Friday 24 February 2012

A Musician with a Paintbrush

Excerpts from Chapter Five:
A musician with a paintbrush.

I settled in the Netherlands in 1957 and in the sixties set out to paint and discover Europe. One morning in a hotel in Divonne, France, quite near the Swiss border, I heard someone improvising on a piano in the hotel lounge.  This turned out to be a young French pianist/composer, Daniel Guibert.  As he played, I began to improvise abstract graphics in my sketchbook.  Daniel found these very interesting and would place them on his music-stand so that he in turn could improvise to my sketches. We discovered a great rapport, an audio-visual give and take – an early example of a career painting images “in real time” (that is, synchronized with live music). Later I started to call this “live visual music”.
1963 saw the exploration of space, Martin Luther King’s speech “I have a dream” and the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy.  But in that year, one of the most significant events for me was my first visit to Yehudi Menuhin’s summer festival at Gstaad, in the Swiss Bernese Oberland.  Yehudi was to become one of the great influences in my life and work.  In those days his rehearsals were informal affairs that friends and admirers could enjoy by just drifting into the little church at Saanen, where the concerts took place in the evenings.  I didn’t “just drift in” though – I was always there early, almost beating the door down so I could get the best vantage point for some good sketching! That summer was the first of many glorious experiences. 

A page from my sketchbook of some of the first improvisations at the 1964 Yehudi Menuhin Festival in Gstaad (watercolour and ink, 18 x 25cm).  A kind of automatic writing with the music.
Those rehearsals became a rich mine of inspiration for abstract improvisations to music and more particularly, for visual impressions of some of the musicians who were Yehudi’s friends and colleagues. My paintings and drawings included the cellists Gaspar Cassado, Maurice Gendron and Paul Tortelier, violist Ernst Wallfisch, violinist Alberto Lysy, pianist Wilhelm Kempff, the legendary sitar-player Ravi Shankar, and of course Yehudi’s sisters, the pianists Hephzibah and Yaltah Menuhin.  As I write, I realize sadly that all but one of this list has since passed away.  In 1966 I made a painting of Yehudi’s young son Jeremy at the piano, with his father conducting. In the early seventies, other youthful musical personalities such as Nigel Kennedy, Melvyn Tan and Colin Carr (then all students at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England) also played at the Festival and found their way into my sketchbook. 
By 1966 I had moved to live in Switzerland and the little church at Saanen/Gstaad with its summer festivals became a sort of music Mecca for me, where the challenge to visualize music became the great obsession of my life. Each year, I would happily slalom through the mountain roads in my Volkswagen “Beetle”, as excited as a schoolboy on his way to the first day of a new term.  Not only were the performances sublime - I felt that I was participating, Opening an exhibition of some of these works in Saanen in 1971, Yehudi said: “Perryman is one of us, he’s a musician who makes music with his paintbrush”.
From the start, Yehudi understood what I was trying to do and his support and friendship over more than thirty years (until his death in 1999) is something I shall always treasure enormously. Several years later, he invited me to join him for a performance in Paris.  I was filmed as I painted impressions of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, during a performance for Télévision Française in 1979 by Yehudi Menuhin and the Menuhin School Orchestra.

‘Souvenir d’un Récital de Maurice Gendron’, watercolour, 70 x 50cm, Gstaad, 1970. 
‘Nigel Kennedy as a boy’, watercolour, 60 x 40cm, painted at the Menuhin School in 1971.
I particularly remember the years when Ravi Shankar visited Gstaad to perform with Yehudi, accompanied by that fabulous Indian master of the tabla, Alla Rakha.  I frequently sat in to sketch at their rehearsals, either at a hotel or in Yehudi’s chalet.  Everybody sat on the floor, of course.  But one day, arriving at the church of Saanen for the dress rehearsal, they had forgotten the carpet.  I was dispatched back up the hill to collect the huge Persian carpet from Yehudi’s living room and cram it into my little Volkswagen.  In my “East meets West” paintings that carpet seems to vibrate with the intricate patterns of complex Indian rhythm that surround the players.  Those were exhilarating days, but one drove carefully, especially when Yehudi occasionally sat next to me, with his priceless Stradivarius between his knees.

‘East meets West’ (Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin), oil on canvas, 100 x 80cm, painted in Gstaad and Amsterdam, 1978. Prof. Cees Hamelink Collection.
One of my paintings from my ‘East meets West’ series shows how I was struggling with a stylistic development. On the one hand I was using my impressionist training and bias to create a figurative tribute to these musicians.  But then I also wanted to show their movements and in the same painting represent their sounds, through abstract colour splashes and textures! How to combine the two? A complex challenge that still engages me. More about this later.

Click on the video below to listen to the sound I was painting:

Next Monday: Excerpt from Chapter 6: Painting through music – how it all developed.

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.

