The long and drawn out tale of a Frida Kahlo painting

Back at the start of 2020 I made a plan.  It was for the group of adult amateur painters that I coach and guide in their creative activities once a week.  As a group we also make an occasional trip out to see an art exhibition that I feel would be both interesting and in some way aligned with the group’s own painting activities. Last year we visited the David Hockney and Vincent van Gogh exhibition at the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

My plan, back at the beginning of 2020 was that, as a group we could make a trip to the Drendts Museum in the northern Dutch town of Assen, to see the planned Frida Kahlo exhibition, Viva la Frida!, due in the autumn of 2020.  Without telling the group, and as way of introducing them to my plan, I set them a small painting assignment. 

I used one of the iconic portrait photographs of Kahlo, enlarged it and cut it into vertical strips, each about 40 cm tall by 2 cm wide.  To accompany each strip there was a wooden panel, larger (about a metre tall), but of the same proportions.  The task in hand was simple, use the blurry strip of black and white photograph to make a comparable blurry monochrome painted strip on the wooden panel.

To make it a little more technical I asked the group to do this using oil paints but making no use of black when mixing the grey tints that we needed.  The purpose here was twofold, firstly to challenge the group to experiment broadly with the mixing of chromatic greys, but secondly to result in more variation across the panels when the final composition was assembled.  One would hopefully be a slightly bluey mix of greys, another with more red and another with perhaps a purple edge.

We made a start, and all was going well. 

But then along came Covid-19, lockdown and the weekly painting sessions were suspended.  The painting was half finished, my painters still didn’t actually know what it was they were painting, but at this stage I told them the whole story and what my plans for the autumn had been.  In the meantime the museum in Assen had also had to change their plans.  The Kahlo exhibition was cancelled, or rather suspended, and has subsequently been rescheduled for the autumn of 2021……..I’m sure as a group we’ll be going.

Our group reconvened back in September.  Meeting as two smaller groups, strict social distancing in place and returned to the business of painting, and getting our Frida Kahlo painting finished. 

We almost made it!  Four weeks later, we are back in lockdown, hopefully not for as long as last time.  We are returning to our sharing of creative work in the app group and working at home on some group projects that I assemble as we progress.  Such projects help us all feel that we are still part of a group.  Our Frida work is all but finished, we’re just missing a couple of panels from the outer most reaches of the composition, but the work as it currently stands is a satisfying result and good approach work for the exhibition visit next year.

Exhibitions I would have liked to have seen…lockdown interruptions

Museums all over the world are shuffling their exhibition programs.  They are also undoubtedly counting the costs of the missing visitors, the entrance tickets, the book shop sales, the cafes and restaurants.  The museums here in the Netherlands are no different.

Dutch museums are in the process of tentatively reopening their doors. Limited visitors are allowed, and everyone has to pre-book their time of entry.  They have also been reorganizing the exhibition programs. 

For example, there was to have been this autumn in the Drendtsmuseum in the north of the country, a large-scale exhibition of the work or Frida Kahlo.  Kahlo is an artist whose work I have only ever seen in odd snippets here and there. It was a visit that I had been looking forward to making. It seems that I will have to look forward to it a bit longer, it has now been put back a year and is now autumn 2021. 

There were other exhibitions that have simply passed by during the lockdown.  I thought that this was the case with the Breitner-Israels exhibition in the Kunstmuseum in The Hague.  The two top Dutch painters from the late 19th and early 20th century had been put head to head for comparison. The show opened shortly before Corona burst loose on us all. I hadn’t had the chance to visit and guessed my chance had been missed. As compensation to myself I bought the extensive catalogue and enjoyed reading it during the peak lockdown weeks for a bit of cultural distraction.

As it turns out the exhibition has been extended over the summer, so there is still the opportunity to visit. But for me there is a catch; getting to the museum involves a journey of an hour and a half on public transport.  The message coming out of government is that public transport should only be used when absolutely necessary……like when I use it to get to my work in education.  There’s a potentially interesting discussion to be had here, that being that after three months of no cultural input of this sort, it does feel pretty necessary and vital to recharge my cultural batteries! Is that needy enough?

A simple online group visual art project

Since the start of the Covid 19 induced lockdowns around the world I have seen quite a few musical and choir related projects come by on my Facebook feed.  Groups of musicians or singers all contributing their bit to the carefully mixed and arranged compositions that those with the digital know how have been able to mix and balance into impressive unity despite the geographical spread of the participants.  A classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

I too work with groups of creative enthusiasts, both children and adults and these musically combined performances set me thinking about trying something similar in my field of the visual arts.  The group of adults that I support with assignments and ideas seemed to be the most obvious place to give my own fairly modest ideas a try.

They are a very social group of people who miss their chance to paint and share life once a week.  The club’s app group has been very active during the lockdown and the project I had in mind would work well using that platform.

