Alibis

Matisse in the Studio (Royal Academy of Arts, 5 August-12 November 2017)

A few years ago, Tate Modern had a large exhibition of Matisse’s paper cut outs and collages — making grand claims for his having invented the form and ignoring Mrs Delaney and various Bluestockings in the process. I was more impressed by a smaller show (I think an Arts Council Collection tour?) I stumbled upon in Berwick whilst on a Lowry trail. It was impressive, but I realised that I had not knowingly seen a Matisse oil painting.

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The Spoils

Victor Pasmore: Towards a New Reality (Pallant House, 11 March-11 June 2017)

I can claim no great knowledge of art aside from what I’ve looked at and then thought about, and maybe then read about. Victor Pasmore was filed in a mental box of British abstract, with if I recall a couple of paintings at Brighton that have caught my eye a couple of times.

It was odd to go into the first room of this Pallant House retrospective and think, French. There was an air of Paris in the domestic interiors and the drinkers in cafés and objects on tables. That almost-out-of-focus feel. It reminded me of a room in one of the Bergen galleries that I nearly skipped when I had this feeling, only to realise it was very early and thus atypical Edvard Munch.

Mother and Florence (1928) can be the typical one, the faces impossible to pick out, the focus on the sewing machine. It turns out he was influenced by French Postimpressionism, the Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet and Pierre Bonnard. Having worked in admin for the London County Council, he studied part time at the Central School of Art and then he went onto be a founder with William Coldstream and Claude Rogers of the Euston Road School, who focused on objective observation and naturalism in art — this was to win him accolades from Kenneth Clark of Civilisation.

It’s all a little dull.

He was a conscientious objector to the Second World War, although he was refused this status at first and served a prison sentence. Living in Hammersmith and Chiswick, he began painting landscapes that tended more to the abstract and resisted being picturesque.

There’s certainly the influence of Whistler — although they are not as impressive as his Thames pictures — and the abstract tendency of Turner.

But apparently he saw his own turn to the abstract as a new beginning rather than a continuation of a tendency, and there was was some Ben Nicholson in the mix. The greyed out landscapes with coloured shapes gave way to coloured shapes on a neutral field and titles which were revised to remove references to seasons, times or locations.

I’m presuming I first saw Triangular Motif in Pink and Yellow (1949) the best part of thirty years ago at the Ferens, and it and the other collages are the works that I prefer. But I have to say I can see the influence of Piet Mondrian and Ben Nicholson, and I prefer the originals.

Perhaps echoing Nicholson’s reliefs, he moves into three dimensions, mounting slats of materials on black backed glass or squares of wood, sometimes off centred. By then he was teaching at Newcastle and got a job for Richard Hamilton, and I do wonder if he was responsible for Kurt Schwitters’s extraordinary Merzbarn Wall going to Newcastle. I like the spirals and mazes and contour map shapes, but I wasn’t blown away. Sometimes I could see how the spirals turned a painting into a response to Van Gogh, but I think he’d refute such a reading.

The Pallant has a great record of shows of artists I’ve always wanted to see or artists I hadn’t realised I should see, but this time it didn’t press my buttons.

I’m in the Mood for Painting

Transferences: Sidney Nolan in Britain (Pallant House, 18 February—4 June 2017)

Sometimes you hold contradictory thoughts in your head to your own detriment — I’d known that Sidney Nolan was one of the most significant Australian painters, but I hadn’t realised he was so good.

Let’s phrase that a bit differently — whilst I had seen Nolan paintings (I’m presuming) in Melbourne and at the RAA Australia exhibition, I hadn’t been hugely struck by his work. I seem to recall there’s a painting in the Tate walkthrough of British art, and I just remember the colour brown.

The Pallant House Gallery, in collaboration with the Sidney Nolan Trust, have put together an exhibition to mark his centenary, drawing on the property of the trust and paintings in the Tate collection (I suspect rarely shown), paintings from Leicester Art Gallery, Walker Gallery and so on. It is an impressive collection.

