Monday, 29 October 2012

“You can’t go to bed with that!” - Painting ecstasy.

“You can’t go to bed with that!” - Painting ecstasy.

It was 1952. We art students were sweating away at our oil paintings of a nude model in the over-heated studios of the Birmingham College of Art. Our painting professor, Bernard Fleetwood-Walker (a prolific late-impressionist painter of portraits and the figure) was on the prowl. One look at the very well-structured but rather stiff, cold painting of the female nude on my easel and he exclaimed: “You can’t go to bed with that!” I was a strictly moral, naïve youth of seventeen and I had no idea what he was talking about. 

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, as he transformed the nude into a shimmering, sensual image.  Although I had feverishly studied the nude paintings of Cézanne, Matisse, Modigliani and a thousand other classical and “modern” styles, I was being too careful. He was trying to loosen me up: he wanted me to let go of my drawing skill and explore the sensual qualities of the paint (and the woman). A new world was opening up to me!

Perhaps better than anyone, the great J.M.W. Turner (1775 -1851) could make his oil paint shimmer transparently. Popularly known as “the painter of light”, he was an early influence in my growing love of the translucent, glowing qualities of watercolour. But many years went by before my love for glowing light led me to discover the sheer ecstasy of transparent colours, when projected from analogue overhead projectors. Their analogue light-source transports us emotionally to places that digital synthetic images cannot reach. The overhead projector works in the same way as natural daylight shining through the stained-glass windows of places of worship. The light source shines through the paint. For centuries, this has created a luminosity that, combined with music, has moved millions to spiritual ecstasy.

The composer Alexander Scriabin was convinced that through the involvement of all the senses and especially the arts, mankind could achieve a higher state of supreme ecstasy. It was fashionable and respectable in his day to interpret this notion as a spiritual, mystical or super-human experience. Scriabin’s Poème de l’Extase (1908) could be seen as an example. 

In my live kinetic painting performance to this esoteric music with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2010, my fluid colours did indeed initially spread upwards and outward on-screen, dreamily reaching to the heavens for a spiritual experience.

But I had also discovered Scriabin’s frequent directions in the score that suggest that he had a double agenda. His original title for this work was Orgiastic Poem – a very different kind of ecstasy. The opening bars are marked to be played “languishing” (as in longing), but as one thing leads to another, we also find the instructions “caressing, gentle, sweetly, with ecstatic sensuality, perfumed, with ever increasing intoxication, almost delirious”. Scriabin is urging us to let ourselves be carried away with his love poem

So I choreographed my continuous visuals and my choice of colours to reflect and enhance his directions. This emotional music begins with a dream, pulsated and surged, the tension growing to repeated climaxes, then resolving into the blissful relaxing state after an erotic experience and finally celebrating the glory of the achievement. You get the picture? Maybe my images will help, but you really need to watch the video, to see what I’ve done with this poem of love: 

Having said all that, in fact those very respectable spectators in a packed Concertgebouw were merely looking (if not drooling) at floating pools of delicate or rich colour, abstract shapes without any figuration. They could perceive them as mystical or majestic, spiritual or erotic. Well, going by the blushes and giggles of some of the audience afterwards, it was rather obvious that the pulsating, organic, sensual properties of the paint and the rhythmic visual synchronization with the music had the desired effect, so to speak. I’m sure my professor would have loved it. I’ve come a long way since my struggle with that lonely nude, sixty years ago.
On January 25th, 2013, I’ll be performing with the National Orchestra of Belgium in BOZAR, Brussels, to the music of Scriabin’s classic Prometheus (The Poem of Fire). Lucifer was the bringer of light and with a part in the score marked luce, the composer prescribes which colours, sheets of flame and the like that he believed should be projected to provide a visual harmony for the music. This is a must for me – I can’t wait to play Lucifer.


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