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.

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 →

Anguished Martian

Agnes Martin (Tate Modern, 3 June–11 October 2015)

In the ongoing round of suppressing women’s writing, so to speak, it is striking how rare a solo-female artist show is in a major institution show. In the moloch of the Tate, things are getting better — there’s the Hepworth show at Britain and the Sonia Delaunay at Modern overlapped with this. I confess to not having heard of Agnes Martin — who I guess historically fits into Abstract Expressionism pigeon hole and was associated with Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd.

Born in Canada in 1912, she moved to Washington to study in 1931 and was influenced by Zen Buddhism scholar D.T. Suzuki. The early work includes various biomorphic forms, dominos, game boards and claws, with Earth colours of brown, yellow, grey and white being prominent. But clearly she was striving toward the square and the grid, with an evident dislike of the curve.

Three years ago, Tate Modern had a Yayoi Kusama, with thousands of spots, apparently symptomatic of her struggle with mental breakdowns and her willingly living in a psychiatric institution. Here we get the square grid as expression of Martin’s schizophrenia.

The obsession, the repetition, the very straight lines.

H’mm. I don’t know. I’m not sure the diagnosis is helpful.

But you can see that she works a very narrow range of variants on the grid and the stripe, the faded deck chair. By the time you get to The Island, a series of white squares with grey lines, the impact is very subtle and yet loud. It invokes eastern formlessness, apparently, but that again is a tad essentialist.

Holiday

The later paintings of black rhomboids on grey fields are positively excessive by comparison.

I’m not sure that at the end of the day I was hugely impressed by her. Certainly I’m glad to have made her acquaintance, so to speak, and it’s always useful to get a wider sense of a period of art. But it didn’t feel, alas, like coming across a long lost friend.

Not the Town in Surrey

The Amazing World of M.C. Escher (Modern Two, Edinburgh, 27 June-27 September 2015, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 14 October 2015-17 January 2016)

I have three memories.

Viewing an Escher exhibition in Manchester in the mid-1980s.

A family holiday in the Lake District, after the best part of a year spent in Hull, clinging onto the side of a hill with vertigo.

A colleague showing us paintings at the National Gallery and pointing out the Dutch interest in squares.

The first memory is almost certainly false – I suspect the only previous Escher show in the UK I could have seen was at Croydon in the 1990s and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see that, nor when it moved north.

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden, Friesland, in 1898, son of a civil engineer, and went to school in Arnhem, which was a dreadful experience. He was a good drawer, but he was initially expected to train as an architect. However, it was speedily agreed that his talents lay in the visual arts. He travelled around Western Europe and, whilst in Italy, met and fell in love with Jetta Umiker. Their parents agreed an allowance for the couple, whilst Escher began a career as an artist specialising in woodcuts.

In 1922 he designed a grouping of eight heads, “Eight Heads”, which cut be fitted together indefinitely and seems to have been the earlier example of an interest in tessellations. When he was to come to the Alhambra in Granada later that year and admire the Moorish tiles there, it was already part of his set of interests. Over the next five decades he was to play with birds, fish, lizards and all kinds of animals in a series of tessellations.

But before he developed that theme, he was to work on landscapes, especially those seen on his travels. The Tower of Babel (1928) is a nod to Brueghel, but generates a vertiginous sense in us by depicting it from above. Castrovalva (1930) – a name familiar to me from Doctor Who — depicts a series of buildings, a monastery perhaps, high on a hill, with a village deep below. I suspect that there is a play with vanishing points here, as there is so often, so that the distance is increased in several directions. I cannot help but feel that Escher, as someone from a flat country, would have felt the hills and cliffs of Europe to be steeper than they really are. Indeed, the landscapes that have a real-world counterpart are apparently exaggerated.

He was to move from the possible to impossible – the fantastical Dream (Mantis Religiosa) (1935) has an ambiguity over whether it is a bishop dreaming he is a praying mantis or a praying mantis dreaming she is a bishop, with an Alhambra palace architecture behind. In a street scene he balances rows of books against buildings, as it transforms into a bedside table. In a mirror, the street outside the room is reflected, but not the room. All of this is rendered in wood cut, occasionally wood print or lithograph, rarely mezzotint.

His work came to the attention of two mathematicians, Coxeter and Penrose. H. S. M. Coxeter, a British-born Canadian, was an expert in geometry and tessellations and was impressed with Escher’s apparently instinctive approach. In correspondence with Escher, he came up with a better way to represent infinitely tessellating fish in a circle – the way you do. Meanwhile Roger Penrose and his father Lionel Penrose were inspired to devise an impossible triangle – which Escher was to use in his endless Waterfall (1961) – and endless stairs – which Escher used in Ascending and Descending (1960). (Penrose’s uncle was Roland Penrose who was husband to photographer Lee Miller and whose library is in Modern Two.)

His work continued to play with perspective, some of it incorporating the staircases and halls from his hated school. A final piece of work was a tangle of snakes and chain, based around the circle motif. By then he was already being subsumed into popular culture – although he said no to Jagger and Kubrick who wanted his services.

