Saturday, May 26, 2012

Life Class

I’ve not had many art lessons. The two classes I took with Meriel Gold in the village hall in Froyle, deep in the Hampshire downs were by far the best.
Meriel Gold studied with Cecil Collins. At the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, Cecil Collins, by all accounts a sweet natured and gentle man best known for his mystical landscapes, invented a revolutionary way of teaching art. His methods were so bizarre, even by the relaxed standards of the time, that the Central School of Art in London fired him. His students protested and in those days people took student protests more seriously than they do now, so Cecil Collins was reinstated.

The village of Froyle looks like a Cecil Collins painting. The hall is beside an archetypal green with cricket sight screens. The instructions were to bring a roll of wallpaper lining paper. We put it on the table in front of us, and pulled it like a roller towel when we wanted to begin a new drawing, so that at the end of the it was curled and tangled around our feet. Meriel suggested we roll it back up and take it home with us for study. During the tea breaks the models, who were considered participants like everyone else strode around with an Edenic splendour that would have made Jean-Jacques Rousseau blush. During sessions Meriel sometimes asked the models to dance rather than stay in a conventional pose; we were encouraged to dance as we drew.
My first class was a disaster, it exposed all my failings and incidentally exposed that the only qualities that I had as an artist were failings. I think Meriel was quite surprised that I came to the next one, although she was too polite to say so. But I had been practicing at home. After the first class, Meriel I had suggested that if wanted to work at home I should only use real subjects, and flowers for preference. All the better if the flowers were dying: “capture their submission” she said with passionate soulfulness which erupted with an unexpected suddenness from beneath her brisk but jolly English manner.
So I bought cut flowers and practiced, in spite of being very busy at the time. Meriel’s methods challenged everything: the way to hold a pencil, which hand you hold it in. The idea, and this my way of putting it not hers, is to undermine all your habits, so that you look at the subject and not the drawing. Even with the practice my next class was scarcely more successful, but at the end of a day, which at one point had all of us painting with mops with paper on the floor, there was a shortish still pose as Jean, the model knelt on the floor, her head bowed, her hands before her cupped open; I splashed with diluted Indian ink on my wallpaper lining and found an outline with a heavy graphite pencil. The seesion was over and Mieiel walked around the room to see how everyone had done, and when she saw my final effort her face lit up. There was still much work to do (there still is) but I had got it. It was that moment of transference (in the Zen, rather than the Freudian sense) when master and pupil are finally on the same page and there is not much more to be said. Jean was impressed too. It is unusual to have one’s work assessed by someone who is stark naked. Then Jean got dressed and gave me a ride to the railway station.

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