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Magical realism, autobiography and biography

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My most recent project still remains an expression of ‘magical realism’ but the emphasis has changed: over the past two weeks I have gradually moved away from the idea of a phantasy-laden ‘dreamscape’; in its place I have been constructing forms of portraiture – or, at least, ‘portrayals of persons.’ Initially I had the pleasure of making a romanticised type of work that sought to embrace a number of themes: for example, I had melded time-past and time-present and produced work that reflected certain idiosyncratic aspects of my imagination. I had focused on myself and an acquaintance of mine – a young Taiwanese fashion student who was following a course of study at UCA.  After I had developed a rationale for my work I became very absorbed – overtaken even – by questions of aesthetics. I enjoyed relating my work to certain manifestations of recent iconography. There was also a fair ‘dose’ of classical Freudian psychoanalysis that was embodied in my work. I had made conscious use of this: one screen print of Celia, for example, quoted from Bunuel’s ‘le chien andalou’ …)

But then I started to feel as if I was really finding a dubious rationale for everything that I was doing; something was disquieting me; I was troubled by questions of authenticity. I was troubled because I had come to realise that I was mainly developing a series of portraits – both of myself and of Celia – the young woman from Taiwan. I was, I think, making work that was both autobiographical and biographical. (When I look back I rather regret my loss of confidence in what I had achieved. But there it is! )

So, I completed the more autobiographical work by paying attention to the fact that I enjoy the inner process of following trains of thought – and I focused on Celia as a young person ‘wired’ into the world of fashion whilst simultaneously living in the post-Sontagian ethos of the ‘new aesthetics’ i.e. the ‘now’ of the super-saturated digitised image-world.

I also turned to develop an additional series of screen prints featuring the artist Meng Zhang. I had worked with the intriguing Meng in various ways over the past four months. (We enjoy each others’ company.) I had great pleasure in choosing an attractive image of her – and especially an image that reflects certain of her current interests and personality characteristics. I then set about making screen-print portrayals of her.

The production of each and every print was (and is) always challenging but really enjoyable. Technically, the making of the screen prints was (and is) never really straightforward. I had to prepare backgrounds and estimate what any additions to the backgrounds (the process of collage) would achieve prior to the actual printing. What is more, each image is a unique piece: there is a certain degree of chance involved in producing each print and a successful outcome is never guaranteed. Will the merging of the colour ‘work’ with that of the background? Will the specific applications of paint enhance the image or just ‘look’ wrong? Will the designs actually satisfy complex and elusive aesthetic criteria? Do the images genuinely describe their subject? – and so on.

At present I have made up to five good prints of myself, of Celia and of Meng. They do achieve one thing: they suggest the shifting identities on the part of each person under review. They almost certainly reflect the kind of image each person likes to have of him or herself. To that extent they serve as a ‘document’ of time-present – a time that is informed by time-past and time-future.

For the time being (at least) I have resolved a way of conceptualising my work: it is simply: 3 experiments in magical realism.

Footnote: The photo above is my screen print (number 3) of Meng Zhang. The photo upon which it is based was taken in Paris, France in December 2019.

‘Last night, a dream …’


I learned most of my ideas about human psychology from literature; when I was 19 years old I realised that I was far too ignorant and far too poorly educated. I could see quite clearly that if I wanted to participate fully in the best kinds of discussion I needed to learn from the world’s great literature. So, I read and read. I read terrific novels for at least two years – and I have continued reading them. (But, once my professional work began in earnest, I had to study, carefully, the subjects of which I would have to give lectures and lecture courses; in consequence, the reading of great literature has had to take second place.) Sigmund Freud has continuously supplemented my knowledge – and engaging with his discourse on subjects like ‘narcissism’ and the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’ has been great fun.

