ELENA’S TEL AVIV REVERIE…

A moody EXCERpt from my novel, “ark”…

Elena slid open the double glazed French doors of their suite at the Dan Hotel and walked out onto the balcony terrace overlooking the Tel Aviv sea front.

      It was like breaking a hermetic seal.

      Instantly the noise of traffic and hooting of cars below on Hayarkon Street merged with the sound of the waves crashing against the breakwaters beyond the broad sand beach. A smell of seaweed tinged with traces of petrol and diesel exhaust carried on the gusting westerly wind filled her nostrils.

   She leaned against the steel railing squinting slightly against the salt particles and sand peppering her face. Through her narrowed eyes she gazed at the deep cobalt blue sea streaked with crisp flecks of silver white foam. A brooding early evening sky with tumbling clouds was diffused by sporadic beams of platinum sunlight. Far off, above the jagged black horizon she could make out charcoal coloured shafts of rain like dirty net curtains suspended from the clouds.

The oceanic quality of the Tel Aviv shoreline appealed to Elena. In stark contrast to its typically sedentary mood around the eastern and southern coasts of Spain, here the Mediterranean roared and rumbled like it meant business, like the Atlantic waters of her native Galicia. As she watched fizzing tongues of spray lash against the breakwaters the image of the Tower of Hercules, the great Alexandrine inspired lighthouse of A Coruña atop its breast shaped promontory jutting out into the waters of Cape Finisterre filled her mind’s eye. 

For the first time in years she felt a pang of nostalgia for her home town. She saw herself and Rita as small girls running on the grassy slopes beneath the lighthouse. They were screaming gleefully and giggling and there was their father on his knees, holding out his arms for them to run into. He was laughing too, and smiling a long forgotten broad smile and calling to them, ‘Rita! Elena! …’ And then, as if woken from a dream she heard Omri calling her name.

Startled, she turned round to see him at the French door beckoning, shouting above the traffic and the roar of the surf. ‘Elena!’ He called to her, ‘I’m so sorry but I have a few things to get through with you before the PM gets here.’

She looked at him uncomprehending at first and then astonished as she digested his words. ‘The PM did you say?’

‘Yes, the prime minister.’

‘Goodness!’ She said as she passed him back into the room.

‘You okay Elena?’ he asked her as he slid the door closed behind her. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘Do I?’ she replied, before stopping to look back out to the now muffled again sea.

She wiped her eyes moist with tears from the fresh wind and from her reminiscences. Then with an almost perplexed expression on her face she looked at him and said; ‘Memories are ghosts in a way I suppose.’ She chuckled wryly and gently gripped Omri’s arm then added; ‘There’s something about this odd little country of yours Omri. It’s some kind of powerful medicine. It gets me every time.’

She took a final look at the sea and noticed the distinctive silhouette of a 747 airliner emerging from the ominous looking sky on its seemingly slow motion approach to Ben Gurion Airport.

THE DUKE, THE DUCHESS, THE LOO AND THE BATHROOM (and me) (part II)

THE AMUSING TALE OF HOW I ACQUIRED MY MOST ILLUSTRIUS PATRON, CONCLUDED (part I here)…

I arrived at the imposing front door of the Duke of Devonshire’s red brick Mayfair house in Chesterfield Street a few minutes early. Because I was carrying two 3×2 foot canvases my mother had kindly offered to drive me into town from our home in Edgware (north London), rather than have me negotiate the tube or a bus with my awkward burden. With just a polythene sheet to protect them, I was terrified of presenting two dented paintings.

Mum offered to try and find a parking space and wait for me, but I told her not to bother. For one thing, I had no clue how long I would be with the Duke, and for another, I’d either be returning with one or two “rejected” pictures, or hopefully, emptyhanded. In any case, I would be happy to risk some form of London transport.

Tel Hai – oil on canvas – 1983 – The painting which was kept at Chesterfield Street

Within moments of me ringing the door bell, for the first and (thus far) last time in my life, I was greeted by a butler, who with a mixture of firmness and politeness guided me up a flight of stairs to the “drawing room”. After I carefully set down the paintings against an armchair, the butler, who could have been the role model for Jeeves himself, informed me that “His Grace” would be down “presently”, then, gesturing toward a well stocked eponymously-named tray, asked me if I would like a drink while I waited. Thinking a stiff scotch might be just the thing to calm my slightly frazzled nerves I answered in the affirmative. Then, after having served me a large, heavy, cut glass highball, filled to the brim with Dimple Haig and ice, the butler left me alone to contemplate my extraordinary surroundings.

