Because You’re Hepworth It

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World (Tate Britain, 24 June-25 October 2015)

I’ve already written a rather grumpy account of this exhibition, which has a few things that annoyed me. I should also add that the plinths bearing the sculptures could do with a second label describing the work, since sod’s law meant that on almost every occasion I would look at the other three sides first. Sometimes, of course, the label turns out to be on the wall. Grr.

I was fairly sure, however, that the work would transcend my caveats — and so, having read the catalogue, I went back for a second look.

WakefieldMeanwhile, up in Wakefield, the Hepworth is showing a film of the 1968 Tate Hepworth retrospective made by Bruce Beresford. What strikes me immediately about this is how many of the works of art are freely visible and not behind glass. I guess that she was still alive then and could have repaired anything that got broken — the insurance is presumably much higher now. It is so frustrating though. We’re told (she tells us? — and I get the sense from this film of Hepworth speaking unlike the bloody awful Dudley Ashton Shaw Sculpture in a Landscape documentary where a highly theatrical Cecil Day-Lewis intones Jacquetta Hawkes’s poetry in an odd example of barking despite having a dog of your own) that she is interested in the oval, the vertical and the human. From my notes — maybe from the film — I’ve written

inner and outer form, nut in shell, child in womb, shell/crystal, puritanical and geometric spiritual

And then I’ve added (and this is me): modern or romantic (and that is a ponder for another post).

So we’ll walk through the rooms again — beginning with the maze of vitrines. This is her early handcarvings, broadly speaking figurative, realist, mimetic. There are animals, torsos, seated figures and a baby. These works are direct carved on various kinds of wood and marble, and the missing name here is Leon Underwood, who seems to have been the master of the technique.

Hepworth’s shown here among her contemporaries, largely — husband John Skeaping, Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein and I noted two women, Ursula Edgcumbe and Elsie Henderson for future reference. The cynical side of me wonders if this downplays her — she was not unique. Skeaping’s Buffalo (1930) in lapis lazuli is beautiful and I think her side by side doves (1927) are better than Epstein’s one on top of the other (1914-15), but frankly you want your Picasso for doves and Epstein’s strengths lie elsewhere. The positive side is that she can hold her own in a wider community of sculptors between the wars. Infant (1929) is perhaps the most striking, the narrow Torso (1932), made from African blackwood and more like a totem, is the most Hepworthian.

By this point, of course, she had been born in Wakefield in 1903 and studied art in Leeds (meeting that Henry Moore chappy), moving to London where it was as cheap and as easy to get to Paris and Europe than back to Yorkshire. (There’s your north/south divide in a nutshell.) She was runner up to a prize that took her to Italy and which was to inspire her work and led her to marry the actual winner, John Skeaping.

She split from Skeaping in 1933 — the catalogue suggests in part that he was not sympathetic to her Christian Science — and had already met Ben Nicholson who at that point (1931) was married to the artist Winifred Nicholson. The two became lovers and moved in together. So in the second room we have the fruits of their lives together, with artists of different ages inspiring each other. The cynical reading is he helped her, the radical reading is she helped her. I write as a fan of Ben Nicholson — who triangulated romantic landscape, still life, abstraction and the faux naïf. His landscapes flatten into abstraction, and through the 1920s and 1930s the shapes became simplified into squares and rectangles — in time he met with Mondrian, although I think the link was more through Winifred. In time he removed colour, to produce a kind of white, almost flat, sculpture. His art seems to be an exploration of how much can be removed from an image and remain something you can see.

It has to be said that the influence of Hepworth on Nicholson is more obvious than the reverse — I’d be clearer in seeing her as a muse to him than vice versa. Throughout his pictures there are a series of double faces in profile, reduced to lines, intersecting, overlapping, Mr and Mrs. We see this motif in her self portrait in sonogram, and perhaps in one of the sculptures where the face appears to be two intersecting faces. It wasn’t immediately clear what else aesthetically she was getting out of the deal, beyond shifting to a point when she gave more abstract descriptive names for her work. Perhaps he gave her a scratchier sensibility. He was apparently more sympathetic to her religious beliefs than Skeaping had been.

With Nicholson she travelled again in mainland Europe, meeting Hans Arp, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian. She contributed photos of her work to art journals such as Circle and Abstraction-Création (which included Marlow Moss, I see, and had odd ideas about alphabetical order). Mondrian was later to live downstairs from them in London, before his final move to New York. A lot of her pieces of the later 1930s seem to be two smooth pieces — often discs, placed together on a plinth. Apparently both pieces weren’t necessarily fixed, so a degree of adjustment could then be made. Among these pieces were works called Mother and Child — the Madonna and Child trope being oddly missing from the first room — although apparently she broke from tradition by having these as distinct rather than single pieces.


