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 →

A Boy’s Best Friend is his…

L. S. Lowry: The Art & the Artist (The Lowry, Salford Quays)

A few years ago I was lucky enough to have the Tate Britain exhibition of L. S. Lowry to myself for my birthday.

Well, maybe for a minute.

Ten seconds.

But it was mine.

About twenty years ago I went to Salford for a job interview and looked at the Lowrys on display in the Salford Museum and Art Gallery, which was since moved to a purpose-built gallery on Salford Quays. In the meantime I’d visited Berwick on Tweed and South Shields — Lowry holiday spots — an exhibition of drawings (at Sunderland?) and the Jerwood Lowry and the Sea exhibition.

All of this showed he was more than the naive artist of the matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs claim; for a start he was taught painting for a number of years in the Manchester and Salford area.

Going to the Lowry — the largest public collection of his art — reveals an even richer story, although there are perhaps too many pieces of work to deal with in a single trip.

It all hangs on the mysterious Portrait of Ann and his repeated claims that his art — even of phallic columns in the sea — is a series of self portraits.

He was born into a reasonably well off family and lived in a nice part of Manchester — his father a lay preacher and a clerk expecting to become a partner and his mother a piano teacher. But they were living beyond their means and moved to Pendlebury, with Lowry having to get a job as a rent collector rather than becoming an artist. He used his first wage packet to pay for lessons, but his growing interest in representing the industrial north west did not win him British customers — although he was successful in mainland Europe. The death of his father left him in debt and led his mother to take to her bed until she died.

Lowry had found his vision after a Manchester Guardian critic had told him his paintings were too dark — he started priming his canvases with layers of white paint to create a lighter background. Frequently he adds a railing or a curb or a brown shade along the bottom edge of his canvas as if it is a proscenium arch.

At the Tate Britain show, they were selling copies of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author without any explanation – apparently it was a favourite play and it expires a certain amount of meta drama and the issue of representing the real.

Meanwhile we have the Portrait of Ann,his offering to a Royal Academy show and atypical of how he was thought. Who was this woman? Sometimes he said she was a model, a daughter of a Yorkshire industrialist, a god daughter, other times a prima Donna ballerina, presumably for the Rambert. She was Ann Herder or maybe Ann Hilder. But apparently she has never been traced and yet she appears across dozens of paintings.

An ex? A model glimpsed in the streets?

In footage shown at the gallery, a suited Lowry — looking for all the world like a William S. Burroughs — explains his favourite composers are Donazetti and Bellini, the latter recommended to him…

…by Ann.

Once Lowry started earning money from his paintings he started buying art — an early Lucian Freud, various late Dante Gabriel Rosettis. These, apparently, were hung in his bedroom and were mostly portraits of Jane Morris.

These were perhaps his impossible girl, a woman forever out of reach.

The guide to the exhibition pointed to a painting The Funeral Party (1953) with nine distinct and disconnected figures — possibly Lowry’s father to the far right, a Lowry as child on the left, apparently wearing a dress. The boy is looking at a young girl in shorts. Cross-dressing or a phenomenon of hand me downs, I wonder? Nine figures in search of an artist.

Would this make one of the women his mother?

There’s a double portrait where a Lowry-like figure over laps with an Ann; male and female. His nightmarish self portrait Head of a Man is apparently painted over an earlier self portrait on top of a portrait of a woman, possibly of his mother. There is, apparently, a portrait of Ann of the same dimensions.

It seems as if Lowry could never quite please his mother, could never be the son she wanted — more to the point, could never be the daughter she wanted. The Anns and the later pictures of miniskirted young women clearly offered an erotic charge for him — given a comment in the gallery’s documentary about “innocent girls playing tennis”, I wonder if he ever saw that Athena poster of a tennis player — but we also need to remember that he saw all of his art as a self portrait. He also painted erotica, found after his death, destroying or tearing up some of it.

