Thursday, 18 March 2010

Robert Hodgins, a great South African painter and a teacher to many painters, curators, plumbers, bankers, died recently. He was eighty nine. I was never fortunate enough to meet Robert Hodgins but my early encounters with his work were memorable. There was a lucidity of colour, coupled to an extraordinary wit and playfulness. And in his paintings, only just emerging out of the paint, were a whole cast of characters grimly evoking South Africa's politicians, powermongers and socialites of the 80's and 90's. In paint he conjured up a farcical world, hinting at its undoing. I watched Cabaret with Liza Minelli recently; perhaps there was something similar in his paintings; an often colour saturated celebration but then underlined in menace.

Robert Hodgins once compared painting to surfing; you have to spend a lot of time out there just bobbing about; but you have to be ready to catch the wave when it comes...
I was teaching a young cohort of surfers at the time, and I quoted him often, so I wrote to Robert Hodgins telling him about my painter surfer students. He generously wrote back- I have the letter, written in pencil, posted from an address in the Karoo somewhere, just tell them to remember that they have to get their feet wet first.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Slow change city

This morning a white ship on a white bosphoros, barely delineated. I grew up in a small town, whose lineaments became as familiar to me as the lines on my hand The silhouette of Makanaskop rising up like a small mushroom cloud at the end of the high street. The row of high street facades:, buildings iced in custard yellow, pistachio green and on the corner, punctuated by a red onion dome which said Russia. Quirky, colonial experiments in rococo trimmings that had nothing to do with the surrounding landscape. The whole town set up like a stage set, even the bank, appearing like some strange Greek temple. The city hall, with its clock tower, trying to recall Big Ben. But my favourite, twirling in the middle of it all, was the High Street Angel, at the time I was oblivious to the fact that this was the memorial to the unknown soldier. Instead she spread her wings upstaging the enormous cathedral behind her, or in the late afternoon sun turning into a black bird against the blazing hillside behind her. Grahamstown, how to describe this place where I grew up to someone from very far away, to give some of an idea of its peculiar capacity for inspiring
delight and dispair in equal measure.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

A fresh look at a beautiful city

I was recently asked to write something about "beauty" for the January edition of the IWI International Women of Istanbul) magazine Lale so here it is...

Venturing into landscape painting in the climate of contemporary art making is a perverse choice: taking on notions of beauty, even more so.

The artist Whistler, finding himself on a train sharing a carriage, was asked by his fellow passenger, “Mr Whistler, what ought I to consider art?” To which he replied, "Why Sir, there is no ought about it. Either you like it or you don't."

Notions of beauty are often no less diverse or confusing.

Arriving in Istanbul three years ago, I was struck as so many of us are by the overwhelming beauty of the city. Its allure over the next six months as I ventured out with my sketchbooks was no less than a love affair. The first images appearing in my sketchbook ranged widely as I drank it all in. A banquet of light and shadow, changing with the seasons, time of day, moods of the city. There are the views from the ferries, no two views or moments ever alike. Istanbul even provides the sunsets, as numerous as the potholes.

But as one is seduced by the beauty one is also aware of the pitfalls awaiting the painter who attempts to capture it. And yet, what is wrong with painting pretty pictures of Istanbul? David Hockney, one of the most important contemporary painters, says his greatest challenge for the upcoming Olympic year Royal Academy exhibition is to paint a giant sunset.

My first exhibition in Istanbul, held against the windows of 360istanbul, was a series of sunset moments. Beauty perhaps, but a loud, clanging, turn you upside down kind of beauty. And as a medium I chose common shiny enamel house paint. Not only does it run and spill in a way which matched the exuberance of my newly discovered city, but it echoed the peeling painted doorways, the neon lights on the endless grey grid of the freeway, or a surprise red rain coat flitting through a sea of winter black coats.

The first major painting I did when I finally moved into a studio on Istiklal, ‘Galata Improvisation’, was a celebration of my initial love of the city. Perhaps beauty or its discovery, like memory, is not something passive but is actually part of an active process of discovery and rediscovery. A friend bought a carpet recently; it reminded her of a storybook she read as a child and in it there was a carpet with stars just like the one she chose. All the carpets were beautiful but now this beauty acquired further meaning. Similarly, a wall with scraped posters becomes a thing of beauty at the end of a grey street. Or Galata emerging all lit up and glorious for just a few moments on one of those particularly cold grey days that signal the beginning of winter, and after a particularly enjoyable wander with friends in the labyrinths of Eminonou.

