Friday 11 December 2015

A climb in progress

A climb in progress

I'm looking out over a vast alpine landscape, with a plan in my mind for a large oil painting of slowly moving dark shapes, strung out across the space. A painting of a mountain climb in progress - where each foot or hand is patiently put in front of the other, in the right place at the right time. A audio-visual contrast between the small sounds of personal exertion, the grappling with the rock, the sound of progress and of the spacious silence in rising clouds of mist.

From the early sixties onwards I spent much time in the mountains to make paintings, teach, ski, climb and eventually build a chalet at 1300 metres, on the edge of the Swiss village of Leysin. For about five months of the year you had to cope with snow, ice, wind and mist, learning where to put your feet, where (not) to drive your car and how to gauge the weather conditions. Sometimes you were at the mercy of nature. A salutary experience.
                                                The view towards my chalet in 1968
My painter's eye became fascinated with diagonal lines dissecting my view. Diagonals suggest movement; and my new painting will also reflect this characteristic of my early work.
"Skiers disappearing over a hill-top", 1966. 
I knew Peter Rae as a student in Switzerland, and when he and his wife Helle Johansen-Baker recently saw some of these early works, where rhythmic shapes crept, zigzagged or danced across my canvasses, they were inspired to commission something similar. So I needed to get back up into the mountains, to sense that space again and do some active research, so that the painting would express a physical experience. 

It was extraordinarily emotional to find myself back in the same mountains where I had lived fifty years ago! It so happened that I even got to see "my" chalet, now inhabited by others, the tiny saplings I had planted around it now towering high or even decapitated. Would it be like this to return from the dead and discover that nature just goes on without you?
Meeting  mountain guide Steve Jones
Heartfelt thanks to my kind guides and mountain climbers Hilary Boardman-Rhodes (who helped me scope out possibilities) and Steve Jones (who roped up for some good demos and useful impressions). I of course didn't do anything hazardous. My struggles began back in my Amsterdam studio (below sea-level) for many hours of setting up the composition, then covering this large canvas in various ways, with my mind still full of those heady vistas. My composition is about the importance of balance in positioning. And balance is certainly something a climber relates to. 
A climb in progress. Oil on canvas, 90 x 130 cm. 2015.

If you stand right in front of a canvas of this size, you have to move your head left or right to take in the grandeur, perspective and depth of the landscape right and centre, then tilt your head upwards to take in the difference in altitude from your point of view in front of the man in the foreground putting on his climbing shoes. So you have to “get your head around” the rhythms and contortions of a very physical activity, as you follow a sort of strip cartoon of the progress of this climbing adventure. It might look a bit humorous. Er, is there enough room on the peak for all those people - and who is roped to whom? The set-up probably breaks all the rules. Still, it gives room for the imagination! My son said it made him think of those old communist posters, where strenuous muscle-power is combined with the message “United, we can do it!”. Actually a professional climber pointed out that the queues on climbing routes really are beginning to look a bit like this.

Quite apart from any imagined story, I wanted to really integrate the men and women into the landscape and into the rocks, so that they become almost abstract elements as part the whole. I also hope you can hear the music echoing round that valley and in the twisted irregular rhythms, beating their way up to that pianissimo peak.
Altogether, this project became a most thought-provoking and fulfilling experience spanning time and space. Am I one of those climbers? If so, the decision on which one depends on whether I'm having a bad day :). My thanks to Peter and Helle, who visited my studio this week to view their new painting. They were thrilled, moved and delighted.