The initial idea was quite simple, using the reference point of a seventeenth century Dutch still life we would try and compose our own still life with everyone contributing something that could be digitally added to the group composition. The only guidelines I gave were that the objects could be modern or older if they wished and they had to make a simple shaded drawing using just a pencil.

The drawings started to roll in via the app group and I set about contructing an arrangement that gave them all a chance to be seen. Gradually the enthusiasm for the working together nature of our little project grew, with me posting regular progress up dates.

I’d seen enough to see another, perhaps better possibility, we could move on to a Dutch flower painting as inspiration.

Opnamedatum: 2010-11-11

This time I’d provide the vase and the rest of the group the flowers.  The drawings streamed in, again just in pencil to help with the overall unity of the image.  For the digital assemblage the flower arrangement gave more scope for adjustments and moving things round and in the end it was possible to fill the vase with a huge number of diverse flowers.

A this stage I’m not quite sure what the follow up will be. But I think there has to be one.

There are nineteen year olds, and then there is Bernini

I don’t teach any nineteen year olds. Mostly the oldest young people who end up in my classroom are sixteen and occasionally seventeen.  I like most teachers try to encourage my pupils to try their hardest and to be ambitious in what they are trying to achieve. My role as a teacher is to help them see what might be possible and to aid them in reaching those goals.

Today I have visited the Bernini and Caravaggio exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  I hadn’t anticipated leaving the exhibition reflecting on what teenagers can achieve.  But it was a sculpture of Saint Sebastian that in many ways caught my attention the most. It presents the problem of how a sculptor, carving into marble, has to deal with the technical challenge of including the necessary arrows piercing the young man’s body and that of course on top of representing the human figure.

The sculpture was perhaps about 80 cm tall, in terms of ambition and spectacle very modest in comparison to the large scale sculptures by Bernini that can be found in Italy.

So why did this particular cause me to pause and reflect, you may have guessed the reason already. The sculpture was created when Bernini was just nineteen years old.  It was of course a different time.  The young Bernini would have already had a several years experience of learning the technical strategies and techniques needed to create such an image. 

Sculptors like to point out that the sculpture is simply in the block, be that marble, wood or  sandstone.  Seeing that and subsequently being able to find and reveal it is a tremendous challenge of insight, technical ability and spatial awareness, and in this case all realised by the hands of a nineteen year old.  I may show the image to the pupils I teach.  Will I dwell on the fact that it was made by such a young man? To be honest, I’m not sure yet!

Below are further images from the exhibition by Bernini, Caravaggio and others.

New year – the same old resolution

P1020218The first of January, and a first drawing for a new year. Most years I start the year with the intention of drawing more. A kind of unofficial resolution to myself. Some years it is more successful than others. This year I can post the first drawing of the year on the first day…although to be honest it was started earlier and just finished today. However, a second variation is well underway.

It’s quite a somber image, quite fitting for the grey, misty chill outside this particular 1 January. Although it also has to be said that the bush fires that are burning in Australia at the moment and filling the news the silhouette tree motif that I have been using for a while now seems to be taking on an increasingly environmental charge.

What goes around comes around

I remember looking at Rob van Koningsbruggen’s work when I was an art student around 1990.  He was held up as an example of a type of abstract painter who was much admired by teaching staff at the college where I was studying. He had taken on board in his work the lessons of American abstraction of the mid twentieth century without losing his European roots. Better still, he belonged to the Dutch lineage of abstraction.

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Rob van Koningsbruggen, Untitled, 1985

I have regularly come across examples of his work in Dutch galleries and museums, but today, when visiting the Kunstmuseum (formerly known as the Gemeentemuseum) in The Hague I have seen a full-scale museum show of his paintings for the first time.

They were a succulent collection of canvases from the past decade of the now 71 year old painter. The paint and colour does quite literally on occasions ooze from the surface.

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Peter Roseman, Composition on Drape, 1990

It was strange to walk around the rooms; I hadn’t expected it to feel quite such a visual reminder of the paintings I remember from the college studio spaces back in 1990. I just wish I had more photos from our work place back then. A very likeable exhibition, but at the same time strangely familiar.

 

 

I don’t use much green…….

I’m busy working on a commission for a painting. It is a larger version of the circular ring formed paintings that I have been working on for a while now. For me it is also a fairly large-scale work, measuring 120cm across and that hole in the middle being about 62cm.

The most recent smaller versions have often been essentially the bringing together of two colours, built up in numerous layers to gain an intensity of colour that causes the optical effects of the composition to work best. The initial layers being put on with acrylic paint and the later ones being oil for a better surface finish and greater depth to the colour.

For this larger work I decided to continue with the dark blues that I have been experimenting with and rely on Windsor Blue being layered on top of Cerulean Blue and just a touch of Phthalo Green. The green part though has been something of a new area for me. I’ve been working this area up with a mixture of Permanent Green Light and Cadmium Yellow.

