Blog posts

In Vino Veritas 23

To see East Germany as a refuge after the previous encounters would be a folly indeed.

Border sign at Heldra 1952, from the German Federal Archive


This was the cold war alright, both psychologically and materially. Even the air seemed to be contaminated by the insidious power of the STASI.
We paused somewhere to check on directions. This involved the simple procedure of knocking on the door of an unremarkable house. The reception from the male occupant was a symbiosis of suspicion and palpable fear. GO AWAY. Maybe somebody had been informing and he dreaded the chilling rattle of an unknown visitor… An unnerving experience for both of us.


East German “Border scout” (Border recconnaissance platoon) of the GDR Border Troops, here taking a photograph of US Army activities across the inner German border.

The STASI or Ministry of Security was founded in 1950. At it’s height it was the largest and most feared state security outfit on the planet. The scale of ‘informing’ on your fellow citizens was staggering. One could simply disappear. Citizens turned informants became a vast network. It had strong links to the KGB and could infiltrate Western countries.


Preserved section of the inner German border wall at Mödlareuth, Bavaria/Thuringia.
Angelo D Alterio

Materially the traffic and roadside furniture were the embodiment of menace.The whole theatre was given dramatic emphasis by being enveloped in freezing fog. Troop carriers, half-tracks and tanks emerged from the misty depths and rumbled on their way. The roadside borders consisted of watch towers, barbed wire and search lights. The ‘Third Man’ was not in this league. It was the culmination of all the totalitarian literature and experience that one had ever read. One pathetic consolation, our German plates would not raise an eyebrow here.


West Berliners entering East Berlin at the border crossing Chausseestraße on 28 December 1963 . From the German Federal Archive

In the encircling gloom and darkness we got to West Berlin. The whole process of finding somewhere to stay, let alone pay for it, was beyond us. A cosy night in Esmeralda beckoned. Oh joy.
In the morning, through the fogged up windows, we could see the plump, well breakfasted inhabitants toddling off to work, chatting away, life on earth turned upside down. How could this be? What about the world we had just left?


Krüger postcard Berlin (former West Berlin area), Kurfürstendamm c.1965


Esmeralda had a freshen up and a pep talk. The fading clutch continued in fade mode. I pretended the gear box was full of newly hatched chickens, gently does it.
Off to the south through West Germany en route to Munich, progressing through an agreeable landscape. Ahead, a signpost, a rather flimsy affair, almost an afterthought. One word. Dachau. We get there.

One abiding image; a grainy 2 metre square photograph of a pile of children’s shoes.


A large pile of victims’ shoes piled up outside barracks in the Dachau concentration camp, May 1945. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 

How such an image of apparent innocence could have such unimaginable implications burns itself into your head. Forever.


Onward across the Western Alps and into northern Italy. By now a few green shoots of spring were starting to appear. As we descended around a sharp corner, a small bank of lovely wildflowers presented themselves. A moment’s inattention. Keep your eyes on the road David! Too late.

https://ryderwalker.com/destinations/switzerland-italy/


Two motorcycle policemen were dead ahead as I drifted to the left. They were impressive and would not disgrace an Italian rugby team, their whole physicality set off by their splendid tan uniforms, Sam Brown belts and the shiniest of black boots imaginable. Even their bikes were Concours standard. Black shades glared.
They passed by. I counted to ten. By the time I got to six they had re-appeared, one at the front of the car, one at the rear. God they were menacing. The German plates screamed at them. A notebook was produced as we were ordered out of the car.
Ronda was quite blonde and could pass for German, I was close enough.
A fine of horrendous proportions was mentioned. We would pay for this, and how.

‘PASSPORTS’ one of them snapped. Ronda produced said document. He read the two words on the cover and handed it back, unopened. The world then spun 180 degrees on it’s axis.
Our man gazed into space in some kind of reverie. As he crunched the dangerous driving violation into waste paper , he breathed three words…..Orsongna, Cassino, Faenza.
From late 1943 to mid 1945, New Zealand regiments fought alongside the Italians in a series of brutal battles. Silence.
‘Where are you going?’, he asked ‘Firenze?’
‘The Uffizi’, came the reply.
Moments later, Esmeralda had a police escort, front and rear, to take us to the gallery. They helped us find a car park and bade us farewell in the most generous terms.

Wars cast a long shadow, not all of it bad.

Tasmanian Travels

Map of Tasmania, from Lonely Planet
Stunning!

Words cannot describe the beauty of this place, so I’ll just leave these few images for your perusal.

Nine Mile Beach, Frecinet Peninsula.
Harry, the Tasmanian Tenterfield Terrier.
Bay of Fires, Binalong Bay, nr St Helens.
My 5 star hotel at Bruny Island!!

