Sunday, 7 July 2019

My old tree as a self-portrait

My old tree as a self-portrait

The Amsterdam house of which I rent the fourth floor apartment (no lift) was built in 1913, exactly twenty years before I was born. Probably the plane trees lining my street were planted about the same time, then cut down during the German occupation (1940-45) and re-planted after the war. So even though the one outside my balcony is a bit younger than me, as I watch him grow older we have become good friends and I like to talk to him. With the colours of the season he marks time for me. He has weathered many storms, not to mention the assaults of radical pruners. It's touching to see how he leans over toward his companions that line the street, almost arm in arm, as they share support for each other. He inspires me too, so before I do my morning exercises I open the so-called "French" windows and chat with him, reaching out over the balcony to admire his stamina and flexibility.
I'm still painting portraits, and it suddenly occurred to me that I should portray my dear friend. But during the making of this watercolour (58 x 41cm) he and I got into quite a discussion. My art teachers used to urge me to "be" the tree, if you want a convincing image of it. I said the same to my own students and now to myself. Working through sketches and studies I realised that it would be pointless just to make an exact likeness. My painting had to somehow take on a life of its own through my signature style. Although I was painting a tree, in my mind it gradually became something of a self-portrait - a symbol of my ageing self, scars and all. He is my example, still finding the energy to reach for the sky, still flexible and communicative, still standing firm and tall, still catching light and providing shade after so many years. So each brushstroke became a gesture of gratitude for a shared life. And we haven't finished painting yet.
My street in the autumn

What music do you hear in this gorgeous cathedral of colour? It'll change with the seasons of course.


  1. JThis is so honest, direct, and yes , you. I'm glad to see and read about your interaction with your 'friend'.
    It struck me that it is a 'he'. I had never thought of trees in gender terms before. They certainly have a paternal quality that is inescapable when foraging through a wooded landscape. They are indeed family, and we are unfortunately the bad relatives,

    1. Thanks Herb, your good comments mean so much to me. Yes "tree" in German, Dutch and French is masculine, although this one is actually monoecious, meaning hermaphrodite. That could be an interesting discussion!

  2. Beautiful, both painting and text! Keep up the good work :-)

  3. Anna Malchow-PerrymanJuly 09, 2019 4:16 am

    Your description of your tree and his companions ('zijn', of course! however surprising that may seem for English speakers ;-)) made me think of a German song:

    Leben einzeln und frei
    wie ein Baum, und dabei
    brĂ¼derlich wie ein Wald
    - diese Sehnsucht ist alt!
    Sie gibt uns halt
    in unserem Kampf
    gegen die Dummheit, den Hass, die Gewalt.

    Not so beautiful in my hurried translation, but you get the idea:

    To live solitary and free
    like a tree, and yet
    brotherly like a forest
    - that longing is an ancient one.
    It lends support
    to our fight
    against stupidity, hatred, violence

  4. Liebe Anna, vielen Dank! Your poem is beautiful, especially in the original German. Thank you for your comment.