I was 27 when I began visiting the National Gallery on a regular basis. The painters who impressed me most were Turner, Rembrandt and Velázquez. So much so, that I decided to become an artist, and I subsequently studied painting at Camberwell College of Art. This essay describes not only how these artists influenced my work, but also how others played their part in my development.
Attending an art college seemed a sensible way to proceed. I knew someone who had been to Chelsea Art School in the 1970s, and so I asked him for advice. He said I should produce a portfolio of work and then make an application to a London college.
I heeded his words, and I spent a year producing a body of drawings.
In 1980, I applied to Camberwell College of Art.
At that time it was not only close to where I lived, but more importantly it had a very good reputation for teaching painting and drawing.
I was lucky, incredibly so, as I later discovered. My portfolio was unimpressive to say the least. But the man who interviewed me was Dick Lee, and he decided to take a chance.
Before the first term began, I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. While I was there, I also went to the Stedelijk Museum where I saw a painting which stopped me in my tracks.
Who’s Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue III, by Barnett Newman, is twenty feet wide and eight feet high. The painting is almost entirely red. It has a thin blue stripe on the extreme left — he called them zips — and an even thinner yellow zip on the right.
It had that special something, that piece of magic that grabs you and opens up some new way of looking at the world. Its sheer sense of scale overwhelmed me. The picture had a cinematic quality and that sense of awe one gets from the wide screen.
It is a painting reduced to its bare essentials. Until then I had not cared for this type of minimalist sensibility. But Newman’s painting changed my views.
Camberwell Art School
Soon afterwards, I entered Camberwell Art School where many professional artists taught me to draw and paint from life.
I spent my Foundation year working every day, five days a week. On Saturday mornings, I visited galleries and museums where I made drawings of paintings and sculpture.
The painters who inspired many of my teachers were Monet, Matisse, Cezanne, Bonnard and Vuillard. The last two were particular favourites of my first painting tutor, Sargy Mann. As a result, French art of the late 19th and early 20th century was the driving force behind the teaching at Camberwell.
These influences had filtered down the years through a succession of teachers, and it had culminated in a type of painting known as the Euston Road School with its emphasis on realistic renderings of nature based on observation.
In 1981, I successfully applied to the Camberwell painting school to study for a three year degree.
Unfortunately I soon found painting from the human figure terribly tedious, and I recall one particular discussion with a teacher who was a successful Royal Academician.
The conversation went like this.
“What’s wrong, John?” The distinguished Academician asked. “You look troubled.”
“I’m bored,” I replied.
“Because there has to be more to this than painting light and space all the time. Isn’t there?
“Good God!” He said, taking a backward step, as if too close to something contagious. “What else is there to paint?”
As a result of this conversation, I disappeared from college for a few weeks.
I went to Tate in order to look at some Newman pictures. In doing so, I discovered the Rothko Room.
Mark Rothko gave these paintings to the Tate shortly before his death.
These very large paintings are predominantly black, purple and maroon. They are paintings to slash your wrists to, his detractors would say. However I learned from Rothko. His paintings demonstrated that pure colour can evoke an emotional response from the viewer.
Rothko and Newman opened the floodgates. Consequently post-1945 American painting became a big influence during my art school years.
Some notable teachers at that time were:
During the 1980s, I looked at a great deal of art, contemporary and otherwise.
Here are some of the important influences from those years, together with some more recent ones.
The Great Japan Exhibition ART OF THE EDO PERIOD 1600 – 1868
ROYAL ACADEMY, 1981
I saw this exhibition 6 times, more than any other show before or since. The RA put together a stunningly beautiful exhibition of prints, drawings, ceramics, textiles, jewellery and screens. It demonstrated how Japanese art differed from traditional Western modes of spatial representation. Japanese artists achieved a simplicity and grace rarely found in European art.
The Essential Cubism 1907 – 1920
TATE GALLERY, 1983
An exhibition which confirmed Picasso’s genius for breaking apart forms and reassembling them in an exciting and sometimes humorous fashion. It also proved that Braque was no slouch either.
la grande parade
STEDELIJK MUSEUM, AMSTERDAM, 1985
I visited this exhibition four times in as many days.
The collection consisted of of post-1945 paintings, including those by Picasso, Matisse, Léger, Pollock, Rothko, Newman, de Kooning and Guston.
In particular, George Braque and Max Beckmann stood out from the crowd.
Braque’s Studio pictures, painstakingly constructed over many years, were deeply mysterious and quite extraordinary.
Beckmann’s work was a revelation. Although he employed some wonderful symbolism, that would not be enough to make him a great artist. He used colour wonderfully to evoke a mood. He also had a brilliant eye for structure.
Hans Hofmann LATE PAINTINGS
TATE GALLERY, 1988
Hofmann was a German who moved to New York in 1937. and he became a very influential teacher. The Tate owns a couple of outstanding paintings by him, which I saw while at college, including Pompeii.
Picasso … again
In recent years I have been fortunate enough to make several trips to Paris and one to Venice.
The Musée Picasso has so much marvellous work. Unfortunately, when I was last there, the re-hang was a disaster. The curator destroyed all sense of chronological order. The curator’s ego is on display rather than Picasso’s.
A note to the Director, Laurent Le Bon: Get the lighting sorted. Tout de suite!
However before the re-hang, I learned that Picasso would sometimes paint from his own three dimensional work. So the sculpture was made first and the painting followed.
As a student, I drew directly from The Card Players, in the Courtauld Gallery (now housed at Somerset House in the Strand).
Cezanne taught me how each brush stroke is as important as the next. He painted from edge to edge, with nothing left out of place, knitting three-dimensional space into an extraordinary two-dimensional fabric.
Piero della Francesca
In 2013, I visited the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo to see Piero’s The Legend of the True Cross. I have long been an admirer of his work. As a student, I drew from The Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery as a student.
Despite considerable restoration, these frescoes remain a work of great beauty and power.
It is only in recent years that I have spent time studying Manet’s art, particularly in the Musée d’Orsay.
His sense of composition, combined with his use of colour and his mastery of paint influenced several of my paintings.
For example Legacy is influenced by Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
The Political Painter
But there is more to Manet’s work than than technical prowess and his ability to portray reality.
He was also a political painter. He tackled contentious subject matter.
Manet sets a great example for those, like me, who wish to push painting beyond purely formal limits.
So he sets a benchmark not only for painterly excellence, but also courage in the face of critical disapproval.