Saturday, 20 September 2014

Violinist needs a good home

Violinist needs a good home

Julia Fischer, watercolour 80 x 50cm, 2006

It's eight years since I painted the now world famous violinist Julia Fischer. I wanted to avoid the rather smooth sweet girlish images used in much publicity and CD packaging today. I saw here a very determined young woman with amazing range of musical skills. She came to my Amsterdam studio (with the dress over her arm) and practised first Bach (if I remember rightly), then Tschaikovsky for an upcoming concert with her mentor the late lamented conductor Yakov Kreizberg. 

There's something about that profile that shows her "going places". As with every musician, you have to be careful to get certain things right - her 1742 Guadagnini, her bow arm, her cool poise and strong presence. I made her skin-colours a little darker, closer to the golden tones of her violin. As I painted, a sort of V-shape emerged, balanced right on the point where the bow touches the strings; then another one, formed by the elbow and fingers of her left hand. In fact there's a whole geometry in my composition that reflects her own composure.

Then of course, the painting has to vibrate with energy, to sing! I believe it does. But you know what? That sound has been stifled for the past eight years, because the painting is still lying a dark drawer in my studio, waiting for a good home! Anybody?

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Every portrait tells a story

Every portrait tells a story
Margaret Green, watercolour, 60 x 40cm.

This season appears to be one of portrait commissions. It’s a real privilege to be entrusted with the image - in effect the life story of my subjects. Painted in Amsterdam, this recent portrait shows a visionary musician, gazing into the distance. In her mind’s eye she sees Kecskemét (Hungary), where she had just completed her MA at the Kodály Pedagogical Institute. I like that fond gaze, reflecting yet ambitious.

We can see that she has the maturity of one who has wrestled with life for quite a few years, but the portrait also depicts a great newly discovered joy in her musical life. She already played the piano, French Horn, and sang. And now she believes fervently in the Kodály-inspired approach to music education and hopes to inject new life into efforts to spread his philosophy in England. This portrait is an ode to the sensitivity, strength and aspirations of this woman, surrounded by music.
Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) was a Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist, pedagogue, linguist, and philosopher, a friend and colleague of the composer Béla Bartók. In the nineteen-thirties he embarked on a long-term project to reform music teaching in Hungary's lower and middle schools. His work resulted in the publication of several highly influential books on a child-developmental approach to the experience of music, that gradually spread internationally. The full story can easily be found on internet.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Commemorating Greg and Gary

September 7th: an Amsterdam street party to commemorate the Christmas Twins

Five years ago Gary Christmas joined his twin brother Greg on the other side. I can't make it to the Amsterdam street party to commemorate the legendary Twins. So for those who missed my blog about them in March, here it is again:

The dancing crocheted garments of the Christmas twins.
The twin brothers Greg and Gary Christmas were born in Boston in 1931/2 (just before and after New Year's Eve), a striking mixture of Afro and Native American origins. They toured the world in show business, dancing with The Supremes, Tina Turner, Diana Ross and many more, then finally settled in Amsterdam, where they served coffee and snacks in their highly colourful Backstage Boutique, dishing out bawdy humor, gems of personal wisdom, uncanny spiritual insights or surprising kindness to all comers. "Yeah, yeah, our mother's name really was Mary Christmas". "You want my coffee or my body?"  For a while, my studio was situated near their café, so we became good friends. Inevitably, I dashed off a watercolour, as they gazed out of the window, commenting on the passers-by. "Oh, not her again! Hey, he's hot!" They liked my painting. "Not bad for a white man!"

