Friday, 13 April 2012
An art education: remembering Leeds (1)
I took up art in my third year sixth, having failed to get into medical school and needing to retake Physics A Level (I did and climbed one grade from E to D pass). I was in the sixth form with contemporaries gone and too much time on my hands. I had started to write poetry but had given up art in the third year, being told I was too messy. I probably was.
Go up to the art room and do something useful, they said, so I did. The art room overlooked the netball court so there was always the prospect of watching the girls play netball if all else failed. But it didn't fail. My timetable didn't fit normal A level so I was up there on my own or with some younger classes. Sheila Mayer (Miss Mayer to me then), the art teacher, gave me the materials and would sometimes come to talk to me and showed me books full of paintings - Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne - which, as the cliché has it opened a new world to me, since we had nothing like that at home and such artists, if their work was known at all, were never mentioned. Better still, I found I could draw and paint and get a likeness. I had found a skill I didn't know I had, and had in fact been told I didn't have. My still lives, even when painted straight on, actually looked like the objects they were supposed to be depicting.
But it wasn't depiction that grabbed me, it was the freedom to create any world I chose with no more than a sheet of sugar paper and some powder paints. It was like a new power. I did it only for three months but finished up in the exam with an A that was easily my best grade, and the best that year. My composition paper, as it was called then, was a scene of Stephen Dedalus teaching a class (I had just read Ulysses, or part of it, for the first time, and had seen the film.) There was some other funny stuff going on in the picture but I can't remember it.
Over the summer of that year, in 1968, my family paid its first visit back to Budapest since leaving it in 1956. A lot of fascinating things happened while we were there, including the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but I also have a very clear memory of looking at a Cézanne still life in the Fine Art Museum, my eyes filling with tears for a reason I couldn't explain, except that it was something to do with something being very right about the picture. I believed in the world it showed and the way it showed it. However, because of the invasion our planned three-week stay was cut in half.
On return I found I had been offered a place to read Psychology at Brunel, but decided, at the last minute, to apply to Harrow School of Art as well. I took along my portfolio in September and was given a place immediately. Against all parental caution I took the offer and gave up Brunel. My life had changed enormously and very quickly. It was the beginning of better things. The process of becoming an adult, that had started with the understanding (an entirely private unspoken understanding) that I would be a poet, was completed on arrival at art school. As a child I was a gifted question mark, a projection of my well-intentioned parents' dreams. As a young immigrant schoolboy I had disappeared into a fog that hung around me for at least six years at the end of which I was supposed to enter medical school and become a caring genius in a white coat. As an adult I was to be a poet and an artist. That being settled it only remained to see what that adulthood would be like.
What would I learn art school was the first question? This isn't setting out to be a memoir, more notes on a way of thinking about what art and art education meant. I'll write a little more about that in the future.
ps Of course our art room wasn't as in the old photograph above. I bet they didn't have the chance to look down and watch girls playing netball.