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Conversations in the Garden – Portraiture during a Pandemic

Artwork by Nick Maini

Oma sits, leaning forward, hands clasped over the head of her walking-stick. In the shade of the hornbeams, glowing beneath the luminescence of the greenery, she rests, breathing deeply. The air is still and warm.

Erupting from the hedgerow, comes a medley of trilling, culminating in a sharp chirp. A goldfinch skips from the bushes in a flash of crimson and yellow, revealing the identity of the singer. Oma’s expression remains placid and her body perfectly still, but her eyes dart hungrily after the garden’s visitor. Coming to rest, the goldfinch alights on a branch above her head. Slowly, she leans backwards for a better view and there is silence again as a gentle breeze brushes past. Then, another surge of activity as three more songbirds, companions of the first, flit through the foliage.

Oma’s slight movements reconfigure the lighting on her face. The sockets of her eyes, previously shaded, are lit more clearly, while new shadows are cast around her jaw where the chin looms over the neck. The shaded mid-tones across the upper planes of her face are replaced by a brightness which extends across the arches of her cheekbones and along the bridge of her nose. Extending my arm, with the paintbrush held upright, I seize the opportunity to make new observations and measurements as these gentle head movements reveal previously unseen features. I squint and measure by gliding my thumb along the span of the brush’s handle the relation of the nose to the eyes; the horizontal distance between the cheeks relative to the vertical length of the head. I transfer my observations onto the board in faint brushstrokes, finally locating the eyes in the sparsely populated expanse.

The German word, Oma, meaning grandmother, is the affectionate name which our family has always used to address my hyperalert sitter. At 94 years old, Oma’s mental and physical agility is awe-inspiring. Highly active, she owned a speedboat until just over a decade ago, relinquishing it reluctantly as she became more fragile, and until this year she swam every morning. More recently, however, as her walking slowed, she conceded to adopting a walking stick. Although she was once an obsessive mountain-climber, climbing the stairs now requires great exertion. Yet Oma’s mind remains a hive of activity; she occupies her spare time with endless crosswords and, a polyglot, she still uses 3 or 4 of her many languages each week.

‘What did Anna have to say earlier, Oma?’

Each Sunday, at 11am, Oma rings her oldest friend, a lady of the same age almost to the day, Anna Cappuccino. They have known each other since 1933 when, at the age of 7, they met in Bologna. Almost a century later, they still exchange weekly updates in bubbling, excitable Italian. Anna, now blind, has moved to Lake Cuomo where she lives with her daughter’s family and is frequently visited by a large progeny of great grandchildren—the quintessential stereotype of an Italian family. The last month, however, the continuous stream of visitors came to an abrupt halt as Italy’s healthcare system has been overwhelmed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy went into lockdown, and about two weeks later the United Kingdom followed suit. Now Anna keeps in touch with her family over the phone. Oma’s customary pattern of life has changed too: she has re-located to Barnes to weather out the disruption with us. A microscopic virus has wreaked havoc on a macroscale, dragging the world’s largest states to their knees, bringing populations to a standstill and paralysing the global economy. Nevertheless, there is a silver lining to this crisis; at the time when I should have been cramming for Tripos finals in Cambridge libraries, our family has, instead, been brought closer together at home, enjoying an unprecedented length of time with our grandmother.

‘Anna is well! She spoke with your sister too.’

As Oma recounts that day’s exchange with Anna, our conversation rambles from the present into the past. The warmth of Anna’s weekly updates reminds her of the kindness she experienced as a child living in Bologna. Discussion of Anna’s family news gradually lapses into memories of childhood. An assortment of anecdotes resurface as Oma paints a colourful picture of Bologna. The vignettes are framed by perpetual sunshine, incomparable cuisine, and evenings spent on rooftops. Character sketches of neighbouring children, parochial artisans and local eccentrics further flesh out the picture. These varied recollections are cherished fondly, but, from time to time, they touch on a less charming reality:

‘Yes, I remember that particular family very clearly. The father, especially, was an entertaining man—and when they banned people from talking to Jews he did not comply! He still came over to greet us and would throw me in the air!’

Oma’s contented existence in Bologna and her family’s life there was not the result of voluntary emigration, but a necessary flight from the seething currents of the 20th century’s turmoil.

Born to an affluent family and raised in a suburb of Munich, fair-haired and blue-eyed, Oma was the archetypal image of a young Bavarian; she did not stick out as ‘a Jew’. This is perhaps unsurprising given that Oma’s Jewish ancestors had lived in the German principalities for centuries, long before Germany had unified into a single state. These forebears, although Jewish, assimilated to local culture and flourished within their respective communities. This assimilation is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the fact that when their states called on them, at the outbreak of war in 1914, Oma’s male relatives re-joined their military regiments and marched off to far-flung battlefields. Six were awarded Iron Crosses for services on the Western or Eastern fronts: some fought in Flanders and bore witness to the carnage of Verdun; others froze in the snow-cloaked wastes of Galicia and the Carpathians; one, operating undercover in the Arabian Peninsula, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, purportedly murdered by desert tribesmen; and another, a tall, handsome officer, was killed by a sniper while defending his hometown after the collapse of Austro-Hungary, a week after armistice had been declared and the war had supposedly ended.