Gary (left) only had three and a half fingers on the hand that crocheted the most snazzy dresses, skirts, tops, hats, even flowers. "It's show-time, honey - what's your sign?  Okay try this one on!" Greg (photo below) would supervise critically.
Their garments looked great on skins of all colour and one of their black friends modelled these fanciful creations as she danced for me at the studio. I used watercolour and oil crayons to make the garments unravel, jive or move across the page to various jazz classics, taking lots of liberties with the lyrics as they became more or less integrated into the picture.
Sophisticated Lady - and "You can have what you want if you handle what you got". 
"Ain't got no rest in ma slumbers, ain't got no feelings to bruise; ain't got no telephone numbers, ain't got nothing but the blues. Ain't got no coffee that's perkin', ain't got no winnings to lose, ain't got a dream that is workin', ain't got nothin' but the blues". As she stares hopelessly out of the window, I've turned her "dress" into a veil of sorrows. A real blues painting.
"Gimme a rhythm, gimme a beat, Gimme a rhythm, turn on the heat. I wanna be hot, I wanna be bad, I wanna be someone you wish you had". She's "wearing" a crocheted skirt that has got carried away with the jumping, barely legible lyrics. My oil crayons were really hoppin' with that rhythm.

I thoroughly enjoyed pushing my limits with this series - very saucy indeed for a shy English country boy whose headiest youthful experience was Worcestershire Sauce. Here's the link to those early days. This work might seem a far cry from the ethereal emotions of Kylián's modern dance with classical and contemporary music. But I'm having fun with lines and marks, tapping a different gut-level rhythmic energy, possibly long-hidden, laced with humorous mischief.

There were many more paintings in this 1989 series. But in those days I was also hopping between Amsterdam and The Hague for other creative work with the Netherlands Dance Theater, and across to Birmingham for the first discussions with Simon Rattle for a performance and with the BBC for the television documentary about my life with music: Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra (1993). 

Gary and Greg are now undoubtedly in major show business on other planets, but they became a legend in Amsterdam's multi-cultural society and for tourists looking for quirky entertainment or spirituality, between the seventies and 2009They left an indelible impression on this artist too. I really miss them.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014


Rope-walking on the diagonal line

As a twenty-year-old art student, I would experiment with walking on a slack rope, spanned between the iron girders that strengthened the walls of our Birmingham Art College studio. Balancing in my own space became an obsession that extended into many of my paintings. For example, I loved stretching a "dancing line" of people, houses or a landscape horizon across empty space, trying to focus on this line, to create space around it and ignore a mass of seemingly irrelevant information. But placed diagonally, such a line seems to gain energy. Here's a very early example:
Bernard Haitink rehearsing the Concertgebouw Orchestra, oil on canvas, 
110 x 70cm,1966.

In 1966 I sat in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, trembling with excitement as I sketched a young Bernard Haitink rehearsing the orchestra. I had sneaked around the hall to find a good vantage point and discovered that from the balcony, the silhouette of the cello and bass group provided me with a dancing, rising diagonal line for my composition. The energy of the orchestra was palpable. I was just thirty-three, still learning how to paint, you might say. My works were dominated by the visual impressionist oil painting I had learned at college and I was struggling to convert that into more abstract terms. You can see the struggle in the paint. Below is another, quieter example of my work from the same period.
Lakeside road through Weggis, Switzerland, oil on canvas, 80 x 60cm. 1965.

I had yet to discover a medium with which to express the energy of this dancing line more freely. That medium was watercolour, and it had a revolutionary effect on my work. See what happened (below) in the twenty years that followed. I no longer needed to paint the space. Influenced by a visit to Japan and by Asian calligraphy, my brush-strokes have acquired a freer dynamic that carries you across the paper. The conductor, cellos and basses are still just perceptible, but they have now become mere dynamic elements in a celebration of the music.

 Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi conducting Beethoven, watercolour, 70 x 50cm, 1985.

Twenty years or so later another compositional device - the zigzag - was frequently appearing in my paintings - a diagonal interrupted twice or more. In the recent watercolour below the zigzag starts bottom right, then finally arrives in the top lefthand corner, after first delineating the bowing of the strings, then the score, the baton, and Andris Nelson's left hand, flinging the music into the air as it were, as he urges the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra to even greater heights during Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

Andris Nelsons conducting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, 
watercolour, 84 x 56cm, 2013.
How did I think of this? I didn't. It's part of my DNA. As you listen to the music, you just follow what comes naturally.