In 1943, she seems to have started adding string to her work. I seem to recall Moore did something similar, but I don’t know who got there first. Sculpture and Colour (Oval Form) Pale Blue and Red (see what I mean about those titles?) is white, almost eye shaped, but hollowed out with two holes. In one you can see the blue interior, and red strings from the edge of the hole to a single, vanishing, point. It is as if goes to infinity. Through the other, side, hole, you can see the strings from a different angle.

By the fourth room we’re up to the Second World War. One side has some of the drawings and paintings she did in a hospital of various operations, after her daughter was ill, apparently intrigued by the similarities between doctors’ and artists’ hands — and I think I saw more of these at Mascalls Gallery once. You need a strong nerve. Another wall has more abstract pieces — the exegetical text tells us she didn’t have time or space for more during the war, but the Hepworth in Wakefield notes the way that she used two dimensional work as a way into sculpture as well as on its own merits. But central to the room are four pieces of carved wood, Pendour (1947), Pelagos (1946), Wave (1943-44) and Oval Sculpture (1943), some plane, some elm, all but hollowed out and curled. They perhaps have the look of hazelnuts nibbled by squirrels, but are beautiful and the best pieces in the exhibition.


By the fifth room time begins to trip over itself. At some point she’s moved to St Ives and has a studio where she lives with a garden space and has rented the Palais de Danse as a second studio. She has become more ambitious, wanting to make bigger pieces; the catalogue notes her wish to crack America. Around three walls we see photos of some of her works in the studio and in situ, her big pieces for Mullard electronics (1956), John Lewis (1963) and the United Nations (1961-64), and we also see her montages imagining sculpture in rural or modernist locations. This is also the room with the ropey documentary.

Behind it, the exhibition redeems itself — four pieces made from a heavy African wood called guarer. The catalogue explains there is a mystery as to who got the wood for her and who paid for it, and what happened to the parts left over. They are larger cousins to the wooden pieces in the previous room; they seem to be experiments in how much you can take away from a form and still have some form.

Ah, you can look, but you mustn’t touch…

Finally, there’s the recreation of the Rietveld Pavilion (1956); concrete air bricks for a wall, partly filled in, some kind of wooden roof, and (here) an end wall purporting to be forest. Hepworth’s work was shown here in 1965 and since. It doesn’t fool us we’re outside, but there are five or so bronze pieces. Some have forms within forms, are twisted, some might be weathered anvils. These are clearly not mimetic, but nor do they feel organic — they are their own thing. Their sublime beauty is enough to make you forget that it’s not until 1975 that Hepworth died, in a fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But Hepworth is at her best in St Ives and Wakefield and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Edinburgh Botanical Gardens and at the front of Tate Britain and in a garden on Attebury Street.

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Watts the Name of the Gallery

The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd (Watts Gallery, 16 June-1 November 2015)

I wonder when we first associated art with madness? Perhaps the cave painters were seen as magical because of perceived links between bison and lunch. Certainly by the time of the Greeks we get all the stuff about muses and possession. We are fascinated by Blake and his angels and Syd Barrett and his madcap laughs and Spike Milligan and his depressions.

In the early to mid-nineteenth century we have mad poet John Clare and mad painter Richard Dadd.

Dadd was born 1817 in Chatham to a father who was clearly an intellectual mover and shaker, involved with the local philosophical and literary society. But they moved to London, specifically to Sussex Street, just around the corner from the Royal Academy of Arts (pre Somerset House days and pre-Burlington House presumably), and little Richard began to train as an artist. His reputation seems to have been made by a painting of Puck, a large child-like figure sat in the centre of a round picture in front of a crescent moon, with smaller fairies dancing around him.

He was commissioned in 1842 to travel with former Newport mayor and barrister Sir Thomas Phillips (1801–1867) on a grand tour, painting his way in Greece and Egypt and the Holy Land. There is a stunning picture of a campfire in the desert, a stripy blue sky, and, most curiously, the moon pierced on the top of a lance, although this is thought to have painting after his return. The painting, The Artist’s Halt in the Desert (c. 1846), disappeared into private hands, only to be rediscovered on The Antiques Road Show in the 1980s.