I was suddenly reminded on seeing relatively straightforward work such as Three Worlds (1955), with fish in the water reflecting the sky and trees, how far his play with the play has influenced my own photographic aesthetic. I am a sucker for reflected surfaces.

Elements
Apparently there is only one Escher work in a British collection, Night and Day (1938) in the Hunterian, Glasgow, and that only because it interested a geographer. He would seem to be just too popular – and also, one suspects, there is a bias toward oils and watercolours over prints.

So go see Escher in Edinburgh if you can – it may be more convenient for the metropolitans in Dulwich, but I’m not sure they can fit in all the work and Modern Two has a rather more generous scale. I fear it will be heaving.

And He Painted Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Sharks

Lowry by the Sea (Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, 11 June 2015-1 November 2015)

Whilst my birthday is all too often a series of examples of bad timing, I was lucky enough to have one which coincided with a members’ private view of the L.S. Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain. For a few glorious moments, I had the exhibition to myself. Lowry is one of those artists we’re not meant to like because people like him and because there was a one-hit wonder in the 1970s about him.

What that exhibition made clear was that Lowry was a greater artist than given usually credit for – although I suspect his faux naivitée could be objected to. Whilst Alfred Wallis was self-taught, Lowry attended the Manchester School of Art and was trained by French Impressionist Pierre Adolphe Valette. Lowry made sense in terms of Impressionism, even if you don’t accept his own constructions of working class realities as art in their own right.

I stumbled across the fact that there was a Lowry show at the Jedward Jerwood Gallery, a newish and controversial space at Hastings. It’s a fifteen minute train ride back from Bexhill (where Riley is) or a two-hour walk. The Jerwood is home to the Jerwood Collection, the philanthropic gathering of art by a pearl company which also gives prizes for painting, drawing and sculpture. The collection is mainly early twentieth century British, but I have to say it can come across as a bit muddy and grey in its pallette. I think I’ve been disappointed by the two big exhibition rooms on the right as you enter – I can’t recall a show blowing me away there. At the moment it’s a selection from the Fraser Collection, along with Scottish artists from the Jerwood, and I confess to being underwhelmed. There was some interesting sculptural pieces in the space where there was the Marlow Moss show.

But the hit or miss part of the Jerwood is the two upstairs rooms that tend to have temporary shows. At the moment, it’s Lowry, representing the seaside. Should we be surprised that his choice of holiday destination was Berwick on Tweed, South Shields and Sunderland? The Jerwood does like its sea exhibitions, but this is a good one.
There’s only really one Lowry that is immediately recognisable as a Lowry, July, the Seaside (1943), a series of tiny incidents on the beach – games being played, a punch and judy kiosk, sitting, lying, walking, prams, swings. It is the urban crowd transplanted from factory gates and football matches to the sea – possibly in north Wales. What is striking is that the people are dressed much the same – there is no concession to sea and sun. Still, there’s a war on.


Berwick Jetty
The figures are more impressionist in his Spittal Sands (1960) – perhaps it’s a mistier day, but I reognise the spot which is just south of Berwick. And is that the same harbour arm in Untitled (Beach Scene with Central Monument and Chimney), sketched in felt tipped pen? There’s a chimney or two that makes me think of the (fish?) smoking chimney in Spittal.

There’s also South Shields – Waiting for the Tide (1960) – showing Lowry’s love of solitude and quiteness and isolation. Am I misrecognising A Ship (1965) as Tynemouth?

Is that a version of the aerials next to Tynemouth Priory? But there’s a harbour arm he will have lost (and yet I recall two paintings of the same scene, I think Sunderland, where towers were moved. He’s an artist who will recompose landscapes.)
Then, there’s the Self-Portrait as a Pillar in the Sea (1966), awfully phallic. It’s not a surprise to me – do I recall drawn versions of this at Sunderland? There is another painting like this, also 1966, in Sunderland.

Lowry writes, somewhere, “Look at my seascapes, they don’t really exist you know, they’re just an expression of my own loneliness.” In some paintings the sea and sky merge – the elemental boundaries merge. And then, somewhere again, he writes, apparently about the world of art, “I spent my whole life wondering what it all means, I can’t understand it, don’t understand it at all, can’t see any point in it myself. Still, there it is, you keep on working, and you keep on wondering what it all means, and it goes on and on and on and, there you are.” It reminds me of childhood reading, it reminds me of Eeyore.

And I had to laugh.

There’s a Lowry cartoon called The Shark (1970) where the shark is the art world and the person in the shark’s mouth is Lowry. Better than Damien Hirst’s shark. There are other people in the sea. Waving. Or drowning.

I had a sudden flash, at this point, of someone else that had a reputation for being gloomy, but was also blackly comic. I wondered if they ever could have met – the other one was an insurance clerk, but Lowry was a rent collector. I thought, for a moment, he worked for the Pru. Ah well.

But this is a show to see.