May 14

Henry Israel (painter) - a huge loss.

Henry Israel 22nd January 1933 - 24th December 2017

Henry was a truly great artist and teacher. We shared the same birthday but not the same year. He was strong and forceful but enormously kind - and very patient, if he thought you were serious. For over 30 years I regarded him as my mentor: he jostled on my shoulder, as I worked (and still does), with my brother John Martin and Cezanne - stern but wise mentors all.

He was classically trained at the Slade but not well known beyond a small circle of collectors and students in North Cornwall because he hated attention and fuss. I remember him once saying that he didn't paint in public because he wasn't a performer. This makes him sound a curmudgeon but he wasn't, he had a dark and mischievous East London sense of humour, which I think comes across in the photo above.

Our painting techniques, from widely different starting points, seemed to converge at the end; I felt that he came to me, but he would say the opposite of course. We had one exhibition together in Camelford in 2005: Henry's B&W photography and drawings, and my own very un-B&W paintings.

I miss him tremendously. His wife Caeria - also a fine painter - is missing him much more of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dec 22

Gauguin: Voyage de Tahiti

Went to see this film at my lovely local Arts Centre. It was a pleasant concoction. If you hadn't been told it was about the artist Paul Gauguin on Tahiti and came to it cold, you might be excused for thinking it was just another love(-triangle but not really) drama set in an exotic location, bearing as little resemblance to the life of a painter (of static images) as only a cinematographer could make. It deals just with Paul Gauguin's first visit to Polynesia (you'll be amazed his health stood up to a second!).

Having read David Sweetman's 600 page 'A complete life' of Gauguin (Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), it feels these are two very different people. That's fine - it's a film - but why hang it on a famous painter if not to attract another audience. Sweetman gave every impression of hating Gauguin, but that's another story. The film is certainly beautiful, thanks to the location more than to the characterisations, and is aided by a lovely mellow score. Energetically edited and well acted, even if the titular role, played by Vincent Cassel, is one-dimensional. Without Cassel the film would be nothing. Apart from some sketching, carving and minimal painting, there was little about art or Gauguin's serious philosophy of it – which deserved attention.

On a more mundane level, his amorous exploits (often with under-age girls, one of whom he 'married' even though he was already married to Mette back home) and syphilis were ignored, as were his long-running disputes with the church and authority in general. A doctor was invented to befriend him, rather in the Dr Gachet mould, but I can find no authority for this. His main Western friend was a Lieutenant Jénot. I don't think he ever rode a horse up into the mountains or lived as a castaway, though he looked very much like one. In actual fact, he caught a coach out of town!

I yearn for a film which looks at a real painter's life, but it might be tedious viewing to most people, a bit like watching an author write a book. The nearest I've seen to it is 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' which revealed the difficulties in Vermeer's life, trying to paint in a domestic situation. At least Edouard Deluc's film was sympathetic to the subject and, thankfully, avoided concentration on fornication, drinking and brawling – which, as we all know, are the staple of an artist's life!

Gauguin crept into the corner an old unsuccessful painting (here) but the rest got painted over (see Re-gazed).

Dec 2

Chaim Soutine exhibition

A visit to see Soutine at The Courtauld Gallery in London turned out to be a mismatch of the expected. Having studied this phenomenal artist ever since I began to paint seriously myself in the 1970s, his work has been massively influential, validating looseness and freeing up honesty. I've responded most to his landscapes - more so than the portraits but Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys are the subject of this exhibition. There aren't many Soutines in British collections, so to suddenly be confronted by 21 portraits, most of which I knew so well from reproductions was something of a shock to the senses. Not so much the visual as the tactile.


 

The Chambermaid (1913)

In truth, they were both disappointing and exhilarating. Maybe that sentence needs some explanation. Disappointing because they were less spontaneous than I expected. The execution was carefully considered even though he never made drawings, either on the canvas or in sketchbooks. In fact, there are none in existence. There I was, expecting de Kooning-like explosions of passion. Frenetic paint and ideas mixed up together and dumped spontaneously on the canvas, instead I found repetitive series. Nothing wrong with that, it was just not what I was expecting. More fool me.