From Dostoyevsky I learned about ways of describing the ‘inner life’; I loved the way he would identify streams of thought – thoughts that take on a life of their own; From Tolstoy I learned how to think about varieties of personality, temperament and disposition; and, from a far more recent source, I learned about a character with whom I could identify: in this case the character was a writer who would experience moments of ‘dreaminess;’ An escapist dreaminess would overtake him. It overtakes me too; in fact, if the exigencies of life are so configured that I cannot drift off into phantasy and the pleasures of pure imagination, I begin to feel a sense of frustration.

I think that one of the reasons I like certain songs so much is that a lyric – a fragment from the words of a song – is sufficient for me to have pure imaginative pleasure. For example, REM’s song ‘Losing my religion’ has the line ‘just a dream, just a dream’ and it yields a perfect moment for me. Emmylou Harris’ ‘Michelangelo‘ has the same effect. And Bob Dylan’s ‘She belongs to me’ has the line, ‘She wears an Egyptian ring that sparkles before she speaks.’ I love that line.

This ‘dreaminess’ of mine is really the background to my most recent art work, ‘Last night, a dream …’ This work is scheduled to be shown in late March at UCA.

I decided to meld time past and time present into a series of screen prints. There are prints of me based on a photo of myself in the desert. The photo was taken in Wadi Rum, Jordan; I was dressed as ‘the Englishman’ – who has borrowed his ideas from a rather conventional visual tradition of the individual-as-romantic outsider. In Wadi Rum I was allowed to have moments of dreaminess – from midday sun to twilight and then to dawn. And whilst I was there (and since) I listened again to Bob Dylan – and the song which features his girl with the Egyptian ring. Then, in October 2019 I had the unexpected moment of meeting Celia – and experiencing her sheer charm … and feeling a new kind of dawn. There are screen-prints of her too. I think she wears an Egyptian ring …

Is the work about a recurring dream? Is is about the way the material and the metaphysical combine? Is it about the fragmentary life of my imagination? Is it a disguised response to Freud’s ‘The interpretation of dreams’? It certainly seems to be a kind of ‘magical realism.’ It also harmonies with the idea of an ‘unsettled focus’: I’m not sure what whomsoever may see the work is expected to focus upon. But that’s part of the intention. Overall the forthcoming  MA show is entitled, ‘Unsettling focus‘.

And I have enjoyed wondering how I can bring to life a strange elusive dialogue between myself and this beautiful woman who comes to me, both in imagination (my dreaminess) and in my actual dreams …


An email conversation with Peter V. about art


I had mentioned to the writer Peter V. that I thought a great deal of art (high art, elite art) had become a strangely conventional form of following a kind of fashion: the new aesthetics, ‘spectacularisation’, existential fed-up-ness etc. …). I said that I was inclined to avoid this; after all, as Musashi had long ago stated: ‘Do not act following customary beliefs.

Peter replied in January 2020 by email. Here is his message:

Dear Rob – here are my ‘rules of art’:

1 There are no rules
2 Don’t join a school – be one
3 Paint what you see
4 Every picture tells a story
5 The picture will tell the artist when the work is finished …

… and do keep in mind Musashi’s rules:

7 Perceive those things that cannot be seen
8 Pay attention even to trifles
9 Do nothing which is of no use

All the best,

I thought about his comments; I thought that they were very stimulating  – and I started to put together my work on magical realism. I replied, by email, to Peter on 8 February 2020 as follows:

Hello Peter,

The storm is lurking. At least we have had a few lovely days full of sunshine and the blessing of a fine crisp morning air.

I suppose my main news is the ongoing experience of the MA. I don’t regret doing it and I am surprised at how generous the resources at UCA really are. For example, the technical tutors made huge plinths for me as well as shelves and supplied the paint for my recent show on ‘Intimate narratives‘ – all at no cost. The screen-print tutors have been on hand to help me or to give me advice throughout the last 3 full days – and the facilities for giving a presentation and lecture on the day of our recent symposium were and are superb (as was the venue.)

