In the summer of 1979 I spent two weeks with a friend in his apartment on the south western outskirts of Jerusalem. My host shared a studio with me at art school (in London) and had been whetting my painterly appetite with descriptions of the scenery in the hills close by his apartment. Although I was already developing into a studio-based artist, the thought of walking out into the Jerusalem forest, portable easel on shoulder and painting box in hand seemed exotic and enticing. And so it proved to be.
Every day for around a week we rose at the crack of dawn and walked across ancient pine-wooded terraces to a shaded clearing perched dramatically above the picturesque village of Ein Kerem and sketched madly from morning to sunset. The combination of the dappled light, the changing colours and tones as the sun traversed the sky, the constant humming of the cicada and the aroma of pine needles intoxicated our spirits. And as we ate our rustic picnic lunches, washed down with wine and then dozed, we dreamed we were reincarnations of Gauguin and Van Gogh.
I did all my sketching in pen and coloured ink. I found the intensity and the fluidity of the ink perfect for expressing the colours of the landscape and capturing the immediacy of the given moment. Then later, early the following year, back in my studio in London I found I could use the ink sketches to transfer that sense of moment onto canvas – thus capturing the moment and giving it both permanency and with expanded depth and breadth.
Presented here is one of the original ink sketches, and the culminating oil painting I made from them. I felt that the device of a triptych would give me the scope to represent not just the colours, and flow of the landscape, but also its altering mood across the course of a single day. This was my first attempt at a triptych and looking back at it now, although far from fully resolved,the sheer unadulterated joy of it does nevertheless bring a smile to my face. Whether or not Paul or Vincent would smile or smirk is another question altogether.
Standing a loved one or a friend, or even an animal before a fabulous vista is a cultural staple of the holiday snapper. For me, apart from the “I/we was/were there” element, the juxtaposing of a human and or animal before vastness simultaneously humanises and accentuates the majesty of the given panorama. Painters have been doing the same thing since the days of the great Dutch and British landscape painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, from Van Ruisdael to Caspar David Friedrich.
Presented here are sadly no Friedrich’s, but this set of enhanced-photos from all my years of travel do nevertheless express something of that dramatic relationship between “us” and the landscapes we move within…
This dates back to the late 70’s when my old mate Simon and I drove around Cork and Kerry in his old orange Datsun. This is Simon peering over the edge at Slea Head near Dingle on the Kerry coast (famous for being the location for the movie Ryan’s Daughter)…
Taken around 1981, this is the summit of Mount Gilboa. The field of boulders could seem to bear witness to the power of David’s curse in his great lament for the fallen Saul and Jonathan that nothing should ever grow upon the mountain’s slopes again…
The image of someone walking away into the distance has stirred my artistic sensibilities since early adulthood. I’ve returned to the subject photographically and in paint pretty regularly since about 1979, from when the first picture presented here dates (Astrud at Tel Hai).
Several of these pictures are of loved ones, past and current, walking into a variety of landscapes, urban and open, and I guess that with them in particular, powerful feelings of vulnerability, both as a partners and individuals are aroused.
Two of the photos here have special poignancy: The one of my mother Hannah with my grandfather Harry was taken on a stroll in my home town of Edgware in the early 80’s when they both still had many years to live. I took the photo on my old Cannonette camera by accident. I was meaning to line up a shot of the lake we were passing when I must have clicked the shutter too early. It was only when the film came back from the developers that I saw the photo, and even then I instantly realised that it was a happy accident in that it had somehow captured the essence of them and their relationship in a way that no face-on portrait ever could have matched. The fact they are both now dead has made this image increasingly precious to me as the years have passed. The picture of my wife Dido walking her old and frail father into his house in Little Rock is even more poignant in that it represents the last photo of them ever taken together. About an hour later we returned to the airport, never to see him again.
All the pictures here, even those of total strangers, like the chap on Hampstead Heath, have a quiet melancholia about them in that they share a sense of our human transience.
Regular readers of these pages will know that travel comprises a significant part of my life, even to the point that I once had homes concurrently in three different countries.
But, when I look back now, of all the hundreds of journeys, vacations and adventures since my first flight – aged three – to Zurich from London on a Swiss Air Caravelle (I remember that we sat facing each other with a little table between us, as on a train) – there are eight trips of which every detail remains etched into my memory.
All of these trips were specifically formative in that they either changed my life in a literal sense, or my perceptions of life in some fundamental way. Followers of this blog might already be aware of some of these episodes.
Firstly there was the trip to Israel in 1967 just weeks after the Six-Day War which blew both my 7-year old mind and my 1960’s, suburban British olfactory senses. I vividly remember being on the Golan Heights, walking along the safe paths marked out by Israeli mine disposal teams, into Quneitra and dozens of Syrian military documents blowing on the dusty hot winds like confetti. And equally, I recall the first time I tasted real humus and roasted eggplant and being almost emotionally overcome with the sheer pleasure of it;
Then there was a gastronomic drive along the length of France in 1970 which turned me into one of the England’s most precocious connoisseurs of food and wine;
A year later, I was treated to my first visit to Spain where I discovered the hitherto (to a typical Jewish lad like me) forbidden twin joys of fried bacon and fresh shellfish in addition to poolside cocktails and luxury hotels. The fact this was all part of a photographic shoot for Max Factor and that I spent the entire time in the company of two of the UK’s top fashion models was the icing on the cake for a sexually curious eleven-year-old;
Fourteen years after it was Andalusia again, but this time a romantic five days in Seville, in the company of a beautiful law student, where I discovered the exotic joys of tapas washed down with ice-cold fino and late-night flamenco.
