Sunday, April 28, 2013

Django Reinhardt (1910-1953)

Disability is hardly incompatible with musical success, as deaf Beethoven or Evelyn Glennie,  and a myriad of blind classical, jazz and blues musicians can attest.  Several great musicians have had physical impairments, including reputedly Paganini with Marfan syndrome.  But Django Reinhardt was perhaps the best example of a musician who overcame a career-ending injury to achieve international distinction: along the way, he invented a whole new style of jazz guitar.

Jean Reinhardt was born in a Gypsy caravan in Belgium, the son of an itinerant musician and a dancer.  The nickname Django means “I awake” in the Romani language.  Reinhardt spent his youth in Roma encampments near to Paris.  He had minimal formal education, and nor did he join the family enterprise of furniture making.  Instead, he learned to play violin and banjo from an early age, and was making a living from music by the time he was 13. 

When he was 18, Django Reinhardt was injured in a caravan fire,  which was caused by a knocked-over candle that ignited the paper and celluloid flowers that his first wife Bella made to sell.  The burns were so extensive that doctors wanted to amputate his left leg.   But Reinhardt discharged himself from hospital, taught himself to walk, and within a year was mobile with a stick. The fire also left Reinhardt’s left hand badly damaged: he was unable to bend the two smaller fingers, and he had limited function in the rest of the hand.  But Reinhardt learned to play the guitar again, using his thumb, index and middle fingers to pick out tunes, with the damaged fingers only used for chords.

During his convalescence, his wife left him, taking his baby son.  But the following years were a turning point for Reinhardt, as he first heard American jazz music on record, and he met Stephane Grappelli, a younger violinist.  With other musicians, they began to jam together and develop a new style based on stringed instruments.  In 1934, they were invited to play as the Quintette du Hot Club de France, in Paris.  Reinhardt's style has been described as "the clock that laughs", because of the combination of relentless beat and lightness.  Thanks to their increasing success, Reinhardt was able to play with many American jazz musicians who visited Paris, such as Coleman Hawkins.  He also married again, and had another son.

When war broke out, the Quintette were on tour in England, but Reinhardt returned to Paris.  Under the Nazi occupation, jazz had an ambiguous status: never formally banned, it was nevertheless persecuted as Negro music.  However, some Nazis enjoyed and supported jazz music.  Trying several times to escape France, Reinhardt knew he was in some danger because of his Romani heritage: the Nazis exterminated several hundred thousand European Romani people.

In 1946, Django Reinhardt toured the United States with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, taking six curtain calls when they played Carnegie Hall.  However, he never really did well in America, and returned to France in 1947, to continue collaborating with Grappelli and playing the jazz clubs of Paris.  Despite a somewhat unpredictable approach to performing - turning up late, with unpolished shoes, or disappearing to play billiards or go fishing - he recorded albums, and began to experiment with electric guitar. 

In 1953, Django Reinhardt collapsed with a stroke, after walking home from the railway station after an evening playing in a Paris club.   Because it was a weekend, it took 24 hours before he got medical attention, and then he was found dead on arrival at the Fontainebleau hospital.

Since his untimely death, Django Reinhardt has gained legendary status in the world of music, despite only coming 66th  in the Flemish and 76th in the Walloon versions of The Greatest Belgian competition.   His own family have continued his musical tradition.  Reinhardt’s distinctive approach has influenced not just jazz, but also rock and country guitar players.  For example, Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, who also damaged a finger in an accident, said of Django Reinhardt:

"His technique is awesome! Even today, nobody has really come to the state that he was playing at. As good as players are, they haven’t gotten to where he is. There’s a lot of guys that play fast and a lot of guys that play clean, and the guitar has come a long way as far as speed and clarity go, but nobody plays with the whole fullness of expression that Django has. I mean, the combination of incredible speed – all the speed you could possibly want – but also the thing of every note have a specific personality. You don’t hear it. I really haven’t heard it anywhere but with Django"

Trying to pin down that personality, I spoke to my friend the violinist and researcher Tom Ling, who still plays the tunes of the Hot Club de Paris: for him, the music of Django Reinhardt 

"comes closest to simulating pure joy.  Not profundity, but floating, astonishing joy."


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bryan Pearce (1929-2007)

Obituaries in The Times, The Guardian and The Independent would suggest a life of distinction for any person, but are a unique achievement for a man with intellectual disabilities.  But Bryan Pearce earned his fame more for what he did than for who he was.  One of the leading naïve artists of the twentieth century, his oil paintings now hang in the Tate Gallery and at Kettle’s Yard, and he has been the subject of no less than three biographies.