I have also been struck by the nature of the younger students that I have met; they are studying subjects like illustration or textiles or animation and they are surprisingly positive and agreeable. Often they smile – and are even willing to engage with an old chap like me! There is a good mix of nationalities and ethnicities and, in the very large majority of cases, the students work hard – and in a very focused way. I am pleased, now, to be aware of the processes that generate the people who work in the creative industries – graphic design, illustration, product design, fashion, animation, computer games, ceramics, glass, pottery, and all manner of 3D work.

Fine Art (my domain) now occupies a rather strange place; since all the other fields produce highly skilled, very effective technical outputs (for example, the illustrators produce better (well, more polished) figurative stuff than the Fine Art artists) the only thriving refuge for Fine Art is in expressions of the weird, wonderful, bizarre, unexpected, spectacular, plain odd, recondite or esoteric. There is some room for expressing intellectual ideas as well as personal phantasies. (I like the last two areas.) It is as if the Fine Artist follows an idea or concern and then finds a quirky or allusive way of ‘showing’ and expressing it. There is also space for a kind of ‘howl’ or ‘moan’ about life … as there is for grappling with that which is taboo.

So, it has been testing, demanding and exhilarating. I am now making a piece called: ‘Magical realism: last night I dreamed of shooting Lawrence of Arabia.’

Could I make it as an artist? Possibly yes. My interim shows have given me some hope! Would I be well-equipped to participate and thrive in the Fine Art world? Probably not! (I might have been a successful player if I had been under the age of 45 or so.) But anyway, that’s not why I am doing the course.

Well, as usual, thank you for your generous support and pithy trenchant comments,

with very best wishes,


Footnote: The photo above shows a segment of my work concerning a portrayal of Celia, the young Taiwanese woman; the photo below shows part of my ‘semi-random biographies’ that was shown in the ‘Intimate narratives’ group show.


An Autobiography: Chapter 61

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Chapter 57: Shooting Lawrence of Arabia – along with a Self-portrait in yellow and a hat.

Fine Art is freedom: Freedom from constraint and freedom to express whatever. (But it all unravels as soon as anyone stops to think about the concept of ‘freedom’ and the nature of persons and their forms of sanity. Sanity implies some sort of reality principle and that means facing up to the constraints of the real world.)

Anyway, as soon as I turned to consider self-portraits and the Fine Art ‘freedom’ of making a self-portrait I searched around for examples of my visual appearance. I came across a photo of me taken just before I hitchhiked from Wadi Rum in Jordan down to the seaside town of Aqaba. I had spent 24 hours in the desert and I was wearing a great hat and an even better scarf. The subject lent itself to a bold screen print. (The original appeal of going to Wadi Rum was because it was supposed to be beautiful in an unique way. So I left the wonderful tranquility of the wild life reserve of Dana in Jordan, stayed 3 days in Petra, and then I caught a south-bound bus and found a person who arranged trips into the great expanse of Wadi Rum.)

Here is my account of the twilight hours of that desert trip.

‘The sun was setting. I felt as if I was setting with it. The bright disk of the sun rested for a moment on top of the distant cliffs. It looked like a huge satellite dish that had finally overdosed on TV channels.

I sat down on a small rock. Presently I questioned the wisdom of sitting down, insouciantly, on a rock in the desert. Maybe there were scorpions fallen from the stars that had made their homes right there, underneath that rock, in the desert. Maybe the very rock I was sitting on was a palace, a shopping mall, or a holiday resort for scorpions.

I stood up and pushed the rock over. No, there were no scorpions. The rock looked 100% uninhabited. This, I knew, was an illusion. God knows how many trillions of tiny beings were going about their business on the lifeless surfaces of that rock.

I sat down again on the rock and watched the sky turning roxy-red and purple-velvet. I sighed – just for a moment. It was a special sigh: It was all very simple: I was sitting on a rock, on a sand dune, in the middle of the place where they had made the film, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. I was taking in the mood of Wadi Rum. [A Wadi is a river valley; I don’t know what a Rum is.] And, I was here on that rock, on that dune, after the million ups and downs that hitchhiking in Jordan had visited upon me. This was Journey’s End; the End of the Line. A tune came into my head – it was The Travelling Wilburys – along with the chorus, ‘End of the line, end of the line’.