As one gets to know the city perhaps one is not quite blown away on a regular basis, but ones appreciation of the city takes on a more subtle form. August, early autumn, have you noticed how the city suddenly contracts? All buildings, structures, ships, indeed, all human activity, suddenly seems smaller and one is left wide expanses of glimmering water. Or have you noticed that after a visit to Haghia Sophia, out on the street again, the piles of golden baklava glitter and gleam in the windows ? And so, as Istanbul is layered in her beauty, so is one’s vision and perception of her. My favourite green, blue and white room in the Topkapi Palace finds its echo in green pistachios, and all this in time finds its way into the paintings. On my way to the studio I glimpse a ripening persimon tree laden with Klimt like golden spheres; later, on the way home, in the bus, my favourite Kirecburnu fishing boats come into view. The next morning I am reaching for lemon yellow in my oils, and golden orbs appear again, this time on the nets of the fishing boats. Even during the dreariest mid winter dolmus ride there is something in knowing that not far away lies the intimate splendour of the Rustem Pasa Camii or even the hot earthy piles of merchandise in the spice bazaar And one can carry such profound experiences of beauty with one through the city, as one can look forward to the first linden blossoms or summer figs.

But one can’t escape the ugliness of Istanbul either: endless blocks of flats, construction site piled on construction site, treeless roads and pavements, ugly buildings, the contours of the earth everywhere smoothed over by the unforgiving edges of concrete and tarmac. Not unlike many contemporary modern cities, one might say. The difference being that Istanbul often seems to move over its past with the sensitivity of a pneumatic drill. London, in contrast, is a manicured city; its skyline from the Tate Modern leaves Turner's paintings of the Venetian skyline in the shade; London respects its past, believes in it, celebrates and preserves its manmade manifestations. Not surprising for a city that languishes so magnificently in materialism.

Istanbul, however, cannot be tamed, in spite of the best efforts of the ‘beautifiers’ of the city determined to smooth over her rough edges, tame those unruly trees, unify, regulate and modernize. There remains a wildness, a chaotic disregard for the finished work, the completed task, And in this real beauty will always out; beauty that lies in the fugitive, the unformed, the surprising, the serendipitous. It lies in acknowledging that there is beauty in the small things, the shiny glasses of tea, slivers of silver in a fishing bucket - these emerging from a dull concrete pavement, or a building with no more allure, or longevity than a garden shed.

It is in acknowledging the city for what it is rather than in lamenting what it could or should be, that its beauty lies; in the building and scarification of its landscape, freeways and ancient ruins, gaping construction sites and ancient walls alike, in its rich borek-stuffed layers, in its often jarring contrasts. Therein lies the beauty that interests me as a painter. Istanbul (often quite literally!) trips one up by her beauty. As a city constantly being dug up and plastered over, recreated and reborn, Istanbul’s beauty is never static.

What often remain in the paintings are moments that cannot be pinned down for their beauty or for their ugliness. The view from the Golden Horn becomes almost tacky in garish pinks and overblown flourishes; there is humour in seeing, majesty in the mad arrangements of light and colour. It is this that is celebrated.

While my native city of Cape Town’s beauty is so dramatically measured in the changing aspects of Table Mountain and the surrounding waters, there too, the city as a palimpsest reveals a more poignant beauty, a beauty sometimes wrought out of tragic circumstances, a beauty wrought of human event.

