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.

Halfterm Hockney Hideously Heaving

Hockney puts the queue in queer.

David Hockney (Tate Britain, 9 February-29 May 2017)

Several years ago, I travelled back to Nottingham for the opening of Nottingham Contemporary for an exhibition of Hockney’s early work; when I arrived on the Friday the queue was around the block. I never saw the RAA iPod exhibition as all the tickets sold out. I did see the prints at Dulwich Picture Gallery — and that was heaving. The portraits at the RAA were crowded, but I think I booked in advance.

So it was hardly surprising see that there were substantial queues for the Tate Britain exhibition — it had only just opened and it was half term. But if you want to go, book first. Use the cloak room. It’ll get hot in the exhibition.

It is sobering and instructive to realise that aside from a few pictures in the first and second rooms, you could have an entirely different retrospective of Hockney’s sixty years of work: there are the Rake’s Progress pictures; illustrations to Grimm; his prints; the bigger picture of the Yorkshire trees; the chair portraits recently shown at the RAA…

This is not to say that Hockney is a repetitive artist, indeed he is the opposite, constantly reinventing himself, but perhaps as a consequence he seems a difficult artist to pin down.

Which Hockney is on display?

I confess I found the crowd overwhelming — you see the art watchers not the work — and I went around rather quickly. I was a little surprised as to the size of the exhibition — the special exhibition space on the ground floor is normally four large rooms, much smaller than the spaces at Modern. But here we have a dozen rooms, I presume expanded into the final part of the walk through of British art. I will have to go back — maybe in members’ hours.

The first room is a little odd in its mix of periods, and you do wonder whether chronology is to be abandoned. Certainly interpretation is not there for you — each room is named, but the labels for each work are limited to names and dates. When we reach portraits, there is no biography, when we see the famous painting with the misnamed cat, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, you’re not going to find the real name, although some details are in the gallery guide.

The second room sees him on the edge of pop art — with canvas often visible around the paint, as if the paintings are unfinished, There are almost cartoonish figures, graffiti, obscenities, gay themes. We Two Boys Together Clinging is an obvious example, a nod to Whitman; was this the painting in Nottingham which was connected to Hockney’s obsession with the headline “TWO BOYS CLING TO CLIFF ALL NIGHT”, next to the royal insignia painting CR (for Cliff Richard)? We get the first signs of the obsession with America, which will turn into studies of swimming pools and sunbathers and boys lying on beds. Sometimes he is leaning in the direction of the abstract, sometimes a mix of the photographic (but curiously flat) and sometimes there’s a nod or two to Seurat and pointillism.

And then to photography itself, with pictures assembled from Polaroids and then 35mm, multiple viewpoints of the same topic, with a nod to Picasso perhaps.

This feeds back into paintings made on several canvases, landscapes that don’t quite connect, whether Yorkshire or way out west. Eventually this would lead to the Yorkshire trees that filled one wall at an RAA summer exhibition — but shown here only in preparatory paintings. Years later he would drive a landrover along a country road in each of the four seasons, constructing the landscape from several screens. On the one hand there are black and white charcoal drawings, on the other highly coloured landscapes that owe something to Vincent Van Gogh. It is as if he overdoses on colour and then revivifies himself with monochrome shapes and vice versa.

And in conclusion the iPad pictures, animated constructions, but from first sight not as interesting in completion as in execution. Somewhere we break from painting as time fixed on a plane from a single point of view to a reality constructed from multiple perspectives that foregrounds the time factor. Somewhere this ties back to his use of photocopiers and faxes and multiple layered prints (sometimes involving layer Perspex), none of which is on show here. His painting of space or the elimination of space.

And so, somehow, for all his apparent radicalism, Hockney like Alan Bennett has become a national treasure, packing us in. Somehow I need to penetrate his apparent shallowness — the depth of depthlessness. But it will take at least one more visit.

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.

If You Go Back to the Woods Today

My Back to the Woods (National Gallery, 11 May-30 October 2016)

George Shaw is that rare beast, a painter who has been nominated for the Turner Prize. I was enough lucky to see the exhibition at the BALTIC, Gateshead, and to my mind it was the best work.

It couldn’t possibly win.