And then the outer space of the world disappeared from the horizon; I was lost in my own dreaminess; a few thoughts and bits of thoughts came and went: Iron filings; the cover design of a Penguin modern classic; the melody from a Neil Young song; remnants of a conversation with a colleague; the same colleague looming towards me in the half-light of his study; railway tracks; memories of the early morning dew and foot prints in the dew, and footprints in the sand; a 2b Pencil; a photograph of my mother … Susan Sontag, sensibilities, Dylan’s ‘All along the watchtower’ … my mother playing Rachmaninov, my father reading the Sunday Times …

Of course, the hardness of the rock upon which I was sitting began to return me to the other world, the world out there. But before it could do so from under its own steam, a small boy appeared. He sat down bedside me. I had met the small boy earlier in the day. He was the son of my Bedouin guide. The boy was aged about 5. The small boy was armed with a toy Kalashnikov. It was quite a realistic Kalashnikov even though it was made from heavy-duty grey plastic. In truth, I didn’t really want to have to think about Kalashnikovs at that particular moment. BUT the small boy obviously did want to think about Kalashnikovs. He looked at me happily and started to demonstrate the properties of his particular Kalashnikov. It rasped out a kind of machine-gun sound and, as it blasted away, a series of lights arranged along its muzzle started flashing. The lights were red – cardinal red – the red that cardinals wear in the Vatican.

I wasn’t exactly annoyed but I wasn’t overly pleased either. It had suddenly become much harder to take in the last light of the desert sunset and to absorb whatever it is that people absorb in Wadi Rum. The boy then circled around me still smiling happily; he chattered away to me. I didn’t understand what he was saying. But, I did get a strong sense that I was supposed to join in with his game. ‘Um,’ I thought. ‘This isn’t looking so good now. I wonder if he is going to go away.’

I waited.

The boy did not go away.

In fact, the more I gazed across the plain to the distant cliffs where the sun had quietly overdosed and collapsed a few minutes earlier, the more the boy seemed to attach himself to me. He nestled up against me. It looked as if he and I had become friends. So, I picked up the Kalashnikov and began taking aim at imaginary enemies lodged in the nearby cliff and rock faces. The boy was overjoyed. He seized the weapon from me and rattled off a few minutes worth of machine-gun fire.

‘God, almighty,’ I thought: ‘I mean, I’ve had a pretty so-so time in Jordan and this was supposed to be a moment of stock-taking, of meditation, of figuring things out, of seeing a sight. But it’s all gone belly-up, shot to shreds by a small boy and his wretched toy gun. I mean: Who on earth gives a small boy an imitation Kalashnikov? For heaven’s sake …’

I looked at the boy who was imploring me to continue with his game, enjoining me to fill out his fantasy. He offered me the toy gun. Once again, I shot at a range of imaginary figures. This time, though, they had started to take on more recognisable form. Some were in military uniform, others in the khakis of a murderous militia.


And with each rat a tat tat the lights on the gun blazed away. Then the boy took his turn.

Suddenly, I burst out laughing. I laughed and laughed and the more I laughed the more I wanted to laugh. In the end I was howling with laughter. The perfect irony of it all had struck me with maniacal force. The boy, though, had become most disquieted. He was looking completely mystified. Undeterred, I grabbed the Kalashnikov and charged off towards the nearest cliff. I hurled myself to the ground and shot just about every possible person I imagined had ever come near to Wadi Rum. ‘You can f**k all that stuff about finding peace and tranquillity and the spiritual silence of the desert. No. Stuff that,’ I thought. By now, I was blasting every living thing to smithereens. It was heaven. And the best bit of all was that I even got to shoot Lawrence of Arabia.

