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.
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Monday, 11 September 2017

Serendipity: Mirga, Norman and Čiurlionis

Serendipity: 
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.
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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.
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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Yaltah



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.
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Friday, 26 May 2017

Disillusion


One that got away: 

The Drama of The Raven


Remember Edgar Allen Poe's poem The Raven?

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, 
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— 
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping 
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. 
'Tis some visitor, I muttered, tapping at my chamber door - Only this and nothing more....... 

First fear, then curiosity takes over. The knocking continues. Who's there? It turns out to be a raven that flies in and refuses to leave. Yet amazingly he can talk - although with only one word: "Nevermore". Was it a comment on the narrator's mourning of his lost love?
Inspired by this poem, in 2012 Toshio Hosokawa composed an intensely thrilling and scary monodrama for the mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant and ensemble. I saw several video recordings of outstanding performances, but one thing appeared to be missing. A dramatic kinetic atmosphere to enhance the nightmare of the story-line. 

So in 2013, after my performances of kinetic painting Cloud & Light, with Toshio conducting, were so well received, and with a newly discovered affinity with Toshio's music, I proposed setting his The Raven to kinetic painting. I think he liked the idea. Thoroughly inspired, I got the score and hired a model simply to pose (not move) in a few abstract static studio projections (some of which you see here), mere "sketches" to illustrate my ideas. 
Multiple emails and international meetings with producers, agents, Charlotte and Toshio himself followed. 
And it all came to nothing. After all those efforts, the disillusion was intense.

You often never discover exactly why creative proposals (and there have been so many) don't come to fruition. There may be hidden agreements or contracts that are never revealed. Did the managers feel that their singer would be over-shadowed? Was it the production costs? Was it because I didn't have an agent negotiating essential support in the performance jungle? Or was my pitch on the dramatic potential of kinetic painting to music not good enough? In this case it might have been the decision of one man in a major venue, that closed the door on this proposal. I was left frustrated, baffled and somewhat bitter.
And that's just one example of a classic disillusion. I know, I know, I'm in good company of many creative artists through the ages whose ideas were not seized on by the right producers. You need the right connections, good timing and good luck. And then the courage not to give up.

But to end on a positive note, over the years I have in fact experienced glorious exceptions: those visionaries who "got the message" and who were also a joy to work with, including Yehudi Menuhin, The Netherlands Dance Theatre, Sir Simon Rattle, TV Director Jonathan Fulford for BBC, Hans Ferwerda for the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Hyo and Kyung Kang of the Sejong Soloists, Ronald Vermeulen in Amsterdam and Bergen, Sven Tepl for the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Hope, and now (next season) Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla with the CBSO. My heartfelt thanks to all of them.


Sunday, 14 May 2017

Loneliness

The loneliness of creativity


This is an edited version of a blog from 2013. Today, every artist, writer, composer will still recognise these problems. 

"It must be lovely to be able to paint". Ha - you have no idea! Creativity is a lonely business. Hours and weeks of working alone in the studio. Succoured only by habit, by some sort of inner discipline, by the need to earn a living and by the encouragement of each little creative discovery. “Oh yes", my wife will tell you, "he always feels depressed when he’s trying to start a new work”. The fact is that every time, you feel at a loss to know how to start and nobody can help you. In your desperation you forget that this feeling is a creative prelude. You sweep the floor, drink coffee, eat chocolate, procrastinate, wonder why you became an artist, listen to music, mess around with sketches and colours, just playing…..until unexpectedly, interesting little things start to appear in the messy kinetic painting. Your coffee gets cold. An hour or two goes by before you discover this, then you realise that you’re in the flow. Read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s brilliant book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and InventionIt’s a long story, but “flow” is a state of deep satisfaction and drive, brought about by a synergy of factors, experienced from time to time by scientists, street-sweepers, artists, carpenters, writers – you name it. It comes from being totally absorbed in a search for creative solutions, then better solutions. And not allowing yourself to get distracted. There’s no easy recipe for how to get started, but once you find the “flow” you're up and away. 

