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.

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To Be Frink

Elisabeth Frink: The Presence of Sculpture (Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham Lakeside Arts, 25 November 2015–28 February 2016)

My sculptures of the male figure are both man and mankind. In these two categories are all the sources of all my ideas for the human figure. Man, because I enjoy looking at the male body and this has always given me and probably always will, the impetus and the energy for a purely sensuous approach to sculptural form. I like to watch a man walking and swimming and running and being. I think that my figures of men now say so much more about how a human feels than how he looks anatomically. I can sense in a man’s body a combination of strength and vulnerability — not as weakness but as the capacity to survive through stoicism or passive resistance, or to suffer or feel

One for PigeonhedOutside Caffè Nerd on Dover Street, just off Piccadilly, is a small equestrian statue, usually with a pigeon on its head. I sat by it a few times before I realised it was an Elisabeth Frink, and I confess that I don’t recall why I began to pay attention to her. There was a small show at Woking I took myself off to a couple of years ago and materials at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London.

In my mental map, British twentieth-century scuplture was dominated by three names — Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Eduardo Paolozzi — before we get into the Caros and the Gormleys and the more conceptual sculptors. Moore and Hepworth seem to occupy a curious middle ground between neoromanticism and modernism — shapes somewhere between the abstract and the bodily, sensual, demanding to be caressed. Paolozzi is plainly of the machine age — the aesthetics of collage and the cyborg, Lego bricks and circuit boards in bronze.

Standing ManWhilst all three are producers of solid work, Moore and Hepworth are more abstract and Paolozzi is more surreal than Frink. Frink’s sculpture has an extraordinary physicality to it. Her statues are of walking, running, jumping, flying and falling men — yeah, pretty well all men — and clearly there is tension between such movement and the fitness of bronze or concrete. Even the standing men seem to loom, arms behind their back, cock and balls hanging, solid presences, somewhere between threatening and sexualised.

Riace IIIImagine: some of these were commissioned for the headquarters of W. H. Smiths. Remember that when you try to get your free chocolate bar with a copy of The Mail on Sunday. The Walking Man became one of the Riace, named for the bronze statues found in the sea in 1972, and is in white face, one of Frink’s odd experiments in coloured bronze. Apparently her statue of a dog was coloured; the Desert Quarter (1985) bronze is white. Are these angels or demons?
Desert Quarter
She’s presented here in a curiously dialectic way; on the one had she was a child during the Second World War although she knew of the horrors of Belsen and the atomic bombs, the anxieties of the Cold War; on the other hand her public commissions are associated with the Utopianism of the Garden City and New Town movement in the post-war rebuilding. Sculpture was meant to inspire people — whether outside civic buildings or shopping centres, or in the new Coventry and Liverpool Metro Cathedrals.

Her Christ, in a gouache, is muscular, the emphasis on the physicals over the divine. There are pictures here of the crucified Christ, the body emphasised over the cross. There is a Mary and a nun, and a study for Judas, which is also known as the warrior. Her military men — the flying men, the air men — always already seem traumatised, the sculptural equivalent of post-traumatic stress syndrome. And that makes me wonder about her Judas; he betrayed with a kiss, he was paid his thirty pieces of silver, he bought the field and hung himself. Was Judas a warrior — did he fight with his demons and lose?

BirdmanThere is her Birdman, apparently commissioned for a school but thought destroyed (like her first commission, but a damaged version was found this year), a tall, gangly man, with stubs on his back, decommissioned wings perhaps, a fallen angel among men. There is her Running Man (1978), not, apparently, an athlete, but rather a fugitive from some unspecified conflict. Her Flying Men (1982) are hang gliders but seem about to cast themselves into space — inspired by one Léo Valentin (1919-56) who made his own birdlike wings in a vain attempt to fly. Is he also her Falling Man (1961)?

BoarThere are animals — lots of horses, sometimes with riders, a boar for Harlow, warthogs and dogs. Dogs whose heads you want to pat but mustn’t. There are birds, but of ill omen, her Harbinger Bird III (1961) and Warrior Bird (1953), corvids, menacing; on the other hand her eagles, often designed for pulpits and linked to the Kennedy assassination (there is also an uneasy sculpture, The Assassins, but all of them are uneasy).

And of course, there is the baboon, commissioned for London Zoo, but it’s a different version here. And there’s a water colour, apparently inspired by an Australian trip although that makes little sense, of an encounter between a man and a baboon. Apparently the baboon is unimpressed by the man.

BaboonBaboon

So her subject is man rather than woman. She may have done mother and child pairs like Hepworth and Moore, but none are here on display, and she was clearly a mother. The few female statues here are caped or cowled. Is there an avoidance of female objectification? Is her aim to objectify men? There were warrior women she could have portrayed, traumatised refugees. But clearly that was not for her.

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.