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.



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.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The time of our singing

The magical time of our singing

(I posted this blog in 2014, but I feel it's worth sharing with my friends who missed it).

In 2004 my wife and I strayed from the tourist route for monastery visits on the Greek island of Lesbos and chanced upon this tiny derelict Greek-Orthodox chapel. 
We could easily get inside, where there was nothing much left to be seen. Yet the acoustics of the empty building were extraordinary. Even a whisper sounded special. Curious, I found the "sweet spot" under the centre of the dome and just droned a few tones as I looked up. Every wordless sound, floating up into the hollow space, was magical! Very soon the two of us were improvising some rough harmonies, marvelling at how good we sounded and suddenly feeling that we had somehow keyed into a vibe that was hundreds of years old. When we emerged after ten minutes or so there was a little group of tourists listening outside. They thought it was a concert! Ah yes, the joyful illusions of the "singing in the shower" phenomenon! The architecture did it all for us.

But seriously, what is it about the acoustics of a dome on a cube, perhaps joined in a golden organic relationship, that create such a full, rich sound and take us into other spheres? The Greeks knew so much about acoustics, harmony, art and architecture that we have forgotten, or ignored.

Here's the watercolour I made to commemorate this intensely personal experience. I called it "The time of our singing" (with apologies to Richard Powers, the author of that brilliant novel). As my musical instrument is actually the paint-brush, this may look better than it sounded!
"The time of our singing", watercolour, 50 x 36cm. 2004.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Inner Voices

Voces Intimae:
the Inner Voices in the 
Sibelius string quartet

In 1909 the Finnish composer Sibelius wrote two words on a friend's score above the three soft detached E minor chords in the central Adagio movement of his string quartet: "Voces intimae" (inner or intimate voices). Tender, pleading questions? Was he asking himself those questions sooner or later familiar to us all - "why?", or "must it be?" or "is this it?". Was he pondering the possible consequences of a serious throat operation? Sibelius was not in the habit of "explaining" his music, but he wrote to his wife: "It turned out as something wonderful. The kind of thing that brings a smile to your lips at the hour of death. I will say no more". Was this a soulful quest for serenity? 
The Ebonit Saxophone Quartet arranged this string quartet for our programme Nightfall, of which our next performance will be in the Augustinerkirche in Würzburg on April 12th. Nightfall also includes Reger, Webern and Shostakovich, all grouped around three Sonatas from Haydn's masterpiece The Seven Last of Words of Christ on the Cross. And there again we are confronted with that "why". "My God, why hast though forsaken me?" On the day when "darkness covered the face of the earth". And ever since we have been searching for enlightenment. The work was intended to be performed in a darkened space, with one source of illumination, so it makes sense that I should provide this from the kinetic illuminations from my overhead projectors. I elaborate this thought in an earlier blog, written before our first performance of Nightfall, two years ago
The Sibelius is absolutely appropriate in this programme. Full of incredibly moving tender exchanges, you can watch the continuously changing and overlapping of my two kinetic images and a loving "conversation" with two brushes.

At the start, the D minor of this quartet evokes in my synesthetic brain the colour of greenish khaki, interrupted by a brief passage in B flat major, where I automatically hear an optimistic warm clearing glow of sienna. But after many rich exchanges of colour, somehow this movement ends in a pale loneliness, barely breathing. It makes a deeply emotional impact on me, but as I breathe out in synch with this wonderful wind ensemble, I discover a sense of calm and happiness.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

More paintings you have never seen (4)

More paintings you have never seen (4)

"Is this a dagger which I see before me?" The Ghost of the murdered King of Denmark from Shakespeare's Hamlet fades in and fades out of my projected kinetic painting, while the very concerned eye watches throughout for further deceit, crime and tragedy. Whose eye is it? Well, it's complicated - everybody is watching everybody else. What else is new?

In 2009 I joined the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra with Shostakovich's Hamlet Suite as part of a music-theatre education programme in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. At one point the dagger plunged right off my 9 x 6 metre screen through the conductor's white jacket, blood splatters and all. I told him in advance: "this is not going to hurt, ha-ha". Then, when the music stopped, the Ghost and my painting disappeared for ever. The thing about my kinetic visuals is that you will never see them live again, except in your mind's eye. This art form only exists in real time.
But of course (sigh) 1200 kids got them on their iPhones. 

Is this not another way to fire up the imagination of young people and give them an insight into drama and music that they might otherwise experience as too obscure? 

