Showing his True Colours

J.M.W. Turner: Adventures in Colour (Turner Contemporary, 8 October 2016-8 January 2017)

Joseph Mallord William Turner has to be the hardest working artist in British history. Pretty well every provincial art gallery I’ve been to has one of his works, usually of a local view. This island is obviously well gifted with landscapes, the genre which he made his own. Even the Carbuncle in Lisbon has a couple on display. In his early career, I presume he used coaches, but steam boats and then trains presumably helped his meandering — especially after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He got to Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Czech, Slovenia, Austria and so on.

And yet I confess to a little resistance to him — I suspect there’s a little too much TurnerTM, Heritage painting, and I even went through a phase of liking the earlier, more classical styles. And I have a memory of visiting the Clore Gallery at the Tate — as you have to if you want your Blake fix — where a chunk of Turner’s unsold paintings he left to the nation are on display. Someone came in, took photos of every single panting, and left after four minutes. Very odd.

He was, of course, controversial in his day, his tastes and methods questioned, so I need to reevaluate him and his work. The Turner Contemporary has offered a couple of chances to do so — it always aims to have one of his works on show, it did a big Turner and the Elements show and now has J.M.W. Turner: Adventures in Colour as another opportunity.

The Tate posted an image of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire on Facebook, and I noted it was a shame that this image of a sailing ship being towed by a steamboat out of a sunset to be broken up would be better if the coast were on the correct side. Someone responded that this was to do with composition and did I know the story of how Turner, on varnishing day at the Royal Academy of Arts, struck a red blob of paint on his canvas, next to Constable’s, and then worked it into a buoy.

Well, yes, actually, I do, if there’s one story that everyone knows about Turner, it’s the one where Turner, on varnishing day at the Royal Academy of Arts, struck a red blob of paint on his canvas, next to Constable’s, and then worked it into a buoy.

The coast is still in the wrong side. And anyway, sailing out of a sunset is hardly elegiac.

But clearly, the man had a way with colour, and the joy of the book on Turner and the Elements was its discussion of the technology of colours and Turner’s acquaintance with scientists of the day. The two cultures were not so divided back then. I think he was the first artists in Britain to use cobalt paints and I wish there’d been a bit more on this back then. I suspect, in what is a show that is frankly too big, the narrative got a little lost.

The first paintings you pick up as you enter are views of Norham Castle and Lincoln Cathedral. These follow the rules of landscape painting which I learned from Astrup’s breaking of them: you accentuate earthy brown in the foreground and exaggerate the blue in the background. This adds to the sense of perspective and scale — ideally you stick a human figure or an animal in the frame to give an identificatory viewpoint or a yardstick for size. Dolbadarn Castle (1800), silhouetted by the evening son, features bandits, adding a narrative (apparently about a Welsh family). Failing that, a spot of white or a splash of red will draw the viewers’ attention. His Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore (1792) has a limited pallete of browns and greens, made mobile by flecks of white and a red jacket.

In his training at the Royal Academy he was exposed to Claude Lorrain, Salvator Rosa, Nicolas Poussin, Titian and Canaletto, painters who tended to classical or Biblical narratives with landscape background. In the period of striving for realism I think you can see this — in his volcanos, fireworks and burning Houses of Parliament you can see Rosa. At much the same time, Joseph Wright was doing more interesting things with the light and John Martin finding a more monumental scale, but that’s more my taste.

Troubled by the sludginess of the browns and greens, Turner from 1805 started preparing his canvases with white paint or pigments, which gives a greater luminosity to everything that goes on top — I wonder if this was to be a Postimpressionist technique, as L. S. Lowry was to use it on advice of an French artist. Of course, sometimes the whiteness began to overwhelm the painting — the more famous canvases of clouds and seascapes, the mistiness of Frosty Morning (1813), the almost monochrome Venice with the Salute (1844) looking like spilt milk. On the other hand, he uses a European blue-coloured paper to stand in for sky or water in some drawings and a rich vermilion in Vermilion Towers (1838).

We learn along the way that he uses a mix of linseed oil and resin, megilp, as a means of enriching his standard paints and he started engaging with debates about the nature of colour. As Professor of Perspective — great job title — at the Royal Academy, he lectured on colour, colour wheels and chromatography, and whilst we have his handwritten notes on show, his writing is not legible. A transcript would have been useful — I should of course Google to see if they have been published. More annoying is the mention of refutation of Isaac Newton’s work on colour by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which Turner sided with Newton, who described the splitting of light into the spectrum via the prism and discussed colour as reflected light. Goethe, on the other hand…

Well, I’m not sure what his theory is. I m not even clear, from further reading, that it is a theory. In part, in seems to depend on the prism being a special case and the refraction being more complicated than Newton allows, as well as the colour of shadows. Scratches head. Goethe’s Theories of Colour was translated by Charles Lake Eastlake in 1840, apparently a friend of Turner. Again the two cultures was unformed.