So here’s a question to chew over.  Does an artist have to be clever?  For that matter, what do we mean by clever?  Several times, I’ve arranged for artists to give talks, and then been disappointed when they have turned out to be incoherent, even tongue-tied.  But it was of course me who was being stupid: the whole point is that many artists are folks who communicate through their work, not with words.  Not all of course – I’ve encountered other visual artists who have spoken beautifully about what they are trying to do.    

But what if the artist has an intellectual impairment, and cannot fully reflect on what they are doing?  Does that make the work less meaningful, less good?  How much does the creator’s intention matter?  After all, the viewer always brings their own response, their own interpretation to a work of art.  Once the image is out there, it takes on a life of its own, regardless of the artist’s intentions.  Sometimes, the artist themselves, and I mean any artist, does not fully understand why their pieces work for others or what they might mean.  But can you make great art by accident?  Could a child make a masterpiece?

It was my psychiatrist friend Jane Bernal who first introduced me to the work of the painter Bryan Pearce.  I was trying to locate famous people with learning disabilities for my blog about famous disabled people from history.  She was working in Cornwall, and knew people who had known Pearce.  She used his work in her teaching, to show what people with intellectual disabilities are capable of.  In an age obsessed by knowledge and information and learning, it’s important to state that people with cognitive limitations still have value and can do work of value.

You’ve probably heard of autistic savant artists, like Stephen Wiltshire, who have an extraordinary facility to represent what they see.   Wiltshire is taken on a helicopter flight over New York or Tokyo and then produces a five meter long drawing, exactly reproducing what he has seen.  People queue up to buy his books or to watch television documentaries about him.  He clearly has a great talent.  But do we value this innate ability in the same way as the draughtsmanship of an artist whose natural skills are somehow mediated by their training?  I am not sure. 

This is the problem of Outsider Art.   The term was invented in 1972, as a translation of the French “Art Brut”, a word coined by Jean Dubuffet, who wrote: “We understand by this term works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part…”.  Take someone like the American artist Judith Scott.  She couldn’t hear, couldn’t speak and had Down syndrome.  She spent years in an institution, until her twin sister rescued her.  Yet today, her textile pieces are held in museums throughout the world and sell for tens of thousands of dollars.  She made her artworks at the Creative Growth Art Center, which is a disability arts project in Oakland, California.  She had started in the painting class, where she showed no particular talent.  One day, she saw people working with textiles, and immediately gravitated to that medium.  Her pieces consist of found objects, which she carefully wrapped in coloured fibre. People are fascinated by this profoundly disabled person who was at the same time a great artist, whose work has bought pleasure to so many. 

People with intellectual disabilities very rarely achieve any prominence.  Judith Scott, who has been the subject of many articles and books and films, is an exception.  Another is the Cornish painter Bryan Pearce, who received obituaries in national newspapers when he died in 2007, and has been the subject of several biographies.   Bryan Pearce was born in St Ives in 1929.  His father was a butcher and a rugby player, and his mother was a keen amateur painter.  Nature and nurture are a theme that runs through his life.   Pearce had the condition Phenylketonuria or PKU, which mean that as a developing infant, he was unable to metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine.  PKU arises from a random genetic mutation.  Today, all children are tested at birth for PKU, and if they have the mutation, are placed on a diet free of phenylalanine, and so grow up unaffected.  In 1929, the condition was unknown, and as a result, Bryan experienced intellectual impairment and other health problems, and so grew up with cognitive deficits and attended a school for children with special needs.

Environments matter, and if Bryan Pearce had been born somewhere else, his life may have turned out very differently.   St Ives has a long tradition of fine painting, and was the home of Alfred Wallis, a former fisherman who became a self-taught artist, painting mainly seascapes on cardboard.  A turning point was the arrival of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo as refugees from London in 1939, when Bryan Pearce would have been 10.   These modernist artists celebrated what they saw as the innocent primitivism of locals like Wallis.   This was the context in which, as a teenager, Bryan was encouraged by his mother and other artists to paint.   To begin with, he painted rather tentative watercolours.  His obvious talent meant that he attended the St Ives School of Painting during his twenties.  Importantly, this School welcomed both novice and professional artists, and had a commitment to inclusion.  So unlike other Outsider Artists, Pearce was not a self-taught or untrained amateur.

The turning point in Bryan Pearce’s career came in 1957 when he started painting in oils.  He began to exhibit soon after.  Two years later he had his first solo exhibition at the local Newlyn Gallery.    Although he painted slowly, producing perhaps one picture a month, he had a long and very successful career, exhibiting throughout England.  Late in life, he made etchings and his work was also sold in the form of limited-edition screen prints.  His work has been bought by both major public collections, such as the Tate Gallery and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, and private collectors.