Like (most?) Australian painters, he is drawn to landscapes, and there are several incredible moonscapes of the centre of Australia — mountains and craters and deserts, often as glimpsed from an aeroplane. These were too big to do on site, and I wonder if there are notebooks of sketches not shown here? They are suitable huge, but you notice that he seems more likely to paint the vertical or in a square than in landscape format, presumably to fit in all the layers of horizon and height and depth, rather than a wide, empty sweep. Inland Australia, I guess, is one of those rare exceptions.

Occasionally, he also painted on glass, almost like a contour map, using Ripolin, a kind of enamel paint (making him a precursor to George Shaw). Alongside the Australian desert is the Antarctic one — as dead as Australia interiors seem but freezing rather than hot. There are also paintings such as Carcase in Swamp, a title that is seemingly half right, a product of a commission of a newspaper or magazine to record seemingly the worst drought in Northern Queensland, where corpses were strewn across landscapes or somehow caught up trees. No magazine would touch them, but it was clearly stored in his image bank (to reappear in theatre designs decades later).

Sidney Nolan had been sought out by Kenneth Clark of Civilisation when the latter visited Australia, and this led to Nolan moving to Britain in 1951, away from his increasingly complicated love life in Heide outside Melbourne, although I suspect it became no less complex as a result. It needs therefore to be borne in mind that many of Nolan’s landscapes were painted in retrospect from a very different location. Indeed, he had a studio without windows to avoid distraction.

We get to see glimpses of three of his series of paintings — Ned Kelly, Burke and Willis and Mrs Fraser and Bracewell. I guess the Ned Kelly series is the most well-known — the Irish-descended bushranger convicted for stealing horses who went on the run after the attempted murder of a policeman. He fled to the Bush as an outlaw, being involved in the death of further policemen and a number of hold-ups. The final showdown was at Glenrowan, where the gang wore the homemade metal suits and were shot dead — Kelly survived, to be put on trial and executed in 1880 aged 25. Apparently Nolan’s grandfather was one of the police officers at Glenrowan — and Nolan painted this shootout at least once.

Typically Kelly is reduced to the square, spade-like mask, with a slot for the eyes, sometimes just showing the eyes. The mask stands on a spindly neck on an abstracted body, sometimes on a horse, often wielding a weapon. In other paintings, the mask becomes painted in blocks of colour, a moment of Mondrian or Miro. His Australian symbol could also be twisted to other uses — Kelly Spring 1956 gives him a blue background, a tree with blossom and is presumably a nod to events in Hungary.

And then there’s large, vertical, landscape painting, Ned Kelly and Policeman, with the landscape rather over shadowing the three policemen at the bottom of the image and Kelly on a horse. The label seems to be suggesting that Kelly is facing them down, but to me it looks like he is riding away. Of course, the mask looks the same from either side. There is also the painting of the death mask of Kelly, another mask but this time of his “real” face, based on the post-execution cast. (Do I recall Francis Bacon had a death mask of William Blake? Did I make that up? There are apparently others links too.) Death of a Poet has the bright blue background and strange plants twirling around much of the picture space, especially on the left. Apparently this is also a nod to Arthur Rimbaud, French poet and gun runner, although I’m not entirely clear how.

The second myth he draws on is of Burke and Wills, leaders of a 1860–61 expedition to cross Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, which failed on its return to Cooper’s Creek where Burke and Wills died. On the one hand, this was a heroic journey — humanity vs. the landscape — on the other hand this was stupidity, given their lack of knowledge of bushcraft. Burke seems to stand out though — there is The Explorer Burke on a Camel (1966), where a naked Burke almost seems to be merging with the camel, a huge empty landscape behind him.

And then there’s Camel and Figure (1966).

Again, the landscape is striking, overwhelming, the camel stretched out toward a ?naked? Burke, almost subservient to him. Apparently nudity is the sign of someone who has given up and is about to die in a desert. Of course, he’s naked in both the paintings.