Krishnamurti once said that true creativity can only happen in a “free fall” situation. A unconditional leap in the dark, letting go of the worries about what people will think of this piece, whether it will provide bread on the table next month, what the critics will say. You don’t know what you’re doing and the unknown necessitates creativity.

Sometimes I just follow my intuition, in a state of wonder at what is happening up on my rehearsal screen in the studio. A sort of ecstasy (from the Greek "standing outside yourself"), as though somebody else, or perhaps the music, is doing this. If this is difficult to imagine, watch some of my rough studio tryouts on YouTube. It's that ecstasy that makes me want to exclaim: "oh - you should see this!"

It's that ecstasy, those moments of creation, that I try to take to the concert hall, standing on stage in a performance with my overhead projectors and the musicians. Yes, I do have my visual choreography, a lifetime of painting skills, weeks of practicing, and I’m more or less following the music. Well, which is it? More, or less? (Both, actually). You have thousands of people, including television viewers, following the movements of your brush, wondering - what will it do next? You let the audience watch the sensual visuals evolve and dissolve - they may be closer to a unique creative moment than they’ve ever been before. I’m exposing my emotions, my passion and my vulnerability and as I paint, I can feel the reactions in the hall, sense their blushes, their joy or their angst. This is the ultimate form of my "flow", the therapy for my loneliness - the opportunity and joy of being able to share my kinetic works immediately as they take shape. The loneliness of the studio was, after all, a stepping stone to a shared emotion through performance.
On a screen of 9 x 6 m., my kinetic images to Scriabin's "Poem of Ecstasy" flow and shudder and fall apart like a prolonged gigantic orgasm. Oh dear, in front of two thousand people in the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw? Hey, it was Scriabin's idea! All the details are in the score, the original of which carried the title "Orgiastic Poem".

The applause has died down and the series of “very nice” reactions have come your way. You go back to your dressing room and have to scramble to get out, because the hall is closing down. You’re no longer welcome. You’re lucky if there’s a drink afterwards or really lucky if you’re invited to dinner - if the restaurants are still open. Back at the hotel or home, exhausted, the adrenaline drying up (or whatever adrenaline does), you try to remember anything meaningful of the well-meant compliments on your performance. "You took me out of this world - I don’t know how you do it!” You tell me.

But what I really miss is enlightened discussion with fellow artists! I write blogs that seem to be read worldwide. But who comments? “I’m at a loss for words”, one sighs. Should I take that as a compliment? Write to me, you spectators, readers, composers, writers, artists! How does the creative process work for you? Let's help each other.
I challenge you: normanperryman@gmail.com!
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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Early musical works: less is more


Early musical works you have never seen:

Less is more: a few floating lines stretched across space can sometimes promise more than a full canvas gives you. Inspired by Asian paintings and prints and a visit to Japan in 1984, this became one of my aims in many early works. Generous and effective use of space in Asian painting also conveys a sense of time passing, or perhaps timelessness. 

I'm reminded of the Zen proverb: "It's the silence between the notes that creates the music". This gives us pause for thought and time to breathe. And breathing creates energy. Here are the links to my earlier blogs on this subject: The beauty of space and silence and Music and space in watercolour paintingBelow are just two of a whole series of watercolours of Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi, former conductor of the Netherlands Philharmonic, made during a tour of Japan.

            



Below a watercolour and ink drawing of Yit-Kin Seow from 1971, when he was studying both piano and viola at the Yehudi Menuhin School, where I made many impressions in the seventies. He has since made a career as a pianist.


Even though it is undeveloped, this spontaneous impression of a dancer improvising to jazz in my studio, made with bamboo pen and pencil, gives an illusion of her movements. I intended to make a painting of it, but actually it's complete just as it is. 


And finally a 1988 watercolour of my friend Mifune Tsuji, where I allowed myself a flexibility and freedom that you get when you're in "the flow", when you barely know what you're doing and you just get carried along by the music.

