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.