Friday, 15 January 2010


Hibernating at home to update my portfolio. And so to write my biography. Or as my dear ceramicist friend Jane Young said this week " acknowledge your heritage". Like a painting there are many layers to this. My mother Lindsay Page is a painter, a landscape painter who loves Ruskin and mountains. She fought and won in the tradition of the Grahamstown Group, whose champion, Brian Bradshaw (now was he a bully or a genius?) drilled his students in classical drawing, and steeped them in oil paint. Lindsay Page now, in her seventies continues to paint and lives at the foot of a mountain. My father, Bill Page, ten years deceased, was a thinker, a teacher, an extraordinary wit, and incidentally a Psychologist and academic, but never took money from anyone for listening. He was also president of a rugby club. A passion I have yet to develop. But as the mother of a burgeoning young son, anything is possible. My father was also the most courageous person I have ever met, only matched by my mother.
Then there was my grandmother, Constance Little (yes the name is true) who while discouraging her youngest daughter, my mother, from pursuing her passion for art, married her own comfortable domestic farm life to her acute powers of observation, and subtle expressions of colour, line and composition in developing the more socially acceptable art of silk embroidery.
The ultimate complement, "almost like a photograph" was often delivered in awe at "The Royal Show" (nearby Pietermaritzburg's agricultural show of everything from beasts to baking) But to my mind at their best, they often went way beyond that. Yes there were the kitschy sequinned fish she did for someone's wedding present, but how could I miss the skeins of silks laid out in fine Cezanne greys next to her table, or the strange Japanese like floating spaces that emerged around her birds. ( Istanbul's ubiquitous tribe of sparrows gather on my windowsill as I write this! )
And then couple to that my mother's flashing brush strokes, as they swept up everything in their path. In Leicester, England, a quad of sweltering sauna visitors left Picasso's De'Moiselle D'avignon looking positively tame! I was 11. The same year we braved traffic, cold and queues to see Max Ernst at the Grand Palais Paris. Not an artist I revisit often, but a terrible imagination and the alchemy of oil paint left its impression. She also introduced me to the painting of Pierre Bonnard who continues to kindle my sensibilities. And alongside my mother I was always drawing.

But at school, acting became my passion and would remain so until, finally having chosen Fine Arts at university, auditioning for an amateur production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" I was told I would have got the part had the male lead been a bit taller, or I shorter! That was the end, of my acting career. Until last year, when I found myself on a rooftop first in Galata Istanbul, then in Brooklyn New York directing actors and singers in an art performance for voices. A project which might just take me back on the road to Damascus. But thats for another blog.

Then there were the Maclennans who lived down the road.
Entering 24 Frances Street, Grahamstown as a child was for me, as for the children in "The lion, the witch and the wardrobe" , a whole new universe peopled by wonderful, occasionally even terrifying characters. I was there to visit Sue my best friend, the youngest and the daughter, but she had three huge brothers, a family of mountaineers which included Don, Sue's father, a poet with twinkly eyes and eyebrows that seemed to still be growing, and a mother, Shirley, who provided my first experience of a warm but booming American voice. At Shirley's dinner table in the evenings, over wonderful meals served on plates later also made by Shirley, artists, writers, musicians, poets and playwrights would gather. And while I listened to many serious discussions about art, politics and poetry, there was always a healthy irreverence and much raucous laughter. I have felt privileged to visit that table with its brightly painted sun for the length of my life.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

the road to damascus

Return from Syria again aware that what has been captured in my notebooks needs an out. What remains as I am once again buffeted on the pavements of Istanbul, is a sense of newness, compositions that configure in my minds eye, new sweeps of space, refreshed light and colour. It's a completely abstract sense that has less to do with the great sweep of the red carpeted floor of the Umayaad mosque, but everything to do with it also. Blank canvases await in my studio. Its a relief. The new year weighs in starkly and somehow finding my way into the new sacred geometry I discovered in Syria will be my salvation. I find it not only in the clear spaces and leaping arches of the mosques, but also in the ancient stone cities held in stillness against a winter blue sky or framing a landscape carved out in shallow relief.

Monday, 30 November 2009

early morning musings

Often memory comes unbidden, secreting itself into a painting. But it cannot be forced. And so in my studio yesterday, now wintry and hibernatory, I try and recall something of our visit to the Yorkshire moors in the summer. Three small paintings since, have taken me back there, allowing me to meander delightedly in summer greenth, evoke tree and shape so far removed from the broad expanses of black water and urban sprawl that envelop my daily tread now. So I thought I could lose myself there again, take a meander and hop over that ancient stone wall, find that grove of oaks with their plum red shadows, paint the white pink scar sculpted into the rock of the hillside but no, its gone. And instead my patchwork meander became a screaming highway of jarring brushstrokes, foul colour, jagged shape which would not be tamed. Turning it upside down, find a new composition, but no, best turned to the wall. Only reapproached with fresh palette, brush and paint. Studio clearing imminent and necessary.
On the other side of the studio there's an inky black and blue Bosphoros, so close now, a huge container ship approaching, and the shadowed bulk of the fishermen in the foreground.

Sunday, 23 August 2009