To the story of Spain 1&2 and how they were painted.
When I was 22 I had recently left Brighton Polytechnic clutching my 2:1 in ‘Expressive Arts’ (Painting and Modern Dance) and had successfully sold some work in a little exhibition held in a bookshop in Brighton’s Lanes. I could afford my rent, drank a few Guinness and was feeling like the proverbial bee’s knees.
Consequently, in order to carry on painting, I rented an artist studio for 3 months in the Andalucian village of Gaucin, Spain, fully intending to inhabit my ivory tower and continue painting. Life was good and I was happy.
Now bearing in mind that I grew up in working class Birmingham, the son of a conservative factory supervisor and spent 4 years in liberal Brighton enjoying the pomp of student life I really had no idea what to expect on my first trip outside England.
I might suggest I was unprepared.
Even though my artworks at the time were ‘of the moment’, having experience in the world of performance art and being particularly interested in the American demystification of the art object (see Lucy Lippard’s wonderful book) I was drawn to the work of Antoni Tapies the premier living artist in Spain at the time.
I was enamoured with his work … it spoke to me.
I don’t mean that I liked it. I mean the work actually spoke to me. There was a vibrancy and a secret language that I felt a kinship to. Not just in the works construction; the material process of its creation, but the intent of the work.
And I had no idea why? Tapies was a Catalonian of Spain proud of his heritage and a survivor of that country’s civil war. His work was rooted in spiritualism, with influence of the Eastern philosophies mingled with his own Catholic upbringing.
I had to experience for myself the country that gave us that work along with the wonderful poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca. I was enamoured with Lorca and the concept of the ‘Duende’, a state of passion that is created by the ecstasy of performance, usually associated with Flamenco and the Gipsy culture that was so strong in Spain.
And so, I overcame what reservations I has about being abroad in a strange place and packed my bags to get away from my English experience.
The journey to Gaucin, Spain
After excitedly flying on an aeroplane for the very first time and leaving Gatwick on a November morning, I arrive in Gibraltar. The plane circles around Gibraltar Rock and lands on a runway that extends out into the sea. Already my journey was epic.
After managing to haul 3 months worth of luggage across the runway and plodding towards the queue of people at the customs barrier (which existed in those days) I was quite exhausted. My excitement had blinkered me to the fact that it was a good 20 degrees warmer in Spain than in it was in London and I had dressed for winter.
You actually had to walk across the runway to get to Spain.
All the fear and anxiety of having to deal with the customs officers, then locating the bus depot and buying a ticket from La Linea to Gaucin was made much easier as I travelled with a seasoned traveller who showed no fear in tackling the strangeness. I, if alone, would have floundered.
We managed to get on the right bus and I sat down with my massive bag and English coat perched on my lap ready to take on a 2 and a half hour bus ride. I learned that the bus took the scenic route and stopped at every ‘white village’ along the way to pick up and offload, swarthy wolfish men and demure, shy women. The language was of course new to me, lyrical and sing-song, but still made me feel wary in my overheating position.
The bus wove its way around an ever climbing mountain road, often stopping to allow others to pass or for a bull, the icon of Spain that had strayed on to the diminishing way. Gaucin eventually came into view… and my breath faltered. I had never seen the like.
A tiny white village flanked by a tall mountain and a castle keeping guard over the silence of the warm afternoon.
Everything was alien … and I was uneasy.
We found the studio.
It was a moorish cottage, part of a typical whitewashed building that flanked every street. Black iron railing guards at every window and solid oak doors that looked as if they might be anticipating invasion. I soon came to learn that a solid door is a perfect guard against the winter cold at such altitude.
The inside was dark and welcomingly cool. A huge fireplace was evident in the corner and all the walls were roughly plastered to hide the aged movement of the walls.
And then the back garden. Passing through a courtyard complete with a massive palm tree the garden lay there. Simple, with a wooden bench and table at which to sit.
