In a radical departure from my usual darker themes, I’ve got something special for you. (You may find it more rewarding to view April’s blog on my blog site rather than as an email where the layout sometimes gets a little garbled.)
I have just returned from a three-day trip to Amsterdam with my nearly 89-year-old mother. After her stroke in 2016, talking and understanding became difficult, at times impossible. This trip was designed to bypass both and provide delightful experiences in some of the areas of life we both love – art and flowers. The main components would be the Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum and the Keukenhof Tulip Festival. Both exceeded our already high expectations as we were treated to a visual and sensory bonanza. We bathed in beauty, feasted on colour, immersed ourselves in the scents and sounds of sunlit spring…
Sold out within two days of its opening in February, this exhibition presents the largest collection of Vermeer paintings ever – 28 out of the 37 known works. Words feel inadequate to describe the quiet intimacy of these often tiny paintings that offer immaculately observed, snapshot-like glimpses into Dutch domestic interiors where mid-17th century women work, play instruments, read or write.
A strong relationship between internal and external worlds is created through letters and the subject’s gaze turned towards open windows or us, the viewers.
Crisp, almost silhouetted figures against potent negative spaces of ‘white’ wall backdrops; droplets of light falling on the brass studs of a chair or the beads of an earring; sumptuous folds of silk sleeves and curtains… the details are breath-taking.
In complete contrast was the loud exuberance of the 7 million bulbs planted by 50 gardeners for the two month Keukenhof Tulip Festival. The cold weather had meant that daffodils, hyacinths, narcissi, muscari, tulips and cherry blossoms were all blooming in a form of perfect synchrony. A heady mix for which no words are needed… just enjoy!
Back at our beautiful hotel – a rare indulgence – the themes of interiors and flowers continued in a creative meeting of design, texture, pattern and nature…
And then finally to the fields and the lovely words of my trooper of a mother that pretty much sum up the special days for both of us: “I don’t want to leave…”
November, in many cultures, is the month designated to remembering those who are no longer there. With a strange synchronicity, everything I did, watched, read or listened to pointed towards ‘absence,’ that non-presence devoid of form that artists call ‘negative space.’ “Empty space is the silence between musical notes, the pauses in poetry, the stillness of a dancer. Therein often lies the meaning or drama of a piece.” (In My Grandfather’s Shadow, Ch 11, p.144)
I have just returned from a week in St Ives, the Cornish place that boasts the highest concentration of blue light in the UK and challenges many an artist to capture its effect in paint. A kind author friend each year offers her house of clean white rooms overlooking the beach and cliffs as a form of writing retreat for three of her fellow writer friends. All four of us want to make the most of precious time out, so the interiors fall silent during the days that in turn empty of all structure, just as our minds declutter of chores.
I spent my time reading the diaries of my intrepid, spinster great great aunt, who travelled alone to the Himalayas in 1939 to gather flowers for Kew Gardens. I followed her slow, awe-filled progress as she step-by-stepped her precarious way through lofty peaks and flower- or snow-filled valleys, pausing with her when she rested to stare at the perfectly choreographed performance of clouds and weather dancing in front of my window. Thoughts wafted through my mind, some being noted, others just fading in and out like rainbows. For a whole week, I simply was.
My time there, along with books and films I have recently ingested, have been making me realise just how much I miss and yearn to regain some of what I remember loving doing as a child… nothing. Being born a day-dreamer, the spaces between activity and connection were always filled with a rich, albeit invisible world that had the capacity to entertain, or indeed bore. Boredom… how rarely we have time for that potentially creative vacuum within today’s ubiquitous overload of information, social media and communications that interrupt our rhythms with an octave of pings. I don’t think this is just a grumpy, old-age thing. (Well it may be a bit.) This nostalgia is captured well in ‘The End of Absence’ by the considerably younger and hipper author, Michael Harris. He reminds us of what we are in danger of losing as generations, who have never known life without the internet, gradually overtake those of us who have.
The recently released and highly acclaimed film ‘Living’ based on the book by Akira Krosawa, screen written by Kazuo Ishiguro and starring Bill Nighy is set in 1950s London. Not a lot happens, and what does, happens incredibly slowly. The cinematography is stunning and emulates the subtle grace described in ‘In Praise of Shadows,’ a slim book by Junichiro Tanizaki that gently reveals traditional Japanese aesthetics and use of space. Unlike us in the west where the achievement of light is basically both goal and God, in Japan it was – and maybe still is in places – the creation of shadows that was the source of beauty and mystery. This quiet understatement is part of what I want to rediscover.
Another film I watched where even less happens but with still more potency and power, is The Banshees of Inisherin. Dark, sad, funny and impeccable in every way, including the acting of its two ‘In Bruges’ stars, Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, it basically portrays the painful ending of an long-standing friendship caused by the simple declaration by one: ‘I don’t want to be friends with you anymore’. The extensive space the film allows each facial movement, scene, sentence… one can almost feel the multi-layered clutter of ones own world begging to be emptied into black bin bags, or deleted.
