…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…
About half-way through my second year at St Martin’s 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 Martin’s I turned to Jewish/biblical subjects because it was a world which I knew and in which I still felt at home. Moreover, 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 Martin’s 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 Martin’s, 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…