Now that Lawrence of Arabia was well and truly dead I paused. Then it dawned on me: I had shot a national hero. I was in disgrace. I trudged back to where the small boy was standing. Overhead the stars were grinning. I handed him his Kalashnikov.

Inside the huge Bedouin tent a wood fire was burning.

Yesterday, 6th February 2020 I turned the memory of myself in Wadi Rum into a really stylish screen print. A self-portrait in yellow with a hat. (That’s the one – up there.)

Lady Gaga: a study in transformational aesthetics


By chance I happened to see a rather new manifestation of Lady Gaga when she was beautifully dressed for the premiere of her latest film in Venice. And then, unexpectedly, I happened to read about Lady Gaga and her song ‘Poker Face‘ in a serious discussion of art and ontology in T. Gracyk’s ‘The philosophy of art.’ The discussion sought to identify exactly what form (or categories) of existence a musical composition and its performance ‘possessed.’

I like Lady Gaga because I admire the way she copes with and masters the world of popular, mass and spectacular culture. Am I a fan of her? Not really – but I cannot but like her. I painted this picture and then dressed it up for display during Christmas 2019. If I were to exhibit it I would suggest (for fun) that it’s best to view the ensemble through the regulation ‘cool’ sunglasses. As Iris Murdoch said, ‘Art is more fun than philosophy‘ – which it is – but obviously we need them both.

Less is more: a response to two remarks


More than a decade ago I spent two relatively happy years as a student in an art college. I was doing my Foundation studies. These studies lasted from 2005 – 2007. I became so engaged, challenged and intrigued by the unfolding experience that I treated the course as a full-time process. It was a serious business. During the second year I was even asked by the Course Director, a woman in her early middle-age, to act as a tutor on an accompanying course – with the special role of helping the young men studying for their Foundation in Art and Design to discuss the existential issues and concerns that featured prominently in their current lives. (I felt honoured to be so considered.)

I enjoyed the course – in large part because there was no teaching and almost minimal staff contact. This meant that I was not interfered with! I had a free hand to respond in ways of my own choosing and I had to take full responsibility for the choices that I made. Despite the fact that the staff left me to my own devices I was particularly struck by two remarks that were made by different tutors.

The first occurred when, late in the second year, a young woman tutor addressed the class as a whole and told everyone on the course that each of us ‘should have or develop a theory of art’. Her remark was met with what seems the usual resentment and some hostility (there was an anti-academic mood) and yet I thought she was right. I was forced to ask myself: ‘Well, do you, Robert Adlam, really have a well-grounded theory of art?‘ I was not certain that I did have an adequate theory of art. I took her seriously and instead of running around gawping at more and more art I started the difficult process of elaborating such a theory. (I first turned to philosophers who had something to say about art – beginning with Book Ten of Plato’s ‘The Republic’. To understand Plato, here in Book Ten, requires a proper grasp of his overall philosophy. Unfortunately these things can’t be rushed! )

On another occasion in our obligatory drawing class I was using a pencil to draw a still-life composition. I had made the mistake of positioning myself in relation to the displayed objects such that I disliked the arrangement facing me. I did not fully realise this until someway into the drawing. But worse, I ended up condemning myself to pencilling in the intricate details of a finely woven piece of basket-work. This was utterly tedious. What a trial! The member of staff looked at my work and simply said: ‘Not bad, Robert – but you’ve got to make it interesting. Art has to be interesting.’ She was quite right. My drawing was mind-numbingly boring.

Since those remarks by the tutors two things have happened. First, I have, little by little, edged towards at least a definition of art. (In fact, I have not so much a definition but a way of understanding how something – even something relatively intangible – gets to be categorised as art. (It is closely associated with the notion of a cluster concept (see: Wittgenstein; see: Gracyk) ) On top of that I have examined certain concepts that are deployed in discourse about art – such as ‘ontology’ and ‘authenticity’ ‘meaning and interpretation’ ‘mass art’ and ‘popular culture’. These are subjects that cannot be treated superficially. For example, Lady Gaga is a serious cultural phenomenon and, in certain respects, an authentic and elaborate work of art.

