Monday, March 1, 2021

Dance of Death Sketchbook


The Abbot, from The Dance of Death ca. 1526, published 1538. Hans Holbein.

Travelling by train to and from work everyday I often use this half hour as an opportunity to read or sketch. This series of sketches emerged from that daily journey. Inspired by Hans Holbein’s Dance of Death engravings, in which the playful personification of death in the form of a skeleton surprises his unsuspecting victims, who come from every age and station, with his mischievous sudden and unexpected appearance in the midst of life; my ambiguous imaginative figure has a somewhat skeletal head and by contrast a rather lusty body as he cavorts along from page to page in an irreverent and provocative manner. Giving a familiar human form to something mysterious and unknowable, personifying a process or abstraction we find difficult to understand, and making fun of what we fear is a psychological technique for confronting, coming to terms with, and taming our anxieties and insecurities about life’s ultimate uncertainty and the inevitability of it's final end.  This is no less true now than it was in the 16th century for John Donne or Hans Holbein.  

The Holy Sonnets: Death be not proud. 
John Donne 1572-1631

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Panel Games


Re-constructing historical methods and styles of painting on wooden panels, over a period of years, and adapting these processes to my own contemporary uses has often challenged my understanding and assumptions about the meaning and purpose of art in both old and new contexts.  

                         'Painting In-congruities', oil on panel after Albrecht Bouts 

My first experiment explored a ‘Surrealist’ juxtaposition of tromp l’oeil collage elements alluding to the Belgian colonial past in the Congo. These were painted onto a re-constructed early Flemish panel painting by Albrecht Bouts. Totemic male and female ancestors, fetish figures, deities or architypes were provocatively jumbled together in unfamiliar ways. 

In the ongoing reconstruction of a 14th century panel painting above I worked with water gilding and  historical pigments from Kramer, like cinnabar, malachite and ultramarine (ground from lapis lazuli) to make my own egg tempera (Click the link for an explanation of the start of this project) Panel Painting Part 1

‘Fallen Idol’ homage to C. P Cavafy.

Freely adapting these materials and ideas I have nearly finished this tromp l’oeil in oil on oak panel above that deliberately alludes through the materials and prcesses used to icons or religious panel painting of the 14th century or earlier. In ‘Fallen Idol’ homage to C. P Cavafy, painted fragments of torn paper from an art history books, representing the broken marble statue of Hermes and the infant Dionysius by Praxiteles, 19th century sepia photographs of academic life models, and a detail from Bronzino’s 'Portrait of a Young Man', share the framed space with a yellow butterfly. The visual and material contrasts between gold and gesso suggest a series of dualities; heaven and earth, human, divine, sacred and profane, mortal, immortal, real and illusory, past and present, living and dead………..    

Most recently I have been working on a re-construction of a triptych of the Virgin and Child with two side-panels of the Annunciation painted 'en grisaille'. It is re-imagined from various different works by the Master of the Saint Ursula legend, a painter who worked in Bruges in the 15th century. The opening and closing side panels operate like windows and doors into a parallel universe and set up relationships between narrative and icon, text and image, inside and outside, time and space, that resonate in both historical and contemporary contexts. 

Playing with variations on the theme of the re-imagined historic ‘reconstruction’ there is both correlation and continuity as well as conflict and dissonance in both the context and meaning of the works and their significance and interpretation. Reproduction, restoration and even faking are fascinating processes that can throw a raking light over perceptions of art, reality and appearance and our relationship with history, memory, imagination and creativity.  

Similar ideas are the focus of the contemporary works brought together for the exhibition, 'Memling Now' at Sint Jan's Hospital in Bruges. Click the link below to find out more: 

'Memling Now': Sint Jan's Hospital 

Monday, January 25, 2021

Parallel Universes.


“It is dangerous to unmask images, since they dissimulate the fact that there is nothing behind them.”

 Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation


      “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

        Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.” 