This comes to a head in Turner’s Late square canvases, with the colour taking on the curves of the circle — although I seem to recall the same circles in the work of John Martin. Two examples, I think Shade and Darkness — the evening of the Deluge (1843) and Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory), The Morning after the Deluge — Moses writing the Book of Genesis (1843) — seem to be explorations of Goethe’s thoughts on colour and emotion, but I’m not clear how this follows through.

These paintings might be pointing back nearly forty years to his picture The Deluge (1805), in itself a response to Poussin’s painting Winter (The Deluge) (1660-64), which features a boat within a cove or a cave pool by the sea. Turner seems to have seen this in 1802 and commented “The colour of this picture impresses the subject more than the incidents which are by no means fortunate either as to place, position or colour, as they are separate spots untouched by the dark colour that pervades the whole.” Turner is setting out to correct the deficiencies he goes into note, and adds a black sailor, although this might be a much later addition. The gallery notes Turner’s investment in 1805 in a cattle farm in Jamaica, connecting him to the slave trade. However, Turner was to become abolitionist in later years.

But the story of Turner and colour is distracted by the various views of Margate that Turner produced over the years — and it is undeniably interesting to see the obscure fishing village that became a watering hole transformed over the decades, and to note how much the town has declined since. Whilst the revamped (and distinctly post-Turner) Dreamland seems to limp along from financial crisis to financial crisis, the Turner Contemporary seems to flourish. The temptation to offer local views is understandable and is one thing that will draw people in.

Just as Mitchell and Kenyon clearly filmed locals to whom they then screened the films in the 1900s and for decades the walky photographers took photos of tourists to sell to tourists, so Turner clearly had an eye on what would sell to locals — or might interest those on tour. The corner devoted to engravings and mezzotints shows how Turner could further monetise his work — with some extraordinary work — even as his perfectionism cut against this success. As a painter of working class origin, he would see no shame in pleasing as many markets as he could, even as his experiments clearly pushed at the boundaries.

sketch

Bridget Courbevoie

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.
photo (2)

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.

sketch

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.”

Heigho.

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.

Bibliography

  • Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat (London: The Courtauld Gallery/Ridinghouse, 2015)
  • Wilenski, R. H., Seurat (London: Faber & Faber, 1949)

Watts the Name of the Gallery

The Art of Bedlam: Richard Dadd (Watts Gallery, 16 June-1 November 2015)

I wonder when we first associated art with madness? Perhaps the cave painters were seen as magical because of perceived links between bison and lunch. Certainly by the time of the Greeks we get all the stuff about muses and possession. We are fascinated by Blake and his angels and Syd Barrett and his madcap laughs and Spike Milligan and his depressions.

In the early to mid-nineteenth century we have mad poet John Clare and mad painter Richard Dadd.

Dadd was born 1817 in Chatham to a father who was clearly an intellectual mover and shaker, involved with the local philosophical and literary society. But they moved to London, specifically to Sussex Street, just around the corner from the Royal Academy of Arts (pre Somerset House days and pre-Burlington House presumably), and little Richard began to train as an artist. His reputation seems to have been made by a painting of Puck, a large child-like figure sat in the centre of a round picture in front of a crescent moon, with smaller fairies dancing around him.

He was commissioned in 1842 to travel with former Newport mayor and barrister Sir Thomas Phillips (1801–1867) on a grand tour, painting his way in Greece and Egypt and the Holy Land. There is a stunning picture of a campfire in the desert, a stripy blue sky, and, most curiously, the moon pierced on the top of a lance, although this is thought to have painting after his return. The painting, The Artist’s Halt in the Desert (c. 1846), disappeared into private hands, only to be rediscovered on The Antiques Road Show in the 1980s.

By then, Dadd’s mental health was already deteriorating — perhaps due to the heat, perhaps due to the exoticism, perhaps due to an existing condition. He was sent home. Back in England, whilst on a walk, he murdered his father and escaped to the continent. He might have escaped, but on the train he tried to kill two of his fellow passengers. He was overpowered and arrested and sent to prison in France for a year. In time he was deported to England, where he was put on trial but was declared criminally insane. For two decades he was incarcerated in Bethlem, then on the site of what was to become the Imperial War Museum, before being moved to the newly built Broadmoor where he died and was buried in 1886. As Nicholas Tromans points out, his period in the asylum coincides with the Foucauldian epistemological break of the regulation of mental health by doctors, and the growth of case records.

