Friday, 20 January 2023

Dancing rhythms in landscape

Dancing rhythms in landscape

Now winter is upon us, how many of us are old enough to remember the winter of 1962/63? It went down in history as the coldest European winter of the twentieth century. I was twenty-nine and crazy enough to stand outside in the snow sketching the Dutch landscape! Pale landscapes assisted me in my search for lines or groups of people, trees, buildings or windmills that would form dark shapes to dance across my canvas. I wanted to emphasise those shapes, bundled up, twisting and turning in space, balancing strategically in the composition as it were on a rope stretched from side to side. They revived memories of my hobby as an art-student, balancing on a slack-rope, relishing the space all around me. 
The windmills of a frozen Zaandijk in the winter of 1962, 
oil on canvas, approx. 80 x 60 cm.

When I moved to Switzerland a few years later, my fascination with the arrangement of forms in space continued. As I look back at these early works, I still hear the musical rhythms and tempi of these seemingly kinetic forms, forceful sounds fading to a whisper on the horizon or escaping off the canvas. The clatter of skis being put on, skiers climbing sideways with staccato edges in the snow, then rhythmic rasping sounds, fading away as they disappeared quietly over the edge of the mountain. Every skier knows those sounds.

Skiers, oil on canvas, approx. 80 x 60 cm.1966. 
Below, my woodcutters in the snow were making modern music like percussionists, with the sounds of irregular chopping and sawing, with two very quiet final notes provided by a couple of tourists, standing still, perhaps hypnotised.

Woodcutters in the snow, Blatten, near Zermatt, Switzerland,1963.

Below, the quiet adagio of a Jeu de Boules in Carpentras, Provence - minimal music, with only the rustle of plane trees, the crunch of gravel, murmured commentaries and occasionally a sudden clack! No snow here - I've faded out the background to focus on the elongated dark shape of the group, something that became characteristic of my early works.

Jeu de  Boules in Provence, oil on canvas, approx. 80 x 60 cm.1963.

But, you might ask, where is colour in this young artist's life? It was playing a waiting game, perhaps hidden by an inner struggle, inhibited by an unhappy relationship. It was waiting to explode (and it did), impelled by the inspiration of music and the realisation, long ago, that painting and music were meant to be partners in my life. Here's a link to that early blog from 2012: 
(This is an edited version of an earlier blog) 

Thursday, 24 November 2022

Ageing optimistically, like Hokusai

"When I'm a hundred and forty or more, 
every stroke I paint will be alive..."

(The great Hokusai)

As I ponder old-age and the remaining creative time I may very well have, I am greatly encouraged by the words of the famous Japanese artist and printmaker Hokusai (1760-1849) : “From the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist…and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention...If I go on one hundred and forty or more...I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive". Wow, what an example!

This woodblock print (26 x 38 cm.,1830) The Great Wave off Kangawa is Hokusai's best-known work and the first in his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. He was then already seventy and this iconic work soon became probably the most reproduced image in the history of art. 

While Mount Fuji is calmly placed asymmetrically in the distance, the fishing-boats might appear to be waging a losing battle against the claws of those huge ominous waves. Or are they successfully cleaving their way through the irresistible forces of nature? It's an endless discussion.

Facilitated by Dutch traders, Japanese prints and design flooded Europe, the movement entitled Japonisme inspired artists like Van Gogh, Monet (the Giverny Garden) and composers like Debussy (La Mer), Čiurlionis (The Sea) and many others. The coloured outlines of shapes in Van Gogh's paintings were probably influenced by the characteristics of woodblock prints. My own fluid watercolours were certainly influenced by Japanese art, especially since I travelled there in 1984. So it was so natural that I should be asked to paint live kinetic images to the music of Toshio Hosokawa with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra: "Meditation for the victims of the Tsunami 11/3/11". 

What would Hokusai have made of one of the most traumatic struggles against the sea in Japanese history? My earlier blog 
Tsunami 11/3/11 sketches the story of the earthquake that split the ocean floor near Fukushima in 2011, resulting in about 20,000 deaths, 450,000 homeless and appalling destruction. My two calligraphic gashes are inspired by a shriek from the strings, then all carefully organised Japanese harmony can be seen slowly disintegrating into a floating chaos. We have all seen those awful videos, but I wanted to create slow-motion images, projected large and designed to spread across the towards  the spectators, trapped in their seats in the concert-hall, so that the horrors of the experience could sink in.

I visualised the very soft final part of the music (Entitled Prayer) in a symbolic rendering of the everlasting Mount Fuji, superimposed over my powerful Japanese brush, now barely moving, as my drops of water breathed their last and disappeared.

