Thursday, 20 December 2012

This is where it all began.  Look at this painting and notice what you are feeling.  Really look at it, give yourself time, and look.

Pieta, by Giovanni Bellini.

I love this painting with a passion.  I am very affected by it, I feel the power of this image and never get tired of looking at it.  Here is what happened.

When I was eight years old, I was a very established fairy.  Fine.  I wore net curtains and a home made crown, and because my Aunt Kit had tiny feet, I wore her shoes. I loved to draw, to paint, to make lovely things and I had a vivid imagination. I lived in an imaginary world.  My father always noticed and encouraged me, and being artistic himself, being intellectual, well read, and slightly eccentric, he selected this painting in a book one day and asked me to come and look at it.  Here, he said, is beauty.  Look at the faces, he said.  This is the dead Jesus being held by his mother.  Look at how their faces turn to each other, see how Mary has only eyes for her son, how Jesus turns his head towards his mother's face, see how she holds his hand.  The light is white, and falling on the figures giving them shape, said my father, and see - there is a quality of silence and pain in this scene.  How beautiful are the hands?  How beautiful are the folds of the clothes?  And can you imagine what St John is feeling as he holds Jesus and looks away in shock?  Maybe Giovanni Bellini painted these faces from looking at people around him.  This painting, said my father, was painted in about 1460.  Maybe these were faces that went to the market, that walked in the street, that got on with their lives in 1460, and you, said my father, are seeing them today in this painting of Jesus being held by his mother and St John after his ordeal on the cross.

It was a moment of recognition for me.  This is what painters did.  This is what I would do.  I kept this painting and looked at it often, falling in love with it again and again.  How could a man from so long ago paint something so moving, so exquisite, so painful?  How could he get the eyes so real?  The hands so amazing?  How did he paint the quality of silence and stillness, how did he seem to capture an intimate, powerful, private, moment that we should not be seeing? And yet we were there, with them, watching with horror the moment a mother holds her dead son.  I wanted more than anything to do this, to paint something that was as beautiful as this.

At University many years later, my dissertation was on the religious frescoes of Pietro Annigoni.  I wanted to talk about his recent, currently being painted, religious frescoes, and I went to Florence to track him down.  I did track him down, and he did help me wonderfully and I was bowled over by his work.  So bowled over that I couldn't speak.  It was with huge difficulty that I communicated at all, it was as if I had an audience with a rock star, I was so overwhelmed.  He was a very kind man, and seemed to be used to paralysed students, he asked himself questions and then answered them for me, and I wrote it all down.  I went and visited, with special permission, the frescoes that Annigoni was currently painting. I went to Monte Cassino and to Padua, and I can't remember where else.  I did not see him at work, but I saw how it was done.  The scaffolding, the paints, the drapes, the brushes, the paraphernalia accompanying him as he created his great art on the walls of churches and Cathedrals.  And the paintings themselves.  Lord, they were magnificent.  Goodness, they were powerful.  So beautiful, so intense, so passionate.  And all these religious scenes, painted by a man who was an Atheist.  I had not come across that before, how could a man who didn't believe in God paint such glorious religious paintings in a church?  I thought I saw evidence of a struggle in the frescoes.  I thought I caught a glimpse of the powerful inner life of an artist, I thought I understood a little more how magnificently contradictory an artist could be.  I'll be that one day, I thought.  If only I could speak. 

From Scenes from the life of St Anthony of Padua, in the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua by Pietro Annigoni

Here is St Anthony meeting the tyrant Ezzelino da Romano, painted in 1981.  I was there in 1981 and stood in front of this before it was finished, feeling the energy in it, the menace of Ezzelino and the figures in the background, feeling the passion of the artist and thinking of the Atheist who painted this insightful and beautiful fresco.  The dog is very ugly, it highlights the saintliness of Anthony as he stands, still and vulnerable, before the threatening figure of Ezzelino da Romano.  The painting is full of movement; controlled, big movements, with the still, silent, glowing figure of St Anthony in the centre of it all.

What I saw, when I met Annigoni, was a modern day embodiment of Giovanni Bellini.  Both were Italian, both painted with power, magic, brilliance, and I felt a link between them from over the centuries. I was in awe of Annigoni because he not only represented his own art, but because he represented the painting that first moved me to a place quite beyond myself when I was so young.  I could have been in the studio with Bellini.  Bellini lived in Venice, Annigoni lived in Florence, and I was there, in Italy, the country from which both men came, and even though I have not a drop of Italian blood, I do at least have an Italian name. 

I am in no way like Bellini and Annigoni.  But I am looking for a way to represent very powerful human stories through art, I am deeply affected by the way in which they interpreted the scenes they were painting.  I am moved each time I see work by Bellini and Annigoni.  I feel that they are painting from their hearts, there is something far more to what they produce than simply a picture.  When I paint for the A Graceful Death exhibition, I remember the power of these two great painters.  I am moved beyond imagining by the people that I paint for the exhibition, and hope to go beyond mere representation.  I want to say something much more about the situation that my sitters are in, I want that magic from the other place, that Annigoni and Bellini access, to come to me.  There is real love in what they do, and real love in what I do. 

Steve as Christ's HeadFrom the A Graceful Death exhibition
This painting is of Steve the day he died, and I have painted him as a beautifully as I could.  I was inspired by the Renaissance paintings of Christ's head after the crucifixion,

Another Pieta, by Giovanni Bellini, from about 1472.  This is a detail from a larger painting.

like this one.  The Steve as Christ's Head painting is directly inspired by paintings such as these.  I have taken a dead man and given him the same love in paint as in the painting above, I have given him a golden halo and used the darkest of blues to highlight his yellow skin and I have tried to give the painting something from that other place, that Bellini, Annigoni and other painters can access. 

Anne and Peter Snell.  From the A Graceful Death exhibition

 Here is another example, of painting with love.  Anne Snell here is sitting with her husband Peter as he dies, and holds him with both her hands.  I did not paint it here, but her other hand was under his pillow holding him close to her.  Their faces are close together, they are connected in this painful and intimate moment, and we feel that we are watching something private and deeply moving.  And of course, we are. Annigoni's drawing is excellent, in all his works, the evidence of perfect drawing is there.  I have tried to make the drawing correct in the painting above (and in all my paintings) and have worked hard to make it all as good as I can.

So now.  I want to leave you with an exquisite drawing by Annigoni.  Can you see the movement in the drawing, feel the restless energy with which he must have drawn this face, are you inspired by the beauty of the image? 

Study of perhaps, a Prophet perhaps.  By Pietro Annigoni

  What a lovely way to end this blog.  With a drawing by Pietro Annigoni.  We began with Bellini, we end with Annigoni.  Oh I am in such good hands.


  1. Why is Annigoni's picture so, so sad....he looks without if the precious water he was holding has fallen through his hands into the sand....he seems so alone...none of the other pictures on your blog are so alone....Maybe I feel this way because it has been "one of those days" at work?

  2. Very possible, Anonymous, I hope tomorrow is a better day for you.