Cities that enjoy unrivalled pre-eminence within their countries are rare and especially in many of the lands of the newer worlds. As a native of London – a city which similarly to Paris and France, enjoys sole national supremacy – this phenomenon has always interested me. While this development seems natural in geographically enormous countries like Russia (Moscow and Saint Petersburg), China (Beijing and Shanghai) and the USA (New York City and Los Angeles) it is also true of smaller nations, such as New Zealand (Wellington and Auckland), Spain (Madrid and Barcelona) and Italy (Rome and Milan).*
City rivalries develop for a whole host of reasons, including geography, internal competing nationalisms, politics, local nationalisms, commerce and of course, history. Occasionally these rivalries can blow up into full blown rows, and given sufficient regional identity, even war. Often, newer countries with two or more “competing” cities have avoided potential trouble by creating distinct administrative/political national capital cities – such as Brasilia, in the case of Brazil (cf Rio versus Sao Paulo); or by elevating a non rival city to the same position – such as Canberra in the case of Australia (cf Melbourne versus Sydney). Even in newer countries with relatively long-established capitals, such as Washington DC (USA) Durban (South Africa), and Ottawa (Canada), these cities rarely evolve into their respective nations commercial or cultural urban powerhouses.
Presented below are my thoughts on three famous urban rivalries I am familiar with…
*Apologies to residents and fans of cities like Chicago and Vancouver, who could justifiably argue that in North American terms at least, I have overlooked these towns equally valid competing statures to those named – perhaps in the interest of preserving my hypothesis. However, while there can be no doubting either city’s cultural and commercial importance and influence, in a broad metropolitan sense, not to mention for sheer industrial and commercial might, they are dwarfed by the cities mentioned.
plus several other famous historical battles through the eyes of a battle movie crazy youth…
In addition to the remarkable Mary Poppins (1964) the other two films that first set my spirits soaring – though in a markedly different way to Mr Banks’ joyous kite – were The 300 Spartans (1962) and Zulu (1964)*. Like most little boys growing up in the 60’s (and some little girls too in my experience of the time), I was thrilled by epic cinematic depictions of battle. But, whereas movies like Ben Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963) and even the extraordinary Spartacus (1960) did that Wagnerian thing of interspersing the brilliant battle and action scenes with boring half-hours of tedious “drama” (or so I thought as a child), The 300 Spartans and Zulu were vehicles for the (beautifully staged) battles themselves – Thermopylae and Rorke’s Drift respectively – with the drama, merely the filler. In other words, perfect films for little Adams everywhere.
The most ambitious film ever made about a single battle was Sergei Bondarchuk’s enormous Waterloo (1970), which I first saw as a ten-year-old on its UK release. But even then, as much I was awestruck by the superlative battle scenes, I was irritated by the stodgy script (actually, just an endless seam of historical quotes) and the awkward caricaturesque acting, which lurched wildly between the histrionic French and the aloof British.
With more modest budgets and far smaller casts, by canny use of camera angles, stunning photography, beautifully paced editing, and (certainly in Zulu’s case) thrilling musical scores, directors Rudolf Maté with his Spartans, and Cy Enfield with his handful of red coats, made films that felt far larger and much grander than they actually were.
But perhaps the greatest testimony to the enduring appeal of all of the above is how well they stand up against their modern CGI equivalents. For example, Frank Miller’s 1998 Thermopylae film, 300 – allegedly inspired by Maté’s 1962 version – despite its having a virtual cast of millions and “authentic Spartans and genuine battle violence” is – apart from one or two scenes – utterly forgettable. Most interestingly of all is how “small” and claustrophobic the later, studio created film feels by comparison with its location-shot forerunner. And similarly, for all the earlier film’s wooden acting and heavily tableau’d dramatic interludes there is a dignity and humanity totally lacking in Miller’s animated comic book treatment.