By then, Dadd’s mental health was already deteriorating — perhaps due to the heat, perhaps due to the exoticism, perhaps due to an existing condition. He was sent home. Back in England, whilst on a walk, he murdered his father and escaped to the continent. He might have escaped, but on the train he tried to kill two of his fellow passengers. He was overpowered and arrested and sent to prison in France for a year. In time he was deported to England, where he was put on trial but was declared criminally insane. For two decades he was incarcerated in Bethlem, then on the site of what was to become the Imperial War Museum, before being moved to the newly built Broadmoor where he died and was buried in 1886. As Nicholas Tromans points out, his period in the asylum coincides with the Foucauldian epistemological break of the regulation of mental health by doctors, and the growth of case records.

Whilst in the asylum, he was allowed to paint with greater or lesser freedom and resources, with one of his physicians, Charles Hood, becoming a collector of his work. This was partly therapy, partly because Hood was a connoisseur. There is a picture, Portrait of a Young Man, which is thought to be a portrait of Hood in an imagined leisure garden at the asylum; on the other hand there is a satiric piece The Curiosity Shop, which features a “connoisseur” looking at a picture through binoculars. Was Dadd playing games with Hood? Meanwhile he produced a series, Sketches to Illustrate the Passions — hatred, agony/raving madness, Ingratiation or self-contempt, deceit or duplicity, anger, grief or sorrow and patriotism — that seem to be a diagnostic set of mental conditions. The latter features two elderly military types, smoking pipes, in front of a map “A General Plan of the City of Olabolika” and a plan in incredibly tiny print.

All of these pictures are on display in this Watts Gallery exhibition, but that is to get ahead of ourselves.
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Pot Look

Grayson Perry: Provincial Punk (Turner Contemporary, 23 May 2015-13 September 2015)

Grayson Perry has his USP: the crossdressing, his alterego of Claire. This has speeded him on to National Treasure status, alongside his Turner Prize, Channel 4 documentaries and Reith Lectures. As always the avant garde and the rebellious is absorbed into the mainstream.

The Anthea Turner show acts as a retrospective and was heaving both times I went. I hope this is an appreciation of his work rather than a Dreamland ride of aghastness. You are repeatedly warned that some items on display are not suitable for children. They’re certain not suitable if you aren’t open to irony.

Because irony was the mode I was operating in. In a vitrined at the halfway point of the exhibition is a leather one piece motorcycle suit, with customised wording. It’s Thom Gunn drag, the hypermasculine, but from Essex rather than Kent. Does he love or hate Essex? Mockney Essex Boy Jamie Oliver is invoked at at later point. Pukka. Does he love or hate working class culture? Does he love or hate middle class culture? Does he love or hate arts and crafts? Does he love or hate the art world?

The first room is a series of pots — for the exegesis you have to consult pink handouts with the titles and descriptors of each pot, although the numbering is at random. I Love Beauty is one of the simpler ones — muted palette, a St Eustache-style deer vision, a Union Falg in monochrome, a woman (Claire?) holding sceptre and bird. Football Stands for Everything I Hate echoes the Eurocup, but with a list of pet hates: shouting; special brew; chewing gum; duvet covers and so on.

The second room was the hest to my taste — although here is where we get the most exegesis as to his background. More pots, tiles for a house, archive matials and a series of engravings: A Map of Days; Map of an Englishman and Print for a Politician. The latter is an imaginary landscape of a battleground, labelled with special interest grouos such as atheists, broadsheets, teenagers, gifted, fitness fanatics, Modernists, republicans, countryfolks, non-smokers. Which side are you on? It is encyclopedic without being completist, whimsical in its arbitrariness. Which side is Perry on? A similar aesthetic is at work in the other two etchings — qualities, moods and so on.

The third space, with the motorcycle suit, has two films, the less said about the better (there is also one in the second room), but then I’ve a low tolerance for filmed art. I’m sure he and his friends had fun, but we’re at a disadvantage in coming in oartway into 47 minutes and note really being able to hear the sound. My loss, perhaps.

The final room has three of his tapestries, handdrawn onto PhotoShop and then made on a computer controlled loom. Whilst in Tracey Emin’s tapestries shown here a few years ago, the labour of socres of women in producing them was silenced, here the labour is erased in favour of mechanisation. Again the mood is encyclopedic collage — the first piece is Comfort Blanket, A British Citizen at its heart, a stylised queen to the right, a monotone union flag to the left and a list of people and things that offer comfort. Margot Fonteyn, Beatrix Potter, Francis Bacon, David Bowie, Agatha Christie, Jamie Oliver… Is confort good or bad? The Walthamstow Tapestry, from where London bleeds into Essex or vice versa (and wasn’t William Morris from around those parts?), is a tapestry of the seven ages of man, not so much a rake’s progress as a trademark’s progress. Finally there is a work on heaven and pilgrimage, whose name I failed to note, made for his British Museum Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman exhibition: a series of names for heaven surrounded by places of pilgrimage and stylised drawings that need not match the placename.

