Friday 21 April 2017

A young man's search

A young man's search in 1963

With intense nostalgia I'm now taking you back more than half a century to an adventurous formative period that took me travelling through Europe in 1963. I was twenty-nine when I was awarded a scholarship by the Dutch Kröller-Müller Foundation to spend a year in France. After I had learned to draw and paint at Birmingham College of Arts & Crafts and spent some years in teaching, this was the first real opportunity to focus on my painting and seriously research what I could do as a artist.  

I was offered "La Maison Jaune" in the tiny village of Murs (Vaucluse), with space for a small studio, large scorpions in the shower, the odour of a sheep pen outside the window, a huge open hearth that filled the house with smoke when the Mistral wind was blowing, but above all, a variety of landscape on all sides. It was a lonely spot in those days, well out of reach of the seductive Van Gogh subjects in lower Provence and long before the area was taken over by wealthy Parisiens as the chique terrain where they could renovate a derelict farmhouse for their summer residence.
After the greys of northern Europe, in the Vaucluse I was confronted with a plethora of new impressions - the rich reds and ochres of Roussillon, the chalk stone of Mount Luberon, ancient sandy-coloured fortifications on every hillside, the greens of olives and plane trees, the twisted blacks of of old vines and lavender galoreSo after a drive over to Cavaillon to pick up a load of canvasses I set to work, painting landscapes in oils. 
Above one of my first unfinished efforts to somehow "get the painting off the ground" - that is, develop the painting from a mere illustration of the visit of the threshing machine, a major event in the village, into something with its own abstract dynamic. I tried a bit of everything in those days, made some nice little paintings that I remember affectionately, but in retrospect some of them were not much more than explorations. I was in the middle of a wide-ranging search. And what do you do when it's bad weather? You paint the glowing embers and ghostly early morning sunlight on the warmest spot in the house. 
After several months my restlessness took me to explore further north-eastwards deep into Les Hautes Alpes, as yet unspoiled by tourism. I discovered the tiny hamlet of Souliers-en-Queyras perched on a steep incline at 1800 metres altitude, negotiated the use of the former village school for my studio and a temporary home, then started to paint everything in sight. The white school-house can be seen bottom-right under the tree in my rather cubist painting of the village, as seen from across the valley of the Torrent de Souliers. I was told that every few hundred years the village was swept away by a landslide and repeatedly re-built. But I took my chances and settled down to work, starting with these houses huddled together into the mountainside for mutual support. 
The only heating and cooking option was a wood-burning stove that became my warm companion. Towards the end of my stay, the regional mayor came up from the valley to award la Médaille de la Famille Française to one of the mothers of the only two extended families in the village. She had produced her thirteenth child. A sheep was slaughtered and I was invited to a celebratory "lunch" that started at noon and continued until well after sunset. The local priest played his flute. Speeches were made in a French dialect that sounded vaguely Italian. Tiny children's cheeks got redder as they too sipped the excellent wine. As the haze of smoke thickened, we ate lamb cooked in a dozen different ways and made endless toasts to la maternité. I had arranged an exhibition of my paintings of the local landscape, evoking animated comments from the farmers about the colours and textures of certain pastures that had been or not yet been mowed.   
At college I had learned to paint in the late impressionist style, simply put: recording visual impressions with colour, form and atmosphere slightly manipulated. I saw the patterns and colours in this endearing little old cart, but hadn't yet figured out a way of turning them into an abstract design, for example.
But with other agricultural machinery like the hay-spinner, you can see that I was looking for a way to express its movements. I'm on the verge of something new. Tossed hay, twisting valleys and torrents.

In the forests I stumbled on many wonderful roots of felled trees, weathered bone-white over the years, their tendrils seeming to reach out from this tree cemetery. Movement was becoming more apparent in my painting as I started to stretch diagonal wriggling lines across the canvas.
Although I was painting mainly landscape for months (and in fact continued to do so for years), little did I know that further on my travels north towards Switzerland in 1963, I would stumble on the amazing Yehudi Menuhin Festival in Gstaad/Saanen. I had been "wandering in the wilderness", had done my apprenticeship and had suddenly reached "the promised land, flowing with milk and honey"! Meeting Yehudi would change my life. It was music that would give my work the dynamic forms and colours I was searching for.


Post a Comment