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.
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.
There is a shadow over the art of Christopher Wood:
Aged twenty-nine, having just had tea with his mother, he threw himself under a train at Salisbury and was killed.
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.
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…
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….
Artist and Empire (Tate Britain, 25 November 2015–10 April 2016)
The initial question was, which artist, which empire?
Well, of course, this is Tate Britain, so the British Empire, but you don’t want to ignore the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Belgian, the Ottoman, the Viking, the Roman … And that is to limit ourselves to a Eurocentric model. African and Asian empires… My history knowledge is insufficient. Is there a league table of evil empires?
Am I assuming the British Empire is evil from the get go?
And here, of course, we are in the heart of the Tate, a space built on the profits of the sugar trade:
The Tate Gallery Liverpool is based in the Albert Dock complex, on the north bank of the river Mersey. In order for the dock to be opened in 1846, a public house, several houses and a previous dock had to be demolished. One of its major commodities was sugar, and Henry Tate was one of those who used the docks to import the sugar needed for his business. The sugar initially came from cane cut by slaves on the plantations of the Caribbean, though formal slavery was gradually abolished throughout the nineteenth century. In 1889, Tate donated a collection of 65 contemporary paintings to the nation, together with a substantial bequest for a gallery to show them, and 1897, the National Gallery of British Art opened in Millbank, London, on the north bank of the river Thames.
As far as I can tell — and the exhibition is silent on this — Tate’s business was built in the second half of the nineteenth century and thus after the slave trade as such. It is in the era of indentured labour and apprentices, better than pure slavery but clearly in an infrastructure that was first built with slavery in mind. There are few depictions of slavery that I recall from the exhibition — perhaps only part of one landscape and in the margins of Walter Crane’s supposedly radical map. I don’t think there are any depictions of sugar or tea or cocoa or tobacco or even bananas — the cash crops of empire.
The first room, “Mapping and Marking”, shows the various charts that filled in the blank parts of the world for the British explorer, the unveiling of Australia, the breadth of the pink parts of the world and views of exotic climes. In applying cartography, a western politician convenience is imposed upon existing indigenous models of land use and land ownership, existing names are subsumed under British toponyms. There is a nod to Ireland, too, perhaps the first British colony, if Wales is excluded…
(And Scotland? Are we Trainspotting‘s bunch of effete wankers or did the invitation to James VI mean the Scots colonised us? In any case, the early part of exploration was an English-and-Welsh-colony. Oh, but what about the chunks of France we had?)
There are African flags, relics of colonising, but their creators are speechless.
In “Trophies of Empire” we see the purpose of empire — to find objects to fill zoos and museums and botanical gardens, public spaces and entertainments sometimes aside asylums, sometimes in the cause of temperance. The spoils of empire here are not sugar or tea or cocoa or tobacco or even bananas, but plants and animals; the dingo, the Tasmanian tiger, the crane, flowers… There are also the carvings and niknaks of anonymous tribes people, rarely ascribed to an actual maker. I recall looking around the Brenchley collection in Maidstone Art Gallery and Museum and wondered how much of it was plundering and how much the Victorian equivalent of “They went to the Pacific Northwest and All They Got Me Was This Lousy Headdress”. The objects are literally from all over the world, but without the rigour of the Pitt-Rivers Museum classification by function. It is not at this point clear what the sorting narrative of the exhibition is — but there’s a broad chronologucal approach.
The third room, “Imperial Heroics”, is a space for eighteenth and nineteenth century history painting, with accounts of massacres and last stands and slaughtered colonists. Little of it, frankly, is any good and the answer to the question not quite posed by the exhibition’s title is that we were not good at looking at empire. The best that can be said is the art undercuts its own messages — the symbolism of Queen Victoria giving a bible to a native leader (Thomas Jones Barker (c. 1863)) or Britannia slaughtering a tiger (Edward Armitage’s Retribution (1858)) cries out for critique. Are some of these paintings depictions of people rightfully defending themselves from invasion?
