Thursday 24 November 2022

Ageing optimistically, like Hokusai

"When I'm a hundred and forty or more, 
every stroke I paint will be alive..."

(The great Hokusai)

As I ponder old-age and the remaining creative time I may very well have, I am greatly encouraged by the words of the famous Japanese artist and printmaker Hokusai (1760-1849) : “From the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist…and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention...If I go on one hundred and forty or more...I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive". Wow, what an example!

This woodblock print (26 x 38 cm.,1830) The Great Wave off Kangawa is Hokusai's best-known work and the first in his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. He was then already seventy and this iconic work soon became probably the most reproduced image in the history of art. 

While Mount Fuji is calmly placed asymmetrically in the distance, the fishing-boats might appear to be waging a losing battle against the claws of those huge ominous waves. Or are they successfully cleaving their way through the irresistible forces of nature? It's an endless discussion.

Facilitated by Dutch traders, Japanese prints and design flooded Europe, the movement entitled Japonisme inspired artists like Van Gogh, Monet (the Giverny Garden) and composers like Debussy (La Mer), Čiurlionis (The Sea) and many others. The coloured outlines of shapes in Van Gogh's paintings were probably influenced by the characteristics of woodblock prints. My own fluid watercolours were certainly influenced by Japanese art, especially since I travelled there in 1984. So it was so natural that I should be asked to paint live kinetic images to the music of Toshio Hosokawa with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra: "Meditation for the victims of the Tsunami 11/3/11". 

What would Hokusai have made of one of the most traumatic struggles against the sea in Japanese history? My earlier blog 
Tsunami 11/3/11 sketches the story of the earthquake that split the ocean floor near Fukushima in 2011, resulting in about 20,000 deaths, 450,000 homeless and appalling destruction. My two calligraphic gashes are inspired by a shriek from the strings, then all carefully organised Japanese harmony can be seen slowly disintegrating into a floating chaos. We have all seen those awful videos, but I wanted to create slow-motion images, projected large and designed to spread across the towards  the spectators, trapped in their seats in the concert-hall, so that the horrors of the experience could sink in.

I visualised the very soft final part of the music (Entitled Prayer) in a symbolic rendering of the everlasting Mount Fuji, superimposed over my powerful Japanese brush, now barely moving, as my drops of water breathed their last and disappeared.

This was one of many treasured multi-cultural collaborations with musicians and dancers that have come my way in the last fifty years, many recorded for television. The intense productions and creative thrills involved in painting live with music was the great passion of my life. But at my age it is now longer possible. You can find examples on YouTube, still images on my website and on other blogs.
A brief encounter in space, watercolour 20 x 30 cm. 2019

The transparency and fluidity of watercolour is still my great love, but I must now create watercolours on paper, painted quietly, without pressure, in the studio. There will undoubtedly be some Japanese influence. "Less is more" has become my aim. I have all the time in the world.

Tuesday 8 November 2022

Soldiers' Mass


Commemorating tragedy through dance

Jiři Kylián's "Soldiers' Mass", created in 1980 for the Netherlands Dance Theater, was described by a dance critic as "a poignant commentary on the devastation, absurdity and futility of war". It was a deeply felt protest through dance, a protest that is now still painfully relevant today. 

Jiři's Czech compatriot Bohuslav Martinů composed his haunting cantata "Field Mass" in 1939 in memory of a battalion of young Czechoslovakian soldiers who were all killed the day after they were sent into battle.
Jiři choreographed twelve beautifully fit young men to "stand in" for their fellow men (from any country you care to mention), who were drafted to unite in blind obedience and senseless death. At one moment the dancers join the baritone and male chorus to sing a Mass (a prayer) for their own death, their voices and bodies crying out against the inhumanity of man. 

Jirí's masterful ballets inspired many paintings in the eighties, but as I made sketches during the creation of this tragically beautiful ballet, it left a deep impression on me, as a pacifist. On the backdrop, a sinister red stripe on the horizon of this battlefield repeatedly emerges and disappears into the dark blue of night.
                   Soldiers' Mass 1 (Kylián / Martinů) watercolour and oil pastel, 50 x 70cm. 1980
Gerald Tibbs, Leigh Matthews, Glen Eddy. Photo: Jorge Fatauros. 1980
(with acknowledgements to Jirí Kylián and the Netherlands Dance Theater).
                  Soldiers' Mass 2 (Kylián / Martinů) watercolour and oil pastel, 50 x 70cm. 1980

Here's a short clip from Jiři Kylián's Soldiers' Mass on YouTube, performed by the Czech National Ballet. You really should see it on an eighteen-metre stage.

