My continuing trawl through thousands of old slide films for scanning is proving to be not merely a trip down memory lane, but more a long voyage of haphazard, bitter-sweet (mostly sweet) rediscovery.
Because the films are all mixed up in no chronological or subject order , the experience of going through them is somewhat dreamlike in its lack of thematic anchorage. One moment I’m back in my childhood town of Edgware looking into the eyes of my first girl friend; the next, I’m hurtling down an Italian Alpine ski slope with the Martini ad music playing in my head before finding myself on a ferry in the middle of Puget Sound. By the time I’ve completed a couple of hours scanning I feel emotionally jet-lagged. And so it was the other day when I came across one single complete black and white film of a lazy April bank holiday spent in Regent’s Park around 1983.
However, unlike so many of the mostly hazy memories evoked by this process, I found I recalled this particular day in almost every detail. For whatever reason that day is a vivid memory and being suddenly confronted by visual images of it was akin to being back there in the park. And, even more mysteriously, the fact the photos were monochrome merely crystallized my recollections .
For all of that, whether or not they are worthy of illustrating one of my posts, I am not so sure. However, if this does turn out to be simply an exercise in self-introspection, I do hope my that my regular readers and followers will indulge me this once. After all, at their core, these posts form an autobiography, and as such it would be incomplete without memories as colourful as this – albeit, in black and white…
I’ve long been fascinated by bridges and the way they frame and colour the waters which flow beneath them. Perhaps it’s that they are a natural metaphor for hope and unity, or perhaps it’s just I’ve always hated getting my feet wet. But whatever the reason, they and their host rivers, streams, inlets and lakes are indisputably photogenic. Presented here are images sourced from over four decades of photography.
(Cameras used: Canonet 28 / Nikon FE / Nikon D80 / Canon EOS 5D)
There are many reasons why I love living in Hampstead, and being a half-hour walk from Primrose Hill is one of them. Apart from providing the finest panorama of London north of the river (with all due respect to aficionados of Parliament Hill) there’s a surprise in store on nearly every visit. For example, on the day these images were photographed there was a “gathering” of druids – not something you see everyday!
About half-way through my second year at St Martins I made a drastic change of course – not so much in my expressive, heavy impasto style but regarding my subject matter. For about six months I became what can only be described as a religious painter.
At the time my reason for my doing this was a mystery to me as I had stopped believing in God or any other form of spiritual entity years before and Chagall – the artist to whom I looked for inspiration at the time – was one of my least favourite painters. All I knew was that I had become bored of churning out paintings of apples and bottles and weary of my constant fight with my tutors who so resented my failure to become a conceptual artist.
Looking back on it now, calmly and rationally I can see two clear reasons for this brief aberration in my painting career. To compensate for my feeling of alienation at St Martins I turned to Jewish/biblical subjects because it was a world which I knew and in which I still felt at home. Better still, it gave my tutors, almost all of whom were not Jewish, a new dilemma in their dealings with me and my art. In a sense it put them on the defensive and rendered them altogether less confident in their criticism of my representational style. Accusing my fruit and beer cans of being “superficial” and “lacking true artistic depth” was one thing. It was quite another to level similar criticisms at apparently emotional evocations of spirituality and religious angst.
It all seems pretty cynical on my part from this distance, but back then I was actually on the verge of leaving the school. The choice seemed stark – knuckle-under if I wanted to succeed as an artist or continue being a waste of space. In desperation I guess, I did something which was neither, but it was drastic and did at least succeed in shaking everything up.
At first the tutors were mostly dumbfounded. I think I was about three weeks into my new style and it was Henry Mundy (who still used to look in on me from time to time) who was the first to say anything. I think he merely exclaimed, “astonishing Adam, simply astonishing…” and then as he was walking out of the room he stopped in the doorway, turned around and looking at the canvas I was working on said “Don’t forget the emerald green…’ What he really thought, and if he liked or hated the work I have no idea but from then on he came up regularly, and stood in the doorway watching me work for five or ten minutes at a time, a slight smile on his face, but without ever uttering another word.
As for the majority of his colleagues they basically backed off and left me to my own devices.
The only other visitor to my space I remember having during this period was the then international superstar of British Abstract Expressionism, John Hoyland. He was paying us a visit, mainly to deliver a talk on his own latest work, but afterwards he took a stroll around the studios. At this point it’s impossible to overstate the sameness of nearly all the other studio spaces he was viewing that afternoon, nearly all filled with Hoyland wannabes and their mostly pale imitations of his admittedly fine examples of the abstract expressive oeuvre. So it was really very amusing that when he passed by my space and glanced in he did a double take worthy of Scooby Doo seeing a ghost. When he then walked in it was with an expression of one stepping out of a space ship onto a new planet and not quite certain if the air was breathable. When I stopped to greet him he gestured for me to keep on working and he just stood there stroking his chin. I think he stayed about ten minutes, then just before he turned to leave, he said “whatever else, you certainly can paint…” All I recall feeling at that moment was embarrassment that I hadn’t bothered to attend his talk. Later on though, especially when I discovered that Hoyland was to be one of our degree assessors, it gave me hope that at least I would come out of St Martins with a BA of some kind.
