WALKING AWAY INTO “LITTLE BIG LAND” – Israel painted through the romantic eyes of youth

My phase of painting large epic landscapes in oils happened to coincide with a period in my life when I spent most summers in Israel. From around 1978 until about 1986 I went there every year, partly out of idealism and partly because I just loved making paintings of the place.

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“Walking Away at Ein Kerem” (120 x 170cm∗) – In the Jerusalem Hills – southwest outskirts of the city…

Looking back on that time now I can see that the two motivations were part of the same “condition” and fed an inner yearning to find expression for my youthful optimism and romanticism.

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“Astrud at Tel Hai”  detail (150 x 100cm) – At the south-western entrance to the northern “pan-handle”…

As I think I’ve said before on these pages, Israel, although geographically a tiny country, can often feel vast to the naked eye. Among the hills and valleys of the “pan-handle” of the northern Galilee, and especially in the arid canyons of southern Judea and the Negev Desert, the landscape creates an illusion of almost infinite enormity.

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“Pickers at Rest” (153 x 213cm) – Hired Druze pickers enjoying ice-lollies during a break from apple picking on the northern border kibbutz of Yiftach…

My initial efforts were okay as paintings but they failed to transmit the epic quality of the scenes I was depicting. But then I remembered a device often used by my favourite painters of “sublime” landscape, such as Claude Lorraine, William Turner and John Martin, which was to offset the vista against a peopled foreground. This not only gave scale to the views beyond, but also created a feeling of depth and a sense of “moment” with the human figures caught in time.

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“The Banyas Falls” (180 x 120cm)  – The source of the River Jordan, at the north-western edge of the Golan Heights, and thought by the Macedonian conquerors of 332 BC  to be the birth place of the god Pan – hence: the Greek “Panias”, now “Banyas” in modern Hebrew via the previous “Banias…”

So, from about 1981 I began to inhabit my Israeli landscapes with people, normally young people like me, walking away, down a track or road toward some distant horizon. And for me, then, it did the trick, seeming to offer a message of future hope into the bargain.

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“The Coach Party”  detail (180 x 240cm) – On a roadside cliff edge overlooking the Hula Valley in the north western pan handle…

Sadly (or perhaps fortunately) I failed to record most of the “Walking Away” series (I think I did around ten of them over the course of that year) on camera. In fact, I have very little photographic record of any of my people-in-landscape pictures from that phase of my career.

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“On the Beach” detail (120 x 180 cm) – A group of my friends on Ashkelon beach on Israel’s southern Mediterranean coast…

However, I have managed to cobble together what you see here, including two from the Walking Away series (one complete and a detail from another) and the rest, mostly details and sections from other pictures.

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“Resting at Montfort” detail (120 x 180cm) – Our tour party taking a break on the ruins of the Crusader castle of Montfort just south of the Lebanon border. Hence the need for the M16…

Despite the incompleteness presented, I still think one can sense the romance, and the optimism of the mostly-unseen whole paintings.

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“The Wanderers” detail (130 x  190cm) – The first of the “Walking Away” themed  series, set on the road down from Tel Hai south, towards Lake Kinneret  (The Sea of Galilee).

(∗ All sizes refer to the full canvases)

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WALKING AWAY – or the ephemeral nature of being

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.

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