Friday 28 October 2022

The blind man on the train


The blind man on the train

Around 1973, travelling on the ferry-train from Paris to Calais to London, I found myself in a compartment with a blind man. Striking up a conversation, he asked me what my work was. “A visual artist? Tell me about your work”. Alas, every sentence I started, every description was totally inadequate. “I can appreciate sculpture”, he said, moving his hands in space as he modelled the shapes and forms he “saw”. “But what is this transparent, glowing watercolour you’re talking about?” Well, er, it’s like a stained-glass window, but with white paper shining through the transparent colours. “Really? How do you experience a stained-glass window?” It turned out that he was blind from birth.

I felt as stupid as George W. Bush must have felt, after he spontaneously waved to Stevie Wonder. I had to force myself to abandon all my arty clichés and to search for alternative descriptors linked to our feelings for hot and cold, our senses of space, taste and in particular, the sounds of colour. Now he was in his element. He was a piano-tuner.

We found each other through my Synesthesia and the composer Scriabin, who shared this sensation. I could enthuse about the shimmering blue-green of a high F# and he was with me, shivering in delight; or the warm bath of burnt sienna drawn from a B- he snuggled down into his overcoat; or the khaki of a D#, hesitating somewhere between the taste of golden syrup and olives, before moving on to E major juicy apple green - his gestures reflected that transition. We had found a common language!

He could also "hear" the squelchy or rasping drag of my brush, making contact with or lifting off the paper at various speeds, dancing in all directions, He sensed abstract forms beginning to emerge from my choreography. Ha! Now we had both form and colour.


Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy, 
           painting on overhead projectors with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in 2010

Several years would go by before I realised that the great passion of my life would be to draw inspiration from music to create fluid kinetic paintings that have no final tangible form. Painted on overhead projectors, when they have faded to black at the end of a performance - like the music, they have gone for ever. This ephemeral art form nevertheless retains a dynamic presence in your memory, your imagination and your soul.

 Overlapping fluid colours painted live to the chords of Cloches d'adieu... by Tristan Murail, played together with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard in Aldeburgh, Helsinki and Salzburg

After the train had pulled into Victoria Station and we had parted companyI hoped that perhaps been able to offer this blind man enough for his imagination to complete a work of art with all the elements of a continuous painting – a painting that would sing and that he could accompany at the piano.

Scriabin: Prometheus: The Poem of Fire
painted live with the National Orchestra of Belgium in 2013

I shall never forget the challenge and joy of that conversation with the blind man in the train. How satisfying it can be to open up to a stranger and discover a common language! Perhaps a useful tip for any of us today, in a world that seems to be awash with suspicion, fear and mistrust of those different from ourselves, or those with whom we don't see eye to eye.
P.S. This is an amended version of my blog from 2012, prompted by the joys of this year's autumn colours.

Friday 30 September 2022

How Daniel's Hope@Home series inspired a portrait


How Daniel's Hope@Home series 
inspired a portrait

Ever since the violinist Daniel Hope came to my Amsterdam studio in 2015 to make plans to perform music and kinetic painting together* I wanted to make a portrait of him in action. He interviewed me about the nature of my work, with our dear friend Yehudi Menuhin in the background.

The opportunity and inspiration finally presented itself when on March 25th. 2020 Daniel launched his acclaimed Hope@Home recitals, streamed daily from his living-room in Berlin during the lockdown and watched by millions. From the word go, it was clear to me that here was a priceless source of audio-visual references for a portrait-painting. I studied every one of those performances and was entranced throughout. I can finally show you the result, with my comments below.

Daniel Hope, watercolour 77 x 55 cm, 2020

It was quite a challenge to find a way to visualize Daniel's energy, warmth, enthusiasm and intense focus, all in one painting. I could have made ten! But I put together multiple impressions to show how Daniel is seriously enjoying the music, saying, with that characteristic turn of the mouth: hey, listen to this! He's a masterful communicator. His gaze also betrays a deep emotional response to this music. 

The free brushstrokes of this watercolour express Daniel's enterprise and flair, without detracting from his and my attention to detail. I've placed the outer edges of the warm picture-frame on the golden section to underline the balance of the whole. Every other element of my apparently relaxed composition directs our focus to that small area where the momentary contact of bow, fingers and strings produce beautiful music, from a musician who is completely at one with his instrument.

All my thanks, Daniel, for your ongoing inspiration.

* We did indeed perform music and painting together in Berlin and Lübeck in 2016 to celebrate the Yehudi Menuhin Centenary. Painting live kinetic images to Ravel's "Kaddish" with Daniel and pianist Sebastian Knauer was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I also performed with Daniel's Zürich Chamber Orchestra in 2018. The theatrical highlight was undoubtedly Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale in Essen with, Daniel, Benno Schollum and Katja Riemann on June 23rd. 2018, the evening before my 85th birthday. 
Here's the video-link to my Studio rehearsal for Ravel's "Kaddish" (piano Jacques Ammon).
Many of the Hope@Home recitals can still be found on YouTube. 

