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Keith Vaughan, Musicians at Marrakesh

Written by Gerard Hastings

Keith Vaughan painted Musicians at Marrakesh (1966-70) after travelling through Morocco in April 1965 with Patrick Woodcock, a close friend and doctor. During his ‘First time out of Christendom’ he recorded in his journal ‘fantastic over-production of everything in the markets… crowds gentle and smiling… hot spicy smells… Arab amiability’ and intense colours such as saffron, indigo and ochre.

This painting was inspired by such observations as well as the souk in Marrakesh - a labyrinthine covered market and a huge, open square filled with snake charmers, food stalls and groups of exotic Berber musicians.  The air is filled with the acidic sound of reed pipers and the steady beat of distant drummers. As well as the traditional Chaabi music usually heard in markets or at celebrations, classical Sufi music is used within spiritual rituals to attain a trance-like state. Woodcock took Vaughan to one these public ceremonies and the experience was subsequently distilled into this painting.

A group of eight or so figures gather round an imposing central figure standing before a vertical green backdrop. Exotic and costly fabrics denote high rank and spiritual importance and are often suspended behind Sufi elders at spiritual assemblies. Moreover, Vaughan is borrowing from Italian Renaissance religious paintings where precious silks and damasks form canopies or ‘cloths of honour’ that adorn the throne of the Virgin Mary. The colour green is usually associated with springtime, new growth, hope and regeneration. By borrowing from the genre of religious painting Vaughan transfers these qualities to the modest musicians of Marrakesh – his own invented genre of an assembly of figures.

The pallid foreground characters play out an enigmatic ceremony in front of us. One figure to the left plays, perhaps, a musical instrument as others, dressed in traditional white djellabas, join in the musical ritual. The crossed-legged drummer beats his vivid yellow drum while colourful accents, such as the vibrant blue, visually amplify the musical pulse. In the middle distance the hooded heads of two silhouetted figures might easily be mistaken for skyline chimneys.

A foreground figure, divorced from the rest of the assembly, sits on a slab of ochre with his back to the viewer. Vaughan confessed to Professor John Ball, who donated this painting to the Pallant House Gallery collection, that this was a self-portrait and was included for a particular reason. In a 1959 studio notebook, Vaughan explained that such figures helped to engage and direct the viewer’s gaze through the picture plane and into the world of the painting, a pictorial device he learnt from Vermeer.

This essay is by Gerard Hastings, author of various books on Keith Vaughan including a new edition of unpublished private writings by the artist.