Monday, October 06, 2014


Technical things always seem to go wrong when you need them most. I don't know if that statement is generally true but it seems so to me.

 My etching press, as often mentioned before, is an essential tool and I've currently been using it for printing relief blocks (for the 'Trans-Siberian' book) rather than etchings. The difference is basically in the thickness of inked blocks or plates which must pass under the roller in order for ink to transfer to the printing paper. Etchings are generally on thin metal plates and require heavy pressure - adjusted by tightening the top screws - whereas relief blocks can be any thickness and only need fairly light pressure since the ink lies on the surface of the block rather than in grooves below the surface (intaglio) as in etchings.

Unlike some of the more modern machines, it's not possible on my press to raise or lower the heavy steel top roller to allow any thickness of block to pass through. The DIY way of solving this problem is to loosen pressure completely, push through on either side of the roller a couple of flat wooden runners same height as the intended blocks, then tighten the screws again as needed. This I did and it worked fine for about a hundred proofs from relief blocks.

But recently an ominous bump developed in the middle of the press bed and though I tried to ignore it, when a vinyl block I was printing was bent beyond recognition and a cracking sound came from the press, drastic action had to be contemplated. Examination revealed that a sheet of formica, glued to the steel bed over thirty years ago and firmly in place all this time, had suddenly come unstuck in the centre, though not at the top and bottom edges. Result: solid bump in the middle. Reluctant remedy: get rid of offending formica. Easier said than done. This was all taking place around 2 am, by the way.

Struggling to lift the formica stuck to the edges of the base I succeeded in breaking off pieces while rough bits of the backing remained glued to the metal - that's the reddish-brown mess showing in the photo below - it looks like rust but isn't. Note the strip of wood keeping the roller off the base, but not enough to let the steel bed run right off the press which, in the worst scenario, would chop my feet off, or would fall to the floor and stay there because I wouldn't be able to lift it back up. Minutely accurate, heart-stopping attention to the top screws was needed to prevent such a disaster from happening.

Below I'm pushing a knife under the formica with one hand while the other hand (invisible) attempts to hold the camera and the roller screw simultaneously.

To make a long story a bit shorter, I did manage to escape injury and to remove all the formica, but not the residue from its backing which resisted all scrubbing with steel wool etc. So I decided to let it be but to stick a length of Fablon over it and the whole of the metal bed - another hair-tearing, tooth-grinding task that could only be undertaken in the crazy hours of the night by a stubborn fool.

There is a happy ending: my beloved machine is now restored to peaceful, purring operation and I can get on with printing new blocks for the special prints to be included with the special extra copies of Trans-Siberian Prosody and Little Jeanne from France currently in production at The Old Stile Press.

And here is something beautiful to conclude and to celebrate the marvellous Indian summer weather we've been enjoying in London.

Consider the lilies of the field....

Monday, September 15, 2014


Why haven't I been blogging all this time? It's complicated. No it's very simple: I've been doing other things. Such as re-working the painting formerly titled Frames of Reference. I thought it was finished when I left it in 2010 but pulling it out recently I suddenly saw all sorts of things to be done. I want the figures to fuse into the background and there is far too much visual information. The multiple dimensions and my parents' dominant faces make it a difficult struggle especially since I'm also attempting to approach cubism in my own way. I've always been interested in both cubist and constructivist explorations of pictorial space and I'd like to see where a somewhat different perception would lead me along that road.

Another thing I've been working on is a portrait of a friend, the brilliantly inventive architect/designer/comics artist Sylvia Libedinsky. When she came to my Pineapple celebration wearing a red and black striped dress I instantly wanted to paint a portrait. She agreed to sit for me wearing the same outfit and I started a fairly large canvas. But it didn't work out and wasn't what I was after. So I then cut a relief block and took some prints from it in various colours. Finally I inked and painted the block itself and this is the portrait I prefer. It isn't flattering but Sylvia says it is her. I hope it captures her enquiring, observant, mischievous, funny and melancholy spirit. I'm pleased with its ikon-like character, enhanced by the bas-relief and the gold I rubbed on some of the stripes.

I went to the Malevich exhibition this week and came away exhilarated and inspired. Walking along the South Bank afterwards I saw geometric blocks of primary colours moving towards and away from me in an animated re-enactment of Suprematist paintings. That these colours were strolling pedestrians wasn't important yet the presence of life was felt by its movement in space.