It is problematic to gender art modes, but there is a tradition of tapestry and embroidery being the work of women. Is the same true of pottery? As crafts they might get conceived of as lesser than the other arts — and then we bounce off that Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and Virginia Woolf’s assertion that “Anon[…] was often a woman.” Does “Claire” give Grayson access to such folk arts (although let’s note the various sailors’ embroiderings shown at the Tate’s Folk Art exhibition)? On the other hand, just as sf is not a male genre, so pottery should not be a female one. But something makes me twitchy.

I came away feeling a little underwhelmed; it reminds me of some versions of the dérive, where people walk according to some algorithm except when they’re not. There’s clearly a sexualised unconscious being revealed/concealed among the bricolage, and that’s a fair enough schtick. A thing of beauty is a joy til morning, as someone once said and beauty is in the eye of the potmaker. Beauty is a measure of capital and class, among other things.

Meanwhile, it needs to be noted (and applauded) that the Anthea Turner will always display contemporary art alongside JMS Turner. Sometimes an artist will curate alingside her retrospective, sometimes paintings on the theme of the main exhibition will be shown. Here it is noted that Perry uses technology in the making of his work — and Turner was also an explorer of the latest technique. I see straws being clutched at…

Ingen Flyr På Ham

Hans Olav Lahlum, Menneskefluene (Human Flies (2010))

Norway was neutral during the Second World War, but was invaded by Germany on 9 April 1940 and occupied by the Wehrmach until 8 May 1945. About a third of the Jewish population was deported to the camps in German, whilst others fled into exile. Some Norwegians signed up to fight for the Nazis — mostly on the Eastern front — but there was also a resistance movement. This left a bitter legacy for Norway, some of which formed back stories for the Harry Hole novels of Jo Nesbø, all of which I have now read.

So, whilst there are non-series novels to be read, I found a copy of Lahlum’s Human Flies, a locked-room mystery set in 1968. Harald Olesen, a hero of the resistance, is found shot dead in his flat in an apartment building, but no one has seen anybody leave his front door. It is up to Detective Inspector Kolbjørn Kristiansen to investigate and the building is full of secrets — a former Nazi, an American ambassadorial official, people orphaned by the war, those having affairs… K2 (as the detective is known) is aided in this investigation by Patricia, a beautiful and intelligent woman confined to a wheelchair.

Lahlum is a historian by training and it turns out a relative (a great great aunt?) was Dagmar Lahlum, an Oslo member of the Norwegian resistance recruited by Eddie Chapman to work for MI5 — his exploits were recounted in several biographies, including Nicholas Booth’s Zigzag – The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Double Agent Eddie Chapman (2007) and Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman, Lover, Betrayer, Hero, Spy (2007). This clearly had an impact on the novel — of the relationship forged in the war and lost in peace time.

And yet I don’t think I can recommend this. I’ve not read enough Agatha Christie to make the comparison — but there’s a series of one-to-one interviews, a couple of points where the suspects are gathered together (“I suppose you are wondering why I gathered you all here together…”)… It, frankly, drags. The first person narration doesn’t help and the nods to historic events seem perfunctory. Perhaps in 1968 a policeman could work alone and share information with a civilian without trouble, but it’s a novel that feels set in the 1930s rather than the 1960s.

The Dead Woman in the Attic

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

One of the songs that Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) want to play at their forty-fifth anniversary party is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. And it seems likely to — it’s filmed in a perpetually semi-foggy Norfolk, Geoff (and latterly Kate) sneak out for cigarettes and that might be a tear or two.

Theirs seems a happy marriage. Kate is a retired teacher, we learn from a tell-don’t-show conversation with her postie, Geoff is a former factory worker, slowly falling apart, whose heart condition caused their fortieth anniversary celebration to be cancelled. They have few photos of themselves and no children — but several dogs.

Then comes the bombshell. Fifty years ago, Geoff had pretended to be married to Katya, a German woman two years older than him, on a holiday in the Swiss mountains. She had fallen into a crevasse and her body has only just been found.

Kate notes that it is ridiculous to be jealous of a woman who died before they met. But still.

Indeed. Still.

Kate clearly feels haunted by Geoff’s ex (and Kate/Katya are so close as names), as the house becomes increasingly creaking and full of drafts. How much of their lives together were dependent on her not being Katya? Did they not have children because of this? And have far has Geoff been thinking of her? The mementos are in the attic — how often has he been with them? How often has he been with her? Had they slept together? Was she pregnant?

