Sunday, 7 July 2019

My old tree as a self-portrait

My old tree as a self-portrait

The Amsterdam house of which I rent the fourth floor apartment (no lift) was built in 1913, exactly twenty years before I was born. Probably the plane trees lining my street were planted about the same time, then cut down during the German occupation (1940-45) and re-planted after the war. So even though the one outside my balcony is a bit younger than me, as I watch him grow older we have become good friends and I like to talk to him. With the colours of the season he marks time for me. He has weathered many storms, not to mention the assaults of radical pruners. It's touching to see how he leans over toward his companions that line the street, almost arm in arm, as they share support for each other. He inspires me too, so before I do my morning exercises I open the so-called "French" windows and chat with him, reaching out over the balcony to admire his stamina and flexibility.
I'm still painting portraits, and it suddenly occurred to me that I should portray my dear friend. But during the making of this watercolour (58 x 41cm) he and I got into quite a discussion. My art teachers used to urge me to "be" the tree, if you want a convincing image of it. I said the same to my own students and now to myself. Working through sketches and studies I realised that it would be pointless just to make an exact likeness. My painting had to somehow take on a life of its own through my signature style. Although I was painting a tree, in my mind it gradually became something of a self-portrait - a symbol of my ageing self, scars and all. He is my example, still finding the energy to reach for the sky, still flexible and communicative, still standing firm and tall, still catching light and providing shade after so many years. So each brushstroke became a gesture of gratitude for a shared life. And we haven't finished painting yet.
My street in the autumn

What music do you hear in this gorgeous cathedral of colour? It'll change with the seasons of course.



Wednesday, 19 June 2019

The end of an era: Bernard Haitink retires at 90


The end of an era:
Bernard Haitink retires at 90

On Saturday a deep nostalgia came over me as I watched the televised recording of the last time that the great Bernard Haitink would conduct in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, before his retirement in August. The end of an era. It was 1965 when I was introduced to him and was allowed to sit in at his rehearsals with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, to make sketches for what was to develop into a whole series. He was 36 and I was 32 - looking for ways to give form to my paintings of music. I sat nervously behind this Rolls-Royce of an orchestra, totally fascinated with the unity of their sound and somewhat intimidated by their proximity.  


I was still very much a figurative painter in oils and interested in the arrangement of shapes in the composition, setting up an abstract rhythm with the music-stands (above). But next time, venturing up into the balcony, I discovered an undulating silhouette of the cellos and bass group, a diagonal motif that was to become my signature in many works. Here's the link to my 2014 blog on this characteristic:

Haitink with the Concertgebouw Orchestra II, oil on canvas, 1966.
Collection of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
                
It took courage to paint out the rest of the orchestra, but I wanted to emphasise and celebrate that compositional discovery. Haitink was hunched over to urge the orchestra on, as he did a lot in those early days. You can still recognise the fabulous solo cellist Anner Bijlsma, then higher up in the last row the blond hair of cellist Edith Neuman, at 24 a recent addition to the orchestra who liked my work and introduced me to Bernard. I'm still indebted to my dear friend. I feel so sad that everybody in the orchestra that I painted in the sixties has either retired or passed away.


Haitink conducting Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps"

Gradually the urge to express the vibes of this surging mass of music took over from the need to illustrate. The abstraction of the rhythms and the colours of the sound became my obsession. Music has to move and I had to show that!

Within one decade, something else was happening. The brush strokes became freer, moving with the sound. And, compared to those early, rather heavily painted oils, the paint was gaining transparency. I was moving towards luminous watercolour as my main medium and discovering ways to express my joy with music.

Haitink conducting Stravinsky's "Firebird" with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, 
oil on canvas, 100 x 65 cm. 1977, Prof. Cees Hamelink Collection

A unique commission from Director Andrew Jowett of Birmingham's Symphony Hall to paint a series of "action-portraits" of many of the great musicians he had programmed would obviously include Bernard Haitink. He is conducting Mahler and I wanted to show him fondly immersed in the colours and zigzagging shapes of that ethereal music, his face in shadow to tone in with the background colours, eyes closed, listening intensely. There just a suggestion of a smile of appreciation, or perhaps wistfulness, as his left hand, shaping the phrase, is saying: But please, the winds, sempre piano here, while his right hand maintains that crisp beat, firm, authoritative.
Bernard Haitink, watercolour 84 x56 cm. 1994. Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.

One of a Collection of thirty-one watercolours, this was painted with respect, gratitude and affection for the conductor who has provided me with years of inspiration and indirectly had a significant influence in my life's work.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Untitled 5. 2019


Untitled 5. 2019


exploring strength and sensitivity
 a brief encounter in space
less is more

watercolour 20 x 30cm.

________________________

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Tableaux Musicaux 1971

Tableaux Musicaux 1971




Yehudi opened my exhibition with kind words in fluent German and French. He had grown a beard that summer, so I felt in good company.

Nearly fifty years ago Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) invited me to exhibit some of my "musical paintings" at his legendary summer festival in Gstaad/Saanen, Switzerland. From the time we met in 1963, I showed up regularly at rehearsals with sketchbook in hand, trying to capture the magic of the music he made with his friends. Those friends included many of the greatest names in music, such as Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Eleanor Schaffer, (flute) Ravi Shankar (sitar), Louis Kentner (piano), Maurice Gendron and Paul Tortelier (cello) and the fabulous viola and piano/harpsichord duo Ernst and Lory Wallfisch.

You get a glimpse of Ernst in my 1969 impression (above) of a summer rehearsal of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet. Searching for alternative viewpoints, I would often sneak up into the balcony of that tiny church at Saanen so that I could look down onto the stage. In my early works I was looking for ways to make a composition of the shapes of such ensembles, but I had not yet learned to visually "fly" with their music. The Menuhin Festival and Yehudi's support became a major influence in that later development.

The music produced by the Wallfisch Duo was equal to their striking personal beauty. Of Romanian/German origins, their rich sound seemed to come from the deepest cultural heart of Europe.

           Ernst (1920-1979) & Lory Wallfisch (1922-2011)      


They were personally so modest and kind, musicians who played with such wisdom and love for every detail. It was a privilege to have known them. My deep sadness that those mentioned above and whom I painted are no longer with us is only alleviated by their recordings. But recordings of the Wallfisch Duo are relatively few. I only recently discovered this priceless video interview of Lory Wallfisch, in which she speaks of precious memories, such as how they played for the great Romanian composer/violinist George Enescu in 1944. As I heard the tones of their Schumann's Märchenbilder (Fairytale pictures) in D major, the last movement to be played "slowly, with melancholic expressivity", I couldn't hold back my tears. Probably made not long before Lory's death, this 6 min. video is an historical treasure. Watch it here:

Afterwards Lory plays the first movement of Enescu's First Piano Sonata.


I could find no credits for this beautifully made video, but I'm grateful to Bruce Stanberry for posting it.