So far so good, but then comes those final layers of glazed oil paint to bring the surface quality to where I want it to be. This has sent be deep into the bottom of box of oil paints looking for the appropriate shade of green. Like I said at the beginning, I don’t often use green. A fact that was confirmed by the discovery of the 37ml tube of Cadmium Green made by Windsor and Newton that I plan to use. The paper covering of the tube has yellowed with time, it took a while to get the cap off the tube, but inside the colour was fine. I’ve bought many tubes of paint over the years, most of which I can’t remember where and when I got them. But this one is an exception, it is a last remaining tube (along with a tube of violet, what I also rarely use) that remain from a set I was given when I started my Fine Art degree at Wimbledon School of Art in 1987.

Thirty-two years on this Cadmium Green is finally to see the light of day and edge my painting towards its own finishing line in 2019.

 

All the Rembrandts

Rembrandts paintings are such big statements. Last week I was in the Mauritshuis in The Hague showing the pupils I teach The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Today I’m in the Rijksmuseum with it’s Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, the Jewish Bride, the portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit and of course also the Nightwatch. All familiar images that I regularly see on my visits to these museums. 

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But today it has been slightly different, for alongside the big statements there are images of such delicacy, intimacy and plain and simple smallness.  For its exhibition Alle Rembrandts the Rijksmuseum has pulled everything out of their storage depot, all the paintings, all the drawings and all the prints.

The drawings in the exhibition are often quite limited in their format, a page from a notebook perhaps, but the etchings, peeping out from their little windows cut in the generous mounts are something else. 

Rembrandt captures a look, a glance and a mood, often in little more than a square centimeter of surface on the etching plate given over to the subject’s face. A individual peers out from amongst a tangle of the most finely scratched lines.  Faces lit by the combination of the blackest of black printmakers ink and the raw bloom of the slowly discoloring paper.   Never mind the impressive clothes and stature of the full size, full figure painted portraits, these are openings into the lives and world of emotion, concentration, activity and sometimes, apparent boredom.  

And then after this simplicity and intimacy, you enter the last rooms. These are spaces packed with drama and spectacle. Rembrandt sets to on the big Biblical themes; the crucifixion , the entombment, Christ presented to the people and Christ preaching. They’re bigger prints than earlier in the exhibition. They bristle with action, the handling of tonal work is, well, as you might expect from Rembrandt, dramatic. I haven’t seen some examples of Rembrandt’s crucifixion series for a while, it is spectacular and fascinating to see different stages of the printing process alongside one another.  Having seen Grunewald’s huge crucifixion not so very long ago, I do find myself wondering how a Rembrandt painting of this subject, based on his etchings, and of Nightwatch scale might have been.

Daytime watch, by Rembrandt

There is no intention to intimidate, but I do kind of like having Rembrandt keeping watch from the back of the classroom.  Better still that these are the very pupils who painted the portrait.

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Click on the link below to read more about how the painting was made.

https://petersansom.wordpress.com/2019/04/01/sworn-to-secrecy-in-rembrandt-year/

Abstraction for teenagers

When I was doing my teacher training, I distinctly remember one of my art history lecturers arguing that abstraction was simply not something worth exploring with teenagers in their early teenage years.  Figurative art was the way to go, being more accessible, more linked to a narrative and simply more of an open door to them.

I would certainly acknowledge that figurative work is a more straight forward route, but to leave abstraction out of the picture seems to me to be a neglection of rather too much of the art of the twentieth century!  Each year with my classes of 14-15 year olds I launch into a quite extensive series of lessons that explores abstraction from a number of different directions.

I can’t pretend that the first session is often greeted with some bewilderment, but as the lessons and assignments progress there is an increasing realization that there is serious work to be done and artistic decisions to be made.

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I normally start by drawing parallels with the world of instrumental music (lyrics being way too much of a distraction).  Music is closer to their world of experience and discussions around rhythm, expression and emotional tone are all easily possible.  Also matters of personal taste can be explored. I use various music fragments to set the ball rolling, challenging the pupils to react with line, shape and tone to pieces ranging from the most minimal of Brian Eno compositions to pastoral classical music and techno rhythms.  Each fragment produces its own distinctive results.  The door towards abstract compositions swings slowly open.

We explore directional flow around and towards focal points in abstract arrangements. Graphic qualities in design, chaos and order, both working on paper and in digital work.  We have also explored step by step processes of abstraction from a figurative starting point, moving slowly away from pictorial conventions. We have also worked with street maps as a starting point towards working towards a much-abstracted version that has often become essentially unrecognizable.

When working around these themes I often refer to the work of Frank Stella, and this year couldn’t resist the chance to dip into his work to explore the differences between illusionistic form (through the cones and pillars relief pieces) and the real three-dimensional space that these huge constructions have.

All-in all there seems so much to explore and experiment with and I have to say that often after a little initial scepticism there is an increasing focused engagement and they start to understand the considerable possibilities and freedom that these assignments offer.  Do they miss the narrative?  My impression is that they don’t really, they just focus on the choices and options that are on offer, and they are undoubtedly more knowledgeable and technically able at the end of the module.