Finally, Mrs Eliza Anne Fraser was shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland in 1836 and claimed to be captured by Aboriginal people. She was rescued by convicts John Graham and (in legend) David Bracewell. In the legend, Bracewell asked for a pardon for escorting her to safety, but was betrayed. Novelist Colin MacInnes suggests we read the legend as an allegory for the relationship between the British empire and convict Australia; they’ve also been read in relation to Nolan’s relationship to Sunday Reed, with whom he’d had an affair. There are three paintings here — Convict in a Billabong (1960), a picture dominated by the browns of the vertical reeds and the light green of the trees, with Bracewell picked out in horizontal white and brown lines that parallel the stripes of the billabong. Meanwhile, Woman and Billabong (1957), a mix of browns, yellows and ochre, Mrs Fraser viewed from behind, in the billabong, to the left a weird figure somewhere between a finger and a phallus, presumably Bracewell? This surprisingly idyllic scene contrasts with the equally brown In the Cave (1957), where there is an almost randomly brown field, presumably the cave, with Bracewell in rather darker brown stripes; Mrs Fraser is drawn as a sexualised figure in supposedly aboriginal style, with a blue, red and yellow stripe as waist. The authentically “primitive” Australian here being envisioned seems at odds with the British empire metaphor.

One painting that seems to be outside the usual series and themes of his work is Peter Grimes’s Apprentice (1977) — a drowned figure in purple inspired by Benjamin Britton’s opera. Nolan and Britten knew each other, presumably through Nolan’s work in opera design, and Britten had died the year before. The drowned boy, with ginger hair, is in purple, with what appears to be a fish hook design on his jumper, which only seems appropriate. He is surrounded by fish, which almost seem like musical notes and are about to chew on him. It is a rather strange Ophelia-theme, peaceful yet fearful, an accidental (and tragic) rather than deliberate death.

And then, finally, I’ll turn to a late self-portrait, Myself (1988), depicting an old man with round glasses, somewhere between John Lennon and infinity, and scrawled over the top a frame like Ned Kelly’s mask — cementing an ongoing identification between Nolan and the convict, whether Kelly or Bracewell (I’m less clear he wants to be Willis). But perhaps he is transported to Britain rather to to Australia, the downunder upended. Scrawled is not quite the word — it is a portrait in spray paints, a long from graffiti but haunted by semilegal street art and apparently typical of his late work. The colours are incredible. (Apparent IKON have an exhibition of the portraits coming up.)

And here’s something that appears to only being discovered slowly — alongside the spray paints, Nolan had used Ripolin, an enamel paint, polyvinyl acetate and other industrial paints. Does this reflect his background in commercial painting — he used what he knew? Might we assume — cultural cringe alert — this was what he had available and so used? Various American pop artists were to use synthetic paints — but Nolan seems to predate them. Not for the first time, we should pay more attention to artists on the fringe of the standard narratives. What becomes very visible are the horizontal or vertical lines of the painting, almost scratched onto the surface.

I also note that most — perhaps all? — of the Tate paintings were donations from Baron McAlpine of West Green, scion of the construction company, property developer in Western Australia, art collector and, er, Tory supporter. I have to confess that he had rather interesting taste in art.

Sussex Mods

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion (Two Temple Place, 28 January-23 April 2017)

As an incomer to Kent, I’ve always had a guilty preference for Sussex. We lay claim to Turner (hence the Anthea Turner Gallery), Hamish Fulton walks down the road and H.G. Wells and Joseph Conrad were locals, but after Tommy Cooper, Mary Tourtel and Peter Firmin there’s a sense that you run out of culture. (Tracey, I forgot Tracey.)

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On a Certain Tendency in British Art 1920-1950

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, any more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. […] Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art”

The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950 (Pallant House, 28 October 2016-19 February 2017)

Occasionally I feel as if I should have done some homework before seeing an exhibition.

I will have read, I’m sure, “”ULYSSES, ORDER, AND MYTH” by T.S. Eliot back in the day, 1988 or 1989, and so would have once been aware of the tension between Classicism and Romanticism, and Modernism’s fight against the Victorians. Ulysses appears to the unwary reader a chaotic work, but if anything it is over structured, with bodily organs and literary styles and of course the narrative of the Odyssey. We have a dialectic tension between bringing an archetypal tale up to date and raising a wandering Jew and a wandering poet to the level of classical heroes.