About a decade later in 1991 saw my first flight across the Pond, where the sublime “New World” strangeness of newly-democratic Chile bludgeoned me back into painting landscapes and left me a life-long lover of cazuela de pollo;
Then, twelve years after that in 2003, there was our visit to southern India where I was held enthral to the equally glorious and wonderful strangeness of ancient Tamil Nadu and Kerala and where I discovered that a mostly vegetarian diet could almost be fun (not to mention hugely fattening);
In 2007, I made my first trip to Australia, which, especially in magnificent Melbourne turned out to be quite simply the most enjoyable and mentally invigorating shattering of dearly-held pre-conceptions I have ever experienced;
And finally, just this January, when the cliché “better (incredibly) late than never” took on a whole new profundity for me after my first visit to New York City left me and all my senses dazed, awestruck and ecstatic in equal measure.
However, when I ask myself what was the trip that played the biggest and most enduring role in shaping the adult I eventually became, it would have to be another of the trips I made to Israel; this time in in 1978, during the summer break of my first year at Saint Martin’s School of Art.
The pictures below are all that remain of my “Wanderers Period” and represent the most eloquent way I can describe the feeling and atmosphere of those six weeks; the highlight of which was when four of us – two guys and two girls – walked the entire circumference of the Sea of Galilee in two days. We slept on the pebble beaches, and lived on falafel and bags of crisps washed down with cheap wine, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Weekend in LA on our cassette player. Without going into details, it became my coming-of-age drama in every sense, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and of course, sensual. It was my “Summer of 42”, except it was 78. It was when I truly fell in love with life and this Earth (and the incomparable virtuosity of George Benson).
Most unfortunately, the large canvases that emerged from these sketches and scrawls I painted over the following year after my art school tutors deemed them “unsubtle, hopelessly romantic and naïve” – they were a bunch of passionless idiots, but that’s another story. Nevertheless, I think these pictures, for all their rawness, convey the power of an 18-year old’s emotions, lusts, yearnings and wondering (and one or two aren’t bad drawings either)…
This next post is a rare acknowledgement by yours truly of the approach of a Jewish festival. The Ten Days of Penitence, beginning with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and culminating with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement ) are nearly upon us and it got me to thinking about desert landscapes.
I nearly always think of desert landscapes when any of the four main (“Mosaic”) Jewish festivals come around (Rosh Hashanah, Passover [Pesach], Pentecost [Shavuot] and Tabernacles [Succot]) as they were all – according to tradition – conceived during the desert wanderings of the Children of Israel – sometime around the 12th to 11th centuries BC.
These days most biblical historians, archaeologists and scholars dispute these wilderness origins for most, if not all of these festivals, dating them instead to reigns of the later kings of Judah – somewhere about the 8th to 7th centuries – or even as late the Babylonian exile during the 6th to 5th centuries BC.
But whatever the exact historical origins of these celebrations they are fundamentally related to the worship of the ancient desert god Yahweh – one of the several Israelite/Hebrew components for what would gradually evolve into the eventual single Jewish God.
Having been fortunate enough to travel extensively throughout most of the “Mosaic Wildernesses” – known today as the deserts of Sinai and the Negev (or Arabah) it is not hard for me to understand how the ancients came to regard these spectacular landscapes as the domain of supernatural beings, and even gods. They have a mystery and a feeling of wonder, which in certain lights and conditions can be almost overwhelmingly sensually intense. The evening winds cascading and rebounding through the canyons of the southern Sinai mountains at dusk sounds like the angry roar of giants – or even the voice of the gods.
However, the current scholastic consensus is shifting northwards from southern Sinai to the less lofty, though equally spectacular jagged hills and psychedelic plains of the central Negev – formally known as the Wilderness of Zin – as being the true domain of the Hebrew Yahweh and even the location of his sacred mountain stronghold of Horeb.
Whatever the eventual verdict regarding the birthplace of the Jewish God will be – assuming a verdict is ever arrived at – Zin remains my favourite place on Earth. I think these images here give you a taste of the “divine” and rugged beauty of the place.
A small gallery of images of Tel Aviv from the late 70’s and early 80’s. Colourful, ramshackle, exotic and cosmopolitan even then, the seeds were well sewn for the exciting, “happening” city we know today…
(camera used: Nikon FE with Ektachrome and Agfachrome)
The Israeli coastal town of Netanya sits on high sandstone cliffs above one of the most spectacular beaches anywhere on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. The 12 images presented here reflect the beach’s vivid and colourful mood over a time-span covering the last four decades.
THE GREAT THING ABOUT PHOTOSHOP IS THAT IT MAKES THE EDITING OF PHOTOS AS IMPORTANT AS TAKING THEM. IT ALSO MEANS THAT ONE CAN OFTEN EXTRACT / ABSTRACT GOOD MATERIAL FROM OTHERWISE ORDINARY SHOTS. THIS GALLERY OF “VIRTUAL GOUACHES” OF THE ISRAELI COASTAL TOWN OF NETANYA ILLUSTRATES THIS PERFECTLY – ALTHOUGH I MUST ADMIT THE INCREDIBLE SENSOR ON MY CANON CERTAINLY HELPS BRING OUT THE DETAIL…