Greetings from Tasmania

Part 1

I have taken a trip back to my native Tasmania for a few weeks and have been with my old art school mate. He has unearthed some ancient stuff… all done around 1964/5. A mixture of painting, linocuts and chalk sketches. Some of it’s not bad, if I do say so myself!


Snooker Player; 180 x 150cm

Somewhat reminiscent of our old chum Bacon? Who was a huge influence on me can you tell?!!


Towel; linocut; 100 x 70

Caged Bird Singing; linocut; 100 x 70

Fence; linocut; 70 x 100

Wrestlers; chalk; 40 x 20

The above sketch was a study for a painting which was acquired by the Dunedin art gallery. (A few years ago!)


Life study; conte; 40 x 20

Vietnam; chalk; 30 x 20

In Vino Veritas 22

A final reflection on the vastness of Siberia.

Some 40 plus years later, Ronda and I had an all expenses paid trip, plus fee, to Sakhalin Island, a place described by Chekhov in a landmark series of articles (c.1890) as ‘hell’. It was a prison camp in Tsarist days.


A souvenir book of our visit to Sakhalin

It lies to the north of Japan, being the easternmost part of Russia and was divided into the northern Russian section with the southern belonging to Japan.

At the end of the Second World War, in a brutal conflict, the Russians conquered the whole island and lay claim to it to this day. A big part of the prize lies underground, the huge quantities of oil and gas being heavily exploited. This industry is multi national and the children of the employees, of course, need international schools.
Thus it was, early one week Ronda and I were happily doing a school visit in a local village, within a few days we flew to Seoul in Korea and then north to Sakhalin to work with the international kids. A remarkable (and exhausting) experience. Good exercise was provided by a fine tennis court and a sprinkling of tolerable tennis players amongst the staff.


A page (with advice) from the book

And so into Poland, the nagging premonition still hanging in the freezing air.

My knowledge of this country was basic to say the least. When I was a kid in Tasmania our elderly Polish neighbours had escaped from that country at the end of the war. From my point of view it was hard to see southern Tasmania as a kind of earthly paradise but, to them, it was even more than that. I was too young and ignorant to comprehend the full horror of their lives. Of course, think Poland, think the Chopin who everybody knows, or should. The Polonaises and Mazurkas are old friends but it was his third piano sonata that caught me out. It emerged from the car radio, a sort of son et lumiere as the trailing car headlights indicated I might speed up a bit. I pulled over and entered this sublime world that Ashkenazy picked out with consummate skill. How extraordinary that a series of notes played on a single instrument with no devices, augmentations or frills whatsoever can have such profound power.

The road to Warsaw would not be dignified by such a term. There were no frills here either. At times it was very much a communal thoroughfare, carts, pedestrians, bikes, and the odd cow or two added to this bucolic agrarian landscape. Darkness had descended and Esmeralda’s lights struggled with this farming melange. This was not quite the sophisticated Europe that I had imagined.

The door pillar took the full force of the blow. Down he went with a sickening thud.
Rounding a hairpin bend this swaying figure appeared in the middle of the road, 20 metres away. Good reflexes swerved but he was side-swiped. Oh God, we still had those German plates which were seen at once. People materialised from everywhere. By indication and gesture and the Polish for GO! GO! GO! was yelled at us. No we didn’t. Getting out of the car we approached our supine friend and , as we surveyed the damage, we were re-assured. We got him to his feet and a bit of self propelled arm rubbing started to happen. This good sign was dwarfed by the cloud of pungent vodka that wafted round our best efforts. Our man was legless.
He seemed OK, but we could not be sure. A lengthy spell in a Polish gaol could be on the cards if things were otherwise, so we followed the advice of our farming friends and got going.

Warsaw cheered things up. At least it’s modest display of neon lights and signs was a tad more welcoming than the Russian equivalent.
This city and it’s Jewish community suffered terribly during the war. This pogrom has been well documented, and despite the rebellion in 1944, this again was crushed by the Nazis. In September 1945, the Russians captured Warsaw. By January of 1945 80-90% of the buildings had been destroyed. Re-building of a sort commenced under a Soviet puppet regime. ‘Stalinism’ lasted until 1956.


Cover of Stolica magazine depicting Aleja Jerozolimskie, Warsaw, 1960. From faktographia.com

Esmeralda was performing well, no hint of the sulks, so we set off for the East German border. The journey included the attractive university city of Poznan, it’s architecture and general aura giving a real lift to proceedings. The same could not be said of our ‘in car’ catering, perhaps the food would be better in a Polish prison, one of us joked.


Old Market Square, Poznań. Photograph: Xantana/Getty Images/iStockphoto
From the Guardian

Ho Ho!.. The East German border resembled a military parade ground with a load of police thrown in. Everybody had to get out of their cars and thorough searches of the whole vehicle, inside and out, led to long queues forming. I was almost certain they were looking for something or perhaps some collateral damage, particularly with foreign cars. No more jokes about Polish prison food.
We got to the head of this vice-like road block. Nerves jangled.