The fine regency and early Victorian furnishings were typical of such an environment, but what was less expected was the array of modern artwork hanging on all the walls. It comprised a comprehensive collection of pictures by nearly all the major painters of the 20th Century – from Picasso to Rothko, and from Matisse to Miro. While I knew the Duke was a keen collector of contemporary art, nothing could have prepared me for such a superlative display.

The Hula Valley (from Tel Hai) – oil on canvas – 1983 – The painting destined for Chatsworth.

As I shifted my gaze from an unexpectedly vivid and jolly early portrait by Munch to my own two modest canvases, I found myself taking an extra large slug of the Dimple. Then, fortunately, before I had time to terrorise myself further, the door opened and the Duke entered, walked toward me, a welcoming smile on his face, and arm outstretched. He was taller and leaner than I expected, and similarly to his butler, drawn straight from the pages of a Wodehouse novel, almost as if I was being approached by Lord Emsworth. “What a great pleasure to meet you Mr Green!” he said, with disarming warmth and charm, gently but firmly shaking my hand. “How kind of you to come!” Then, noticing the state of my glass, and no-doubt sensing my agitated state he suggested I go and top myself up, which I gratefully did.

“If you would be so kind, I think we had better take a look at what you’ve brought, don’t you?” he said, then added, “Why don’t you unwrap them and put them up on the couch.” I did as he requested, and then stood back, by the Duke’s side while, chin in hand, he contemplated my two humble landscapes. “From the north of the country, if I’m not mistaken?”

Impressed with his knowledge of Israeli geography, I confirmed he was correct and then explained a little about the paintings. “I think they are both terrific Mr Green! Sadly, one doesn’t see many competent landscapes like this of Israel – at least not done by Israeli artists. They capture the essence of the place so precisely! I would love to add them to my collection!”

With that, he went over to a sideboard, opened a drawer, withdrew a large chequebook and a pen, handed me both and asked me to write a cheque for the value of the two pictures. Having done as requested, the Duke then signed the cheque, tore it out of the book and handed it to me. “Now” he said, “let’s go and see where we can hang the one staying here…”

Chatsworth House – arguably, the greatest stately home and palace in Britain, with an art collection to rival that of the Queen herself.

He then led me on a remarkable tour of the Chesterfield Street house, from the cellar to the upper bedrooms, stopping from time to time, to give me some fascinating anecdote about this or that amazing picture, the artist who made it and how he came to purchase it. About ten minutes into the tour, we were half way down a staircase, when he pointed out a space between two small oil paintings. “I think we could put your Tel Hai painting here? What do you think Mr Green?” he asked. The painting on the right of the space was a very early Lowry painting of a street scene, dating from before he developed his stick-figure style – and all the better for it – while the painting on the right was a colourful still-life by Mathew Smith. I was speechless for a moment or two, then mumbled my approval. “In case you were wondering, I thought we’d take the other one of the Hula Valley back to Chatsworth. I think it would be lovely to have a picture of Israel in our bedroom. I hope that’s okay?”

A few minutes later, with me still in a kind of euphoric daze, we walked into a bathroom, and there, leaning over the sink, putting on her lipstick, dressed only in a black silk and lace negligee, was the most beautiful sexagenarian lady I had ever seen. “Excuse us Debs darling” said the Duke, “this is that brilliant young artist I told you about, Adam Green, and I just wanted to show him that little Henry Moore by the bath”. “Don’t mind me you two” replied the Duchess (and the youngest and last surviving of the famous and infamous Mitford sisters). “A pleasure to meet you” she added, glancing at me in the mirror, still applying the finishing touches of lipstick, “but do hurry Andrew dear, we can’t be late for the reception”.

The Moore was a miniature, or possibly a sketch piece for a far larger work I thought I recognised, but my main impression from that fleeting visit to the Ducal bathroom was the blemish-less, glowing skin, and youthful form of the Dowager Duchess of Chatsworth, not to mention her lack of inhibition.

If the Duke reminded me of a more together version of Lord Emsworth, the Duchess, even in her underwear, oozed that peculiar type of serene confidence that is the birthright of the British upper class.

