cards and my memoir A Life Painting Music, if you can find them amongst the Chopin Boards, Victoria Eggs, coffee mugs and toy Ukuleles in the little Gift Shop

But as a Birmingham man approaching his eighty-fifth birthday this year, I guess this is one last plea for a professionally curated public retrospective of the original paintings of the Symphony Hall Collection (preferably somewhere in Birmingham), expanded by a selection from the enormous number of my other paintings that bring art and music together - Yehudi Menuhin with Ravi Shankar, Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink conducting Stravinsky's Firebird, paintings of the Netherlands Dance Theater and so on. And hey - what about a painting of the wonderful new Music Director of the CBSO, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla?

Meanwhile, bravo to Classic FM for providing this Link to their online Gallery of a major selection of my work, so that it can be viewed by a global public. Thank you!
The Mahler Experience - Symphony Hall, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 160 cm., 1993

I've written blogs on the making of this Collection and on specific paintings. Just scroll down or go to the search bar (right). More general information and images can be found on my website at

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

My Amsterdam studio

A visit to my Amsterdam studio
About forty years ago I walked into my Amsterdam studio and noticed a bullet hole in the window. I found the bullet and kept it - it had hit the opposite wall and fallen to the floor, totally squashed. I figured out the trajectory. Had I been standing at my work-table, it would have gone right through my head. The police merely shrugged when I told them. Ach, it's only a small bullet.

Things have quietened down a bit since then. Around 1979 the city had given ten artists the opportunity to rent a classroom in this recently closed lower school, still littered with abandoned tiny tables and chairs. There was one problem - the local "Hells Angels" motorcycle club had squatted the ground floor and were most aggrieved that we had "invaded" their space. Their threats to set the building alight, attempts to demolish our staircase to create more space for their motorbikes and their habit of playing deafening music didn't exactly encourage creativity. 

But the Burgemeester eventually closed down the Hells Angels club; it became a crèche, fronted by a lovely playground where little kids can scream their lungs out under my window - just what I need when studying a pianissimo passage in a new performance score. Across the street is a thriving "koffie-shop" (read softdrugs-café), where noisy motorbikes come and go continually, presumably as drugs couriers. 
Those early days when my studio was still fairly uncluttered, with some of my early sketches of the Netherlands Dance Theater on the wall.

An artist's creative space should be an inspirational and private place where miracles can happen, despite frustrating intrusions from without and within. It takes great determination to protect your spiritual space. My studio has many colourful memories, creative, romantic, disappointing and exciting. What a joy it is then to occasionally receive such support as this unforgettable loving message from Yehudi Menuhin that I received on arrival at the studio in 1991. How happy he would have been to see me recently, making plans in the studio with violinist Daniel Hope for performances together.

My studio is seven metres long, so that determined the length of my biggest painting ever, a mural in acrylic for the Netherlands Dance Theater, eight panels painted flat on the floor in 1987, stepping stones to leap across like a dancer, later to be cut and to hang free from the wall. 
I've welcomed many visitors, to choose a painting, for a workshop, or even to turn the place upside down, like the BBC film crew directed by the wonderful Jonathan Fulford, to make a documentary around my Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra, a 1993 performance with the CBSO and Sir Simon Rattle in Symphony Hall Birmingham. Oh man, we were all twenty-five years younger then! The renowned film-maker Dick Kuijs (second from right) has been in and out of the studio many times, making a new documentary of my life painting music, hopefully to be finished in 2018.   
An unexpected surprise was a recent visit by the pianists Rokas Zubovas and his wife Sonata Zubovienė. Rokas is the great-grandson of musician/painter M.K. Čiurlionis, so I just had to give them a few glimpses of my first experiments with live kinetic painting with The Sea by Čiurlionis, for performance with the CBSO in Birmingham in the 2018/19 season. He loved it.
With windows high up on the second floor, the studio has a good natural lightfall, ideal for studies of the nude model or for a portrait.
But I can also create absolute blackout for projections of live kinetic painting in rehearsal.
Tamara Hoekwater improvising in my flowing colours with "Bésame Mucho"

I'm grateful for my special space. It holds the vibes of wonderful memories, the throes of creativity and the joys of sharing some of the results, now spread worldwide in good homes or on internet at

Monday, 8 January 2018

Art is in Residence

Art is in Residence 
at the Zürich Chamber Orchestra

I feel most honoured that my friend Daniel Hope, music director of the Zürich Chamber Orchestra, has asked me to join a number of distinguished artists such as actress Katja Riemann, choreographer Heinz Spoerli, photographer David Yarrow and others in his series Art is in Residence. Last season also saw the legendary actor Klaus Maria Brandauer as the Narrator of The Soldier's Tale. 

So I'm looking forward to the challenge of an audio-visual premiere on January 30th. in the Maag-Areal Hall, Zürich (here's the linkwhen I paint live to the music of Stravinsky's "Basler" Concerto in D for strings (not to be confused with his Violin Concerto), conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. Several ballet versions have been mounted to this work, but this must be a first with live kinetic painting.
The first page Vivace, with the violas providing the calligraphy
Daniel shares my conviction that the juxtaposition of music with other art forms often results in an extraordinary synthesis that is enlightening  and enjoyable for artists and audience alike. 
Asymmetric abstract shapes, reflecting some of the interrupted rhythms.

Commissioned by Paul Sacher in 1946, a year after Stravinsky was given American citizenship, this is not a well-known work. Yet it's bright, accessible, nostalgic, virtuosic. Typically Stravinsky, it's full of interrupted rhythms and changing time signatures - a bit like a box of crazy bonbons - you are just enjoying one when the next one steals your attention, but you can't quite figure out what the centre is. Actually I found it quite difficult to memorise. Maybe no problem for a professional musician, but my instrument is the paintbrush! I had to design a choreography of brushstrokes that somehow reflect the score, provide its colour and dynamic and be executed in "real time", or instantaneously. Total madness! When you first look at the score you think oh no! But after endless practice I don't have to count anymore - the whole thing is flowing through my veins and my fingers will know what to do.
Below: Eight different time signatures in eleven bars of my annotated score! Don't even try to count them. Above: Sudden blobs of purple at number 34, streaking out then sadly softening.

Perhaps through his best-known works: the three ballets Petrushka (1910), Firebird (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1912), resulting from his collaboration with the celebrated impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Stravinsky became the classic twentieth-century example of music- theatre. He brought together the art forms of painting, choreography, story-telling and music as one total work of art: Gesamtkunstwerk.

The surprisingly gentle lilting second movement (Arioso). Perhaps tongue in cheek, before we are jerked awake by the energy of the violas in the final Allegro Rondo.

Even the First World War couldn't silence him - isolated in Switzerland in 1918, he fused poetry, dramatic narration and music into The Soldier's Talethat I hope to perform on June 23rd. in the Essen Philharmonie with Daniel Hope, who will not only play the violin part, but make his acting debut in the role of the Soldier.  
  The rather neurotic splayed brush, twisting and dabbing, having fun with the sienna splatters towards the end of the final movement.


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.