By the 1920s, most of Oma’s family had begun to disengage with their ancient Jewish cultural traditions. Most had become more or less atheistic, while some had even embraced Catholic or Protestant Christian practices. Oma’s parents, in particular, were thoroughly German-ised: her father was an intellectually-inclined man and noted scholar of Goethe who wrote satirical pieces for local newspapers in his spare time; her mother was a well-educated lady who had spent some years working with theatres in Berlin and spent her winters skiing in the foothills of the Alps. Such was the socio-economic niche into which Oma was born in 1926. And when her school class was summoned to join a political rally in her hometown, the birthplace of National Socialism, she appeared so typically ‘German’ that her anti-fascist teacher placed her at the front of the parade, bearing the flag, right beneath of the eyes of the unsuspecting Nazi superintendents. Nevertheless, as the political events following the decline of the Weimar Republic unfolded, and anti-Semitic hostility and violence increased sharply, it became evident to Oma’s parents that their family life in Munich was no longer tenable. Eventually, in 1933, the situation became so grave that Oma’s family left Germany altogether and relocated to Italy, arriving in Bologna via Florence, cities where her father had academic connections.

Thus, the sitting, which had begun in silence, blossoms into rich conversation. Portrait painting is a process of discovering your sitter psychologically as well as visually and often the flow of the conversation corresponds to the flow of paint on the palette. I work in oil paints on hard MDF board primed in white. The immaculacy of a blank canvas distorts the eye’s perception of colour, so I neutralise the board’s white surface with a layer of ochre ground. As I sketch out the initial measurements, I decide on the framing, the composition, and the lighting. Then, I begin to build up the architecture of the face. My palette only holds five colours: lead white, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, ivory black and ultramarine blue. This restricted palette is a consequence of a summer spent in Florence studying the methodologies and materials of traditional Florentine ateliers. These portraiture studios trace their genealogy back through art history to the workshops of Titian, Van Dyck and Velasquez. The Florentine ateliers employ quasi-necromantic practices in order to replicate the materials and techniques of their forebears and each is devoted to its own arcane recipes and methods. The ingredients they deploy are often rare and dispersed, ultramarine blue, for instance, is produced using lapis lazuli from mines in Afghanistan. Their pungent spirits, oils and balsams are similarly esoteric. The most conventional combination is to mix spirit of turpentine with linseed oil, a viscous liquid, pressed from the dried seeds of flax plants. Its distinctive musk clings to the rafters of Florence’s art studios.

A self-confessed people-watcher, Oma is indiscriminate in her practice of the art of observation. In the context of our portrait sitting, I, as the painter, am theoretically the observer, while Oma, the sitter, is the observed. Over the course of the sitting, however, I often sense that the roles are reversed. Oma squints at me unremittingly, often tilting her head to get a better view. In particular, she scrutinises my demeanour and countenance, providing a steady commentary on the quality of my posture and the clarity of my diction. There are deep-rooted reasons for this observational habit:

‘My father told me, “always take an interest in and revere those who you come into contact with, regardless of their background”.’

Eventually, Oma’s family’s position in Italy became as untenable as the situation in Germany had been. As new laws were passed prohibiting social interactions with Jews, a few neighbours began to shun the family. This disgusted the young Anna, who went with her brothers to reprimand a neighbour who refused to acknowledge or even look at Oma’s family in the street. The final straw was the passing of laws banning all foreign Jews from residence in Italy; their heritage meant that it was, quite literally, illegal for them to remain.

This time they left Europe altogether. In January 1939 they set off from Italy for a far-flung colonial outpost in German South-West Africa, modern-day Namibia. From there they went to British South Africa.

From the conservatory, the light notes of my sister’s voice glide through the air. She is sat at the piano singing warm-up scales. The sound of these notes transport Oma back through time to the sitting room of her aunt’s apartment in Vienna where piano lessons were taught. Should you ever visit Vienna’s Leopold Museum and enter at the main entrance, one of the first large portraits that you will see is of this aunt: Henryka Cohen. The portrait, a centrepiece of an art movement which rejected the style of the Viennese Secession, was produced by Richard Gerstl. Gerstl was the archetype of the tormented artist with an ego to match. In anger, he is alleged to have screamed at his professor at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts, Christian Griepenkerl: ‘I can piss in the snow better than you can paint!’ Psychologically unstable, impulsive and radical, when an affair with the wife of his friend Arnold Schoenberg, the celebrated modernist composer, fell apart, Gerstl killed himself. On a cold November night in 1908, distraught and isolated, he retired to his studio and gathered together all the artworks, letters and personal papers he could find. Then, setting the bonfire alight, he hung himself from the rafters in front of the studio mirror. The autopsy sardonically notes that he also managed to stab himself. Thus, along with almost the entirety of his artistic oeuvre, Gerstl passed into oblivion, aged just 25. Henryka’s portrait, however, hung undisturbed in her apartment and evaded Gerstl’s ruinous fate. But it did not remain safely in the apartment for long.