The tour lasted about 45 minutes in all, and I was shown to the door by the Duke himself. As we shook hands for the second time, he said in parting, “Do be sure to keep me informed about your progress Mr Green, and do let me know if I can ever be of service…” As I sat on the top of the 113 bus back to Edgware, I felt as if I was waking slowly from a dream.

It wasn’t a dream however, and several years later, the Duke, true to his word, generously opened my one and only West End one-man-show with a typically kind and charming address.

Looking back at it all now, my abiding memory isn’t of walls laden with modern masterpieces, nor of my own pictures being among them, nor even of the sweet and kindly old Duke; but of the beautiful Debs, in her negligee, and her stick of crimson lippy…

THE DUKE, THE DUCHESS, THE LOO AND THE BATHROOM (and me) (part I)

The amusing tale of how i acquired my most illustrius patron…

Although I failed to make the big time as a fine artist, I did nevertheless manage to acquire one or two illustrious clients/patrons, and the most prominent of these was a certain Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire.

In 1983, a couple of years following my graduation from Saint Martin’s, I had just been part of a major exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery in London’s Soho (all, landscapes of Israel). However, despite a healthy number of sales, I was left with about a dozen canvases, several of which I thought were far better paintings than most of those that had been purchased.

My page from the Jewish Chronicle colour magazine’s article on the “Four Young Artist’s show at the Ben Uri Art Gallery in Soho.

About that time I read an article in the paper about the Duke of Devonshire covering a trip he had recently made to Israel, in which he was revealed as being a keen admirer of the Jewish State – making him a very rare beast indeed within the ranks of the British upper class. But for this fact alone I might have not have given the Duke much more thought, but the piece also discussed his passion for 20th century art and his support for aspiring British artists. While I was well aware, that his ducal palace of Chatsworth, had one of the finest private art collections in Europe, the fact that he was a collector in his own right was news to me. Thus I thought, as an aspiring British artist, with a hat-full of 20th century landscapes of a place he liked, might it not be worth my while approaching him. After all, what did I have to lose, except a wasted letter?

And so, after some research on how to address such an august personage in writing, I wrote to “[His] Grace”, at his home at Chatsworth in Derbyshire* It was a short letter, and to the point, appealing both to his love of art and his affection for the State of Israel. I also enclosed a handful of photos of my paintings, and a copy of a magazine with an article about me and my exhibition at the Ben Uri.

The late Duke and Duchess (Andrew and Debs, to their friends – Debs being originally Deborah Mitford, the youngest of the famous, and infamous “Mitford Girls“) in the Chatsworth library, with Hans Eworth’s fine copy of Holbein’s original portrait of Henry VIII.

About a week later, I was deeply engaged in my morning visit to the smallest room in the house when the telephone rang. I heard my mother answer it (I was still living at home in 1983), and then a few seconds later she banged on the door and demanded I take phone from her, immediately, whispering loudly, “It’s the Duke of Devonshire!”

Twice in my life I have been compelled to hold seminal, life-changing conversations while seated on the lavatory – the first being this one, with the Duke of Devonshire, and the second, with the publisher-to-be of my book, King Saul. I’ve often mused, that if I’d spent more time on the loo, I might have enjoyed greater success in my professional life!

Fortunately, given my state of indisposition, the conversation with His Grace did not take too long, and by the time it was over, he had invited me, and two examples of my oil paintings to his London home, the following week.

What occurred there, goes down as one of the more interesting and eccentric episodes of my professional life, and will comprise part II of this little tale…

*(all those wondering why the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire is in Derbyshire please see here)

I THINK MARC CHAGALL WAS A LOUSY OIL PAINTER…

There, I said it…

…I also think Marc Chagall was arguably the greatest stained-glass artist of the 20th century, and he was a dab hand at lithography, but as a painter in oils – average to poor.

Not that it is any bad thing, to be the greatest exponent in one artform, brilliant at another, while being massively overrated in a third. If my own gravestone epitaph were to read, “Here lies Adam Green…writer of the seminal biography of King Saul, and an alright painter…” I’ll take that, thank you very much.

However the reason I mention this is that most of the pictures below (which also featured in an earlier post) are all, to a certain degree, Chagall-influenced, and although I was no huge fan by that time, I was yet to come to the conclusion which heads this piece. That happened during the following decade or so, when the veil dropped from before my eyes regarding the alleged greatness of Marc Chagall and his even more illustrious contemporary, Henri Matisse. It was during those ten years or so that I came to understand that their genius lay not so much in the distinct styles and aesthetic they developed, but in the way those styles developed to mask their severe limitations as draughtsmen. For the stark fact is, that neither of these two artists, both obsessed with the narrative qualities of the human form, could reliably draw the human body and especially hands and feet.

