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.


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