Sunday, 26 March 2017

More paintings you have never seen (3)

Paintings you have never seen (3)

It's not even signed, but this study (acrylic on canvas,130 x 80 cm) has the spontaneity of an experiment, full of the excitement of a 1987 commission from the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra as a gift to the Netherlands Dance Theatre in The Hague. The new theatre (sadly now demolished) had a very wide stage of 18 metres. Merging representation and abstraction, I wanted to show the relationship between the conductor and musicians in the pit (lower right), and the dancers who come leaping on to the stage after waiting in the wings (right) then moving off (left). 

The black vertical line is the first indication of my wish to have the dancers "break out of the box" in some way. That eventually resulted in a decision to divide the painting into panels, like irregular stepping stones, or rather jumping stones, a rhythmic design telling its own story, floating free from the wall.

A major inspiration for this painting was Jirí Kylián's Sinfonietta (to the music with the same title by Janáček). Choreographed in 1978, this great work became a cornerstone of NDT's repertoire. And Jirí (who celebrated his seventieth birthday this week) became a major inspirational force in my watercolours with dance throughout the eighties, like this one.
Sinfonietta, watercolour and oil pastel, 50 x 70 cm, 1986/87

Here's the first photoshoot of the mural, acrylic on board, seven metres long, freshly installed in the Netherlands Dance Theatre in 1989. Yes, that's the dancers' studio mirror below. 

(Photo: Ben Vollebregt)

You can find my story of the glorious years working in the NDT dance studios in an earlier blog: The Case of the Lost PaintingAll eight sections of the mural are now safely in storage in my studio. How wonderful it would be to exhibit it somewhere again!

Friday, 24 March 2017

More paintings you have never seen (2)

More paintings you have never seen (2)

Revelling in the organic unity of mist and watercolour, in the sixties, seventies and eighties I spent much time in nature, painting outdoors when possible. I enjoyed making these spaces and shapes my own, usually focussing on the horizon and the subtle undulating rhythms, like pianissimo whispering sounds. 

One of my quiet vistas from Vancouver Island in 1986, allowing my watercolours to change with the weather moods.

After a climb, the gaze back down the road to a small town in Burgundy, nestling in its misty autumn valley. Ah, I can still taste those wines! (1983)

The endless minimal music of Venetian gondolas, as they wait, bobbing their irregular overlapping rhythms behind the San Marco cathedral. My paper was sodden with moisture. Too bad I don't have a colour photo, but the watercolour is almost monochrome. (1972).

The fence poles pace out my walk along the dyke of one of the quiet Frisian lakes. Poco a poco diminuendo. Was it in the summer of 1978?

Monday, 20 March 2017

Paintings you have never seen (1)

Paintings you have never seen (1)

You can see over 150 paintings on my website (www.normanperryman.com). But hundreds of other works have never been seen online and may remain unseen forever in my archives. So while I still have the chance, I would like to share with you what is for me a rather poignant retrospective selection. I look back affectionately on some of these early or immature works that show my search for development during well over half a century. A few are still in my studio, but most are in private collections worldwide, so they may never be exhibited. These include oils and watercolours, not only of musical themes and snapshots of live kinetic painting in performance, but also landscapes, portraits, and paintings of dance. So here goes:

I met the young cellist Edith Neuman in The Hague in 1965 when she was playing briefly in the Collegium Musicum Judaicum. Shortly afterwards she started her career in the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I asked if I could paint her and she took me to her attic room in Amsterdam and played the Bach Suites for me, as I started on the 80 x 60 cm. oil painting (above). This lively impressionist painting was made by a young man who has obviously fallen in love with his subject. I was thirty-two, she was twenty-two. But I was married and fortunately she had other ideas. My only option was to make another painting, more thoughtful and well balanced. Already, in these works from 1965 and 1966, you can see my early interest in placing silhouetted shapes on a diagonal in space. After he opened my Gstaad Festival exhibition in 1971, Yehudi Menuhin stood for the longest time in front of No. 2, asking "But who is she?". Good question. She's a remarkable woman.

Twelve years later Edith became good friends with my second wife, Vivian King - depicted (below) with a new kind of freedom in watercolour. When my beloved Vivian tragically died, Edith bought her cello and is still playing it today, with much joy. What a world of emotion is encompassed in these three paintings!

Vivian King, watercolour 70 x 50 cm. (detail), approx. 1979

P.S. I wish I knew where Edith No. 1 is now. Paintings get passed on and you lose track. 

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Joy of Analogue

Analogue is alive and well!

That means you and me too. We are analogue beings, not digital. The fluid organic energy that courses through our bodies and brains is analogue (definition: "a continuous spectrum of values"). By contrast, the products of digital tools: images and sound-systems etc. are synthesized from separate bits of information. An image becomes a conglomeration of pixels, dots of coloured light. Gone is the sensual, personal touch, the breathing, the subtle fluctuation, the emotional involvement. It's not the real thing. Yet we're all now stuck with digital technology, even addicted to it. 