With this in mind it is fascinating to ponder what might have become of these two giants of 20th century art if they had been born a hundred years earlier, before modernism liberated artists from the shackles of academic rigour.

Nevertheless, they were both undoubtedly brilliant picture makers, with a formidable sense of image and design, and thus genuinely artistically important and enduringly influential. Hence, my own dalliance with Chagallesque themes and style as an impressionable young painter at the outset of my professional career. The reason I’m re-presenting them now is because since that original post I have discovered higher quality slides , much truer to their actual colours and textures…

The Choice – 1979 – oil on paper: I think this tale of teenage angst and identity crisis is pretty self-explanatory. Sadly for the fiddler, (as much as I dearly love him, especially in the form of Isaac Stern playing John William’s stunning cadenza at the start of the movie version of Fiddler on the Roof), and “the God of my fathers”, they didn’t stand a chance against the siren riffs of James Page and co…
The Seder – 1979 – oil on paper: Long after I had stopped believing in a god, I retained a warm affection for several Jewish rituals, and none more so than the seder, which in our house at least, was always loads of wine and food infused fun. I think this highly symbolised image of the prophet Elijah actually turning up to enjoy his specially set-aside goblet of wine, with the Children of Israel walking between the parted waters expresses some of the fun I felt…
My Brother’s First wedding – 1979 – oil on paper: The story behind my older brother Michael’s first wedding is far too sordid to go into here, but this most Chagall-influenced of all my paintings from this period, captures something of the atmosphere. That’s me, bottom left, trying hard not to show my well placed cynicism at the proceedings. Michael and his bride were separated within weeks of the celebration, which was no surprise to anyone standing beneath the chupa …
The Eviction and the Angel (detail) – 1979 – oil on paper: The eviction from Eden was a theme which I returned to many times, but this was the only version I attempted during my brief Chagall phase…
Jacob and the Angel – 1979 – oil on canvas: This picture and the one below were virtually a diptych and even sold to the same person. They were the final two paintings I made in this style, and I think they are the most resolved too…
Fiddler in Green – 1979 – oil on canvas: Like Jacob and the Angel, my fiddler is reassuringly sanguine with his lot, even though contained and constrained within his canvas. In addition, the bright reds and greens and solid designs I think were intended to project a feeling of optimism.

COME FLY WITH ME?

in my dreams at least

With all due apologies to Greta Thunberg and her righteous minions, the thing I’m missing most during these dystopian times is travel – in particular, travel by air. I find myself staring up at the eerily silent skies above our Spanish home, longing for the return of vapour trails scratched out by distant aeroplanes, like small gleaming arrowheads, hurtling toward myriad destinations. Raised in the 1960’s and 70’s, I am an unreformed creature of my era and my conditioning, brought up to regard jet travel as the ultimate expression of independence and the gateway to adventure. And deprived of it now I feel caged in and frustrated, to the point where I find myself craving the most mundane of things, like the regular noise of the jet engines approaching and leaving our nearby airport, and even the smell of aviation fuel at the airport itself.

One of my most vivid childhood memories, is from my second ever flight in July of 1967 to Tel Aviv, on arriving at Lod Airport (as it was then – since renamed Ben Gurion) late at night. There were no airbridges in those days at Lod, and I can never forget, as we walked down the stairs, onto the floodlit apron, being instantly engulfed in a blanket of humid, oven-hot air, laced with the scent of kerosene. These intense sensations – startlingly alien to a little boy from north London suburbia – had a deeply intoxicating effect that lives with me to this day.

However, attitudes and perceptions have greatly altered in recent years, and what I still look back on as a happy memory that shaped my future, would, in these apparently more enlightened times, be considered by some as a scarring and damaging episode, which condemned me to life as an environmental criminal.