The Pallant, a gallery of which I thoroughly approve down to hours of train timetable research to get there, has a thesis here of British art adopting what Eliot calls the mythical method in the aftermath of the First World War. The attempt is to present the contemporary, the up to date, through a classical lens. Perhaps it is a clutching at order in the ruins of the British Empire. We had had all the isms — Futurism, Vorticism, Cubism — and then a move from the abstract back into the representational. Compare, say, the early work of David Bomberg (who is missing from here) to his post war work.

It is a good story.

Take John Armstrong’s GPO Pheidippides, one of a series of posters advertising the GPO using historical narratives, here the runner who brought news of a battle to Sparta. The athlete is central, between images of male soldiers and waiting women. The image is meant to be of a Greek urn, but there is no attempt at perspective here. Telecommunications with the kudos of myth.


Or Meredith Frampton’s curious Still Life (1932), a hyperreal, photorealistic and yet surreal account of a broken urn on a plinth, alongside masonry and a sculpted head, sawn and shattered trees, flowers, barley and a tape measure. It is a Ozymandian, fallen world, highly suggestive of … hmmm.

And we have more evidently classical subjects — the Vanessa Bell and Duncan Wood Toilet of Venus (a pudgy Venus among the orange and yellow and pink), William Roberts’s The Judgement of Paris (1933) (where the trousered Paris guards his golden apple from a dog) and Roberts’s Parson’s Pleasure (a classical image of donnish nudity on the banks of the Cherwell, with dog paw like trees — and a nod to Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe).

The second room has one of my favourite painters — Edward Burra, with Arcadia, a satire perhaps of the Bright Young Things of the Waugh generation, some in fancy dress, some in berets, over the top male nude statues,cross dressers, and even the staircases in the ornamental garden setting seem voluptuous (Pallant is all too coy, alas). And a little dog steals the show. The other stand out pieces here are again John Armstrongs, as if they wanted a show on him but couldn’t get enough, Psyche Crossing the Styx (1927); Psyche is here a figure from Munch, the rowers fleshy skeletons and the setting seems like it in an interior bodily space. In the Wings (1930) mixes a bust and body parts in a Angus Calder like set of mobiles and wire frames.

The third room offers portraits, by both Proctors, by Frampton again, and more strikingly Gerald Leslie Brockhurst. Here we have Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, described as a contemporary Mona Lisa but with a less enigmatic grin. The flawless depiction, three quarter length, was evidently a piece of propaganda, hard to see now without the unease of eighty years of further royal history and what we think we know about Windsor sympathies. The painting must just predate the Second World War as it is 1939. Meanwhile there is an air about the other portraits of Magritte — indeed many of the paintings on show seem to be edging towards the suburban surreal.

The penultimate room is dominated by photos and a second Burra. The photographs are almost all by Madame Yevonde, working name of Yevonde Cumbers Middleton, with subjects somewhere between art and fashion, in stunning colours. She takes a series of wives of famous men — and each of them is labelled Mrs Famous Man — and dresses them as a classical goddess or figure. Mrs Bryan Guinness, for example, is better known as Diana Mitford, who was to marry Oswald Mosley at Goebbels’s house with Hitler in attendance. At around the same time, Leni Riefenstahl was using classical imagery to dangerous effect; it should be noted that the bleached ruins of Armstrong’s Pro Patria (1938) are anti-fascist in tone.

The Burra is Santa Maria in Aracolei balances several storeys of a building and windows — one with green curtains and a face — with a strange, Daliesque statue with a oddly human hand and a shirt of … feathers? Between the two halves is a staircase, which seems to have a real world equivalent although apparent Burra hadn’t visited the site. Like Burra’s other paintings it is a water colour, in this case on four sheets of paper. It nicely echoes Edith Rimmington’s double portrait of Athena, Sisters of Anarchy in which one of two statues of Athena is turning into an owl. I’d just come across the name at Sussex Modernism, where Rimmington is presented as a photographer.