Whilst in the asylum, he was allowed to paint with greater or lesser freedom and resources, with one of his physicians, Charles Hood, becoming a collector of his work. This was partly therapy, partly because Hood was a connoisseur. There is a picture, Portrait of a Young Man, which is thought to be a portrait of Hood in an imagined leisure garden at the asylum; on the other hand there is a satiric piece The Curiosity Shop, which features a “connoisseur” looking at a picture through binoculars. Was Dadd playing games with Hood? Meanwhile he produced a series, Sketches to Illustrate the Passions — hatred, agony/raving madness, Ingratiation or self-contempt, deceit or duplicity, anger, grief or sorrow and patriotism — that seem to be a diagnostic set of mental conditions. The latter features two elderly military types, smoking pipes, in front of a map “A General Plan of the City of Olabolika” and a plan in incredibly tiny print.

All of these pictures are on display in this Watts Gallery exhibition, but that is to get ahead of ourselves.
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Exhibitions for Expotitions

This is in no way complete… it’s mainly exhibitions that I could conceive of getting to, with a London/Southeastern bias. Although I can conceive Edinburgh, Newcastle, Gateshead, Liverpool and Manchester. Go figure. Check details before travel — galleries really don’t like Mondays.

Corrections welcome.

Yes, I know this is messy. Tidier next month.

Closing September 2015

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Manifest Pollocks

Blind Spots: Jackson Pollock (Tate Liverpool, 1 July 2015-17 October 2015)

Jackson Pollock was born in 1912 in Cody, Wyoming, but grew up in Arizona and California. Having gone to art school (and been expelled), he became an artist for the Federal Work Program. His big stylistic breakthrough was the all-over drip painting, although pouring might be a better word. The whole canvas is covered by oil or thinned enamel paint dripped from brushes or syringes; in most cases the paint over lies and is overlain with other paint, in some cases the canvas is visible.

Pollock was slotted into the abstract expressionism category — abstract because it wasn’t figurative, expressionist because he was expressing his feelings and emotions on the canvas. This wasn’t necessarily a term he liked and I will come back to it. Pollock was an alcoholic and went through Jungian psychoanalysis to attempt to cure this — the assumption is that his art can be understood in Jungian terms, presumably expressing a nonindividuated ego and archetypes. Early paintings had Greek mythic titles and he is also assumed to be drawing in an interest in Native American art.

I hope to return to this but I’m troubled — action painting gives access to the unconscious and more primitive stares of mind, such as that of the Native American.

Koffs.

Really?

In 1951, after a less successful exhibition of the kind of paintings we know Pollock for, he took a change in direction: the black paintings. These were largely blank canvases with thinned black enamel dribbled on them — sometimes calligraphy, sometimes faces, sometimes scribbles — and it is this set of paintings that becomes central to Blind Spots, the current exhibition. Whilst they’ve never been entirely ignored, they have been downplayed.

Pollock wasn’t the first to paint in black — Malevich’s black squares have been seen at at least two British shows in the last year, at Tate Modern and the Whitechapel. Willem de Kooning had a black and white painting, coincidentally also in the Tate at the moment. But Pollock painted just in black.

I was worried — I prefer twentieth to pre-twentieth-century art, but I don’t like all abstract art. I was worried that I’d be wasting my time seeing this, even though I prepared by reading three or four books on Pollock. Pollock is the epitome of the “My six year old can paint like that” school of art criticism; it’s said of Picasso, too. And bollocks. But I wasn’t sure I’d get it.

I don’t pretend this to be profound, but it struck me that there is an opposition between figurative and abstract, figure and ground, paint and canvas and so on. Paint is applied in layers — in three dimensions, however trivially, as new paint obscures old.

If abstract expressionism gives us access to the unconscious, how do we know it’s the artist’s unconscious rather than our own? Does that matter?

Of course, schooled in deconstruction, you’d expect me to pick away at the oppositions.

There are specks rather than spots in this exhibition — but blind spots are the part of your eye where the nerve and exits and lacks rods and cones, there the bit that wing mirrors can’t pick out (Pollock died in a car crash) and blind spots are the things critucs overlook. But there was for me a misprison — I thought of Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight, the blind spot of a text or of the critic’s reading of it.

Hmmm.

At the start of the exhibition is a found collotype of a mother and child, mostly obscured in black ink.

Obscure vs. reveal. Mask vs. unmask.

