…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…
I think I’ve mentioned before on these pages how, very occasionally, I had my uses to the powers-that-be at Saint Martin’s School of Art. While generally I was shunned by most of the tutors for my work being “hopelessly representative”, every-so-often, when they required the services of someone with common-or-garden drawing and painting skills they came to your’s truly.
The story of my mural in Covent Garden was the most high-profile example of this expediency, but there was another occasion when my usefulness to the school was probably far more significant.
It was shortly after the Easter break in 1981 when St. Martins received a visit from a delegation of Communist Chinese dignitaries from their ministry of culture, led by the minister himself. Although I was blissfully unaware at the time, the visit was part of a drive by China to open up access for their top students to elite academic institutions in the UK and North America. I subsequently discovered that their “shopping list” of British institutions comprised, Oxford and Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College, the LSE, the Royal Ballet School, and (incredibly to me at least) Saint Martin’s School of Art. I was equally ignorant of the fact that the visit mattered at least as much to my school as it did to the visitors, as even back then, foreign students were a lucrative source of revenue.
Thus, in effect, I was an unwitting cultural/commercial ambassador for St. Martin’s. The fact that my work was the polar opposite of everything that St. Martin’s stood for mattered not. That it was “safe”, accessible, “good of its kind” and most important of all, unlikely to be considered “decadent” by our communist guests mattered a great deal. When I later asked my head tutor John Edwards, why they didn’t simply visit the Slade School or the Royal Academy Schools, where nearly all the art was like mine, he pointed out that St. Martin’s was “so much more than a mere school of painting”. And that its fashion and film departments, in addition to its art and sculpture “made it uniquely attractive” to the Chinese. “In truth”, he added, “the art department was the least significant element” of the school and the main thing was “not to rock the boat”. As things turned out, not only did my work prove the steady ship my superiors had hoped, one of my pictures actually ended up pleasing our visitors more than anyone could have predicted.
On the afternoon of the visit, the art department was cleared of students except for me, and the delegation was brought up directly to my studio. There were about ten Chinese, all men and all wearing expensive English-cut suits, and they were led into the room by John Edwards and the principal of the school, Ian Simpson. After some words of introduction from John, the visitors began to notice my pictures, which wasn’t difficult, as at that time I was working on a series of monumental canvases. However – and it’s a moment I shall never forget – as their eyes (and I mean theireyes, for they turned their ten heads as if a single organism) landed on “Apple Pickers at Rest” they let out a collective “ahhhh…” and all broke into broad smiles. Then, the leader of the delegation (the minister himself as it later turned out) looked at me and asked, or perhaps stated, “workers in the field yes?”. I think I just nodded. He then walked up to the picture, and pointing at one of “workers” contemplatively holding a raspberry ice lolly, he turned to me, and grinning and nodding enthusiastically queried, “Little Red Book, yes?”. Before I could respond, he’d already uttered something to his compatriots, to which they all responded with an even bigger collective “ahhhh…”, followed by more smiles and nods of approval. Finally, after each shaking hands and bowing their heads to me in turn, the principal led them out of my studio to continue their tour. The last person to leave was John, who, as he walked out the door, turned around and gave me a big thumb’s-up.
I was left feeling peculiarly frustrated, having been completely unable to explain what the painting was in fact depicting – a scene of Druze labourers, hired by the kibbutz on which I was a volunteer, enjoying a rest from picking apples with a refreshing ice lolly (ice popsicle). In retrospect, my being tongue-tied was a blessing, as Ian later informed me that the minister had described their visit to my studio as the highlight of their tour of the school and even inquired about the possibility of purchasing the painting. I declined this however, when it was made clear all the proceeds would be pocketed by St. Martin’s. After all, I thought, I had already done more than my bit for insuring the future prosperity of the school!
One of the many surprises thrown up by my recent digitisation of all my photographs of old artwork was how – once chronologically sorted – it vividly revealed the development of my painting skills – or, if not skills exactly; at least of my comfort with the medium of oil paint. Additionally, they exposed something even more interesting – at least to me – of the dramatic alteration in my spirits and emotions from that heavily pressured time at art school to my days as a confident, free painting spirit.
The two paintings I have chosen for this piece graphically illustrate what I mean:
Soho Buildings was the first painting I ever made on canvas, and how it shows! Thin washes, tentative drawing and clumsy composition. Looking at it now, even in photographic form, I can still feel my fear of the canvas, and my hesitant application of the paint. Plus there was the added pressure of being surrounded by – at least – equally talented artists, most of whom were already familiar with painting on canvas. So, I was desperate for it to appear like I knew what I was doing and that I was at ease with the process, which clearly shows in the picture. But, for all that, the painting has some merit; some lucky accidents; like the two white painted windows on the shaded side of the near building…something quite lyrical about them. Plus, it serves now as a powerfully symbolic and accurate reminder of my gloomy mindset during those first terrifying days at Saint Martin’s…
Girl Fastening Sandal was painted in 1988 and is evidently, everything the Soho picture is not. By this time I was confident and comfortable with both the oil paint and the painting surface and, more crucially, unencumbered by being part of any “art scene” – I didn’t have to worry about peers and rivals watching me over my shoulder. Whereas, with the Soho painting it was all I could do to produce any kind of image on the canvas, with the Girl painting I was preoccupied with expressing the joys and thrills of both the subject and the paint itself. It should look almost as if the paint flowed directly from my mind to the palette knife; a visual stream of consciousness; like a happy, joyous thought. The two paintings here graphically represent a pretty dramatic 10-year transition from student to artist and from teenage hesitancy to adult assuredness.