One representation that clearly requires further head scratching is William Blake’s The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (c.1805–9), which I don’t think I’ve seen before and perhaps needs to be located in his cosmic history of the world that links Biblical to British history. Nelson for him would be current affairs — Blake does do satire too — but odd to see Nelson as a Hindu god and a mannacled slave ready to be rescued.
The fourth room, “Power Dressing”, has depictions of colonists in nature dress and natives dressed in colonial dress. Inevitably there’s going to be issues of appropriation, patronisation, various levels of Orientalism, and again there’s a low quality threshold. I suspect the colonialist cannot win, as it were, in terms of ethics. I wonder also if there’s a problem with using the term “power dressing” — which I associate with women trying to be successful in the workplace in the 1980s — in the curation and the term “cross-dressing”, with its gender connotations, in the booklet.
The penultimate room, “Face to Face”, is a series of portraits, some by westerners of the indigenous, some by the colonised of the coloniser. I don’t recall if there were any self-portraits of the natives. There are also figurines or statuettes, but again there’s uneasiness from the anonymity of the artists (a legacy of the looter or the commissioner or the purchaser) and the geographical spread of the objects. Australasia melts into India melts into Africa. It’s all the same empire.
The final room is divided in two, “Out of Empire” and “Legacies of Empire”, I suspect the smallest space of the six. This covers the century of decolonisation and independence, a period when colonial artefacts had reached western museums and influenced (read: were appropriated by) western artists. Henry Moore springs to mind, but he isn’t here. Artists came to Britain from the colonies having studied art or to study art — a Sidney Nolan I don’t recall seeing before springs to mind as an exemplar. A handful of artists get to represent the Commonwealth artists’ commentary on empire — centrally Donald Locke’s Trophies of Empire, an open cabinet of curiosities of jars and pots and objects almost shaped like sex toys, with shackles and handcuffs. This is one of the few representations of slavery in the exhibition. There are also photos by Locke’s son Hew Locke, statues of colonial figures, Edmund Burke and Edward Colston, overlaid with bling.
I don’t think in the end that the artists here really faced up to empire – the “postimperial” ones, maybe, but I think the exhibituon needs a lot more contextualisation than the casual observer who hasn’t bought the catalogue can give it. In the bookshop, you can buy Franz Fanon or read about King Leopold’s slave, but that kind of discourse isn’t in the show.
Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat (Courtauld Art Gallery, 17 September 2015–17 January 2016)
I tried to find the bridge (Bridge at Courbevoie (1886-87)) on Google maps but failed — the river Seine, the bridge, a distant factory, trees, fisher men, walkers. Georges Seurat’s brand of Post-Impressionism, pointillism, made up from coloured dots, half way between colour printing and cathode ray tubes. In another place, Roy Lichtenstein was to enlarge dots and make pop art of comics.
Copying is original.
Deliberately, if annoyingly, the copy and original hang either side of the doorway, challenging you to find a viewpoint from which they can be compared. You carry the memory of one to the other.
Bridget Riley may have seen the painting at the Courtauld – I presume it was at the Warburg Institute, Woburn Square in 1959, having recently moved from Portman Square? — but instead it struck her in R.H. Wilenski’s book on Seurat and she then decoded to paint her own version. It’s bigger, of course, but then the book may not have been clear how big the original was. I think she knew, really, so decided to make the dots larger, and so the intensity of the original is pushed even further from photorealism. The sky is curiously yellow, matching the colour in the water and the grass. He creates light from colour and that seems to be what fascinated Riley.
If the colours become abstract, then so do the shapes — triangles, poles, lozenges, anticipating Riley’s move from stripes into something more… foliated. The Lagoon paintings, for example.
And then, on an opposite wall, Pink Landscape (1960), the shimmer of summer heat in Sienna represented by dots of red and green and pink and orange and blue, and a child’s farmhouse of white walls and a red roof. The shapes of the fields form lozenges.
Wilenski writes of Bridge that “The little man in the bowler hat has missed his train back to Paris and will be scolded by his wife; the child will be late for tea and spanked, maybe, by its mother.”
But we would lose the narrative in Riley as the pinstripes become stripes.