Whilst we must not ignore the class analysis at the heart of his art — the thoughts of a friend that Salford gallery or art school was not the place for the likes of them, the social climb and fall, the thin line between making do and poverty, the snobbery of the London sophisticates — there seems to be an attempt to heal a wound in his art. This seems to have failed.

Lowry never married — perhaps he was too involved in supporting his mother, perhaps he wasn’t interested in women that way… It’s a wild kind of speculation, but was there some kind of masquerade or cross dressing, did he try to become — in art or reality — the daughter? Was Ann an imaginary friend?

I honestly don’t know. Maybe Ann was just Ann, but why mislead so often and wildly about her in interviews?

And meanwhile, crazily, I hear the strains of a Bernard Herrmann score and a vision of Mrs Bates….

Don’t Confuse Her With the Actor

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War (Imperial War Museum, London, 15 October 2015-24 April 2016)

Do you know you are not allowed to drink beer in the Imperial War Museum? Or – given that I’m fairly surely they sell it in their café – you are not allowed to drink beer you’ve brought with you in the IWM? Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen themed beers in the shop.

I was forced to use a locker for the bottle of Solaris I’d bought for the train home.

I think the last paid exhibition I saw at the Imperial War Museum was Don McCullin – his fantastic war photography. Other photographers, of course, specialise in fashion, or in art, or landscapes or people.

Lee Miller (1907-1977) does art, people, landscape, fashion and war. A rare combination, especially, one might say, for a woman. I’ve seen various exhibitions of her work of late – as if her son Antony Penrose is a man on a mission – most recently her photos of Picasso and her family at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and there’s a vast website at www.leemiller.co.uk. She’s shown up among women surrealists, too.

I don’t think I’d picked up before that she’d been raped as a young child, nor that her father had photographed her in the nude. I recalled nudes of her, including self-portraits, and some of these are on display, along with Paul Homann’s cast of her torso (1939) – an echo of Man Ray’s photo of her – and this suggests an apparent degree of bodily freedom that seems a little odd. Exhibitionism as defence?

She’d worked as a model in New York for Arnold Genthe, George Hoyningen-Huene, Nickolas Muray and Edward Steichen, before going to Europe in 1929 and working with Man Ray as muse, model and photographer. She experimented with the solarisation process – which was also to be used by Barbara Hepworth. On her return to New York in 1932, she set up her own studio, but married wealthy businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and moved to Cairo. Her photography shifted from surrealism to landscape, focusing on the desert and ruined villages in the sands. On a trip to Paris she met the collector and artist Roland Penrose, beginning a long affair with him that would eventually become a marriage. She took photographs in the Balkans, as well as Syria and Egypt, before war broke out.

In theory she should have gone back to the United States, but she had taken a job with British Vogue. Initially she was working as a fashion photographer – it was Vogue, after all – and part of the work was to keep spirits up with the keeping up of standards. But as the war went on, it intruded on the photographs. Models posed in bomb sites or wore gas masks – fashion colliding with surrealism. She took photographs of women in uniforms and doing war work, as well as nurses.

By 1944, she was accredited as a war correspondent for Vogue — there’s an intriguing photograph by David E. Sherman of her in uniform in front of the Vogue cover with a soldier, women and a stars and stripes flag – and she got more involved in the war. The way she tells it, it was almost a lark, but that might be a survivor talking.

She was meant to go to Normandy, after the landings, and to avoid trouble, but she ended up in Saint-Malo, still under German control but heavily shelled by the American army. Unlike other journalists, Miller mixed with and apparently had affairs with the military, and didn’t buckle down to follow the official itinerary. She ended up in liberated Paris – where she photographed fashion shows – and went into Germany. The photographs on display include some of Dachau and Buchenwald, the concentration camps, one being feet in boots, somewhere between a dancer and a fashion shoot. In Munich she entered Hitler’s apartment, Scherman taking a photo of her in Hitler’s bath, nude of course, her muddied boots on the mat, a photo of Hitler on one side, a statuette on the other. It is a grim jest.