Pearce has a very distinctive style.   Although the work has a naivete, you would probably not guess, if you didn’t already know, that he was disabled. His work is not manic or fascinatingly odd, like some Outsider Artists, who obsessively draw pictures of cats or little girls.  It’s not meticulous and photographic, like Stephen Wiltshire.   It’s in the tradition of folk art like that of Alfred Wallis.   If Lowry had left the rainy North West and come down to sunny Cornwall, maybe he’d have painted like Pearce.  Words like “serene” and “visionary” are often used of his work.

Let me try and describe two of these paintings, they’re both on board, the same size, about 60cm by 50cm.  Belladonna Lilies no 4 is a simple picture of half a dozen lilies in a jug.   They are sat on a tiled surface, with the frame of a window behind.  The flowers are pink and white with dark stalks, and they loll in different directions.  The tones of the picture are muted, with slate blue tiles, the paler blue of the window, and the reddish lines which mark out the curves of the jug and the rectangular window frame.  The picture reminds me of David Hockney in its simplicity, but it could also by an early Italian Renaissance painter like Giotto.  Others have compared Pearce’s work to that of Fra Angelico.  Part of this is because the depictions do not follow the established artistic rules of perspective.  It’s also because there’s a literalness about Pearce, whether he’s painting mugs and bowls and tablecloths, or angels above the local churchyard.  Finally, I think this simplicity gives the work a similar spiritual intensity.

Pearce’s 1973 picture, My Mother, also has a muted colour range.   Mary Pearce is looking to the left in profile, like the Queen on a playing card.  But she also seems to be keeping one eye on the painter.  The background is plain grey, but there are two orange lines cutting across like tracks about a third the way down the canvas.    Bryan has captured the texture of his mother’s hair, and then has carefully followed the checks of her blouse.  It’s a  very balanced painting, which has both stillness and weight.  Bryan Pearce mainly avoided putting people in his pictures.  But he did paint his mother and her friends, and sometimes their lawn bowls team. 

So far, I’ve described a still life and a portrait, but Bryan Pearce is best known for painting his own home town of St Ives and surrounding countryside.   Every morning and afternoon, he would take long walks around the local district , and come back to paint.   He had a powerful visual memory, but his works are also carefully composed.  Take, for example, a painting of Westcott’s Quay from 1980 which shows several buildings, and in a gap between them, you can see the harbor and on the horizon a spit of land, ending in a lighthouse on an island. A fishing boat is moored in the harbor.  The stones of the walls and the tiles of the roofs are rendered carefully.  There are no people in sight, but it’s almost as if the windows of the buildings are eyes, as if the town itself has personality.  It’s a calm painting, with this characteristic stillness.   Something about the way he uses line is very satisfying to me.

You always know you are in Cornwall, with Bryan Pearce.  They’re always sunny scenes, bathed in light, full of vivid colour, reminiscent of a post-impressionist like Cezanne, or perhaps of modernist stained glass.   Often the perspective is unusual, sometimes the scene is taken with a bird’s eye view, as if Picasso had done it.  But Pearce himself did not study other artists, and his style was his own, not the result of external influences.   He never felt bound by convention. Nor was he bothered by art-world politics.    In his obituary, critic Mel Gooding wrote of him as:

“a visionary artist of a quite particular kind, whose distinction had to do with the solitary nature of his artistic experience and the use he made of a profound creative solitude in the midst of a world experienced with preternatural vividness. That enforced and productive apartness is not to be confused with social solitude or loneliness; it was, rather, the necessary condition of his imaginative freedom and his peculiar talent.”
Whereas other St Ives artists sometimes struggled to achieve authenticity, he wasn’t trying for this effect.  He had no other way to communicate than this.

Descriptions like innocence and lack of self-consciousness are often made in connection with learning disabled people.  We tend to think of such folk as childlike and unreflexive.  We may admire their apparent purity and sincerity, because it contrasts with our world of ambition and manipulation. 

Writers about outsider art have also suggested that many such artists do not feel a connection with what they have made.  It is the process of making which is important, not the product.  The critic Terry Castle points out that many outsider artists do not have a sense of an audience.  They do not fear judgement or crave approval.   She writes

“the archetypal outsider work is not a statement addressed to a viewer. It is not ‘rhetorical’, nor meant as communication. It is not produced to impress or charm or teach or convince.

I am not so sure that this is entirely true of a learning disabled artist like Bryan Pearce.  Like other artists, he was able to learn and become better.  He exhibited and received feedback. He valued praise.  He made creative choices – for example, he continued painting the fishing boats he knew from childhood, even after they had disappeared from the waters around St Ives.  Above all, Bryan Pearce clearly painted to communicate to others.  His painting made him happy, and has made many other people happy as a result.  The idea of such an artist as innocent or naïve seems a cliché that is not born out by the life story or the practice, but rather reflects our own attitudes to cognitive disability.