The pictures presented above date from about 1970 – 75, and reflect the obsession I had as a 10-14 year-old boy for attempting to recreate the battles that had thrilled me so much on the cinema screen. Sometimes, I would base my pictures on famous historical battle paintings, using the figures in the original artwork as templates for my own infantry and cavalry, often for battles of different eras. Those wonderful “templates” – all of which influenced my childhood self almost as much as the movies above, are included below.
*Other films which are worth looking out for as noble – if imperfect – examples of pre-CGI historical battle movies are: Clive Donner’s 1969 Alfred The Great – a turgid film, but with decent battles; Tony Richardson’s 1968 Charge of Light Brigade – marred by Richardson’s anachronistic, relativist, anti-war message, laid on with a trowel, but largely successfully staged, and a genuinely epic charge; Cy Enfield’s return to Natal for his 1979 (“prequel” to Zulu), “grittier and more historically accurate” Zulu Dawn – compares poorly to the near-perfect Zulu, only proving yet again, that grit and accuracy (and vast numbers of extras) alone do not guarantee a great picture. Worth seeing though, just for the British scouts first sighting of the massed Zulu impis (11,000 warrior extras) – an astonishing cinematic moment.
Plus, two more CGI fiascos to avoid at all costs: Oliver Stone’s 2004 Alexander the Great – should be retitled, Alexander the Petulant, and as for the cartoon-filled battles!; Also, the woeful 2004 – Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy – which has to be the leading candidate for worst adaptation of a great and immortal work of literature ever executed. Brad Pitt’s appallingly miscast, pouting, kung-Fu-fighting super hero, isn’t even the worst characterisation in the film!!
Finally, one exception to prove the rule, although CGI is mercifully absent from the superb opening battle scene, is Ridley Scott’s exceptional 2000 film, Gladiator (actually, a close reworking of Anthony Mann’s terribly dull, 1964 Fall of the Roman Empire) – which introduced the historical battle movie genre to a whole new generation of little Adams…
The “problem” of figures in landscape fascinated and challenged me in equal measure. After all, without the notion of a literal narrative theme to the picture, the human figure always seemed to be merely an additional element – actually part of the landscape that she/he inhabited. This was not to depersonalise the figure so much as to find a way to harmonise all the elements of the image, whether vegetation, rock, sky or/and living figures.
From the time of the Impressionists onward, artists have found increasingly ingenious – even gimmicky – ways of resolving the problem. Artists like Renoir and Monet would blend their pictorial elements through a uniformity of paint daubs, and later, Seurat by “distilling” those daubs into dots. Then, Picasso and Braque contorted and warped their figures into the very space they inhabited, leading finally to Matisse, whose contrary method was to turn everything into a jigsaw of flat shapes.
My earliest representational combinations of figures with landscape in oil paint were none of the above, but both romantic, and traditional, whereby the figures inhabit their environment rather like actors on an enormous stage. And, while this was great for creating a form of visual counterpoint and deeply spatial scenic drama, it ignored the potential of the paint itself for creating a vivid, “living” surface.
I must have painted dozens of such “theatrical” images when one day, I was confronted by a sketched ground for yet another scene of young people in Israel, and made a change of plan. It was a simple thing really, but with exciting consequences for the evolution of my art. I simply put down my brushes and picked up my favourite, medium-sized, trowel-shaped palette knife, and made the whole finished painting with that instead. The resulting picture was a revelation to me, with the paint, and the surface of the canvas elevated from a means to a pictorial end, to the end itself. In the process, the figures were transformed from “actors on a stage” into animated, vibrant entities, at one with their landscape. Suddenly, my pictures, and the figures within, looked alive.
Looking at these pictures now, with objectivity borne of time and distance, the significant influence of Impressionism is hard to dispute, yet my own, innate Expressionist instincts are equally evident, and even now, that still gives me a tingle of excitement and pride. Ultimately, they’re not half-bad, and that is all that really matters.
…AND HOW I DERIVED SOMETHING POSITIVE FROM OUR MOST NEGATIVE EPISODE
The past twelve Covid-19-infested months included, by far the bleakest time my wife Dido and I have shared together was our enforced eight-month sojourn in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, back in the early 1990’s, described in earlier posts ( here and here).
