Thursday, 22 June 2017

My show at the Met


From The Met to the Washington Opera

Sounds grand, doesn't it? New York's Lincoln Center - the centre of the cultural world, you might say. But 2001 saw just a modest exhibition of a selection of my paintings and prints of famous musicians in the The Gallery at Lincoln Center. It was actually tucked away with gift shops and such-like underneath the Metropolitan Opera House on the way to the car park. Everybody passes by to get to their car, right? Even Maestro James Levine popped in, looked at my paintings and exclaimed "Hey, I know all these people! Drop by any time if you want to sketch during our rehearsals".
The Metropolitan Opera Guild had entitled my show Center Stage! (which seemed to me a bit over the top) and timed it to coincide with the Gala celebrating Plácido Domingo's 60th birthday, so they could use my first painting of him on the programme cover. On reflection, I feel now that the painting is a bit stiff, but there was more to come.
Plácido Domingo I. (detail)
I had painted some of the big names in opera (Jessye Norman, Cecilia Bartoli, Gergiev, Georg Solti, Pavarotti, José Carreras, Kiri Te Kanawa, not to mention Maestro Kurt Masur at the N.Y. Phil next door, Yo-Yo Ma etc., so surely this was a prime spot to exhibit. The opening was crowded and everybody was buying the beautiful catalogue (which should have been a signal to tone down my expectations of major sales). Drinks and snacks were seized by both invited guests and party-crashers, straight off the street. What can you do? I understand you can eat quite well from the opening nights of exhibitions.
The calm before the storm
With Cathie Curran Gamble and Connie McPhee Curran

Then there was an elegant after-party hosted by my dear late friend Catherine Curran Gamble. A lover of all the arts, Cathie had been extraordinarily generous to me, ever since her daughter Constance Curran had been one of my students at Aiglon College in Switzerland - actually the best student I ever had. Cathie had a breathtaking art collection in her Park Avenue apartment; she would host a reception in my honour when I was in town and she commissioned me to paint her daughter and grandchildren. Catherine was an eminent philanthropist and patron of the arts and education, daughter of Sidney Gamble (the grandson of the co-founder of Procter & Gamble). He had travelled widely as a sociologist in China between 1918 and 1932 and made an extraordinary photographic documentation of life in China long before the revolution. Cathie (who was born in China) later discovered a huge collection of his original photographic glass plates in an attic and facilitated an exhibition of the prints that were showed in China and elsewhere. They can now be seen in the Duke University Sidney D. Gamble Collection.
I shall never forget the kind friendship of Cathie and her family.
Constance Curran McPhee, Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This gown is probably at least 100 years old.

The exhibition didn't sell well. After so much effort I was terribly disappointed, in debt and stuck with a load of excellent framed fine art prints. Happily another dear old friend and benefactor Karen Free Royce came to my rescue. She arranged to have the lot transported and put in storage in her basement in Connecticut, until I could collect my wits and eventually ship the stuff home.

Despite this apparent failure, I later got a fax from a fan of Plácido Domingo's who had seen my show. She not only wanted my fine art prints of the "Three Tenors", but commissioned me to make a new painting of Plácido. She was a patron of the Washington National Opera, where Plácido was at that time Music Director, so I proposed a painting of him as conductor. She arranged for me to sit in the orchestra pit, while Domingo was rehearsing Carmen. As he coaxed this production into shape, he couldn’t help singing all the parts of a work that he knew intimately. Plácido’s expression radiated encouragement and a real understanding of the needs of his soloists.

My watercolour places him on a diagonal rising from bottom left to top right, at the heart of the action, a surge of energy reaching up to the stage. Dominated by the plush reds of the auditorium, my splashy red-brown paint-strokes might be seen as the dynamic bow movements of the strings, or a hint of the earthy passion and bloody drama about to take place on stage.
My patron flew me to Washington D.C., (where I had a suite right opposite the offices of the Watergate scandal) to show her my one metre square watercolour. She burst into tears. Yes! So far so good.
Then, back-stage at the Opera, all ready for a performance, Plácido took time to view the watercolour himself. He just beamed, made some very kind comments and insisted on adding his own signature. However, my wash of watercolour to show the flow of movement rising from bottom left across his pants and shirt didn't sit well with his wife. She said: "But it looks as though his fly is open." Not intentional of course, but wives notice those things. Good thing I had my paints with me. You are now looking at the adjusted "respectable" version. My sponsor's architect got a phone call to please re-model the north wall of her summer home, to give this work centre stage. And the final highlight of that Washington trip was to bump into the world's great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich in my hotel. I had painted him in 1991 and it was big hugs all round! All's well that ends well.