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Friday, 21 April 2017

A young man's search



A young man's search in 1963

With intense nostalgia I'm now taking you back more than half a century to an adventurous formative period that took me travelling through Europe in 1963. I was twenty-nine when I was awarded a scholarship by the Dutch Kröller-Müller Foundation to spend a year in France. After I had learned to draw and paint at Birmingham College of Arts & Crafts and spent some years in teaching, this was the first real opportunity to focus on my painting and seriously research what I could do as a artist.  

I was offered "La Maison Jaune" in the tiny village of Murs (Vaucluse), with space for a small studio, large scorpions in the shower, the odour of a sheep pen outside the window, a huge open hearth that filled the house with smoke when the Mistral wind was blowing, but above all, a variety of landscape on all sides. It was a lonely spot in those days, well out of reach of the seductive Van Gogh subjects in lower Provence and long before the area was taken over by wealthy Parisiens as the chique terrain where they could renovate a derelict farmhouse for their summer residence.
After the greys of northern Europe, in the Vaucluse I was confronted with a plethora of new impressions - the rich reds and ochres of Roussillon, the chalk stone of Mount Luberon, ancient sandy-coloured fortifications on every hillside, the greens of olives and plane trees, the twisted blacks of of old vines and lavender galoreSo after a drive over to Cavaillon to pick up a load of canvasses I set to work, painting landscapes in oils. 
Above one of my first unfinished efforts to somehow "get the painting off the ground" - that is, develop the painting from a mere illustration of the visit of the threshing machine, a major event in the village, into something with its own abstract dynamic. I tried a bit of everything in those days, made some nice little paintings that I remember affectionately, but in retrospect some of them were not much more than explorations. I was in the middle of a wide-ranging search. And what do you do when it's bad weather? You paint the glowing embers and ghostly early morning sunlight on the warmest spot in the house. 
After several months my restlessness took me to explore further north-eastwards deep into Les Hautes Alpes, as yet unspoiled by tourism. I discovered the tiny hamlet of Souliers-en-Queyras perched on a steep incline at 1800 metres altitude, negotiated the use of the former village school for my studio and a temporary home, then started to paint everything in sight. The white school-house can be seen bottom-right under the tree in my rather cubist painting of the village, as seen from across the valley of the Torrent de Souliers. I was told that every few hundred years the village was swept away by a landslide and repeatedly re-built. But I took my chances and settled down to work, starting with these houses huddled together into the mountainside for mutual support. 
The only heating and cooking option was a wood-burning stove that became my warm companion. Towards the end of my stay, the regional mayor came up from the valley to award la Médaille de la Famille Française to one of the mothers of the only two extended families in the village. She had produced her thirteenth child. A sheep was slaughtered and I was invited to a celebratory "lunch" that started at noon and continued until well after sunset. The local priest played his flute. Speeches were made in a French dialect that sounded vaguely Italian. Tiny children's cheeks got redder as they too sipped the excellent wine. As the haze of smoke thickened, we ate lamb cooked in a dozen different ways and made endless toasts to la maternité. I had arranged an exhibition of my paintings of the local landscape, evoking animated comments from the farmers about the colours and textures of certain pastures that had been or not yet been mowed.   
At college I had learned to paint in the late impressionist style, simply put: recording visual impressions with colour, form and atmosphere slightly manipulated. I saw the patterns and colours in this endearing little old cart, but hadn't yet figured out a way of turning them into an abstract design, for example.
But with other agricultural machinery like the hay-spinner, you can see that I was looking for a way to express its movements. I'm on the verge of something new. Tossed hay, twisting valleys and torrents.

In the forests I stumbled on many wonderful roots of felled trees, weathered bone-white over the years, their tendrils seeming to reach out from this tree cemetery. Movement was becoming more apparent in my painting as I started to stretch diagonal wriggling lines across the canvas.
Although I was painting mainly landscape for months (and in fact continued to do so for years), little did I know that further on my travels north towards Switzerland in 1963, I would stumble on the amazing Yehudi Menuhin Festival in Gstaad/Saanen. I had been "wandering in the wilderness", had done my apprenticeship and had suddenly reached "the promised land, flowing with milk and honey"! Meeting Yehudi would change my life. It was music that would give my work the dynamic forms and colours I was searching for.
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