The mother and child is a key trope — archetype of — of the history of art. The Madonna and Child. This is clearly a pop art version, but we need to keep an eye out for this in the exhibition. Pollock’s mother and Pollock? Maybe. Is the black ink covering them up or revealing them? It certainly draws attention — you look harder.

The idea of looking is set up for us in the first picture of the show. It is the keynote.

(To be continued…)

In Search of the Indigenous

From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 1 November 2014-15 March 2015)

I confess that I had never heard of Emily Carr, apparently one of Canada’s best loved female painters. Of course, the list of female painters is depressingly short — although I’m fond of female surrealists such as Frieda Kahlo and Leonora Carrington, not to mention Laura Knight, Paula Rego, Elisabeth Blackadder and Bridget Riley… I presumed that she might have some connection to the Group of Seven, in part because the Dulwich Picture Gallery had a show of their work a few years ago.

If memory serves there were a number of landscapes painted on wood, painted on location in the wilds of Ontario and points north, accompanied by full scale canvases. Slightly before them was Tom Thomson (1877–1917), who I think I saw a show by in Toronto (unless it was in Adelaide…). The landscapes are strangely depopulated, presenting Canada as a Terra Nullis, untouched by human hands. Of course, there were any number of indigenous native groupings, out of sight. It left me a little uncomfortable — but we’ll come back to that.

Emily Carr’s exhibition began with paintings of forest from the 1920s – in a sense toward the end of the story. The leaves spiral, there is a real sense of action in the painting – although, of course Carr writes “If there is no movement in the painting, then it is dead paint”. One of the most significant paintings is “Indian Church” (1929).

This is not Terra Nullis, because there is clearly the impact of western society on the forest, a whole way of thinking in the new world. But she was also interested in theosophy and mysticism and argues that “Metamorphosis between species and states is the only predictable feature of the cosmos”. Magic? Maybe.

Daughter of English immigrants to British Columbia, Carr had an interest from an early age in the wilderness outside the settlement. She had art lessons as a child and, despite the death of her parents, went to study at the California School of Design, San Francisco where she learned how to paint outside. On graduating she went to London, to the Westminster School of Art and took courses at places such as St Ives. Back in Canada she taught and painted, before travelling in 1907 to Alaska. She was inspired by Native American culture and art, and started trying to reproduce it in her paintings: “Indian art broadened my seeing, loosened the formal tightness … I was as Canadian-born as the Indian but behind me were the Old World heredity and ancestry”. Her paintings stay largely deserted – although some of the sites she depicted had been abandoned through disease or general depopulation. Here’s Janice Stewart: “Emily Carr found in her unproblematic identification with the Indians of the Canadian west coast a second skin to inhabit, which seems to have allowed her to paint and write beyond the gendered boundaries of contemporary conventional aesthetics. Carr identified the creative part of herself as Indian.” But Stewart is more interested in Carr’s writing than her paintings.

In 1910, Carr took a trip to Paris, where she was exposed to the Impressionism (and I guess early Post-Impressionism). Again, this would feed into her art – and it did strike me that some of her landscapes had the flavour of Vincent Van Gogh to them (whom she referred to as a “crazy poor chap”).

One striking painting is of Kwakwaka’wakw war canoes (1908 and 1912)– and this one does contain figures.

These are exactly the same boats as appeared in Edward S. Curtis Land of the Head Hunters (1914) – an extraordinary and deeply problematic drama where native culture was presented in a deliberately antiquated manner:

Inevitably she has taken a decision in the representation or not of indigenous peoples. A photograph of Blunden Harbour from 1901 (with people)

became the centre of a painting in 1930:

I’m torn – I don’t have enough data from the exhibition to know whether the elimination of the indigenous (whilst retaining their cultural productions) shows respect for them or is part of the Terra Nullis drive. As a female artist who kept not quite being taken seriously, she found something in the peopels she met to inspire her. But is is a form of romanticisation? Gerta Moray labels it “aestheticized nostalgia”, and suggests that Carr’s attempt to preserve what she perceived as a dying culture contributed to the decline.

Sources

  • Moray, Gerta (1993) Northwest Coast Culture and the Early Indian Paintings of Emily Carr, 1899-1913. Diss. University of Toronto, 1993.
  • Morra, Linda (2004) “‘Like Rain Drops Rolling Down New Paint’: Chinese Immigrants and the Problem of National Identity in the Work of Emily Carr,” American Review of Canadian Studies, 34(3): 415-438.
  • Stewart, Janice (2005) “Cultural Appropriations and Identificatory Practices in Emily Carr’s ‘Indian Stories’”, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 26(2): 59-72.