PHOTO-REALISM v’s PHOTO PLAGIARISM

…and the stark difference between copying and INTERPRETING.

This is not the post I had planned. But that was before I had the great misfortune, not to say fright of seeing the latest portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A few posts ago I discussed how I came to paint from photographs, and how and why it can work brilliantly in the right hands. What I did not discuss however (and perhaps I should have done), was the converse of this, when photographs are simply copied as a form of craft, with the art all but forgotten.

Well, this latest portrait of HRH (https://ewn.co.za/2020/07/26/queen-elizabeth-sees-new-portrait-unveiled-at-britain-s-foreign-office) not only manifests as easily the lousiest in a long line of dire images of the United Kingdom’s longest serving sovereign, but also exemplifies all the worst elements of painting from photographs.

The “artist” has succeeded in confirming every prejudice I ever had thrown at me by detractors of “photograph-method”, and arrived at a plasticised and peculiarly scary image, obsessed with technical finesse while utterly devoid of empathy and artistry. This is not so much a majestic portrait as a grotesquely kitsch, 2-dimensional waxwork. This is the produce of a copyist and not an artist all, and says much – none of it complementary – about the judges of the BP National Portrait Award; the winning of which landed the alleged “artist” this most august of portrait commissions.

As I attempted to illustrate in a previous post, copying from photographs offers so much more than the absolute stability of the reference material (i.e. total stillness and unchanging light). IN THE RIGHT HANDS – from Vermeer (with his Photo Obscura) to Rockwell – it offers up an essence and intensity of “moment” that resulted in some of the most empathetic and compassionate pictures ever achieved.

While I would never be so hubristic as to place my own photograph-method creations on a par with those of the great masters of the past, I dare to claim, that at their best, my efforts do at least show some of the positives of the genre. Three of the pictures below were not only exciting and fun to create, they are human expressions accentuated by technique rather than masked by it. The fourth picture is an example of my own, of what happened when I allowed technique to subsume the human moment.

Jolanda – 1983 – oil on canvas:- Jolanda was the first love of my life, as I hope and believe this tender portrait betrays. Using a tiny snap from a then-recent visit to Cremona, I wanted to capture the romance of her, bathed in the Renaissance tones and light of her native Lombardy.

Lynne – acrylic on board – 1996:- Lynne was an ex-ballet colleague of my wife Dido and a close friend. I can’t recall if this was a commission or a gift, but it comes from a series of images of her, and her and Dido, dancing for my camera at our house in Spain. Again, I used the photo as a sketch upon which to elaborate both Lynne’s graceful movement and her vibrant personality, and all drenched in the bleaching Andalusian summer light.
Marie and Juan Junior – 1998 – oil on canvas (detail):- Juan and Marie were our only full-time neighbours when we first moved to our country home in Spain. However, unlike us, who sought solitude and lived remotely by choice, they were outcasts from the local village and desperately poor. Nevertheless, they were a cheerful and extremely loving couple, always pleased to offer us the modest hospitality they could. In this picture of Marie feeding her new baby boy (and second child) I tried to express a mixture of our compassion for their kindness, and our admiration for their dignity, despite their arduous circumstances.

Margaret and Pete’s Party – 1994 – gouache on Daler Board:- In fairness, this was always intended as more of an exercise in technique and excruciating attention to detail, than as a work of artistic expression. The drawing alone took me the best part of a week, and I think I spent over four months on the piece altogether (it was also intended as a way to help me pass the days during the months of depressing boredom while stuck in Boulogne sur mer ). Although not quite so dire as the Queen’s new portrait, it is equally sterile, and that probably explains why I never completed it. Interesting to note, that the hands on the nearer completed figure (actually yours truly), despite being immaculately drawn/copied, have the same “banana bunch” feel as those of Her Majesty in the new portrait.

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.

PORTRAITS – and my thank you to Chaim Beckman – and Kevin

I was only five years old when my first headmaster, Chaim Beckman, described me as “the complete illustrator and cartoonist”. However accurate he was in that appraisal there was no doubt that I was certainly able to capture a person’s likeness – in comic or serious form – from a precocious age. And, although I never made much money from portraits it was nevertheless a skill which served me well in some quite surprising ways.

Because I’d been living abroad for most of the previous year I missed being streamed in that first fateful year of English and Welsh comprehensive education in 1971 and so found myself “defaulted” into class “G” at my local ex-grammar school in Edgware (north London). Nearly all my friends from primary school had been streamed into classes “A” and “B”, with the few  relatively “dumb” ones ending up in “C” – so you can only imagine how isolated and strange I felt finding myself cast five rungs further down the intellectual ladder. The  fact that all of my new classmates were from the other side of the north London social and cultural tracks, and that I was the only Jewish kid in the group made for a potentially dangerous educational experiment – dangerous for me that was. But fortunately, my drawing (and my portrait skills in particular) was to prove to be my guardian angel.

On my very first day in class, the alpha male of stream”G”, a boy-mountain  called Kevin approached me menacingly. Towering over my desk – and in what was my first personal experience of antisemitism directed at me – he  said, ‘Oi you – Jew boy!’ But before I had time to feel fear or shock, he continued; ‘I ‘ear you’re-a-bit-of-a-fucking artist’ (he used that expletive or worse in every utterance he made), to which I mumbled back something like; ‘er…yes…I guess so…”

‘Well fucking are-ya-or fucking arnt-ya?’ he demanded.

‘Yes’ I replied, perplexed and intimidated in equal measure, ‘I’m quite good at drawing’

‘Fucking draw me then!’

‘What?’

‘Are ya fucking deaf? I said draw me ya little Jew bastard!’

‘Er…draw you? When?’

‘Fucking now!’

It’s never ceased to amaze me, the things we can achieve whilst in a state of abject fear.

Somehow or other, I remained composed enough to invite Kevin to take a seat at the vacant desk next to my own, remove a new pad of lined paper from my brief case, take a felt tipped pen from my inside school blazer pocket and even to ask Kevin if he wanted me to do a caricature or something more serious.

‘A carick-what?’ he asked me.

‘Like a cartoon…like in the comics’

At this he smiled for the first time and said ‘Yeh! Make me into a cartoon, and put me in an Arsenal strip!’

Fortunately Kevin didn’t yet know that I was a Spurs fan. That heinous fact on top of everything else might have pushed him into doing something rash before I got a chance to win his favours with my drawing. But, to cut a short story even shorter, and spare you all from more of his expletives, my drawing of Kevin’s head on George Graham’s body, doing amazing things with a football impressed him so much that from that moment on, apart from having the honour of being “Kevin’s Jew” I was also designated by Kevin to be stream “G”s official artist. “Working for Kevin” (that was the way he termed it) was a bit like being the court artist to Henry VIII (they even looked a bit alike), with all the pressures and stresses that particular job must have entailed – only it was more the threat of having my head “beaten to a pulp” than having it removed which kept me on my toes.

As things turned out I only had to survive two terms at that school, but by the end of my time there, Kevin had – albeit somewhat inadvertently – helped me hone my drawing skills to a whole new level.

This selection of portraits (including sketches of one or two quite well-known people), covering about two decades and done in a variety of media, formal and rough, is dedicated to the late Chaim Beckman (one of the subjects presented here) for believing in me from such an early age, and also to Kevin, for teaching me to work well under pressure. Sadly, I don’t have any of the dozens of drawings I made of Kevin as he kept the “fucking” lot…