…and getting things in proportion

Since the coronavirus crisis has taken hold, like the editors of The Archers*, I’ve been agonising over whether or not I should keep this a virus-free zone? Then, as often happens to me when planning these pieces, I was distracted / motivated by something unexpected.

In this case I was mulling over whether to do another art-related post, versus a new recipe, when my attention was caught by a tiny, long-forgotten, ancient photo of my maternal grandparents working in their grocery shop. The photo was on top of a pile of similarly old and decaying pictures I’ve been in the process of digitising for posterity. All the photos are personally fascinating to me in their own different ways as they offer tantalising, often deeply atmospheric glimpses of my family’s history since their arrival on these British shores.

However, the thing which was different, and instantly relevant about this particular, overtly unremarkable image, was its remarkable context. For, what on the surface is simply a scene of ladies shopping at the local grocer’s is actually, ladies shopping at a grocer’s in the Mile End Road of London’s East End in the January of 1941. Anyone reading this with any semblance of knowledge – British or otherwise – will realise that this was at the height of the London Blitz, when thousands of bombs were being dropped on Britain’s capital on a nightly basis.

My maternal grandparents, Harry and Becky Pizan (booba and zaida to me) behind the counter of their grocery shop during January of of 1941. My zaida took up smoking at the beginning of the war and gave it up before the end. “Health and safety” meant something altogether different during the war years…

My point is not to minimise the current crisis, or to suggest we carry on “cautiously regardless”, as my grandfather and his customers did during the Blitz (for one thing, then they were being driven together, while today we are being urged physically apart). Rather, I am simply pointing out that many of our parents and grandparents went through far worse and more dangerous times than we are today (over 40,000 British civilians were slaughtered by the “Nazi virus” during the four months of the German raids on Britain’s industrial cities in 1940 and 41).

It’s the very ordinariness of this scene therefore, which makes it so eloquent, and to my contemporary eyes at least, all the more instructive, especially given the moment in history we are living through today. And although, as my grandfather often told me himself, the famous “Blitz Spirit” wasn’t quite all it was cracked up to be, there was sufficient determination, good humour, common sense and sheer guts among the majority of the people to ensure the nation survived the German onslaught relatively unscathed.

It shouldn’t be any different now…………………………..

*For most (but my no means all) of my non-British followers, The Archers is a soap opera, broadcast daily, on BBC Radio 4 continuously since 1951, making it the world’s longest broadcast soap.

PAINTING FROM PHOTOGRAPHS – mundane craft or true modern art?

Photography has played an ever-growing role in my picture-making since the first day of the second term, of my second year at Saint Martin’s School of Art. It was a bleak winter’s day in 1980 and I remember feeling particularity depressed about the direction – or lack of direction to be precise that my painting was taking. For the past four terms at the school I’d walked a wobbly tightrope between the pressure to emulate my tutors’ abstract expressionism, and my own innate passion for making representational images. The resulting stream of paintings echoed this dichotomy, rarely convincing as abstract or figurative; more often than not, a clumsy, unresolved mishmash of the two forms. If, as occasionally happened, I turned out a pleasing picture, it was always more by luck than by design, with me clueless as to how or why I had achieved this. 

THE COACH PARTY (detail) – 1980 – oil on canvas
This was the first painting I made after my talk with David. It was huge (the foreground figures were to-life scale) and liberating in equal measure. I was rarely happier or more stimulated when working on a painting.

Then, on that winter’s day in 1980, while I was pacing back and forth, dreading the coming weeks and months, a new tutor called David Hepher walked into my studio space, and my art career was changed forever. David, unlike all the other tutors at Saint Martin’s was a figurative artist and to this day I have no idea how he came to be teaching there, but for me, his sudden appearance was as timely as that of an Old Testament angel. I distinctly recall his expression as he first set eyes on my paintings – large canvases full of expressively, heavily painted figures of young people hurtling boldly through a romanticised Israeli landscape.

RESTING AT MONTFORT (detail) – 1980 – oil on canvas
This was the third painting in what I still think of as my “Hepher Series”, and I was already discovering, as he surely knew I would, that “copying” would provide its own form of interpretation…

A warm quizzical smile came across his face like that of someone unexpectedly bumping into an old friend. Then I remember that he sat down on my rickety paint-spattered moulded plastic chair. During the previous four terms at the school not one tutor had ever smiled this kind of smile when looking at my pictures, let alone sat down in my space. By the end of the ensuing conversation it became apparent that he was almost as relieved to see my work in that school, as I was thankful that he was now teaching there.

The Banyas Waterfall – 1981 – oil on canvas
One of my favourite spots on Earth; the source of the River Jordan, and almost believably, as the Macedonian soldiers believed two centuries before Christ, the birthplace of the god Pan. Notice the way I played with tonality and shadowing to create more drama…

The first thing he asked me was who my favourite artists were, and when I said Vermeer and Hopper he looked curiously at my wild and frenzied pictures. He then reminded me of Vermeer’s reliance on the camera obscura for achieving these perfectly painted captured moments and asked me why I didn’t use my own photos in a similar fashion?

This painting was commissioned, paid for and then returned back to me as a gift, when my patron’s new girlfriend took against it. It could even yet prove to be the first and only painting I sell twice!

While I’d already been using photographs for the past year or so as a form of rough reference, in the same way I worked from my sketchbook, David convinced me  to try something “bolder”, in his words, but hugely controversial; especially within such a temple of conceptualism and abstract expressionism as Saint Martin’s. He suggested that I take my favourite photographs and copy them as faithfully as possible in oils, like huge painted photographic enlargements. He felt certain that in this way I would find the inner artistic peace I was craving.

MOUNT MERON FROM SEFAD – 1983 – oil on canvas
In a similar way to the Casino painting below, I seem to have slightly shifted the angle of the tombstones, and altered the line of telegraph poles – I’m guessing to increase the sensation of being drawn down into the valley, before being swept up again toward the distant mountain.

And cutting a long story short, David’s empathetic advice proved successful, even though the pictures I went on to produce with this new method ensured that I would prove even more of a problematic enigma for most of his colleagues. Presented here are several of the large canvases I painted as a direct result of David’s tutelage. Some them have appeared on this site before, but never side-by-side with the “offending” snaps! 

THE OLD BRITISH CASINO – HAIFA – 1985 – oil on canvas
In some ways this is the most faithful photographic copy I made in the entire series of pictures (the removed fisherman notwithstanding), yet the subtle shift in angle and perspective is stark – and effective – I think?