And sit I did, for an hour or two, beneath a lemon tree. There was an almond tree and olive trees were in all the gardens. Looking down the valley, there were a few terracotta roofs and then the open plains of olive grove leading all the way to the Mediterranean coast. I could see the Rock of Gibraltar the ocean and the North African Mountains
Everything was perfect
I was in a heightened state of bliss. The first few days I was content to sit in wonder…. absolute exultation.
I climbed the adjacent mountain and marvelled at the view. Truly I had never been so close to God, both spiritually and geographically.
And I had to liaise with the locals, to buy shopping or try to immerse myself in the aged culture.
And this is where my satisfaction began to turn to unease.
It is now time to rifle through my notebooks and dig up any reference material that might illuminate how I might have been feeling while creating these pieces.
Unfortunately, I can only find one of the few sketchbooks that I had from this time in my life. Much like us all, we cannot carry everything upon our backs as we hover of the surface of this planet. I do believe I have tended to keep those things that have the deepest echos of something, whether it is a recognisable desire or a subconscious urge.
I think it might be easier to transcribe the passages of relevance and include one or two drawings that were made at the same time.
Today is Nov 11th and a Sunday morning of unequalled beauty. I have been in this place only half a day, it has made a marked impression on me. I sit in the garden and as I pause in my writing I can allow my eyes to wander over the quiet landscape.
I see a beast. Not as in my home town but content in languor. These white-washed homes are clusters of still energy, a never-coming and to the day. Half covering the base of such a living mound, the crown of neighbouring minions.
I can hardly write a coherent line, my excitement pushes my pen from the paper. My eyes scream to look, to never stop gazing at such a placid scene. I see two cars moving amidst this whole range of mountain and hill. I see dry fields and trees that grow in groups, scattered by a lazy wind. Houses that hunch together forming shady streets where yapping dogs and groaning hens must live.
But from my high point, there is another world over the roofs. All red with a vernacular tile matching the gashes in mountains seen. The trickle of tickling roads.
No aerials fighting for vertical domination but smoking chimneys so crammed together the smoke forms a swirling bouquet. There seems to be no order in the layout of road or roof. Some of the tiles run from back to front, others left to right. All adds to the pleasant, lay-down muddle of things.
After a pause it seems things maybe exist in the doldrum-like shadows of round trees and eaves of roves. Such blueness in the shade. I have never seen the like. I wonder what it is that lives in such comfort.
While the mountain to my left is large it does not seem to loom but fall away. Yet not retreat. Everything is so humble.
My companion has called the calling neighbour ‘King cockerel’. The odd thing is I never heard it crow at dawn.
Maybe dawn never existed. I didn’t see it.
And the stars, oh yes. So, so many. I could sit and gaze until i am burned by them.
But all was not mean to continue in this paradisical fashion.
My fear and anxiety soon took over and I retreated away from it all and hid in the dark of the studio. I closed the shutters against the penetrating light of Spain glancing sharply off the mediterranean sea and muffled my ears to the silence of it all.
I had never been so close to God… and I feared it.
I began to long for the busy and dirty streets of my home town. Where all the surroundings were constructed by man’s progress and consequent desire for constant change and the grime of the day to day was something I had learned to be happy with.
I painted these 2 works in anguish. The dichotomy of being presented with such wonder and beauty, this ever present joy of nature and all its apparel, yet I was incapable of accepting it.
These 2 pieces represent my argument with myself. The fear of not jumping to the other side, of letting go of what I was taught to be and accepting that which I know I am.
I am sad to say that I crumbled. I left Spain early and retreated to my home city, tail between my legs. I was met at the airport by my father who offered his opinion
‘perhaps you can stop with this nonsense now and get on with your life.’
And I did. With no regrets as I achieved many other successes in both my professional and personal life. However these successes were short lived, mostly by my own actions and inaction.
So now you can see why I think these were the last 2 paintings that I made that had any worth. The person I was had been tested … and failed. But in my failures I have learnt many things and I am lucky enough to be able to glimpse that young man from the corner of my eye. I am now braver and I will accept Wonder and Joy with open arms and no fear.
I offer these 2 works as prints for sale.
If you enjoyed reading about their creation then please check them out.