Saturday 6 August 2022

The beautiful solitude of nature


The beautiful solitude of nature

My pilot is flying his De Havilland Beaver seaplane close above the small islands and inlets off Vancouver Island, bending and weaving his route northward, with only an occasional tiny ferryboat below. Sitting in the cockpit with a sketchbook on my lap, I'm sketching frantically with a thick pencil, breathless with the beauty of this unique viewpoint, one that changes every second. We are alone, communing with nature. Westward is the vast Pacific. I feel so small and intensely aware of the ephemeral nature of human life on our beautiful planet.

In the summer of 1988 I was on Vancouver Island to give workshops. I stayed at the chalet of my dear friend, the excellent Victoria artist and art educator Fleming Jorgensen. He got me that flight over the islands. (I was not to know that his colleague, the watercolour artist Toni Onley, who flew his own sea-plane in search of inspiration, was later to crash into the deep). But we were then on a high with creative plans; he was intensely enamoured of a lovely Brazilian lady, so I dashed off a portrait for him in an hour or so. But their love was not to last. Fleming too has passed. I miss him and many other friends from those days.

Fleming Jorgensen                           A Brazilian lady

In my Amsterdam studio, I recently rediscovered those urgent sketches made thirty-four years ago and was overcome by acute nostalgia. So I decided to re-live my amazing experience in those ever-changing aerial views of nature, in the form of two semi-abstract watercolours. By freely creating islands of colour nestling in the deeps and shallows, I rediscovered the beautiful solitude of nature. I dared to let my watercolours flow and bleed organically, naturally forming their own textures and patterns. I heard the floating sounds of music: woodwinds, shakuhachi, bass saxophone and Tan Dun's water percussion. 

  Solitude above Vancouver Islands, watercolour, 43 x 62 cm. 2022

In the second painting my tiny seaplane further explores those monumental peaks and depths. We briefly touched down at the foot of the background peak for a ten-second splash in that icy waterfall. That really took my breath away!

Exploring heights and depths of Vancouver islands, watercolour 66 x 46 cm, 2022



Saturday 2 July 2022

A fond farewell to my piano


A fond farewell to my piano

In 1974 I lived in Geneva, Switzerland and I was looking for a cellist to participate in a film for Télévision Suisse Romande featuring my kinetic painting with music and dance. Someone mentioned the American cellist Vivian King, who was then studying with the great Pierre Fournier. We made an appointment. I was about to ring Vivian's doorbell when I heard the sound of the Bach's Cello Suite Nr. 2.  I was enchanted.

In Vivian's apartment I noticed a rather nice Zimmermann piano. Curious, I tried a couple of bars of a Beethoven sonata. Oh, Vivian said - you're also a musician! Well, that's a long story. That was the beginning of twenty-one years of making music together.

In 1978 we settled in Amsterdam, near the Concertgebouw, where Vivian began to play regularly. The piano was hauled up (with ropes!) to our fourth floor apartment and that's where our sons both learned to play the piano.
Vivian and Norman playing Francœur's Adagio for BBC

When in 1993 BBC Television was visiting to make a documentary about my life making kinetic images to music, Director Jonathan Fulford said spontaneously: "Hey, why don't you guys just play something together?" Oh no! I had been so busy working in the UK and Amsterdam on the film "Concerto for Paintbrush and Orchestra" with Simon Rattle that I hadn't touched the piano for months. But Vivian said "Ah, why don't we do the first Movement of the Sonata by François Francœur. She knew it by heart and somehow, with just two takes, I managed to get through it. 

Vivian was already ill with acute leukaemia and tragically, she died three years later at 51. Her cello was acquired by our dear friend, the cellist Edith Neuman (formerly of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra). In 2021 I moved house and had to radically downsize, so I donated my piano to a lovely crowd-funded socio-cultural centre in Amsterdam - Pondok. It was a fond goodbye, watching it going down to street-level with a piano lift, but I knew it had found a good home.
Yesterday, after twenty-six years, my piano and Vivian's cello were finally re-united. They made music together at a little concert by the Meander Trio. And yes, with pianist Jenny Hess, Edith played that Adagio of the Sonata by François Francœur.... in memory of Vivian. It was a deeply emotional occasion for me and my boys.
     Edith Neuman (cello) and Jenny Hess (piano) reuniting my old friends

Here's Pierre Fournier with the Francœur on YouTube.