Yet there is one sense in which Pearce was insulated from the world and did not have to consider an audience or an art market in the same way as other artists.  Bryan Pearce was provided with the security and support that he needed to become a major painter by his mother Mary, who abandoned her own painting to support her son.  He was also supported by the unique creative community of St Ives.   He remained in the family home for the rest of his life, supported by full time assistants after his mother’s death in 1997.  Benefitting from shelter, and the support of a local artistic community, he was able to devote himself to his art for fifty years, dying aged 77 on 22 January 2007.  The following month, a major solo exhibition of his work was held at Tate St Ives.

I think that when we see the work of Bryan Pearce, which is as visionary and unique as that of any other major British artist, we are forced to rethink our assumptions about intellectual disability.  Bryan Pearce was limited in his ability to learn and communicate verbally.  But alongside his deficits was a huge talent to see and communicate through art.  As he said to his mother

"What would I do if I didn't paint? What would I do?”

Further reading
Ruth Jones, The Path of the Son (1976)
Marion Whybrow, Bryan Pearce: a private view (1985)
Janet Axten, The Artist and His Work (2004)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Mabel Cooper (1944-2013)

For some time, I have been seeking out a person with intellectual disability to include in this website.  Despite books such as Downs: a history, and other historical research about intellectual disability, very few named individuals with intellectual disability have left a record.  In the late twentieth century, with the growth of deinstitutionalization and consensus about normalization and human rights, this situation has begun to change.  Increased recognition of people with intellectual disability is important because it shows that all people have value and significance and are worthy of respect.

Mabel Cooper was one of the leading lights of this new generation of people with learning difficulties.   She was born in London, where her mother lived on the street.  The pair were picked up by the authorities, and sent to separate institutions, and her mother subsequently disappeared.  Mabel spent her childhood in various children’s homes.  She did not attend school, and consequently did not learn to read and write.  Later she was labeled as having learning disability and sent to St Lawrence’s Hospital, a long-stay institution in Caterham, Surrey, which she lived for the next 20 years.

“I moved to St Lawrence’s when I was seven, because they only took children what went to school in this home.  And I never went to school so I had to move.  In them days they gave you a test.  You went to London or somewhere because they’d give you a test before they made you go anywhere.”

“When I first went in there, even just getting out of the car you could hear the racket.  You think you’re going to a madhouse.  When you first went there you could hear people screaming and shouting outside.  It was very noisy but I think you do get used to them after a little while because it’s like verywhere that’s big.  If there’s a lot of noise, and they had like big dormitories, didn’t they?”

A similar institution played a much smaller role in my own life, because my father was the GP for Manor House Hospital in Aylesbury, a smaller, residential hospital for people with intellectual disability.  Every Christmas Day from as early as I can remember, my dad and I would visit the wards – or “houses’, as they were called – and meet the residents and staff.   Later, I worked at Manor House during my year off before University, and in my vacations.  I remember a friendly, cheerful place, which was clean and warm and seemed benign.   As you toured the hospital, you encountered a cross-section of the intellectual disability population, ranging from people who were profoundly impaired, lacked speech and barely interacted with you, through to Bierton House, which was where people who had mild intellectual disability lived.   Many of these folks were great communicators and very engaging, and they always interacted with my father and myself.  One of them, David Seward, became a family friend and would come for tea at my home from time to time.  It was this group in particular who one felt should never have been in an institution in the first place.

Mabel  Cooper, who I never had the opportunity to meet, seems to have been such a person.  Mabel left  St Lawrence’s Hospital in 1977 to live in the community.  Later, the hospital was completely closed down, and she was given the honour of pressing the button to blow it up.  She was adamant that large institutions should never be allowed in future. 

Cooper had become an intellectual disability celebrity through her work with Croydon People First, a self-advocacy group.  She eventually became chair of London People First.  In both roles, she supported other people with learning difficulties to be heard.  She collaborated with Dorothy Atkinson and other researchers at the Open University, who helped people with learning difficulties to research and tell their stories as part of the Life History Project. 

Mabel  Cooper’s own life story was published in Forgotten Lives (1997), and inspired many readers with and without learning difficulties.  Mabel went into schools to  talk to children and young people about the discrimination and bullying which people with learning difficulties face.  With Dorothy Atkinson, she also presented at conferences.  She seems to have been a very charismatic person, who used humour to get her points across and changed perceptions about intellectual disability. 

As recognition for her work, Mabel Cooper was awarded an honorary degree by the Open University, during a ceremony at the Barbican in London in 2010.   As  Dorothy Atkinson has written in a tribute for The Guardian, Mabel

“had a tremendous ability to draw on personal experience to tell stories that, written or spoken, engaged and inspired her readers and listeners in many walks of life.”

The inclusion of her obituary in the Radio 4 Last Word programme, after she died of cancer in April 2013, is another example of how this ordinary woman with intellectual disability achieved unprecedented recognition and made an extraordinary impact.