It all seems so long ago. Reflecting on these adventures on the eve of my eighty-fourth birthday, I feel so fortunate and blessed - enriched in the best sense of the word.
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Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Yaltah



Remembering Yaltah Menuhin

Yaltah died on June 9th, sixteen years ago. She was named after the Crimean resort, her mother's birthplace. An exceptionally talented woman full of humour, wisdom and poetic musicality, the pianist Yaltah Menuhin grew up in the shadow of her brother, the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin and of her sister the pianist Hephzibah Menuhin. Rudolf Serkin, who taught both sisters the piano as small girls, thought Yaltah the more talented. But as "only" the little sister she was at a disadvantage - her tyrannical parents would not allow her to detract from the brilliant career of her brother. (How often has this happened to excellent female musicians!). Nevertheless she played internationally until just before her death. We met in the sixties at the Gstaad Menuhin Festival. Much has been written about the extraordinary multicultural lives of the Menuhin trio, their travels and adventures - I couldn't even begin to summarise it.

Yaltah said of this rather serious oil painting: "You have painted the burdens of my race". But I rather think that it reflects the burden of my unhappy marriage in 1971. In those years I was still clinging to a visual likeness, afraid to disturb it with the vibes that I was certainly getting from the music. The dynamic Yaltah deserved something much more lively, so I resolved to do something about this. But I was still searching for a style, a way to paint movement without entirely abandoning the visual impression, as so often trying to compromise. Then in 1972 my marriage broke up. My free brushwork and colour in the second painting shows you what happened to my style!
Yaltah's hands and eyes suggest her intensity, the colours her emotions, but the fact that the mouth is almost invisible can only be explained by my experiments in portraits of that period to paint something more than just a conventional portrait, giving some features more emphasis than others - not always effectively, I'm afraid. But it's an early work, painted with my newfound lease on life. Her fingers do the talking.

So on Friday June 9th., I shall reflect with love on Yaltah's kindness to me and encouragement with my work, when I was going through difficult times. Her understanding came from her own lifetime of frustrations and disappointments, yet she was happy. She was a romantic and wrote a poem every day in one of the many languages in which she was fluent. She generously found ways to bring creative people together, as did her siblings. We maintained an affectionate correspondence until shortly before her death in 2001, her letters and cards always decorated with a little flower or improvised design in her favourite colours, azure blue and purple. Whenever possible she dressed colourfully, in later years with a headband around her long flowing golden hair turned grey, somewhat resembling a crazy priestess or a hippy. She played with an infectious exuberance, with a joie de vivre that is unforgettable.
Her monogram: Yaltah Menuhin-Ryce.

Here's the link to the lovely informative website dedicated to her memory by Iain and Charlotte PhillipsYaltah Menuhin.
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Friday, 26 May 2017

Disillusion


One that got away: 

The Drama of The Raven


Remember Edgar Allen Poe's poem The Raven?

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, 
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— 
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping 
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. 
'Tis some visitor, I muttered, tapping at my chamber door - Only this and nothing more....... 

First fear, then curiosity takes over. The knocking continues. Who's there? It turns out to be a raven that flies in and refuses to leave. Yet amazingly he can talk - although with only one word: "Nevermore". Was it a comment on the narrator's mourning of his lost love?
Inspired by this poem, in 2012 Toshio Hosokawa composed an intensely thrilling and scary monodrama for the mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant and ensemble. I saw several video recordings of outstanding performances, but one thing appeared to be missing. A dramatic kinetic atmosphere to enhance the nightmare of the story-line. 

So in 2013, after my performances of kinetic painting Cloud & Light, with Toshio conducting, were so well received, and with a newly discovered affinity with Toshio's music, I proposed setting his The Raven to kinetic painting. I think he liked the idea. Thoroughly inspired, I got the score and hired a model simply to pose (not move) in a few abstract static studio projections (some of which you see here), mere "sketches" to illustrate my ideas. 
Multiple emails and international meetings with producers, agents, Charlotte and Toshio himself followed. 
And it all came to nothing. After all those efforts, the disillusion was intense.

You often never discover exactly why creative proposals (and there have been so many) don't come to fruition. There may be hidden agreements or contracts that are never revealed. Did the managers feel that their singer would be over-shadowed? Was it the production costs? Was it because I didn't have an agent negotiating essential support in the performance jungle? Or was my pitch on the dramatic potential of kinetic painting to music not good enough? In this case it might have been the decision of one man in a major venue, that closed the door on this proposal. I was left frustrated, baffled and somewhat bitter.
And that's just one example of a classic disillusion. I know, I know, I'm in good company of many creative artists through the ages whose ideas were not seized on by the right producers. You need the right connections, good timing and good luck. And then the courage not to give up.