     G. M Hopkins. ‘No worse there is none, pitched past pitch of grief.’


In Susanna Clark’s book ‘Piranesi’ (like his namesake the 18th century Roman engraver whose veduti of the Roman ruins and imaginative capriccios include his famous 'carceri’ or prisons, like the one illustrated above) the protagonist is adept at systematically mapping and cataloguing the rooms and tides of his lost world. He interprets and finds meaning and comfort in the iconography of the many statues that populate the halls and staircases of his otherwise almost deserted sea-swept and seemingly endless ruined palatial domain. Along with his journal, and the ambiguous ‘other’, who gives him occasional ‘gifts’ ( like, incongruously, a pair new training shoes) the generosity of the seemingly beneficent ‘house’ itself, gives him security and comfort. Even the occasionally treacherous high tides, which provide him with fish to eat, and the dangerous fallen ceilings and walls do little to dampen his devotion to this beautiful ruined domain and the bones of its mysterious former inhabitants, which Piranesi reverences with care and offerings.

Like Susanna Clark's previous book, ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel’ she invites us into the lives of  characters who experience a not always benign parallel universe, lying adjacent to the ‘real’ world of the other characters in the fictional text itself. This other world can be accessed through mirrors, or other magic ‘doorways’ that open like the pages of a book. It’s a world where forgetting and remembering are keys to the creative imagination in which dreams and historical fantasy mingle to blur the boundaries of reality and illusion.   

Whether by supernatural means, magic, primitive religion or perhaps hypnosis, psychosis or amnesia, we increasingly suspect that  Piranesi’s ‘condition’ might have a more prosaically scientific explanation. Might it be a form of schizophrenia, a bi-polar disorder or the early onset of Alzheimer’s, and could it be cured by chemical or psychological interventions?  He inhabits this imaginary world which is more real to him (and significantly to the others who have visited it, suggesting a collective experience ) than the ‘real’ world of ‘police stations’ or ‘Manchester’, which simply do not exist in his memory or experience.  What are we to make of this parallel universe which seems so solid and real to our character and yet so insubstantial to us?   We need a paradigm shift in thinking, something like quantum physics, to allow us to see or believe this reality, or to suspend our disbelief. The magic mirror, door to the divine, window into a lost world or secret garden is of course art. The creative imagination expanded into stories or pictures allows other worlds akin to our own to exist, at least in our personal or shared collective imagination.

       Detail from Grayson Perry's ' Map of an Englishman's Mind.

‘So you are confident that parallel worlds are conceivable’, says Bole. More zan conceivable, dear Benedict, zey are likely, if you subscribe as I do, to ze multiwerse- and more particularly, to membrane theory. Multiple membranes, each a uniwerse in its own right, float in high dimensions. If zey collide, which is very rare, you may get a big bang, or something like it.’  Bole has studied the subject long and hard. He worries that Dr Flasche’s theoretical brilliance might not match the need for practical application. ‘I offer a variation,’ he say. ‘Two membranes are joined at one tiny point. A cross dimensional bridge occurs, the effect of a cosmic collision long ago. They share time but not place.’   

Andrew Caldecott. Lost Acre from the Rotherwierd Trilogy

Art, religion, science, history, memory, dreams and imagination can give rebirth (Renaissance) to a collective fantasy of the past, ancient Rome or a medieval Bruges, in an historical reconstruction or virtual reality whether in architecture, painting, sculpture or film.  As Simon Sharma says in an article in the NYT about his book 'Landscape and Memory', in which explores the topography of cultural identity, 'Arcadia has always been a pretty lie' . 

