BMI FOR WIMPS by Russell Lumb
How good does it feel to be back in the studio, renewing the pleasurable struggle with paint, light and model. Little visible evidence of New Year resolution at the off, but jaded palettes were soon refreshed, actually and metaphorically, by our very own Fiona, who appeared not to have even looked at a mince pie over the festive season. On my side of the easel, a good long walk felt more appropriate, but, by the end of the day I was every bit as tired as having walked to Redbrick from home in North Yorkshire. Fortunately, I didn’t have to walk back as my wife remembered to collect me, and we scurried over the Vale of York to a waiting casserole and our plump armchairs in front of woodstove and television. And that was the moment when the day really took off.
Fiona, would have had to have eaten all of, and I do mean all of the pies to have been considered for the part of seventeenth cherub in any of Peter Paul Rubens’ colossal kaleidoscopes of allegorical excess. Waldemar Januszczak’s BBC2 profile of the great Flemish artist and his work was itself a minor masterpiece; an example to the world of how to engage the masses in art and to hold their attention forever (unfortunately, they were all watching “Britain’s got the Apprentice Factor”). I cannot remember laughing, crying, snorting and cheering more at a factual television programme since Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street.
Of course, I have a particular interest in painting naked ladies (and gentlemen), and had spent the day doing exactly that, but nothing can prepare you for the avalanche of humanity which is Rubens’ work; the scale, the prodigious output, the power, the colour and, particularly, the inventiveness. He clearly used models, as his several wives’ presence in many paintings testifies, but no model could adopt and hold the poses required for his cast of tortured thousands, all of whom are executed in the most complete and accurate detail. These paintings have a sense of continuity, despite their outrageous camp; they feel like stopped frames from an epic movie, and you long to see what happened next.
The camera crew and directors bring the work into your home in the most thorough and natural manner, and yet you are enabled to see detail which would be physically impossible in the flesh, given the vast scale. However, my greatest thanks go to Waldemar Januszczak; all the justification required for Polish immigration, to my mind. Here is a man who looks and speaks like us plebs, appears to be totally unaware of the arts presentation conventions, and is infectiously enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his subject. He was happy to confess that he would easily have got a part in one of Rubens’ epics, and you can picture him, in leather and silk, swashing his buckle through a sea of wobbly flesh, before necking six pints and a kebab on the way home. Great stuff Waldemar; keep it coming son.
I can’t imagine what W.J. would make of our efforts on Saturday. Looking back now, through the filter of Rubens’ work, even making all of the appropriate allowances, it is difficult not to feel ineffectual, but I suspect that he has long since mastered the art of historical perspective, and would be commensurately supportive. It seems to me, however, that Tom has more than a foothold on the upper slopes of artistic achievement, but the rest of us are gazing at a mountain which we will not climb. There is no shame in this, and we should enjoy our occasional minor successes. The making of very large, complex figurative paintings, in the manner of Rubens, is way out of fashion, but perhaps we could jointly tackle ”Nicholas Clegg in the Wilderness”, with Tom as Maestro and we, his trusty assistants; bags I the severed balls.
The gallery is now posted, and I am able to test my memory against the actuality. The first thing that strikes me is the general confidence; there are no tentative efforts amongst a majority of strongly- painted portraits and figures. I see nothing to change my earlier, sweeping judgement but have to applaud everyone for attacking that mountain. I particularly like Jean’s simple statement, rendered intriguing by the diminishing proportions, and the two mysterious heads from Jackie and Eva. The optimistic yellow in Dick and Sue’s pieces is very welcome in the depths of winter but both are trumped by the full palette of sunshine colours in Rita’s delightful little painting. I was able to observe the development of this piece throughout the day, and congratulate Rita on recognising the point to stop; it lacks nothing, in its own terms and is, at the very least, one of our minor successes.
Paintings and drawings by Catherine, Dick, Eva, Fiona, Gerry, Hadyn, Jackie, Jean, Russell, Sandra, Sue D-Y, Sue G, Sue, Tom (1 & 2) and selected artist Rita.