Monday 13 February 2012

Country Boy Moves to the City

Excerpts from Chapter Three:  
Country boy moves to the city.

Ah, the distinctive smell of Worcestershire sauce! Wafting from the original factory - just down the road from the prestigious and ancient Worcester Royal Grammar School, to which I won a scholarship at the age of eleven. For boys only, the school was founded as a monastic school in 685 and given a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1561.  The cathedral city of Worcester on the River Severn is also known for its luxurious Worcester Royal Porcelain.

School was now ten miles from our little home in the country, so I had to cycle to catch an early bus into town. But very soon, my father got a managerial job in the city, so we all moved into a town house. We found relaxation in surrounding countryside, like the nearby Malvern Hills, where Edward Elgar cycled and composed, drawing his inspiration from nature. His music never fails to recall the memories of sharing his home ground. I couldn’t imagine that, fifty-two years later, these memories would help to inspire my large watercolour painting Elgar’s Dream for Birmingham’s Symphony Hall (see illustration below). Then in 2012 a sequence of kinetic visuals, painted live in concert with the Rotterdam Philharmonic and inspired by Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

You were required to wear a school uniform (blue, green and silver, black tie) at the Worcester Royal Grammar School and there was a constant check to see whether you wore your cap and wore it straight! I had nightmares about this cap rule for years.  Stiff Eton-style collars with a black tie were a standard requirement until the early forties.  All the masters wore black capes that streamed out behind them (shades of Harry Potter) as they strode through the long tiled corridors, instilling fear into small boys. This was serious education and there were rules, rules and more rules. Caning was still practiced as a punishment, although somehow I managed to avoid this. You can imagine that, after our little village schoolroom in the country, my new school was rather grand and quite intimidating. In a rare display of compassion, a schoolmaster stopped me once in the playground and smoothed out the deep frown on my forehead. In fact, I was worried most of the time, trying to keep up.

We were required to play a lot of rugby and cricket. I would do well in defensive positions as I could catch and was dependable. I could also run well, especially over long distances. My parents couldn’t afford running shoes for athletics, so I had to run in my heavy school shoes. This was totally embarrassing and I would always come in second or third. One day a boy loaned me his spiked running shoes.  Imagine my amazement - I streaked to the finish as though on wings!

Every Friday afternoon, there was another activity, somewhat puzzling for a boy coming from a religious family, with a father who was a conscientious objector to all things military. It was the school Military Cadet Corps, where you learned to shoot, march with a rifle and parade with a brass band, supposedly in preparation for a possible military career. I secretly quite liked the band music, stirring us to nobler achievements, but there was no way my father would allow this sort of thing. So I joined a bunch of other non-conformists who were given the alternative of weeding the school flowerbeds. No problem - weeding the garden had always been a regular activity in our country home. Only later did I reflect on the irony of having pupils kneel in the dirt, for being different.  As we shall see, I was different in other ways too.

This splendid school would ideally prepare you for Oxford University, but I was not strong academically. After four years of poor results in Latin with Mr. Wormald (who, when provoked, would bang boys’ heads together), I was thrown out to do extra Art. In those days, Art was not given high priority. My memories of Mr. R.T. Shaw’s (“Arty” Shaw) lessons are that he would set an assignment (“Right, draw a burning haystack!”), disappear, then come back at the end of the period to hand out grades. Inevitably, the class was usually a total shambles. I would sit alone for my extra art lessons, trying to be inspired by the boring assignment to draw a cup and saucer.
Still, I passed the interim Oxford School Certificate in seven subjects, with a Distinction in Art and with no doubts about my future course of study. So I left school in 1949 at the tender age of sixteen, with a sense of escape, yet with mixed feelings. I had found the challenges and discipline tough going, but I was proud to have been part of this extraordinary school. Yet I was a non-conformist: not of course destined for Oxford, but for the excellent Birmingham College of Art and Crafts.
Elgar’s Dream, watercolour triptych, 203 x 158cm. 1996. Inspired by The Dream of Gerontius, composed by Edward Elgar in the Malvern Hills (left) and performed in Worcester Cathedral (right) in 1902. Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.

Lord Yehudi Menuhin unveiling "Elgar's Dream" in 1996 in Symphony Hall Birmingham. Speaking of his own memories of Edward Elgar, he said: “There isn’t a note in this painting that contradicts Elgar’s music and what I remember of Sir Edward”.


Next Monday: The Thrills of Art College.

Monday 6 February 2012

Early Memories of an Artist-to-be

Excerpts from Chapter Two: 
Early memories (1938-44) of an artist-to-be.