Yet, few circumstances, however dire, are so unremitting that they totally lack the odd moment of emotional uplift. And for us, in Boulogne, these moments were generally provided during our regular weekend strolls across the local beach.
The proverbial bracing sea air (even when tainted by the odours emitting from the local fish cannery on the southerly breezes); the angry waters of the English Channel, inky blue-black beneath a vast sky of tumbling clouds; distant rain squalls appearing like grey curtains drawn across the serrated horizon; and shafts of silver sunlight occasionally breaking through the blanket of cumulous like spotlights illuminating a white flecked, cobalt stage in perpetual motion – all conspired to blast us temporarily from our glum mental state.
In a way similar to how blues music comforts and eases the spirit, by both reflecting back, and articulating the nature and source of the angst, so those tumultuous blue-tinged scenes reminded us of our innate love for life and the adventures it offers. The three palette-knifed oils here, painted a year or two later in my southern Spanish studio, celebrate those precious moments that gave us the reason and the energy to persevere. A particularly apposite recollection I think for these troubled times…
Another year passes, another Hanukkah arrives. For those unfamiliar with the story of the festival, I explain quite a lot about it here, in last year’s post. The reason it held a particular attraction to me as a child was – apart from the delicious foods, fun rituals and of course, the presents – was that it emanated from a period of history that fascinated me from an early age. So much did the story interest me in fact, that at some point, when I was about fourteen I decided to turn it into a comic strip.
Obsessed as I was with the actual history behind the story, rather than with the traditions and alleged miracles, I was keen for the strip to be as close to the ancient reality as possible. Hence, the “evil Greek soldiers” were less evil Greek, and more, ruthless, professional Macedonian mercenaries; while my “heroic freedom-fighter” Maccabees were more, (equally) ruthless, uncompromising zealots. Moreover, although the comic never made it that deep into the narrative, I intended to portray the Hellenised Jews, as less “treacherous collaborators” and more, worldly, pragmatic rationalists (one of which I would like to think I would have been myself!).
However, as was often the case with my juvenile projects, the initial flame of enthusiasm died out before I’d really got going – in this case, after barely the first two pages.
Nevertheless, it remains fun to look at now, and had I finished it, with its austere red-to-black tonality, it might have emerged as an early example of the graphic novel.
In the meantime, I wish all my Jewish readers a very happy, healthy and peaceful Hannukah, and a very merry Christmas to everyone else!
another look at the art of painting from photographs…
The two pictures presented below have both featured in previous posts (here and here), but neither with their template photographs. The “Walking Away” is particularly interesting to me as it has the penned grid over the girl drawn onto the photo itself. Generally, as far as I recall, I would use a sheet of tracing or acetate paper over the photo so as not to ruin it. But, for some reason I didn’t bother in this case. The fact that I only “gridded” the girl is reflected in the relative freedom of the landscape painting. The skiing scene mountain-scape by contrast is much more faithful to the original photo, in form, if not in tonality.
Both pictures present further evidence of what is possible using the humble snap, in terms of expressive potential and dramatic interpretation.
My recent post on line drawing was so well received that I thought I would follow it up with this look at a set of my more studied drawings from 1996.
The images here will be familiar to some, as they form the basis of one of my most successful and enduring themes, which I returned to many times over the course of decade or more. It all started with a casual photo-shoot on the sunny south terrace of our Spanish home, when my wife Dido (the blonde lady in these pictures) and Lynne, an old ballet pal of hers, performed a variety of impromptu poses for my camera. Mostly, they involved dance (see this related post), but they also acted these three, far more contemplative vignettes.
Unlike line drawing sketches, these take account of light and shade as much as form, giving them a more obvious dramatic content. But, as with line sketching, often, what is left undrawn, is as important to the feel of the picture as what is drawn. In the case of these works, it was my intention that the whiteness of the untouched paper in contrast to the painstakingly executed figures, and the shadows they contain and cast, would accentuate the feeling of the harsh Spanish sun, saturating the tender friendship of the two girls.