Haigh lets the camera rest on the two of them, lingering, letting us soak up the atmosphere. One or other will slide out of shot or come into view, forcing us to read faces (and sometimes silences). It’s all about reading the reaction.

Part of you may well think that she should just get over herself — why should someone he knew before her make her jealous? But, still. Did she have no boyfriends before him? But, still.

Both actors come with histories — La Caduta degli dei (The Damned, Luchino Visconti, 1969)), Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974)) and Max mon amour (Nagisa Oshima, 1986) for her, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) and Last Orders (Fred Schepisi, 2001) for him — and apparently he’s Corporal Jonesy in the Dad’s Army Film. I associate a certain iciness yet sexuality with her (a Nicole Kidman with talent) and a melancholia with him. The actors, bravely, give us a sex scene — which we are initially teased over by the director as the bedroom door closes — and a lot of film history has flowed under the bridge for it.

I was struck by a certain amount of Katherine Mansfield-ness about the narrative — which turns out to be based on a short story. Her epiphanies are never as earth changing as Joyce’s and always seem a little out of reach — an infinity glimpsed, a set of footsteps over your grave, something learned but immediately forgotten. What shall we do now? What shall we do?

Kate needs her exorcism — but there seems to have been a lie at the heart of their marriage that its forty-five years cannot erase. The trust is gone and yet they might be closer than ever. Her friend Lena (Geraldine James) has tried to reassure her, how it is with women and how it is with men, and there has been a life, they have had a life (with photographs) … But, still.

Haunting.

Labour Exchange

Academia depends an awful lot on goodwill. All those evenings and weekends and forty plus hour weeks. No, we don’t get long holidays.

I got an email out of the blue:

I wonder if you would be interested in evaluating an essay “Stuff and More Stuff in Someone and Somewhere Else” (abstract appended below), which has been submitted for possible publication in Stuff Studies.

Yes, sure, I do this kind of thing three or four times a year, and I’m reading stuff for Extrapolation, of course. I can be a little slow at it, I confess.

The email continues:

Unfortunately, we cannot offer payment or sample issues.

How vulgar! Of course, this is unpaid labour, it’s community service, it’s evidence of esteem. There’s a paying it forward … X reviews for journal editor Y who reviews for journal editor Z… It gets tricky when you approach an Independent Scholar who doesn’t have the same set of reasons for wanting to bank prestige. I can remember having a long phone conversation with someone who I asked to peer review who had left academia (or was forced out), who was upset for some reason. Fair enough, they’re free to say no. It’s part of the job if you’re in the job.

The only people who make money from journals are those who publish them.

The email concluded:

Part of our purpose in asking for your assistance is to draw your attention to Stuff Studies as a possible forum for your own scholarship.

This is kind of interesting… a salespitch? a sincere invitation? It just feels rather odd.

On the Chin… But Be Prepared to be Patronised

With submission for publication comes the possibility of rejection — and you learn to live with it.

Sometimes you get an explanation — “we wanted to balance the pre- and post twentieth century material” is one I recall from 1999 — and sometimes you don’t. You rewrite and submit elsewhere.

Take it on the chin.

Oddly — and this might sound like a brag — I’m been commissioned more than I’ve cold submitted. If someone asks me to write something, I will ponder whether I want to be in the venue, and more to the point work out if I’ve something to say.

I’m sufficiently instinctive that I often get this feeling that X and Y are connected — say that Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger might be useful for thinking through The Sparrow. At that point, I hadn’t actually read Purity and Danger. It can be a high wire act — and it makes writing abstracts hard before there’s a chapter, although you don’t want to write something that’s going to be rejected.

So, there was a call for contributions, and I sat on it overnight, and applied the tests, and sent an abstract. Meanwhile, I was already thinking there would be other venues I could submit it to, but having written the damn thing.

Ten minutes ago I was rejected.

The editors were apologetic — lots of strong contributions — some hard decisions — consider the overall shape of the volume — it is with immense regret — and…

Well, whatever. That’s the job. You try not to publish rubbish, although that arguably rubs out most of my output…

And then:

“we want to persuade you to develop the proposed chapter into an academic article that will be well-suited to be submitted to any number of peer-review academic journals.”

OK.

I guess they were trying to be helpful. Maybe to soften the blow. Perhaps it was a standard rejection email sent to all.

But.

I’m certainly acquainted with these peer-reviewed journals of what they speak. I even had a list in my head of who to try first, if it was rejected. I co-edit a peer-reviewed journal — but it would be Bad Form to submit there.

Somehow, I think a simple no thanks would not have left me feeling … a little patronised and certainly amused.