I’m a seven-year-old English country boy and I can’t find any drawing paper. No wonder - the Second World War is going on and the production of drawing paper doesn’t really have priority.  My family can’t afford it anyway. But we have books! I’m discovering wonderfully blank pages inside the front and back covers. So when nobody is looking, I’m quietly filling these with little line drawings, mainly from imagination - tiny men constructing bridges over deep canyons and solving engineering problems. Actually, solving problems and creating ways to reach the seemingly impossible will play a major part in my life, for the next seventy years or so.
Outside our little Worcestershire bungalow in 1942, in our Sunday best, ready for a trip to church in the city. I’m on the far right.

In 1938, anticipating the Second World-War, my grandfather initiated a family exodus from my birthplace Birmingham. He and my father had good jobs at the Austin car factory, but they were conscientious objectors to all things military and had no desire to build tanks or armaments. So the Perrymans moved to the tiny Worcestershire hamlet of Ockeridge. My father took work that was also of national importance, as an agricultural labourer, tolerant of the insults that were often hurled at conscientious objectors and determined to make do with a lower wage. So I had the good fortune to grow up far from the horrors of the bombing-raids on the big industrial cities. But if we looked east, we could see the night skies reddened unnaturally from the fire-bombing of Birmingham, thirty miles away.
Food was rationed, but we soon became self-supporting in fruit, vegetables, meat, goat’s milk, bread and eggs.  I learned how to use the colours of beets, onions, blackcurrants or spinach to paint or to decorate eggs. Our little bungalow, set in the middle of enormous woodlands, had no running water or electricity, The nearest water supply was in a field fifty yards up the road, but as the tap was often frozen in the winter, we made frequent use of rainwater.  We all had to work hard at tending the garden, feeding the pig, goats, rabbits, ducks and chickens and collecting firewood from the surrounding woods. It sounds like fun, but country life in those days was tough. We walked four miles to school every day and later we cycled everywhere.
Although my parents struggled to make ends meet, my memories of that country home are not of hardship but rather of happiness: the smell of fresh bread and cake, baked with the wood fire in our cast-iron stove; the taste of fresh goat’s milk; the frosted-up windows early in the cold winter mornings we had in those days; the sound of the piano on which my father played transcriptions of the popular classics.  We would sometimes gather round to join in folksongs and hymns or attempt fragments of Handel’s Messiah. Part of my mother’s Welsh heritage was her beautiful voice. The Welsh are born singing and Mom would sing as she worked at her Singer (no pun intended!) treadle sewing machine, making gentlemen’s suits to order in the light of a dim paraffin lamp. She also made all our clothes.
My mother’s Singer sewing machine, an essential feature of the living room, sketched when I was sixteen.

Mom’s clients – a fashion show in the woods. I’m the shy boy on the left.
I’m sure that Mom sang her babies to sleep, but the lullabies that I remember came from the piano.  Some of my fondest memories are of falling asleep at night with my father playing one of Mendelssohn’s Song without Words, Schumann’s Traümerei, or other soothing melodies.  This was truly home.  No wonder music touches me at a deep emotional level.  Since childhood, my home is music – a place where my inner child can find solace, pleasure and inspiration for my wildest dreams.
Pop-music, jazz, theatre and dance were thought to be too “worldly” in our Bible-reading family.  I didn’t even hear any live classical concerts until I was a teenage student. Our crackling radio could barely transmit the wartime news and the now famous King’s Speech.  Watching that film recently, emotional memories came flooding back of huddling round the radio.

We children led a very sheltered life, socially and culturally, but we all learned to play the piano.  Music was in the family genes and my father played the organ at church.  My grandmother and several uncles and cousins were also quite musical, some at a professional level.  An old upright piano stood in the living room and I imagine I wanted to play it because my father did.  He must have given us some lessons, but the only memory that remains is the promise of sixpence when I could play Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” without a mistake.  I think this achievement gave me more commercial than musical satisfaction! I must have been about ten.

I was a dreamer, a budding romantic, dawdling and playing in the grasses and hedgerows of country gravel roads on the daily walks to and from school, lying on my back in the gently swaying branches of the big oak tree in the woodlands that surrounded our house and listening to the sounds of nature.  The distant drone of a plane would immediately prompt the question: was it ours, or a German Heinkel bomber?  I would dream of other places, distant lands that then seemed to be outside the scope of possibility for a very shy country boy with parents of limited means. I was fascinated with the German and Italian prisoners of war, set to work on nearby farms.  They would chat with us in heavily accented English and give us presents of the little wooden toys they had carved. An exotic world was out there somewhere. Little could I imagine that I would later travel world-wide to teach, exhibit and perform and that today my best friends are Dutch, American, Chinese, Swiss, French, Korean, Austrian, not to mention English!

Here’s my first example of my kinetic painting, live to the music. Exceptionally, this one has no brushwork. It’s just an introduction the beauty of flowing colour. 
A meditation inspired by the first 10 minutes of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs).  Slow down! Only after the first two minutes will you start to hear the music, so turn up the volume!


Next Monday: Excerpt from Chapter 3 – Country Boy Moves to the City.