In David Gerard’s painting of the Virgin and Child with Four Angels 1510-15, now in the Metropolitan Museum We are invited into both a real and imaginary world connected to each other through the trompe l’oeil illusion of an architectural door frame, flanked by columns with capitals in an Italian style, and further enclosed, no doubt, by the actual physical sculpted frame that protects the painting and presents a ‘window to the past’, as it were, from the wall of the museum. Through the doorway and beyond the figure of the virgin and child and the angels, those below playing musical instruments and those hovering above holding the hollow circle of her crown, we see a contemporary early 16th century view of the city. We can recognise the familiar spire of the Onze Lieve Vrouw Kirk and the shorter, at that time, Cathedral tower or perhaps the Sint Donatus Kirk, which no longer exists, as well as the distinctive Flemish pitched rooftops of the city. A Carthusian monk is seen strolling and reading in the enclosed garden, suggesting that the painting was linked to the former monastery at Genadedael, just outside the city walls of Bruges opposite the Kruispoort. On this site now there is new housing and no trace of the old charterhouse except in the name of the road, Kartuizenstraat.  Less familiar are the rocky mountains rising up in the distance, in what we know to be the very flat Flemish polders. 

Marcus Gheeraerts' Map of Bruges from 1562. Detail showing the Onze Lieve Vrouw Kirk

What are we to make of this strange and beautiful, dreamlike mixture of real and imaginary worlds, both human and divine in this very Flemish form of ‘magic realism’?    

‘Ayres Rock’ ( named after Sir Henry Ayres, the chief Secretary of New South Wales by European colonialists in the 1870s)  or ‘Uluru’ was and is to the native Australian Anangu, who are the traditional landowners, a repository of cultural collective memory, a key locus of meaning, remembered in narratives and images from the dreamtime, and inhabited by the spirits of the ancestral creator beings. The different perceptions and priorities of native and colonial peoples have often clashed around what is visible to the outer eye and the 'parallel universe’ which only the inner eye can see. 

Like Lucy, in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, who is met initially with disbelief by her siblings, we can only pass through the magical wardrobe to the world beyond with the enchanted eye of childlike belief. This conflict between rational reality and the world of the imagination is also central to H. G. Wells short story 'The Door in the Wall', in which the central protagonist's choice to re-enter through the door to the lost world he remembers from his childhood is repeatedly postponed throughout his life until he finally, critically decides to make that choice - with fatal consequences.    

Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’, a 24 hour montage of film clips in which a timepiece always appears synchronized to real time, is both an homage to cinema and a memento mori. We have the impression that time is elastic, expanding and contracting to accommodate our emotional ‘inscape’ as we are drawn into each narrative episode and its psychological drama. Like an elastic band it can change size without altering its actual dimensions. Time and space are perceived realities in which impressions can over-ride logic to give the illusion of truth.

Relative and absolute time and space, like parallel universes, kaleidoscope into the present moment. Here at the still point in the centre of an ever turning circle is the place were both mundane and supramundane worlds meet in the mind and consciousness of the individual and the cosmos. This point is clearly real, the basis of a dimensional reality, in which line and circle connect to create all geometric forms, and yet it is simultaneously without dimension, is 'no thing', ultimately mysterious and unknowable. 

     The oculus and dome of the Pantheon, Rome,_Rome







Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Old Books and Broken Bowls .....


I recently discovered a very battered but complete first edition of John Keill’s  'Introduction to the True Astronomy or Astronomical Lectures.' from 1721, languishing unnoticed and uncared for in one of the shops along the Rue Haute in Brussels. John Keill was educated at Edinburgh university and studied under David Gregory. Keill taught Newtonian philosophy primarily through his major work Introductio ad Verum Physicam 1771, which was based on the series of experimental lectures on Newtonian natural philosophy which he began in 1694 at Oxford.  Although the original covers were detached from the cracked and loose spine on the edition I found, and they had linen glued onto them, the pages were complete with all the diagrammes and illustrations, including the remarkable map of  the moon. 

I was able to get the book to bookbinder Peter Doyle at the Worden Craft Centre in Leyland, Lancashire, England and he has expertly restored and rebound the book in matching leather, resewing the spine and restoring the original leather covers. Not only is the book stronger and therefor easier to handle and more comfortable to read, it should also last another 300 years. 

The worn leather of the covers and the stains on the paper reveal the passage of time which adds a further context to the content of the book. Rather than replacing the covers and disguising the repaired leather spine, it is neatly and visibly dovetailed into what remains of the scarred leather of the covers, which record the traces of time. This brings to mind the recent exhibition we hosted at school from the Gallery L'Arbre à Plumes in Brussels which featured the broken 16th and 17th century tea bowls repaired by Japanese master of 'kintsugi', Showzi Tsukamoto. 