This was one of many treasured multi-cultural collaborations with musicians and dancers that have come my way in the last fifty years, many recorded for television. The intense productions and creative thrills involved in painting live with music was the great passion of my life. But at my age it is now longer possible. You can find examples on YouTube, still images on my website and on other blogs.
A brief encounter in space, watercolour 20 x 30 cm. 2019

The transparency and fluidity of watercolour is still my great love, but I must now create watercolours on paper, painted quietly, without pressure, in the studio. There will undoubtedly be some Japanese influence. "Less is more" has become my aim. I have all the time in the world.

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Soldiers' Mass


Commemorating tragedy through dance

Jiři Kylián's "Soldiers' Mass", created in 1980 for the Netherlands Dance Theater, was described by a dance critic as "a poignant commentary on the devastation, absurdity and futility of war". It was a deeply felt protest through dance, a protest that is now still painfully relevant today. 

Jiři's Czech compatriot Bohuslav Martinů composed his haunting cantata "Field Mass" in 1939 in memory of a battalion of young Czechoslovakian soldiers who were all killed the day after they were sent into battle.
Jiři choreographed twelve beautifully fit young men to "stand in" for their fellow men (from any country you care to mention), who were drafted to unite in blind obedience and senseless death. At one moment the dancers join the baritone and male chorus to sing a Mass (a prayer) for their own death, their voices and bodies crying out against the inhumanity of man. 

Jirí's masterful ballets inspired many paintings in the eighties, but as I made sketches during the creation of this tragically beautiful ballet, it left a deep impression on me, as a pacifist. On the backdrop, a sinister red stripe on the horizon of this battlefield repeatedly emerges and disappears into the dark blue of night.
                   Soldiers' Mass 1 (Kylián / Martinů) watercolour and oil pastel, 50 x 70cm. 1980
Gerald Tibbs, Leigh Matthews, Glen Eddy. Photo: Jorge Fatauros. 1980
(with acknowledgements to Jirí Kylián and the Netherlands Dance Theater).
                  Soldiers' Mass 2 (Kylián / Martinů) watercolour and oil pastel, 50 x 70cm. 1980

Here's a short clip from Jiři Kylián's Soldiers' Mass on YouTube, performed by the Czech National Ballet. You really should see it on an eighteen-metre stage.

Friday, 28 October 2022

The blind man on the train


The blind man on the train

Around 1973, travelling on the ferry-train from Paris to Calais to London, I found myself in a compartment with a blind man. Striking up a conversation, he asked me what my work was. “A visual artist? Tell me about your work”. Alas, every sentence I started, every description was totally inadequate. “I can appreciate sculpture”, he said, moving his hands in space as he modelled the shapes and forms he “saw”. “But what is this transparent, glowing watercolour you’re talking about?” Well, er, it’s like a stained-glass window, but with white paper shining through the transparent colours. “Really? How do you experience a stained-glass window?” It turned out that he was blind from birth.

I felt as stupid as George W. Bush must have felt, after he spontaneously waved to Stevie Wonder. I had to force myself to abandon all my arty clichés and to search for alternative descriptors linked to our feelings for hot and cold, our senses of space, taste and in particular, the sounds of colour. Now he was in his element. He was a piano-tuner.

We found each other through my Synesthesia and the composer Scriabin, who shared this sensation. I could enthuse about the shimmering blue-green of a high F# and he was with me, shivering in delight; or the warm bath of burnt sienna drawn from a B- he snuggled down into his overcoat; or the khaki of a D#, hesitating somewhere between the taste of golden syrup and olives, before moving on to E major juicy apple green - his gestures reflected that transition. We had found a common language!

He could also "hear" the squelchy or rasping drag of my brush, making contact with or lifting off the paper at various speeds, dancing in all directions, He sensed abstract forms beginning to emerge from my choreography. Ha! Now we had both form and colour.


Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy, 
           painting on overhead projectors with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2010

Several years would go by before I realised that the great passion of my life would be to draw inspiration from music to create fluid kinetic paintings that have no final tangible form. Painted on overhead projectors, when they have faded to black at the end of a performance - like the music, they have gone for ever. This ephemeral art form nevertheless retains a dynamic presence in your memory, your imagination and your soul.

 Overlapping fluid colours painted live to the chords of Cloches d'adieu... by Tristan Murail, played together with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard in Aldeburgh, Helsinki and Salzburg

After the train had pulled into Victoria Station and we had parted companyI hoped that perhaps been able to offer this blind man enough for his imagination to complete a work of art with all the elements of a continuous painting – a painting that would sing and that he could accompany at the piano.

Scriabin: Prometheus: The Poem of Fire
painted live with the National Orchestra of Belgium in 2013

I shall never forget the challenge and joy of that conversation with the blind man in the train. How satisfying it can be to open up to a stranger and discover a common language! Perhaps a useful tip for any of us today, in a world that seems to be awash with suspicion, fear and mistrust of those different from ourselves, or those with whom we don't see eye to eye.
P.S. This is an amended version of my blog from 2012, prompted by the joys of this year's autumn colours.