Monday, 20 February 2012

The Thrills of Art College

Excerpts from Chapter Four:  
The thrills of art college.

In those top corner studios of Birmingham’s College of Art and Crafts, Margaret Street, I spent years learning to draw and paint the nude.

After the rather provincial life of Worcester, in 1949 Birmingham was the big city: in fact the second largest city of England. A real culture shock for a “country boy”. At sixteen, I was one of the youngest at this excellent art college and found it rather novel to be surrounded by so much talent.  My amateurish home production of trite little Christmas cards, pen and ink drawings of olde English cottages under the moonlit snow, dashed off at popular request, and guaranteed applause from the family circle, came to an abrupt halt. At college I was suddenly face to face with a world of new creative ideas, with the work of artists I had never heard of and a wide range of unfamiliar disciplines: anatomy, perspective, stage design, architecture, drawing and painting of the nude (oh goodness!), illustration, etching, art history and much more.
The Birmingham College of Art, a fabulous red brick Venetian-Gothic building (built in 1844), housed huge painting studios, over-heated to accommodate the nude models and saturated with the heady smells of decades of oil-painting. Although most students would escape for a breath of fresh air at lunch-time, a crazy fellow-student and I would span a rope (only at shoulder-height) between the solid steel girders arching up to support the high ceilings of the top floor studios and practice tight-rope walking. It was daredevil fun, exhilarating, focusing on the surrounding space that you had made your own, gracefully swaying slightly but always moving forward on the rope. It’s just as scary as starting a painting on empty white paper.  The tip of your paintbrush is your toe, balancing in space.  This activity became a metaphor for my work and life. I suppose this was already a kind of performance art.
Art College was all wondrous and rather bewildering at first, but I was soon in seventh heaven and working really hard. Drawing from observation was a fundamental requirement, so we sketched everything within sight: our families, the entire contents of the kitchen, the cellar, the furniture - in every detail.  I would roam the canals and streets of Birmingham, marvelling at the grotesque beauty of buildings bombed in the Second World War, and in 1949 still awaiting demolition. The pollution and grime of the “Black Country”, as the industrial area surrounding Birmingham was called, provided atmospheric subjects for painting.

The Black Country, gouache.
Birmingham Canal, watercolour and ink.  Both student sketches, approx. 20 x 16 cm, 1953.

In the first year, one of our assignments was to make a painting as we listened to the music of Modest Mussorgsky’s “A Night on a Bare Mountain”. Was I supposed to draw a bare mountain with wild dark scary colours? I had no idea.  After my father’s romantic repertoire, I found the music very confusing and I didn’t yet know that music like this would later play a key role in my painting. This audio-visual alliance took years to develop, but in that first year at college I already began to sense that, outside the “sacred” church music that was so familiar, there might be a strange new fund of musical inspiration waiting for me. Shouldn't I have chosen to study music? I played the piano, could pick out simple tunes on a borrowed violin and later derived enormous pleasure from playing baroque music in a recorder trio. But I lacked the necessary technical ability to perform music at a higher level. On reflection, I see that I sneaked into professional music through a back door: acquiring insights into music through the many parallels with visual art and through my unique performance instrument, the paintbrush. I shall try to explain this later.
The city of Birmingham had a fine orchestra and a fellow student took me along to free lunch-time concerts in the old Birmingham Town Hall – a mere stone’s throw from my college. I couldn’t afford lunch anyway and at seventeen I discovered Beethoven for the first time! I was overwhelmed to see and hear a full symphony orchestra in action, excited, but over-awed with the formality of the setting. I felt that I had not yet been initiated into an elite society of people who “understood” the structure and style of this music. So I just let it wash over me.

Forty years later I was back, at Symphony Hall, one of the splendours of a newly transformed Birmingham, to perform live kinetic paintings to Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky/Ravel) with Sir Simon Rattle and the CBSO.

My first record player was a tiny plastic Philips model that would just about take the wonderful stiff, black, new “long-playing” records of 33 R.P.M (revs per minute). You could get two movements of a symphony on one side! My first purchases were wild guesses: Wilhelm Backhaus playing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with the Vienna Philharmonic, soon followed by his No. 5 “Emperor” Concerto. I had no idea a piano could sound like that!  Followed by Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony and Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”. Both full of the moods and images of nature. I still treasure these records and love that music, but as you will see, my taste has expanded somewhat.

Our Professor (with the half glasses) handing out criticism in the life painting class.

Our professor Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, senior tutor in painting the nude, was short, grumpy and usually breathless from climbing the stairs to the top-level studios. One day he looked at the well-structured, but rather stiff, cold female nude on my canvas and exclaimed “You can’t go to bed with that!”  As a strictly moral, naive seventeen year-old, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.  But he grabbed my palette-knife and, with a great show of bravado, started slathering luscious layers of oil-paint on to my nude, sighing and groaning in make-believe ecstasy, to create a shimmering, sensual image. He was trying to loosen me up: he wanted me to explore the sensual qualities of the paint.  This exploration is still going on, although mainly in watercolour these days and in live kinetic painting to the sensualist Scriabin.

I was a mere twenty when I graduated with First Class Honours from the school of Painting in Birmingham in 1953. I then followed my father’s advice (who was understandably dubious about the likelihood that I could make a living as a painter) and went on to get a Diploma in Art Education, so that I could at least get work as an art teacher. Those five years at Art College seemed to me then to be the best years of my life.


Next Monday: Excerpt from Chapter 5 – A musician with a paintbrush.


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