Second, I have realised that much of art really does need to be ‘interesting.’ I think that this is both a good thing and a bad thing. It means that whatever it is I and others might be doing the spectre of ‘interestingness’ hangs over it! We cannot just achieve technical excellence. We have to ‘spice things up’, be unusual, display originality, offer up surprises, make a spectacle, deliver a shock, say the unsayable. Sometimes, though, I think people try too hard and strain the work to the point that it is either so obscure that it is meaningless or it hides behind the cloak of ‘shock and awe.’ (Robert Hughes once remarked about collapsing upon ‘the vulgar expedient of size.’) And there is an awful lot of indulgent asinine posturing in the exclusive confines of the art world. Will Gompertz is quite explicit about this!

It is also a problem because the ‘interesting’ rather reflects a quasi-departure from reality. Most of the time, life is banal and plainly, for lots of people, just boring. I wonder if art-as-something-interesting is, in part, an anthropological design to ‘distract’ people generally and shift them into the realm of ‘surprise’. Perhaps it has taken on a ‘well, who’d have though that?’ kind of ethos. On the other hand something has struck me about this imperative – this ‘it, art, must be interesting’ phenomenon. It is to do with the unconscious: anything off-beat, surprising, bizarre, or unexpected has a kind of riveting effect: and it is perfectly possible that unconscious desires are temporally met – as the psyche experiences a sudden freedom from the reality principle and the constraints of the super-ego. (See: Rosemary Jackson)

On a different note, I also realise that I work far better independently of the presence of other people. For example, the three-week break in the long MA semester process has been wonderful. I have been able to produce and study in an uninterrupted way. Life is disturbing enough; I simply am not that good at interacting with other people if I want to get anything done. For this, and other reasons, I am not at all well-equipped to participate in the art world!

A second conversation with Celia


Celia had been at a lecture; its subject was ‘The frontiers of fashion.’ Once it was over, she met me in the richly-resourced library at UCA. We decided that we would go to my home and, free from distractions, our conversation could begin.

I asked her what had led her to become so interested in fashion. She began by immediately describing the influence of her grandmother for whom she has a deep affection. From a young age her grand-mother would dress her in beautiful clothes. And so it was she who enabled Celia to have that indescribable pleasure of imagining herself as a magical fairy or a mythical princess. Her grand-mother also taught her to be ‘graceful’, ‘elegant’ and ‘polite’. In fact, Celia is unusually well-mannered. I had noticed this throughout the time we had known each other. She is also remarkably composed.

Her favourite fashion designers are Gianni Versace and Jean-Paul Gaultier: Versace – the superlative excess of richly gorgeous style; Jean-Paul Gaultier – radical, outlandish and brilliant. And she told me that she is currently working on a project concerned with ‘body-shaming.’

She acknowledged how hard her parents had worked whilst she was growing up and how it fell to her grandparents to look after her. She told me that she loves all of them – but in different ways.

Good conversations are non-linear things; they take off, twist and turn – and trace patterns like super-fluid electrons – as images pulse and shine – and memories glint anew: We talked about her life in Taiwan, her original loneliness on the long flight to the United Kingdom, her first trip to Bournemouth where she went clubbing and did karaoke and flitted into casinos – and how she is a ‘fearless’ person:

I don’t feel fear,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why but nothing frightens me. Sometimes I think that I ought to feel fear but I do not.’

Twice that evening her boyfriend phoned her from Taiwan. (I even spoke to him.) The boyfriend was in a very merry mood: ‘He’s been celebrating with a client,’ she said. ‘They’ve had a bit to drink.

She likes the culture and the creative atmosphere in the UK. She finds it relatively free of constraints. Life in Taiwan is more formal. She might even choose to stay much longer in the UK.

