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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Why Don’t You Come Up and See My Motifs, Sometime?

Nikolai Astrup: The Way Home (23 January 2016 to 22 January 2017, KODE 4, Bergen)

Whilst many of the important Nikolai Astrup paintings were out on tour to places such as the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Bergen offered a selection of work to demonstrate his emergence as an artist. Since Astrup is hardly known outside of Norway, it shouldn’t be a surprise that few of these are household names. Norwegian art for us begins and ends with Munch, alas.

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Please Sir, Can I Have Some Moore?

Albert Moore: Of Beauty and Aesthetics (York Art Gallery, 7 April-1 October 2017)

This exhibition comes with a thesis. I have to confess I wasn’t convinced.

York-born artist Albert Joseph Moore (1841-1893), son of painter William Moore (d. 1851) and brother to several artists, was part of the Aesthetic movement with Burne-Jones, Leighton, Watts and Whistler. The exhibition claims that his privileging of colour and mood over subject in search of beauty and art for art’s sake was a precursor to British abstract art. Digging around, I found a review of Moore and Burne-Jones from 1881: “Mr. Albert Moore paints neither incidents nor subjects nor allegories: he limits himself very much to the realisation of perfectly balanced for and exquisitely ordered colour.”
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Carry on Constable

Constable and Brighton: Something Out of Nothing (Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, 8 April-8 October 2017)

Two artists muscle to the front of early nineteenth century British art: Turner and Constable. Turner, because of Summer exhibition, yadda yadda, varnishing day, yadda yadda, red paint, yadda yadda, it’s a boat and Constable, because between some prints in the living room and six table mats, he was probably the only artist to make it into my childhood home. I can’t help but feel that William Blake and John Martin are better and more interesting than both, but I suspect time has made them more seem conservative than they deserve. There was a huge retrospective of Constable’s big paintings at the V&A a couple of years ago (I suspect I have notes somewhere), but he doesn’t get me excited.

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I, Claude

Claude Cahun: Beneath This Mask (Sidney Cooper Gallery, 28 February-Saturday 6 May 2017)
Latent: A Hidden History (Sidney Cooper Gallery, 28 February-Saturday 6 May 2017)

Claude Cahun was born in 1894 to a French literary family and apparent became interested in art and self portraiture from an early age. After experiencing anti Semitism at school in Nantes, Cahun went to a school in Surrey and then to University at the Sorbonne. Cahun was soon moving in artistic circles, including with André Breton and Sylvia Beach, and set up home with her partner, Marcel Moore. In 1937, they moved to Jersey and were there when the Nazis invaded, becoming part of the resistance. They were eventually arrested, and sentenced to death, but survived somehow. Time in jail weakened Cahun’s health and the artist died in 1954. Moore was to live on until 1972 and is buried in the same grave.

The earliest photos on show here, such as Skin Head (1916), are over a century old, but look incredibly modern, perhaps because they anticipated the androgyny of fashion photography of the last forty or so years. There’s a picture from about 1920, with Cahun again as skin head, screaming, hands over ears, á la Munch. The assexuality is shown again in a picture in which Cahun wears a “I am in training – don’t kiss me” shirt along with lipstick hearts on the cheeks and holding a set of barbell weights labelled TOTOR ET POPOL — this seems to be a reference to an early Hergé comic, The Adventures of Totor, Chief Scout of the Cockshafers. A strongman in make up. A model masquerading as a man.

Masquerade recurs — two 1929 pictures have Cahun “As Elle in Barbe Bleue”, in a long dress with x’s and flowers down the front. Here Cahun is playing the (unnamed) wife from Bluebeard, who enters the bloody chamber. Elsewhere we see Cahun as Harlequin, reflected in a mirror (I think with a negative image).

Double exposures allow a dissected body — Cahun’s head in a bell jar, Cahun’s body in a tallboy, reversed in a kind of clothed 69 with Cahun, Cahun’s isolated hands, a hand in the form of a tree, arms emerging from stone… There are a couple of photographs from 1947 with Cahun smoking in a suit, stood on a slab marked PRIVATE (what?) and flanked by gravestones, holding a skull and standing next to a cat. Memento mori. Memento meowi.

As far as I can make out, these are all self portraits, although there’s no give-away cable in almost all of the pictures. Did they have timers? Or did Malherbe operate the camera? Does that stop them being self-portraits? Photographers often have assistants — as do other artists.

What I also wasn’t clear about was whether the exhibition was misgendering Cahun. There were various artists in the 1920s who dressed in male attire and changed their names. Marlow Moss springs to mind — but I’m not clear whether Moss was living as a man or as gender neutral. In the main information panel for the exhibition, we are given some biographical information about how Cahun changed their name and are told “With this new identity Cahun was able to … reject what she saw as the narrow confines of gender.”

Yes, she did.

Ahem.

Perhaps it would be anachronistic to speak of misgendering, in the same way that homosexual becomes a problematic term before 1870 or gay does before… well, it depends. It is possible that somewhere Cahun writes about their preferred pronouns. Did they have a transgender identity? A gender neutral one? A masculine one? Cahun and Moore chose gender neutral names rather than male ones.

In today’s terms, the exhibition deadnames Cahun and Moore. Again, we hover on the fringe of anachronism. And there are many cases of artists who take on a name that is different from the one they are born into and exhibitions will draw attention to that. Is that deadnaming? I’m not sure. And I wonder if the symposium attached to the exhibition, which unfortunately I missed, raised these issues?

Meanwhile, in the front sideroom and lobby are photographs appropriated — is that the term? — by Sam Vale for his show Latent.

(I should declare an interest — he is a colleague.)

Canterbury Christ Church University is home to the South East Archive of Seaside Photography, which brings together various archives including the walkies taken by Sunbeam. Vale has looked through these and found photographs of men isolated together, subjecting them to what you might call a queer gaze.

I might also refer to it as the paranoid gaze, although perhaps “paranoid” isn’t quite the right word. Before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, sexual acts between men were illegal, that is to legislation going back to 1886 (and before that, fourteenth century anti-sodomy legislation). After 1967, it was descriminalised in certain circumstances in England and Wales. The side effect of this is limited documentation of gay life styles and the need to read between the lines. We read homosexuality into imagery — which may or may not be there.

Take Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or Fredric Wertham’s reading of the relationship between Batman and Robin. We *know* Philip and Brandon are in a relationship but they never confess to it, they never kiss, we never see them fuck. Sometimes this becomes a location of hidden figures where we have no role models. Sometimes this becomes a witch hunt.

I can remember a picture in the archive that’s been shown a couple of times: two men lying on the beach, of different ages but both adults. Brothers? The age gap felt wrong. Father and son? Uncle and nephew? I just felt that they were lying too close together. Just as Philip and Brandon stand too close together.

So, with the possibility of misreading, the possibility of a creative misreading, a paranoid gaze — or simply the kind of gaydar used to recognise other gay men, Vale offers us moments of men, maybe gay men, hiding in plain sight. Or perhaps not even hiding. The liminal space of the seaside has an ethics all its own.

What happens in Margate, stays in Margate.

The enlargements of the pictures to isolate such details gives a feeling of surveillance and spying, adding to the paranoia. Two men standing on a balcony. Clothed man, naked man. The isolation of a hairy chest and a nipple. A right hand on a naked shoulder. A photo of a photographer taking another man’s photograph. Two men walking past each other — in memory both were looking back. Parties known to each other? Or checking out the talent?

I know Sam has been looking for other venues to show the work at — I hope he has some success.

(An example)

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.