As an amateur student of history, one of the phenomena I’ve noticed is how human nonconformities sometimes transform into mass consensus. It is perhaps one of the great historical ironies that people and ideas which start out on the margins of society, once adopted by society, have a tendency to marginalise the people of the existing consensus who previously marginalised them. This is a pattern common to all fields of putative human coexistence, which more often than not results in the followers of the usurped consensus being persecuted by the holders of the new. These persecutions are usually most obvious and brutal in the areas of religion and politics but they happen with equal intellectual ferocity at a cultural level.
In the 1960’s and 70’s Saint Martin’s School of Art was one of the world’s high temples of the-then recently adopted art consensus of Abstract Expressionism.
Abstract Expressionism developed out of the near-century old grand consensus of Modernism, in a similar way to how a reformed religion develops out of an existing ancient religion, with similar intellectual tensions and conflicts resulting – albeit without the physical violence.
Thus, when in 1978, a callow 18-year-old “classical” modernist, realist painter misguidedly found himself stuck for three years in the beating heart of western European Abstract Expressionism, his creative life was always going to be something of a struggle.
That young aspiring artist was me, and my time at Saint Martin’s School of Art was in fact, one long battle of wills between me and a group of teachers who almost* to a man and a woman regarded me as a hopeless heretic from the start. My overall experience of being “taught” comprised a mixture of verbal bullying – in an attempt to bend me to their will – and / or complete indifference to my work when these efforts eventually failed.
But one day in the Spring of 1981 during my final term at the school all that changed, when I was paid a rare visit to my studio by my 3rd-year head tutor John Edwards, who came bearing a surprising request.
The Greater London Council (now defunct) together with the construction company, Myton Taylor Woodrow were looking for a student artist to paint a temporary street mural to jolly up a large hoarding in James Street, Covent Garden during the area’s major refurbishment. They wanted a student because they only had £100 on offer for the commission, and they wanted that student to be from the local art college, which was Saint Martin’s. However, they also wanted the mural to be figurative, and that was where I came in.
Edwards was typically candid with me, and admitted that when first approached by the GLC he had suggested one or other of his star students in Abstract Expressionism, but when they insisted on a figurative artist, the only person he could think of was me. While there were a couple of other representational heretics in our year, Edwards told me that he thought I was the only one with sufficient mastery of grand scale painting to handle such a large mural.
With just a £100 to spend and two weeks to execute the project, I was tempted to refuse what was a virtually impossible commission. But the certain public exposure of painting a mural in a bustling London street adjacent to Covent Garden Opera House was an opportunity too good to turn down; so much to John Edward’s and the school’s relief I accepted.
With half the £100, I employed two of my fellow student “Modernist heretics”† to help me with the huge physical task of covering so much white hoarding in paint. This left me all of £50 with which to purchase the paint itself, the brushes and rollers and plastic paint-mixing buckets. The only paint I could afford in sufficient quantity to finish the job was the cheapest industrial emulsion, and because of the time constraint, it had to be quick-drying “matt”. In other words, this was hardly going to be a Michelangelo or a de Rivera so far as colour intensity was concerned.
In the end, the subject matter of the painting was as much determined by these extreme material and time limitations, as it was by the unusually wide configuration of the street “canvas”. And so I came up with the idea of all the highlights of the Book of Genesis, with each chosen episode “bleeding” into the next. With only a few days to make a scale sketch and then just five days (London weather permitting) to execute the actual mural I decided to go with a kind of Chagall-meets-comic strip approach, allowing for quick, strongly drawn cartoon outlines coloured in with simple large blocks of colour.
As things turned out, the weather was unusually kind for May in London, and the three of us completed the mural with hours to spare.
All things considered, including the lifeless paint, it looked pretty good, and graced James Street for about the following two years. It received favourable reviews from the London and Jewish press and was probably my first claim to 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps more importantly though, it earned me the appreciation of my school and its tutors for the first time, and I’ll never forget John Edward’s response upon viewing it; “You know Adam, I’ve often wondered why we accepted you at Saint Martin’s, but seeing this, all I can say is that I’m bloody glad we did!” Even heretics have their uses I guess?
*David Hepher and the late Henry Mundy were glorious exceptions to this general dereliction of tutorship, and for that they both have my undying gratitude.
†Danny Gibson (now a brilliant printmaker) and Robert Lewenstein (the most gifted portraitist I ever knew).