I don’t seem to have made many notes in the final room — I think there was something by David Jones, a name to which I will return — but the stand out piece was Frank Runacres’s Untitled (Ruins) (1939) where works of art, sculpture, wheels, frames and other rubble seem precariously piled over a woman, her head on hand. The bombing of Spain had already happened, but this seems to be looking ahead to the blitz. And in a corner, two small pieces by Henry Moore, one a reclining figure in bronze, but with atypical drapery.

And so we have an interesting narrative, although that one Jones and a single Eric Gill piece point to a counter narrative that could also be told: artists of the period also drew on Biblical narratives, although I would admit the mythic points more to the work of Ravilious, Wadsworth, Nash and other English Romantic Surrealists. Don’t forget Christopher Wood, however, nor Stanley Spencer, probably superior to any of the works on display here.

And if you go back to the PreRaphaelites you can see an equivocation between the mythic and Biblical, but with much more denial of the contemporary in complex ways.

And so, the method is, methinks, a tendency, among other tendencies, but no less interesting for that.

More than a Load of Pollocks

Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy of Arts, September 2016—2 January 2017)

There’s a story that in the late 1940s, the CIA funded Abstract Expressionism. It was an exercise of soft power, from the people who funnelled money into the animated Animal Farm and exploding cigars. The Soviets were busy with their Socialist Realism, whilst the Americans were channelling the chap with the lily pads with bigger brushes. The AES paint big, really big, and it takes a lot to transport all those canvases around the world. In one version the Tate wasn’t able to afford a huge exhibition and an benefactor gave the money. The story is the money came from the CIA.

If Abstract Expressionism didn’t bring down the Berlin Wall, then at least it came up with pretty cool murals.

It’s the sort of thing that can leave you cold, but if you surrender to it it’s pretty amazing.

Just like capitalism.

The cavernous spaces of the Royal Academy seem appropriate, although they’ve never quite got the walk through right. These are huge, abstract paintings, determinedly non-representation, yet in theory expressing an inner emotion. Of course, we don’t always know what that emotion is, but you can always supply your own.

The first room was a kind of overture, showing paintings from many of the big names prior to the glory days. Some of these are portraits, few of them are great, but you can see the roots in Barnett Newman’s green stripes on dark red. There’s a curious Mark Rothko, Gethsemane (1944), presumably alluding to the night of Christ’s betrayal, and sort of cruciform, but it might be an eagle with an American football. And a weird cloud flag.

Clyfford’s Still’s PH-726 (1936) has wobbly male and female bodies inscribed within a block — a two dimensional version of what Moore and Epstein were carving at about the same time. A new name to me, I confess, but one I will return to later.

And so the various stars come out — and the rooms which focused on one or two artists were stronger than those which offered dubious thematic arrangements. That being said, I don’t get on with Arshile Gorky, having bounced off his Tate Modern show a few years ago. A numbers of them look like oddly painted figures in a room — say Diary of a Seducer (1947) — and I see I’ve made the note to myself, “bad photoshop”.

Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, is truly sublime. I never quite wrote up all my notes from Liverpool, but the late, black pour, works feel like the figurative abstracted. Like Rorschach tests, you can find the sail boat if you squint right. He gives in to the chaos of the drip, somewhere between randomness, automatic painting and the unconscious at work. There’s a huge mural, designed for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York apartment, with “a prancing, bestial presence” which maybe you wouldn’t want to live with. You don’t get a lot of help from the titles — even Summertime (1948) isn’t that helpful, with its wide, short overlapping of colours and drizzles. The trajectories of flies on a summer’s evening? There’s his Blue Poles (1952), with its striking, vertical totems, daring you to distinguish figure from ground. There are other colours, of course, (black grey white) but it’s striking how often he returns to red, blue and yellow, as if he’s unravelled a Piet Mondrian.