In February 1938, before their departure for Africa, as tensions rose in Italy, Oma’s family paid a final visit to these Viennese relatives. Oma recalls the train journey from Italy to Austria, reminiscing about particular stop-offs, hotels and meals. But she dwells also on other, less convivial memories:

‘For the first time on that journey I felt truly scared. “Fahrkarten!” the guards would shout as they came by in their uniforms. All they wanted were the tickets of course, but I shall not forget that feeling of being afraid. Afraid that at any moment they might seize our luggage—or us.’

The Vienna visit was meant to be brief, but when Oma’s father contracted pneumonia, the family had to delay, awaiting his recovery. Oma recalls spending many pleasant afternoons skating on the local ice-rink during that period. But it was a close call—four weeks after their departure, Anschluss was declared as the Third Reich annexed Austria and the systematic expropriation and murder of Austrian Jews began. Henryka, like all of Oma’s family and millions of other European Jews had her entire property and assets expropriated, everything from apartments to businesses, paintings, furniture, manuscripts and musical instruments. The wealth extracted during this period was so enormous that it formed the financial bedrock for the Nazi war effort. In May 1939, Henryka, sensing the gravity of the situation, weighed up her options and calculated that personal safety was more valuable than material possessions. Having made friends in Britain in the 1920s who were willing to serve as her sponsors, she fled Austria and arrived in London with almost nothing but the clothes on her back, thereby escaping the Holocaust. Many relatives were less fortunate. Henryka’s brother Richard and his wife Ilse, for instance, with whom Oma’s family had stayed while in Vienna, sought the right to emigrate to Australia but were refused at the embassy. They perished a few months later in disease-ridden concentration camps along with many others, including another uncle who was a converted Christian priest and war hero, one of the aforementioned iron cross holders.

Henryka’s portrait now hangs where she can be appreciated by all, in Vienna, the city of its birth; appreciated by all, that is, who are willing to pay the Leopold’s €14 entrance fee.

After a pause for Oma’s afternoon tea, we begin the day’s final session. Oma’s face is beginning to emerge from the board’s surface. When a steadier hand is required, I rest my brush on a mahlstick, and when broader, more dynamic brushstrokes are in order, I alternate between standing and sitting, intermittently striding towards and away from the easel to gauge the accuracy of the portrait’s likeness. Protracted periods spent staring at the painting close up can cause a sort of blindness as you are drawn into specific details. A contemporary biographer of Gainsborough records that the artist’s most cherished paintbrush had a six-foot-long handle. Other techniques seek the same end. You will often see portrait artists with their backs to their subject, holding a mirror. It seems counterintuitive, but the method is sound— the inverted reflection helps to highlight the inaccuracies of a portrait.

‘I am going to need you to look over here for a moment and sit rather still for a few minutes, Oma.’

I prepare to tackle the part of the portrait which is perhaps the most important of all. Typically, when inspecting a portrait, the viewer’s gaze is intuitively drawn to the eyes of the painting. For this reason, a well-painted pair of eyes can make or break a portrait. Personally, I find each element of the eye deeply satisfying to recreate: the swimming, cloudy colours of the iris; the milky halftones of the whites (never as white as one expects them to be); the glistening red of the rims of the eyelids; the shadow cast by the eyelashes; and, most important of all, that gleam of light in the pupil. Skin, on the other hand does not stand out in quite the same way. In my experience, it is frequently the most frustrating part of a portrait, depending on whether the face is young or elderly. The smooth, tautness of young skin is completely different to the myriad of crisscrossing wrinkles on older weathered skin. Catching a glimpse of the portrait, Oma exclaims:

‘Just wrinkles! My goodness, I look in the mirror and that’s all I see—a little old lady staring back.’

Etymologically, the word ‘portrait’ comes via French portraire from Latin protrahere— ‘to drag out’. This seems quite fitting. To produce a portrait is to draw out a likeness by literally dragging materials into a form which communicates the subject. In the case of oil painting, this dragging constitutes rearranging of the grains of pigment and oily fluid in search of the right combination of hues. Often portraits unintentionally highlight and bring to light a subject’s features, inducing new ways of seeing in the viewer. I look down at the portrait I have produced and back up at Oma. I do not feel that I have captured or done justice to my sitter which is a shame, as I realise that anyone who sees this portrait will interpret my inadequacies as draughtsman literally, as the way in which I actually perceive Oma. But even as I brood over the face staring back at me, a second portrait starts to form in my mind.

Hopefully, I shall have more success next time.


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