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.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Untitled 4. 2019

Untitled 4. 2019

This series of abstract watercolours
 offers me the freedom to enjoy making marks and to 
experiment with colour and forms, floating in space. 
You can enjoy it as just that, 
but it may also trigger your imagination. 
What could this be, I hear you asking? 
Ah, it reminds me of um..... a flock of birds, an approaching rain-shower, manna from heaven, an eye, a rainbow, the jackpot, a comet about to hit our planet, a message from outer space, etc. etc. Well, have fun with all that if you like, but don't let me put associations in your head, 
because there weren't any in mine.

After years of mainly figurative painting, it comes as a relief to paint something that doesn't have to look like anything.

Yes, I did a spontaneous rough sketch of an arrangement that pleased me, but after then I tried not to think about anything and just see what would happen. 

It's a watercolour without a title (32 x 47 cm).


Friday, 12 April 2019

Untitled 3.2019

Untitled 3. 2019

It's still in there.
I wasn't even thinking of dance, but my hands and brushes took over. Those years of painting dance in the nineteen-eighties, inspired by choreographer Jiri Kylián and his Netherlands Dance Theatre, 
left an indelible impression 
on my inner self. 
That visceral sensation, as clouds of watercolour from my brushes seem to float across the paper, soaring into the air. My bamboo pens still jump for joy, as they create
 graphic rhythms to celebrate 
the use of space. 

And following my habit of sharing with you the first sketch of an idea, here's my scribble on the back of a piece of paper that happened to be lying there.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Untitled 2.2019

Untitled 2. 2019

I've just been enjoying a little conversation between watercolour, bamboo pen, pencil and brushes, playful, determined, slightly humorous and gentle. Finally painting what I feel like doing, but also intuitively allowing the paint to have a life of its own. 
Watercolour is my best friend.
What is it? I have no idea. I don't feel the need to "make a statement" any more. It doesn't have to look like something or someone. It doesn't have to be marketable. It's not a commission. No worries.
It's just come from somewhere inside. 
The cliché is "an inner necessity". 
The painting is 50 x 45cm., but it started 
as a scribble on a scrap of paper.
I'm letting you into all my secrets.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Untitled 1. 2019

Untitled 1. 2019

Just a pencil-scribble on the back of a page, searching for something. Some private notes, without thinking. No subject.
How would this look in watercolour, I wonder? Let's see what happens. No need to make an exact copy. 
These pools of colour look so fragile. Are they tentatively reaching out to each other, floating in space and time? Or are they memories? They've grown into something else than the pencil sketch. It was perhaps a search for peace, yet there there seems to be so much energy.
Thanks for sharing my search. There's more to come.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Elgar's Dream & Yehudi Menuhin

Elgar's Dream & Yehudi Menuhin

"Elgar's Dream", watercolour triptych 158 x 203 cm. 1996 

I have an affinity with water - having grown up virtually on the banks of the English River Severn that flows past Worcester Cathedral (right) and the Malvern Hills (left), where Edward Elgar wrote "The Dream of Gerontius" in 1900.  

The morning after my February CBSO performance of The Sea (M.K.Čiurlionis) at Birmingham Symphony Hall, the adrenaline was still flowing (or whatever adrenaline does), so I let myself be persuaded to give my extended family a guided tour of a number of my watercolour paintings of great musicians in the Symphony Hall Collection. The paintings hang in the Director's Lounge and the corridors leading to the backstage dressing-rooms that are only accessible to VIPs and performing artists. The first of thirty-one paintings was made in 1990, yet my family - still in town after the concert - had never seen the originals before! So I had many anecdotes to tell on the making of these works, exciting, sad, with precious memories of my subjects' reactions - it was great to be able to share some of these with the family.

But the largest watercolour I have ever painted hangs in the first floor foyer. I gave it the form of a triptych because of the limited measurements of watercolour paper. The three parts are deliberately hung to float away from the background. My Elgar's Dream was painted with many tears in 1996, soon after the death of my wife and mother of my children, the cellist Vivian King. 
Commissioned by Robin and Jayne Cadbury, it was unveiled by Yehudi Menuhin in October 1996. We shared the presentation, and then speaking of his own memories of Edward Elgar, and of having conducted this work himself, Yehudi said: “There isn’t a note in this painting that contradicts Elgar’s music and what I remember of Sir Edward”. Here's the precious amateur video made by Will Blagburn - a link to that memorable occasion. It was the last time that I could enjoy such warm contact with this wonderful musician and dear friend, who left us on March 12th.1999.

Through music, Elgar made the dream of the dying Gerontius his own. He considered this composition to be one of his best. This epic drama for chorus, soloists and full orchestra is pure theatre, beautifully evoking the anxieties, doubts and weariness of Gerontius (geron: Greek for old man) and then his ultimate acceptance and state of peace.

The final angelic message set to a soothing melody is deeply moving:

Softly and gently, dearly ransomed soul,
In my loving arms I now enfold thee.....
I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee,
And carefully I dip thee in the lake....
Sinking deep, deeper into the dim distance.

All highly paintable. Even though I find the dogma in most of the lyrics a bit hard to swallow, I feel for this guy. In my painting you will recognise my semi-abstract "loving arms" cradling the pallid Gerontius above the flow of music and the "devils" in the reeds, clamouring for his soul. But apart from the figurative elements of my story-telling, I hope that the colours, structure and abstract dynamics of the painting will reflect and echo the music itself.