Monday 30 May 2022

An exploration


                          An exploration

My previous painting (see "Forever in the clouds") was to be one of a series. But my brushes came up with other ideas. My freely-brushed deep purple zigzag strokes, fading into mauve towards the horizon below, turned into an optimistic calligraphy taking us way up into a vast space. 

Then a kind of sadness came over me. Was it the worldwide tsunami of negative news - becoming unbearable in my old age? My only comfort was to be found in my palette of colours and my brushes.

So intuitively I gently began to surround my initial strokes with pastel greyish greens, blues and pinks, helping the pools of colour to float and meet up in space. I began to develop small dynamic conversations across the whole picture. Bit by bit, I was modulating from a minor key towards light and hope, even in the darkest tones. I was determined to find beauty in my sadness.


                                                  An exploration, watercolour 62 x 45 cm, 2022

So this is not just another cloudscape. It's an exploration of spaceEnlarge the details: you might find some lovely little surprises. 

Friday 20 May 2022

Forever in the clouds

Forever in the clouds

I'm in my studio, inspired by the soothing flow of Ragas, melodic structures, considered in the Indian tradition to have the ability to "colour the mind" and affect the emotions of the listener. 
I'm in the Flow
so totally involved that I forget the time, 
fully immersed, as I paint pools of watercolour
 that you might call clouds.
My coffee gets cold...
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk and master of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh, the activist for world-peace who passed away in January 2022, was convinced that human Mindfulness and compassion is a continuous positive state of mind that we can develop, share with others and pass on to future generations. It doesn't disappear when our body disintegrates. The energy that we have shared will take on different forms, just as rain or snow are other forms of ever-changing clouds. Our messages have no digital limitations. They are forever universally available as part of the Cosmos.

Forever in the clouds, watercolour 51 x 42 cm. 2022

Monday 11 April 2022

Rest in Peace


Rest in Peace

I'm lying on the massage table with my old aches and pains under the strong yet gentle hands of my holistic masseuse. For me she always puts on a CD of Ragas (in Sanskrit the word also means colouring), classical Indian music that affects our emotions and wellbeing. From the very first long tone I relax into what seems like a wonderful garden of continuously changing colours. For more than an hour I'm at peace with the world. If this were the very last experience of my life it would be a blessing. 

There, on my bed of colours, I suddenly realised how fortunate I am. I consciously sent my loving thoughts to all those now terribly unfortunate, to the tragically bereaved mourning the loss of their loved ones, young and old, wherever they may be. At that moment I was inspired to make this abstract painting for them, with vibrant but gentle watercolours, a paradise where their loved ones may rest in peace.


                                             Rest in Peace, watercolour approx. 65 x 45 cm., 2022.


Tuesday 8 February 2022

José Carreras turns seventy-five


A great tenor turns seventy-five
The tenor José Carreras turned seventy-five on December 5th. and I have fond memories of my contacts with him. In 1995 I was commissioned to make a painting of him for the Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection, for a Royal Gala Concert on May 4th, to raise funds for the José Carreras International Leukaemia Foundation.

Against all odds, Carreras was cured of acute leukaemia in 1988. As he put it: "I was one of the lucky few". His recovery and his subsequent concerts to raise funds for research and awareness attracted global admiration. It was in tribute to his courage that Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo joined him in 1990 for the first of the famous The Three Tenors concerts.

José Carreras, watercolour, 84 x 56cm, 1995

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 where the apex of the pyramid should be, in the white space just in front of his open mouth, from which we expect to hear the sound of that powerful voice.

Uncannily, the timing of this commission coincided with the period when my wife, the cellist Vivian King, was in hospital with yes - acute leukaemia. The emotional pressure was enormous. Half the day at the studio, trying to finish the painting whilst expecting yet another phone call from the hospital, announcing a new crisis. José was a fellow musician whose survival was legendary.  He sent us his good wishes, and I played his recordings to Vivian as she endured radiation and chemotherapy, giving us courage, inspiration and harmony.  Think of Franck's 'Panis angelicus', Puccini's tragic aria 'E lucevan le stelle' (Tosca) and, in particular, 'Che gelida manina' (La Bohème). 

This watercolour was literally painted with many tears, completed and signed on the day Vivian received rich-red new bone-marrow, a day of hope which alas, was not to be fulfilled.

I felt the need to make a contribution to the Carreras fund for leukaemia-research, so in October 1996 I joined José Carreras, Amanda Roocroft and the Hallé Orchestra for a huge fund-raising concert in Manchester. I painted fluid kinetic paintings live to the music: Lara's "Granada", Dvorák's "Song to the Moon", Verdi's "Brindisi" and a whole range of popular classics, all for the good cause. The amazing Martin† and Gillian Lawson co-produced this unforgettable event and immediately became dear friends and fans.