With this increasingly strong desire to create more space, I decided to have a big Studio Sale of my art. (All works available can be viewed here.) And to finally sort through my real and digital filing office and cabinets in order to establish more clarity and space for new shoots and fruits.
So with the start of Advent this Sunday and the build-up to the crazy, all-consuming Christmas season, I would like to invite you to join me in seeking out and reclaiming some of those quiet spaces life used to offer in abundance, and still does if we just stop… feel… and dream our way into them.
Wishing you a very Happy and Meaningful Advent…
To buy my book, In My Grandfather’s Shadow, as a Christmas present, please order from your local bookshop or online here
“In My Grandfather’s Shadow’ is a brave, powerful, honest, thoughtful and meticulously researched book. I enjoyed it immensely. It has made me think very hard about intergenerational trauma transfer and explains so much about Germany, and perhaps, in the current context, Russia.” General Sir Richard Shirreff, former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and author of ‘War with Russia’
To listen to the recent 5-part Interview with Chris Baxter on Radio West, please go to BBC iPlayer here
In these final weeks before the Brexit deadline, I should probably be saying a few words. I’m prone to giving little speeches after all. But I just can’t bring myself to join in the clatter of opinions and emotions. Indeed, when we cross the March 29th threshold, I will be far away in another country, and slightly hoping to get stuck there. Anyway, there are more important things in life than bloody Brexit as my recent visit to the Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth exhibition proved.
On a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning, I arrived at the still closed doors of the Royal Academy determined to be first in and to have my long-standing hero, Michelangelo, to myself with all the quiet intimacy his tiny, yet exquisite drawings require. So I entered the first darkened room wholly unprepared to come face to face with a floor-to-ceiling-high woman squatting with splayed legs in the final throes of childbirth. Next to her, equally huge, a ghostly figure swirled like white ink dropped in black water. And beyond that, the hollow-cheeked face of an old woman sucked her final breaths through a respirator.
While very moving, Bill Viola’s video installation Nante’s Triptych is, in some ways, a fairly obvious depiction of humanity. Between the life-filled rotundity of the baby’s face and the sunken cavities that collapse the old woman’s into little more than a skin-covered scull, lies what we call ‘Life’. Birth and Death become mere moments, portals into and out of the human experience.
But standing in front of these huge videos I saw something else too. It was like I was staring at a visual rendition of one of the underlying plots of the book I’m writing. For, as I took my first breaths in a nursing home in Kent, my German grandfather was heaving his last in the family home in Schleswig Holstein. Our lives overlapped for a mere six days and yet, behind the changing backdrops to my physical existence, he too continued to exist. As I tripped and tromped my way through the various milestones of my life, he was there; an absent presence, like the shadowy figure of a backstage assistant, moving behind the scenes, invisible to the audience but essential for the illusion of the stage ‘reality’. “The dead are invisible, they are not absent,” St Augustine had said. And looking at that central panel, Viola seems to be saying that too; we all occupy the same space, between Birth, Death and Rebirth.
Overtaking other early visitors immersed in subsequent room-sized Viola installations, I eventually reached a row of Michelangelo’s drawings and shrank my full attention into each one in turn. And there I saw what I value most in the world. There, vibrating through the tiny pencil strokes evoking Mary’s extreme tenderness towards her child, the weightlessness of Christ’s resurrection and the dynamic muscularity of writhing male figures, was the most sublime evidence of the soul. That invisible part of us that transcends birth, life, death… even Brexit. In this country the word ‘soul’ is often spurned for its religious connotations. As a result, even the concept of soul is all but ignored or avoided by modern politics, the school curriculum, medicine and science… but not by Art. In Germany, the word for soul is Seele. It effortlessly encompasses all that is intangible about us – mental, psychological, emotional, spiritual, psychic – so it is more liberally embraced and supported in many spheres of life. This is what I fear we have been losing sight of in pre-Brexit Britain; that essence of what we love and value about a Michelangelo or any other truly great piece of art.
Whatever happens on March 29th – ok, here we go, here’s my penny’s worth on the subject of Brexit – I see Britain as a nation in grave danger of losing touch with its soul. The fool’s gold of ‘economic growth’, ‘financial independence’, ‘control’, ‘national identity’ and ‘greatness’ with which we are endlessly pounded will merely dump us on a new shore battered, divided and disorientated. Some people and businesses, above all in the City, will thrive, but many more won’t because those aren’t the things that make a nation as a whole happy, fair or humane. Look at the 45% rise in knife crime of recent years… it’s not just down to the cuts in policing. Neither is an increase to policing the main solution. No, this country has been short-sighted and plain wrong to cut out and close down so many of the small things that nurture and nourish peoples’ souls; youth centres, productive activities in prisons, learning assistance, the arts… Those are the things that make a real difference to many peoples’ lives. That’s why I am choosing to duck beneath the turbulent political waves rocking our country and beyond, to fill myself with art and cultivate spaces where the quieter qualities of soul and all that we as humans share in common, can thrive. Because without those, Britain will become infinitely poorer whichever way Brexit goes.