Monday, 26 March 2012

A unique collection: Great musicians portrayed in action

Excerpts from Chapter Eight:
A unique collection: Great musicians portrayed in action.

Over the last fifty years, I must have made at least three hundred paintings of various musical subjects on paper and canvas; more than enough to make a sizeable exhibition – a retrospective of my life’s work.

Twenty-nine of these works are in the Birmingham (England) Symphony Hall collection. Opened in 1991, Symphony Hall has been recognized as one of the great concert-halls of the world. It was still in scaffolding when the director, Andrew Jowett, gave me the guided tour; even unfinished, the place was was awesome.

The Mahler Experience; acrylic on canvas, 200 x 160cm. 1993.
A tribute to the acoustics of  Symphony Hall. Sir Simon Rattle conducting Mahler 2, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Chatting afterwards, we came up with the idea of creating an archive of portraits of the great personalities he had booked to appear in his first season, a record of the early musical history of Symphony Hall.  To our knowledge, there existed no other collection of portraits like this - all by the same artist. The challenge I set myself  was to integrate my portrait skills with a free style of painting of the action and musical atmosphere. To respect the likeness and characteristic gestures, yet somehow fill the painting with the sound of music. No easy job. Watercolour was clearly the right medium for this commission.

I was thrilled, as an ex-Birmingham man, to return to my birthplace and to the haunts of my college days.  Decades later, the old grimy, war-scarred industrial city of Birmingham was changing into a dynamic cultural centre. The story of my association with some of those changes and my work with music was soon to be recorded (in 1993) in a fifty-minute documentary for BBC Television: ‘Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra’.   Not only did the film link a number of my paintings to the sound of the music that inspired them (so that you heard the painting, as it were).  It also included a performance of kinetic painting with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Riccardo Chailly, watercolour 84 x 56cm, 1990. 

The first commission was to paint the conductor Riccardo Chailly with the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra - the first foreign orchestra to visit the Hall. The Concertgebouw was just down the road from my home in Amsterdam!  This made it easy for me to sit in at rehearsals and make sketches and photographs. That first painting was very well received and further commissions followed: the conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of course, Simon Rattle, Jessye Norman, Kyung-Wha Chung, Carlo-Maria Giulini, Evelyn Glennie, Yehudi Menuhin, Mstislav Rostropovich, Bernard Haitink and many more.  I tracked these people down, talked my way into rehearsals to make sketches and immersed myself in the artist’s repertoire on CD and video. It was usually this music that influenced my choice of colours.  For example, while painting Kiri Te Kanawa I played her recording of Richard Strauss’ infinitely beautiful ‘Four Last Songs’, which took me to the dominance of old-rose in her painting.  The personality of certain musicians also lead me directly to a colour: for example, Alfred Brendel - olive greens; José Carreras - reds; Cecilia Bartoli - Italian burnt siennas; Yehudi Menuhin - ethereal blues complemented with ochres.

Yehudi Menuhin, watercolour, 84 x 56cm, 1991
Most of my subjects will never know the intensity of the process I went through to attune to his or her personality.  Whether you’re painting an apple, a landscape, a nude model, or a musician, you have to love your subject, believing at that moment that he/she/it is the most fascinating subject you have ever seen. I’ve patiently studied their every feature and gesture and stroked their faces for hours (with my brush, of course!).  Naturally, the love affair only takes place within the painting, and lasts only as long as it takes to finish it.  Then I’m on to another relationship. 

You always worry about what they will think. But when these great musicians finally saw the results, they all responded very positively. Phone messages: “Norman, it’s just Yehudi, to tell you that I love the painting – one of the best that’s been made of me. All my thanks”.  Cecilia Bartoli, pressing my hand to her bosom: “Norrman, mille grazie per tutto”.  From Milan: “Ees Giulini here. Ai want to thaank yu for thees beeutiful disegno”. 

The painting of José Carreras was a very emotional process.  Reds for passion, life and death. Commissioned in 1995 for a gala concert at Symphony Hall in aid of the José Carreras International Leukaemia Foundation.  José was one of the “the lucky few” who not only survived leukaemia, but also returned to the podium.
José Carreras, watercolour, 84 x 56cm, 1995
The timing of the commission was uncannily appropriate for me personally.
In 1995 my wife Vivian was in hospital with – yes, acute leukaemia, and I was under incredible pressure.  Half the day at the studio, trying to finish the painting whilst expecting yet another phone call from the hospital, announcing a new crisis.  The rest of the day, and often during the evenings, I would be at Vivian's bedside. Yet, in these dire circumstances, of all the subjects I had been commissioned to paint, this was probably the only one I could concentrate on.  Here was a fellow musician whose survival was legendary.  He sent us his good wishes, and sang to Vivian as she endured radiation and chemotherapy.  His voice also filled my studio for weeks, giving the two of us harmony, courage and inspiration.  When you look at this painting, think of Franck's 'Panis angelicus', Puccini's tragic aria 'E lucevan le stelle' (Tosca) and, in particular, 'Che gelida manina' (La Bohème). 

Because José Carreras is a singer, everything revolves around his breathing.  Despite the swirling colour, José's characteristically extended hands give great stability to the painting, like the base of a pyramid.  Our eye is drawn up to the apex of the pyramid, which is just in front of his open mouth.  We expect, at any moment, to hear that powerful voice.

This watercolour was literally painted with many tears, and the droplets that may look like blood are no coincidence.  I completed and signed the picture on the day that Vivian received her new rich-red bonemarrow, a day of hope which, alas, was not to be fulfilled.

Next Monday: Excerpt 9 - Music and movement in watercolour


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