No.021 E- Shino Chawan (Tea Bowl) Showzi Tsukamoto

L'Arbre à Plumes

The Greene Gallery



The Greene Gallery is planning a mini expo/workshop/discussion during October/November between students in scheduled classes and artists and gallerists Jean Vinclair and Barbara Dauwe, who will share in school, in a Covid secure way, some of their own practice and the work of both the European and Japanese artists they curate and exhibit in the Brussels Gallery, L'Arbre à Plumes. 

The ongoing dialogue between the cultures and traditions of East and West has much to teach us about the beauty and fragility of life and the timeless existential realities that confront us in the present moment.  


Take a look virtual online at the work of the artists in the gallery website below.

Take a look at the links below and explore the art of Kintsugi with Showzi Tsukamoto, a Maki-e master and a metal sculptor awarded by the LVMH Foundation. A tea master, he spent 50 years of his life studying Urushi lacquer, the Maki-e technique and traditional Kintsugi as has been done since the 16th century.

Kintsugi (金継ぎ, "golden joinery"), also known as kintsukuroi (金繕い "golden repair"),is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum a method similar to the maki-e technique. As a philosophy it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.  (Wikipedia)

‘The Cup is Already Broken’

“You see this goblet? “asks Ajahn Chah, the Thai meditation master. “For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters,  I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious”.

Mark Epstein from ‘Thoughts without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective


Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Framing the restored painting in a period style..........

Finding a suitable frame from a Brussels supplier during lock-down had been problematic because shops and suppliers were closed. With the timber merchants and building suppliers finally opening it was possible to buy wood and so I decided to make the frame myself and gesso, gild and paint to exactly the scale and proportions I wanted and in a 17th century style to match the restored painting of the Penitent Magdalene. I made considerable research into the plethora of styles and designs from this period and eventually found a good basic model on the Paul Mitchell Antique and Handmade Replica Frames website. 

This 17th century Italian cassetta frame illustrated below and in the link seemed to be the best design to fit the painting and also one I might be able to make myself without too much trouble.  It has a flat black frieze between gilded moldings and with gilded corner and centre arabesque motifs in a sgraffito technique. This is gilded underneath the black paint and which is then scraped off  to reveal the design but could also be applied on top of the black paint by using an oil gilding technique.  

This fascinating series of videos from the National Gallery in London recording the different stages in the cleaning and conservation of Artemesia Gentileschi's self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria provided me with an excellent example of how to match a picture to a period frame in order to protect and enhance its appearance. It also was framed in a 17th century reverse cassetta frame which featured another typical style with heavier moldings on the inside of the frieze.  

Some basic skills in carpentry involving a saw, clamp, chisel and file and some small tacks were needed to measure, cut and align and stick the various elements together securely using animal glue melted and heated in a Bain-Marie on the stove.

I worked out the designs for the corner and center arabesque motifs based on the antique example I had chosen so they would fit neatly into the frieze the frame. 

...... and then I carefully filled and sanded any holes or gaps to make the surfaces even and smooth ready for the first layers of size and gesso. 

I then added the yellow clay bole and smoothed it out ready to begin the water gilding process with copper leaf, which is significantly cheaper than real gold and just as effective for a decorative frame of this scale and style. 

I then transferred the designs onto the 'gilding' using the cut out template and painted over the surplus 'gilded' area with several layers of black Indian ink to build up a kind of satin lacquered effect.  

The final effect was rather too brash and shiny so I mixed some power pigment of raw umber with a shellac mixture and painted several coats onto the surface to give it an aged patina that would match the painting better.

After adding a patina gilding and giving the painting a final spray of synthetic varnish to protect it and carefully mounting it into the frame it was ready. The whole project has taken about a year. 

The final stage was to transfer the framed painting to its new home and to enjoy contemplating it.