By now my wife had spent quite a long time in the kitchen and it was time to eat. The three of us had dinner together. We never stopped taking. I was amazed at how willing Celia was to sustain such a long conversation in English. We learned about the pressures that now befall young women in Korea and China, Taiwan and even Japan. They want, she said, ‘to look westernised.’ They are prepared to undergo plastic surgery even in their teens as they search for their ideal ‘look.’ (I was shocked to learn this.)

Right at the end of our long conversation, I asked Celia to describe herself in three words. (Why I did so I am not sure. Anyway, I did.)

She paused. We sat in silence for quite a long time. Celia looked down towards the deep red Persian carpet. She still said nothing: Then:

Yes, I’m independent. And I’m … can you say: ‘varied’?

I replied: ‘You mean ‘complex’ – in the sense that there are different sides to you?’


She then consulted a translation on her iPhone and showed the answer to me:

It said, ‘wilful.’

Yes I can see that. You are single-minded – and I imagine that you are strong-willed. Yes, I think that ‘wilful’ might be one way of describing you!

By now it was late in the evening. It was time for her to leave.

We said ‘goodbye’ and although it was against my better judgement she had resolved to walk home on her own.

In the old days we would think me very ungentlemanly,’ I said.

Don’t worry. It’s not far,’ she replied.

And Celia set off into the night.

Later my wife insisted that I contact her to make sure that she had arrived home safely.
I did – and she had.

And, later, I thought that if I were a Human Resources Manager in a fashion house such as Versace or Chanel or Dior then she would be exactly the kind of person who, through personality, social skill and sheer grace, would be a great asset to the business.

Thinking about portraits and self-portraits


I have been reading a long essay that takes as its subject an overview of 50 years of Lucian Freud’s paintings. It’s written by someone who knew him well: The author is William Feaver and his essay ‘Freud at the Correr: Fifty years’ was published in 2007.

Ages ago (nearly 70 years in fact) Lucian Freud published ‘Some notes on painting’ in the journal ‘Encounter’. William Feaver intersperses his commentary with selections from Freud’s text. Amongst these assertive, aphoristic and sometimes metaphysical ‘notes’ he, Freud, wrote something that has been puzzling me for some time. It is this:

The picture in order to move us must never merely remind us of life but must acquire a life of its own.

I have sometimes tried to quote this remark. Often, though, I find myself trying to remember the exact wording. I make a start – and then misquote the words. Why is that?

Perhaps more importantly I have wondered if any of my ‘pictures’ do more than merely remind one of life. Have any acquired a life of their own?

Post script:

Everything is, in some sense or other, autobiographical. The still-life in the photo above is, in part, about someone’s life. (A portrait even). I’d like to paint like that because it’s something that endures and something that is a little bit ‘out’ of time. It is as if it tries to escape time. And, although it places me in a tradition of art history (goodness, I’m hopelessly lost in the past), Cezanne said something that appeals to me:

The goal of all art is the human face.’

So,  I paint the faces of people – people like the age-ing honey-seller in the Atlas mountains, or the old ferry-man in Upper Egypt –  or my daughters and my wife  – because I find, in their faces, an awareness, as well as the mystery of being.

The photo below shows my wife Jo – perhaps unfinished … perhaps something more than merely reminding us of life … perhaps not!

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The borders of our lives: Conversations with Celia


The light in the room had gradually softened until every shape and every form had begun to merge into the surroundings. Soon we were sitting in something less than twilight. Celia remained almost as still as a crystal. She spoke in a voice so melodic, so delicate that I felt as if I had been transported into a dusky mist-laden land of enchantment. We had been talking about art and fashion and beauty. Music had been playing – almost unnoticed – in the background: sometimes we could just discern a piano sonata; sometimes a muted symphony; largo, adagio and then adagietto …

In a moment of silence I recalled a song that I had first heard a long long time ago. A singer proposed the line: ‘And you read your Emily Dickinson – and I my Robert Frost.’ I had always imagined the two people, a young man and a young woman, both sitting in the fading grandeur of a high-ceilinged room; a room made for poets; and, both were reading, when each would occasionally look up to remark on something that had occurred to them, each separated by mood, and then, by time. The same singer reflects on their ‘dangling conversation’ before that moment in which he identifies the couple now on ‘the borders of their lives.’