As for the pictures themselves, what can I say?
Ultimately I think they work quite well, and of all my work at St Martins, express the angst and frustration I was feeling as I muddled my way through the first two years there. To those looking at the paintings above and detecting deep religious or spiritual truths – Jewish, rock and roll or otherwise – I say good for you. Whatever turns you on. For me; at their best they show how I was beginning to develop my basic paint handling skills, with brush and especially my beloved palette knife…
One of the things which really got up the noses of most of the tutors at St Martins was conventional drawing. They hated it so much that during my second year they actually closed down the life drawing studio, meaning that St Martins was the only one of the six UK major art schools without one – even Chelsea and Royal College maintained life drawing classes.
But I was a drawer. I had been since I was five years old (when my primary school headmaster described me as “the complete draftsman and cartoonist”). And fortunately for me I was not alone. Of our year of thirty odd students around ten others felt as I did, and because in those days we all received generous grants we were able to raise the funds between us to pay a model and support a once-a-week life class – much to the irritation of our tutors.
As in my first year there were a couple of tutors who bucked the general trend and attempted at least to teach and encourage us poor representational fools. Anthony Whishaw was my personal tutor that year and was always polite and gentle, despite the fact he was obviously repressing his frustration with me the whole time he was in my space. Gary Wragg was also incredibly affable and hugely encouraging, even if a bit hard to comprehend. On occasion he would stand in front of the canvas I was currently working on, gesticulate wildly with his arms and say things like, ‘Now that’s what I mean man! That’s what I’m talking about! Man, this is where it’s at!’ and so on (I always had the feeling with Gary that he thought he was on the set of a Shaft movie)… Not exactly constructive, but well meant, and I think – sincere. I believed I was Gary’s token representational artist, and I took that as a huge compliment given the whole weird context of me being at St Martins.
Anyhow, the drawings displayed below are from that time. No nudes represented here, although they will appear in future posts (I promise!) but rather an example of my portrait sketching. During this period while I was still searching for a satisfactory method of painting, I began each morning with an hour or so of sketching. Mostly, my own face but often a friend or girlfriend would be happy to sit for me if I provided them with a cup of tea or coffee as payment. It was a useful exercise and loosened me up for the rest of the day.
Ever the expressionist, subtlety was never my thing, but despite a slight heaviness of hand I’m surprised now, some 35 years later how fresh and alive these drawings appear. I hope others will agree…
My time at St Martins, from 1978 to 81 can roughly be divided into three periods, one for each year spent there, more or less, or though there are of course some overlaps.
Going to St Martins was a major error on my part. I was so flattered at being accepted that I totally overlooked the fact that I was a firmly representational painter entering an establishment at the forefront of non-representational and conceptual art. Both Slade and the Royal Academy School had both showed strong interest in me and either would have been perfect fits but I thought that St martins was where the glory was and as an 18 year old wannabee William Turner, boy, did I crave glory.
I realised the gravity of my mistake within the first week there, when the irritation with me from nearly all the tutors was palpable as I resolutely stuck to my representational guns. There were two notable exceptions though – Jennifer Durrant and Henry Mundy who both took pity on me. Jenny wasn’t any happier with my painting than her colleagues but at least her approach was gentle persuasion rather than bullying. Henry – despite his international stature – was simply a mench who instead of trying to mould me in his own image gave me practical and accessible tips as to how develop the skills I already had.
The images here illustrate that development and are in part at least a testament to Henry Mundy’s kindness and astute understanding of who, and what I actually was. In his opinion at least, I was a “gifted colourist”, and it was this ability in particular which he helped me to hone. Henry’s influence is graphically illustrated in two images posted here – the two views out of my studio window of the local Soho roof tops. The first is all monochrome and gloomy – before Henry had ever set foot in my space and it well reflects the same gloominess of my mood. The second one was more or less the same but in browns. However, the tiny daub of emerald green in the window was the result of the very first piece of advice he ever gave me and, from then onward I was liberated, as the rest of the “gallery” posted here clearly shows.
This was a poster I did at Carmel back in 1972 for the campaign to free Soviet Jews. The late Greville Janner MP came to the school and asked the head of the art department, Herman Langmuir for a picture to be the centerpiece at a reception and talk at the Houses of Parliament being held by the Parliamentary Friends of Soviet Jewry.
Herman volunteered yours truly and I came up with this. It was hung in a committee room where the event was held and it was my first picture to get into the newspapers – well, the Jewish press at least. Not bad really for an eleven or twelve year old. You can see why Herman thought I was heading for a career in comic art. My first “brush” with fame…(apologies)
Looking at it again after all these years it’s much better than I remembered.
Fr. Justin Belitz OFM is the founder of the Franciscan Hermitage and author of "Success: Full Living," "Success: Full Thinking," & "Success: Full Relating." His teachings incorporate spirituality, science, and art for personal growth and development.