[and there, tucked on one wall, is Lee Krasner, not quite the token woman — though it does have to be said that AE is a very blokey genre with its SIZE DOES MATTER statements in oil — who takes four years to come to terms with Pollock’s stupid death in a car crash, who only then can “wrestle” with his ghost to produce The Eye is the First Circle (1960), which inevitably has to be read as homage and imitation rather than the work of an artist in her own right. Later, we’ll come across Helen Frankenthaler, whose exhibition I missed at the Turner, with Europa (1957) although I saw no bull.]

Mark Rothko is glorious, as always, and the room of his work at Tate Modern can reduce me to tears. As always the paintings seem to ride the walls, rather than be hung on the them, the layers, the laminates of colour lumess and dammit that is a word. You are surrounded by them in an octagonalroom, dwarfed, and I was annoyed to see people taking selfies against them — not because of any objection to such narcissism, but because my instinct is to disappear into these canvas rather than superimpose myself upon them. There are exquisite vertigo.

I don’t think I’ve come across Clyfford Still’s work before, but I’ve put his museum in Denver on my long term to do list (when the US is more sensible about the TSA…). These are vast canvases, representing vast landscapes, abstracted into colours. My favourite was PH247 (1951), also known as Big Blue, a luminous canvas of many blues, interrupted by dark brown and orangish vertical strokes. This, too, is a room to get lost in.

Less successful is Willem de Kooning’s work, here dominated by his paintings of women, of which he wrote “I wanted them to be funny … so I made them satiric and monstrous, like sibyls”. Gee, thanks. These are women as landscapes, rather than in, to my eyes deeply misogynistic. His other landscapes, notably Dark Pond (1948), which I misread as and viewed as Duck Pond, are better, but I don’t feel inclined to follow him up.

The shared rooms were on the whole less successful, with less of a chance to get to know the range of the artists’ work. A few women sneak in here — Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Janet Sobel — and I suspect the only Black artist, Norman Lewis. I wanted to know much more about his work. A room of drawings, books, prints and photographs got a little unruly, as the labels and pictures were not always as clear as they might be in the crowds. The final room gives space to Joan Mitchell’s four huge canvases of Salut Tom, echoing Postimpressionism as much as Abstract Expressionism, and represents late work of some of the big names — although of course Pollock was long since dead.

One final room to draw attention to is the one of Barnett Newman and Ad Rheinhardt, who interrupt swathes of colour with zipped colours or focal zones. Rheinhardt retreated into the Malevich black square for fourteen years — 60″ x 60″ canvases painted all back. The spartan austerity is striking. But Newman was the revelation, and I wonder if he was the inspiration for the Abstract Expressionist Rabo Karabekian’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973). Eve (1950) is a mostly red canvas with a dark red stripe on the right hand side and its twin Adam (1951-52) is brown with three red stripes of different widths. I have know idea if they connect, but he somehow feeds into Bridget Riley‘s stripes. Newman writes “only those who understand the meta can understand the metaphysical and his paintings are as much their paint as anything else — the rich blues and reds.

Of course, these artists went through a whole range of political experiences from Pearl Harbor to Watergate, and I guess they mark the point when the art world shifts from Paris to New York, with Rauschenberg and Warhol waiting in the wings (and O’Keeffe‘s rather different abstracts predate, postdate and overlap with their heyday). They are, of course, always on the edge of being the emperor’s new clothes, just paint on canvas, randomness. But in the vast spaces of the Royal Academy most of the work transcends that caveat.

Beyond the Lady Gardens

Georgia O’Keeffe (Tate Modern 6 July-30 October 2016)

“you hung all your own associations with my flowers on my flowers and you write about my flowers as I think and see what you think and see of the flowers and I don’t”

“Miss O’Keeffe’s drawings … were of intense interest from a psycho-analytical point of view” Camera Work MDCCCCXII

Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing is a blistering anatomy of the ways in which critics dismiss female authors. I suspect the same is true in the way we treat female artists. So many of them are just plain ignored, not part of the history, whereas others get related to more famous (artist) husbands. The recent Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Tate Britain is a case in point — the juxtaposition of her work with Ben Nicholson’s (much as I like him), risks privileging the influence in one way.

The muse is female. Continue reading →