Pure abstraction, in art or in life, is not my calling but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it and Malevich is among those I give homage to. His controversial black square was a bold manifesto for that period, a statement, like Magritte's later this is not a pipe. Malevich seems to say: this is not a window through which you can gaze at an illusory scene. It is just a square made of black pigment. But if your eyes are turned inwards you can also read it as a symbol, like the black stone of Mecca or the alchemists' Nigredo or the philosophers' Néant. Spiritual concepts played a greater role than is apparent in the evolution of non-objective art and Malevich, like Mondrian and Kandinsky, was particularly influenced by ideas elaborated in Theosophy and Anthroposophy. Reproductions of Malevich's paintings do not give any indication of their sensuous, tactile surface - the paint is laid on thickly, with raised edges where one colour meets another - and oddly enough, this loving attention to materiality makes you feel that they are about something more than matter. I'm allergic to 'holy pictures' whether traditional or alternative but early Russian and Greek ikons have a tangible spiritual presence for me. Their power is conveyed by very direct, solid, simple means and their reality is emphasised by strong, pure colours and gold embellishment. Whatever the spiritual or other-worldly may actually be, if it can be depicted at all then I'd say abstraction probably has one foot in the door.

A photo I took when leaving the exhibition became a Photoshop exercise in abstractification. Not Suprematist or Constructivist enough, too many colours and tones.

Then there was this ready-made Constructivist landscape outside on the South Bank.

And a reclining couple just waiting to become a sculpture or a poster. 

And that's all for tonight folks.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


On the 19th of August thirteen years ago my mother, Blanche Augustine d'Arbeloff, departed this planet very early in the morning. I was asleep on the living room sofa while my sister and a nurse kept watch in her room. My sister woke me later, I don't know when, to tell me that Mamie was gone. I went in the bedroom and saw, touched, her cold forehead and icy hands. I remember being on fire with rage, a rage deeper than desolation, that they didn't wake me, didn't let me share her last breath, hold her hand. 'We didn't want to wake you, you were so tired'. The rage is still there when I think of that moment but it's outside of me now, like a photograph in an album.

On Tuesday this week I went to the cemetery where my mother and father are buried together. Sacha left in 1996, aged 101. Blanche stayed with us another five years, until she was ninety-seven. Here they are both in Los Angeles, way back in time, with no thoughts of mortality.

There is peace and quiet and pure, unadulterated bird song in the park of graves but the ground is heaving under the weight, the responsibilty of all those loved bones, their names, their dates, their histories, their roles. It's too much for some of the old stones, the angels, the monuments, they're leaning over, exhausted. Brand new graves are cheerful with bright plastic flowers, big sparkly cushioned lettering:"GRANNY", "JOE", "MUM". Every inch of the ground beneath my feet is packed with bones which were once persons, personalities, like Blanche, like Sacha, like me. And one day (not too soon, God willing) my bones, the material part of me, will be buried somewhere and somebody, perhaps, will post my photo on their blog and write something in remembrance of me, the "me" that they knew.

I wrote about my mother previously here and here and some of the paintings she did in the last few years of her life are shown here. The photo below was taken at her exhibition in the Mary Ward Centre in London the year before she died.

I picked the next photo out of the many that I have because it shows Blanche's beautiful legs that I was always envious of. It was taken at my parents' flat in London in 1983. Youthfulness was one of her many qualities, one that age never took away. Once, I asked her what she was thinking and she said, "Je chante" (I'm singing).

And below is the look she had a few months before her death, a searching, looking into Somewhere Else. The same look she had when she sat bolt upright in bed, seeing something no one else could see, and said: "Je dois prendre ma place" (I must take my place).

Thursday, August 14, 2014


Who knew that peeling a carrot is noisy? That crumpling a paper bag is rain on a corrugated iron roof ? That flushing the toilet is an avalanche of icicles falling into a roaring furnace?

Two days ago I started a month's trial of hearing aids, both ears. My hearing has been deteriorating for a while now but I've got used to it. Missing most of the dialogue at the cinema or theatre doesn't really affect my life and when I watch tv I turn subtitles on. Listening to music and one-to-one conversations are no problem and if I'm in a crowded room I ask people to repeat things or else pretend I've heard them. But my bluff is called if I'm asked a direct question about something I pretended to hear and this is what prompted close friends to urge me to face the issue and take action.

A few years ago I did have audio tests and was told that I'd pretty much lost sounds in the higher register. The NHS gave me hearing aids to be used daily but they stayed in a drawer because I couldn't cope with the loud metallic noises they produced. Technology has considerably improved since then and the digital babies I'm trying out now are far superior to those clunky things I rejected. But.....will I ever accept noisy carrots?

Meanwhile my sister in France sent me a beautiful birthday scarf/shawl and I can't resist showing it off. Thank you my Annie.