Friday, May 30, 2008

My painting XXVI

As at 30th May '08

My 71st birthday, and a couple of days off spent with F in Florence in the splendid apartment of generous friends. Sitting here on their terrace I can see among the famous silhouettes the top of the building that I drew sixty years ago when, propped up in a hospital bed, I copied an illustration, itself no doubt fairly crude, of Giotto’s tower from a book. I still remember the excitement of having a fine sheet of white paper on which, with a mapping pen and sticky Indian ink, I followed the fascinating lines of the decorative fa├žade. I suspect it was the first thing that I had made that I thought of as art… a special piece of paper with something special on it.

It was a one day wonder in the ward and considered by nurses and fellow patients to be amazingly (I remember the word most often used) ‘lifelike’.

I’d no doubt blush or smile to see it now. But what would my eleven year old self think were he to open his future studio door and see the painting that he is doing in 2008? He might well be amazed, even dismayed, though 'lifelike' would be the last word he would reach for.

Lifelike, however, is a term that has gained in amplitude. Our image bank now contains the galactic choreography revealed by the Hubble telescope and the organic dances that, in miniature parallel, are presented by electron miscroscopy.

We begin to apprehend a unity in the cosmos at the visual level. Open any scientific journal and it is hard to tell without reference whether any illustration is of an infinitely large or infinitely small event; especially since they are made cousins by the current taste for schematic colour coding.

To be armed with this larger license as to what is lifelike becomes as frightening as it is exhilarating. Even the panels supporting my picture teem with inorganic activity as, in all directions and without end, subatomic particles ping and caper about through its inert-seeming fabric. On top of this my picture is a battleground in which delicate manoeuvres in suspended combat combine to describe a hesitant moment of a situation in flux.

Photo. D.S.

Looking again across to Giotto’s tower I register that it is itself lifelike. Its austere intricacy, perfection of marble interval and balanced dialogue of dark and light, mirror platonically something of the structure of the world.

Having called these notes (as republished in Turps magazine) The Biography of a Painting, I have implied yet another version of lifelikeness. The history of the picture’s making is the story of its life, its moving through time to a close. Since I am edging on to the final panels it more and more resembles my own life which has a great deal more past than future. Unlike human existence however it invites revision and, at the end of the last panel (having closed off in one sense the future) I can go one better than nature and reopen the past.

Friday, May 16, 2008

My painting (XXV) & The Magic Flute

As at 9th May '08

Over the next few weeks progress on my painting will slow down as more studio time is taken up with The Magic Flute, now only six weeks from opening night.

The long all-licensed time of fantasy is over for director Simon Callow and his designer when they could hoot and bray and throw their toys out of the playpen. Now the Real People take over, the technical team armed with hammer and needle, tape measure and plan. Impressionistic schemes must be turned into reliable structures and scribbled drawings develop into feasible costumes.

Sketches like these have to be carpentered and painted to make practical doors in a firm wall.

First study for back wall with nine doors, Act 1

First study for back wall with nine doors, Act 2

Making proper working drawings which answer the questions, how thick, how high and what precise colour, is my current task.

Somehow panic strikes every production as if it were a necessary ingredient to theatre. Keeping up with Simon's quicksilver shifts of notion and scheme has provided the excitement so far. Now all must be transformed into low budget reality.

So it must have been with the mercurial Schikaneder, the performer, librettist, director and impresario whose original show this was. Who else would, within the first five minutes, have a Japanese prince attacked by a snake and rescued by sinister veiled ladies, then left to exchange existentialist repartee along the lines of Waiting for Godot with a man very like a bird.

Sarastro's emblem

Some details can be fun to do. Here is (for the Parsifal aspect of this multi-faceted piece) Sarastro's emblem of office, a freehand drawing to be enlarged and printed on cloth. As a perk of the job I will get the wardrobe dept to produce a T-shirt similarly emblazoned to add gravity, power (and maybe some magic) to my ping pong.