I don’t mean that in a modern art is crap way. I like contemporary art. I just haven’t found myself agreeing with the winners that often. Continue reading →

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 →

While Someone Else is Sleeping

Bruegel in Black and White: Three Grisailles Reunited (Courtauld Gallery, 4 February–8 May 2016)

I knew Pieter Bruegel the Elder from that W.H. Auden poem, about Icarus and life going on, and I went away and looked at reproductions of his extraordinary canvases back in the day to see what W.H. was on about. Most years I turn to Bruegel’s Battle of Carnival and Lent to illustrate Bakhtin’s ideas of carnival – or at least, the historical sweep.

The Courtauld Gallery has given us a unique chance – one of the works cannot leave the gallery – to look at his three authenticated grisailles for the first time.

No, I had no idea what they were either.

A grisaille is a painting more or less in black and white, although shades of grey seem possible. Sometimes, I gather, in brown. These can be used to extraordinary effect – the depiction of night and darkness, perhaps, or a three dimensional impact on a plane. One of the locations of such works is on the closed flaps of altarpieces in Dutch churches – and so a religious subject is often presupposed and Hieronymus Bosch had already produced some of these. What Bruegel seems to have done is to lay down an area of white on wood – compare L.S. Lowry’s use of white paint to prime his canvases – a drawing added in charcoal or red chalk, a thin black wash added to most of the canvas and then Bruegel painted on top of that, presumably mostly in greys. The grisailles seem to have been painted in a hurry, with alterations whilst the paint dried.

Until the mid-twentieth century, two examples were known: The Death of the Virgin and Three Soldiers, with a third, A Woman Taken in Adultery coming up for auction in 1952 and eventually being bequeathed to the Samuel Courtauld Trust collection. Two of these clearly have religious themes, and the existence both of prints of these and of a Resurrection suggests that there is at least one more yet to be found.

catThe Death of the Virgin is dated c. 1562-5 and is a nocturnal, almost chiaroscuro, depiction of the dying moments of the Virgin Mary surrounded by worshippers, partly lit by a candle in her hands, but also luminescent. Everyone is in (then) contemporary dress, of course – it is an extra-Biblical interpolation. Life goes on, too, of course, a cluttered table and chair are at the end of the bed, someone is asleep in the corner and, best of all, a cat is in the prime position by the fire. These details show up better in the 1574 print version by Philips Galle, where the light levels are considerably higher and some of the awkward perspectives of a chair are rectified. On the other hand, that chair perhaps nods to Van Gogh to come. One the other hand, that underplays the religious significance of the light of Mary set against the candles and the fire.

A Woman Taken in Adultery is taken from the He-that-is-without-sin bit of John (8.1-11) – although why Christ is writing this rather than saying it out loud eludes me. Christ is leaning over on the left hand side of the picture, scratching in the dust in Dutch, his head just overlapping the woman, and the Pharisees are on the right of the picture, stones to the ready on the paving. Note Christ is either on a lower step or (I can’t quite tell from the perspective) there is a gap between his paving and the Pharisees’. There is a crowd in the background – some passing by, others gawping. The fact that Christ is writing with his right hand suggests this was an original work rather than a preparation for prints.

Pieter’s son Jan sent the grisaille to patron Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan, but the latter felt this was too generous, had a copy made in about 1825, and sent it back. Pieter Perret made a print in 1579 – again this is much light, with a foreground text – and Jan had painted a copy roughly 1597, which brings us slightly closer to the foreground foursome and isolated the crowd more distinctly. None of these have the vitally of Bruegel’s original. Pieter’s son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, also copied the painting, apparently several times, with a colour one on display here. The realism and the individuation of the figures is at the expense of the spiritual dimension – it feels less religious.

The Three Soldiers (1568) seem not to be a religious subject – there is a drummer and a fifer and in the background a soldier with a flag. The best guess is that these are Landsknechte, mercenaries, which could have fought for Spain or the Holy Roman Empire. My dim and distant history A Level reminds me of the ongoing wars in Europe – the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, the Holy Roman Empire – and the forces of Catholicism, various flavours of Protestantism and the counter-reformation. It is perhaps a plea for religious tolerance? At one point, the grisaille was owned by the future Charles I, although it briefly left the royal collections during the Commonwealth, it seems to have passed from William III to a private secretary, William van Huls.

Two more grisailles round out the exhibition — The Visit to the Far (c. 1600), attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder, and Frans Pourbus the Elder’s The Last Supper (c. 1570). The former had been thought to be by Pieter, but is reckoned to be inferior – a series of figures in a farmhouse, with a nurse and baby in the foreground. It may be a copy of a lost Bruegel painting, it may be a pastiche. Again the absence of a religious subject must be noted – but of course non-religious examples may have been lost.