I was delighted to receive a recommendation of David Sax's delightful book The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.  I can't resist quoting from the blurb:
"A funny thing happened..... we've begun to fall back in love with the very analog goods and ideas the tech gurus insisted we no longer needed....Moleskine notebooks, vinyl records, photography with film and real tangible shopping have become cool again."  Remember when "browsing" wasn't an activity on internet, but a physical tactile experience of space and time in a venerable book or clothing store? Well, it seems that such experiences are still a real need. Bookshops are on their way back. Kodak and Ferrania are starting to make celluloid film again. Unbelievably, Vinyl records sales are outstripping all other forms of listening to music - except of course sitting in a real concert venue. 

Of course digital is here to stay and sure, it's very useful, clever, informative and so on. Sax is not pleading either/or, but signalling a refreshing development that has more respect for our individual emotional and physical needs and is even commercially successful. 
The luscious feel of a brush swimming in powerful colour with a percussion performance.

Why does Sax's book intrigue and excite me? Because I have been clobbered over the head for twenty years with the dogma that only digital technology can save the world. I have suffered from the prejudice against my soft-edge, slow-moving kinetic images, simply because they're not digital. And now, to my and everybody's surprise, small markets are redeveloping worldwide that cater to our need for things that we can touch and that feel good; things that are much more satisfying than digital imitations. I'm a sensual man. I like slow jazz, yoga and a good massage. I like the feel of the brush and pencil in my hand and on the paper. I love the hypnotic floating of my kinetic water colours, that seem to have a life of their own and evoke a certain nostalgia because the images are ephemeral. Could it be that these liquid colours revive pre-natal memories for my audiences? 
It seems that I am not alone. "Retro" is trending - the very personal discovery of stylish quality goods that remind us of the good old days, in contrast to a surfeit of mass produced stuff that has become boring. The fulfilment of selecting and holding something with special associations. The sensation of putting a needle on a record, of turning the pages of a book. Actually my kinetic painting is not strictly retro, because I've never stopped performing the art form that I invented in the seventies. 
Water slowly creeps over my brushstrokes, irresistibly eroding and consuming an ephemeral backdrop.  A kinetic painting performance, made on analoque overhead projectors for Huang Ruo's Written on the Wind with pipa and vocals. This was a huge projection for live viewing in a real concert hall, but admittedly this digital version on YouTube reaches a larger audience. Here's the link. Part 1 takes 7 mins, so you will need to take time. Don't worry - taking time is good for you!

In the very same year that the first experiments were being made with digital imaging (1973), I was experimenting with a perfectly good analogue apparatus (the overhead projector) in a school where I was teaching in Switzerland. Later I heard that Joshua White in New York (whose light shows are still going strong), was also fooling around with the psychedelic effects of colours that expanded with the heat of these projectors, as decors for the shows of Frank Zappa, Janis Joplin and others. This soon became the reference norm for anybody I told about my performance work, with the assumption that naturally, I too was more interested in psychedelic experiences at that time. In fact, totally sober, I was looking for specific visual equivalents to certain classical and contemporary music that would literally provide insight into the structures, moods and rhythms of the music and would draw a younger generation into a love of these art forms combined. Pop music was ahead of me here, but classical music was slow to get the message.
The Dutch Circle Percussion ensemble flooded with my colours as my brushes twist and leap in synch to their rhythms.
It was ironic (and distressing) that as the new digital rage developed, my analogue attempts were seen as old hat. Even though some visionaries like Yehudi Menuhin and Simon Rattle saw the light, there was no stopping the new mindset, cleverly offering the prospect for anybody to become a photographer or digital designer (glossing over the question of whether you had anything to say, with your new toys).  Sadly, today this means that tiny kids are often given a mini audio-visual tablet, before they have barely experienced the joy of holding a pencil to draw and write, the visceral sensation of making their own marks by hand and the excitement of sketching ideas, feeling them "coming out of their body". Some of the greatest ideas that were later put into a computer, were first sketched, scribbled and shared on a paper napkin. Now, get out your sketchbook, reach for a nice soft 2B pencil.... there you go.... ah, the joy of low-tech!
One of my very first little ideas for a kinetic painting, like automatic writing to music sketched on paper at the Gstaad Menuhin Festival in 1964.

My wonderfully analogue performance gear, being set up for a performance in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. The technical staff said: "You've got to be joking! Don't you have a computer?" But afterwards they told me that they were totally blown away by the kinetic images.