Friday, May 09, 2008


Here with the two boys and their schismatic teddy bears, Mahomet and Ali, is the companion card, My golliwogg’s called Jesus. The double ‘g’ at the end of the word is the original spelling in the illustrated stories of Florence Kate Upton published just before the end of the nineteenth century. Bears existed as dolls at that time but were named Teddy after Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 when he seems to have spared a bear on a shooting trip (during which presumably he killed lots of other things). Both gollies and teddies were at the height of their popularity when these photographs were taken by their anonymous postcard photographers around the time of the First World War. I had one of each as a child in the Second World War, among other worn, handed down dolls, three of which are described in Curriculum Vitae I.

Curriculum Vitae I, Oil and acrylic on board, 150 x 120 cm, 1986-1992

Except for CND marches in the fifties and, during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa (when I joined a group which showed internationally under the heading Artists Against Apartheid), I have not been much of a political activist.
Slegs Vir Almal (Reserved for everybody), Silkscreen, edition 50, 1976.

I mistrust all ideology and even managed, though strongly influenced in matters musical by Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury, to dodge the Red Dawn Rising Over Luton. In fact the only card-carrying political affiliation I have had is with Clapham Young Conservatives having early discovered that their ping pong facilities were much superior to those of the Young Socialists.

Ping pong diplomacy did not end there. Salman Rushdie, at the height of the fatwa, adopted a deliberately irregular routine, with much cloak and daggery in the coming and going, of portrait sittings combined with ping pong and pizza. The story of the teacher and the teddy bear brought back memories of that passive activism; of painting Salman, sometimes with an armed guard in the studio and always with heavy back up outside.

Salman Rushdie, Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm, 1992

When illustrating my translation of Inferno I also made a picture of both Mahomet and Ali, to whom Dante gives such short and brutal shrift in Canto XXVIII. That was in the early eighties and then one hardly needed to give it a second thought.

Current Islamic orthodoxy bans depictions of the prophet. This applies to Moslems of course, but cannot to those who hold other religious beliefs (or no belief at all). Why shouldn't other faiths, sects and cults claim equal rights to make their rules apply to all? Overwhelmed with a Swiftian deluge of observances we might soon be struggling to remember if the Ammonites decreed that we should wear a funny hat on a Tuesday or if the Theodolites commanded that we should not eat turnips in June.

My painting XV

As at 9th May '08

I return to my painting, if only to note ironically that it shows the clear influence of Islamic calligraphy. It was precisely these strictures against description of the natural world that made the finest Islamic artists probe the expressive possibilities of script and bring an often sublime inventiveness to enrich to the art of the world.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

My painting XXIV

Early May 2008

Although I shall still put 'My Painting' at the head of these instalments in the biography of a picture I have, at long last, found a title for it. Of the many words that have been churning around in my head two have come to rest together and seem to sum up what I think I am trying to do. QUANTUM POETICS is a juxtaposition which may even contain or conceal an unexpected truth. Unfortunately 'quantum' is a term much thrown about these days and needs to lassoo a tough qualifying companion to validate its use.

It would not take long to write out what little of the little that is understood of quantun dynamics I myself understand. Luckily however, in my own world, thought is often pictorial and imagery occupies the place of verbal or mathematical analysis.

Daunting explanations in print and conversation, while indeed enabling me to have a partial grasp of actualities, generate at the same time more freely formed embodiments in visual terms. These often link to the intuitions of the past which, in pattern and design, for 70,000 years have expressed things that were not ripe for use or available to knowledge.

Thus I am reminded again of how much human thought has been secreted over millennia in the rich resource of ornament. It was there for example that abstraction waited patiently for the twentieth century to discover and realise its riches.

Perhaps an imaged response might even have a modest purpose. What it can do is to try to articulate a part of that field of wonder that recent science has revealed, and which the art of the past had fragmentarily intuited. This picture is but one hesitant attempt at such a non verbal commentary, a contribution to the beginning of a poetics of quantum theory.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Periwinkle Diary III

On the last day of April I drew the seventh and final periwinkle of this year’s Periwinkle Diary (see Blog April 2007) started in 2006. Nothing like a quietish pencil drawing from nature to steady the mind and hand. Now that I have more or less retired from portrait painting I think to get back to life drawing (where all the ladders start); when I find the right model. Meanwhile the periwinkle is an uncomplaining substitute that needs neither rests nor cups of tea. All these periwinkle flowers are, for the first time, homegrown (tended by Megan in the front garden), so no raiding Ann's display up the road. Here are four of the current crop.