Nevertheless, during the 80’s and 90’s, when my painting career was in full swing, flying opened up an almost infinite canvas for my colour-hungry brushes, as expressed below in eight examples from those exuberant and innocent times. And so I would hope, even the most virtuous of those reading this piece, would at least own that some good came out of what they might otherwise regard as merely evidence of my multiple re-offending…

BATHERS AT KINNERET – 1982 – oil on canvas: As mentioned before on these pages, the Sea of Galilee has proved a fertile source of inspiration for my art, over many years. This typical Shabbat scene, of three generations is hugely evocative for me. I’m particularly pleased with the way I captured the large bulk of the grandmother, deftly negotiating the stones, while carrying her grandchild with almost nonchalant aplomb.
HOTELS, SAND, SEA AND SKY (Tel Aviv) – 1992 – oil (impasto) on canvas: Tel Aviv is an addiction for me. I crave to be there when away, and yet the place drives me half-nuts when I’m there; partly through sensory overload and partly through it’s 24/7 urban intensity – like New York City, on steroids. It’s of no surprise to those familiar with Israel’s second city, that National Geographic regularly lists it in its top 10 “beach cities” of the world. This is the closest I ever got to revealing its brutal-yet-beautiful physicality in paint. One can almost feel the hot summer breeze, and taste of salt in the turbulent air – and as for the light…
OUTSIDE THE ALCAZAR (Seville) – 1985 – oil on canvas: “I fell in love with Seville” is one of those traveller’s clichés, like “I love Paris” (which I do not), or “I love Rio” (which I need to visit again to be certain). But in my case, this is the truth, partly, perhaps because I also experienced romantic love in Seville; twice. Generally, I’m not one for painting anything through rose tinted spectacles, but in the case of Seville, it’s virtually impossible not to. Perhaps that’s why I’ve sold every single painting I ever made of the place. People just love a bit of rose, and bit of ochre, and touch of sienna, and certainly a great deal of violet…
JOLANDA AT GARDA – 1983 – oil on canvas: If anywhere in the world can compete with Seville for romance, then the Italian lakes is that place. But, whereas the feel of Seville is defined by strong colours, bright light and deep shade, the Italian lakes are bathed in subtle, seasonally shifting tonalities. If Seville is all about the passion, than Lake Garda, seen here in mid-winter, is all mellow contemplation. Love takes many forms, after all.
DIDO AT COQUIMBO (Chile) – 1992 – oil on canvas: Sadly, this photo is slightly out of focus, but the painting remains the one I was most pleased with from our time in Chile. The region of Coquimbo (in common with much of the southern Atacama Desert) had just experienced its heaviest rains for over 40 years, resulting in the greatest cactus flowering most Chileans had ever witnessed. I’ve rarely felt more privileged as a traveller, before or since, and together with the Sinai Corral Reef remains the most wonderous display of nature I have ever seen.
DIDO AND LYNNE AT TONGOY1992 – oil on canvas: Back in 1991, when we were there, Tongoy was somewhere between a sleepy fishing village, and an even sleepier seaside resort. It felt a bit like entering a scene from a Steinbeck novel, and I half expected to see the skeleton of a giant marlin lying on the pearly white sands. It was off season, and we (and the fishermen too of course) had the place to ourselves. A precious and serene memory.

SURFACE DEEP

expressive impressions

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.

The Tiyul (Tour) Party – 1983 – oil on canvas – 102 x 153cm This was my first palette knife figures-in-landscape painting. It was on my-then-typical rose madder ground, and at the sketch stage when I decided to “attack” the canvas with the knife. It was applied in one session, lasting about 3 hours – I realised immediately, that speed, in combination with paint application was key. This remains my all-time favourite painting that I ever executed in oils.

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.

The Swimmer – 1983 – oil on canvas – 122 x 122cm I found water to be a natural “animated” environment for my new “animated” figures. By now I had moved to a deep black ground, setting off increased colour contrasts.

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.

Waiting to Jump – 1983oil on canvas – 92 x 61cm My new way of painting coincided with one of my longer trips to Israel. The previous picture, this painting, and the one below are all in and around the pool at Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar, in the Galilee.

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.

The Jump – 1983 – oil on canvas – 122 x 105cm

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.

Family at Kineret – 1983 – oil on canvas – 122 x 98cm Kineret (The Sea of Galilee) was a recurring theme / backdrop to my Israel-sourced images. It’s atmospherics (light, colour and water) are an artist’s dream.

MOODY BLUES AND STORMY HUES…

…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).

The Distant Breakwater – oil on canvas – 1995

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 Harbour Entrance – oil on canvas – 1995

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.

The Fish Cannery – oil on canvas – 1995

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…

WALKING AWAY – AGAIN

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.