My visit happily coincided with a curatorial talk. His painting practice was not mentioned once; at the end I had to ask the question 'Did he use knives or just brushes?'. Neither on the information panels was there any reference to technique, well, just one reference to brushmarks. All reviews have been concerned solely with the subjects of the paintings – who or rather what they were, their jobs, their social status, their poses etc. It was more a psychological study than a painting one. That was disappointing for me as a painter, but it must be what most visitors are interested in. As a masterful manipulator of paint and restricted colour, how could this be?

With van Gogh, we hear about the way he painted, as with de Kooning, Pollock and Dubuffet, but if anyone needs his technique discussed and analysed it's Soutine. One often encounters the same anthropocentricity with Rembrandt, whom Soutine admired above all, as must, I submit, any real painter. Just look at Rembrandt's handling of paint.


Soutine detail

Rembrandt detail

So those were some disappointments, what about the exhilaration? It's what I get when in front of a REAL painting, a work in which the integrity and sincerity of the worker smacks you in the face, right between the eyes. This doesn't happen often, even with 'big names' and the grand masters, there is so much commercialism to sift through. This has always been the case.

If I don't paint for money, why should anyone else! Soutine didn't, at least not until, he was 'discovered' by the immensely rich American collector, Albert C. Barnes. He became an overnight celebrity in Paris, and possibly more repetitive.

Soutine's enormous impact stems from his ruthless approach and his early forthright attack on stuff of painting; his independent vision, fierce individualism. His close friend Modigliani had absolutely no influence on his technique whatsoever although he did on choice of subject. The other big quality was his downright angry unconventionalism. Oh, yes, his landscapes are angry, and from that anger he derived energy. But I'm not convinced his portraits are angry at all.

A human-being sat in front of you, staring straight at you – as his models did - can be unnerving, especially if that person is bored or anxious, and doubts whether he'll ever get paid. I found it difficult to concentrate on the actual panting and distance myself from the living being in front of me, for his paintings certainly are 'alive'. When I did, my passion bounded back.

In 1913, at the age of 20, he arrived in Paris from Lithuania. It took 10 years of extreme poverty before being discovered by Barnes. As a Jew he felt constantly persecuted and from 1940 hides from the Nazis. He dies tragically from an untreated ulcer in 1943.

Jun 29

Residency at the National Trust Bucks Mills Artists Cabin

The eastern limekiln dating from 1769.

The eastern limekiln dating from 1769. The Cabin is upper right.

Two weeks of intense heat (>30oC on some days - which was marvellous) and intensive focus on Art at this majestic venue has now finished leaving me tired but with a body of work which ultimately feels worthwhile. "Majestic"? This is the location, not the actual cabin, which is anything but majestic: dilapidated inside with little of the spirit of those two lady artists, Mary Stella Edwards and Judith Ackland, remaining despite their artefacts being everywhere. Nevertheless, I feel very privileged to have been given this chance of residency at what the National Trust calls an "Artists Retreat". I should have liked it to have been both a residency and a retreat. It was neither really, one couldn't reside there (sleeping was not allowed) and the footfall of visitors past the door made "retreat" impossible, at least for me.

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Jun 8

Bucks Mills Artists' Cabin, North Devon

 Bucks Mills Artists' Cabin, North Devon

Judith Ackland, a Bideford girl, and Mary Stella Edwards formed a great artistic partnership after meeting as students. They travelled from London and spent months every year in The Cabin, Bucks Mills, hanging on the spectacular North Devon coast south of Clovelly. In 1948 they eventually managed to buy it, for £625.

Judith Ackland (L) and Mary Stella Edwards at Bucks Mills.

The National Trust gained ownership of The Cabin in 2008 and began a series inviting artists to take up residency for a short period of time. This to include ‘Open Days’ in which the public can gain access to The Cabin’s interior. I feel very honoured to be selected as ‘Artist in Residence’ this year, and from June 12 to the 23rd and most days will be there or in the surrounding countryside, depending on the weather. Please come on the Open Days if you can and feel free to disturb me at any other time (if you are able to find me!).

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