But to end on a positive note, over the years I have in fact experienced glorious exceptions: those visionaries who "got the message" and who were also a joy to work with, including Yehudi Menuhin, The Netherlands Dance Theatre, Sir Simon Rattle, TV Director Jonathan Fulford for BBC, Hans Ferwerda for the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Hyo and Kyung Kang of the Sejong Soloists, Ronald Vermeulen in Amsterdam and Bergen, Sven Tepl for the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Daniel Hope, and now (next season) Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla with the CBSO. My heartfelt thanks to all of them.


Sunday, 14 May 2017

Loneliness

The loneliness of creativity


This is an edited version of a blog from 2013. Today, every artist, writer, composer will still recognise these problems. 

"It must be lovely to be able to paint". Ha - you have no idea! Creativity is a lonely business. Hours and weeks of working alone in the studio. Succoured only by habit, by some sort of inner discipline, by the need to earn a living and by the encouragement of each little creative discovery. “Oh yes", my wife will tell you, "he always feels depressed when he’s trying to start a new work”. The fact is that every time, you feel at a loss to know how to start and nobody can help you. In your desperation you forget that this feeling is a creative prelude. You sweep the floor, drink coffee, eat chocolate, procrastinate, wonder why you became an artist, listen to music, mess around with sketches and colours, just playing…..until unexpectedly, interesting little things start to appear in the messy kinetic painting. Your coffee gets cold. An hour or two goes by before you discover this, then you realise that you’re in the flow. Read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s brilliant book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and InventionIt’s a long story, but “flow” is a state of deep satisfaction and drive, brought about by a synergy of factors, experienced from time to time by scientists, street-sweepers, artists, carpenters, writers – you name it. It comes from being totally absorbed in a search for creative solutions, then better solutions. And not allowing yourself to get distracted. There’s no easy recipe for how to get started, but once you find the “flow” you're up and away. 

Krishnamurti once said that true creativity can only happen in a “free fall” situation. A unconditional leap in the dark, letting go of the worries about what people will think of this piece, whether it will provide bread on the table next month, what the critics will say. You don’t know what you’re doing and the unknown necessitates creativity.

Sometimes I just follow my intuition, in a state of wonder at what is happening up on my rehearsal screen in the studio. A sort of ecstasy (from the Greek "standing outside yourself"), as though somebody else, or perhaps the music, is doing this. If this is difficult to imagine, watch some of my rough studio tryouts on YouTube. It's that ecstasy that makes me want to exclaim: "oh - you should see this!"

It's that ecstasy, those moments of creation, that I try to take to the concert hall, standing on stage in a performance with my overhead projectors and the musicians. Yes, I do have my visual choreography, a lifetime of painting skills, weeks of practicing, and I’m more or less following the music. Well, which is it? More, or less? (Both, actually). You have thousands of people, including television viewers, following the movements of your brush, wondering - what will it do next? You let the audience watch the sensual visuals evolve and dissolve - they may be closer to a unique creative moment than they’ve ever been before. I’m exposing my emotions, my passion and my vulnerability and as I paint, I can feel the reactions in the hall, sense their blushes, their joy or their angst. This is the ultimate form of my "flow", the therapy for my loneliness - the opportunity and joy of being able to share my kinetic works immediately as they take shape. The loneliness of the studio was, after all, a stepping stone to a shared emotion through performance.
On a screen of 9 x 6 m., my kinetic images to Scriabin's "Poem of Ecstasy" flow and shudder and fall apart like a prolonged gigantic orgasm. Oh dear, in front of two thousand people in the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw? Hey, it was Scriabin's idea! All the details are in the score, the original of which carried the title "Orgiastic Poem".

The applause has died down and the series of “very nice” reactions have come your way. You go back to your dressing room and have to scramble to get out, because the hall is closing down. You’re no longer welcome. You’re lucky if there’s a drink afterwards or really lucky if you’re invited to dinner - if the restaurants are still open. Back at the hotel or home, exhausted, the adrenaline drying up (or whatever adrenaline does), you try to remember anything meaningful of the well-meant compliments on your performance. "You took me out of this world - I don’t know how you do it!” You tell me.

But what I really miss is enlightened discussion with fellow artists! I write blogs that seem to be read worldwide. But who comments? “I’m at a loss for words”, one sighs. Should I take that as a compliment? Write to me, you spectators, readers, composers, writers, artists! How does the creative process work for you? Let's help each other.
I challenge you: normanperryman@gmail.com!
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