This was a large photograph, and thus atypical for me, as I generally preferred small snaps. I guess that in this case, I felt the figure to be central to the composition and so required the extra detail a larger photo offered. For those interested, the scene is just above the village of Ein Kerem, in the hills just to the west of Jerusalem. The Hadassah University Hospital is at the top left, famous for its synagogue adorned with Marc Chagall’s fabulous twelve stained glass windows, depicting the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
“Walking Away” – 1982 – oil on canvas
This was the more typical small postcard-size snap I preferred to use for making large “blown-up” paintings. The tight containment of the image helped my decision-making processes and prevented me getting distracted by extraneous detail. In this case, I only retained five of the skiers as I felt it accentuated the drama of the moment, and the moodiness is also increased by a tonal shift from a highly photographic cyan (almost indigo) screen to a deep gradation of (mostly) dark cobalt.
“Bormio 3000” – 1983 – Oil on Canvas

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?

CHURCH OF SAINT MARY MAGDALENE & GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE – 1982 – oil on canvas
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?

NINE SAINTS OF SANTIAGO

MY PICTORIAL tribute to nine great kids

Regular readers of these posts will be aware of how prominently our 1991 trip to Chile has featured, and of its main purpose; for Dido to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool to support social integration and participation for children with learning problems. Thus far however, I’ve only ever touched upon that key element of the trip, focusing more on our impressions as first-time travellers to an incredible country (and-then reborn democracy).  

While it would be lying to say that whenever I hear a mention of Chile, my instant mental vision is not of mind-blowing epic scenery, it is also true, that this is always quickly followed by a starkly contrasting melancholy caused by memories of the faces shown here.

The plain truth is, and one of the main reasons I’ve avoided the subject as far as possible, despite the fact this happened nearly 30 years ago, there are issues of confidentiality which severely compromise my scope for description.

Suffice to say here, that with the cache of her Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship behind her, Dido was able to convince the relevant government authorities in Santiago to grant us access to a group of nine children (all boys in this case) with whom she could work. Nothing however could have prepared us for the circumstances in which the work would take place, for instead of a regular school, or, as we had naively expected, a special needs school, we found ourselves that first morning being driven through the security gates of a home for young male offenders – a borstal.

More shocking still, was that none of the nine boys – all of whom had either been orphaned or abandoned as babies and who all suffered from various forms of mental and/or physical disability – were themselves offenders or delinquents of any sort. Their only crime was to be born into a Chilean society, then-ill-equipped to properly care for them. Hopefully, during the years since, as Chile has developed into a more stable (the current, popular ructions notwithstanding) and socially sophisticated democracy, children born into similar circumstances enjoy a less bleak prospect.

Nevertheless, from the start of the week we spent with them, we were struck by most of the boy’s cheerfulness and sense of optimism, and their enthusiasm and excitement for Dido’s program of dance-based therapy. Despite some shyness and reluctance from a couple of the lads to begin with, by the end of the week all nine boys had become thoroughly engaged and were already showing significant progress with regards to their levels of creative social engagement.  

The idea had been for one or two carers and/or teachers working in the home to at least observe, and hopefully participate in the activities, and thereby learn to continue the therapy once we had left. Sadly though, despite their repeated assurances to the contrary, neither the government department who facilitated the project, nor anyone employed at the home showed the slightest curiosity or interest in what Dido was doing until the very last day, by which time, it was too late.

Thus, we left the boys for the last time with as much frustration as satisfaction, and saddened in the realisation that this week had probably been the highlight of their young lives rather than merely the beginning of a brighter future.

Following our return to England, and during the months which followed Dido often wrote to her Chilean contacts in an attempt to secure some kind of followup to her work – at least for the nine boys. Unfortunately, all her appeals went unanswered. The painting here was meant as both an expression of our frustration and also intended to insure that at least we would never forget those nine remarkable young individuals.

THE NINE SAINTS OF SANTIAGO – oil on canvas – 1992 – 100 x 78″ (254 x 198 cm)

This is arguably the most monumental of all my large paintings, and it is certainly the most deeply felt. The “missing” ninth lad, who suffered from schizophrenia, did not want to be sketched and is represented by the padlock in the centre of the painting. The padlock is obviously a metaphor for him and much more besides. The blues and lilacs represent the uniform they all wore.

The sketches above are all gouache on paper.