Philosophically musing on the current lockdown, Alex Michon recounts how an altruistic coming together between artists and neighbours brought about some much appreciated community creativity to her west London neighbourhood.
‘The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude’ Voltaire
The enforced lockdown in March 2020 which plunged us all into a vortex of uncertainty and trepidation also ushered in an unforeseen focus on an existential pool of possibilities.
Unlike Hindu philosophers, Taoist poets, Jewish mystics or Catholic hermits, this turning away from our external reality towards an inner contemplative life was not made from choice, nor did it necessarily involve a search for the divine.
Writing in the 16th Century, the Carmelite nun, Anne of St. Bartholomew advised that; 'Silence is precious; by keeping silent and knowing how to listen to God, the soul grows in wisdom and God teaches it what it cannot learn from men'. If God had been trying to talk to us during our Covid 19 at home alone time, (s)he would have had to compete with the noise from Joe Wicks' daily on-line fitness workouts, the buzz of Netflix box sets or the daily ding-donging of Deliveroo. In those early days of unknowing, when we were all addicted to the Prime Minister's 5pm broadcasts with their scary death charts and their 'all in this together' Blitz spirit propaganda, it was all too easy to be numbed into a somnolent, TV-trash watching stupor of inactivity. Day by day it became increasingly harder to concentrate on anything remotely academic or creative whilst this horrific pandemic rampaged throughout the world like some overblown bad American disaster movie.
Speaking to the artist Graeme Grant at his exhibition in West Kensington, I asked how lockdown had been for him; 'Eventually, I actually found it very productive,' he told me, 'But to be honest, for the first month I just couldn't do anything. I found it hard to concentrate. Like everyone else I suppose I was caught up in the fearful uncertainty of it all.'
Artists and writers are generically hard wired to cope with alone time, understanding the importance of what psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has termed 'fertile solitude' and how it is essential not only for creativity but for general well-being. That vital role of solitude for art is what Louise Bourgeois explores in several of the letters and diary entries collected in her writings and interviews 1923-1997: Louise Bourgeois: Destruction of the Father / Reconstruction of the Father (MIT Press, 1998)
In September 1937, Bourgeois writes to her friend Colette Richarme who is leaving Paris for a respite in the countryside: 'Solitude, even prolonged solitude, can only be of very great benefit. Your work may well be more arduous than it was in the studio, but it will also be more personal.'
Almost as soon as lockdown came into force, artists sprung into action on Instagram. Matthew Burrows initiated the Artist Support Pledge with the simple idea that artists who commit to the pledge post images of works for sale for no more than £200 and each time their sales reach £1,000 they promise to buy another artist's work: ’I realised the work needed to be cheap enough to make selling it an act of generosity, but also I needed to make that infectious,' says Burrows, ‘generosity creates generosity.’
This new spirit of altruism was something which also manifested itself in those early days in a renewed sense of the value of community. In my own street my neighbour reignited a previous WhatsApp street group. Each house was personally visited by Karen Enweliku and informed about the group. The aim was to make sure all vulnerable residents knew where they could turn for help. Soon neighbours were shopping for shielders and the App was inundated with offers of help with shopping, posting mail or collecting newspapers.
One of the first things advertised was a piano recital which took place every day at 5pm from one of the nearby flats. The player remained unseen while strains of classical piano floated out through her open window. Neighbours on balconies, passers by on bikes and even local police officers would all stop and listen. It became a reassuring routine and was often incredibly moving. It was during one of these concerts that I got talking to Graeme Grant who I learned was a neighbour of mine and an artist. He told me that this inspiring musician was the internationally renowned concert pianist Harriet Stubbs, a child prodigy who began playing piano at the age of three and was a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music at age five. Having previously collaborated with both Goldie and Blur bassist Alex James, for her 20 minute lockdown concerts Stubbs would play a variety of classics from Bach to Bowie to the Beatles. In all, Stubbs played over 200 concerts for her neighbours ‘It was very moving’ she said in an interview for the Standard a ‘one little girl brought me flowers on a scooter. There’s been so many lovely ways that they’ve said thank you.’ Stubbs’s generosity extended to Grant when she suggested that he hold an exhibition of his paintings in her flat while she was away playing a concert in New York.
Grant, who studied painting at the London Fine Art Studios in Battersea, had been planning to hold a exhibition some time in the new year, but this ad hoc offer was too tempting to turn down and so for a week from 8 August between 5 and 7pm Grant hosted an exhibition in this local flat. Throughout the week that the show was on, quite a large number of local people came to see it.
The unpretentious hang, with some paintings exhibited informally on a table or leaning against a wall, coupled with the fact that many were works in progress and unframed gave the whole exhibition a contemporary feel. One of the most intriguing was a large oil painting of a handsome young dandy who appeared to me to be striking a balletic pose. This beautiful boy had about him all the romantic appeal of a Diaghilev, a Valentino or a Nureyev. Grant explains that this painting called After Caillebotte was based on a painting by one of the lesser known impressionists. Revealing that what had drawn him to the original, and somewhat confirming my initial balletic pose impression, Grant explains that, 'there was something I liked about the figure's gesture that intrigued me and I wanted to see if I could capture some of that essence, also I was drawn to the white of his shirt, as white is notoriously difficult to paint and so I wanted to try and tackle that.' The work however is not a mere copy, Grant instead re-imagines the narrative for his own purposes; 'in the original' he says 'the man looks really quite po-faced but as he is standing near a bed I felt that he should be looking more post coital so that is how I painted him.'
'Faces are the most interesting things we see’ writes David Hockney, ‘and the most interesting aspect of other people - the point where we go inside them is the face. It tells all.’
I felt that some of the strongest pieces in Grant’s show were his portraits. Citing John Singer Sargent as one of his favourite painters it is clear that the artist obviously has a sure-footed facility for this genre. But even without knowing the sitters’ identities, these portraits contain intriguing suggestive narratives. What is the story one wonders behind the aesthetic young man in the brown sweater with his resolute yet melancholic stare? Grant admits that he originally wanted to paint ‘large abstract landscapes’ but somehow even though he finds people ‘the most difficult to paint’ he is still irresistibly drawn towards portraiture.
The revelation that came to Grant through lockdown and through this, his first small exhibition, was how important painting was to him. ‘I’ve had such a great response,' he told me, 'it’s made me realise that even though I still have a lot to learn - this is what I want to fully concentrate on. I thought - yes I am an artist!’
Counterintuitively just as we were all forced to go into lockdown, to walk the road of the hermit, albeit with the background hum of all the available tech, we were also building on a long forgotten sense of community. Putting paid to Thatcher's damaging claim that 'there's no such thing as society' my local community, at least, stepped up, with a 'lets do the show right here in our own backyard DIY' generosity and optimism.
As Honoré de Balzac wrote ‘Solitude is fine but you need to tell someone that solitude is fine too.’
Graeme Grant Paintings
Corner of Challoner Street and Charleville Road, London W14