Wednesday 19 June 2019

The end of an era: Bernard Haitink retires at 90

The end of an era:
Bernard Haitink retires at 90

On Saturday a deep nostalgia came over me as I watched the televised recording of the last time that the great Bernard Haitink would conduct in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, before his retirement in August. The end of an era. It was 1965 when I was introduced to him and was allowed to sit in at his rehearsals with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, to make sketches for what was to develop into a whole series. He was 36 and I was 32 - looking for ways to give form to my paintings of music. I sat nervously behind this Rolls-Royce of an orchestra, totally fascinated with the unity of their sound and somewhat intimidated by their proximity.  

I was still very much a figurative painter in oils and interested in the arrangement of shapes in the composition, setting up an abstract rhythm with the music-stands (above). But next time, venturing up into the balcony, I discovered an undulating silhouette of the cellos and bass group, a diagonal motif that was to become my signature in many works. Here's the link to my 2014 blog on this characteristic:

Haitink with the Concertgebouw Orchestra II, oil on canvas, 1966.
Collection of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
It took courage to paint out the rest of the orchestra, but I wanted to emphasise and celebrate that compositional discovery. Haitink was hunched over to urge the orchestra on, as he did a lot in those early days. You can still recognise the fabulous solo cellist Anner Bijlsma, then higher up in the last row the blond hair of cellist Edith Neuman, at 24 a recent addition to the orchestra who liked my work and introduced me to Bernard. I'm still indebted to my dear friend. I feel so sad that everybody in the orchestra that I painted in the sixties has either retired or passed away.

Haitink conducting Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps"

Gradually the urge to express the vibes of this surging mass of music took over from the need to illustrate. The abstraction of the rhythms and the colours of the sound became my obsession. Music has to move and I had to show that!

Within one decade, something else was happening. The brush strokes became freer, moving with the sound. And, compared to those early, rather heavily painted oils, the paint was gaining transparency. I was moving towards luminous watercolour as my main medium and discovering ways to express my joy with music.

Haitink conducting Stravinsky's "Firebird" with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, 
oil on canvas, 100 x 65 cm. 1977, Prof. Cees Hamelink Collection

A unique commission from Director Andrew Jowett of Birmingham's Symphony Hall to paint a series of "action-portraits" of many of the great musicians he had programmed would obviously include Bernard Haitink. He is conducting Mahler and I wanted to show him fondly immersed in the colours and zigzagging shapes of that ethereal music, his face in shadow to tone in with the background colours, eyes closed, listening intensely. There just a suggestion of a smile of appreciation, or perhaps wistfulness, as his left hand, shaping the phrase, is saying: But please, the winds, sempre piano here, while his right hand maintains that crisp beat, firm, authoritative.
Bernard Haitink, watercolour 84 x56 cm. 1994. Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.

One of a Collection of thirty-one watercolours, this was painted with respect, gratitude and affection for the conductor who has provided me with years of inspiration and indirectly had a significant influence in my life's work.

Monday 3 June 2019

Swimming in watercolour

A new series of three on paper:
Swimming in watercolour  

I nearly drowned as a small boy, so I'm still afraid to swim out of my depth. But my paintbrushes kindly showed me how to swim with watercolour, to splash and twist, to make strong plunging strokes with a wet brush, caressing strokes with an almost dry brush and at times seeming to walk on water. I've established a friendship with my brushes that is still exciting, although not entirely without anxiety. "Follow the brush" is the motto of many an artist in search of freedom. In other words, use the marks and shapes of each different brush as an immediate opportunity to improvise the rest of your graphic "story". As you follow the brushed flow, you intuitively take on an attitude of "let's just see what comes next". But what a challenge this is! 
These comments reflect the influence of Asian calligraphy and aesthetic awareness on my work. Here's the Link to my 2012 blog with more details on the Asian connection.
                                Floating in the Deep, watercolour 47 x 70 cm. (sold)

When I was an art college student in the 1950's, drawing and painting the nude was still regarded as a fundamental skill for any would-be painter, following the classical traditions. We learned to paint in oils, but over the years watercolour gradually became my preferred medium. I loved its transparent glow on smooth Arches Satiné paper, that helps it float on the surface. Now, as I began this new series, I wanted to combine memories of my early training with the nude model with my imagination of the body moving in water.

                              A lazy swim on the undulating waves, watercolour 40 x 62 cm.

If you know my work, you'll know how much of my inspiration comes from music. Yes, you guessed it: Debussy's La Mer and Jūra (The Sea) by Čiurlionis. After spending many months creating fluid lyrical abstract paintings on glass plates for my performance of The Sealive with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in February, I now feel the need to return to working with watercolour on paper in the studio, with that music in the background. 

 Taking the plunge, 65 x 38 cm. (sold)

How to face your deepest fear? Take your Chinese brush, take a deep breath............
then just let go.