On the morning of the guided tour, as I explained this painting and my sources of inspiration to the family, young and old, the designer/image-maker Rebecca Foster brilliantly seized the opportunity to create her own triptych, converting her images to black and white and manipulating the tonalities so that uncannily I became one with my own watercolour. Am I cradling my dying self or am I lowering myself into the depths? I had no idea at the time that I was figuring in my own painting!

Little did Rebecca know that my own wishes are that when my time comes, my ashes be strewn, if not in the River Severn, then in the River Amstel (nearer to my present home), into which small bottles of the very same organic transparent colours that I have used in performances for many years will then be poured, so that I become part of one last continuous fluid lyrical painting that carries me out to sea, to be united with nature. My motto has always been - Go with the flow......


Monday, 4 February 2019



That beautifully poetic line in the Bible comes to mind, an introduction to the very beginning of creation: "Darkness was upon the face of the deep. The spirit (breath) of God moved over the surface of the waters. He said: 'Let there be light' ". 
With all due respect, in a rather more modest approximation of this dynamic action, today I'm breathing onto my liquid organic watercolours, to spread them over the glass plates of my overhead projectors in my studio, practising how to breathe in synch with the winds and brush-stroke with the strings of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. We shall come together in a Genius Loci (meaning the spirit of a special place), in the magnificent Symphony Hall of course, but more especially in a new shared awareness. For the first time, the whole orchestra and I will tap into the genius of a fellow spirit: artist/composer M.K.Čiurlionis, in a unique audio-visual confluence inspired by his compatriot, Music Director Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla as she conducts the symphonic poem The Sea on February 16th. 

The author, philosopher and poet David Whyte*, in his moving book Consolations, suggests that "genius" is not simply a platform of achievement, arrived at through accomplishment. It is to find oneself in the crossing point, he a confluence of inherited flows...the meeting place of our particular body meeting all other bodies, corporal and elemental: a body breathed over by the wind.......

*I apologise to David for disfiguring the flow of his thought-provoking writing. (Read that Book!). I am deeply indebted to him for these thoughts and much more.

(Above) a few more "stills", awaiting their moment of live creation through my lyrical kinetic painting with the CBSO on February 16th. in Birmingham Symphony Hall. Take a deep breath, then let's take the plunge.
Scroll down for earlier blogs on this exciting project.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

The joy of fluid lyrical painting

The joy of fluid lyrical painting 

Of course you know that lyrics are the words to a song. But did you know that lyrical paintings can sing without words and elevate you emotionally? The continuous flow of my kinetic colours is like a song, the tones fluctuating with the help of my instruments (my brushes). As they visualise the rhythms of this music for you on screen, this extraordinary partnership offers you an intensely lyrical experience, maybe even a sense of rhapsody.
A still from my kinetic painting to "Incantation", Part 4 of "Murmurs in the Mist of Memory" 
by Augusta Read Thomas.
Lyrical Abstraction was born of a desire to create a direct physical and sensory experience of painting, one of the many styles of painting that developed in the second half of the twentieth century in Paris and the United States, for example in Jackson Pollock's "drip and splash" painting, or the Color Field movement (poured paint and stained canvasses) pioneered by Helen Frankenthaler. Those paintings reveal an intuitive loose handling in the physical application of the paint, its sensuous organic properties and the breath or energy of the artist in action. You sense their exalted state as they exhale, following the energy of the liquid as it takes on a life of its own. Jackson Pollock listened to jazz for hours, before he walked across his canvasses to make his drip paintings. Click on the link to the PBS video of Jackson Pollock to see the photos and hear the story of the creative act as a kind of performance art. Those huge canvasses now hang on museum walls and still give you some impression of the action, but as you gaze at them, you realise that you've actually come too late. The action has become frozen, fixed on canvas and framed - in a form that is commercially very profitable. 

 Jackson Pollock in action. Photo By Martha Holmes/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images
By contrast, my own lyrical moving painting only exists in "real time": an ephemeral performance-art form, its existence determined by the length of the music. When the music stops, it disappears, gone for ever. A truly unique experience for the cost of a mere concert ticket. Admittedly you can put it on video, but the surprise and excitement of the original performance will never be the same. The other feature of my own sort of "lyrical painting" is that is not vaguely inspired by the music in some general way. It's specifically choreographed to each piece of music. Although it is often extremely dynamic, unlike Pollock's work it will likely convey you gently to a more peaceful world.

Here's the Link to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's video of my brief introduction to my painting to The Sea by Čiurlionis. 

Both the dream-like mystical paintings of the Lithuanian composer M.K. Ciurlionis (1875-1911) and his poetic music express emotional torment and a longing for a state of spiritual ecstasy, of exaltation. Every colour evokes a tone that sings the praises of mother Nature. More than any other composer, his paintings and music go hand in hand, his music dying to be visualised and his paintings crying out to be performed live. Like his contemporary Alexander Scriabin with his Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus, he was already looking for a combined audio-visual art form.

I can't wait to stand on stage on February 16th. with my overhead-projector set-up, surrounded by about a hundred musicians of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, to paint/play M.K.Čiurlionis' lyrical, emotional symphonic poem The Sea (1907), my colours "singing" in an audio-visual harmony. I know this will be a deeply emotional experience for me, probably for Mirga on Lithuania's Independence Day (February 16th) and hopefully for you too.

Link to my performance with the CBSO, in Birmingham Symphony Hall, Saturday February 16th.