Celia and I were meeting at the borders of our lives – on the border of hers and on the border of mine.

By now the light had been silently taken, spirited-away by the God of night. We were sitting in a deep blue-grey darkness. Celia, the sofa upon which she was sitting, and the room – with all its books and glass ornaments and its bright green curtains – had become one.

I wanted to move across those borders. I wanted to discover, and get to know and sense so much more about the depth and the qualities of this beautiful person.

A month went by. Celia had been ill. She had a great deal of work to do if she were to make up all the lost ground that had befallen her during her course in Fashion and Fashion Design.

At last we were able to meet. I had found a pamphlet featuring an exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s exquisite fashion photographs, photographs of that exclusive elegance once belonging to high society. I was so pleased to be able to give this to Celia. I was sure that she would like the style (and even the opulence) of that world, a world that has gradually disappeared as our cultures have moved into the age of bright and shiny surfaces that now surrounds us all.

In our second conversation, Celia would come to tell me about her life, her identity and why she felt as if the United Kingdom was now becoming her second home. And, in return, I would paint a portrait of her. I would set out to express something that is remarkable about her graceful presence.

Celia is 27 years old and is from Taiwan; even the relentless rain of the last month or so in England has not diminished her appreciation of its culture. In the next conversation Celia would disclose more about herself, her love of fashion, her values and her sensibilities. Soon we would cross the borders of our lives.

Footnote: Celia is studying Fashion and Fashion Design at the University for the Creative Arts. She has a degree in English and, in addition to her first language Chinese, she speaks English, French and Spanish.

The title of the song I recalled is: ‘The Dangling conversation‘ by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. It was released in September 1966 on their album, ‘Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme.’

The photographs above and below show Celia in different contexts. The one below features the setting for our second conversation. The one above could be on a fashion shoot somewhere …




Working with Meng – the hyacinth as symbol


In literature there are some poetic and sublime accounts of that special interaction which can sometimes unfold between an old man and a young woman. Recently I lived though such an encounter.

Meng Zhang is 24 and comes from China. I am far far older and I am European. We are separated not only by years but also by history, philosophy, space, culture and personality. For two weeks we worked together on an art project that became essentially an extended conversation between the two of us. It was one of the most delightful moments I have ever experienced. There was – and is – something enchanting about Meng.

She completed her B.A. in oil-painting in the Chinese city of Dalian. Imagine: A degree devoted entirely to the art of oil-painting. She’s artistically and technically very accomplished. I think she has had to work hard to adjust to the open-ended nature of studying and practising Fine Art in the UK. She’s resilient, audacious and sensitive.

During our work together she would oscillate between treating me with enormous respect and insouciant subversion. We always enjoyed each other’s company. We laughed a great deal. At the end of our project she gave me a gift: a parcel containing a special white tea. I recalled that beautiful line from one of my favourite songs: ‘… and she  feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.’ I also gave her a gift: A 3D book featuring Peter Pan with the sounds of Big Ben chiming, a ticking clock, the melodic lapping of waves … (Time waits for no-one.)

For my birthday she had noticed that there was a hole in my gloves and, in response, she gave me a new pair of knitted woollen gloves. She looked at me as she gave me the present and I could ‘feel’ the ancient Chinese saying which tells us that ‘a bit of fragrance clings to the hand that gives flowers.’

In her next project, as far as I can tell, she will explore a personal sense of re-birth central to which is her chosen motif – a flower, the hyacinth.

Yes, sometimes we are lucky: there are perfect moments in a life.