Soho and a straight horizon

WALKING ALONG CHARING CROSS ROAD in central London recently, a memory of my childhood sprung into mind. When I was about eight years old, I was told off by my art teacher at school because the horizon on my painting was not straight enough for her. She told me that I should have used a ruler. When I related this incident to my mother, she was quite annoyed because, in her opinion, it did not matter whether a horizon was drawn ruler straight or not. I hoped that she would not complain to the school about her feelings about the ineptitude of the art teacher. I do not recall that she bothered to do so.

My mother was an artist, whose works became increasingly abstract as she grew older. Before WW2, she trained to become a commercial artist at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town (South Africa). Her earliest works, which I have never seen, were hand-painted posters, advertisements for the latest films (movies). In 1948, she followed my father from Cape Town to London, where he had taken up an academic post at the London School of Economics. They married in 1948 and, according to my father, Mom took painting classes with the now famous Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Interestingly, I never heard my mother mentioning these classes.

Stone sculpture by Adam Yamey’s mother

I was born in 1952, and it was around then that my mother began creating sculpture. One of her earliest sculptures was in terracotta and its subject matter was a mother, seated, holding a child, maybe me. During the late 1950s and early part of the 1960s, my mother worked in the sculpture workshops at St Martin’s School of Art, which was then located on Charing Cross Road. The Sculpture Department was then under the directorship of Frank Martin (1914-2004), whom my mother referred to as ‘Mr Martin’ when talking to us at home.  It was there that she worked alongside sculptors, who have since become quite famous. These included Menashe Kadishman (1932-2015), Buky Schwarz (1932-2009), Philip King (1934-2021), and Antony Caro (1924-2013). The latter two helped her learn how to weld and create sculptures in metal, a medium she preferred. It was probably at St Martins that my mother met the sculptor Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993), who also taught in the Sculpture Department. She and Mom became close friends. ‘Liz Frink’, as she was known in our family, was a regular visitor to our home in northwest London.

My mother used to work at St Martins several days a week. She used to do a lot of the family’s food shopping nearby in Soho’s Old Compton Street. Vegetables were bought from a French greengrocer, and meat from a Belgian butcher called Benoit Bulcke. This butcher, according to Mom, knew how to cut meat correctly, unlike most English butchers. As a young child, I accepted that this was the case if Mom said so. The butcher and the greengrocer no longer exist. However, three other stores she frequented are still in business: The Algerian Coffee Store; Camisa; and Lina Stores. My mother was an early disciple of the cookery writer, Elizabeth David (1913-1922), and her encouragement of the preparation of French and Mediterranean dishes. The proximity of St Martins to Old Compton Street was convenient for my mother, as the shops along it provided many ingredients, which were hard to find elsewhere in London in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Art and memory in East Anglia

MY LATE MOTHER worked in the Sculpture Department of London’s St Martins School of Art in the days when it was located on Charing Cross Road, near Foyles bookshop. Amongst her colleagues at St Martins were Sir Antony Caro (1924-2013) and one of his pupils, Phillip King (b 1934). Both of these artists helped my mother to learn sculptural metal welding techniques in the early 1960s.

THIS SCULPTURE, which is on display in a glade within the gardens of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, reminds me of the kind of work Caro produced, but this was by his ‘disciple’ Phillip King. I like it, but cannot explain why, but it might not be seen as beautiful by everyone. My mother was mainly involved in abstract composition. This might have helped me me to become appreciative of this kind of art. .

The lady in blue

What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.

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The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right.  Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.

The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.

When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.

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For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil  just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.

For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.

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A work by Brancusi [Source: bookdepository.com]

I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.

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Sean Scully

For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.