Here we’re offered variants on stripes — Late Morning I (1967) with green and red and white and blue stripes insisting on length and direction, the vertical, Vapour (1970) with white, brown, purple, green stripes overlapping, question the plane and Ecclesia (1985), thicker stripes, taking on volume.
But Tremor (1962) draws the eye — black and white triables that also form curves and ribbons and you swear the painting rotates in front of you.
A painting approximates reality through strokes, dots, stripes and the pointillist returns it to dots. Riley’s insight was to occupy the geometry, to chase the relation of shape, in canvases that move both optically and emotionally, to create luminence.
- Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat (London: The Courtauld Gallery/Ridinghouse, 2015)
- Wilenski, R. H., Seurat (London: Faber & Faber, 1949)
Sickert in Dieppe (Pallant House, Chichester, 4 July—4 October 2015)
So, in my head, I get him mixed up with James Whistler. Or possibly John Singer Sargent. He’s the one that Stephen Knight and Patricia Cornwell reckon to be Jack the Ripper. Whatever. So, he’s born in Munich in 1860, son and grandson of an artist, who initially wanted to be an actor in London, but became a pupil of Whistler (ha!). In 1883 he went to Paris and met Edgar Degas – whose paintings and sculptures include dancers – and learned from him about impressionism. Oddly, he seems to have learned to avoid all the en pleine air nonsense and was advised to make drawings and work in a studio. Splendid. Back in London, he started making pictures of music halls. Splendid. Later he was to become part of the Camden Town group.
He was described as flamboyant and bohemian — and the portraits and photos endorse this. He’d later hang out with Audrey Beardsley and give him a painting lesson. And so it is somewhat of a surprise to me that he first came to Dieppe on his honeymoon with Ellen Cobden (daughter of the anti-Corn Law guy) in 1885. Dieppe was a fashionable seaside resort, increasingly popular with the Bohemian fraternity, and initially Sickert produced seascapes, on small oak panels, before focusing more on architecture. Whilst apparently he had been more interested in portraiture in Britain, now he moved to landscapes. Having spent a number of “seasons” in Dieppe (alongside a trip to Venice), he settled there as his marriage disintegrated and before his divorce was finalised. He found a mistress, Augustine Villain, and lived in the harbour area for a period. In 1912 he bought a house in the Dieppe countryside, with his second wife Christine Angus, but was forced back into town by the outbreak of war. Having returned to England, it was not until 1919 that he got back to Dieppe, but within a couple of years Christine died of tuberculosis. Degas worked once more on the seafront also sketched then painted people at the casino. There were also a series of dark pictures of figures in bedrooms – probably alluding to the Camden Town murder.
The paintings are mostly street scenes – the Hôtel Royal, the Rue Notre Dame, the church of St. Jacques and the statue of Admiral Duquesne – and the tone is overall rather brown and muddy. Wendy Baron writes: “His main harmony was generally based on hardly more than two colours corresponding to the dark and midtones, with the addition of creamy buff for the lights [… h]e often used blue-black with brown or mauve.” (69). Four commissioned landscapes intended for a restaurant – but rejected by the owner – seem to distill this and you face one of these as you enter the exhibition. There is clearly the essence of Impressionism here, with wet paint applied on wet paint in layers, but you get the sense that it is planned to appear improvised. There are various squared drawings and canvases that show the careful recording of buildings, which then can be painted back in any of his several studios.
I’m pleased I saw this exhibition – on a day I’d anticipated that I’d actually be in Brighton and after a journey from hell – but I can’t say I warmed to him. He was described as “the Canaletto of Dieppe” – and of course his time there included him working on canvases imagined in Venice. There is a sense of the mysterious to some of the pictures, and the moral commentary that may be in the late casino paintings. There’s a room of painters influenced by Sickert that’s also worth a look – and elsewhere a fascinating if largely black and white collection “St. Ives and British Modernism”, the George and Ann Dannatt Collection.
I can’t help but share a (paraphrased) comment from George Dannatt: “The objection to this art is often that ‘My child can do it’. So give it to a child. The answer is often silence.”
- Wendy Baron, Sickert (London: Phaidon Press, 1973).