All in all, I think they succeed pretty well, and for me at least, remain precious moments captured in lead.
For reasons far too mundane to go into here, the next couple of months are going to be among the busiest and most frenetic for quite a while, and hence I will have far less time than usual to devote to these posts – at least in written form. Thus, for most, if not all of the next half-dozen or so offerings, I will revert to primarily presenting series of images, hopefully, linked by some kind of theme.
In keeping with this temporary minimalist expedience, I present here a series of my old line drawings, ranging roughly across a couple of decades, from about 1976 to the mid 90’s.
A tutor at Harrow School of Art once told me that “the line is the foundation stone of picture making…master the line and everything else will follow. She added that “artists who fail in this are like musicians attempting to compose tunes without being able to read music…”.
It was a simple message, and all the more powerful for that, and one which stuck with me ever since – its truthfulness being self-evident. Then, when I taught for a while myself, I would begin every class with at least an hour of line drawing exercises, to the point where it drove some of my students to distraction. However, they would invariably tell me when we met up years later, how much they now appreciated, ironically, the freedom and confidence this grounding had given them to develop their artistic styles, however figurative or abstract.
But, apart from anything else, and continuing the musical analogy, the simple line drawing, when done well, offers so much in and of itself in a way similar to how a piano sonata, or a string quartet, may express a deep intimacy and subtle power, lacking in a massive orchestral work. And, hopefully, the selection of doodles here give some idea of what I’m talking about – all very much “quiet, solo instrumental pieces”…
And so, in 1999, I felt the need to celebrate with this set of colourful, impasto gouache sketches, done as postcards; intended to express our sense of freedom and joy at the regaining of our lost paradise. But never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined, even in that seminal year of 1999, just quite how fortunate we really were…
Not until experiencing the madness of three months of semi-house arrest in a small Oxford apartment (I refuse to dignify the “L” word by using it), followed by the oddly, even more disturbing new “normality”, did we truly grasp how blessed we are to have our little, private, mask-less, socially intimate, sanctuary of peace and sanity.
(I should add, that I still have the entire original set of 10 postcards, signed, titled and dated, and in near-mint condition, and far brighter and more charming in real life. I had originally intended to send them to select friends and family, but for some reason never got around to it. So now, I would be happy to sell them as a set for £200 – or other currency equivalent – plus postage. If anyone is interested please contact me through the “Purchasing artwork” link at the top of this page.)
…and the stark difference between copying and INTERPRETING.
This is not the post I had planned. But that was before I had the great misfortune, not to say fright of seeing the latest portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A few posts ago I discussed how I came to paint from photographs, and how and why it can work brilliantly in the right hands. What I did not discuss however (and perhaps I should have done), was the converse of this, when photographs are simply copied as a form of craft, with the art all but forgotten.
The “artist” has succeeded in confirming every prejudice I ever had thrown at me by detractors of “photograph-method”, and arrived at a plasticised and peculiarly scary image, obsessed with technical finesse while utterly devoid of empathy and artistry. This is not so much a majestic portrait as a grotesquely kitsch, 2-dimensional waxwork. This is the produce of a copyist and not an artist all, and says much – none of it complementary – about the judges of the BP National Portrait Award; the winning of which landed the alleged “artist” this most august of portrait commissions.
As I attempted to illustrate in a previous post, copying from photographs offers so much more than the absolute stability of the reference material (i.e. total stillness and unchanging light). IN THE RIGHT HANDS – from Vermeer (with his Photo Obscura) to Rockwell – it offers up an essence and intensity of “moment” that resulted in some of the most empathetic and compassionate pictures ever achieved.
While I would never be so hubristic as to place my own photograph-method creations on a par with those of the great masters of the past, I dare to claim, that at their best, my efforts do at least show some of the positives of the genre. Three of the pictures below were not only exciting and fun to create, they are human expressions accentuated by technique rather than masked by it. The fourth picture is an example of my own, of what happened when I allowed technique to subsume the human moment.