A rather jaded para military waved us through, he did not even want us to stop.

Read more of my adventures in the previous episode.

Or start at the beginning… I was born at a very early age…

Momento Mori. Goodbye Francis.

OK, so he eventually drowned in his own polish, but he was way ahead of whoever  was in second place.

Memento Mori / Goodbye Francis. Acrylic and dye on canvas. 108 x 87 cm. David Armitage.

Winterreise – A Winter’s Journey

A winter – themed post on this frosty morning. Excerpts from my book of illustrations inspired by the Schubert song cycle.

In 2016 I was inspired to create these illustrations by the wonderful imagery contained in Winterreise. This timeless song cycle for voice and piano, composed by Franz Schubert, was published in 1828. It consists of a setting of 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller. I produced a set of illustrations which are presented alongside Muller’s words, translated into English by Celia Sgroi. The resulting book can be purchased direct from myself. The original illustrations and giclee prints are also available. Email me for further details.

The illustrations are now also available to view on diewinterreise.net. Click here for the direct link, or go to the website and click on the Art tab. The site is an amazing resource for all things Winterreise, including discography, texts and papers, along with other illustrations and artworks.

Below are some of the illustrations from my book, along with excerpts from the poems.

I cannot choose the time

To begin my journey,

Must find my own way

In this darkness.

Frozen drops are falling

Down from my cheeks.

How could I not have noticed

That I have been weeping?

In a charcoal-burner’s tiny house

I have found shelter;

But my limbs won’t relax,

Their hurts burn so much.

You, too, my heart, in strife and storm

So wild and so bold,

Feel first in the silence your serpent

Stir with burning sting!

So I travelled my road

Onward with sluggish feet,

Through bright, happy life,

Lonely and unrecognised.

A light does a friendly dance before me,

I follow it here and there;

I like to follow it and watch

The way it lures the wanderer.

Ah, a man as wretched as I am

Is glad to fall for the merry trick

That, beyond ice and night and fear,

Shows him a bright, warm house.

And a loving soul within –

Only illusion lets me win!

My way has led me

to a graveyard;

Here I’ll stop,

I told myself.

You green and mourning garlands

must be the sign

That invites weary travellers

into the cool inn.


Song: Schubert: The Winterreise D911: I good night
Artist: Christoph Prégardien & Andreas Staier
Licensed to YouTube by WMG (on behalf of Teldec Classics International)

The book was first published in 2016 by LKL Publishing and is available direct from the author.

Illustrations © 2016 David Armitage

ISBN 978-1-5262-0322-9.

Translation courtesy of Celia Sgroi © 2005


I have also illustrated many successful childrens books, such as the Lighthouse Keeper series and Queen of the Night. See Illustration in the header menu.

Individual original abstract paintings have also been inspired by particular pieces of music. You can see more of these in the Music Box category, under My Artworks.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Christmas

It’s a proper Christmas after all, presents AND snow!

This is the 9th and most recent Lighthouse saga. It is only a mere 16 years old and has some way to go to catch up with it’s illustrious 41 year old cousin.
Good advice to a budding illustrator…. ‘Probably the best way to produce a picture book is to write and illustrate it yourself.’ Failing that, a close second is to marry or live with a top class children’s writer. That way help is always at hand! Is it ever. A down side can be the fact that most writers have a very strong visual sense and this is never more so than when their lovely text seems to lack sufficient illumination. This can lead, very infrequently, to either polar or tropical exchanges. But, after 40 years and a third generation of readers about to arrive, the world of the lighthouse keeper is as real to the creators as it is to the children. Mess with this institution at your peril. One’s audience would not stand for it.


The principal characters, Mr and Mrs Grinling, seem to have precious little in the way of an extended family. We are often quizzed about this by our young readers.
Certainly Mr Grinling has a great- nephew George, and in this story the little chap spends his Christmas at the lighthouse. And what a visit.
When the text is as good as this, the story illustrates itself.

One further reflection on working with children. A packed assembly hall, a presentation based on the ‘Christmas’ was well underway. I had produced a large seaside ‘skeleton’ outline and the children suggested various sea creatures et. al. to be included n the picture. Suggestions piled in at the rate of knots, so much so that I asked a 6 year old to wait for a bit as I was getting behind.
Silence. She then stood up, turned to the assembled throng and, in a stentorian bellow, declared:

‘HE CAN’T MULTI- TASK!’

Convulsed with laughter, I dropped all my pens.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Christmas is available from Waterstones, amazon and other good bookshops, or direct from the author.

Take a look at my other illustrations and artworks, or follow my life story – In Vino Veritas.