That was almost it – she returned to Britain in 1946 and took more photos of Budapest, finally reconciling with and marrying Roland. In 1948, Antony was born; Picasso continued to visit and remained a friend of the family. Miller gave up photography almost entirely – there’s a 1946 photograph of Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, with Ernst as a giant and she had photos in the 1955 The Family of Man exhibition curated by Steichen at MOMA, New York – in favour of becoming a cordon blue cook and writing about it for British Vogue.

Antony apparently didn’t know about the war photographs until after her death, which seems incredible. Miller was also focusing on helping Roland with his various biographies of artists.

But the body of work is remarkable – black and white, sharp, often square and remarkably well framed. Sometimes the fashion influence is discernible in the reportage, sometimes there is staging, but a dark humour and sense of surrealism often bubbles through. She wasn’t the only female war photographer – the exhibition mentions Margaret Bourke-White (1904-71), who was also with the US Army and had been in the Soviet Union in 1941 when the Germans invaded – but hers remains an impressive body of work.

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.

Hep Hep Hooray (Part Two to Follow)

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

Hepworth plaqueI really like Barbara Hepworth’s work. It has a kind of tactility to it, a sensuousness — it cries out to be touched and caressed. I’ve been up to Wakefield and looked at the plasters and maquettes and the blue plaques, and down to St Ives to see the studio and at some point saw the hospital drawings.

So I was looking forward to this Tate overview, in the same space where they showed Henry Moore.

I’m going to do two write ups, because I want to do it justice. But this time round, I’m going to be critical whilst thinking you should really go.

Major galleries still rarely do one women shows (although note Tate Modern this spring and summer).

There’s always a danger when providing context that this takes away rather than enriches your appreciation of the materials. In the first room, there are lots of hand carved sculpture, not all by Hepworth. We’re told that one of her strengths was direct carving — inspired in this by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill, but also by the fact that the was apparently a whole lot more of this than we realised. Everyone was up to it. One missing name was Leon Underwood, whom I might well come back to, who was a tutor to Henry Moore. Was she that special?

Before she married Moore, she married Ben Nicholson and before that John Skeaping — another direct carver — and there is a room of works by Nicholson responding to hers and vice versa. I like Nicholson’s work, but, again, I’m a little worried it takes away from her. I suspect not, but.

Hepworth SculptureIn a later room there’s a documentary, Figures in a Landscape (Dudley Shaw Ashton, 1953), with Cecil Day-Lewis reading bad poetry over footage of the Cornish coast, telling us about how history and then Man has sculpted the landscape — you know that “invisible” sexism that defaults to and his? You want to scream, YOU KNOW HEPWORTH IS A WOMAN, YES? Eventually her sculptures start appearing in the landscape, and for a more you assume the apes will start worshiping them and a certain theme will appear on the soundtrack. Or you assume it’s the inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s Presence.

At the end of the show, there’s a recreation of the Rietveld Pavilion from a Dutch sculpture garden, with sculpture finally naked — up to then, more or less, everything is in vitrines. I know that hands can leave marks and grease and patina — but I don’t recall Moore’s being so glassed off. Were there ropes? It’s great to get a full 360 view of them, but it makes the exhibition a maze (where have they hidden the label this time?) and its frustration because you just wanna touch. And at the end it’s not clear if you can.

Hepworth died in 1975.

The pavilion was 1965.

Did she not sculpt for a decade? Was the later work earlier? Or was it all large scale stuff like the UN piece or the John Lewis’s one?

It just stops.

Did I miss a chronology of the artist? Okay, the exhibition guide tells you she died in a fire, but it still feel a little off-key.

The really sad thing is there is fantastic stuff here, but I’m not sure justice is done to it. I will go back, I suspect in late August now, having read the catalogue, and say more.