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.

Kit Out

Christopher Wood, Sophisticated Primitive (Pallant House, 2 July–2 October 2016)

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.

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Sickert to ’em (Down, Down, Diepper and Down)

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.”

Bibliography

  • Wendy Baron, Sickert (London: Phaidon Press, 1973).

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If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next

Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War (Pallant House, Chichester) 

One of my favourite art spaces is the Pallant Gallery in Chichester, in theory three hours away by train (although Southern/South Eastern buggeration made this three and a half) – via something from the market and a coffee first and then a pint post charity shops. There’s a twenty-first century extension, which either filled a gap or replaced some indifferent building, and the Georgian era gallery complete with squeaky floor boards. The Pallant collection specialises in twentieth century art, mainly British, with London and Sussex artists well represented, plus smart local collecting. That the nearby cathedral was and is sympathetic helps.

imageI think I’ll have more to say about Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War, which closes on 15 February 2015 but moves to the Laing Gallery, Newcastle from March. I only know the barest outlines of the war, I’m afraid, a bloody struggle between Nationalists (supported by the Nazis) and Republicans (supported by Russians), in effect extending the Second World War back to 1936. It became a rallying cause for the Left in Britain, with poets, writers and artists heading off to fight or drive ambulances, largely on the Republican side. One atrocity led to Picasso’s astounding Guernica, shown in Britain at the Whitechapel, among other venues. A tapestry version was at the UN for many years, and was covered up when Colin Powell and John Negroponte spoke in front of it in 2003 during the lead up to the conflict in Iraq. The tapestry was moved to be shown at the Whitechapel – it was astounding when I saw it – and apparently is now in San Antonio. The Nationalists won and Spain became an authoritarian society until the death of General Franco in 1975.

Aside from participating in the conflict, there were a variety of responses from British artists. Partly there were various posters and portfolios, raising money or drawing attention to the suffering, starvation and refugees, clearly propaganda but bipartisan as the fund raising drew no distinction between Nationalist and Republican. Most artists were pro-Republican, seeking for Neville Chamberlain to change his neutral stance at the point that he was also appeasing Hitler. Roger Penrose and three other artists spirited Chamberlain masks at a May Day protest. (Burra was ambivalent, distressed apparently by the destruction of churches – a number of cartoons in the exhibition critique the Catholic church; one artist whose name I forget was pro-Nationalist, Wyndham Lewis was also broadly pro-Franco). A number of British artists had visited Spain in the 1930s, perhaps drawn by the light, and so there was the sense of a familiar landscape being destroyed. John Armstrong painted isolated ruins against blue skies – in devastating pictures that recall the surreal cities of Max Ernst. Of course, many of these artists were inspired by surrealism and were part of a British surrealist movement, linked to Picasso via Penrose. The Spanish Civil War seems to be the unconscious to their art – and also the work of Moore and Hepworth. The nightmares of the sleep of reason can also be found in Goya’s incredibly disturbing prints The Disasters of War, inspired by the Spanish Peninsula Wars (1808-14), which I first saw at the Whitworth, and which were shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1938 and provided a language for a response to such atrocities.

There are all kinds of striking works – Burra’s watercolours, Walter Nessler’s Premonition (1937) of an apocalyptic London  and Clive Branson’s (faux?) naïve socialist realism of Daily Worker selling on the streets. Oddly one of the pieces here – Picasso’s “strip cartoon” The Dream and Lie of Franco I – is also on show at the Rubens exhibition at the RAA.

I’m so glad I saw this before it closed — if you can see it in Newcastle do so.